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

The Mystery of Henson’s Cove — 8 January 2003

The calendar says deep winter.  Nearly two weeks of on and off snow fall, including flurries last night, confirm that assertion.  An ice rim all along the shoreline lends credible testimony to that fact.  So, the question arises, What the heck is happening in Henson’s Cove?

Henson’s Cove is located in an area of Pleasant Bay called The River, on the ocean side of the Outer Cape.  Elizabeth Hogan spent last spring and summer observing the terrapin population in Pleasant Bay with her first capture on 17 April and her last on10 September.  Yesterday she paddled back into the River after a recent series of strong nor’easters to check the habitat.  She was surprised to see a turtle lying exposed on the bottom of Henson’s Cove, but she was unable to remove it with a single net.

Today, with the air temperature at 34°F and the water temperature of 32°F, she returned with two nets to use like forceps.  She became quadruply shocked to find not just one, but four turtles scattered on the bottom of the cove.  When she reached down with her double nets to fetch female terrapin #131, she came up with her and male terrapin #116 at the same time.  Later she found female terrapin #108 and male terrapin #671.  Finding four terrapins in Pleasant Bay, a population which has been severely depressed over the last few decades, would be exceptional in mid summer.  To discover four turtles in frigid January presents us with a mystery.

All four were cold to the touch — not unexpected in 32 degree Fahrenheit water temperature.  They were responsive to stimuli, but extremely sluggish.  Only one turtle, male #116 who was lifted unseen in the same net with #131, showed any signs of muddy burial and that was only along the rear of his shell.  All appeared healthy and, based on their observation history, at their chunkiest brumation weights.

What were they doing uncovered on the bottom?  Why were they not deep in hibernacula?  A real terrapin mystery that contradicts everything we “know” about terrapins in the Great White North.

There is folklore and speculation that the aquifer lies shallow under Pleasant Bay and a spring leaches water into Henson’s Cove.  We have not yet been able to confirm this theory through direct observation, and Elizabeth was not equipped today with a deep water thermometer to test the temperature along the murky bottom of the cove.  I suspect it is possible that the aquifer could squirt enough tepid flow into the cove to mix with chilly bay water and keep terrapins in a borderline state of brumation.  Not warm enough to become active and not cold enough to burrow deep into the ooze.

We plan to return to the cove at the next tidal opportunity to probe temperatures at depth and perhaps shed light on the Mystery of Henson’s Cove.

A Personal Note

Long time readers of the Terrapin Diary will have become familiar with my faithful companion and turtle dog Rags.  He and I retired together from our Maryland farm to the Land of Ooze, and together we launched our afterlife in turtle research and rescue.  Although approaching 17 years old and nearly blind, Rags tracked down his last terrapin this summer and helped survey hatchlings through the fall.  Just before Christmas, Rags passed on.

On 28 December a new turtle dog arrived at Connemara Cottage: Taylor, a nine-week-old yellow lab.  I thought I’d have all winter to train her for this adventure, but today she had the lucky chance to meet her first terrapin.

Well, either ice crystals masked the terrapin’s scent, or puppy Taylor just wasn’t too interested in a turtle at this early stage of her development.  However, she did find one thing at the River landing, which proved of irresistible interest to her special world view.

Please join me in welcoming Taylor the Turtle Dog to the Terrapin Diary and the Paludal Posse.