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

The Big Chill — 14 June 2002

Clouds have smothered the Cape for days.  Nighttime temperatures dip into the forties, with daytime tiptoeing to reach the mid fifties.  Rain and fog are the order of the day — every day.  With these conditions as backdrop, it appears terrapins have reconsidered their rash decision to awake for spring.  Heavy with gravidity, females are simply not coming ashore to nest.  Terrapin 829, our former cover model, is a case in point.  Captured in Chipman’s Cove (the singles bar of Wellfleet Bay) on 3 June, she had dispersed back to Blackfish Creek on the 12th presumably to get closer to her nesting site.  She was palpably gravid with large eggs, yet she still hasn’t nested.  Her frustrated expression matches ours as we watch and wait and wait and wait for the summer of Godot.

In fact, the densest nesting site on the Outer Cape, Lieutenant Island, has witnessed a single nesting run so far this season.  No turtles, no tracks, no nests neither viable nor preyed upon.

On Tuesday four rangers from the National Park Service and Kate Hunt, a summer intern from Wheaton College, joined me for a long walk along the Great Island peninsula to check for nesting turtles.  Even with the only window of sunshine for the last week, we still didn’t find a trace of nesting activity.  Heading out with the flood tide, we saw a couple of heads snorkeling along the marsh banks, but nothing landward.

On the way back my frustration got the better of me.  I spotted a male zoned out and basking about two feet from shore.  I threw my camera and jacket to Kate and plunged into the frigid water to execute a tricky hand capture of one awfully surprised turtle.  Number 1639 is eight years old, measures 10.2 centimeters long and weighs just under 200 grams.

This morning the call came at 0630 hours.  The sky was heavily overcast with northeast winds blowing off the ocean.  Bill and Ann Allan and Hunter, their beloved Golden, had discovered a nest on the marsh side of First Encounter Beach in Eastham.  The Allans, some may recall, rescued a cold-stunned Kemp’s ridley from Skaket Beach in Orleans on 21 November 2001 (see Comings and Goings and More Comings).  In many respects, today’s weather seemed quite similar to last fall!  This lone nest had been partially preyed upon with the top three eggs sucked clean and scattered across the dune.  But below the surface, the egg chamber remained intact, and we confirmed more than six viable eggs bunched together in the next layer with likely several more beneath.  We restored the nest site and installed a predator excluder.  While rescuing a turtle is great, nothing beats the satisfaction of saving a nest.  Come late August or early September, the Allans will enjoy the delayed gratification of seeing a batch of live hatchlings scurrying to the marsh, none of whom would have survived without their intervention.

Despite the non-cooperating weather, we erected our own signs of spring this afternoon.  School groups and scouting dens create hand-made signs, which we post along marsh roadways to alert folks to the annual invasion of nesting diamondback terrapins.  Homeowners and visitors alike welcome these original creations as the real hallmark of the beginning of a new season in the Land of Ooze.