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:

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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 St. 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.

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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 www.nebshark.com 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.

 

 

Sea Turtle Strandings Spark Scientific Inquiry

Wellfleet Bay’s sea turtle rescue program is not just about retrieving endangered turtles from local beaches.

The annual cold-stun phenomenon also presents an opportunity to engage local students in research projects. Wellfleet Bay is in the second year of a three-year grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) in cooperation with the Gulf of Maine Institute that enables the sanctuary to continue to work with high school students building and deploying drifters during the sea turtle cold stunning season (for background see Nauset High Students Present Study of Currents).

Drifters are boxy objects made of intersecting aluminum rods with canvas sails. A GPS device sits atop a buoy that remains above water. The rest of the drifter floats underwater and is designed to mimic the movements of a cold-stunned or partially cold-stunned sea turtle.

Drifters are made up of intersecting aluminum rods and canvas sails. Because drifters usually end up ashore, contact information is prominently displayed to increase the chances of retrieval.

Like cold-stunned turtles, drifters usually end up coming ashore, so these Nauset students make sure their contact information is prominently displayed to increase the chances of retrieval.

The drifter program was started in 2014 when I was still a teacher at Nauset Regional High School. Now I’m retired but I still get to work on this project which now also includes Monomoy Regional High School.

The sanctuary arranged for each school to go on a boat to deploy their drifters. A relatively mild November provided ideal sea conditions.

A new drifter is readied for deployment! (courtesy of Olivia Bourque)

A new drifter is poised for deployment! (photo by Olivia Bourque)

Once drifters are in the water, students can go to a web site to keep track of where their drifter is moving. Here is a link to the high schools’ online map. http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/drifter/drift_wbws_2016_2.html.

9 drifters were deployed this fall by Nauset and Monomoy students and Wellfleet Bay staff. The green icons show drifters that remain active.

9 drifters were deployed this fall by Nauset and Monomoy students and Wellfleet Bay staff. The green icons show drifters that remain active.

We now have several years’ worth of drifter data. The next steps are to find ways to use it to answer scientific questions. On November 9th, our primary investigator and “father” of the drifter program, James Manning of NOAA, came to Wellfleet Bay to work with teachers from around the Cape and to look at using drifter data to introduce students to data analysis. We also learned about ocean modeling. Here in the northeast there are a few models to choose from but one that we work most closely with is the UMASS/WHOI Finite Volume Community Ocean Model (FVCOM).  It’s part of the Northeast Coastal Ocean Forecast System which has graphical displays of model output. This means students will be able to compare their drifter tracks with predicted ocean conditions. Especially exciting is the fact that student drifter data is also being added to the models to help make the models more accurate for our local area.

The drifter project is an experience that seems to have a memorable impact on students. Many use their experiences in their college application essays. Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is helping to bring real science experiences to local high school students.

The arrow marks what little of a drifter remains above water: the buoy and the GPS device. (photo by Karen Dourdeville)

The arrow marks what little of a drifter remains above water: the buoy and the GPS device. (photo by Karen Dourdeville)

Valerie Bell recently retired from Nauset Regional High School where she was a science teacher. Currently, she works as a part-time educator for Wellfleet Bay and as a seasonal ranger for the Cape Cod National Seashore.

Valerie Bell

Valerie Bell

Box Turtle Travels at Wellfleet Bay

Wellfleet Bay is blessed with a healthy, replicating population of Eastern Box Turtles (Terrapene carolina carolina), a species of Special Concern in Massachusetts. In the early 1980’s, sanctuary director Bob Prescott began a mark and recapture study designed to determine our population’s size and monitor its movements. He wanted to learn how many of these land turtles actually live here, what their home ranges are, and to record their patterns of habitat use.

Over the years, with the help of many volunteers, we have accumulated data on nearly 400 turtles, many of which have moved on or passed away. Our resident sanctuary population is now estimated at about 150 adult turtles, some of which may be approaching 100 years old!

This turtle was first marked in 1989 when it was estimated to be at least 30 years old. It was seen again this past summer, so it's very likely more than 60 years old.

This turtle was first marked in 1989 when it was estimated to be at least 30 years old. It was seen again this past summer, so it’s very likely more than 60 years old.

One aspect of the study that has never been fully explored is following one particular turtle throughout an entire season and plotting its movements from emergence in the spring to brumation (reptile hibernation) in the fall. We’ve had radio telemetry equipment for years and we have used it to track box turtles, but no one has tracked one turtle consistently all year.

This season we were able to purchase a new broad band receiver and six Holohil brand radio transmitters. I suggested to Bob that with our new equipment, this could be an ideal opportunity to track some turtles through the season. He agreed and we chose three study turtles to watch very closely.

Tim uses aerial antenna to find tagged turtles at the sanctuary

Tim O’Brien in Spring 2015 using an older aerial antenna receiver to locate turtles fitted with transmitters at the sanctuary.

Female turtles are key to population stability and typically have smaller home ranges than males so we tagged two young females and an older male after they emerged from brumation in May. Our goal was to plot their location with a GPS at least once a week. Box turtles often exhibit high site fidelity and in some cases live out their entire lives in an area no larger than a football field. Others will wander, but will often return to a familiar site to brumate. Ranges can shift according to habitat suitability and food sources.

Of our three study turtles, two initially moved 500 feet and settled in for what would prove to be a hot and very dry summer. But the third turtle, number 709, a fifteen year old female, began an unexpected circumnavigation of the property.

Box Turtle 709 with her radio transmitter attached. (photo by Tim O'Brien)

Box Turtle 709 with her radio transmitter attached. (photo by Tim O’Brien)

We first found and marked number 709 at the edge of the woods and the heath field at the top of the Bay View Trail. In the heat of the summer she traveled south across the heath field to Silver Spring, behind the solar array in the parking area, where she remained for several weeks. She then moved west towards the salt marsh and past the other solar array across from the whale bones. Then she paralleled the lower portion of the Bay View Trail before heading back across the heath field to within 100 feet of where she was originally found and marked! If you plot her trip it looks like a big loop.

Turtle 709's summer wanderings. Hardly a record but a good hike!

Turtle 709’s summer wanderings. Hardly a record but a good hike!

A rough estimate of the length of this turtle’s travels (with the help of Google Earth) is 3600 feet, roughly seven-tenths of a mile! This is based on straight line measurements plotted from weekly GPS points, so the total length of her travel was likely more. Although a seasonal loop of this length is far from record setting (a Maryland turtle logged nearly 2 miles a few summers ago), it is much more than what I would call a typical seasonal movement. What is really interesting is that she started and ended her trek at almost the same point where she spends her winters. This is what we’d call a prime example of high brumation site fidelity!

Turtle 709 cozy in her brumation form. (photo by Tim O'Brien)

Turtle 709 cozy in her overwintering spot. (photo by Tim O’Brien)

Of course, it’s possible 709 had some help along the way—a person or even a coyote could have moved her at some point. But her seasonal course shows that she ended up very close to where she started. This illustrates the value of systematic tracking and I’m looking forward to following other box turtles next season.

This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay citizen scientist Tim O’Brien. Tim is a lifelong observer and fan of the Eastern Box Turtle. He and his wife Kim Novino are also dedicated rescuers of cold-stunned sea turtles.

 

Keeping Track of Summer’s Sea Turtles

All summer and early fall, Wellfleet Bay’s sea turtle team has been busy. Boaters’ sightings of live, free-swimming loggerheads have come in steadily to our sightings website, seaturtlesightings.org.  Sightings of leatherbacks, the world’s biggest sea turtles,  picked up in mid-August and we’re still getting reports of both species. Kemp’s ridleys and green sea turtles are here, too, but the immature turtles of these species are so small that boaters don’t see or report them very often.

Free swimming leatherback in Nantucket Sound. We love these kinds of sightings! (photo courtesy of )

Free swimming leatherback in Nantucket Sound. We love these kinds of sightings reports! (photo courtesy of Chris Waitkun )

 

All these reports become part of our growing sea turtle sightings database, helping us to understand where and when sea turtles are feeding and passing through our waters. We also share our sightings with colleagues from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and National Marine Fisheries Service who are conducting research projects studying sea turtle feeding and migration.  Our information helps them locate turtles.

Live sightings of healthy sea turtles are the happier part of our work, but we’re also the federally designated responders for every dead sea turtle reported anywhere in southeastern Massachusetts.

photo courtesy of Jim Sener

Leatherback killed by a small boat propeller. (photo courtesy of Jim Sener)

These are often tough cases, as cause of death is usually boat strike or entanglement in lobster or conch gear.

Entangled leatherback at Bass River in Yarmouth

Entangled leatherback at Bass River in Yarmouth

We complete a stranding report for each turtle and try to learn as much as possible from each death.  This report includes: taking DNA samples (to determine where that turtle was born), making measurements, taking photographs, and often doing a full necropsy.  These necropsies on the beach can tell us what the turtle was eating, whether it had a good fat build-up, whether there were any foreign objects in its digestive tract (think plastic), and whether it was male or female, as many of our sea turtles are sub-adults so sex cannot be determined externally.

Karen Dourdeville prepares to necropsy a loggerhead at Scraggy Neck on Buzzards Bay (photo by Andrew Partridge).

Sea turtle researcher Karen Dourdeville prepares to necropsy a loggerhead at Scraggy Neck on Buzzards Bay (photo by Andrew Partridge).

 

Part of our sea turtle stranding response is scanning for a PIT (passive integrated transponder) tag. These tags, about the size of a grain of rice, are the same type inserted by veterinarians into pet cats and dogs for individual identification if that pet is lost, and each tag has a unique sequence of numbers and letters which show up on an electronic scanner. Usually the only chance researchers get to implant one of these tiny tags in a sea turtle is when a female comes ashore to nest on a beach in the tropics or sub-tropics.

Bob Prescott necropsies a stranded leatherback on Muskeget Beach, Nantucket. This turtle was PIT tagged, but we're still researching where and when it was tagged. (photo by Olivia Bourque)

Bob Prescott necropsies a stranded leatherback on Madaket Beach, Nantucket. This turtle was PIT tagged, but we’re still researching where and when it was tagged. (photo by Olivia Bourque)

In our sea turtle stranding work this summer, we encountered two PIT tagged leatherbacks.  Both had been killed by boat strikes, the one seen above on Nantucket, and another that washed up in Mashpee.  Through an international database, we learned that the Mashpee leatherback was, sadly, a reproductive female.  She had nested on a beach in eastern Trinidad in 2010 and again on the same beach in 2012.  So far, we’ve not been able to learn where the Nantucket leatherback was tagged, but we’re still trying. PIT tags are important to report because they provide crucial “mark and recapture” data for sea turtle research.

We’re running out of good boating weather, but should you find yourself out in the sound or the bay and you spot one of these amazing animals, enjoy the experience, and please let us know!

Loggerhead off Gloucester ( photo courtesy of Amy Warren).

Loggerhead off Gloucester ( photo courtesy of Amy Warren and Newburyport Whale Watch).

This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay sea turtle research associate Karen Dourdeville who manages the seaturtlesightings.org web site. Karen responds through the summer to turtle strandings and this fall will be part of the sanctuary’s cold-stun stranding team. She also participates in turtle necropsies at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The Flow of Fall Migration

The fall bird banding season starts in September with lots of noisy catbirds flying into the mist nets and feisty chickadees—the vast majority born just this year. Adult chickadees come later, apparently lying low until they complete their full feather molts.

Come early-to-mid-October, the birds we find in the nets seem to change, if not overnight, then certainly in a matter of days.

You know it’s truly fall when these guys start showing up.

Dark-eyed Juncos breed in Canada and some spend winter in relatively balmy Massachusetts (photo by Dan Lipp)

Dark-eyed Juncos (aka “snow birds”) breed in Canada and some spend winter in relatively balmy Massachusetts (photo by Dan Lipp)

Early October was the heart of the batting order for warblers. This Mourning Warbler, a female hatched this year, was a first for our banding station. These birds tend to travel in the middle of the warbler pack in fall.

photo by Elora Grahame

photo by Elora Grahame

 

Then, there are the late season travelers. This lovely pair of Black-throated Blue Warblers was caught on the same day, giving us an opportunity to photograph the two very different looking sexes.

These birds are a perfect example of why identifying warblers can be so exasperating (photo by James Junda)

These birds are a perfect example of why identifying warblers can be so exasperating (photo by James Junda)

There were a couple of days when wrens were clearly on the move. We caught our first Winter Wren, along with a Marsh Wren on the same morning.

Seeing birds at such close range also provides an opportunity to appreciate how each species of bird is adapted to its habitat. Compare the difference in size between the eyes of the Marsh Wren and the Winter Wren.

The eyes of the Marsh Wren, at left, are smaller than those of the Winter Wren, at right (photo by Elora Grahame)

The eyes of the Marsh Wren, at left, are smaller than those of the Winter Wren, at right (photo by Elora Grahame)

The relatively larger eyes of the Winter Wren reflect its preference for a low light, forest canopy habitat. The Marsh Wren, which lives in the brighter world of open wetlands, has smaller eyes.

One day recently we had the chance to look at two species of thrushes at close range.

Hermit Thrush on the left; Swainson's Thrush on the right (photo by Elora Grahame)

Bander James Junda compares a Hermit Thrush on the left and a Swainson’s Thrush on the right (photo by Elora Grahame)

Both birds seem very similar given their overall color and brown speckled breasts. But the Hermit Thrush (left) is a little chunkier in shape and has a reddish cast to its tail. The Swainson’s has “spectacles” around the eyes, is more slender, and has longer flight feathers, which reflects this bird’s much farther fall migration to Central and South America.

Having the chance to hold a wild bird is definitely exciting . But for anyone trying to sharpen their bird ID skills, being able to compare birds side by side and note their differences is a special opportunity.