WELLFLEET — You’re just out of college and living alone in an 18-room estate on 850 shorefront acres.
Sounds like the life of a young Donald Trump, but it was Bob Prescott’s lot circa 1982, when he became the director of Mass. Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, succeeding Wallace Bailey.
Prescott in late January revealed he’ll be retiring after 36 years, at the end of next summer, to give his successor, as yet unchosen, a chance to settle in. But he won’t be giving up his studies on box turtles and terrapins, and he’ll have more hours for bird watching, which was his original avocation way back then.
He started in September of 1982 after a stint at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History. Bailey had served as director of the sanctuary since 1959, one year after Mass. Audubon bought the Austin Ornithological Research Station in Wellfleet. It is one of Mass. Audubon’s oldest sanctuaries. (Moose Hill in Sharon dates to 1916.)
The old home on the land has been replaced by a nature center and a new exhibit hall is in the works.
“In the 1950s it was not common for anyone to buy land for conservation,” Prescott said. “In the 1980s Audubon made a commitment to buy land so there would be a sanctuary within half an hour of everyone in Massachusetts.”
Prescott was the sanctuary’s second director but he didn’t expect to stay long.
‘I thought I’d come in for a dozen years or so. I knew I would enjoy the opportunity because I’d always gone birding here and it really is such a unique property. So many things are going on. There were more box turtles here than I’d seen anywhere on the Cape. They were a state listed species so I thought I ought to figure out what was going on,” Prescott recalled.
He would soon spend more time with turtles than birds.
‘We did a species inventory to figure out what was here. There were also state listed diamondback terrapins and their population wasn’t doing so well so that was the evolution of the terrapin project. Together we found out where they were nesting (a lot on Lieutenant Island) and now we produce over 4,000 terrapin hatchlings a year,” Prescott said. “The key to bringing the population back in turtles is protecting the young ones and not too much adult mortality.”
Mass. Audubon was originally seen as an organization for birders, organizing trips, and protecting staging and breeding areas.
‘People assume I’m a birder (he is) and I’ve been fortunate to lead a lot of programs and travel the world but most of my research is turtles. I have a degree in wildlife biology from U. Mass. and it was coastal focused. And the Marine Biology program at Northeastern had accepted me into its doctoral program. I was studying the distribution of harbor seals on Cape Cod in the 1970s and early 80s.”
He took a break to work at Wellfleet Bay, expecting to go back to school, but he found out the sanctuary was a school.
“There were just so many things I could do. I’ve published papers over the years, started the Citizen Science Program. I like all of it; energizing people, the teaching, introducing people to science, collecting data and listening to what it says before we make a decision,” he explained. “Now people are skeptical of science but you have to be grounded in something.”
Prescott moved off the sanctuary long ago when the home was torn down. He now lives in Orleans.
“I didn’t have any neighbors. It was a wonderful backyard that I shared with people mostly on weekends and in the summer but other times it was mine,” he recalled.
When the nature center was built it was designed to blend in organically with a small footprint. It has composting toilets so as not to pollute the bay and is solar powered to the point the oil burner was removed.
“I grew up in Belmont and it was very pleasant,” Prescott said. “ I came down here in the off season and was exposed to the nature of Cape Cod and the ocean. We saved what we could of the salt marsh. I’m proud of all the money we raised to buy land. People don’t realize how important salt marshes are for the ecosystem; how much food they produce. They are one of the biggest places to sequester carbon per acre, more than forests.”
His retirement will remove the day to day management headaches but he’ll still be able to retrieve stranded sea turtles and monitor terrapins as director emeritus at Wellfleet Bay.
“I’ll do the same stuff I’m doing. I’ll continue to teach and do research and work on various projects. I’ll make sure we have a smooth orderly transition. My predecessor and his wife both continued to help with the sanctuary and fundraising,” Prescott reflected.
“I’ll miss the day to day with staff and all the volunteers and just the enjoyment of doing the job. There are so many great parts about it. It’s one of the things you can do the rest of your life. I’ll be a volunteer here.”
He believes the Cape is a special place.
“A lot of people helped us get where we are. Cape Cod has a tremendous conservation community. I don’t think we would’ve succeeded without listening to people and taking cues from the landscape. We’re very lucky here on the Cape,” he noted.