Friday Morning on the Silver Spring Trail

It’s hot, it’s muggy, the sun is relentless, and our trail naturalist team has decided to greet visitors on the shady Silver Spring trail.

Volunteers Irwin Schorr, Judy Hadley, and I set out at 9:30, supplied with water, snacks, a radio, cell phones, notebooks, binoculars, and my camera. As always, our hope is to find the familiar and the unexpected and have the chance to interact with visitors who have chosen to visit Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.

As a team of naturalists, the three of us are perfectly suited. There’s Irwin, who tells the stories of the plants (every plant has a story) and who knows pharmaceuticals and the role plants play in our health (including the whole story of aspirin!)  Judy, who’s new to the team, loves plants, especially trees. Her favorite season for “tree-walking” is late fall through early spring “just because of the sheer beauty of the tree skeletons.” I’m a retired professor of French/Applied Linguistics with no scientific background! However, I aspire to know as much as possible about botany, have learned much about insects and birds, love doing research, and take many pictures to document our observations.

Every day on the trail has its highlights and surprises. Sometimes it’s a diminutive dragonfly like the Eastern Amberwing on a Spatterdock, aka Yellow Pond Lily (Nuphar variegatum).

(Photo by Jeannette Bragger)

Other times it’s the highly-anticipated emergence of the scarlet blossoms of the Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and even the unusual white or pink forms. While relatively rare, at least according to the books, we seem to find these “albinos” regularly on Silver Spring. But discovering it for the first time was exciting!

Cardinal Flowers ( red on the left and the white/pink form to the right) (Photo by Jeannette Bragger)

And we’re still left speechless when a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird just happens to stop by for a snack.

The Cardinal Flower is a hummingbird magnet! (Photo by Jeannette Bragger)

As we walk, we watch, we listen, we stop, we puzzle over plants, we learn and, most importantly, we talk to visitors and answer their questions. Here are a few answers for some of the many questions we got this summer:

Yes, these are Painted Turtles! They sun themselves to warm up and to maintain overall good health.

The question we couldn’t answer was why the smaller turtles were standing on the bigger turtle, and did the bigger turtle mind? ( Photo by Jeannette Bragger)

We thought this looked like Pac-Man devouring a Blue Dasher (dragonfly)! “Who is Pac-Man?” a 5-year-old asked us. Actually, it’s a Fragrant White Water Lily pad with the dragonfly in the right place at the right time.

What’s the stuff that looks like spaghetti? It’s Common Dodder, a parasitic plant that attaches itself to the stems of other plants and draws nutrients from them (known as a stem holoparasite). Unchecked, it can choke out other plants. We didn’t used to have as much of it here because it doesn’t usually thrive in colder climates. But with climate change, Common Dodder has become more abundant.

What’s that fragrance? Yes, that’s the Sweet Pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia). Breathe in deeply and savor the aroma! Look at the buds and the leaves and the individual flowers on the long stem (also known as a raceme).

Sweet Pepperbush (Photo by Jeannette Bragger)

Silver Spring, like every trail at Wellfleet Bay, usually has a few surprises if you stop, look, listen, smell, and sometimes walk silently.

I think what also makes Judy, Irwin, and me a good team is that we share a sense of wonder. No matter how often we’ve seen a flower, it’s always exciting to see it emerge again. Being a naturalist on the trails is one of the best learning experiences through which we have all gained a much deeper understanding our environment. And, more than anything, we love being out in nature and being astonished by it.

The Friday morning trail naturalist team: (Left to right) Judy, Jeannette, and Irwin

This post was contributed by Jeannette Bragger, a veteran volunteer naturalist and Piping Plover nesting season monitor. If you’re interested in joining our volunteer naturalists program, please contact Visitor Experience and Outreach Coordinator Christine Bates.

Cape’s Erratic Spring Weather Challenges Birds and Bird Banders

The Spring 2022 banding season was a study in extremes. It began with a combination of mid-April storms to the south, pushing migrating Hermit Thrushes, Golden and Ruby-crowned Kinglets north, and a fog bank forcing them to land on Cape Cod—a phenomenon known as a fall-out. As a result, we banded a record number of these three species. They were accompanied by large numbers of Northern Flickers, which did not turn up in our nets, but were documented during our daily census. Unfortunately, dozens of exhausted Northern Flickers washed up on bayside beaches.

During this period we noted an impact on bird condition. All three species captured during this initial fallout had a 10% lower body mass. Average mass increased as the season progressed (see the table below). In Ruby-crowned Kinglets (RCKI) we saw the same pattern, but it was even more magnified since males arrive before the females. Ruby-crowned Kinglet males were caught up in the April 14-15th weather event, but the females, who arrive later, were less impacted. And our data show female RCKI being at above-average in weight, but males below. If we consider the Golden-crowned Kinglets you can see how the later birds weighed more than the earlier birds. But because the later birds were more likely to be smaller females, the weight difference is even more extreme.

After the first three busy days, the station slowed to a normal capture rate through the end of April and into the first week of May. But then weather impacted our operations again. An extreme wind storm (May 7-10) was followed by four days of fog. This impacted us in several ways: we couldn’t band in the wind (birds can see the nets blowing) and birds tend not to migrate toward the Cape in northeast winds anyway. Fog also keeps local birds from moving around. Meanwhile, it was 80 degrees in Montreal, so migration didn’t stop; the birds just missed the northeast coast completely.

Additional evidence of the dearth of birds during this period of May can be seen in our total lack of male Black-throated Blue Warblers. These birds migrated during the week of bad weather and completely bypassed Cape Cod.

But things got better. When the fog finally lifted, we had our best week of the season from May 16-19. We captured 20-plus catbirds a day as all the second-year birds moved through. From May 20-22 we encountered our only big wave of warblers of the spring, with 11 species captured over the three-day stretch.

Blue Grosbreak (Photo courtesy of Valerie Bourdeau)

After May 22nd things slowed down as the migration season drew to a close. But we had some nice late season surprises, the best being an older male Blue Grosbeak. This bird showed up one day but wasn’t captured. It disappeared the next day and we thought it was gone. But to our surprise, it appeared in one of our nets the following day and we all got to enjoy it. What a stunning bird, with the interplay of the chestnut wing bars on the blue plumage—a beauty!

Although we had lots of slow stretches this spring and missed one portion of migration completely, we still managed to record our highest spring banding total ever with 758 birds –twenty more than in 2021, our previous best year. The burst of birds in April and one good week in May really kept the numbers up and we look forward to looking for more specific patterns once we fully analyze the data.

This post was contributed by master bander James Junda who operates Wellfleet Bay’s bird banding station.

Why Turtles Cross the Road and How You Can Help

Here on the Cape the month of June signals the time in which gravid (egg-bearing) female turtles begin to search for a suitable place to nest. The world we now live in consists of habitat that is often broken up by highways, buildings, and parking lots. There’s evidence to suggest that turtles are drawn to remaining open spaces (often, roads) in their quest for the perfect nesting substrate, a trait which often puts them in harm’s way.

A box turtle in a roadway can look like a rock, a pine cone, or a clump of dead leaves. In this picture, a pine cone is to the left of the turtle.

If you find a turtle in the road, there are a few things you can do to help it cross safely:

·        If you see a turtle moving to the other side of the road, consider allowing it to cross on its own while you monitor its progress. Obviously, this only works if there is no traffic, and it’s safe to do so.

·       If you do decide to assist, always move a turtle in the direction it was
traveling. Move it in as direct a line as possible, and as far off the road as
you realistically can. I’d suggest a minimum of 30 feet, with 50 feet being
ideal. Placing the turtle on the roadside may disorient it and the turtle could move back into the road.

·        Handle the turtle gently and only as much as necessary to get it out of the road. Grasp the sides of the carapace (shell) with two hands behind the front legs and keep it right side up. Many times, frightened turtles will poop when picked up, so you might want to anticipate that!

·        Snapping turtles present some special challenges and moving them should only be done by folks comfortable working with a large,
angry turtle! When approached, snappers will typically go into a defensive posture and may strike if you attempt to handle them. Instead, place a vehicle floor mat or a trunk liner on the road in front of the turtle. Gently push the turtle onto the mat with a blunt object and drag the mat with the turtle on top of it across the road. Never attempt to lift a snapper by its tail as this can permanently harm the animal.

·        Above all, only attempt to help an animal cross when it is safe for you to do so. Pull completely off the road and turn on your hazard lights.

In addition to searching for suitable nesting sites, there are other reasons that turtles move within and out of their home ranges. This can include a shortage of resources which necessitates a range shift or extension.  Young or juvenile turtles will sometimes seek out new territory as they begin to mature. This is particularly true of juvenile male snapping turtles.

At Wellfleet Bay we closely monitor our box turtle population both with capture and release methods as well as radio transmitters. Some of our turtles move very little and have been found in the same general area for a very long time. Others wander over the entire 1100-acre property and have done so for years. Those that we have followed for a long time seem to make the same trek every year, often ending up in the same general area season after season. We are also monitoring four headstarted box turtles, which are now in their third season and beginning to explore beyond where they have resided for the past two years.

An Eastern Box Turtle on the move at Wellfleet Bay.

The next time you come upon a turtle in the road, understand that it knows where it’s going. Our role is to help it get there safely. By assisting turtles along the way and keeping them safe, we are helping to preserve animals that need all of the help they can get.

Tim O’Brien to the rescue of a box turtle. (Photo courtesy of Kim Novino)

This post was contributed by volunteer Tim O’Brien, who conducts box turtle research at Wellfleet Bay. Tim, along with his wife Kim Novino, are also active sea turtle volunteers.

Spring Features Newsworthy Bird Activity at Wellfleet Bay

Spring is always exciting as colorful and charismatic birds move north for a new breeding season. But April 2022 has been especially birdy at the sanctuary, including visits by a couple of  unexpected species.

Birds Making News

First, a lovely male Indigo Bunting sporting his eye-popping blue breeding plumage was spotted for several days, somewhat improbably, on the mud flats of Goose Pond. This wasn’t the only Indigo Bunting reported on the Cape this month, but they are definitely a treat at this time of year.

Indigo Bunting at Goose Pond (Photo by Mark Faherty)

Soon after the first bunting sightings, an adult White Ibis, only the 5th record for Cape Cod, showed up in a Wellfleet Bay saltmarsh creek—another muddy backdrop! Any visitor to Florida can routinely spot these birds, often on the sides of roads in drainage ditches, but it was very cool to see this handsome southerner in a coastal Massachusetts setting.

White Ibis at Wellfleet Bay (Photo courtesy of James Materese).

Kinglets Everywhere

Mid-April has also been remarkable for all the kinglets along the Massachusetts coast, including the Outer Cape. These charming, tiny songbirds showed up in numerous areas along the bayside during the middle of the month, sometimes by the dozens. James Junda, who operates the sanctuary’s bird banding station, says for three days in a row the station recorded more Ruby and Golden-crowned Kinglets each day than are typically seen in an entire spring season! He says the larger than usual numbers may have been caused in part by bad weather in the mid-west pushing migrating flocks east to the Cape.

James Junda holds banded Golden-crowned Kinglet.

 “The good news—they’re all in very good shape, “ James says. “ They have good fat levels and there’s a good mix of ages.” He notes that kinglet numbers at the station were also unusually high last fall, which was also true for Hermit Thrushes and Northern Flickers, two other species that have been seen in large numbers recently. All four species, James says, are among those you’d expect to see moving through this month.

Birding Spring Migration

If you want to experience some of the excitement of spring migration, sign up for a sanctuary bird walk or watch a bird banding demonstration to see and learn about the birds that are passing through or that live here year-round.

A Special Effort to Support Sea Turtle Science 

While it may not seem as gratifying as rescuing a live, cold-stunned sea turtle from a beach, Wellfleet Bay’s sea turtle program serves another important function: as a valuable resource to area scientists working to learn more about sea turtles, their life cycles, and how to better protect them. 

Typically, after each rescue season, sanctuary staff, volunteers, and researchers from government and other scientific organizations gather at a state-of-the-art lab at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to necropsy sea turtles that did not survive the cold-stun period. Many of the scientists collect samples from these turtle carcasses for their respective studies. 

A Shortened Schedule for Samples 

In part because of COVID restrictions last year, we were unable to hold our full schedule of necropsy sessions. But this spring we were determined to necropsy at least enough turtles to provide the necessary samples to keep these important research projects going. In two sessions, Wellfleet Bay sea turtle staff, a handful of volunteers, and invited outside research colleagues gathered at WHOI to necropsy a small portion of the 2021 cold-stun carcasses.  

John Logan, a Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries scientist, takes a small scute sample from a turtle’s shell.

Researchers and Their Studies 

Outside research samplers participating this year were from NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, the Coonamessett Farm Foundation in Falmouth, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, Roger Williams University, and the University of Rhode Island.

One of the researchers, Dr. Matthew Ramirez, a post-doctoral investigator at URI, joined us to take samples for comparing stable isotope data across different sea turtle tissue types (e.g., humerus bone, skull, scute, muscle, skin), which provide information about diet and habitat use over different lengths of time (weeks to years). Dr. Ramirez’s inter-tissue isotope comparisons will increase capabilities of integrating stable isotope data collected from modern studies and historical museum specimens to better understand long-term changes in sea turtle ecology.

Another study, started by Dr. Samir Patel from the Coonamessett Farm Foundation two years ago, involves looking at the bacterial microbiome composition within the digestive systems in cold-stunned sea turtles. This information will be used to improve understanding about turtles’ foraging preferences. Results from the cold-stunned turtles will be compared to gut contents from live caught turtles from the Mid-Atlantic to understand demographic and regional differences between turtle microbiomes. 

Looking Ahead 

While we were pleased to give our colleagues an opportunity to collect new samples for their work, we missed many of our regular necropsy volunteers at this year’s limited sessions. We hope to be able to return to our traditional necropsy sessions before long. We will keep you posted!  

Encouraging Owls at Long Pasture

This winter we were excited to discover Eastern Screech Owls roosting in a nest box installed in a wooded area not far from the Discovery Center.

Although lots of people put up boxes for screech owls, it can take months or years before the owls find them, and often squirrels or mice find them first. In the case of our nest box, it had previously been occupied by a Northern Saw-whet Owl, breeding Wood Ducks, and even a honey bee colony!

One owl is exciting but two has us watching closely for signs of courtship!

Inspired by our recent screech owl activity, plans were made to try to attract a far less common species to the sanctuary—the Barn Owl.

Barn Owls are pretty rare in Massachusetts. They’re listed as a Species as Special Concern, mostly because of the loss of farms and open fields. Their known breeding range is generally limited to the Vineyard and Nantucket. Last year a pair of Barn Owls in Yarmouth lost their nest when a barn’s roof collapsed. One of two owlets survived and was released last September after undergoing three months of rehabilitation at Cape Wildlife Center.

Zak Mertz of Birdsey Cape Wildlife Center holds a Barn Owl chick rescued from a nest destroyed by a collapsed barn roof last summer (Photo courtesy of Birdsey Cape Wildlife Center staff).

It’s our hope that the new nest box  at Long Pasture will draw any Barn Owls that may be scouting out a new nest site or looking for a roosting space next winter.

Putting up a free-standing nest box isn’t complicated, but it does require many helping hands. Our Barn Owl box was built and painted by Long Pasture volunteers Rick Hamel, Lee Hawkins, Mike Poissant, Jeff Keffer, David Winther, and John Richtarik. It was installed with the assistance of students from Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical School in Bourne, who helped lug the hefty box and its three 20-foot-long posts across an open field. Then, very carefully, they raised it.

Once the owl box was raised and secured, metal flashing was applied to each post to deter climbing predators, like raccoons.

Property manager Chris Walz (at left) and sanctuary director Ian Ives (right) add the finishing touch of metal flashing so that raccoons, a leading predator, can’t climb up to the box.

We also applied flashing to the tree where our screech owl box is located after the game camera caught this photo last fall.

They’re cute, but raccoons are major predators of cavity-nesting birds.

We hope Long Pasture visitors will keep an eye on the Barn Owl box. As we’ve learned, you never know who’s going to move in!

The new Barn Owl nest box is best viewed from the Beck Family Trail at Long Pasture.

Box Turtles at Wellfleet Bay in 2021: Secretive Youngsters, New Faces, and Flesh-eating Flies

The 2021 field season for monitoring and studying the sanctuary’s Eastern Box Turtle population has drawn to a close and it was a pretty exciting one! Our headstarted turtles continued to grow and we found more turtles we hadn’t seen before. We also recorded our first instance of flesh-eating flies.

Our headstarted box turtles, now four years old, put on some weight and really extended their range on the property as they began to explore and develop their own home territories. As is the case with young turtles, they are very good at staying hidden. Even with the radio transmitters attached to their shells, they can be difficult to locate.

One headstart turtle in particular (seen below) moved from Eastman’s Field and over to Goose Pond and then back. She ended up brumating (hibernation for reptiles) last October in nearly the same place as she did in 2020. This is also common for box turtles, which frequently exhibit brumation site fidelity.

This young box turtle is faithful to her overwintering burrow (photo by Tim O’Brien).

On a sad note, one of our headstarts died in brumation in its first winter. The cause remains a mystery. The digital temperature monitor placed into her brumation burrow to record the winter soil temperatures did not indicate that she was exposed to freezing temps in the burrow and her weight was good when she entered brumation. We don’t clearly understand the survivability of young turtles and particularly those that die during brumation. This is one of the box turtle mysteries we’d like to unlock.

These two new turtles, an adult and a juvenile, were found on the same day last summer (photo by Tim O’Brien).

One of the indicators of a healthy turtle population is juvenile recruitment, that is, the addition of new turtles to the population. At Wellfleet Bay we sometimes find young box turtles and adults that we have never recorded before.  This is good because new turtles can provide some genetic diversity. This year we found a higher than usual number of new turtles.  It’s possible in some cases they are just passing through and we’ll never see them again. But some of the young turtles we’ve discovered in past years are seen every year now and someday, we hope, will help keep our population stable.

This new youngster was discovered last summer. Finding new juvenile box turtles is pretty unusual, especially since they tend to hide very well (photo by Tom O’Brien).

Something we haven’t seen at the sanctuary before—signs of flesh-eating flies. Box turtles can sometimes become infected with them. Late this season one turtle exhibited an exit hole from a sarcophagid or flesh-eating fly larvae. These flies, of which there are numerous species, use the box turtle (or other organism) as a host for their larvae to eat and develop within.  This process is called “cutaneous myiasis” and it’s a natural one. Small localized infestations on a turtle are typically not an issue for a healthy animal, but more severe infestations can be serious. Are the flies just now coming to Wellfleet or have they always been here and we just missed them? We’ll pay close attention this question this coming summer.

This fly larvae exit hole isn’t something we’ve seen before in the sanctuary’s box turtle population, though the flies have been known to parasitize other box turtles on the Cape (photo by Tim O’Brien).

We reviewed the turtle found with myiasis with a reptile veterinarian and, happily, we determined that no larvae were present within the turtle. The larvae had completed that stage of their life cycle and left the host, so no medical intervention was required.

What’s on tap for box turtle monitoring in 2022? The continuation of our decades-old mark/recapture studies, the monitoring of our headstarts and, we hope, the creation of a searchable box turtle data base for the sanctuary. One thing is certain–there is always plenty of work to do!

Box turtle volunteer Tim O’Brien with a headstarted juvenile in October 2020 (photo by Kim Novino)

The following post was contributed by volunteer Tim O’Brien, a box turtle researcher. Tim, along with his wife Kim Novino, are also active sea turtle volunteers.

Regional Director’s Message: Year’s Gifts Have Come in Many Forms

This is the time of year when our collective attention turns to gifts. So for this seasonal message I’d like to unwrap the meaning of gift and offer those that come “without ribbons. [That come] without tags…without packages, boxes or bags.”

Day Camp returned in 2021!

Look up the word gift in the Merriam Webster dictionary and the first definition provided is “noun: a notable capacity, talent, or endowment.”

The past year was filled with countless illustrations of notable talent and skill demonstrated by Mass Audubon Cape Cod staff and volunteers. It is these gifts that are at the heart of our region’s success and accomplishments. Presented here are some shining examples from the past year:

January: Meticulously recording and finalizing data for the 2020 cold-stunned season to officially reveal that it was the second largest number of cold-stunned sea turtle strandings on record (1000-plus!)

February: Navigating the nuances and frenzy of open enrollment for Summer Day Camp and early registration for local families which increased opportunities for Cape kids to attend camp at a discounted rate.

March: Learning a new technological platform to deliver the 25th Cape Cod Natural History Conference online so local research—spanning the subjects of microplastics in seals to nesting Bald Eagles on Cape Cod—could be shared with over 250 registrants.

April: Tapping into professional know-how of engaging children creatively in the outdoors while simultaneously meeting COVID safety protocols so we could run April Vacation Adventures and get “back outside actually TOUCHING real-life nature again with all our kiddos!”

Members of Team Cape Cod during Bird-a-thon

May: Focusing tirelessly (for way more than 24-hours!) on Bird-a-thon, building both awareness of and a community of enthusiastic birders which resulted in record-breaking fundraising for our region’s bird conservation and education programs.

June: Lending a helping hand to herptiles (reptiles and amphibians) was an exciting theme this month: the first-ever documented breeding of trans-located spadefoot toads in Massachusetts occurred in a vernal pool that we created at Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary; the surprise discovery, and subsequent rescue, of a tiny ring-necked snake discovered at the ocean’s edge during a Field School walk in Truro; and the identification and protection of over 400 terrapin nests in five sites in three towns (Wellfleet, Eastham, Orleans) monitored by 160 volunteers and three staff yielded 5,000 terrapin hatchlings—that is 1,000 more baby turtles than last year!

Blockbuster visitor numbers in 2021

July: Realizing record-breaking visitation at Wellfleet Bay with over 8,300 people counted at the admissions desk (more than 1,500 than previous record), and realizing how vital time spent outside in nature is to so many people, and how important our welcoming sanctuaries are in the grand scheme of things.

August: Logging in countless hours of labor cleaning the buildings, managing rubbish and recycling, mowing fields, and maintaining trails to make our sanctuaries inviting and safe for record-breaking visitation!

Long Pasture’s new Discovery Center opened for business in September.

September: Orchestrating a magical celebration and ribbon-cutting for the Discovery Center’s opening at Long Pasture that brought friends, colleagues and supporters together for our first in-person event in a very long time.

October: Wielding chainsaws for days to tackle fallen trees—oaks, cherries, cedars, and pines—toppled by a powerful nor’easter that ripped through Massachusetts and affected all of our sanctuaries on the Cape with blocked trails and power outages.

November: Enjoying the return of schoolchildren and college groups for in-person programming at the sanctuaries including students from Monomoy Regional Middle School studying bird migration and undergrads from Penn State’s Adventure Literature program.

Sea turtle rescue was covered by YouTube channel Brave Wilderness.

December: Managing scores of media inquiries and visits from reporters and documentary filmmakers all interested in capturing video and stories about cold-stunned sea turtle rescue, and raising international awareness of our important work as first-responders in this impactful conservation program!

Now as January approaches, staff will begin to get together to plan another exciting year of educational programs for all ages and audiences, summer camp, preschool, wildlife science and monitoring, ecological management, campground reservations, volunteer training, and much, much more.

I am incredibly proud of being part of such a talented and dedicated group of people—a true gift and source of endless pride. Happy New Year!

This post was contributed by Melissa Lowe, Regional Director of Mass Audubon Cape Cod.

Warm Fall Followed by Steady Flow of Cold Sea Turtles

Every cold-stun sea turtle season has its special characteristics and this year’s will be known for how long it lasted— well into January!

A sea turtle rescuer points the way at Eastham’s First Encounter Beach.

As of this posting, we’ve rescued or recovered over 700 sea turtles, our fourth busiest year. Last year we had over 1,000 by the end of the season. But now that we’re about half-way through January, it’s clear the season is finally wrapping up.

Because of a very warm fall, the first cold-stunned turtles came in about two weeks later than usual, November 17th. After that, they came in almost daily, including one 94-turtle day.

Note balloon string at both ends of this Kemp’s ridley.

One noteworthy turtle was a live Kemp’s ridley with a balloon string running through its entire GI tract. We’ve only seen this situation in two turtles from previous years and both were dead. We’re looking forward to hearing more about the latest turtle and our fingers are crossed for its full recovery.

Two stranded turtles have had tags, meaning both were previous cold-stun victims. A green sea turtle found on Nantucket, unfortunately, was dead. The turtle was rehabbed last winter and released in June at West Dennis Beach. We also had a return ridley, a turtle that stranded last fall and was rehabbed and released off North Carolina last spring. Happily, it was alive when it was rescued by Michael Lach at Ellis Landing in Brewster!

Our awesome corps of volunteers covered miles of beaches from Dennis to Provincetown, many of them walking on some cold, windy overnight and predawn beach patrols.

One of Great Island’s “regular crew”, Bruce Hurter (Photo by David Roy)

Wellfleet—and Great Island in particular–was a stranding hot spot. This 3-mile-long barrier beach in Wellfleet requires almost daily coverage and a round-trip walk of 6 miles! We’re constantly amazed by the “regular crew”—Bruce Hurter, Bruce Beane, Charlie Sullivan and John Cumbler, all of whom walk that long, often lonely trip. We’re also grateful that the Cape Cod National Seashore rangers frequently patroled that stretch by truck, often giving our turtles a lift and bringing them to the sanctuary.

Left to right, NPS rangers Valora and Farrell with a Great Island loggerhead. (Photo by Will Freedberg)

A shout-out, too, to the volunteers who were ready to drive turtles to the New England Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital in Quincy and the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay, sometimes with only a hour’s notice!

Sea turtle volunteer Nancy Rabke prepares to drive multiple turtles to Quincy. (Photo by Kelly Sattman)

We also want to acknowledge all the casual beach walkers who kept an eye out for stranded sea turtles, folks walking their dogs and those visiting the Cape for a weekend, including this familiar-looking guy who responded to a stranded ridley at Ryder Beach in Truro!

Mass Audubon President David O’Neill responds to a rescued Kemp’s ridley at Ryder Beach.

The season concluded, as it usually does, with loggerheads. To our amazement, several of these larger turtles were still alive when they stranded, despite being exposed to much colder January temperatures. In one case, our sea turtle team was directed to administer preliminary first aid by “swimming” two loggerheads so that they could start to warm up a bit and re-hydrate. The New England Aquarium’s Sarah DiCarlo, on the phone, gave instructions as our staff oversaw activity in the baby pools!

Wellfleet Bay’s US Fish & Wildlife permit authorizes our sea turtle staff not only to rescue endangered sea turtles from beaches, but, when requested, to administer first aid to animals before they are transported to rehabilitation.

2021 Sea Turtle Stats

Total 733
By Species
Kemp’s ridley617
Green23
Loggerhead92
By Town
Provincetown2
Truro175
Wellfleet216
Eastham144
Orleans28
Chatham1
Brewster123
Dennis33
Barnstable5
Martha’s Vineyard1
Nantucket3
Scusset1
Hull1

Long Wait for Cold-stunned Sea Turtles is Finally Over

Given our unusually warm fall, it’s probably no surprise that it took longer for the sea turtles remaining in our waters to become cold enough to start washing ashore. In fact, this year is the latest start ever for the Cape’s annual cold-stun event.

For more than 40 years, sea turtles that feed along Cape Cod Bay in summer have become trapped by the Cape’s hook shape. It started in the 1970’s with just a few; last year it was over 1,000. As the water temperatures fall below 60 degrees, sea turtles start to slow down. When those temperatures near 50, turtles become immobile and cold-stunned, and start washing ashore.

A mid-November cool snap and gusty northwest winds finally brought in the first three cold-stunned Kemp’s ridleys around Rock Harbor in Orleans and Eastham on the 17th.

These two young Kemp’s ridley sea turtles at Rock Harbor and Boat Meadow Beaches were among the first rescued.

Despite the delayed start to the season, our turtle staff kept busy.

At beach parking lots and paths, new signs were posted displaying photos of cold-stunned turtles and information about what to do should you find one. Our team distributed 90 new beach signs.

Staffers Jessica Ciarcia and Michaela Wellman install one of the new cold-stun sea turtle information signs which include photographs to help the public identify stranded turtles.

As volunteers waited for the first turtles to strand, they were encouraged to reacquaint themselves with their assigned walking beaches. That’s because “winter beaches” can be dramatically different than summer beaches, with higher than usual tides and erosion that can leave very little sand to walk on. It can be even harder to follow at night!

Eastham’s Boat Meadow Beach, a stretch north of Rock Harbor, is known for its irregular shoreline, frequent overwashes and marshy patches that can snag turtles. Waterproof footwear is definitely required!

We’re also thinking about more efficient ways to scour the beaches for cold-stunned turtles, especially the extensive tidal flats between Brewster and Eastham.

Recently, members of the sea turtle team led by sanctuary director emeritus Bob Prescott worked with drone pilot Steve Furlong to see if flying a drone across the beach and the flats would help detect turtles.

Talking to the pilot by phone, Bob directs the drone (above). Test turtles of varying sizes were placed on the flats and the main beach to see if they were visible on the drone’s camera.

A recent test showed that despite flying the drone at relatively low altitudes, it was difficult to distinguish a plastic model of a small Kemp’s ridley from a patch of codium (a dark green, clumpy seaweed), so work continues on ways to improve identifying turtle-sized objects on the beach.