On a recent morning, half a dozen volunteers headed out in search of newborn turtles at the Mass Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary in Wellfleet.
Leading them on the three mile walk around the marsh and woodlands was Bob Prescott, Sanctuary director of 32 years.
Precott has walked around these 937 acres almost every day since the 1960s, studying changes in wildlife, habitats, and climate.
“So we’ll head down and do the Goose Pond Back Trail,” he said, organizing the volunteers who ranged in age from 23 to late-sixties. “You want to split up?”
Prescott walks the trail with his arm outstretched, pointing out the distinctive yellow of fiddler crabs, the quick twitch of sheepshead minnows, the perfectly round holes dug by wolf spiders.
“Oh! There’s a big toad – Fowler’s toad,” he said, laughing. “Wow, he’s a good looking guy.”
Prescott presents as walking encyclopedia, or, as he says, “a kid in a candy store.”
But things are about to change.
On Monday, Prescott is retiring as Sanctuary director, passing the job to Melissa Lowe Cestaro, a former employee of Mass Audubon. Prescott will be the organization’s first ever Director Emeritus.
While the Sanctuary will remain a leader in ecological conservation, education, and research, with a change as big as this, questions about the future of the organization naturally crop up.
“So is that the wild nest?” Prescott asked, turning his attention to a call that’s just come in.
A volunteer has discovered an underground turtle nest that’s somehow escaped the notice of all those who search the Sanctuary grounds for hatchlings multiple times a day each fall.
“It’s always exciting finding a wild nest,” Prescott said, picking up his pace.
Once off the trail, Prescott huddles over the nest, peering down at a diamondback terrapin turtle that’s about the size of a quarter. It’s a state listed threatened species and this one is just a few hours old.
Also in the nest: one small egg.
“It could be a day or two before it’ll hatch out. We’ll see. But at least it’s not fox food or racoon food,” Prescott said.
The volunteers collect the egg to bring it back to the lab, hopeful it could hatch.
This work is crucial, in part because climate change – namely, sea level rise – is increasingly threatening these turtles’ habitat and survival.
Diamondback terrapin turtles lay their eggs in sandy areas near salt marshes, but these salt marshes seem to be experiencing die back, meaning they’re receding, pushing nests further inland.
“Pretty soon you’re in somebody’s backyard, or too close to a house, and then it’s not suitable for turtle nesting. 25 years from now, 50 years, how much space are we going to have for turtles?” Prescott lamented. “Though we will have space here.”
By early afternoon, Prescott and the volunteers make their way back to the lab and visitor’s center.
Sue Reiher, a volunteer of ten years, is seated at the front desk, and says she started coming to Mass Audubon because of Prescott.
“His passion is catching. I have the Bob Prescott disease or something,” she said. “It’s hard to put my finger on all that he is, but I do know that if Bob starts talking I want to stop what I'm doing and listen because I'm always going to learn something.”
It’s that passion to educate that’s drawn other volunteers and children to ask “where’s Bob?” first thing when they arrive at the Mass Audubon Sanctuary in Wellfleet.
One leading scientist at a different organization said Prescott has inspired a generation of turtle researchers.
After almost four decades leading the Sanctuary, Prescott admits stepping down is bittersweet, but he’s inspired by what could come next.
“There's so many younger people... coming along, that this is also their life. Just as I was curious and interested in all sorts of things about nature when I started, lots of people are like that,” he said, watching families fill the visitor’s center. “And who knows, five years from now, ten years from now, maybe they'll be the next sanctuary director. We'll see where it all goes.”
Until then, he’ll continue to oversee the Sanctuary’s turtle research and lead those nature walks.
“I'll just continue to do and share what I know, because somewhere out there on a walk… something I'll say will spark an interest and [someone] will pick up on it and continue,” he said.
“You just never know who you're gonna get excited.”