We Have Lift Off for Our Piping Plovers: The Season Wrap Up

It’s only July, but for the small coastal waterbirds we monitor (and others) it is fast becoming fall.

Every day more adult shorebirds are flocking up in preparation to fly south. Their chicks will either go with them, or, as most do, head south on their own timetable.

Group of adult plovers staging in Truro in preparation for their flight south for the winter (photo by Nicole Gallup).

Since I reported on the start of our Piping Plover and Least Tern nesting season, I wanted to let you know how it all turned out.

Out of the fifteen beaches we cover, we had three beaches with two pairs of plovers, three beaches with one pair, and one beach with one bachelor plover (more on him later). We had a total of seven pairs, giving us the chance to have as many as twenty-eight chicks by the end of the season.

Unfortunately of those seven pairs, only three nested successfully. And of the three successful pairs, none hatched a complete clutch (all four eggs). On the bright side, we  (and, of course, the birds) successfully fledged all eight of the chicks that did hatch!

As lead field technician, I spent a lot of time watching and worrying about these little birds. So, I must confess–as an animal lover–I found myself assigning them names. It helped to tell them apart. All the names were somewhat unisex since it’s not possible to distinguish the sex of each chick.

Adult incubating nest with the first of two newly hatched chicks in the nest bowl. (photo by Nicole Gallup)

In Truro, where we had a total of five chicks, the oldest were at Corn Hill Beach—Ryan and Riley, as I called them.  Ryan was the first chick hatched this season and was definitely the go-getter of the pair. He was often seen on his own foraging and running up and down the beach. Riley, on the other hand, was very much a daddy’s boy (or girl). He/she was a lot smaller than Ryan and there was something odd about its neck, as though some feathers were missing. Not surprisingly, Ryan was the first of our chicks to fledge and leave his natal beach. Riley was slower to achieve his first flights and spent most of his days eating.

Ryan (left) and Riley (right); first chicks born this season at 11 days old (photo by Nicole Gallup)



Riley (front) with the weird neck feathers, and Ryan (back) at 25 days old (photo by Nicole Gallup)

Our second oldest plover family was just across the Pamet River at Fisher Beach. I named them Alex, Blair, and Casey. Again, there appeared to be a rebel in this group of chicks. Alex was often out on his own, while Blair and Casey stuck together. All three chicks were a little slow to take to the air and instead would run away quickly to avoid people or animals.  Their disinclination to fly gave us a chance to observe the parents display an interesting behavior: they would charge after the chicks until they flew. Then it seemed to become a game. The three chicks would often chase each other and if one flew a bit, the next would try to make it just as far.

Casey (left), Blair (middle), and Alex (right) at 11 days old, scurrying away from me! (photo by Nicole Gallup)


Blair (front), Casey (back), and Alex (standing) at 26 days old, resting after feeble flying attempts (photo by Nicole Gallup).

Our fastest developing chicks were at Brewster’s Crosby Beach– Nicky, Skyler, and Tristan. And once again I found a rogue among the group–Nicky. Because adult female plovers often leave their broods well before the chicks fledge, the males become single parents. So this poor dad had the job of overseeing Nicky, who would run the complete opposite direction from where Skyler and Tristan would hang out.  Nevertheless, the chicks paid close attention to the old man. Once he began alerting them to danger the chicks, without hesitation, were gone in a flash — up into the dune grass and safely hidden.

Skyler (left) and Tristan (right) foraging together at 11 days old (photo by Nicole Gallup).


Nicky, the Crosby rebel, at 11 days old hanging out alone on the beach (photo by Nicole Gallup).


Skyler (left) and Tristan (right) at 16 days old, snacking on a little beach bug (photo by Nicole Gallup).



Nicky at 24 days old attempting flight — but really only gliding 15 feet while the legs were still running! (photo by Nicole Gallup)

Meanwhile, back in Eastham, the banded adult male plover–“El Bandito”– who we’ve been following for five years–hung out all summer at his barrier beach bachelor pad. He’d been spotted with two different females over the summer, but he simply could not hold on to a mate. Despite his bad luck at pairing up, Bandito maintained his scrapes (a male’s suggested nesting sites), defended his territory from a pair of plovers that tried to move in on his turf, and chased off other migrating shorebirds that stopped in for a rest during their travels. Our fingers are crossed that this tough little guy’s luck will change next season.

One rough summer. Bandito (left) defending his territory by chasing an invading male (right) that was attempting to move in with his mate (photo by Nicole Gallup).

And we can’t leave out our small Least Tern colony in Truro. At its peak, the little colony had about 40 adults, which is a good start.  Unlike plover monitoring, we never know exactly how many tern nests are being incubated nor how many eggs are in a given nest (it’s usually 2 or 3). We knew that the birds were close to having chicks. But on a visit a couple of weeks ago, we discovered that their nests had been wiped out by coyotes. We were so discouraged, we didn’t really pay attention to the defensive terns strafing our heads and pooping on our hats!

Those terns should have been a tip off. As we walked back down the beach,  we spotted a healthy-looking Least Tern chick! And then another! Two chicks, both roughly two and a half weeks old, had managed to survive the coyote massacre.  Perhaps because of their size, they’d been more mobile and able to find cover.

Lucky hanging out on the beach, waiting to be fed by mom or dad (photo by Nicole Gallup)

So our Least Tern season ended on a happier note with the fledging of the two chicks (and, yes, I named them: Lucky and Hope). Also, I only got pooped on at most ten times!

Fortunately, I wore my hat during this beach check! The rim really saved me from a face full of Least Tern poop (photo by Nicole Gallup).


Nicole Gallup has been the lead field technician for Wellfleet Bay’s coastal waterbird team. Along with monitoring nesting birds and engaging with the public about beach management practices, Nicole also took some wonderful photographs of this year’s breeding birds. We thank her for sharing them and for passing along her plover and tern-monitoring adventures this summer!

Neighborly Nest Watchers Aid Terrapins

If you are a gardening enthusiast and have a nice, big yard, why would you let it become a desert of weeds? Maybe because you want diamondback terrapins to nest there.

As a Wellfleet Bay terrapin volunteer who covers Indian Neck, I have been impressed by some of the neighbors who not only care about the turtles–they in effect turn their property over to them for the summer.

Two homeowners in Wellfleet’s Indian Neck neighborhood have turned their backyards into turtle nesting gardens–that is, sandy areas where turtles can dig easily. Bill Meister on King Phillips Road has nine nests in his yard and has become proficient at spotting the nest sites that the mother terrapin carefully camouflages. He eagerly awaits the arrival of the volunteers to tell us how many terrapins he’s seen and where there might be a nest. We check out the site, make sure there are eggs there, and put a cage-like predator exclosure around it.

Bill Meister of Wellfleet’s Indian Neck stands in his yard which has become one big turtle garden! (photo by Dianne Ashley)

Lillian Greenberg who lives on Anawan Road has 3 nests, one that she protected herself. Until our team could get there,  she improvised by placing a  carton, boxes, and rocks over it to prevent the even the most determined raccoon or fox from digging it up for a tasty meal of eggs.

Lillian Greenberg of Indian Neck displays the temporary nest protector she devised until we arrived to install our standard predator exclosure. (photo by Dianne Ashley).

One of the first times I met Lillian she met me and my fellow volunteer, Barbara Brennessel, with a dead terrapin she had recovered. But along with the turtle, Lillian had also arranged a lovely bouquet of flowers from her garden which she gave to us. Lillian has a beautifully landscaped garden which she takes care of when she’s not looking for terrapins. And, like Bill Meister, she has developed a talent for finding terrapin nest sites.

They may not realize it, but Bill and Lillian have become terrapin volunteers!


This post was contributed by Dianne Ashley, a diamondback terrapin volunteer as well as an exhibit hall docent. Dianne has also been a trail naturalist at Wellfleet Bay.


His Wish to See a Turtle is Spot On!

You get what you wish for when you attend Cape Cod Field Schools—or at least Ed Branson did when he attended the Hiking Backwoods and Beaches weekend in early June.

At the orientation session, in answer to the question about what participants hoped to do or experience during the course, the western Massachusetts resident answered that he’d like to see a turtle. Years prior Ed had attended the Turtles of the Outer Cape course which fueled his love of turtles. This hiking weekend wasn’t focused on turtles, but Ed was still hopeful; the trip leaders were guardedly optimistic. Maybe they’d come across an Eastern Box Turtle in the woods or, more likely, see a Painted Turtle by pond’s edge.

Silver Spring’s basking Painted Turtles are typically plentiful and very visible on sunny days.

Day one hike, no turtle. Evening hike, no turtle. Not even the reliable Painted Turtles on Silver Spring made an appearance. And day two didn’t look promising either as the group was headed into the dunes and beaches of Provincetown—not the best turtle habitat.

But then, on his drive in on the second day, Ed spotted a Spotted Turtle crossing the sanctuary’s driveway. Thrilled, he got out of his car and helped it safely to the other side. Luckily, he was able to get a photograph of it before it crawled off into the underbrush.

Ed’s unusual Spotted Turtle. This appears to be a male because of its brown eyes and lack of yellow coloring under the chin, which females have. (photo by Elizabeth Bradfield)

When Ed saw hike leader and Wellfleet Bay staffer Melissa Lowe shortly after, he told her of his encounter. She was pretty skeptical. Not because he didn’t seem like a nice honest, guy (on the contrary!), but she thought he had to be mistaken because Spotted Turtle records on the sanctuary are rare.

“Are you sure it wasn’t a box turtle?” asked Melissa incredulously.  But his photograph confirmed it. Filled with excitement, Ed and Melissa dashed off to the place the turtle was last seen and were lucky to relocate it just a short distance away. They brought it back for the other course participants to see, and for it to be weighed, measured, and recorded by staff before being released.

The Spotted Turtle has a beautiful tan and dark brown plastron.

Spotted Turtles (Clemmys guttata) are a small species that live in shrubby swamps, wet meadows, bogs, small ponds, vernal pools, and even slow-moving streams. They are one of the ten native species of turtles found in Massachusetts. Up until 2006, the Spotted Turtle was a state-listed Species of Special Concern and was like the Spotted Owl of the west, often halting or altering development projects when individual turtles were found in the area. It has since been removed from Massachusetts Endangered Species list, a decision some felt unjustified.

Sanctuary Director Bob Prescott recalls only three other confirmed records of “spotteds” on our sanctuary, one reported crossing West Road in the late ’90s and two sightings since 2000—one in Goose Pond and the other on the turtle float in Silver Spring. Thanks to field school student and turtle enthusiast Ed Branson, we now have a documented fourth record!

Ed Branson and the turtle he’d hoped to see during his Field School weekend. (photo by Elizabeth Bradfield).

What wild encounters do you wish for? There are more Cape Cod Field Schools coming up, including a chance to help with monitoring and releasing Hatching Diamondback Terrapins, August 25–27 and exploring the world of Tracks & Signs: Reading Messages Left by Animals, September 30–October 1.

This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay education director Melissa Lowe, who also oversees the sanctuary’s very popular Cape Cod Field Schools for adults.

Building a Better Fly Trap: Day Campers Conduct Science Experiment

Recently, some very strange objects suddenly appeared in the day camp field at the head of the Bay View Trail.

Other worldly-looking things which appeared in the field!

These space alien-looking contraptions were installed by our day camp’s Ecologists group  with the help of property manager James Nielsen for a scientific experiment.

The objects are called H-Traps  for biting flies, including the dreaded greenhead fly that terrorizes beachgoers during mid-summer.


One of the experiment’s targets: the greenhead fly, denizen of the salt marsh.

These new traps include a large round black plastic sphere, a cone-shaped plastic sleeve that hangs above it, with a plastic collection bin at the top.

Without any lures, these odd-looking contraptions are able to attract greenheads, horseflies and other biting flies in the Tabanidae family and trap them. But how??

First, we should note that the biting flies are all females looking for blood to produce eggs. They typically find a good supply in large animals–such as people and horses. Both prey species give off two things that attract the flies– warmth and carbon dioxide. The black spheres absorb the sun’s warmth and emit fly-attracting heat.

The black sphere looks and feels like an exercise ball.

James demonstrated installing the first trap. Then it was up to the Ecologists to do the rest:

Connecting the green funnel with the metal holder which will attach to the frame.

The trap design is based on a second fly factoid: After the female bites, she typically flies off vertically–straight up. If she does this from the black sphere, she’ll find herself inside the green funnel and eventually in the collection bin at the top.

James helped the campers with the first one but the kids installed the final two on their own within minutes.

As with most projects, our day camp crew made quick work of installing the traps. And it didn’t take more than a couple of minutes to achieve their first catch:

Our first “customer”–a deer fly, a greenhead relative. Pretty cool!

And in less than two hours, the collection bins on all three traps had flies. Amazingly, just 5 days later, all three traps had caught a combined total of nearly 1200 flies! And this was without any lures.

But the next step is to introduce two different types of lures (the ingredients of which have been found safe by the EPA) to assess which attracts flies better.

The campers will learn to use the scientific method, follow experimental protocols, and collect and maintain the data that will be turned over to the fly trap manufacturer after the summer.

The first week’s data sheets from the field and vials containing nearly 1200 biting flies.


Our thanks to Robert Bedoukian, a distinguished scientist and entrepreneur, who reached out to Wellfleet Bay to provide a meaningful research opportunity to day campers. Robert and his wife Gail, from Connecticut  and Eastham, donated all the material needed and will work with staff during the two month study while they await the results of the research.


The Anatomy of a Horseshoe Crab Study

When conducting research at Wellfleet Bay, a lot goes on between the early stages of brainstorming research questions and compiling study results.

As reported in previous posts, we’ve been conducting a three-year study of horseshoe crab movements in Wellfleet Harbor as part of our ongoing effort to get a better understanding of the declining population in Wellfleet Harbor. The project has just wrapped up its data collection phase. But downloading and compiling the data from all 20 acoustic receivers in the harbor is much easier said than done!

Horseshoe crab with acoustic tag, courtesy of Mike Long

Acoustic telemetry is a technology which allows aquatic species to be monitored and tracked without having to be actually seen by researchers. Transmitters are attached to the outside or implanted into an animal and receivers are deployed in the water at known fixed locations.  The transmitters, or tags, emit detailed sonic signals which can be detected and decoded by nearby receivers to identify individual animals.  When compiled, these detections can give records of where an animal was and when it was there, often over periods of time which can span several years.

A view above Wellfleet Bay. The red circle around the receiver represents the detection range of a receiver. Detection ranges can vary from less than 100 meters to over 1500 meters based on a variety of environmental conditions. A signal from the transmitter of the crab inside the red circle would be detected by the receiver, but not a signal outside.


Before any data could be collected, we needed to purchase and prepare equipment, obtain permits, plan for gear deployment, and check the marine forecast for a day with weather decent enough to get on the water.

Once receivers were in the water and crabs were tagged, data downloads took place roughly every month to update detection records and check equipment to make sure everything was functioning properly.

This map of Wellfleet Harbor shows the locations of our 20 fixed receivers distributed throughout the harbor.


Unlike satellite tags, which are another common technology used to track aquatic animals in real time, acoustic receivers store their detections internally and they must be downloaded manually. For us, this meant borrowing a boat and getting out on the water.

An orange receiver buoy floating in Wellfleet Harbor on a calm day. Obviously, flat ocean conditions like this make data downloads much easier than on windy and choppy days.

Data downloads are done by motoring up to each of our 20 individual receiver station floats, hauling them on board and temporarily tying them off to a boat cleat, cleaning off all the biofouling (including algae, shellfish, crustaceans, barnacles, and many other marine invertebrates) which covers the receivers and float poles, and connecting to each receiver via Bluetooth.  A small magnetic key is inserted into the receiver to activate a Bluetooth signal, and a tablet then connects to the receiver.  Our Vemco brand receivers come with their own software, called VUE, to facilitate the actual data download process.


A close up look at one of our receiver float poles. The receiver is hose-clamped onto the bottom of a PVC pole and two orange floats at the top of the pole mark its location in the harbor. The small orange float at the bottom of the receiver (at far right) is the magnetic key inserted into the receiver during a data download.

A screenshot of Vemco’s VUE software during an active download. The large grey box on the bottom of the screen will show the 5 most recent detections on that receiver, which is the first glimpse into new data while we are on the water.

Once all receivers have been downloaded on the water, the data is brought into one large database that contains all data from the project. The data can be broken down to look at individual tags, stations, or time periods.  Vemco’s VUE software can also give visual representations of the data, which can also be broken down to look at specific individual tags, stations, or time periods as well.


A screenshot of the full database in Vemco’s VUE software. This quick snapshot shows detections through the course of just over 2 minutes, but there were 8 crabs detected on 7 stations in that time period. Tag IDs with 35xxx are 2015 tags and all other tag IDs are from 2016. Look at that total detection number at the top, almost 750,000 detections!

The graph below shows all the data for one crab that was tagged with transmitter A69-1601-35185. Each row on the Y axis (the vertical one) represents a different station that the crab was detected on, and as you move left to right on the X axis you are moving through time from the spring of 2015 to the spring of 2016. When you pair this graph with the map of receiver station locations, you can visualize the crab moving around the harbor over time.

A screenshot of the graphical data representation in Vemco’s VUE software. This graph shows all the data for one crab that was tagged with transmitter A69-1601-35185.

This crab, whose movements are displayed in the graph above, was tagged in early June of 2015 in Blackfish Creek with the first detections at station 17, and then moved around the harbor a bit before leaving at the end of June with the last detection on station 4 at the southern edge of the harbor. It was not detected again until the spring of 2016. The crab came back into the harbor in April of 2016 at station 4 before taking a tour of the harbor all the way up to Great Island on station 19. It finally turned around and left the harbor in early June of 2016 with its last detection at station 5.

The data from this telemetry project has given detailed spatial ecology information on horseshoe crabs in our small Outer Cape embayment that we call home at Wellfleet Bay. Monitoring movement patterns of crabs as they migrate back and forth between Wellfleet Harbor and Cape Cod Bay can provide insight into how much overlap and mixing there is between populations of crabs in the two geographic areas. This project will hopefully lead to better informed management decisions for horseshoe crab harvest in the state.

A huge thank to Mass Audubon volunteer Nick Picariello and all staff in the Wellfleet Harbormaster’s office as they have helped deploy our receivers and taken our staff out for countless data downloads over the past three years of our horseshoe crab acoustic telemetry project. Sorry for always getting your boats covered in algae and all other types or marine life!  We would also like to acknowledge the Massachusetts Environmental Trust which provided the funding for our horseshoe crab acoustic telemetry project.

This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay horseshoe crab researcher Mike Long, who conducted the study as part of his work towards a master’s degree at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Mike will be presenting the results of his study on Saturday, November 4th at the State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference.

Full Circle: Hatchlings Return To Lieutenant Island For The First Time

Leaving the lush life at Tufts for the wilds of Wellfleet Bay (Photo by Karen Strauss)

Five small noses tested the air—the unfamiliar scents of salt, mud, wrack and pine trees on a damp, overcast May day on Wellfleet’s Lieutenant Island. Though creatures of the salt marsh, these diamondback terrapin hatchlings were meeting the marsh for the first time. Unlike other hatchlings of their kind that emerged from their eggs beneath the sand and struggled to the surface of their nests, these turtles had taken a different path to get to Lieutenant Island.

This northern diamondback terrapin, a threatened species in Massachusetts, was hit by a car on Lt. Island last year. Happily, she was successfully treated and rehabbed and her eggs protected and incubated at Tufts. (Photo by Karen Strauss)

On June 29, 2016, a car hit their mother as she was walking along Lt. Island Road looking for a good place to nest.  With the help of local residents, my terrapin team and Wellfleet Bay staff and volunteers, she was rescued and treated at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and released at Lt. Island last September.  The staff at Tufts removed her eggs and placed them in an incubator, hoping for the best.

Throughout the summer, while terrapin eggs in nests at Lt. Island were soaking up the sun, and long after those hatchlings had made their way into the world, these eggs remained in the incubator. In Wellfleet, diamondback terrapins usually hatch in 60 and 90 days. At 100 days, Tufts’ vets thought the eggs wouldn’t hatch but agreed to leave them in the incubators a little longer. At 112 days, two of the eggs hatched. And then a few days later, the remaining three emerged. By this time it was too late to put them into the marsh, too late for them to get their bearings and find a place to dig in for the winter. Instead, they would spend the winter and early spring swimming in a tank and eating.

Overwintering at Tufts (Photo by Tim O’Brien)

And when you eat, you grow. By the time the weather had warmed enough to release these hatchlings in to the wild, they had grown to the size of three-year-old terrapins. Hatchlings normally don’t eat when they overwinter so they don’t grow bigger, ending the winter still the size of a quarter. Their shells had gone from soft and pliable to hard, protective cases and were no longer the tasty little morsels that are easy prey for everybody!

This head-started turtle is ready to go! (Photo by Karen Strauss)

We released these hatchlings in the way we always do, by lifting up some wrack along the edge of the marsh and placing a turtle under it. Then, we move a few feet over and repeat until all the turtles have been nestled under the wrack.

Sanctuary director Bob Prescott finds spots for each terrapin youngster on the edge of the marsh. It’s believed juvenile terrapins don’t become fully aquatic until after the first few years of their lives. (Photo by Karen Strauss)

These hatchlings hadn’t seen wrack or felt the marsh mud under their feet and I was interested to see what they would do. Two of them did nothing. They stayed where they were placed.

Where the heck am I? (Photo by Karen Strauss)

The others, after a few seconds, pushed their way out the wrack, determined to explore their new environment. One turtle, front limbs resting on wrack, looked around the marsh taking it all in.

Exploring! (photo by Karen Strauss)

And then we left them to figure out life for themselves. When I returned two days later, they had moved on.

It is always hard to release hatchlings into the wild, knowing that only a very few survive to adulthood. It was harder this time. These hatchlings had overcome so many obstacles to be born and now they were on their own. As is proper. But I wonder how they will adjust to finding their own food when they are used to being fed. How their one-year-old brains relate to their larger than average bodies. What they will make of a world with predators and people. In three or four years I will look for them.

Some of them have very distinctive anomalies on their shells, so I think I will know them again. This summer I will look for their mother, hoping to see her nesting. Finding her again would truly bring this story full circle for me.

Karen Strauss , a long time Wellfleet Bay terrapin volunteer, wishes to thank her fellow volunteer Tim O’Brien and the team at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine for caring for these hatchlings and monitoring their successful development.  Karen is also a horseshoe crab monitor and works with cold-stunned sea turtles. She is the newest member of the Eastham Conservation Commission.


The Saga of Another Plover Summer

We’ve had a wild ride so far in this season of monitoring Piping Plovers on the Outer Cape. Between the fluctuating cold then hot weather, failing nests, and the return of our very own banded bird, it has been very interesting.

The chilly days of late April and early May have been a little tough on plover monitors but not too bad for our nesting birds.

Three Piping Plovers hanging out enjoying the break from the blustery winds in their safe inlet in Chatham. (Photo by Nicole Gallup)

If the birds are kept off the nests, the cool temperatures would only delay the development of the eggs that we have in nests on a couple of our beaches. Though it’s not ideal to think about delaying hatching and fledging of chicks later into summer on Cape Cod,  it is better than the alternative. Those few days in mid-May that had temperatures well into the 80s could have been disastrous for our pairs with eggs. If left uncovered in the blazing sun, even for a few minutes, the eggs can fry. That is why it is especially important to not disturb nesting plovers on hot days.

A Piping Plover nest that has four eggs is ready for incubation. Plover chicks hatch within a couple of hours of one another and are running around the beach shortly thereafter, feeding on their own. (Photo by Olivia Bourque)

So far this season, we’ve lost three nests, one of which was just days from hatching. Depredation was likely the cause of two of those lost nests, both done in by crows. Crows are very intelligent creatures and have been known to watch humans watch plovers and find the nest, or follow plovers back to their nests and then eat the eggs. The third nest was lost to the high tide during a stormy weekend, another common cause of nest loss.

Although we get almost as invested in the nesting as the birds do, there is still hope for plovers who lose nests. Piping plovers can renest up to four times, and they tend to learn from their mistakes and nest in better areas than before.

This is what determination looks like when you have to incubate your eggs for almost a month (Photo by Nicole Gallup)

Adding special interest and much speculation to this season is the return of “El Bandito”,  a banded plover we’ve monitored for five summers in a row (see Where in the World is Bandito? ).

El Bandito–known for his green and yellow leg bands. (Photo by Nicole Gallup)

Although in recent years, Bandito’s had some nesting success, something’s off this year. He appears to be having lady troubles. He’s been spotted at several beaches in Eastham and Brewster, most of the time alone. He has been seen with two different birds performing courtship rituals, which has led us to believe he had two shots at finding a mate.  The amount of effort this guy has put into finding a female is curious to us. Having tracked Bandito for a number of years, we know he’s had mates and fledged young before. Did he lose his last one over the winter? Or did they agree to split up at the end of last summer?  Is his singleness a comment about his choice of territory…or was it something he said?

Bandito patrols his Eastham beach. (Photo by Nicole Gallup)

We’re really hoping this is just an off year for Bandito  and–like any Piping Plover–he’ll live to breed another day. And we’re wishing all the birds on our watch as much luck as they can get this season.

This post was contributed Wellfleet Bay coastal waterbird field technicians Nicole Gallup and Olivia Bourque. While we have fun speculating about El Bandito’s ups and downs, banded birds provide rare insights into an individual bird’s breeding history. National Audubon recently posted an article about a banded plover in the Great Lakes that has also contributed a lot of information about Piping Plover ecology and life history.


Tags Tell Troubling Tales of Leatherback Turtles

As many of us are thinking about diamondback terrapins, horseshoe crabs, Piping Plovers, gardening,  ice cream …. it’s also time to think about sea turtles! Not the turtles that wash ashore here in the fall due to cold-stunning, but the leatherbacks, loggerheads, greens and Kemp’s ridleys that swim north to feed in the waters off southern New England, including Cape Cod, in the late spring, summer and fall.

Free swimming leatherback in Nantucket Sound. (Photo courtesy of Chris Waitkun)

This is the time of year we start to encourage anyone on the water to report sightings of live sea turtles. These sightings help us understand more about how these endangered and threatened species are using our waters and we especially urge both recreational and commercial boaters to report any turtle sightings. Wellfleet Bay’s sea turtle sighting hotline for boaters is ready to take reports by phone at 1-888-SEA-TURT or online at our website, seaturtlesightings.org. No sea turtles have been reported yet, but some may already be here. If you are a boater, please look at the photos on the website of our four species, which helps create a mental “search image” of what the sea turtles may look like in the water. Also, please pass on this info to boating and fishing friends.

Wellfleet Bay staff respond to dead, stranded sea turtles all summer and fall, well before the cold-stun season starts. Last summer we responded to two dead, boat-struck leatherbacks in September, which turned out to have been tagged with passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags.  Thanks to these tags, we quickly learned that one turtle had been tagged at Fishing Pond in eastern Trinidad as she nested in 2010 and 2012.

It took us until April of this year to learn more about the second boat-struck leatherback—and it’s quite a story.

Female leatherback at a nesting beach in Anguilla, one of three northern Caribbean sites where she nested in 2009 – seven years before her fatal visit to New England waters. (Photo courtesy of Stuart Wynne, Department of Fisheries and Marine Resources, Government of Anguilla).

She was tagged while nesting on Anguilla, then monitored again nesting on beaches in St. Maarten and St. Croix – all in the 2009 nesting season. That’s nesting on three different islands in one season!

The number of nesting leatherbacks in the northern Caribbean is small, relative to numbers on Trinidad and South America, so this story is very interesting to Caribbean sea turtle researchers, and we’re working with them on a publication.  One of these researchers is Dr. Stuart Wynne, Deputy Director of the Department of Fisheries and Marine Resources, Government of Anguilla, who was part of the initial tagging team.  He sent us this photo of the female leatherback after she came ashore to lay her eggs on the beach in Anguilla.

The female leatherback returning to the ocean after she nested on Anguilla in 2009. (Photo courtesy of Stuart Wynne, Department of Fisheries and Marine Resources, Government of Anguilla).

It’s so sad to compare Dr. Wynne’s photos to ours of the same female washed ashore, dead, on Nantucket. It’s especially sad to think of these endangered reproductive female leatherbacks being killed by boats in our waters.

The boat-struck Caribbean-nesting leatherback washed ashore on Nantucket in September of 2016 (Photo courtesy of Olivia Bourque).

Through the website and other outreach, Wellfleet Bay staff are focusing even more effort on boater awareness to avoid sea turtle strikes. So, should you find yourself on the water in the weeks ahead, please keep an eye out for these wonderful animals and report them to seaturtlesightings.org.

Boaters are encouraged to report all sea turtle sightings at seaturtlesightings.org


This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay sea turtle researcher Karen Dourdeville who oversees the seaturtlesightings.org website. She also responds to sea turtle strandings.

Sleeping Beauties – A Study of Eastern Box Turtles in Winter

Wellfleet Bay is blessed with a healthy, replicating population of Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina), a species of special concern in Massachusetts. We study our population closely from spring until fall, but we haven’t spent much time monitoring them during brumation, which is the hibernation-like state that cold-blooded animals utilize in very cold weather. This past winter, I decided to follow a couple of turtles through the entire process and document what happens.

Brumation and hibernation are closely related and are typified by periods of inactivity during which an animal slows down its metabolic processes and stops growing. Both brumation and hibernation are triggered by cues such as day length, humidity, temperature and barometric pressure.

The primary difference is that in a true hibernating animal like a groundhog, the animal is actually asleep. While an animal that brumates, like a box turtle, is still conscious although in a state of dormancy. Brumation is also thought to reset the biological clock in reptiles, triggering sperm production in males and preparing females for ovulation in the spring. Brumation also puts extreme stress on an animal and older or physically compromised individuals may perish during brumation if conditions become too harsh.

Turtle number 348 has a radio tag on his shell which emits a signal that allows him to be located and tracked. (Photo by Tim O’Brien)

Because box turtles often return to the same brumation sites year after year, it’s relatively easy to locate them. I also had the added benefit of an animal with a radio tag (turtle #348) making it easier to follow.

The neighborhood of turtle 348’s brumation site. Spongy layers of dead leaves and pine needles allow for good burrow digging. (Photo by Tim O’Brien)

In November, I was able to observe two box turtles going into brumation, turtles #22 and #348. Both utilized separate brumation sites in wooded areas, typically south facing with soft detritus composed of decades of decomposing pine needles and the leaves of deciduous trees. This detritus is easy for the turtle to burrow into and holds moisture, which is important so that the turtles don’t dehydrate. And, finally, the substrate beneath the surface in these locations does not freeze, even in the dead of winter.

Turtle 22’s burrow entrance. (Photo by Tim O’Brien)

I monitored each turtle weekly until April. I measured the point at which the turtle rested within the burrow using a metric cloth ruler. Turtle #348 began his dig on November 4th.

Turtle 348, estimated to be about 40 years old, begins to enter his brumation burrow last November. (Photo by Tim O’Brien)

Turtle #22 was found already in her burrow on November 21st. Both turtles initially settled in at the relatively shallow depth of 5 centimeters—a little less than 2 inches. At this point, you could see the turtle’s carapace simply by looking into the burrow. By the end of December turtle # 348 had moved down to 40cm—or about 16 inches deep. Interestingly, turtle 22 stayed at 5cm until mid-January, when she finally moved to what would be her maximum depth of 10cm. I noted one instance in which she had turned completely in her burrow in February. By late February she was back up to 5cm (perhaps triggered by unusually warm weather). But four weeks later, she was back to 10cm in depth. By mid-April she’d returned to 5cm and then she emerged, quite conveniently while I was there, on April 29th.

Turtle 22, who’s brumated for about 25 winters, welcomes spring…in a box turtle sort of way. (Photo by Tim O’Brien)

Turtle #348, did not exhibit quite so much movement within the burrow. After his initial entrance into the burrow, he rested at 5cm for a few weeks and then retreated to 40cm where he spent the entire winter with little movement noted. He emerged during the first week of May, specifically May7th. Both turtles appeared to be in good health.

During this study we learned that our box turtles enter into brumation during the early part of November and remain there until May. They change position and depths within their burrows as well, probably influenced by temperature. While turtle #348 brumated at a more typical depth, turtle #22 spent the entire winter at a depth no greater than 10cm. Why?

We hope to do a similar brumation study in the fall, this time studying the temperature and humidity within the burrows using a data logger designed for this purpose. This might help us understand how temperature and humidity may play a role in determining the depth at which a box turtle brumates.

Citizen scientist Tim O’Brien as he appears on many Sundays through the year tracking and monitoring EBTs. (Photo by Kim Novino)


This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay volunteer and naturalist Tim O’Brien who’s been keeping tabs on Eastern Box Turtles at Wellfleet Bay for 30 years. He’s been monitoring them for the past 15 years.

Ode to a Nightjar

Close your eyes and imagine the soundscape of a warm New England evening in late May or early June. What do you hear? Is the raucous chirping of spring peepers and wood frogs emanating from a vernal pool? Maybe there’s an Eastern Screech Owl whinnying from a nearby nest cavity or the whistling wings of an American Woodcock’s flight display.

But how many of us remember the buzzy calls of Common Nighthawks swirling acrobatically through the twilit sky, or the onomatopoetic voices of the Eastern Whip-poor-will or Chuck-will’s-widow ringing through a forest clearing?

Eastern Whip-poor-will resting on a Cape Cod driveway (photo by Mark Faherty)

The sonorous melodies of our eastern migratory nightjars have inspired poetry, music, and folklore, but these mysterious birds have declined precipitously across their range over the past several decades. At present, ornithologists aren’t exactly sure why, though there are probably multiple factors at play, and human influence is likely a major culprit.

Both nighthawks and whip-poor-wills require early successional habitat like meadows and open woodlands, which have decreased dramatically due to urban development and the suppression of forest fires. With human encroachment comes an increase in predators such as domestic cats, which are devastating for ground nesting bird species. Additionally, nightjars need a healthy supply of large moths and other nocturnal insects, which may not be as readily available due to pesticide use and deforestation. For lovers of nocturnal avian species such as myself, the decline of eastern nightjars presents an obligation to study these fascinating creatures before they are pushed beyond the brink of recovery.

Common Nighthawk standing tall (photo by Brian Garret)

What isn’t to love about a nightjar? Such adorably bizarre creatures! The unmistakable three-part songs of Chuck-will’s-widows and Eastern Whip-poor-wills echo musically through wooded clearings, and nighthawks advertise themselves with aerial “peent” calls and phenomenal booming swoops. Their large black eyes allow them to see clearly in low light, but should you stumble across a roosting bird in the daytime, it will squint at you against the sun.

Whip-poor-will by daylight with squinting eyes (photo courtesy of Mike Trahan).

Long whiskers enable a nightjar to feel insects that fly within close range of its seemingly tiny bill, which opens wide to reveal a gaping maw perfect for swallowing their prey whole—which, for Chuck-will’s-widows, sometimes includes small songbirds!  Their coloration is a dappled patchwork of rufous, grey, black, and white splotches, providing seamless camouflage against rocky outcroppings and grasslands. They are perfectly adapted for their specialist lifestyles as crepuscular and nocturnal avian insectivores.

In Massachusetts, Cape Cod and the Islands are one of the last major strongholds for the Eastern Whip-poor-will, and even so, the species has lost nearly half of its numbers between the publication of the state’s first and second Breeding Bird Atlases (compiled from 1974-1979 and 2007-2011, respectively). By comparison, Common Nighthawks have declined by 70% between atlases and no longer seem to be breeding in the state’s remaining natural habitat, instead taking to gravel rooftops in cities where their reproductive success is not well understood. While the breeding range of the Chuck-will’s-widow seems to be expanding northward over time, they have yet to be confirmed as nesting in Massachusetts. Nevertheless, birders on the Cape and other coastal areas report Chucks on a more-or-less annual basis, especially within the past decade.

While the plight of these species calls for further study, research efforts rely heavily on support from local communities and input from citizen scientists, including observations reported in large-scale data projects such as eBird.

The distinctive Common Nighthawk aloft (photo by Brandon Trentler)

Spreading awareness of nightjars may be one of the best tools to fight for their conservation.This spring and summer, should you hear a buzzy “peent” call from above, look up for the characteristic white patches on the long slender wings of a nighthawk, and point it out to a friend! Visit an open wooded area and share the evening chorus of whip-poor-wills with anyone who is a stranger to their enigmatic song. Inspiring others to care about these cryptic birds will undoubtedly strengthen efforts for their protection, ensuring that they will continue to breed in Massachusetts for generations to come.

Elora Grahame started her bird 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 since Spring of 2016. As you may have noticed, she loves nightjars.