Fall Sea Turtle Rescue Season off to a Big Start—Literally

October is typically a busy time for Wellfleet Bay’s sea turtle staff. A  great deal of preparation is underway for the approaching cold-stunned sea turtle season, which involves training new staff and volunteers, checking rescue equipment, coordinating with rehab partner organizations, and numerous other tasks.

But in October, especially a warm one, many sea turtles are still actively foraging in our waters.

This male leatherback got stuck at low tide on a mudflat near the mouth of Wellfleet’s Herring River.
(Photo courtesy of Rick Levine)

The recent stranding of a live, 600-pound male leatherback in a marsh near the mouth of Wellfleet’s Herring River demonstrated the critical role that Wellfleet Bay plays in saving these endangered and threatened species. It also showed the power of partnerships.

Sanctuary director emeritus Bob Prescott was the first to respond to calls about the stranded leatherback and realized that the turtle, which stranded during the morning’s low tide, was trying to move farther upriver with the incoming tide.

Bob Prescott, who received the first call about the stranded turtle, had to make sure the animal didn’t try to move up the river with the incoming tide. (Photo courtesy of Rick Levine)

A veteran of challenging sea turtle rescues, Bob saw that the leatherback was healthy and would need to be moved for release to open water. After working to keep the animal in place, and away from potentially dangerous oyster beds, he directed operations to move the huge turtle to the edge of the marsh where it was hoisted to a cart by more than a dozen people. 

A long haul! The 600 pound turtle was carted along the beach and up an embankment to a waiting truck. (Photo courtesy of Rick Levine)

Protecting, transporting, making health assessments, tagging and releasing the endangered sea turtle required many experienced hands and equipment. This dedicated group included staff and volunteers from Wellfleet Bay, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the New England Aquarium (NEAq), as well as volunteers from the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance.

IFAW provided their rescue experts and specialized equipment (usually used for moving stranded marine mammals), and NEAq provided their veterinary and rescue staff to make important health assessments, administer infection-prevention medications, and apply federally-permitted satellite and acoustic tags for the unique opportunity to track and learn more about this endangered species.

Loaded up for the drive to Provincetown. (Photo courtesy of Rick Levine)

The leatherback was released back into open water that afternoon at Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown. We hope this turtle continues to do well and that its track provides important information for sea turtle conservation researchers.

Heading back home at Herring Cove. (Photo courtesy of Andrea Spence, IFAW)

This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay sea turtle stranding coordinator Karen Dourdeville.

That Eureka Moment! Spadefoot Toad Breeding at Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary


After ten long years of dedicated conservation effort by Mass Audubon staff, volunteers, and citizen scientists, the population of eastern spadefoot toads (Scaphiopus holbrookii) translocated to Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary has finally reproduced!

A pilot project started by Long Pasture Sanctuary director Ian Ives and Bryan Windmiller of Zoo New England was initiated in 2011 to re-establish the species at Mass Audubon’s Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary in East Falmouth where a native population of spadefoots once existed.


Spadefoots can be identified in part by their cat-like vertical pupils.

With permission from state wildlife officials, toads from a healthy population at Sandy Neck Barrier Beach in Barnstable were headstarted as tadpoles by partnering with Cape Cod schools. Young toads were then translocated to Ashumet Holly.  Over 10 years, 40,000 young toads—or toadlets—were introduced to breeding pools (vernal pools) created specifically for this project. Each year, we monitored the pools for signs that our toads were reproducing, the ultimate goal of any successful conservation program.

 “Monitoring is a long and arduous process and you don’t see results in a day or a week or a year,” notes project coordinator Jay Cordeiro. “Long-term monitoring involves measuring hydroperiod (the length of time that there is standing water), assessing toad population demographics and dispersal, estimating survivorship, documenting evidence of breeding, and continued observation once a population has become established.”

We were successful with most of those objectives. But until this summer, there was  no evidence of breeding, despite many searches for eggs and tadpoles along with audio recordings “listening” for calling male toads.

A chorusing toad, a sight we’d been waiting to see since 2011!

2021 brought some favorable conditions. May was the third warmest on record and a band of rain showers provided a good soaking overnight on May 28, prime conditions for spring spadefoot breeding. On May 29, chorusing males were seen and heard for the first time at Ashumet Holly.  This was late compared to previous years on the Cape, but followed similar chorusing activity on Barnstable’s Sandy Neck and elsewhere in the state.

It was our first eureka moment!

Male spadefoot toads utilize vernal pools only for breeding, spending most of their lives on land foraging at night and often underground during the day.  Presence of active males in the pools is a good indication of readiness to breed.  Witnessing this activity was not only unanticipated, but what followed went beyond what was expected once these first individuals made their way down to the pools from upland habitat.

On May 31, toads continued to call in both pools and we saw males and females amplexing (mating embrace of certain amphibians). Another eureka moment.

When a female spadefoot is ready to lay eggs, a male grabs hold of her to be the first to fertilize them.

As exciting as these developments were, we still couldn’t find eggs or tadpoles in either pool. However, on June 13th, project field assistant Sarah Couto observed spadefoot tadpoles in one of the pools. The ultimate milestone!

The ultimate goal of this translocation project—tadpoles!

The only disappointment was that the tadpoles we found did not survive. The reason for the mortality is not clear and we are investigating possible causes.

What made 2021 our breakthrough year? Several factors likely contributed to it.  Tadpoles were successfully translocated to this site for seven of the last ten years and a critical density threshold of adults has likely been reached to trigger reproduction.  One particular factor that might have been very important to this year’s success was the decision last year to manually scour a few inches of built-up vegetation from the surface of the material lining two manmade vernal pools.  Surface plants were absorbing the water faster than the pools could fill and both pools continued to dry prematurely. The scouring enabled the pools to achieve the very specific hydroperiod the toads require— deep enough to support tadpoles, but not too deep to attract numerous invertebrates, which feed on spadefoot tadpoles! Finally, environmental conditions (temperature, rainfall, humidity, etc.) were obviously suitable for breeding this spring at Ashumet. 

Project staff and volunteers will continue to monitor the population throughout 2021 and hope for a repeat performance during the 2022 breeding season.  We’re thrilled that the establishment of a self-sustaining population of spadefoot toads may well be within reach!

This post was contributed by Jay Cordeiro, spadefoot toad project coordinator at Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary.


Terrapin Season News: Reports from the Field

As the 2021 season winds down, it appears Wellfleet Bay’s diamondback terrapin nest protection and monitoring program has logged another productive summer—a very hot, humid, and mosquito-ridden summer! A big shout-out to our resilient terrapin teams who monitor sites throughout Wellfleet, Eastham, and Orleans.

We won’t know the total number of healthy hatchlings for another few weeks. But we can report that, so far, more than 1500 young turtles emerged from monitored nests at the sanctuary and at Lieutenant Island. That’s only a fraction of what we’re likely to see when all the numbers are in.

This photo by Chloe Rourke shows the amazing detail on a terrapin hatchling’s skin and shell.

Each terrapin season has its “scrapbook” moments—and here are a few from this summer:

The SOS Day

On September 2nd, just a half hour into their shift on Lieutenant Island and dodging thunderstorms, staffer Jess Ciarcia and volunteers Nancy Munger and Theresa Ruane encountered five hatching nests with about four times as many remaining. So Jess emailed an SOS to the rest of the terrapin team and, like volunteer firefighters, about ten quickly responded. 

Response to SOS on a busy and stormy nest-hatching morning at Lieutenant Island

In all, the crew processed 20 nests that morning and a total of 233 hatchlings were released!    

Hatchlings from the SOS day at Lieutenant Island. These little turtles
were held in a single container only temporarily until more containers arrived.

Helpful Neighbors

Volunteer Barbara Brennessel, who monitors nest sites in north Wellfleet, shared photos showing the work of turtle-friendly neighbors near Indian Neck, who not only kept an eye out for nesting turtles, but creatively marked the nests and, in one case, left a note so Barbara and her team could find and protect them!

The Really Big Nest

Heather Pilchard and team discovered a 30-egg nest near a main road on Lieutenant Island, presumably one nest laid on top of another since terrapin nests rarely include more than 20 eggs. To get the nest(s) to a safer location, the team had to open it and relocate all 30 eggs to a turtle garden. As Heather noted, “Finding the eggs in the nest was like clowns coming out of a car. They just kept appearing!” Especially exciting: all 30 eggs successfully hatched!

The Safe Nests

The cages—or predator excluders– we use to protect nests are installed about a foot deep into the soil around the nest to deter digging animals, like foxes. Volunteer Steve Griffin captured this picture of one PE holding its ground against a fox dig that had partially collapsed a nest. Fortunately, the PE did its job of protecting the hatchlings.

Nice try, fox! The PE prevails. Photo by Steve Griffin.

As nests approach their projected hatching dates, crow guards are installed around the predator excluders to keep crows from nipping at hatchlings along the edges of the PEs. We know the crow guards are effective, but volunteer Paul Ward snapped this picture that demonstrates why the guards work.

The crow guard (darker fencing) protects a hatchling’s
head and neck from opportunistic crows. Photo by Paul Ward.

The Night Nest

Sometimes there’s “turtle whispering” and then there’s a solid educated guess. Terrapin team manager Bob Prescott had just completed an early evening program at the sanctuary when he decided he should check a Nauset Beach nest that was laid on the same day as two others that had recently hatched.

Good decision! Eight hatchlings were out, seven more were in the process of hatching, and one was just pipping the egg.

Evening hatched nest at Nauset Beach.

Despite his many years of working with terrapins, Bob says checking a turtle nest in the dark was an unusual experience: “A first—processing a nest by moon light and iPhone flashlight!”

A Favorite Summer Walk at the Sanctuary

Silver Spring (Christine Bates)

Even on the busiest summer days, there is always a place to find a quiet moment at Wellfleet Bay. On a recent afternoon, in need of a tranquil moment and a break from the glow of a computer screen, I set off from my desk to search for recently-seen otters along Silver Spring.

When I arrived at the Silver Spring dike, I heard a rustling in the reeds to my right and spotted a long, rat-like tail moving about between stalks of phragmites. A chunky, brown shape emerged and I briefly locked eyes with a muskrat before it disappeared into the reeds

With no sign of the otter, I decided to retrace my steps to the Silver Spring Trail. It was a hot, humid day and the canopy of vegetation along the trail gave a jungle-like feel to the experience. As I wove through tunnels of grapevines and cherry trees, I began to hear a familiar zeee, zeee coming from overhead. I emerged to find a brilliant red stand of cardinal flower flanked by maple and cherry trees.

Cardinal flowers along the pond (Christine Bates)

In the top of a cherry, I spotted the source of the zeee, zeee; a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher actively catching insects in the canopy. As I watched the gnatcatcher, a flash of green came within inches of the bird; a hummingbird began dive bombing the gnatcatcher; he had claimed this stand of cardinal flower as his own and wanted this interloper to find a new place to forage!

I continued along the trail on my otter quest. After traveling through another tunnel of vegetation, I came to a short, wood-chipped path to a dock; one of my favorite places at the sanctuary. I heard the buzz and snap of dragonfly wings and the mechanical rattle of a kingfisher before watching a pair fly by, low to the water. A painted turtle swam amongst the lily pads below, munching on vegetation. Upon further investigation, a shiny lump on the muddy edge of the water revealed itself to be a giant bullfrog. A monarch silently glided by, its path erratic.

American Bullfrog (Christine Bates)

I sat in silence for several minutes. I didn’t see an otter. As I’ve discovered over years of chasing rare birds, sometimes the journey to find your “target” species is the best part of the experience. When I returned to my desk, I took note of the time. I had only been gone for twenty minutes, but I felt rejuvenated. In those twenty minutes something unusual had happened; it was July on Cape Cod and I hadn’t seen another person, yet as the muskrat, gnatcatcher, hummingbird and bullfrog will tell you, I was far from alone.

This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay visitor experience and outreach coordinator, Christine Bates.

A Plethora of Plovers for the Outer Cape

The 2021 Piping Plover breeding season on the Outer Cape has been unexpectedly robust: 17 pairs of birds with 11 fledged chicks compared to only 7 last year.  What’s really exciting? We have more than 2 dozen chicks we’re still monitoring! For us, this is huge. Over the last ten years, the number of pairs has been slowly declining and our birds’ productivity (the number of chicks fledged per pair), at best, has been okay.

The plovers we monitor are nesting at mostly bayside beaches from North Truro to Brewster, plus Tern Island in Chatham. Some sites that used to be somewhat reliable were a bust for the birds this year. Other sites, such as a sanctuary beach on Lieutenant Island, have chicks for the first time in nearly 10 years.

Brewster’s Crosby Beach, a productive nesting beach in recent years, has fledged four young with four more due to fledge (fingers crossed) in another week. Fledging means chicks are capable of flight and less vulnerable to predators. You can read about our field technician Madison Jerome’s experience keeping watch– and doing a fair amount of worrying– about the Brewster birds.

Another pleasant surprise—Mass Audubon’s Tern Island off Chatham has nesting terns again! Approximately 100 pairs of Least Terns have been in residence, with several chicks noted so far. Despite its name, Tern Island hasn’t had a tern colony since 2015. And there are several plover pairs there too, each with chicks!

The Outer Cape’s bayside is not alone in its plover plenitude. Mass Audubon’s statewide Coastal Waterbird Program is monitoring significantly more plover pairs than in 2020 and we’ve heard similar reports from some Cape Cod National Seashore beaches.

It all begs the question—what’s made this year so successful (so far)?  Wellfleet Bay science coordinator Mark Faherty, who oversees the Outer Cape coastal waterbird team, including our hardworking volunteers, says it’s almost impossible to know. “It could be good survival rates where our birds spend the winter. At the larger scale, state-wide, it has to be something like that. And then maybe it’s partly crows focusing on other prey or another nearby area is no longer suitable (for nesting).” And, we should add, maybe some better luck.

It would be interesting to know what’s been going right for the birds this summer. But given the fact Piping Plovers remain a threatened species in Massachusetts, we’re just content to see more of them having success.

This pair of birds fledged chicks from their first nest attempt in June, which means their chicks were grown and independent before the busiest days of summer. (Photo courtesy of Jeannette Bragger)

Our thanks to our dedicated plover volunteer monitors this season: Jeannette Bragger, Nancy Braun, Donna Cooper, Stephen Munroe, and Mary O’Neill.

The Work (and Worry) of Monitoring Piping Plovers

Piping Plover conservation has a way of occupying your mind even if you aren’t actively on the job. Where will that pair at Fisher Beach attempt to re-nest? Are the chicks going to be okay this weekend with all the fireworks? What if a group of dog-walkers ignores all of our signs? You can easily drive yourself crazy trying to anticipate every threat and worrying over things you ultimately can’t control. At sites like ours, where there are typically no more than two or three pairs of plovers, it can feel like any minor threat will lead to disaster. 

Newly hatched plover chicks look so fragile that it seems hard to imagine how any of them survives one night much less the 25-30 days until they can fly.

Monitoring these birds can definitely start to make you feel like an overbearing parent! We have so much hope and perseverance as we try to give the birds the best chance of breeding success possible. And this year, it seems to have paid off! We have had13 hatched nests. While we had struggles, (a lot of nest loss; one pair lost four nests to predators) it’s extremely gratifying to see so many nests hatch and, as of now, eleven chicks fledge.

That total includes a nest at Crosby Landing Beach in Brewster that hatched on June 8th. The two parents were the first pair to arrive at Crosby and I watched the male make the scrape that would eventually become their first nest. On May 6th, I checked the scrape and found that they had laid an egg. Then we began the long and worrisome process of checking their nest and hoping that they could hit each necessary milestone.

Every time you go to check a nest the many potential threats to Piping Plover nests run through your mind, from overwash by an astronomical high tide or storm, to numerous predators, to human disturbance. A lot can go wrong.

This Crosby nest, and many of others this year, found a way to check each box. They were able to lay four eggs and then incubate the nest for the requisite 26 days. Not only did the all four eggs hatch, all four chicks survived and fledged (meaning, they were able to achieve flight). 

Chicks grow fast in just 30 days. This one is ready to fledge!

Getting to the chick stage and watching them grow up, while still nerve wracking, makes all the effort worth it. The culmination of all of our work to protect these birds results in seeing four cotton balls transform into juveniles that can now fly. Our second nest at Crosby hatched on June 27th, almost three weeks later, allowing us to watch the whole process unfold again. I would walk down the beach and see one-week-old chicks sticking close to the adults’ side while past them, the first brood would be looking more and more like adults and starting to test their wings. 

Crosby Landing hasn’t always been a successful beach for plovers. But a combination of educating beachgoers, controlling dog walking, and monitoring events such as July Fourth fireworks may be paying off. Managing predators is often not practical, and we can’t control the weather and tides, but we can be a steady presence and help carve out a small piece of the beach for these hardworking little birds.

Madison removing plover fencing at a successful nesting site in North Truro.

Madison Jerome, Wellfleet Bay’s coastal waterbird field technician, removes fencing on the bayside in North Truro, another successful stretch of beach for plovers in 2021.

The Curious Washashore: A Cape Cod Field School Adventure

Walking along the Atlantic coast, for a moment in the footsteps of Thoreau himself, we wandered down towards Ballston Beach in Truro. Though the seas were relatively calm, the power of the ocean was still very much felt, and we were forced to scatter back up the berm crest several times like shorebirds to save our shoes from being swamped by the overwash of small waves.

Anyone who wanders the beaches of Cape Cod soon becomes a beachcomber drawn to examine the shells, stones, branches, seaweeds and trinkets that come ashore with the tides. I imagine the people who walked this beach in the past, looking for driftwood and shipwrecked planks to be repurposed in a time when the Cape had almost no trees. We talked for a moment about the famous pirate Captain Sam Bellamy who was swallowed by the sea some 300 years ago, just a few miles from where we were now standing. I always keep an eye out for a gold doubloon to emerge after lying hidden for so long!

Cape Cod Field Schools hiking group walking “the backside” in Truro. (Photo courtesy of Sean Kortis)

It was soon after our talk of pirates and lost treasure that I discovered something even more valuable along that shoreline.

What appeared to be a small piece of marsh grass along the tideline quickly changed form as my mind recognized the pattern of a small serpent marooned along the shore, some distance away from the closest piece of habitable land. This turned out to be, amazingly, a Ringneck Snake, by no means a “water snake” and most certainly not suited to saline environments, let alone the harsh and awesome power of the open Atlantic.

I picked the snake up, assuming its inevitable demise but seeing it as a chance to teach my fellow adventurers about the local wildlife. Before I could even speak of such a beautiful animal’s place in this world, the little snake surprised us all by slithering along my fingers, not only alive, but active and healthy! We were so far from this snake’s home and the harsh conditions of the open ocean, where even the bravest and strongest of sailors had been lost in storms and wrecks, was no place for such a fragile life.

Unexpected Ringneck Snake (photo courtesy of Sean Kortis).

I put my hands together and enclosed the snake in a temporary cavern for shelter and comfort on our half- mile journey back to “dry land.” The snake quickly curled into place and seemed satisfied for now, with no attempt to break free or slither through the cracks of my fingers. I like to imagine that by some chance the snake knew we were trying our best to help and provide it with another shot at life.

We discussed and theorized about this little snake’s journey and how such an animal came to be on the shores of outer Cape Cod, a beautiful place though one where you needn’t experience the ferocious storm to see the effects on the landscape. But even this great ocean, which has taken so much, will eventually give back and share its bounty with time. Beaches to our north are given new life as the sandy hook of Provincetown continues to grow from these natural processes.

 We too as human beings, like the ocean we walked along, responsible for so much loss and destruction in the past, could also work to give, save, create and provide. So we continued on, snake in hand. We wandered along the rest of the beach, as Gray Seals, almost as big as boats, observed us from the water. We placed the snake down gently in a grassy upland near a small freshwater wetland. It quickly slithered away into the grass, content with the choice it was given. In that moment, we all felt the power of giving back, of helping those less fortunate, and working to make the interconnected relationship of human and nature one better.

This post was contributed by Mass Audubon Cape Cod adult education coordinator Sean Kortis, who oversees the Cape Cod Field Schools program, which offers active, multi-day, “in-the-field” experiences for adults in throughout the year. Learn more.

With the Nesting Season Over, the Wait Begins for Terrapin Hatchlings

The 2021 diamondback terrapin nesting period is over and Wellfleet Bay’s terrapin monitoring teams* are looking forward to the well-deserved break until all those nests begin to hatch! The hiatus will last anywhere from as little as 60 days to as many as 90 before hatchlings emerge or any late-hatching nests are opened to determine their outcomes.

Volunteer Meredith Harris holds a diamondback terrapin. (Photo courtesy of Heather Pilchard.)

Solid Numbers

Nest numbers ranged from steady to above last year’s results: 68 nests were protected at the sanctuary and 125 at Lieutenant Island, comparable to 2020.  Eastham had 197 protected or marked nests, a nice jump from last year (170), and our two sites in Orleans—Henson’s Cove and Nauset–had 13 and 6 protected nests, respectively.

Busy Predators

But the predators had success, too. This year raccoons seemed especially active. The number of nests eaten at the sanctuary, which usually enjoys a relatively low rate of depredation, was more than double—22 versus 10 last year. Eastham reported 106 depredated nests compared to 45 in 2020. Sites in North Wellfleet, especially Indian Neck, experienced losses to predators on a regular basis.

Raccoons scope out a turtle garden in Eastham. (Photo courtesy of Bill Allan.)

Sanctuary director emeritus Bob Prescott, who oversees the terrapin program, says while raccoons are nothing new at the sanctuary, in some years they’ve based themselves at the campground instead of the turtle gardens. He speculates that at Lieutenant Island raccoons may have taken over some territories from foxes, which have been reduced in number by mange.

So, for now, we keep our fingers crossed the raccoons and foxes will take a break too, and that our protected nests can also withstand thirsty plant roots, ants, fly larvae, and the other dangers that lurk as those eggs develop and, we hope, hatch!

*Some volunteers will continue to monitor the predator excluders–the small cages we place over the terrapin nests– to make sure they remain intact for the next 2-3 months.

Building a Case for Horseshoe Crab Conservation

As I search for horseshoe crabs in the tall seagrass of the incoming tide at the sanctuary beach, it’s easy to imagine I’m in the warm waters of an ancient sea. I’m transported to the pages of the dinosaur-themed coloring books I filled in as a kid, even though 450 million years ago, when horseshoe crabs first made their debut, plants were just starting to make their way onto land, and dinosaurs were as futuristic as flying cars are now.

I continue my search, find two stray males, and wonder if our current era —the Anthropocene—could be the horseshoe crab’s last. How incredulous their ancestors would be to hear that the largest threat to their species is not an ice age or a meteor, but an upright biped unable to curb its consumption.

I squint up at a familiar silhouette on the horizon. It’s the harvester, scooping up horseshoe crabs with a long-handled net. It feels like he’s stealing from me. Every crab he gets is one that will not come to the beach next week to spawn, to pass on its DNA and get counted by survey volunteers. Instead, its destiny is to become bait for the whelk and eel fisheries. 

The harvester is acting perfectly within his rights. According to Mass Reg section 6.34, it is legal for permitted harvesters to collect up to 400 crabs for bait a day in Wellfleet Bay—as long as they are not taken during the week of the new and full moons when horseshoe crabs are supposed to be spawning in the highest numbers. For years the sanctuary and local shellfishermen have urged the state to impose a harvest moratorium to try to give the minuscule local horseshoe crab population a chance to recover. But despite our years of monitoring and data collection, the state so far has declined.

Spawning horseshoe crabs at Nauset Beach. The population here is recovering due to the Cape Cod National Seashore’s ban on harvests.

Down the road toward Orleans, in Pleasant Bay, it’s easier to find horseshoe crabs spawning. They appear in desperate, male-dominated hordes. It’s not an elegant affair—the males scuttle over each other, latch onto my boots or transect poles in a frenzied search for females laden with eggs. It looks like a large amount of horseshoe crabs, but I inherited a world missing 90% of its wildlife and I don’t really know what a lot of anything is.

In Pleasant Bay, horseshoe crabs are targeted for blood rather than bait. Unlike the bait harvesters, biomedical harvesters can take up to 1,000 horseshoe crabs a day. While the extraction of blood is designed to be non-lethal, it is estimated that up to 30% of horseshoe crabs don’t survive the process. Further, since females are bigger, they are more likely to be targeted, likely explaining the highly male-skewed sex ratio in this embayment. 

Their goal is to obtain Limulus amebocyte lysate, (LAL) extracted from horseshoe crab blood. Amebocytes (the A in LAL) are the invertebrate equivalent to white blood cells and are extremely adept at clotting around pathogens to provide defense. Health professionals use LAL to ensure the cleanliness of medical devices that come into contact with blood and injectables, including vaccines. Clearly, this stuff is useful but does the fate of modern endotoxin testing have to rest solely on a prehistoric and declining species?

Before horseshoe crabs were used for endotoxin testing, rabbits were the test subject of choice. Now, there are synthetic alternatives, the best known being recombinant factor C assay (rFC). This substitute has been approved in China, Europe and Japan, but not in the US. With more research and higher demand, synthetic options could eliminate the need for a biomedical harvest.

While horseshoe crabs are up against major hurdles, they are not without allies. Drive around the Cape long enough and you’ll see lawn ornaments in their likeness, statues of horseshoe crabs clinging to buildings, jewelry shaped like them, postcards with their image stamped on the front. Here at Wellfleet Bay, there are dozens of volunteers ready to dedicate their time to check the beach for them at high tide, willing to go out into dense marsh, down beat-up staircases, sometimes in the middle of the night, just to contribute to the study and conservation of this species.

Volunteers at Pleasant Bay preparing to survey for horseshoe crabs. A female is trailed by two males. (Photo courtesy of New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance).

There are many reasons to protect horseshoe crabs. One is so we can continue to benefit from their blood, and harvest them for commercial fisheries. Another is so we can marvel at the flocks of shorebirds in Delaware Bay who depend on their eggs to fuel their flights to the Arctic breeding grounds. Some find them worthy of saving for the chance to meet a living fossil. These reasons are all compelling, but my favorite reason to protect horseshoe crabs is also the simplest: because they were here first and we can.

The author, Abigail Costigan, holds a horseshoe crab with a broken tail or telson. Horseshoe crabs should never be picked up by the telson, which they use to navigate and to right themselves.

This post was contributed by Abigail Costigan, Wellfleet Bay’s horseshoe crab field coordinator.

Why I Love Volunteering at the Bird Banding Station

I’d never done anything remotely resembling bird banding in my life. My education and my career are in French language, culture, and literature. Until I started at the banding station several years ago, I had never even held a bird in my hand. What made me think I could extract a bird safely from a net, put it into a cotton bag, and deliver it to the banding station? I had no idea, but I was intrigued and knew it would be a unique experience.

On the surface, the volunteer responsibilities are clear enough: get up at 3 a.m. (at least in my case), help set up the 25 mist nets at sunrise, extract birds safely from the nets, deliver them to the station unharmed, take down the data provided by the banders, remove and pack up the nets. In reality, it’s much more complicated.

Even putting up and taking down nets is a challenge. Done incorrectly, twisting the nets or dropping one, becomes a major headache. You could end up spending the next several hours removing leaves, twigs, grasses from the delicate net strands without actually making a hole. Thankfully, I’ve never dropped a net but it’s one of my nightmares.

Mist nets are made of a super fine mesh and are very easy to snag on things and damage.

But despite the stress, checking the mist nets is the most satisfying, focused, and enjoyable part of the volunteer job. It involves walking a total of 4-7 miles per shift, trying to keep up with people who are all 20 to 40 years younger than I, extracting the birds successfully, bringing them back to the station, and accurately recording the data the banders call out. Recently at the end of our shift, James Junda, who oversees the banding station, said to us: “ We had 75 birds today. We were all in a groove.” High praise indeed and very much appreciated by all of us.

Each cotton bag contains a bird. The bags allow in plenty of air and birds stay relatively calm until they are banded and released. (Photo by Jeannette Bragger)

As a scientific research project, licensed bird banding has protocols that must be followed exactly and consistently. It was one of the first lessons we all learned from James Junda, a master bander. We learned by watching, by asking questions, and by repeatedly doing each task under close scrutiny and supervision. Making occasional and easily correctable mistakes was assumed; making irreparable, life-threatening mistakes was not an option.

What saved me from being a total nervous wreck during the first few seasons was that James and Valerie, the assistant bander, were right there with us, watching, guiding, correcting, explaining, and giving advice. As I approach a net, there are still instances when I use my radio to ask for assistance. Knowing when to ask for help requires me to assess a situation accurately and to have good judgment. The ego cannot be involved. It’s all about the birds; it’s not about me.

This is a data sheet where we record information about each bird we band. The banders call out the required information as they examine a bird. It’s critical we capture it all accurately before the bird is released.

As a bird is removed from the bag for processing, we are ready to write down a lot of key data: the bander’s initials, the number of the band that will be attached to the bird’s ankle, the species, sex, and various measurements and other observations.

In this example (circled in red in the above photo), the bander was James Junda (JJ), the bird was a recapture (that is, a bird we had already banded at some point), the number of the band was (2891-87953), and the alpha code for the Baltimore Oriole is BAOR. The rest of the data covers age, sex, and size. In this case, the bird’s plumage (P) indicated it was a male and at least two years old ; wing chord = 93 millimeters; mass/weight =33.4 grams (28.3495 grams = 1 ounce, hence this BAOR weighed a little over an ounce); date = May 19, 2021 (not visible in this photo); time = 0850; net the bird was caught in = 19; status = 300 (a code that means the bird was processed and flew strongly and well when it was released). It’s not important to remember all these data points. But it is important to know the concentration required and the potential confusion when two or three banders are all dictating numbers to one or two volunteers!

Unless you’ve banded thousands of birds like James and Valerie, it’s difficult to ever feel fully confident. At least for me, that means that every shift has its challenging moments that require calm, concentration, good judgment, full responsibility for my actions, and, above all, in my opinion, humility. For me, it’s truly humbling to be reminded, for example, that the Wilson’s Warbler, weighing a third of an ounce (5-10 grams) has just flown 3,500 miles from his wintering grounds to arrive at Wellfleet Bay.

Migrating male Wilson’s Warbler at the banding station in 2021. (Photo by Jeannette Bragger)

So why do we love volunteering at the bird banding station? As expressed by some of my fellow volunteers, we are all motivated by our desire to learn as much as possible about birds (Todd Christie), by our shared interests as team members (Teresa Corcoran), by the challenges (Frank Mockler), and by the feeling of holding a delicate bird in the hand (“It’s pure magic,” says Peggy Sagan).

Now that the banding season has come to a close, we can get more sleep and relax until we start all over again on September 1! I dedicate this post to the banders and volunteers who have all become friends and have taught and helped me. See you all in the fall!

Jeannette Bragger, second from left, with the banding team in 2017. (Photo by Peggy Sagan)

This post was contributed by Jeannette Bragger, who’s been a banding station volunteer at Wellfleet Bay since 2016.