Spring Bird Banding: Waiting for the Right Wind

Having banded birds for 10 years in locations around the world, wildlife biologist James Junda has concluded that there’s only one reliable factor for forecasting whether a day will bring in a lot of spring migrants on Cape Cod: a southwest wind. Better yet– several days of southwest winds.

James Junda on a chilly April morning in 2015

“It’s not about temperature and it is not about sunshine. It is about wind direction and if we have a sunny day with northeast winds, we will not get any migrants flying into the wind to arrive on Cape Cod,” he says.

One of the hallmarks of a day with a southwest wind is what’s called  “return day”, when some of the species that breed at the sanctuary return on the very same morning.

This year’s return day included two Baltimore Orioles, one Orchard Oriole, two Gray Catbirds and a Common Yellowthroat, all banded by James in previous years.

The first morning the banding team heard Orchard Orioles and Common Yellow-throats singing at the sanctuary was the same morning these previously banded birds turned up in the mist nets.

Around the second weekend of May,  southern winds produced a load of birds–especially those that had never been banded, including seven species of warblers, two Lincoln Sparrows, and a Blue-headed Vireo. In all, James and crew logged 41 birds one morning, including 32 new birds—four times as many as the day before when the wind had been east-northeast.

“During migration, we get plenty of birds on most days but if conditions aren’t right, they’ll be mostly recaps,” James says. “Recaps” is banding shorthand for recaptures—birds already banded but netted again. And in some cases again and again. That’s probably because they live at the sanctuary.

Banding assistant Valerie Bourdeau returns from a net run with a small cotton bag used to safely carry captured birds back to the banding table. “We have an old friend!” she replies coyly when asked which species it is.

Always nice to see a familiar face. This bird was among the first captured when the banding station opened in September of 2014.

The friend turns out to be one of the very first birds banded when James established the station in 2014. The bird is obviously at least 4 years old and is clearly a year round Wellfleet Bay resident.

But a southwest wind isn’t the only cause of a large influx of migrants. A strong storm can force northbound songbirds to the ground to await more favorable conditions, a situation known as a migration fallout. Amazing pictures of this phenomenon were captured in May of 2011 during stormy weather off coastal Maine where dozens of warblers were grounded like little airliners on Machias Seal Island in the middle of the Gulf of Maine.

Songbird spring migration fall-out, May 2011, Machias Seal Island, Gulf of Maine. Photo courtesy of Ralph Eldridge

Last spring, as many Outer Cape residents recall, it was a miserably cold, wet May with relentless northeast winds. James says it apparently caused a backlog of migrants and then a burst of activity. “Sixty percent of our captures came in a one-week stretch!” he recalls.

Eastern Kingbirds are often seen perched on shrubs or posts in open areas to watch for insects.

The recent capture of this handsome Eastern Kingbird signaled the beginning of the end of this spring’s mass movement of birds through the Cape. James says flycatchers, which include kingbirds, are primarily insect eaters so their later return may be timed with the availability of larger bugs.

With the right wind, spring migration flies by.

Teaming Up to Connect Cape Kids with Local Ecosystems

As every Cape Codder knows, we live in a beautiful and ecologically diverse place. But Cape kids often aren’t aware of the environmental riches that surround them and why they’re so valuable.

Vernal pool protected by the Brewster Conservation Trust. Vernal pools are critical to certain amphibians and invertebrates because they don’t contain fish that would consume their eggs.

To help awaken students to the natural resources that abound in their backyards and to provide field sites for science learning, Wellfleet Bay, the Brewster Conservation Trust, and the Harwich Conservation Trust forged partnerships to offer extended programs in two local schools.

The programs—in Brewster’s Eddy Elementary School and the Monomoy Regional Middle School, which serves Harwich and Chatham—include curricula that combine classroom lessons with engaging field experiences. Working with classroom teachers, Mass Audubon educators use the natural history of Cape Cod to teach concepts required by state science standards.

Eddy students have become familiar with the smooth gray bark of American beech trees that grow above the vernal pool.

Before heading outdoors recently to explore the Brewster Conservation Trust’s vernal pools, Eddy Elementary School students learned what defines a vernal pool, the trees that make up the woodlands surrounding the pools, and the creatures that can be found there, such as the red-backed salamander.

Wellfleet Bay educator Morgan Peck shows students how to hold a red-backed salamander on a cushion of leaf litter to protect its ultra-sensitive skin.

Students became familiar with animals considered to be obligate vernal pool species, the ones that depend on a fishless environment to successfully reproduce and sustain their populations, such as wood frogs, fairy shrimp, and spotted salamanders. The discovery of a spotted salamander egg mass in the pool drew a small crowd:

Spotted salamander eggs and larvae have evolved to develop by mid-summer before the vernal pool gets too low or dries out.

After the field work, students returned to their classroom with samples from the pool, some of which looked delightfully creepy when viewed under a microscope and projected onto a large screen.

Macroinvertebrates like aquatic sow bugs are super-sized by microscope and large screen.

For Monomoy 5th graders, the focus of learning was the Harwich Conservation Trust’s Cold Brook Preserve, once a commercial cranberry bog.

The 66-acre Robert F. Smith Cold Brook Preserve in Harwich Port. The brook flows into Saquatucket Harbor and Nantucket Sound.

As with the Eddy students, the Monomoy program included classroom lessons about human-altered wetlands, the importance of restoring them, and the role healthy wetlands can play in offsetting the impacts of climate change. Then, the kids visited Cold Brook to conduct their own tests on water pH, turbidity, examine the tiny critters living in the creek, and released two juvenile American eels!

Student scan a stream sample, which included aquatic sowbugs, caddisfly larvae, and the always popular freshwater leech! These species can serve as reliable indicators of water quality.

Of course, when you’re in the field, the unexpected can happen. This unchaperoned Canada Goose gosling greeted the students, apparently in search of a parent.

Harwich’s Cold Brook Preserve is full of new life in May!

Wellfleet Bay school program coordinator Spring Beckhorn, who along with her colleague, Valerie Bell, developed lessons and activities, says the special field investigations make memorable what the students learned in the classroom.

“Doing field work in special, ecologically important sites not only provides a hands-on educational experience. It connects students with places that we hope they’ll appreciate and want to protect as they get older,” Spring says.

Spring Beckhorn holds a cutting of northern highbush blueberry, a plant that can indicate the presence of a wetland.

Wellfleet Bay wishes to thank the Brewster Conservation Trust and the Harwich Conservation Trust for underwriting these programs. We’re also grateful to the Eddy Elementary School and Monomoy Middle School science teachers for their assistance with coordinating the programs. 

Additional funding for our school education programs in the Brewster elementary schools and the Monomoy Regional School District this academic year was generously provided by the Mary-Louise Eddy and Ruth N. Eddy Foundation, Cape Cod Five Charitable Foundation Trust, the Chatham Fund of the Cape Cod Community Foundation, Mass Cultural Council STARS Residencies grant program, Robert B. Our Co. Inc., W. Vernon Whiteley, Inc., and individuals from the community.

And, finally, a shout out to Goose Hummock Shop in Orleans for donating eels for the Harwich field investigation!


Spring Brings Birds, Banding, and Snapshots

Years ago, spring always meant the return of bird banding and research at Wellfleet Bay. The Austin family, whose summer home was on what is now the wildlife sanctuary, operated an important bird research station from the 1930s through the 1950s. There was another period of banding here in the 1980’s.

Four springs ago, after a banding hiatus of about 20 years, researcher James Junda set up shop here and the bird monitoring effort resumed.

James checking mist net at Silver Spring bridge

The modern dataset isn’t large enough yet to spot meaningful trends about the birds that pass through or reside at Wellfleet Bay. But as the numbers come in, they do provide fascinating snapshots about each season: who survived their first winter; who had a good breeding season;  who likely encountered a storm and was blown off course; or who had a run-in with ticks.

Matching ticks over the eyes of this poor Northern Waterthrush. Yes, the banding team removed them!

As James prepares to head back to the Cape and install the mist nets, we wanted to share some of the highlights he noted about last fall’s banding period.

Fall 2017 was the most diverse fall migration period since banding began in September of 2014, with 78 species captured compared to 75 in 2016, 71 in 2015, and 69 species the first year.

A handsome Pine Warbler. These birds also nest at the sanctuary.

2017 was another big year for Pine Warblers, the most common bird captured last fall (it was the third most common in 2016 but ranked tenth the two years before). Chipping Sparrows apparently also had a good breeding season, coming in third on the most-common-capture list compared to seventeenth in 2016.

It may look like this young male towhee’s in rough shape but he’s only molting from his juvenile plumage to adult body plumage. He’s probably also a little annoyed.

2017 apparently was not a great year for the Eastern Towhee. A mere 7 were captured last fall compared to 22 in 2016 and 43 the year before that. And Eastern Bluebirds were way down: only 9 caught last fall compared to 46 in 2016. Even one of our most common birds, the chickadee, saw a big drop last fall compared to previous seasons. Are these birds in trouble? Only long-term data can tell us that.

Always nice to see a new Eastern Bluebird added to the population, even if we only had a handful last fall.

Nor can we draw happy conclusions about our delightful spike in Cape May Warblers, a bird we hadn’t captured at all until last fall when we had six. Or the 29 American Redstarts we banded. Three years ago, we had only five.

This young American Redstart was making its first visit to Cape Cod.

There are so many variables in banding: weather, equipment–we added new mist nets, which increased our overall numbers and also helped us to capture smaller songbirds. And then there’s the odd fact that some birds, including those you see everywhere, such as grackles, rarely show up in the nets in the fall.

But a season of bird banding can produce the occasional firm fact: such as the precise age of the Merlin we netted in 2015 that was first banded as a hatch-year bird in Virginia in 2009. And the south-bound Orange-crowned Warbler we banded last October that storms very likely blew back north to Nova Scotia where it was captured 6 days later.

Bird banding generates lots of questions, most of which we can’t answer yet. But we sure enjoy collecting the snapshots.

Don’t miss a chance to watch bird banding in action this spring by attending one of our public programs on Wednesday and Sunday mornings from 8-9.

Monomoy Students Flock to Yearlong Bird Program

An American Goldfinch goes for thistle seeds. This bird’s reproductive cycle is timed to the plant’s. (Photo by Sherri VandenAkker).

Seventh graders from Chatham and Harwich are getting a whole year to think about birds: their biology, the habitats they use and depend upon, and the threats they face on a daily basis.

The program is a new approach to leveraging Wellfleet Bay’s unique expertise to help schools teach fundamental science concepts and skills.

It began in October with introductory bird-focused lessons for the entire seventh grade followed by a field investigation. Later, students were given the option of taking part in a seminar, which includes a series of lessons on specialized bird topics and hands-on field experience.

Wellfleet Bay school programs coordinator Spring Beckhorn notes that the seminars also include introductory and follow-up lessons by seventh grade teacher, Melinda Forist, an avid birder herself. “Our partnership with Melinda is critical to the success of the program,” Spring says.

In November, students visited the sanctuary’s bird banding station to learn what kind of information is collected and why. The experience also included the rare and thrilling chance to see songbirds at very close range.

Monomoy seventh graders watch bird researcher James Junda attach a uniquely numbered band to a Chipping Sparrow’s ankle. (Photo by Sheila Hoogeboom).

Banding birds over a long period can reveal changes in numbers of birds and species. In a subsequent classroom lesson, Wellfleet Bay educator Christine Harris Bates showed the class photos of the sanctuary dating back to the 1930’s when there were far fewer trees. They also looked at pictures of the same sites today, most of them wooded.

What became the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in 1958 looked very different from the more forested landscape that exists now.

“If you were a Vesper Sparrow that prefers more grassland than trees, would you like it now or in the past?” “The past!” the students shouted in reply.

In an early February class about the biology of birds in winter, students were introduced to new terms such as torpor—a bird’s ability to reduce its metabolism to conserve just enough energy to survive a cold winter night.

Students were also invited to meet some stuffed birds, including a male Common Eider, set up on lab counters to inspire observations and questions (typically—“Was this bird once alive?” The answer is yes).

Students contemplate a Common Eider (and vice versa).

One student said the black and white eider reminded him of an Oreo cookie. The bill of a stuffed Common Loon was noted as being much sharper than the eider’s—suggesting to the kids that a loon’s diet includes fish.

Wellfleet Bay’s Christine Harris Bates asks students to compare the bills of an eider and a Common Loon.

Next up for this winter series—lessons on bird classification, issues surrounding beach management for threatened Piping Plovers, and a field investigation to learn what birds require for nesting habitat.

Will this special program create bird lovers? Maybe. But Spring Beckhorn says more important are the ecological concepts students are learning. “Through birds, the kids are discovering the interconnectedness of the natural world, human impacts on nature, the implications of climate change, and what they can do to help.”


Wellfleet Bay would like to thank the Mary-Louise Eddy and Ruth N. Eddy Foundation for making this yearlong bird education program possible in the Monomoy Regional Middle School. Our thanks also to Wellfleet Bay educator Heidi Clemmer for helping with this story.

Stranded Sea Turtles Fuel Science

Sea turtle staffer Maureen Duffy prepares to conduct a necropsy on a dead leatherback, not usually seen in the winter. As part of NOAA’s sea turtle stranding and salvage network, Wellfleet Bay staff responds to sea turtle strandings year round and collects data on every turtle. (Photo courtesy of Esther Horvath).

The cold-stunned sea turtle rescue season rarely ends with the same zeal it started with. By the end of December, the vast majority of turtles found, especially the smaller Kemp’s ridleys, are dead.

But as many of our volunteers have discovered, the job of retrieving dead turtles is still very important, especially to scientists working to learn more about sea turtles.

The hundreds of turtles that come in, half of which may not survive hypothermia, contribute substantially to the growing body of knowledge about these endangered and threatened marine animals.  Every year, Wellfleet Bay receives requests for turtle carcasses and/or tissue samples to aid new and ongoing research.

One study by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration team in Mississippi is focused on the length of time it takes a dead Kemp’s ridley to decompose. Dead turtles typically build up gasses that cause them to float and eventually strand.  The study’s aim is to understand the differences in this timing in cold water versus warm. In the team’s words: “ Knowledge of this time to bloat and float at cold temperatures is critical to backtrack modeling of carcasses and determining the likely mortality source involved in causing the strandings.”  Wellfleet Bay sent twenty-six cold-stunned Kemp’s ridley carcasses by overnight mail to Mississippi for this ongoing research.

These vials contain tissue samples for microscopic analysis of diatoms from turtles that did not survive cold-stunning.

This fall, our sea turtle staff began collecting tissue samples as part of a pilot study with researcher Roksana Majewska, currently a research fellow at North-West University in South Africa, who studies diatoms. Diatoms are single cell marine plants (algae) which have a shell wall made of silica. They’ve been found to be part of the “epibiont community” (organisms that attach to and live on the surface of other organisms)  on several sea turtle species examined so far, with at least two new species of diatoms discovered.

Bruce Hurter holds a bag containing the remains of a crab taken from the stomach of a Kemp’s ridley during a necropsy. (Photo by Krill Carson, NECWA).

Roksana’s study provides the first look at possible diatoms on juvenile Kemp’s ridleys.  She says diatoms could shed light on the life history of the sea turtles, including their diet, feeding locations, and migration routes and times.

While there are other studies we are contributing to as well, we’ve also been building an important database over the 20 years that we’ve conducted sea turtle necropsies, including key fat measurements, sex ratio, gastro-intestinal tract contents, and organ and body condition—fundamental information that already is proving valuable to sea turtle research.

At the first Wellfleet Bay necropsy of the year at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, two noteworthy finds included a fairly large piece of black balloon in the stomach of a ridley as well  as–of all things–lady bugs!

Remains of lady bugs removed from the intestine of a Kemp’s ridley turtle. (Photo by Karen Strauss)

Our mantra of “No turtle left behind” is certainly about saving every live turtle we possibly can. But it also applies to our commitment to make sure we make the most of every opportunity to learn about and help conserve these animals.


This blog post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay sea turtle research associate, Karen Dourdeville.

Turtles Rule in School: Sanctuary Shares Turtle Conservation and Research with Students

“Is it dead?” is often one of the first questions students will ask when seeing their first cold-stunned sea turtle.

Wellfleet Elementary fifth graders bundle up in our sea turtle ICU where the temperature must be maintained at 50 to 55 degrees to ensure turtles don’t warm up too quickly. It’s often very hard to tell if a cold-stunned turtle is alive or dead. Almost all of the turtles that strand in the fall are juveniles.

Because of the Cape’s fall stranding phenomenon, local kids have a unique opportunity to view juvenile sea turtles that are rarely seen. Sometimes, an inert turtle will show the slightest movement, a hopeful sign that invariably produces a collective “Whoa!!” from students.

Endangered and threatened sea turtles have been stranding on the Cape’s beaches in the fall since well before today’s students—and maybe even their parents—were born.

For thirty years, Wellfleet Bay has been building a successful sea turtle stranding response program that includes projecting where cold-stunned turtles are likely to strand, assigning volunteer and staff to walk beaches, and developing best practices on retrieving turtles, holding them, and transporting them to the New England Aquarium for medical care.

Turtle staff member Elora Grahame measures a loggerhead as Truro second graders watch.

Cape Cod school students live close to where all this exciting work goes on and yet many are unaware of it or know little about it. But the sanctuary’s education staff is changing this by bringing turtle curricula into local classrooms, from preschool age to high school, from Provincetown to Harwich.

For young children, the program may start with classroom lessons about sea turtles followed by beach patrols to look for cold-stunned animals. Some older elementary students have an opportunity to watch our staff weigh and measure turtles in preparation for their drive to the aquarium.

“Turtles are a really appealing subject to kids,” according to educator Spring Beckhorn. “Especially with sea turtles, there’s a genuine desire to help an animal in distress and to teach others what they can do.”

Nauset high school students launch a drifter that they assembled and tracked via GPS to get a better understand of surface currents in Cape Cod Bay (photo by Olivia Bouque)

For high school students, our curriculum includes getting on the water to deploy “drifters”, submersible devices that resemble box kites to track surface currents in Cape Cod Bay. The goal is to gain insight into how currents, winds, and tides affect the movements of hypothermic turtles and gauging where they may come ashore.

Students from Harwich to Truro have been involved in another successful turtle conservation program at the sanctuary—the protection of threatened northern diamondback terrapins and their nests and hatchlings.

Last year, students at Orleans Elementary successfully “head-started” a terrapin hatchling, a

Orleans fifth grade releases a diamondback terrapin they head-started the previous winter (photo by Sheila Hoogeboom).

process aimed at giving a young turtle an extra boost in its first year of life. With the advantages of central heating and regular meals, the one-year-old turtle morphed into the body of a typical three-year-old by the following summer!

While kids are engaged in the terrapin head-starting process, they’re also learning about all turtle species on the Cape, including their habitats, lifecycles, adaptations, and ecology—a program that runs the entire school year.

Wellfleet Bay is able to bring these unmatched learning opportunities only through the generosity of individuals and organizations who underwrite our school as well as our conservation and science programs. In this season of giving and receiving, we want to express our deepest appreciation to those who make this work possible in so many ways.

View the list of organizations and individuals who support our work in schools as well as our conservation and science programs.



The Birders Behind the Bird List

Cast an eye quickly down the 501 birds that make up the official bird list for Massachusetts. While many may be familiar, some may also jump out as seemingly improbable: Mountain Bluebird (sounds like a western bird, right?) or Magnificent Frigatebird (usually seen only from the Gulf of Mexico south), and even the tropical Crested Caracara!

The Crested Caracara, though not this particular bird, was seen in Chatham in 2015. These tropical falcons are often seen hanging out with vultures. (Photo by Brandon Trentler).

These birds don’t get on the official list simply on the basis of someone reporting that they saw them. Even if those individuals are extremely good birders.

Back in 1989, the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee (MARC) was formed for the purpose of validating all rare bird sightings and keeping our official state bird list official.

2017 members of the Massachusetts Avian Records Committee, left to right: Jessica Johnson, Jeremiah Trimble (chairman), Sean Williams (secretary), Scott Surner, Mark Faherty, Wayne Petersen, Nick Block, Ryan, Schain. Not pictured are Ian Davies and Tim Spahr. Newly elected to the committee are David Sibley and Larry Therrien (also not pictured).

Wellfleet Bay science coordinator Mark Faherty has been a MARC member for a full six-year term and has just stepped down (succeeded by David Sibley. Mass Audubon’s Wayne Petersen recently started a new term). The review process starts with members receiving packets of information about unusual sightings including whatever documentation has been provided. When the committee meets in person, it’s to take up sightings that were not unanimously accepted or rejected after two rounds of voting.

Mark says a good photo alone isn’t a slam-dunk for acceptance and that a few very experienced birders have been proved wrong by their own pictures. “Many a feather has been ruffled when birders find out their records haven’t been accepted. Some have literally disappeared from the scene for years after a rejection,” he notes. Mark says one birder, a member of the committee no less, quit the MARC when his sighting wasn’t accepted!

On the flip side, good pictures of an unusual bird can make a lesser-known birder a star. A recent example: a committee member happened upon a Flickr photo stream showing an image of a bird tentatively identified as a Greater Yellowlegs. But the bird turned out to be an extremely rare Common Greenshank, a resident of Europe and Asia, and a first record for the whole US East Coast.

This photo of a very rare Common Greenshank was captured in Gloucester by Stan Deutsch who thought it might be a Greater Yellowlegs. Greenshanks are members of the same genus (Tringa) as yellowlegs, as are Willets.

Among Mark’s most memorable accepted records during his MARC tenure? “Hard to say—you’re dealing with the rarest of the rare, like the Fea’s Petrel on George’s Bank in 2014, which was a first state record and only the second record for the Western Atlantic!”

MARC member Scott Surner was among those who spotted this uber rare Fea’s Petrel offshore. (Photo by Scott Surner)

Interestingly, some of the most high profile bird sightings generating a ton of buzz, such as a “probable Yellowed-legged Gull” 6 years ago in Hyannis, are ultimately thrown out by the committee. This happened with gull below after video of the bird’s call revealed it to be a likely hybrid.

A purported Yellow-legged Gull that caused quite a stir in Hyannis in 2011. It was ultimately rejected as a cross between a Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gull. When faced with a challenging species, the committee will often consult an expert in a region where the bird is common– in this case, Europe. (Photo courtesy of Mary Richmond).

And then some records take years to get a ruling—such as the Reddish Egret seen by sanctuary director Bob Prescott here at Wellfleet Bay in 1991, which only recently was accepted by the committee. Mark says this reflects the fact the committee has a constant backlog of old business and unadjudicated records dating back 100 years or more in some cases.

This Reddish Egret was photographed by Roger Everett.

To some, an avian records committee could seem like an extreme case of “inside baseball”, the nerdiest of bird-nerd activities reserved for only the most sophisticated enthusiasts. But it’s really about preserving the state’s long, storied birding history. We are, after all, one of only two states east of the Mississippi with more than 500 species on our state list, the other being Florida.

And even if your bird record is rejected now, some future MARC could very well reverse that ruling one day and you and your bird sighting would become part of that official list!

Thanks to Mark Faherty for his help with this post. The MARC’s website has a lot of good information, including the current official bird list, the review list—that is, the species that will be accepted for committee review—and a database of all accepted records.

The People Who Show Up When Sea Turtles Do

Irene Lipschires is ready to take some turtles to Quincy! She’s got 12 boxes in there, in case you’re wondering.

Since Wellfleet Bay began retrieving cold-stunned sea turtles on beaches this month, it’s become clear that this regular fall phenomenon is as much about people as it is the animals we work to protect.

The desire to help an endangered and threatened species always draws dozens of new volunteers to our doors, whether to walk beaches or drive turtles to the New England Aquarium for medical care and rehabilitation. We now have 200 people who have undergone the required training and devoted themselves to this effort.

Some of our veteran turtle folks clearly have spent some time thinking about better ways to get cold-stunned turtles off the beach. Bruce Beane, who walks three-mile-long Great Island, often at night (!), has put a lot of thought into turtle portage:


Bruce Beane demonstrates his take on a sea turtle backpack

The sea turtle season also inspires young people. One of them is 12 year old Charlie Marcus, who has been donating his own money to turtle conservation since he was eight! He and his dad Peter traveled from their Los Angeles home to walk considerable distances on the Outer Cape to find cold-stunned turtles.


Charlie and his father Peter Marcus at Wellfleet’s Duck Harbor with a cold-stunned Kemp’s ridley.

Our friends from King Philip High School in Wrentham, Abby Melanson and Alex Welch, paid a visit along with about 8 of their friends to our Sea Turtle Open House and to do what they love best—patrol beaches for turtles.  Abby and Alex managed to raise $1500 dollars this year to benefit Wellfleet Bay’s sea turtle program by selling turtle necklaces as part of an international career development competition (read more in Young Sea Turtle Enthusiasts Walk the Walk).


King Philip Regional High School kids from Wrentham, including Abby and Alex.

And we can’t neglect to mention all the great folks we don’t always get to meet—the daily beach walkers who find turtles and read our posted beach signs about what to do. At Sea Street Beach in Dennis, we encountered a Kemp’s ridley moved to the upper beach, in a perfectly executed bed of wrack where we found the turtle safely waiting for our arrival.


This ridley was wrapped expertly in wrack and well marked so we could find it.

In the spirit of the holidays, we are grateful to all of our volunteers, neighbors, and turtle lovers from over the bridges who help us in one way or another in what has become a Cape Cod wildlife conservation tradition.


Tropical Weather and Bug Outbreak Reflected in Fall Bird Banding

Every banding season seems to have its memorable moments.  This year’s fall migration was marked by a tropical storm called Jose.

NASA satellite image shows a slowly weakening Jose off the New England coast on September 23, 2017

Jose’s winds did a lot of crazy things with birds. Perhaps most significant was the extremely rare Masked Booby that was blown in to LeCount Hollow Beach in Wellfleet.

This Masked Booby was found after Jose on Wellfleet’s ocean side, the first of its species recorded on Massachusetts soil. (courtesy of Wild Care)

Late summer and fall featured a lot of tropical storm activity in the Atlantic Ocean, with the month of October being 40 % more active than usual, according to the National Weather Service.

This probably helps explain the young Orange-crowned Warbler banded here on October 13th. The bird, of course, was heading south. But six days later, we got word it had been recaptured by banders in the opposite direction—Nova Scotia!

This is not the “wrong way warbler” that ended up in Canada. But the photo to the right by Frankie Tousley shows where the Orange-crowned Warbler gets its name. The orange part is not very visible until the bird gets excited and raises its feathers.

It’s an example of what’s known as reverse migration,  a sort of boomerang effect which can be caused by storms and weather fronts churning the atmosphere, confusing migrants, and tossing them back from whence they came.

Each fall gives brings some news on who appears to have had a good breeding year. This not only included all the young Orange-crowned Warblers and Palm Warblers, but also the first ever Cape May Warblers  banded at our Wellfleet station. The spike in Cape Mays may have been due to a big outbreak of spruce budworm in the boreal forest. Lots of food can mean good chick survival and higher fledging rates– possibly the only positive result of this destructive insect.

Cape May Warblers do their best to keep spruce budworms in check. Because they lay more eggs than other warblers, they may do extra well in big budworm outbreak years. (photo by James Junda).

Each season seems to turn up something odd. Such as these chickadees, two of which had some extra white feathers.

What’s up with the white feathers on the two birds on the left? Hopefully, they’ll live to undergo a complete normal molt next fall. Maybe we’ll even capture them again! (photo by Jeannette Bragger)

Sometimes white plumage is the result of a genetic mutation. These birds had their normal gray juvenile feathers (we know because the birds didn’t replace them). So, it suggests some sort of fungal or stress condition. If they survive until next fall (and having extra white feathers could make it harder), these chickadees should molt back into normal gray, black and white feathers.

Toward the end of the banding season, we were lucky to catch several of these great birds:

Eye-catching White-eyed Vireo (photo by Jeannette Bragger)

Catching more than one of these vireos is unusual for us and to have three could be another instance of that boomerang effect. Massachusetts is the northern edge of their breeding range. Because they migrate later in the fall, these birds very well could have been pushed back north by the steady southerly winds that occurred as late as the first week of November, when the bird pictured above was banded.

These migratory detours no doubt are perplexing and even dangerous for traveling songbirds who do enough flying as it is. Still, it’s a treat to see such relatively unusual and beautiful birds and it’s one of the many benefits of doing bird research on the Outer Cape.

Banner Terrapin Nesting Season Raises Intriguing Questions

At a glance, this year’s terrapin season was a big success..

2017 was a prolific nesting season for Wellfleet Bay’s diamondback terrapins.

Thanks to the hard work and dedication of over 100 volunteers, we were able to protect a total of 385 terrapin nests in Wellfleet, Eastham and Orleans–more than ever before. And–amazingly–we’ve also released over 4,500 terrapin hatchlings so far!

Lots of progress over the past 15 years!

This upward trend is likely due to a combination of factors: (1) we’ve homed in on where nests are laid and expanded our monitored areas accordingly; (2) there are fewer predators (mainly foxes) digging up nests & eating the eggs before we get a chance to find them; and (3) the number of sexually mature females laying nests has increased thanks to ongoing conservation efforts since the early 2000s. It’s the amplification of this third factor that will undoubtedly have the most positive long-term impact on the terrapin population size over time.

Our game camera at Turtle Point (Lt. Island) caught a curious red-tailed hawk peering over some hatchlings inside a PE.

By the end of the season, we found a total of 127 nests at WBWS: 73 protected, 29 wild (successfully hatched out on their own) and 25 depredated (dug up and eaten by predators). That’s a total of 7 more nests than were found in 2016. And while we protected 8 fewer nests than last year, having an additional 17 wild nests (and 2 fewer depredated) more than made up for it.

At Lieutenant Island across the bay, we found a record-breaking 179 nests, 92 of which were protected. Of those remaining nests found, a whopping 28 were wild & hatched out successfully on their own (8 in 2016), while only 59 were depredated (88 in 2016). This decline in predator activity is largely due to the fox population being decimated by mange.

Volunteer Steve Griffin snapped this picture of a wild nest that did well all on its own (note the hatchling escape tracks!).

But despite this year’s success, it became apparent during this long season that there is still much to be learned about our local terrapins .

For one thing, the whole season lasted much longer than usual. In the past two years, females began nesting on June 15th. But in 2017, the last nest was found on July 31st, two weeks later than the last nest found in 2016. With nest incubation periods lasting anywhere from 60 to 100 days, this meant the hatching season would also probably extend later than usual. In fact, we were still monitoring protected nests in the field and finding hatched wild nests along the way until October 16th!

Once a nest reaches 90 days incubation, the protocol is to remove the predator exclosure and dig down into the nest just enough to see whether or not there are still eggs incubating. We typically find either live eggs that just need some more time or a nest that has been compromised in some way, rendering the eggs non-viable. This year, however, we were pleasantly surprised to find healthy hatchlings hanging out below the surface in roughly three-quarters of the protected nests we opened. This begs the question: What are they doing down there?

Non-viable terrapin egg overtaken by roots that penetrated a nest (photo by Priscilla Isner)

Maybe the cooler, wetter weather this summer and fall resulted in extended incubation periods and encouraged more hatchlings to stay in their cozy underground nests when they weren’t forced out by maggots or ants. Perhaps they were even planning to overwinter down there, rather than emerge and scatter to find a new hiding place. But we don’t know for sure.

We also uncovered a number of nests with viable eggs. In order to speed up the hatching process, we gently removed these eggs from the ground during the last week of our terrapin shifts and placed them in incubators set at roughly 83°F. In just a couple weeks we’ve hatched out over 60 terrapins this way. Incubator time has even helped “premature” hatchlings absorb large yolk sacs in less than half the time it would take at room temperature.

Hatchlings get a freshwater “swim” in the wet lab to hydrate before release (photo by Olivia Bourque)

We’re delighted with the nesting success this summer. But one overarching question remains and we took some steps to try to answer it: How many diamondback terrapins live on Cape Cod? Since we can’t count every single terrapin, calculating a population estimate will require several years of intensive mark-recapture efforts.

In order to lay the groundwork for this, we conducted a pilot study in Wellfleet using Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) microchip technology. Trained staff and volunteers PIT tagged  approximately 200 local terrapins, providing each one with a unique & permanent code that will allow it to be easily identified in the future. Over time, we hope to track individuals more closely and figure out just how much the population is rebounding due to our conservation efforts.

But for now, I think it’s safe to say that the annual assistance provided to these Threatened terrapins has not gone unnoticed.

Shift leader Heather Pilchard heads into the marsh to release a female terrapin who was PIT tagged after laying a nest on Lieutenant Island (photo by Olivia Bourque)


This post was contributed by Olivia Bourque who has been a member of the turtle team at Wellfleet Bay for two years. She took over as team leader this past spring.