The news from the 18th Annual National History Conference on Cape Cod Saturday was initially dispiriting. Tenacious little terrapin turtles were getting run over by cars en route to First Encounter Beach in the outer Cape. That road separated the turtle's breeding ground in the warm beach sand from the marsh across the road where they live out their days.
Shaded area shows terrapin turtle habitat in Eastham.
But Bill Allan of the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary told the few hundred people in attendance that turtle gardens in Eastham are helping to save the breed which is endangered in Massachusetts.
"Knowing the turtles breed in the sand we wanted to offer a sandy area close to the marshes, but away from street traffic" says Allan. In Eastham, that meant approaching homeowners whose land rings the marshes where the turtles live. "They were suspicious of us at first, but they've really come around".
In 2005 Allen and volunteers cleared the undergrowth from a couple of 10' x 10' patches of privately owned land to reveal sandy mounds of earth. Using the timeworn phrase "if you build it they will come", Allan discovered the turtles had found the subterranean maternity ward the very first year. The next year there were more, and by last year one particular turtle garden in Eastham had a turtle "highway" through the brush to the marsh beyond. Over time, the turtles had worn a path through the brush between the turtle garden and the marsh.
Once volunteers see evidence of a turtle nest in the sand, they dig a circle around the small nest area and anchor a wire cage over the spot. This prevents raccoons, skunks and foxes from digging up and destroying the eggs in the 60 day incubation period.
The number of live hatchlings emerging from the sand increased from 384 in 2005 to 1,465 last year. There are so many new nests the turtles are outgrowing their garden and Allan is now seeking homeowners who live near marshland in Eastham to offer up a patch of land for new turtle gardens.
"We had to establish trust with the homeowners at first" says Allan. "But now they're really into it and getting their children and grandchildren in the project to save the terrapins".
The hatchlings that emerge are no bigger than a quarter and right out of central casting for what an adorable turtle should be. "It helps to be cute" Allan says of the effort to convince homeowners to yield a spot of yard for the turtles.
If you would like to find out more about establishing a turtle garden on your land, contact the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary during business hours at 781-259-9500.