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

Tabor Academy Seniors Search for Emerging Terrapins
5 May 2003

Perfect weather conditions welcomed students and teachers from Tabor Academy to the Outer Cape on Sunday.  Under the guidance of Mrs. Sue Nourse, director of Tabor’s Schaefer Oceanology Lab, students Maura Walsh and Chris Wildman are completing senior projects on terrapins and sea turtles.  Also visiting the Land of Ooze today were Mr. Nick Asselin from the Tabor Academy/Schaefer Lab faculty and Jared Nourse.  Bright sunshine, 60 degree temperature, and a light ocean breeze heated Chipman’s Cove to 58 degrees by mid afternoon, sparking the first observed mating horseshoe crabs of the season and offering the group hope that a terrapin or two might emerge from brumation.

After a brief stop to inspect the marsh creeks south of Lieutenant Island, we headed for Chipman’s Cove in the northeast corner of Wellfleet Harbor.  This well protected, nutrient rich, shallow embayment usually hosts the first turtles to emerge each springtime.  A week ago, I found one large male already drifting with the outgoing tide.  So, in kayaks and canoes our teams crisscrossed the cove, scanning for snorkelers and peering into the depths for bottom baskers.

We saw a large female snorkeling in the southeast corner but were unable to locate and net her.  A few other turtles were spied zipping along the bottom, but once again the slow-moving, cold-blooded reptiles outwitted and out-paddled their human competitors.

As we skimmed along the west shoreline in mid afternoon pursuing a snorkeling head we had seen in the distance, Sue Nourse spotted a large female basking on the bottom in about three feet of water.  Maneuvering the canoe directly overhead, we were able to net Terrapin 1234 as she slowly began to swim away.

We first captured Turtle #1234, a mature, ~17-year-old female, on 20 May 2002 off the same west shore of Chipman’s Cove.  Back then she weighed 1281 grams and today she hit the scales at 1283 grams — a remarkably consistent terrapin.  At 19 centimeters carapace length and 16.7 centimeters plastron length, she’s a little larger than our average female on the Outer Cape.

Evidence that she had only just emerged from her hibernaculum was obvious in every nook and cranny as she was caked in pasty brown mud.  Still, she was warm enough to be recorded as “feisty” and gave every indication that she was quite prepared to nip any stray fingers that came within striking distance.

Finishing the day by processing Terrapin 1234 and then marking the 4-year-old juvenile female, #1794, which had been found cold-stunned on 27 April (see Year Without Springtime), the Tabor crew finished their initiation into the Rite of the Northernmost Terrapin — slow to emerge and yet elusive to the max.  It may have only been a one-turtle day, but the warming weather, sweet breeze, and good company proved a healing elixir to cure a case of an interminably long winter.