Sanctuary Shares Science with Schools

On a recent February morning, Wellfleet Bay’s Emily Wolfe began her day rummaging around in a pile of damp leaves near the sanctuary’s dorms. She’s looking for moldering logs to bring in for that day’s lesson about decomposition at Eastham elementary.

One of the less glamorous parts of the job! Emily Wolfe gathers decaying logs for her Eastham elementary school class.

The lesson is just one of dozens covering a range of science and natural history topics offered to Cape Cod students. There isn’t a weekday between September and June that a Wellfleet Bay educator isn’t in a classroom somewhere between Provincetown and Harwich, from preschool to high school.

At Holy Trinity Pre-School in Harwich, educator Spring Beckhorn teaches a lesson about coastal marine animals.

The sanctuary serves 2200 local students a year with just 3 full-time and 2 part-time staff. It is not an income producing activity. All of the money must be raised to cover the costs of staff and supplies for classroom lessons and field investigations that support the state’s educational curriculum frameworks.

“The funds for our school education program come from our own fundraising—through foundations, businesses, community organizations, special events, and individuals,” notes Melissa Lowe, who manages the sanctuary’s education department.

Educator Valerie Bell assists a Nauset Regional High School student with sea turtle necropsy.

Local students are regularly the beneficiaries of the sanctuary’s conservation and science programs. For instance, students at Nauset and Monomoy Regional High Schools recently performed necropsies on some of the sea turtles that cold-stunned on the Cape last fall. As Wellfleet Bay educator Valerie Bell reminded them, “When you get to college and the other kids say they dissected sharks in high school, you’ll be able to say you had the chance to examine a very rare sea turtle!”

Educator Morgan Peck makes sure to include this popular figure whenever she does a class about bird adaptations.

Classroom programs are a combination of brief discussions and lots of hands-on activities. The owl program is always a favorite, in part because of the impressive stuffed Great Horned Owl that makes the school rounds, but also because students get the chance to examine pellets and the remains of whatever an owl has consumed. That means using tweezers to look for tiny bones and fur. The challenge is to figure out what kind of animal was eaten.

Eastham first graders dig in to their owl pellets.

Wellfleet Bay’s inquiry-based, hands-on approach to education is especially valued by local schools now focused on beefing up student skills in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). For the sanctuary, school programs also represent a chance to foster the next generation of environmental stewards. Both goals have been achieved as a result of a partnership with Friends of Herring River for a series of field experiences along the Herring River now on the verge of being restored to its original state as a tidal estuary.

We like to think that one day these young Cape Codders will be among the first to enjoy the comeback of this ecologically valuable–and beautiful–natural resource.

Fifth graders from Wellfleet and Truro team up with high school students to experience field research activities along the Herring River, including an oyster growing experiment comparing growth rates of oysters grown on the harbor side of the river’s dike and those grown upstream where tidal flushing is limited. Results from the first year of the project were presented at the 2015 Cape Cod Natural History Conference.

Wellfleet Bay would like to thank the following local businesses and organizations for generous grants supporting our work in Cape Cod classrooms:

Cape Cod Five Cents Savings Bank Charitable Foundation Trust

The Chatham Fund of the Cape Cod Foundation

Wellfleet SPAT (Shellfish Promotion & Tasting, Inc.) generously provides funds for our coastal ecology curriculum in the Wellfleet Elementary School.

The following local Cultural Councils:

  • Provincetown, Truro and Wellfleet:  for preschool programs
  • Eastham: for Tyke Hikes
  • Orleans, Chatham and Harwich: for kindergarten programs



The Importance of Sea Turtles that Don’t Survive Cold Stunning

The annual cold-stun sea turtle stranding season on Cape Cod has two phases. The first phase is late fall when volunteers and staff patrol beaches and rush turtles to the New England Aquarium for life-saving treatment. But after turtles stop washing ashore, we move into phase two when the effort to help turtles takes a scientific turn.

Sanctuary director Bob Prescott gives instructions before a session at a necropsy lab at WHOI’s Quissett Campus (photo by Krill Carson)

Each week during January and February, Wellfleet Bay conducts necropsies (autopsies) on the turtles that did not survive hypothermia in the fall. These sessions are held at a state-of-the-art necropsy lab at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. There, an assortment of sanctuary staff, experienced volunteers, and researchers gathers to take advantage of a significant research opportunity.

Each necropsy session begins with clean sharp tools and plastic bags for tissue samples.

The necropsies support a number of ongoing and future research projects. For instance, the front flippers from Kemp’s ridleys and loggerheads are collected for a study of turtle growth through the examination of growth rings on bones. There’s still much to be learned about aging turtles and the rate at which they develop. This information is important in population modeling used to forecast the overall health of a turtle population and to determine best management practices to rebuild its numbers.

Scientist Maureen Conte (on left) watches her colleague Heather Haas attach plastic bags to turtles for the collection of front flippers to be used in research that could help age turtles more accurately. Rear flippers are also used to train fisheries observers how to safely attach tags to live turtles accidentally caught at sea.

Some people are very interested in parasites. Carol “Krill” Carson, a long-time necropsy participant and founder of the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance, has been carefully collecting parasites discovered in the turtles necropsied at Woods Hole. This year, Krill’s working with a PhD student at the University of Southern Mississippi who’s studying parasites and comparing those found here to parasites in other parts of the world.

Bridgewater State University student Tania Greenwood isolates a parasite from tissue to send samples to a PhD student at the University of Southern Mississippi. (photo by Krill Carson)

Another example of how our sea turtle work supports research is the shipment of thirty Kemp’s ridley carcasses to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration facility in Mississippi for a study of the rate of turtle decomposition in the Gulf of Mexico as well as drift patterns. This research is part of ongoing studies to understand how long turtles have been dead, where in the Gulf they may have died, and possibly how. Five additional ridley carcasses are also going to another NOAA facility in Galveston, Texas for experiments related to methods for determining the sex of a live immature turtle. Right now, sexing a live juvenile sea turtle can only be done through a minor invasive surgical procedure.

At the moment, the only simple way to confirm the sex of an immature sea turtle, such as this female loggerhead, is during a necropsy. Just above the ruler are the turtle’s ovaries (the white spots are follicles which contain immature eggs). Photo by Karen Strauss.

Over the course of the past four weeks, the necropsy team has had success sexing juvenile loggerheads based on how far an animal’s tail extends past its top shell or carapace. These measurements have been recorded and will continue to be gathered next year in an effort to determine the reliability of this method.

Understanding a sea turtle’s diet can shed light on more than just what it likes to eat. Researchers at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole are collecting tissue samples to look at stable isotope and fatty acid signatures in cold stunned Kemp’s ridleys, loggerheads and green sea turtles.  These signatures–or “fingerprints”– can be used to identify not only what young turtles have been eating but whether and how diets vary by species, age and overall condition.  The research may also reveal something about the pollutants turtles are exposed to. Stable isotope analysis could also be used to determine where turtles have been eating, providing insight into their travels.

Volunteer Sandy McKean labels a sample vial. Samples from turtles are regularly provided to NOAA’s Marine Turtle Research Program at LaJolla, California, a worldwide central depository for sea turtle tissue and DNA samples.

Although turtle strandings in the fall have been an annual event on Cape Cod for more than 30 years, the fact is juvenile Kemp’s ridley, green and loggerhead sea turtles are just not seen very often. Making the most of the animals we recover, even the turtles that don’t survive, is a way we hope to assist scientists working to learn more about and, ultimately, to protect these remarkable creatures.

Thanks to Wellfleet Bay sea turtle researcher Karen Dourdeville for her help with this post.

Vintage Banding Data Reveals Shift in Bird Life at Wellfleet Bay

There is a rich history of bird banding at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary that stretches back long before the opening of our present station in fall 2014.

The earliest known records are those of the Austin Ornithological Research Station, established by Dr. Oliver L. Austin Sr. and Jr. in 1929. The Austins and their intrepid crew banded just about any kind of bird they could get their hands on, songbirds included, for more than a quarter century—a considerable amount of time to continue monitoring the bird population in a single location. They were also among the first in the US to use Japanese mist nets, the same fine mesh, badminton-like nets used today.

Both a journal entry and an old film reel from which this photo is taken indicate that as early as September 20, 1930, the Austins used, among other traps, nets similar in design to the mist nets operated by contemporary banders. A White-throated Sparrow is extracted from a net in the 1930 footage, above.

Given how much the landscape of Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary has changed since 1929, it would be most intriguing to compare the bird species inhabiting today’s sanctuary to those frequenting the same property over eighty years ago. So, what ever happened to the old data?

Typical page in Austin banding data collection.

The Austin data exists in an attic bookshelf packed with volumes upon volumes of banding history, quite difficult to analyze in its present state. As a bird bander myself, I couldn’t help but feel drawn to these neglected archives, and so began my endeavor to digitize the old records.

All analog! Unidentified bird bander makes notes.

This is no easy feat. The earliest of these records are handwritten in what is sometimes an illegible scrawl. The birds’ names given are in scientific notation, and many of the Latin names have changed since 1930. Between regular misspellings and outdated nomenclature, it often takes more detective work than a Google search to figure out exactly what bird species had been banded.

After entering data ranging from 1930-1931, I noticed a changing dynamic in our regular avian residents over time. Both Vesper and Grasshopper Sparrows were caught regularly back then, but neither species has been captured on the property since fall 2014. Most of the residual open farmland that covered outer Cape Cod in the early 1930’s has since grown up into forest, dramatically decreasing suitable breeding habitat for these grassland sparrows.

Wellfleet Bay is no longer on the radar of Vesper Sparrows.

Some of our most usual suspects today make no appearances in the early Austin records. Tufted Titmice and Northern Cardinals are notably absent from the 1930-1931 banding data, but they are regular captures today. Similarly, a 1930 journal entry describes the Austins’ first sighting of a Red-bellied Woodpecker on the property, then a rare southern visitor. Today, they are common in forested areas of the Cape and are often attracted to suet feeders.

A Red-bellied Woodpecker was big news at the Austin Ornithological Research Station in 1930. They’re a lot more common now but still very nice to see. (photo by Elora Grahame).

The volumes of data from the Austin Ornithological Research Station range from 1930 to 1958, and digitizing all of the data is an enormous undertaking that will likely take several years and additional support to complete. Despite the project’s challenges, realizing this goal will provide unprecedented insight into the changing dynamics of the sanctuary’s bird communities over a near century.

Oliver Austin, Jr and a Wood Duck, a less common species at the sanctuary in recent years.


Elora Grahame  started her banding career in 2012 with Northern Saw-whet Owls, then songbirds in 2013, and has worked as an assistant bander with master bander James Junda at Wellfleet Bay through spring and fall of 2016.  After fall migration,Elora changed gears and joined the sanctuary’s sea turtle rescue team.

Fall Bird Banding Summary: the News in the Numbers

One of the best things about the return of bird banding at Wellfleet Bay is the increasing amount of data.

It’s all about the data: scribes carefully record a bird’s weight, wing length, body condition, and whether the bird hatched in the summer or is an adult.

Our master bander James Junda has completed his report for the fall 2016 season. It was his third fall migration here. Besides reporting total number of birds, species, number of species per 100 net hours (to compensate for the number of nets operating on any given day) and seasonal diversity, James also looks for trends.

Female Pine Warbler

For instance, he reports, Pine Warblers were unusually abundant last fall, ranking third among the most common captures compared to tenth in 2015 and 2014. Given that change, it’s probably fairly safe to speculate the birds had a pretty good breeding season.

Same might be said for American Goldfinches, which for the first time at the station was the most common species captured compared to previous fall migrations when they ranked third and sixth, respectively.

Numero Uno capture for Fall 2016– this yellow fellow was born last summer and will need more time to get that polished American Goldfinch look.

You might assume that with goldfinches being so common they’d turned up in the mist nets almost daily. Not necessarily so. In a great example of how new birds blow into town one day, while others seem to disappear overnight, goldfinches weren’t here in great numbers until mid to late October, when they were number 11 on the top 12 list. But just two weeks later—they shot up to number one. There was a similar pulse of Yellow-rumped Warblers. They suddenly popped up in second place on the top 12 list in the first half of October.

Although not nearly as numerous as yellow-rumps or goldfinches, other species saw increases over previous years. Palm Warblers seemed relatively plentiful—18 this year compared to just 5 and 3 banded the previous years. Twenty Black-throated Blue Warblers were captured; before, we’d only seen about 2 each year. And little kinglets were big: both ruby-crowned and golden-crowned more than doubled their numbers.

A big fall for kinglets! 51 Ruby-crowned and 32 Golden-crowned Kinglets caught in 2016 versus 14 for each species in 2015. (photo by Dan Lipp)

Finally, some species were fewer in number this fall. House Finches were down for a second consecutive fall; so were White-throated Sparrows and Field Sparrows.

Field Sparrow. Only 12 captured in fall of 2016 versus 20 in 2015 and 23 in 2014.

Cause for worry? According to Mass Audubon’s State of the Birds Report, birds that breed in grasslands and shrubby habitats, such as the Field Sparrow and White-throated Sparrow, are on the decline because of habitat loss. But House Finches are still pretty ubiquitous. Still, it’s the steady accumulation of data that over time reveals significant trends. It’s exciting to be playing our part.

Summary of the Season: Just the Stats
Total Number of Species Banded   75
Total Number of Newly Banded Birds   1432

Top 10 Species of Fall 2016: American Goldfinch, Black-capped Chickadee, Pine Warbler, Gray Catbird, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Blue Jay, Northern Cardinal, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Bluebird, Song Sparrow, Blackpoll Warbler.

Loggerheads Leave Lasting Impression in 2016

More than eighty percent of the sea turtles that strand on Cape Cod in the fall are Kemp’s ridleys, the smallest sea turtle and the most endangered. Increasingly, more tropical green turtles are also finding their way into Cape Cod Bay. But the most imposing of the turtles that cold-stun in the fall are the loggerheads.

Rebecca Shoer with one of the 8 young loggerheads rescued this fall. In all, 36 loggerheads have been retrieved from Cape beaches. (photo by Olivia Bourque)

Rebecca Shoer with one of the 8 young loggerheads rescued this fall. In all, 50 loggerheads have been retrieved from Cape beaches. (photo by Olivia Bourque)

Loggerheads, even youngsters, can be a physical challenge. Over the years, Wellfleet Bay has brought in some very big ones, including a 200 pounder in 2013 and a nearly 300 pounder in 2014 that was actually a very rare (for Massachusetts) adult.

What you hope with a loggerhead is that when a call comes in, the turtle is not very far down the beach and that someone else has managed to drag it closer, like this energetic volunteer.

Kathy Keagul singlehandedly pulled this 40 pounder off the flats of First Encounter Beach up to the high tide line.

Kathy Keagul singlehandedly pulled the season’s first loggerhead– a 40 pounder– off the flats of First Encounter Beach, above the high tide line, then into the back of this car. The turtle is rehabbing at the South Carolina Aquarium.

That smooth-shelled, first-of-the-season loggerhead was a harbinger: we had a number of lovely little loggerheads this fall– turtles that were probably only 3 or 4 years old–with clean, bright shells and none of the encrusted barnacles and other freeloading critters usually found on older turtles. This is a classic example:


Turtle 346 may not look very chipper here but it’s now rehabbing at Gulf World Marine Park in Panama City, Florida.

Rescuing loggerheads can range in effort from some short-term hoisting and pulling to a multi-mile slog, often against a strong wind.  And when a team spends several hours pulling one off a very long beach (three-mile-long Great Island in Wellfleet comes to mind), rescuers can become emotionally invested in getting that animal to the New England Aquarium for critical medical care.

Turtle team member Karen Dourdeville takes a turn dragging this nearly 95 pound loggerhead from more than 2 miles out on Wellfleet's Great Island.

Turtle team member Karen Dourdeville takes a turn dragging this nearly 95 pound loggerhead from more than 2 miles out on Wellfleet’s Great Island. (photo by Olivia Bourque)

Sadly, this turtle did not survive its hypothermia. But turtle team leader Rebecca Shoer and teammate Olivia Bourque had a chance to save another loggerhead off Great Island under some punishing conditions: 20-degree temperatures and wind gusts of 40-50 miles per hour with a quickly-setting sun.


Rebecca haules the turtle cart loaded with an 80 pound loggerhead. Thanks to volunteer Bruce Hurter (dark figure ahead of Rebecca) the team was able to avoid the blast of the northwest wind by walking behind the dunes. (photo by Olivia Bourque)

Rebecca hauls an 80 pound loggerhead. Volunteer Bruce Hurter (walking ahead of her) not only found the turtle but heroically returned with the team to retrieve it and guided them along a back-of-the-dunes path less exposed to the painful wind. (photo by Olivia Bourque)

But despite the exposure to the icy water, the even colder beach, and a long trek back to the sanctuary, this turtle made it to the aquarium where it is now in rehab.

Rebecca says there is something about the loggerhead that is very striking and humbling. “We know so little about these animals, where they go, and what they do, that you can’t help but wish that they could give you just a glimpse into their world.”

Loggerhead rests head on borrowed winter gloves. (photo by Olivia Bourque)

Loggerhead rests its large head on borrowed winter gloves. (photo by Olivia Bourque)


Young Sea Turtle Enthusiasts Walk the Walk

16-year-old Abby Melanson first heard about cold-stunned sea turtles washing in on Cape Cod beaches during visits to her grandmother’s home in Brewster. An ocean lover, Abby wanted to do something to help.

Abby and her classmate Alex Welch from King Philip High School in Wrentham, Massachusetts decided to form a non-profit called TideTogether to raise funds for turtle rescue. They created choker necklaces with gold or silver turtle charms that they sell for 8 dollars at their high school, their local Mass Audubon sanctuary, Stony Brook, in Norfolk and at Wellfleet Bay’s gift shop. They’ve even got some media attention!

TideTogether's sea turtle necklace

TideTogether’s sea turtle necklace

But they wanted to do more.

Alex (left) and Abby (right) with a rescued Kemp's ridley

Alex (left) and Abby (right) with a rescued Kemp’s ridley in Brewster.

So they came to the sanctuary for the Sea Turtle Open House over Thanksgiving weekend. They attended several lectures and a turtle patrol. After that, they were hooked and did more beach walking, even at night. They also experienced the less exciting but very important job of processing incoming turtles, many of which were being readied for rides to the New England Aquarium where they undergo rehabilitation.

Alex helps turtle team member Elora Grahame (left) weigh a ridley

Alex helps turtle team member Elora Grahame (left) weigh a ridley

Sea turtles capture the imaginations of many young people. For this reason our 30-year-old turtle rescue program informs the work the sanctuary does in local school classrooms, day camps, and family programs. But it’s pretty rare to see kids spend the bulk of a long holiday weekend working with stranded turtles, never mind raising more than $1,000 from necklace sales to benefit sea turtle rescue.

Abby says it wasn’t until their third beach patrol that they found their first live turtle, an unforgettable moment. “Here was a living, breathing creature who was in desperate need of our help and I had the power to make a difference in its life. I carried the banana box back to the car, smiling the entire time.”

There’s no question that Abby Melanson and Alex Welch are walking the walk on  sea turtle conservation!

A ridley is fresh off the beach and enjoying the security of a towel-lined banana box!

Abby and Alex walk a ridley off the beach in a towel-lined banana box.

Students Have First Encounter with Sea Turtle Rescue

Many of us in the Unity College Herpetology Club (myself included) had never been to Cape Cod before; even fewer had ever seen a sea turtle without a glass wall between us!

We were invited to volunteer with sea turtle rescue on the Cape in November and we happily accepted. We arrived the day after Thanksgiving. Melissa Lowe Cestaro, our go-to person and coordinator of everything that would be “sea turtle”, let us take a peek into the wet lab to see our first turtle—a very limp Kemp’s Ridley, the most endangered sea turtle in the world.

It can be very hard to tell a live cold-stunned turtle from a dead one.

It can be very hard to tell a live cold-stunned turtle from a dead one.

I didn’t think they could look so dead, yet still be alive. But Melissa taught us how to tell. “If you pick them up and their heads don’t completely flop, they may still be alive,” she explained. She also mentioned subtle movements, especially with the eyes.

This green turtle may look unhappy but those raised flippers are a good sign!

This green turtle may not look very happy but those raised flippers and partially opened eyes are good signs!

We also met Christine Bates, public programs coordinator at the sanctuary, who tasked us with helping run the Sea Turtle Open House held over Thanksgiving weekend. Manning our stations, we quizzed curious visitors about what a reptile is. We facilitated simulated research opportunities for younger visitors, giving them plastic sea turtles to measure and to practice gathering other data.

Author Gregory LeClair has a nice snake skin in front of him, part of the students' efforts to teach about reptiles. (photo by Krill Carson)

Author Gregory LeClair has a nice snake skin in front of him, part of the students’ efforts to teach about reptiles. (photo by Krill Carson)

While we slept that night, a horde of  sea turtles came in. The increasingly strong winds coming from the northwest and the dropping temps stunned an impressive number of turtles. If it weren’t for the late night and early morning volunteers, many of these turtles may not have made it.

Later that morning, to cover more ground, we divided our resources and kept some students at the sanctuary to aid in processing turtles and some of us drove in convoy with Melissa to go pick up turtles as they were coming in.

Getting measures of a cold-stunned Kemp's ridley.

Measuring the length of a cold-stunned Kemp’s ridley.

Overall, we ran through this process with nearly two dozen turtles that morning. Because of our efforts, some of the world’s most imperiled animals will make it back to the wild. There is no greater feeling than contributing to something like that; to know that something still exists on this planet because of you.

Unity students responded to calls about turtles found on the beach.

Unity students responded to calls about turtles found on the beach.

The folks at Mass Audubon are to thank for this wonderful opportunity. The chance to interact with the public was also incredibly useful. As developing wildlife professionals, being able to communicate with the public is very important and so we feel that this trip greatly benefited us in more ways than one.

We enthusiastically look forward to our next collaboration with the Wellfleet Bay crew and wish them luck as they continue the rest of what is sure to be a busy sea turtle season. We’d also like to particularly thank Melissa Lowe and Christine Bates for their hard work and coordination with us. We had a blast!

Gregory LeClair
Unity College Herpetology Club










Banding Station Continues to Reveal Special Birds

“Why band birds? Can’t you detect bird species without capturing them?”

Bird banding assistant Elora Grahame has a "chat" with this banded bird. (photo by James Junda)

Bird banding assistant Elora Grahame has a “chat” with this banded bird. (photo by James Junda)

These are questions I have been asked several times. As a researcher, I’ve worked on a variety of projects involving both banding as well as point count surveys, which are conducted by standing at a fixed point and counting all of the individual birds you can see or hear in a given period of time. So, is it possible to know all of the bird species occurring in an area by sight and sound alone? To put it simply, no.

This fall’s banding season has really driven that home. Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is phenomenal for the diversity of bird species that occur here, and during migration, you never know when an interesting individual will show up on the property. Despite the banding team’s avid birdwatching efforts, there are some birds that would have slipped under the radar had we not set up our nets.

The mist nets were better than the eye (or ear) at discovering this Dickcissel

The mist nets were better than the eye (or ear) at discovering this Dickcissel (photo by Elora Grahame)

A prime example is the young male Dickcissel banded in September, who may have passed through the reeds unnoticed had he not flown into the net! Three Yellow-breasted Chats (I’m holding one, above right) were captured this season, and as these skulky birds are much less likely to sing in autumn, seeing or hearing them can be quite the challenge!

Black-billed Cuckoos are notoriously difficult to detect by sight and are similarly reluctant to vocalize in fall, but we managed to band one young bird in October.

Black-billed Cuckoo (photo by Elora Grahame)

Black-billed Cuckoo (photo by Elora Grahame)

Additionally, we banded two Clay-colored Sparrows—relatively rare visitors from the Midwest—who, given their similar appearance to the regularly occurring Chipping Sparrow, can be difficult to identify through binoculars for all but highly skilled birders.

Thanks to this rare close-up view, it’s much easier to see the gray “collar” against the tanner Clay-colored Sparrow (left) compared to the similar but far more common Chipping Sparrow. The Chipping Sparrow also has those white wingbars. (photo by Elora Grahame)


Even common birds can present interesting patterns or colors when held in the hand compared to being seen in the field. One young Red-eyed Vireo had a rusty red tinge to its scapular and covert feathers, a coloration that possibly resulted from the bird eating non-native berries as it was molting. In November, we processed an adult male Dark-eyed Junco with thin white wing-bars. Measurements of the bird’s wing and tail confirmed that it was indeed a Slate-colored Junco; about 1 in every 200 individuals of this eastern subspecies sports faint white lines on the wings.

Red-eyed Vireo and Dark-eyed Junco (photos by Elora Grahame).

Red-eyed Vireo with rusty tinges and Dark-eyed Junco with wing bars (photos by Elora Grahame).

As long as the banding station is open, we will become more thoroughly acquainted with the “usual suspects” at the wildlife sanctuary. Who’s to say what rarities will stop by during spring migration? We may never know unless they hit the nets!

Elora Grahame graduated from Penn State University in 2103 with a BA in Letters, Arts and Sciences. She started her banding career in 2012 with Northern Saw-whet Owls, then songbirds in 2013, and has worked as an assistant bander with master bander James Junda at Wellfleet Bay through spring and fall of 2016. Recently, Elora changed gears and began working with the sanctuary’s sea turtle rescue team.

Wellfleet Fifth Graders Examine Snails to Count Turtles

It’s an intriguing hypothesis: can a parasite that requires both mud snails and diamondback terrapins to complete its life cycle be an indirect way to assess the abundance of terrapins in a given habitat?

Swimming terrapins can be fast when they want to be (photo by Leah Desroches)

Swimming terrapins can be fast and elusive (photo by Leah Desroches).

This is a question Wellfleet fifth graders have tackled, thanks to a grant from Wellfleet SPAT (Shellfish Promotion and Tasting) which funds a customized coastal curriculum provided by Wellfleet Bay.

The hypothesis arose from this problem: Diamondback terrapins are hard to survey.  The turtles are tricky to capture and not easy to mark and recapture for counting.

Carefully collecting mud snails at Herring River (photo by Sheila Hoogeboom).

Carefully collecting mud snails at Herring River (photo by Sheila Hoogeboom).

Enter the parasite Pleurogonius malaclemys, a trematode, that uses a favored terrapin food—mud snail—as a host in its larval stage. Evidence of this parasitic critter takes the form of a cyst that can form on the snail’s shell or its operculum (which protects the snail’s foot when it withdraws into the shell).

Snail with parasitic cysts. Could these be used to estimate terrapin abundance?

Snail with parasitic cysts. Could these be used to estimate terrapin abundance? (photo from Russell Burke)

Since terrapins love to chomp on mud snails the trematode ends up in the only host it wants to live and reproduce in, the intestinal track of the terrapin. Eventually, the parasite’s eggs are excreted by the turtle and the cycle resumes. Theoretically, the number of mud snails with cysts should roughly correspond to the number of terrapins living in the same salt marsh system.

Checking for cysts on a snail. (photo by Sheila Hoogeboom).

Students work with hand lenses to check for cysts on snails. (photo by Sheila Hoogeboom).

It should be noted that this is actual research going on at Hofstra University in New York. But by doing some of the field work associated with it, Wellfleet fifth graders are learning basic scientific skills: planning their experiment, heading out to the Herring River, collecting the required materials (snails), measuring them, examining them for evidence of the parasite, and recording the data.

They did have some special help. Retired Wheaton College biologist Barbara Brennessel and Wellfleet Bay citizen scientist Karen Strauss facilitated the research. Results were presented at this year’s Wellfleet Harbor Conference.

Thanks to SPAT, Wellfleet Bay educator Spring Beckhorn, Wellfleet Elementary fifth grade teacher Kathleen Ferri, and other engaged community members, local students are experiencing hands-on field research in what is virtually their own backyard.



Curious Sea Creature Like Turtles Gets Trapped by the Cape

As anyone who walks the beaches of Cape Cod knows, all kinds of strange things are brought in by the tide every day: whelk egg cases, buoys, mysterious blobs from the sea, and—in the fall—even cold-stunned sea turtles. There is one animal in particular, however, that even the most veteran of beach walkers is often shocked to encounter: the Mola mola, or ocean sunfish.

Ocean sunfish swim on their side and are often spotted on the water's surface. The dorsal fin can be mistaken for a shark's. (photo by Carol Krill Carson).

When at the water’s surface, ocean sunfish swim on their sides. The dorsal fin can be mistaken for a shark’s. (photo by Carol Krill Carson).

This incredible and alien fish shaped like a giant Frisbee can weigh over 2,000 pounds, and reach almost eight feet in length. It is the largest bony fish. They subsist mainly on jellyfish, and are found in seas across the globe.  A number of these amazing animals make their way into Cape Cod Bay each year, and because they like to bask in the sun on the water’s surface (hence the name sunfish) they are often spotted by boaters or whale watches.  Not much is known about the number of individuals or ages of the molas that visit the bay in the summer, but our good friends at the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance (NECWA) are working to solve some of these mysteries.


New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance founder Krill Carson (left) and student Barbara Cross weigh a beached ocean sunfish in Wellfleet

New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance founder Krill Carson (left) and student Barbara Cross prepare to weigh a beached ocean sunfish in Wellfleet. Some have weighed in at over a half ton!

Readers both on and off the Cape may be familiar with the annual sea turtle cold-stunning event we experience in late fall. Juvenile sea turtles, having spent the summer in the warm ocean waters of Cape Cod Bay, become trapped as the water cools, and are washed ashore.  Not many people, however, may be aware that juvenile sunfish strand as well, weeks before the sea turtles begin to appear on our beaches.

This ocean sunfish stranded at Wellfleet's Mayo Beach in September of 2012. As you can see, it was not an easy animal to move. (photo by Spring Beckhorn).

This ocean sunfish stranded at Wellfleet’s Mayo Beach in September of 2012. As you can see, it’s a seriously big fish! (photo by Spring Beckhorn).

Our colleagues at NECWA believe that juvenile sunfish experience the same issues as juvenile sea turtles—they come to the Cape to feed on plentiful prey, but get trapped by the arm of Cape Cod and eventually cold-stun. They too are washed ashore, and become stranded as the tides drop.  Although we are able to rescue and recover young sea turtles that strand, it is immensely difficult to rescue a stranded mola.

Juvenile loggerheads, the largest sea turtle species that strand, typically weigh under a hundred pounds and are two or three feet long. A juvenile sunfish, however, can easily weigh over three or four hundred pounds and be four to six feet long.  They can strand at tidal creeks in feet of mud, or flats that stretch for half a mile.  This is where the greatest challenge becomes clear when trying to rescue a sunfish: sea turtles breathe air and can thus remain on a beach for several hours; a sunfish, which breathes only water, cannot.

Ocean sunfish can weigh a ton and it's very difficult to return them to deeper water when they get stuck on a mud flat. (photo by Olivia Bourque).

Ocean sunfish can weigh a ton and it’s very difficult to return them to deeper water when they get stuck on a mud flat. (photo by Olivia Bourque).

Unfortunately, there is still not an effective way to rescue and reliably transport a stranded sunfish. The vital factor for a rescue is timing: sunfish typically strand at high tide, and every minute ashore is a race against the falling tide.  Last week several Wellfleet Bay staff responded to a report of a stranded sunfish in several feet of water.  By the time we reached the fish, however, it was floundering in only six inches of water.  After an agonizing thirty minutes, standing on salvaged boards in knee-deep mud, hauling on a tarp, we were forced to abandon our rescue attempt.  It was some consolation, however, to know that Krill Carson, director of NECWA, was en route to necropsy the fish and at least gather precious biological data.

With the power of the Internet (and viral videos), ocean sunfish are becoming more well known to the world at large. Now we and our colleagues hope to harness the power of citizen science to gain insight into the habits, lifestyles, and rescue of these mysterious fish.  If you see a sunfish, either in the water or stranded onshore, please report it to We thank you!


This post was contributed by Rebecca Shoer who has led Wellfleet Bay’s field teams for both sea turtle rescue and diamondback terrapin conservation since Spring of 2015. She also was a member of the 2016 Coastal Waterbird team.