Bird Banders Migrate to Wellfleet Bay from Different Ranges

Bursts of migrating birds have given Mikayla Thistle and Frankie Tousley a lot of busy mornings this fall.

There were two new faces at the bird banding table this fall while our master bander James Junda operates a second banding station out of South Monomoy.

Banding assistants Mikayla Thistle and Frankie Tousley developed an interest in birds at opposite ends of the country. Mikayla, who’s from Massachusetts, was educated at Boston University and trained at the Manomet Bird Observatory. She’s also done field research from upstate New York, to Florida, and Hawaii.

Frankie, a native of Oklahoma, switched to a biology major after three years as an engineering student. He spent four years in northern California working on a Black-backed Woodpecker project for the Institute for Bird Populations. He admits to having to give himself a crash course in identifying birds of the eastern US!

Mikayla chooses the correct band to attach to the bird’s leg. Bands are based on the size of a bird and the team is careful to make sure the match is right.

Not surprisingly, both love working with birds. “Each bird is a puzzle and tells a story,” Mikayla says. She also notes that while the process of bird banding involves the same activities each day, you never know what’s going to show up.

“Some days, you can end up with 27 birds in just one net!” she says. This has happened more than a few times this fall as birds pulse through between tropical weather systems.

This Clay-colored Sparrow was a nice surprise since these birds are mostly found in the Great Plains and northern prairies. (Photo by Frankie Tousley).

Both Mikayla and Frankie say they’ve enjoyed being part of Wellfleet Bay. “It’s an amazing community…and it’s not all about birds,” Mikayla says. “There’s all the turtle work that goes on here. There’s a clear mission of conservation.”

 

Mikayla and Frankie say they’re impressed by the dedication of volunteers (shown here are Tod Christie and Peg Dolan) who have to get up well before dawn for each shift and often walk miles each morning on net runs.

Both banders are hoping to move on to graduate school. Mikayla says she wants to study movement and dispersal ecology for managing at-risk bird species. Frankie wants to study irruptions and how flocking species cope with starvation.

Like the birds they band, Mikayla and Frankie are pushing south–to fill in at the banding station on South Monomoy as James Junda returns to Wellfleet Bay. You can watch this bird research in action each Saturday morning from 8-9 through mid-November.

City Birds Visit the Wide Open Spaces of Wellfleet Bay

Frequent sanctuary visitors Marcy Ford and her husband Jason made a special discovery in late August: this impressive Peregrine Falcon perched on dying cedar at Try Island.

City girl in the country (photo by Marcy Ford).

Marcy noticed immediately the bird was sporting field-readable bands, making this sighting especially exciting.

A quick check with Tom French, assistant director of the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, confirmed that the bird banded “85/BD” (the number 85 appears on a black band over a green band with the letters B & D) was a hatch-year female banded in Providence this summer.

Tom put Marcy (and by this time Wellfleet Bay’s Bob Prescott) in touch with Peter Green, a Providence photographer and raptor enthusiast who’s been following this female’s nest (and many before it) atop the city’s so-called Superman Building. The nest was also featured on a web cam sponsored by Rhode Island Audubon and shows the history of Peregrine nesting on the building since 2000.

Providence’s Superman Building. The red arrow points to the falcons’ nest box. (photo by Peter Green-Providence Raptors)

Peter told us the young female came from one of 5 eggs in the nest, four of which hatched. He also supplied a baby picture he took when the birds were being banded. He believes 85/BD is the chick in the back and to the right.

Fiercely cute raptor youngsters (photo by Peter Green-Providence Raptors).

The remaining nestlings included a second female and two males, one of whom was the last to hatch and was quite scrawny (front right).

Peter lives near the nest building and he was able to follow the birds’ development closely. Here, 85/ BD is taught how to properly prepare a pigeon for dinner.

85/BD watches a parent prepping a pigeon for dinner (photo by Peter Green-Providence Raptors).

These Providence Peregrines are another example of how well the birds have adapted to city life. Peregrines, which historically have nested on cliffs or other elevated perches in open areas, have found a new niche in urban life, thanks to tall buildings and bridges and lots of pigeons and rats. Migrating shorebirds is what usually draws them to coastal locations in the fall.

And that’s likely why 85/BD is visiting Wellfleet Bay. Peter Green was happy to hear of this bird’s whereabouts, though he says it’s odd to see her perched in a tree. ” I always see them on brick, concrete, and steel!”

Where will 85/BD be heading next? Thanks to her band, we may hear more about her. (photo by Marcy Ford)

As we report on 85/BD of Providence, we are reminded of the last banded young peregrine to spend time at the sanctuary.

Back in 2008 another young city bird born in Rochester, New York came to Wellfleet Bay in late summer and ended up spending the winter on the Cape. Happily, this female, named Quest, is alive and well and breeding in Toronto! Here’s a picture of Quest back then:

Quest when she visited Wellfleet Bay in 2008. She apparently enjoyed the Cape because she hung around the Chatham area through that first winter. (photo by Shawn Carey)

And here’s Quest this summer, watching over her four chicks, all of whom fledged. Quest is monitored by the Canadian Peregrine Foundation which reports she spends her winters around Ontario.

Quest at her 2017 nesting site in Toronto, Ontario. (photo by Ann Brokelman).

Here’s hoping both Quest and 85/BD have many more years ahead of them.

 

What’s Up with Wellfleet Bay’s Box Turtles

Since most of the sanctuary’s box turtles emerged back in May we have been at work monitoring as many of them as possible.

As of mid-August we have identified and marked six “new” turtles. Time will tell whether or not these are residents or transients. Some are simply passing through, which is welcome as it has the potential to add some diversity to our gene pool.

You don’t see a box turtle this size very often. It’s estimated to be around 5 years old. (photo by Tim O’Brien).

Two of our new turtles are young females, one a 5 year old and the other 9 years old. We have also noted a yearling hatchling—- a turtle that likely hatched last fall. We rarely see these very young ones because they are still very vulnerable and are likely to remain hidden.

But having them on the sanctuary property suggests that we have a healthy replicating population.

This little turtle made it through its first winter! (photo by Tim O’Brien).

Four turtles have radio transmitters that allow for close monitoring. A newly tagged female turtle had us all a bit surprised when after being fitted with a transmitter she immediately retreated into the salt marsh! Not just on the edge of the marsh, she went into the marsh and stayed submerged in salt water. We did confirm she’s alive. But her behavior is mystifying!

Dead? Alive? Chilling? We have no idea why this land turtle buried herself in the salt marsh. Just recently a second female also settled in the marsh. Now we’re really determined to get some answers! (photo by Tim O’Brien)

Box turtles are no strangers to salt water (some members of an old Long Island population sometimes turn up in Long Island Sound) but we have not observed such behavior here at the sanctuary. Why did she choose the salt marsh? Maybe it was just a way to beat the heat or hide from a predator. Perhaps it offered a source of food. We’ll be very interested in tracking the rest of her movements this summer and fall.

We conclude with some happy news. Our friends at Tufts’ Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine came to the rescue of a turtle with a large leg abscess that prevented her from completely closing her shell.

The abscess below the rear leg prevented this turtle from being able to pull the leg in, making her vulnerable to predators. (photo by Tim O’Brien).

Because this abscess made it impossible for the turtle to retreat fully into her shell, it put her at significant risk of predation. So we decided to intervene. The Tufts vets were able to surgically remove the layers of necrotic tissue and cure her of any infection. She now pulls her leg in and out with ease.

A month after returning this turtle to her Wellfleet Bay home, we were pleasantly surprised to discover she had a suitor!

That upside down turtle in the foreground is the male. Male box turtles often tip over backwards during the mating process. Most of the time they can right themselves. (photo by Tim O’Brien).

Thanks to the female’s rear leg repair, this turtle can now comfortably dig a nest next spring and, we hope, send more box turtles out into the world. A big thank you to Tufts for another fine job!

Just because summer is ending, doesn’t mean our box turtle research does. In fact, we’re gearing up for our second study of brumation (reptilian hibernation) this winter. One question we hope to answer is whether there’s a link between the temperature of the underground soil and when the turtles emerge from their burrows in the spring. It will interesting to find out!

Tim O’Brien with “Queen Victoria”, one of the sanctuary’s oldest box turtles. (photo by Kim Novino).

This blog post was contributed by volunteer Tim O’Brien, who studies box turtles at the sanctuary. Even though they live off-Cape, he and his wife Kim Novino walk Cape Cod beaches regularly for cold-stunned sea turtles in the fall.

Hiker Shares Tips for Spotting Wildlife

I never fail to see something spectacular on my walks at Wellfleet Bay.

I have a ritual as I get ready. I turn off all the noise in my head and leave it in the car. On most walks I travel alone and early in the morning. I use all of my senses. You would be amazed at what you can run into.

In the coolness of a summer morning, I always see young rabbits. Or a deer standing by the solar panel munching on the grass.

This white-tailed buck stomped his hooves a few times at his observer, a sign the deer wants the observer to move along or to alert other deer to potential danger. (photo by Mary Lou Heintz).

Very early one morning a fisher in the middle of the trail growled and took off. When I notice a shadow on the trail, my eyes shift to the sky to look for a passing bird. Sometimes it’s an osprey, hawk, or just a crow.

You lookin’ at me? An Osprey glances at photographer from atop a tree along the Silver Spring trail (photo by Mary Lou Heintz).

I also see mice, moles, and chipmunks. Once, I came upon a mother raccoon watching me closely as her babies climbed up and down the tree with no notice of me.

Wildlife is far more cooperative about photos when there’s only one photographer! (photo by Mary Lou Heintz).

On Silver Spring, careful listening has rewarded me with nice sightings. The sound of softly crunching leaves alerted me to a box turtle on the move. Another rustling sound–this time more steady and continuous– helped me find a ribbon snake on its way to a branch near the water.

Ribbon snake on Silver Spring trail. (photo by Mary Lou Heintz).

This summer the otters have entertained me. The back bridge at Silver Spring this time of year is good viewing for them. Look for circles on the water’s surface to spot them before they come up. In late summer, there’s always an assortment of butterflies, dragonflies, and pollinators that use the sweet pepperbush and water willow plants. I also regularly see painted turtles, green frogs, bullfrogs, and tadpoles in various stages of development!

This frog-in-the-making has a frog body except for a tadpole tail (photo by Nicole Gallup).

Past the bridge, up the hill into the pines, you will see smaller paths leading off into the woods. They are trails and paths that wildlife uses to take a short cut to spots for feeding and sleeping for the night.

Listening intently, you can hear the drumming of the woodpeckers—the red-bellied, downys, and flickers. When you listen to a mob of crows or blue jays you can be assured they have zeroed in on a hawk of some kind or even the great horned owls that live on the sanctuary.

This young Great Horned Owl was born on the sanctuary earlier this year (photo by Mary Lou Heintz).

Always looking for the open spaces in the trees, I have been rewarded with a green heron or two on a snag. Sometimes, the big snapping turtle will take a small break on the mud flats.

Once I reach the end of the trail, I start deciding which trail to take next.

Mary Lou scans Silver Spring.

This post was contributed by Mary Lou Heintz, a Wellfleet Bay volunteer who, when she’s not walking the trails, works at the front desk at the Nature Center, assists at the bird banding station, and rescues sea turtles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Neighborly Nest Watchers Aid Terrapins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

His Wish to See a Turtle is Spot On!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a Better Fly Trap: Day Campers Conduct Science Experiment

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

Other worldly-looking things which appeared in the field!

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The black sphere looks and feels like an exercise ball.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Anatomy of a Horseshoe Crab Study

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

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

Horseshoe crab with acoustic tag, courtesy of Mike Long

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overwintering at Tufts (Photo by Tim O’Brien)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploring! (photo by Karen Strauss)

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

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

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


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