Previous Page Photo-Diary of a Terrapin Researcher Next Page

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

Beginnings — 21 April 2002

The 1000+ acres of Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary not only provide habitat for the densest population of Eastern box turtles on the Cape and serve as protected salt marsh habitat for the northernmost population of diamondback terrapins, but its Silver Spring Brook is home for a wonderful population of painted turtles.  These critters, usually found lounging on logs, rafts, and each other, have greeted visitors to the Sanctuary for decades with determined and studied indifference.  So picturesque is the scene that it’s been featured in paintings, photographs, news clippings, magazines, and even Charles Kauralt’s nature segment at the close of his old Sunday Morning program.

As part of this year’s turtle & terrapin field school, which kicks off on 23 June, we will launch a research project to assess the size and health of the Sanctuary’s painted turtle population to support Wellfleet Bay’s ecological management program.  The goal is to ensure that land management practices preserve the painted turtle’s water habitat and nesting sites, and that future generations of Sanctuary visitors will be welcomed with the same reptilian yawn.

Data sheets and database have been prepared.  Background information researched.  Equipment selected.  All stands in readiness . . . except for the minor ingredient of a little practical, hands-on experience for the instructor.  So today I hiked along Silver Spring Brook trail with trusty long-poled net in hand.  The objective was to capture one turtle and test the research protocols in the field.

The log rafts are too far from the bank to reach without a boat.  So I focused on the shoreline within reach of my 10-foot net.  The first painted turtle I spotted was a small juvenile zigzagging between reeds in the shallows.  It would have been an easy captured, except that these shallows were protected by an impenetrable thicket of wild rose bushes.  Score one for the turtles.

Just down the path lies the boat dock, which extends about 20 feet into the brook.  I stood at its edge and scanned the water.  Nothing.  And then as I turned to leave, I saw a painted turtle swimming toward me along the mucky bottom.  An easy capture.  Score one for the researcher.

This attractive male with long, unmanicured foreclaws measured 10.65 centimeters carapace length and 10.15 centimeters plastron.  He weighed 164 grams.

Mug shots for Painted Turtle #101 (the first marked animal in this study) show a notch in the right humeral scute of the plastron.

Everything checked out.  Equipment and methodology worked.  Data sheet completed.  Database tested with a real entry.  Instructor with at least one turtle under his belt.  All we need now is an eager field school class ready to tackle a brand new turtle project.  I’m counting the days until 23 June.