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

A SUNY Day at the End of the Universe — 23 May 2002

Students from SUNY's Schenectady County Community College are visiting Cape Cod
this week and opted for an adventure in the Land of Ooze.  The orientation session at
Mass Audubon's Wellfleet
Bay Wildlife Sanctuary outlined the natural history of
diamondback terrapins
and our research efforts
to conserve this
threatened species.  It
featured a pair of
Blackfish Creek turtles
to illustrate all the
important physical
characteristics of these
charismatic and elusive
critters.  Male terrapin
1246 on the left and
female 711 on the right
stole the studentsí hearts
at first glance.

Students observed the processing of female #1247, who was captured this morning in Chipmanís Cove, and then hopped into their van for a field trip to release her back into the cove.  After the release, the plan was to wade through this protected inlet in search of turtles.  But strong southwest winds had flushed the cove nearly dry at low tide, exposing razor-sharp oyster shells and layers of quick-mud to disable the careless researcher.  We managed to withdraw with some dignity still intact, losing only a single shoe and suffering just three oyster cuts.

We drove south to Blackfish Creek in hopes of finding safer conditions if not terrapins.  As with Chipmanís Cove, we began by releasing Turtles 1246 and 711 while catching a class photo of the occasion.  Winds continued to build from the southwest, reaching 15 to 20 knots as we waded across the channel.  Again, the water became so turbid that nothing was distinguishable more than an inch below the surface.

Yes, we were looking for turtles.  But no, we didnít reject this striped bass just because he didnít fit the specific search profile.  When visibility is so frustratingly poor, one goes for anything that moves in the water.  And yes, it was “keeper” size.  But no, we decided it was not sporting to scoop the critter out of the bay with a net.  So, he was released into a deeper channel with our best wishes for a long and healthy life.

We continued our frustrating vigil in the shallows watching heads as they popped up for a breath and then disappeared quickly again into the murk.  While we all waded in inches-deep water along the rip line, waiting for turtles to be flushed out of the creek, Tom Hartlieb left the group to wade chest deep in the great muddy channel, “chasing heads” as turtles surfaced for air.  Female terrapin #1248 was a bit too slow in diving back under and Tom skillfully netted her.

While the day produced only two new turtles under rather adverse wind conditions, a good time appeared to be had by all.  The students learned the true meaning of the phrase “elusive critters.”  And I discovered that SCCC not only provides a first class education, but even teaches their more dedicated students to walk on water.  Truly impressive . . . but I would have preferred more turtles.