Volunteers and Staff Go Extra Mile to Protect Nesting Turtles

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.

A diamondback terrapin makes her way back to the salt marsh after nesting along the Goose Pond Trail.

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.

Tony Pane checks out a hole he later concluded was probably dug by a raccoon or a fox.

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!”

Tony Pane’s daughter Laurie tries to locate the “throat” of her first terrapin nest as her father provides instruction.

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.”

Close call on Lieutenant Island! Fortunately, this driver was aware of nesting terrapins. The nesting turtle is circled in white.

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.”

As terrapin program supervisor Bob Prescott looks on, Heather Pilchard works to install a predator exclosure around the second of two hard-to-find nests she found one July evening at the sanctuary.

3 thoughts on “Volunteers and Staff Go Extra Mile to Protect Nesting Turtles

  1. Diane Silverstein

    Love you all for the amazing work you do to protect Terrapins! Special shout out to the UPS driver for stopping in time!


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