Previous Page Photo-Diary of a Terrapin Researcher Next Page

Don Lewis, Massachusetts Audubon Society,
Fox Island Wildlife Management Area

An Annual Surprise — 28 October 2001

Mostly overcast skies, 45 degree midday high, 20 knot blow from the north, and a literally freezing (32°F) windchill.  After a double-time patrol of the marsh this morning, Rags and I settled into the office for a quiet afternoon slogging through the season’s accumulated data.  Mesmerized equally by endless columns of numbers and the rhythmic snoring of my faithful companion, I jumped when the phone rang.  The last thing I expected was a terrapin call.  The very last thing I would have imagined was a hatchling.

Nevertheless, Bonnie Hemphill had returned to Lieutenant Island with her family for a day trip to haul their boat back to the mainland for the winter.  As trailer was hooked up and grownup details were seen to, Bonnie explored the wind-blown dirt roads of west island.  “I nearly tripped over this turtle,” she gasped as we revisited the spot where she found Hatchling 429.  I pointed out the tracks faintly visible in the hard-packed road and quickly being erased by sand blasts.

(And, yes, I saw the sweatshirt and suggested she add an O and an E to the Oz if she planned to join the Paludal Posse.)

Perhaps we shouldn’t have been too surprised, though.  Nearly the same time last fall (see SURPRISE! — 7 November 2000), another hatchling was discovered at the exact spot.  Both hatchlings shared the same condition, too.  They were cold to the touch, sluggish in movement, and eyes sealed tight.

Hatchling 429 weighed only 3 grams and was obviously dehydrated.  She measured just 2.35 centimeters long and her plastron was sunken in along the abdominal scutes.  Neither eye opens, but she does seem to react to light.  She’s soaking overnight in the garage lab.  Tomorrow, as she becomes more active, she’ll transfer to the wet tank, which has been set up and warmed to accommodate our unexpected visitor.

No question that Bonnie saved this tiny critter from sure death.  It’s a crystal clear night with lots of radiational cooling and a guaranteed frost.  In her condition, Hatchling 429 would not have survived till morning.  And, as we prepare to fly and sail tomorrow in search of cold-stunned sea turtles in Cape Cod Bay, it’s a shock to find a 3-gram hatchling roaming about the coastline.