The Art and Science of Finding Terrapin Nests

Learning to find a diamondback terrapin nest takes practice. Our volunteers are trained to find nests (so they can protect them) but as most will tell you, the turtle is trying her best to hide it. And turtles usually do a good job.

Still, there are some classic nesting signs: swirling, comma-like tracks, and often a roundish disturbance in the sand that indicates deeper, darker sand has been kicked up to the surface. Sometimes, there’s a narrow ridge created by the terrapin’s shell as she digs.

Classic diamondback terrapin tracks (photo by Nancy Rabke).

But the signs aren’t always so easy to spot. That’s where experience and a hard-to-define sixth sense kick in.

There’s a sign here that a turtle has nested. Can you spot it?

Over the years, some terrapin volunteers have developed reputations for having special nest detection powers. One of them, Heather Pilchard, says being an artist could help her see what others may not at first glance.

Heather surveys “the scene”. Holes aren’t always made by turtles. Rodents, foxes and raccoons are prime suspects. (photo by Meredith Harris).

“I actually like to treat each turtle garden (nesting site) as a crime scene,” she laughs. “I try to stop and take in the whole picture, look for tracks, and reconstruct what went on: where the tracks lead and how many turtles may have made them.” Heather confesses that sometimes she’s been so focused she’s missed seeing the actual turtle!

Veteran terrapin volunteer Theresa Hultin says it’s hard for her to explain how she’s become a nest finding expert. One of her teammates, Peggy Sagan, confirms Theresa’s powers are amazing. “Maybe she just smells the eggs!” Peggy suggests.

Theresa notes that knowing where turtles prefer to nest does help. “They like to lay eggs against things…vegetation, the edges of roads, and already protected nests.”

Terrapins nest in the darndest places. Teresa and team check the steps at a home on Lieutenant Island.

She says she also takes her time surveying each nest site, which can make her teammates a little crazy. And she says she’s even been known to use the power of prayer before heading out on a shift. “I’m very religious,” she notes.

Theresa finds it hard to explain her nest discovery talent. “I just look for something that seems a little off.” Those little cages are the predator excluders that teams install once they discover a terrapin nest.

Terrapin researcher and author, Dr. Barbara Brennessel, says finding nests in a cultivated turtle garden, which is maintained each season and raked between shifts, is different than searching for nests in wild terrain. She and her Wheaton College interns cover Indian Neck and Great Island.

“The trick is to walk the same area day after day so that we know every footprint, any new terrapin tracks, every test dig, every disturbance, no matter the cause.  If we see something new, we start digging,” Barbara says. And, she adds, that they make a point of doing their patrols at high tide to increase the chance of finding a turtle in the act of nesting.

Wheaton College interns relocate a nest to a safer spot (photo by Barbara Brennessel).

Tracking down nests is tricky in Orleans, too. In a section of Orleans Conservation Trust property known as White’s Lane, volunteer Chuck Dow and teammates cover a combination of man-made turtle gardens and what’s known as  “Cape Cod lawn”—a combination of grass clumps, small patches of sand, and weeds that don’t allow for tracks.

How do you ever find a nest in here? But the White’s Lane crew has–several times this year!

Nevertheless, Chuck’s found 7 of 13 protected nests at White’s Lane this summer. Given the natural terrain and cobbly, hard-packed surface of the turtle gardens there, he looks for slight depressions and disturbances in the soil rather than tracks.

Chuck and the White’s Lane team have to look for nests by digging in hard-packed soil.

He says it wasn’t until one of his teammates weeded and raked a turtle garden and a turtle later nested there that he had his very first view of terrapin tracks so common at other nesting sites. “So that’s what everyone’s been talking about!” he recalls thinking.

Regardless of their individual detection methods, these volunteers are quick to credit more experienced colleagues for giving them valuable tips. “Sue Reiher was the one who taught me things to look for,” Heather says. “The odd bits like a twig or piece of moss a turtle will toss on top of the nest as camouflage.”

Is it a nest? Heather investigates. (Photo by Meredith Harris)

Northern diamondback terrapins are listed as Threatened in Massachusetts. Since 2006, Wellfleet Bay has worked to protect terrapin nests and hatchlings to help boost the local population. Last year, well over 2000 hatchlings were released in salt marsh uplands in Wellfleet, Eastham, and Orleans.

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