WELLFLEET — Out of the oil spill into the spoon — that could be the mantra of the modern-day turtle. When they’re not dodging cars on roads or contending with habitat loss, turtles, terrapins and their terrestrial counterparts, tortoises, face a host of challenges, from the degradation of the marine environment to poachers who put them in soup.
“2011 has been designated the year of the turtle by international turtle conservation groups to focus on the fact that turtles around the world are among the most endangered species that there are,” says Bob Prescott, director of Mass. Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. “Turtles in general have not adapted well to the 21st century.”
Prescott will be giving a three-part seminar, “Celebrating the Year of the Turtle,” at the Wellfleet Library starting at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 3, and continuing on Nov. 10 and 17. Just ahead of sea turtle stranding season, the series will educate participants on the species that inhabit — or frequent — the Cape, and the efforts to preserve them.
“Turtles are sometimes the first species of wildlife that people can see,” Prescott says. Here on the Cape, “we’re very fortunate that there are a number of species that we have on a regular basis. Kids go to the ponds and see painted turtles sitting on rocks, snapping turtles coming out to lay eggs.”
Just last week, he adds, naturalists exploring the sanctuary swamp were pleasantly surprised to encounter a box turtle, rarely seen after Columbus Day weekend.
Box turtles will be the first topic of the Nov. 3 seminar, which will provide an overview of turtles.
“The box turtle is a species of special concern in Massachusetts,” Prescott says. “I’ll talk about their natural history, why they’re doing particularly well on the Outer Cape.” Recognizable by their domed, orange-and-black shells, box turtles benefit from the Cape’s mix of woodlands and open meadows, which offer an ideal combination of shadowy hideout and sunny nesting space.
Diamondback terrapins are the focus of the second session. These coastal dwellers, often found in marshy spots or estuaries, are the subject of a study in Wellfleet Harbor, where 75 diamondbacks were tagged with transmitters this past spring. The transmitters will allow researchers to track them. The marshes of South Wellfleet are also a hotspot for terrapin hatchlings, which emerge from the nests in late summer and early fall.
The Cape represents the northernmost extremity of their range.
“In some places, they’re doing fairly well — Wellfleet, Eastham. Orleans is a bit of a challenge,” Prescott says — particularly in the Pleasant Bay area, where scientists have noted a dip in the diamondback terrapin population.
No turtle seminar in November would be complete without a look at Kemp’s ridleys, loggerheads and other sea turtles, which are on the syllabus for the last seminar. November typically marks the start of sea turtle stranding season, and Prescott and his team of sanctuary naturalists have led a concerted effort to rescue the washed-up turtles for the past 35 years.
“The first [Kemp’s ridley] turtle I found was in 1974. It was a dead one,” Prescott says. The rescue program that has evolved since then uses volunteers to comb the bay beaches when winds and tides conspire to push the dinner-plate-sized Kemp’s ridleys, cold-stunned by dropping water temperatures, to shore. Once the creatures are retrieved from the beach, they’re transported to the New England Aquarium for rest and rehab. They’re released back into the wild after they’ve recuperated.
Prescott says the stranding patterns have shifted in recent years.
“If anything it seems like the stranding season has been more compressed, with turtles stranding later, from Thanksgiving to the end of December. But the numbers have been high,” he says. “It’s been crazy with [high] turtle numbers over a shorter period of time. It puts more pressure on volunteers, everybody.”
Some of Prescott’s talk will address the need for new volunteers. The lecture will also touch on “what turtles are doing here in the summertime.” Hard-shelled and loggerhead turtles are seen in local waters throughout the summer and into the fall, he says.
Prescott points out that the stranding of sea turtles on the Cape’s bay shores is a phenomenon that dates back centuries.
“They turn up in the literature, they turn up in the Native American midden sites. It’s just an accident of geography. They just get caught,” he says.
To register for the seminar, sign up at the front desk of the Wellfleet Public Library, 55 West Main St. There is a fee of $5 for each session.
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