It’s always exciting to have bird research back at Wellfleet Bay where bird banding on the property dates back to the 1920’s. Last year the spring migrants returned, but the bird banders could not, due to the COVID-19 epidemic.
Banding station operator James Junda and his second bander (and spouse) Valerie Bourdeau were able to resume operations in the fall, but were limited to managing with just one volunteer per shift to check up to 25 mist nets each hour. “For COVID safety reasons we could only use volunteers capable of extracting birds on their own,” James reports. Experienced volunteers were a big help, but James says he also looks forward to being able to bring back a few more volunteers this year when conditions allow.
Last year’s fall migration was productive. James reports the most species diversity since the station began operations in 2014, with 81 species recorded. The banders also had a rare “foreign” recapture—a young Gray Catbird they netted at the end of September that had been banded across the bay in Brewster earlier in the month.
It was an especially good fall for catbirds, which was the station’s most common species last year. Despite the summer’s severe drought, a number of plants at the sanctuary produced a good crop of berries and fruit-loving birds, like catbirds, cardinals, and vireos responded.
“Another fruit-eating species, the Yellow-rumped Warbler, had its biggest fall ever at the station and was the fourth on our “most captured” list,” James notes. But he also notes, the banding station in Brewster reported a drop in yellow-rumps, which shows why it’s important to look at data both locally, regionally, and throughout the flyway to draw meaningful conclusions.
Nevertheless, fruit-eating birds were definitely a recurring theme in Wellfleet last fall. The station also banded higher than usual numbers of far less common fruit lovers: Swainson’s Thrush, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Philadelphia Vireo, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
There was also a new species for the banding station in 2020—a Common Redpoll. This bird wasn’t here for fruit, but was part of the flood of “winter finches” that poured into the area due to to a poor seed crop in their usual wintering grounds in the far northern US and Canada.
Below are the top 30 species recorded for each of the past 7 fall banding seasons.
With our last live cold-stunned sea turtle rescued on December 28th, we’ve been reflecting on what made this season standout from others.
Of course, there’s the fact that more than 1,000 turtles were rescued or recovered, the second biggest year on record. But what was especially gratifying was the record high number of live turtles rescued—75% of the total compared to about 50% in a more typical year. Presumably, the fact that the month of November was the second warmest ever played a role.
As usual, most of the turtles that cold-stunned were Kemp’s ridleys (Lepidochelys kempii), which are critically endangered and the world’s smallest sea turtles. There were 64 loggerheads (Caretta caretta),16 greens (Chelonia mydas),and possibly 3 hybrids.
Two ridleys, one alive the other dead, had PIT tags, which are similar to pet microchips. Information from the tags told us that both turtles stranded on Cape Cod during the fall of 2017. One was released off North Carolina the following year, the other off Martha’s Vineyard. Repeat stranders are very rare but every year, we get at least one.
One question we’re asking this year: where were the big loggerheads? In previous cold-stun periods loggerheads weighing 70-100 pounds or more were fairly common. This year, we only had two weighing over 80 pounds and one weighing less than 9 pounds. One theory is that because of the unusually warm water in Cape Cod Bay and favorable southerly winds, larger loggerheads may have maintained enough swimming mobility to make it out of the bay before temperatures got too cold.
Finally, we want to give a special shout-out to the more than two dozen sea turtle hospitals around the country now caring for well over 600 turtles rescued by our volunteers and staff. There’s no doubt that this loggerhead (below) found on Wellfleet’s Great Island in December looks a lot happier as it convalesces at Sea Turtle Recovery in New Jersey!
Despite all the uncertainty and change that 2020 brought, the reliable rhythms of the animal world brought me extra relief. The new year ahead promises a repeat of these simple, natural gifts and they are ours to receive every day. Here is what I look forward to on Cape Cod in the upcoming calendar year:
January / Full bird feeders
My backyard bird feeding station doesn’t attract anything rare, but that’s okay because it’s the regular and reliable visits from Black-capped Chickadees that I enjoy the most. They linger in the cedar tree above, checking out the scene, and then quickly drop in, grab a sunflower seed, and flit back to their branch to crack open their prize, or stash it under the cedar shakes of my barn.
February / The presence of animals revealed in snow
I love heading out after a snowstorm to look for animal tracks. The skies are often a bright blue and the gleaming, fresh snow offers the patterns of all sorts creatures that moved about in predawn hours. I especially love seeing signs of otter. Their bounding tracks interspersed with long belly slides seem joyful.
March / The anticipation of Ospreys Uttering the phrase “Saw my first osprey of the year” really energizes me! One of Cape Cod’s harbingers of spring, they return around the middle of the month as the days get longer and the ponds free themselves of ice. Their commitment and fortitude is enviable as they brace against late winter snowstorms from atop their platforms, confident that brighter days are ahead.
April / Early emergence of spadefoot toads
Heavy spring rains at night spur the movements of frogs and toads to ephemeral pools and puddles where they announce themselves, often loudly, with mating chirps and trills. The chance of encountering the rare and elusive Eastern spadefoot toad, otherwise subterranean, is what encourages me to don rain gear and head out into the deluge. The warm cup of tea afterwards is nice too.
May / Horseshoes at tide’s edge
As water temperatures begin to warm in May, horseshoe crabs crawl closer to shore to spawn. One of my favorite memories is strolling along the beach at high tide, the calm waves gently lapping on shore, and watching the dark shapes of horseshoe crabs move at the water’s edge in search of one another. Their purpose so ancient and elemental.
June / Turtles all the way up
Without a doubt, June is all about turtles. It’s the start of nesting season and turtles are up and about, and sightings abound of snappers crossing the road; painted turtles leaving the pond; box turtles on the prowl; and diamondback terrapins seeking sandy spots. And for me, this month is also characterized by the passionate and dedicated people who volunteer to help these species thrive in our shared landscape. I enjoy watching their daily movements almost as much as seeing the turtles themselves. The volunteers are much easier to spot, anyway!
July / “Be balm”
The flowers come alive with activity. Insects of all shapes and sizes fill the gardens. There are enormous red wasps probing the stiff burgundy cones of Echinacea; smaller, black wasps hang from bee balm’s fringed flowers; honey bees, bumble bees, and yellow jackets all vie for a spot on the purple spikes of catmint; cabbage whites chase one another from choice blossoms; and a single monarch lands on the butterfly weed. It’s easy to find reverie in the hum of summer when in the garden.
August / Bats
Walk a wooded edge at dusk and look up. Be patient and watch the breaks in tree canopy which are bright against the silouhetted trees. And there it is! A bat! It darts, dips, and twists so fast as it hunts insects. The Chiroptera’s flight is choreographed to the metallic sounds of late summer insects—crickets, grasshoppers, and katydids—and the flash of fireflies. I could watch this dance for hours.
September / Shorebirds
I’m not alone in a return to the beach post Labor Day. Shorebird migration is in full swing this time of year. Shorebirds of all kinds mingle together to probe the sand with their sensitive bills in search of worms, small bivalves, and other marine invertebrates. Least Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Sandpiper (not to be confused with the Semipalmated Plover), Short-billed Dowitcher, and Willets are among those who visit our coast as fuel up for their continued journeys. This mixed flock also quivers with chatter as they communicate with one another in soft call notes. Occasionally they are interrupted by the plaintive whistle of a Black-bellied Plover taking off in flight. I like to sit a while and listen.
October / Skeins of sea ducks
Mid-autumn brings back skeins of sea ducks in Cape Cod Bay. Massive flocks of Common Eiders move restlessly offshore, scoters raft up between the waves, and Red-breasted Mergansers hunt fish in the shallows. The Cape’s deep ponds also welcome ducks this time of year. I love seeing the black-and-white Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers paddling around.
November / Sea Turtle Season
Water temperatures drop and north winds pick up, signaling the start of the sea turtle stranding season and rescue efforts. The first time I felt the flipper of a cold-stunned sea turtle it reminded me of what my cheeks felt like after being out sledding for hours in the clear nights of late winter. Soft yet impossibly cold. It’s amazing that many of these turtles, appearing lifeless and frozen, can be rehabilitated and released back into the wild. An incredible success story.
December / The courtship of owls
Step outside into the late afternoons or long nights of December and listen for the mellow hoots of Great-horned Owls drifting through the pines. This is their courtship season and a pairs’ duets are easy to pick out in an otherwise quiet time of year. The males have a deep hoot, the females slightly higher pitch. I love having them as company on night walks in the woods.
This post was contributed by Mass Audubon Cape Cod Sanctuaries director Melissa Lowe.
This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay Sea Turtle Stranding Coordinator Karen Dourdeville.
Each cold-stunned sea turtle season is different, but 2020 is turning out to be one for the scrapbooks! With 1,000 turtles rescued or recovered from our beaches–our second busiest season ever– there are a few that stand out for me for different reasons.
Three Kemp’s ridleys rescued in Eastham on November 3rd started off our second busiest season ever. Staff and volunteers were ready for them, and more turtles quickly followed that day. These turtles and many others are now receiving care at marine animal rehab facilities in Florida.
The next day, November 4th, we rescued the first green sea turtle of the season. Greens are not as hardy as the ridleys and loggerheads in cold water, so getting greens in early is good!
The Big Guy
November 20th saw the stranding in Truro of a huge (350-lb) mature male loggerhead. Wellfleet Bay’s rescue effort was made possible due to quick action and help from Truro town workers. Despite expert veterinary care at New England Aquarium’s Animal Care Center, this magnificent animal suffered from multiple health issues and only survived several days. His stranding, rescue and care, however, represent to me what this project is all about – people coming together to help endangered and threatened sea turtles. He also served as something of a poster child for the project, gaining nationwide concern and support.
Too-Big-for-a-Banana-Box Kemp’s ridley
Then there’s the biggest Kemp’s ridley so far this year, a live 7.1 kilogram (15.6 lbs.) turtle rescued on Great Island on December 10th. This turtle was too big to fit in a banana box, so it traveled to the New England Aquarium on foam like the heavier loggerheads do. The ridley is at the upper right in the photo.
Note the “noodles”, which we use to support the outer edge of the plastron on larger turtles. This takes pressure off the central plastron and helps the turtles breathe.
The “Pocket” Loggerhead
l’ll never forget the season’s first really small loggerhead, weighing in at a “whopping” 3.9 kilograms (8.5 lbs). It fit quite easily in a banana box!
Two Tesla Turtle Taxi Riders
The “Tesla Turtle Taxi” has been operational again this year. One of our volunteers from Falmouth has twice met the ferry from Martha’s Vineyard, picking up two live Kemp’s ridleys that stranded on the Vineyard. The volunteer drives these turtles directly to New England Aquarium’s Animal Care Center. While on the Vineyard, the turtles were cared for by Gus Ben David, the former Director of Mass Audubon’s Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary. Gus has a special “reptile room” that he keeps at 55 degrees–perfect for cold-stunned turtles!
And then there’s the Kemp’s ridley found “swimming upside down” in the Mill Pond, near Pamet Harbor in Truro. Back at the sanctuary’s Turtle ICU room, this little guy/gal wouldn’t let go of its towel. In order to get its weight, I had to hold the turtle and let the towel drop onto the scale to zero it out, then lower the turtle and its attached towel onto the scale.
During most cold-stun years, we rescue at least one turtle that shows distinct evidence of being a hybrid. Inter-species mating among sea turtles is well-documented. On December 3rd, what clearly appears to be a hybrid was rescued in Truro. Its scute pattern on carapace and plastron, general body shape, and head scales and shape indicate a probable cross between a green and a loggerhead. DNA blood analysis from veterinary care can determine the cross.
Companions in the Dark
Turtles are processed by Wellfleet Bay sea turtle staff in our Turtle “ICU” room. In a typical year, weighing, measuring and assessing turtles is often a group effort . COVID protocols this year, however, have changed that. Now, only one staff member works at a time in the ICU, so processing is a solitary undertaking. But it’s solitary only from a human perspective. When I’ve been processing turtles late at night or in early morning hours, with darkness and stillness outside, I often hear live ridleys moving around in their cozy banana boxes, awaiting the next transport by a volunteer driver. Sometimes one turtle even props its “beak” on the edge of a hole in its box, and I imagine it watching me as I work. Fine company!
Sea Turtle Heroes
Sea turtle rescue is also memorable because of all the people who make such a difference in the lives of these endangered and threatened animals.
Huge thanks goes out to Wellfleet Bay volunteers and staff, as well as the community at large, including Cape Cod National Seashore National rangers, Truro municipal employees, the Wellfleet harbormaster’s crew, and responsible beach walkers. And of course a big shout-out to our rehab partners at New England Aquarium’s Animal Care Center, the National Marine Life Center, and more distant rehab centers. Also thanks to Turtles Fly Too, whose volunteer private pilots have transported nearly 500 turtles by air this season! And, as always, we’re grateful to our partners at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for so skillfully managing and coordinating an unusually busy season— and in a pandemic!
Now that the days are becoming shorter and nighttime temperatures are beginning to drop, Wellfleet Bay’s resident box turtles are preparing for brumation, the reptile version of hibernation. Unlike a woodchuck or a bear, turtles do not fatten up and snooze the winter away in a cozy den. In fact, it’s almost the opposite!
These two-year-old turtles are the size of five to six-year-old wild box turtles. Our primary study goal is to determine if they will behave like the youngsters that they are, or like the somewhat older turtles they resemble. Although our study is still in its early stages and is far from conclusive, I would characterize the behavior of our head starts so far as more typical of two- year-old turtles than six-year-olds.
Each head start was released in a different area of the sanctuary. They spent most of their time hiding under leaf litter or buried in detritus, which is very typical for small (two-year-old) turtles. Certainly our hot and very dry summer may have contributed to this behavior, but in general their movements were few and when they did move they didn’t venture very far. This helps to explain why seeing a tiny box turtle in the wild is such a rare occurrence; they hide most of the time and just don’t move much.
Because of the heat and drought, this was not a good growing year for box turtles. Many of them estivated—or were dormant– all summer. Regardless, each of the hatchlings appeared healthy when I weighed and measured them recently. Two were up a few grams in weight and two were down a few grams. One turtle has had a transmitter failure, so its exact location is unknown. The transmitter problem could be caused by a malfunction of the electronics or by a small critter like a chipmunk gnawing the antenna off (yes, it happens). I know in general where the turtle is and I’ll spend some time searching for it now that the vegetation is receding.
Box turtles on the sanctuary property begin to enter brumation toward the end of October and the last one disappears around Thanksgiving. Their body temperatures cool gradually, and –unlike mammals preparing for hibernation–they’ll stop eating weeks before brumation in order to empty their GI tracts. Trying to brumate on a full stomach could be fatal, as food still in the GI tract could decay and lead to an infection.
Each turtle selects a brumation site in well-drained yet moist soil or leaf litter and digs a burrow where they slip into a state of torpor until April or May. Somehow, they know just how deep to dig their burrows in order to avoid freezing temperatures. The burrows here in Wellfleet range in depth from about one to seven inches, with the average being a mere two to three inches. How do they survive the cold? Box turtles are freeze tolerant; they are the largest vertebrate that can withstand icing of their internal organs (for a short period of time).
One of the behaviors that we will be watching for this fall will be when the head starts begin digging their first brumation burrows and settling in for the winter. Let’s remember that these turtles spent their first two winters in captivity, warm and with plenty of food. Will they know when it’s time to brumate? Will they know how and where to dig? I suspect they will, but like a guardian angel I’ll be watching!
With numerous reports of lion’s mane and other species of jellyfish in our waters this summer, we were pretty certain endangered leatherback sea turtles would soon follow. Leatherbacks, the world’s largest sea turtle, feed almost exclusively on jellies. And by late summer some of that feeding was occurring in Vineyard Sound, one of the most heavily-trafficked bodies of water in the Cape and Islands region.
Unfortunately, on September 13, a dead leatherback showing a severe vessel strike wound was reported on West Chop, Martha’s Vineyard. It turns out that this leatherback had been flipper-tagged. The tag revealed that the mature female was tagged as she crawled ashore to nest on Chiriqui Beach in eastern Panama, on March 22, 2019. She returned to nest on Chiriqui Beach that same year on April 10th and 20th.
We always hate to see any leatherback killed in our waters, but the death of a reproductive female is especially heart-breaking. And judging from the measurements of her carapace from Panama, 2019 may have been this turtle’s first of possibly many reproductive years.
We continue to remind boaters and other vessel operators sea turtles are here and can be difficult to see. We also strongly encourage anyone who does see a sea turtle, alive or dead, to report it to seaturtlesightings.org.
COVID-19 and the Fall Cold-stun Season
Due to COVID-19 safety considerations and funding restrictions, the 2020 cold-stunned sea turtle season will be different and difficult. Just how difficult will depend on many factors including weather, number of turtles, and major COVID-related changes–not just at Wellfleet Bay but also at our partner cold-stun rehab organizations.
Planning for our cold-stun rescue operations started basically with only two certainties: cold-stunned turtles will wash up on Cape Cod Bay beaches and we will not leave them there. Beyond that, we are re-working every step of our protocols, including with volunteers, with sea turtle rehab organizations and among Wellfleet staff. These changes are based on eliminating contact between people, and will be conveyed to sea turtle volunteers in detail soon.
One important, though disappointing change to the 2020 cold-stun season: Wellfleet Bay will not be able to accept any new sea turtle volunteers for the 2020 cold-stun season. We regret this but it’s necessary, in part, due to staffing limitations. But there’s some good news, too. Our 2019 team members Jess Ciarcia and Jacey Corrente are returning for the 2020 season!
This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay Sea Turtle Stranding Coordinator Karen Dourdeville.
Salt marshes, like oceans and forests, are critical buffers from the effects of a fast warming planet. Healthy salt marshes capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store carbon in spongy peat beds that form the base of the marsh. A thriving salt marsh can store at least three times as much carbon as an equivalent area of mature tropical rain forest.
Salt marshes do more than store carbon. They provide food and shelter for countless animals, including birds and many commercially important fish, and they reduce flooding and erosion by absorbing excess floodwater and slowing waves. But that’s only if they’re reasonably healthy and can keep up with rising sea levels.
On an August morning, Mass Audubon’s Climate Change Adaptation Ecologist, Dr. Danielle Perry, and her volunteer assistant, Thomas Eid, began to pace out a series of randomly chosen 200-foot survey lines, also known as transects, to study various plant species and their locations, the peat condition that supports the marsh, and even the upland surrounding the salt marsh.
This is a pilot survey, one of five Dr. Perry is conducting at different salt marshes at Mass Audubon sanctuaries, including Barnstable’s Great Marsh at Long Pasture. The goal is to determine to what extent each marsh is being impacted by climate change and sea level rise.
Is Wellfleet Bay’s salt marsh at risk? One way to answer the question is to look at the cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), a species from the low marsh which floods twice a day at high tide. If cordgrass is found in the high marsh, which floods only periodically, then it suggests sea levels are rising high enough to promote cordgrass encroachment into the high marsh.
“There are some good signs here,” Dr. Perry notes. “There’s healthy cordgrass in the low marsh (the part of the marsh flooded by high tide twice a day), but there’s also evidence of cordgrass encroaching on the high marsh ,” she adds. She says cordgrass displacing salt marsh hay (Spartina patens) in the high marsh could lead to loss of the habitat critical to breeding birds, such as the Saltmarsh Sparrow.
Other worrisome climate vulnerability indicators are the presence of man-made ditching (once believed to control mosquitoes), bare patches of peat, and low spots—areas where peat is subsiding.
Such conditions can increase the risk of erosion and flooding stress, which can severely degrade the marsh.
If salt marshes are to survive sea level rise they need to adapt through landward migration or what’s known as vertical growth.
Landward migration involves marsh movement into upland areas. Dr. Perry notes that Wellfleet Bay’s marshes have some room to do this but not as much as the Great Marsh in Barnstable, which has a lower shoreline profile and less development. “Some of the upland areas at Wellfleet lack a gradual slope that would allow the marsh to move landward to keep up with sea level,” she says. Vertical growth means increasing the height of salt marshes through added sediment and helping marshes keep pace with current and rising sea levels.
Dr. Perry hopes to complete her pilot study this fall and eventually survey the remaining salt marshes at Mass Audubon’s coastal sanctuaries next summer. The information will be used to inform and prioritize climate change adaptation projects for Mass Audubon sites. “Some of those projects will involve relieving some of the flooding stress marshes are under or identifying specific sources of nutrient pollution that might be controlled or eliminated to protect marshes,” she says.
In June coastal waterbird volunteer Jeannette Bragger and fellow-volunteer Nancy Braun began monitoring a Piping Plover nest on a very challenging North Truro beach. In this post, Jeannette details how the season went—for them and the birds.
Life is tough for Piping Plovers on the Outer Cape. Not only do they often have to contend with extreme weather conditions, they are also regularly stalked by predators like crows, grackles, foxes, and coyotes. And then there are the people. That’s where it gets complicated and where Mass Audubon’s coastal waterbird monitors try to help.
People’s attitudes toward these endangered and highly protected plovers range from love, fascination, and curiosity to indifference, annoyance, and outright hostility. In a few cases, the negativity may result in undesirable actions by a few people. That’s when it becomes complicated.
Imagine being the size of a ping pong ball, not being able to fly yet, and finding yourself in a crowd of people/children, whose primary desire is to have fun, to run, and to play ball. And sometimes they carelessly abandon trash that can attract predators!
For the most part, things went well with our plover pair that nested on a private resort property this year. Not only were the owners and caretakers of the resort cooperative and helpful, many of the guests became engaged in monitoring the nest site and then even “babysitting” the four chicks!
By my estimates, my friend and fellow-volunteer Nancy Braun and I talked to between fifty and a hundred adults and many more children staying at the resort. Some had never heard of Piping Plovers, some knew a little about them, and most had never seen them.
That all changed for many of the resort guests this summer. As I passed by the cottages to check the birds, guests wanted daily updates. When the chicks hatched, they knew we had to see four with the parent(s) so we could document that we had not lost any to predators. “Did you see four, did you see four?” was the perennial question as families sat at picnic tables eating a meal. One group applauded when I told them that yes, indeed, I had found the four with the parents and that they were doing well!
I learned people’s names and some of their stories. They knew my name and wanted to help. If we had trouble finding the chicks, we simply asked someone on the beach if they had seen them. “They were just here…they went that way…we saw them this morning…they’re over there…no, we’re sorry but we haven’t seen them…” were the usual responses. As we left the site, we often semi-seriously designated one group to be the babysitters until we could return later in the day. It became a game that made people feel responsible.
It’s important to note that Saturday and Sunday are turn-over days at most cottages, and hotels in our area. With every turn-over, the people we knew departed and a new set of guests arrived. That also meant that our education work started all over again!
Two of the guests at the resort were particularly helpful. Veronica and Leslie arrived from Brooklyn and were thrilled to be on the Cape. They were already familiar with plovers and immediately started looking out for them. As Leslie said: “ We watched the parents defend the nest and saw the chicks hatch and grow. It was an honor to check on them each day and to look out for them.”
Was everyone equally cooperative and receptive to the plover story? Regretfully, no.
From the woman who repeatedly let her dog chase them; to the man who said he couldn’t control what his children were doing; to the man who jogged through the chicks and said they were faster than he was; to the person who left French fries near the site and didn’t understand that his action would attract dangerous predators; to the teenager who was hitting a baseball in the mudflats where the chicks were feeding and were clearly visible… these were the people who had to be reminded that it’s a state and federal crime to endanger, harass, or in any way disturb protected birds like Piping Plovers.
Of course, we also explained why NO birds should be harassed. In one case, after repeated infractions of the law, the woman who disregarded the leash law finally had to be reported to the authorities. But, in general, we tried very hard to simply help beachgoers understand and cooperate before we explain the possible penalties.
For the most part, our resort guests were kind, interested, cooperative, curious, and helpful. I heard one family explaining to a group of kids that they shouldn’t run near the birds because they could hurt them. They showed them the chicks and the kids were thrilled. The adults repeated exactly what we had just explained to them. It was very gratifying.
Our summer plover monitoring ended on a high note, except that we lost one of our chicks. It’s heart breaking to lose chicks but this year’s survival rate (three of four) is still a success. The odds are not stacked in the birds’ favor. In 2018 we lost two of the four chicks, and in 2019 all four were depredated. Maybe our presence and the people who helped us made it marginally easier for them. But ultimately, they have to take care of themselves. Will they make it to their wintering grounds? We’ll never know. But we wish them well and want to believe that they’ll survive the journey.
Before the pandemic, a highlight of the Wellfleet Bay field season was the diamondback terrapin nesting cycle. Terrapins are a Threatened species in Massachusetts and Wellfleet is the northern edge of their range. In a normal year, small crews of volunteers regularly patrol nesting hot spots in Wellfleet, Eastham and Orleans to find and protect nests and– later in the summer– to release hatchlings. But COVID-19, as with so many things, has scaled the effort back.
This summer, in order to ensure the safety and well-being of volunteers, nest checks are done by only one volunteer with a staff member following a few minutes behind to cover tasks that can be time consuming or overwhelming on a busy nesting day. The idea is to limit a one-person shift to two hours. In the past a busy day could keep a team out twice that long.
Veteran terrapin volunteer Tony Pane, accompanied one recent morning by his daughter Laurie Foster, says it can be nice to leave the labor-intensive work to the turtle staff. But he notes there’s also a downside to no longer working with a team. “I miss the camaraderie we had. It also means I can’t delegate the paperwork to someone else!”
The sanctuary’s terrapin staff follows volunteers twice a day every day. Terrapin field technician Jessica Ciarcia says the new system has been going smoothly but recalls one very challenging day on Lieutenant Island, which is just north of the main sanctuary.
“I got to Way 100 and saw six terrapins, some heading one way, some the other.” Way 100 skirts the salt marsh on the island’s southeast side and over the years has been the scene of many turtle fatalities due to cars.
As Jess was keeping an eye on one nesting turtle, a UPS truck was driving up the road. She ran toward the truck, waving her arms. As it turns out the driver was coming to tell Jess there was another terrapin at the bridge! His truck stopped just in time. “The front wheel was practically touching the shell of the nesting turtle,” Jess says. “The poor guy– you could just tell he loved terrapins.”
It’s not clear why, but for the sanctuary and Lieutenant Island nesting seems to have been on the lighter side this year ( while last year was a record year for many sites). The sanctuary this year recorded a total of 67 nests, ten of which were depredated. And Lieutenant Island had a total of 125 nests, 51 lost to predators.
Discerning where a terrapin has nested after the fact can be tricky. But there are likely few turtles that have sneaked a nest past volunteer Heather Pilchard. Heather is famous for finding nests others have missed. “Being on my own this summer means I’m able to focus more,” she says. But the two hour limit on a shift also means she has less time to make the rounds. “In your heart you want to find every nest,” she notes. “But you just do your best.”
Wellfleet Bay has been tracking mature box turtles for years, but young turtles, secretive by nature, have been far less studied.
In late 2018 we had a unique opportunity to investigate a clutch of five eastern box turtles that had hatched in late August at a home next to the sanctuary. When the homeowners realized they were unable to raise box turtles and that it was illegal to keep them in Massachusetts, they contacted the sanctuary for help and we contacted MassWildlife. Box turtles are listed as a species of concern in Massachusetts.
Due in part to the fact it was too late in the season to release the hatchlings into the wild, the state allowed us to “head start” the turtles with the seasoned turtle staff at Bristol Agricultural High Schools Natural Resources Management Department in Dighton.
The folks at Bristol Aggie are well versed in caring for and raising young turtles for eventual release. We asked them to rear our box turtles until they were large enough for us to attach small radio transmitters so that we could observe them long term. We developed a study plan to monitor movements, growth rates, home range establishment and brumation patterns. This will be the first time that the sanctuary has had the opportunity to begin a long-term study of juvenile box turtles.
While at the high school, the turtles were watched over by the students and staff, fed a healthy diet, and kept at optimal temperature in the modified greenhouse that the school uses to raise turtles (a spectacular new facility is under construction now with completion expected later this year). As part of their curriculum, the students weigh and measure the turtles weekly and record that information on the individual turtle’s chart. The enthusiasm and dedication of the students involved in this program is really exhilarating.
During the eighteen months that the turtles were at Bristol Aggie they grew quickly. When we picked them up in May and brought them back to the sanctuary they averaged 10 centimeters in length and 200 grams, roughly equivalent to a 5-6 year old wild turtle! On May 21st we released them at the sanctuary to begin our project.
Each turtle was set free in a different strategic location on the property known to be used by other box turtles. Prior to this all the turtles were measured and weighed. All were photographed and given ID numbers that were notched into their marginal scutes (the edge of their shells) to positively identify them. Finally, I fitted each turtle with a 6 gram Holohil radio transmitter to allow me to track it for 6 months. After six months, I will need to change the transmitter and install a fresh one. I’ll continue this until they are large enough to comfortably wear a 9 gram transmitter that lasts a full year.
So how are they doing? It’s only been a few weeks, but each turtle is settling into its new habitat. One of the questions we are looking to answer is whether the turtles will act like 20 month old turtles who hide most of the time, or will they act more like 6 year old turtles who tend to explore a bit more?
Upon release each turtle sought cover immediately which is what we expected. During their first week, two turtles traveled 50-100 feet. On my last check, each turtle was either buried under leaf little or in a small grass form. I observed one turtle eating a slug which I consider to be a good sign that they are settling in!
This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay box turtle researcher Tim O’Brien.