Before the pandemic, a highlight of the Wellfleet Bay field season was the diamondback terrapin nesting cycle. Terrapins are a Threatened species in Massachusetts and Wellfleet is the northern edge of their range. In a normal year, small crews of volunteers regularly patrol nesting hot spots in Wellfleet, Eastham and Orleans to find and protect nests and– later in the summer– to release hatchlings. But COVID-19, as with so many things, has scaled the effort back.
This summer, in order to ensure the safety and well-being of volunteers, nest checks are done by only one volunteer with a staff member following a few minutes behind to cover tasks that can be time consuming or overwhelming on a busy nesting day. The idea is to limit a one-person shift to two hours. In the past a busy day could keep a team out twice that long.
Veteran terrapin volunteer Tony Pane, accompanied one recent morning by his daughter Laurie Foster, says it can be nice to leave the labor-intensive work to the turtle staff. But he notes there’s also a downside to no longer working with a team. “I miss the camaraderie we had. It also means I can’t delegate the paperwork to someone else!”
The sanctuary’s terrapin staff follows volunteers twice a day every day. Terrapin field technician Jessica Ciarcia says the new system has been going smoothly but recalls one very challenging day on Lieutenant Island, which is just north of the main sanctuary.
“I got to Way 100 and saw six terrapins, some heading one way, some the other.” Way 100 skirts the salt marsh on the island’s southeast side and over the years has been the scene of many turtle fatalities due to cars.
As Jess was keeping an eye on one nesting turtle, a UPS truck was driving up the road. She ran toward the truck, waving her arms. As it turns out the driver was coming to tell Jess there was another terrapin at the bridge! His truck stopped just in time. “The front wheel was practically touching the shell of the nesting turtle,” Jess says. “The poor guy– you could just tell he loved terrapins.”
It’s not clear why, but for the sanctuary and Lieutenant Island nesting seems to have been on the lighter side this year ( while last year was a record year for many sites). The sanctuary this year recorded a total of 67 nests, ten of which were depredated. And Lieutenant Island had a total of 125 nests, 51 lost to predators.
Discerning where a terrapin has nested after the fact can be tricky. But there are likely few turtles that have sneaked a nest past volunteer Heather Pilchard. Heather is famous for finding nests others have missed. “Being on my own this summer means I’m able to focus more,” she says. But the two hour limit on a shift also means she has less time to make the rounds. “In your heart you want to find every nest,” she notes. “But you just do your best.”