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.

Birding Behavior: Some Tips on Field Etiquette

This is the time of year many birders anxiously await. Colorful warblers are moving through, many “first of year” sightings are made, and birding hot spots become overrun with scope-wielding ornithological enthusiasts!

Hey, what’s everybody looking at? (courtesy of Nancy Rabke)

Those new to birding may feel a bit intimidated or afraid to ask what all those binoculars and spotting scopes are focused on. Here are a few tips to help you navigate the world of birding etiquette:

  • Try to be quiet as possible. For someone focused on a bird, it can be frustrating to have a loud group approach and scare off a potentially cool species. Quiet conversation is okay but if you notice the birds all heading for the hills as you approach, you are likely being too loud!
  • Leave the dog at home. This may seem like an obvious one, but you’d be surprised.
  • Yes, some birders can be loners. If someone doesn’t seem interested in engaging or letting you know what they’ve seen and where, don’t push, and don’t take it personally. For many, birding is a solo endeavor and an opportunity to enjoy some quiet time observing nature.
  • If you come across birders actively observing something it’s okay to quietly approach to see if you can get a look at what they’re focused on. The vast majority of people are happy to point out what birds they’re observing and many experienced birders enjoy helping a beginner who wants to learn more.

Now– get out there, enjoy the spring, and find some birds!

Young birders at Provincetown’s Beech Forest

This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay’s public programs coordinator Christine Harris Bates, an experienced birder and naturalist, who leads numerous birding programs year-round and is always happy to meet new birders.


A Birder Expands His Range

When retired International Paper scientist Warren Mumford and his wife Mary moved to Harwich four years ago, an interest in birds brought him to Wellfleet Bay where he asked then-volunteer coordinator Diane Silverstein what volunteer work was available. Her reply: “Front desk!”

Warren watches assistant bander Elora Grahame safely remove a Tufted Titmouse from a mist net.

The front desk may sound like an inevitable spot for a new volunteer, but as anyone who’s done the job soon discovers, it can be extremely busy, especially during the summer. It can also subject you to a barrage of questions. But as Warren sees it, it’s a job that provides great training and exposes volunteers to all aspects of the sanctuary—natural history education, exhibit hall and trail questions, a knowledge of public programs, and exposure to people from all over the world, some of them rather distinguished.

“For instance, the author Jared Diamond, who wrote the (Pulitzer Prize-winning) book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, came in one day,” Warren says. “He lives in L.A. but comes to the Cape every year. He’s a big birder.”

At the other end of the spectrum, he recalls, was the visitor who expressed disappointment that the wildlife garden wasn’t in bloom in early spring.

Learning the correct hold for this Carolina Wren.

Warren’s front desk post led to his becoming a trail naturalist. This spring he became a volunteer at the bird banding station where he says he’s enjoyed hanging out with master bander James Junda and banding assistant, Elora Grahame, and getting a chance to expand his understanding of birds.

“You don’t just see birds up close. You get to know their physiology and habits. I enjoy checking the (mist) nets and hearing about the research James and Elora have done,” he says.

Warren, who also scours Chatham’s Morris Island to look for dead seabirds as part of a long-range seabird ecology study, says he’s not the kind of birder who drives from hotspot to hotspot to locate special birds. “I just like to combine birding with exercise” he says. “Looking for birds makes a walk much more interesting.”

And Warren knows a lot about walks. He aspires to become a member of the Adirondack 46ers, a club for people who’ve climbed all 46 high peaks of those mountains. To date he’s hiked an amazing thirty-three!

Warren surveying the flatter terrain of the bird box field.



Reflections on the 2016 Cold-Stunned Sea Turtle Stranding Season

This fall and winter, from the end of October to the end of January, a total of 480 cold-stunned sea turtles stranded on bayside Cape Cod beaches. Three hundred and ninety-four of those sea turtles were Kemp’s ridleys, the most endangered sea turtle species in the world. In addition, 55 loggerheads and 30 green sea turtles (and 1 possible loggerhead-Kemp’s ridley hybrid) washed up and were found by beach walkers, trained volunteers and Mass Audubon staff.

Turtle team lead Rebecca Shoer with a Kemp’s ridley (photo by Olivia Bourque)

Two years ago, the 2014 cold-stun season really caught peoples’ attention with a record-breaking 1,241 stranded sea turtles that winter. Then, the second largest number of sea turtles stranded during the 2015 season, with 613 turtles found on bayside Cape Cod beaches. That makes this year the third largest cold-stunned sea turtle stranding season on record.

Kemp’s ridleys and green sea turtles are small enough to be kept in banana boxes while they await transport (left). Loggerheads rest on top of large pieces of foam (right).

The line graph below shows the total number of stranded sea turtles each day for the past three stranding seasons, allowing us to compare when the most sea turtles washed up each year. As you can see, there was a major spike that lasted several days in 2014, with up to 200 sea turtles stranding on a single day in November. In 2015, there was another noticeable spike with 100 turtles stranded on December 20th. Luckily for our volunteers and staff in 2016, the largest number of turtles we retrieved in one day was 57 on December 10th during a relatively busy period.

Graph by Olivia Bourque

Sea turtles are generally elusive creatures and their location at any given moment in time can be difficult to predict. However, we know that the water temperature in Cape Cod Bay, as well as the wind’s speed and direction, help dictate when and where sea turtles will strand each winter.

Every year as winter approaches and the bay’s temperature gradually drops close to 50°F, sea turtles still in the bay from summertime feeding become too cold to swim and their normal bodily functions begin to slow down. This allows cold-stunned sea turtles to be pushed around by the bay’s currents and waves. Since waves are controlled by the wind, sea turtles are most likely to wash up on beaches when it is very windy, and we can roughly predict where they will strand based on which way those strong winds are blowing.

Sometimes sea turtles strand in remote locations, creating interesting rescue scenarios. This loggerhead washed up on a small beach in Wellfleet that could only be accessed by a sandy (and hilly!) path through the woods.

As the bar graph below shows, the Cape Cod town with the greatest number of stranded cold-stunned sea turtles to wash up onto its beaches during the 2016 season was Brewster with 179. This is more than double what any other town received this season. As previously mentioned, looking at historical wind data might help us better understand the year’s dispersal of sea turtles. For example, 33 of the 57 turtles that stranded on December 10th were pushed ashore in Brewster, when there had been strong northwest winds with gusts over 30 mph for two days prior.

Graph by Olivia Bourque

When added to all of our previous seasons’ data, this year’s spike makes Brewster the Cape Cod town with the most cold-stunned sea turtle strandings on record: a total of 827 turtles since 1999. After Brewster, Eastham and Wellfleet tie for second place. They have each had a total of 807 cold-stunned sea turtles strand on their beaches in the last 17 years. Truro comes in third with 701 cold-stun strandings since 1999. Of course, these numbers are partially dependent on the length of coastline attributed to each bayside town. Orleans, for example, receives a good number of stranded cold-stunned sea turtles each year, despite having a relatively short coastline with only two bayside beaches.

Now that spring is around the corner, the focus has shifted from rescuing sea turtles to getting them rehabilitated and released. Thanks to around-the-clock help from hundreds of dedicated individuals, most of the stranded sea turtles found alive (330 turtles, or approximately 70% of those stranded in 2016) survived long enough to get a second chance.

Every living, stranded sea turtle got treated by our friends at the New England Aquarium in their off-site rehab facility. Then, as turtles have become healthy enough to be transported, they’ve been periodically sent to other aquariums and rehab facilities farther south along the east coast. These lucky sea turtles, which once found themselves near death in the frigid waters of Cape Cod Bay and have been through so much since then, will soon find themselves released into the subtropical waters they’ve surely been missing.

This loggerhead, dubbed “Ginger” by her caretakers, is believed to have been rescued at Eastham in December of 2016 , He/she was released by Florida Aquarium staff at the Canaveral National Seashore, Florida in mid-March 2017. (photo courtesy of Kristin Ellis and the Florida Aquarium).

This post was contributed by turtle field researcher Olivia Bourque who’s starting to focus on diamondback terrapin nesting season in a few months!

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)