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 that had just finished nesting. After
laying their eggs, turtles are checked (if possible) for shell notching or internal PIT tags
so we can record their IDs. (Photo courtesy of Heather Pilchard.)

Solid Numbers

Nest numbers ranged from steady to above last year’s results: sixty-eight 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.

Bringing Back the Spadefoot: What We’ve Learned at Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary

The Eastern Spadefoot Toad gets its name from distinctive protruding cartilage “spades” on its hind feet. This feature helps the animal to dig itself quickly below ground where it spends much of its life, emerging on warm stormy nights to feed and breed in temporary water bodies.

Historically widespread in Massachusetts, the spadefoot is now found in only a handful of locations in the state due to development. It’s classified as threatened on the state’s endangered species list. The two remaining population strongholds occur on Cape Cod, including Sandy Neck Barrier Beach in Barnstable and the Provincelands in the Cape Cod National Seashore.

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

More than ten years ago, we wondered—could a spadefoot toad population on the Cape be restored and, if so, where?

In 2011, Long Pasture Sanctuary director Ian Ives and Bryan Windmiller of Zoo New England set out to re-establish the species at Mass Audubon’s Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary in East Falmouth. Back in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, spadefoots were documented to have existed at Ashumet. By the early 2000’s, they were all but gone. 

It was determined that restoring spadefoots at Ashumet would require “seeding” individuals from the healthy Sandy Neck population.  This would involve collecting eggs and tadpoles, headstarting them (by partnering with Cape Cod schools) and translocating the young toads—or toadlets– to breeding pools created specifically for spadefoots.

Like wood frogs, spadefoots depend on temporary pools of water free of fish and other predators to successfully breed. At Ashumet, we created or restored seven vernal pools of varying sizes and depths. Over the years, we have raised and released 40,000 spadefoots. (We’ve learned that school children are very good at captive-rearing toads!)

One of the vernal pools created at Ashumet Holly for reintroducing spadefoot toads. (Photo by Jay Cordeiro)

But the real work is determining the toads’ survival rate and what they require to successfully reproduce and maintain a viable population.

Most spadefoot tadpoles never make it out of their pools due to water drying before they metamorphose (develop into young toads). We remove that limitation from the equation by translocating newly metamorphosed toads to Ashumet. Over hundreds of search hours in the last 9 years, we have confirmed that at least 123 translocated toads have survived at Ashumet. And through marking and recapturing, we’ve learned that some toads have survived for at least 4 years.

One very young spadefoot toad, one of thousands released over the last 10 years at Ashumet Holly. (Photo by Jay Cordeiro)

Our search for a better way to find our translocated spadefoots has led to an intriguing partnership with Dr. Kristine Hoffman at St. Lawrence University, who’s been working with Newt, a toad-sniffing detector dog!  Newt, a Labrador retriever, has the potential to increase overall capture effort and provide us with greater detail on our population. Newt continues to progress in his training having successfully located toads in the wild this season.

Even when they’re visible, spadefoots are very difficult to see. (Photo by Jay Cordeiro)

We also need to find evidence of breeding. Unlike spring peepers, which begin to call for mates after the first warm rainy night in March and continue through spring, spadefoots have more specific requirements. They need heavy rains and high water tables to sustain any temporary pools long enough for their eggs and tadpoles to develop. Due to reduced spring rainfall on the Cape, spadefoots at Ashumet have not had these conditions present in the last 2 years, which may have discouraged any potential breeding attempts. Another challenge the toads face in the Northeast—the northern end of their range—is relatively cool spring weather. Cool temperatures retard the development rate of spadefoot tadpoles, confounding their ability to get out of their pools in time.  Adaptations that were effective in warm climates are seemingly less successful in cooler regions, effectively explaining their rarity in Massachusetts, and complicating our efforts to restore their populations.

Despite regular visual and dip net surveys and even audio recordings “listening” for calling male toads, we’ve found no evidence of breeding so far at Ashumet Holly. Why? In addition to the adaptive challenges we’ve mentioned, there are many other variables at play. For instance: many amphibians return to the pools where they started their lives. Does this apply to spadefoots and are translocated animals at a disadvantage? Our work has led to another question–are male spadefoot breeding calls innate or learned? Could our captive-raised animals be missing out on an important lesson?

Cape Cod school children have demonstrated they are very good at headstarting spadefoot toads. (Photo by Jay Cordeiro)

We are slowly testing individual hypotheses to rule out potential causes and get closer to the answers, so stay tuned for updates from the 2021 field season!

This post was contributed by Jay Cordeiro, Spadefoot Toad Project Coordinator and Ian Ives, director, Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary. Ian recently spoke about the spadefoot project at the annual meeting of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey.

Sanctuaries’ Purple Martin Colonies Becoming Hot Real Estate

For Cape Cod bird lovers, there are many rites of spring; hearing the first buzzy call of a phoebe or witnessing a returning Osprey or Piping Plover. People prepare their hummingbird feeders and clean out nest boxes in the hope they’ll eventually be filled with baby birds.

At Wellfleet Bay, we recently spotted our first Purple Martins, a relatively new breeding species for the sanctuary, as they return from their wintering grounds in South America. In this part of the world, martins generally nest in colonies and are almost totally dependent on people for nesting habitat—whether it’s old structures or nest boxes designed especially for them. On the Cape there are fewer than a half-dozen colonies.

A 24-unit Purple Martin condo complex at our sister sanctuary, Long Pasture, comes with an amazing view of Barnstable Harbor. (Photo by Heidi Filmer-Gallagher)

Back in 2015, we installed brand new Purple Martin “condos”, gourd-shaped PVC nest boxes that hang side by side from brackets attached to a pole. In that first season, our condos attracted only one bird, a sub-adult from a Mashpee colony (many martins have color-bands to help track where their young turn up the following spring). The next year brought our first pair of nesting birds from colonies in Mashpee and Connecticut. That pair produced two chicks, one of which, a female, has been breeding at our sister sanctuary, Long Pasture, for the last couple of years!

Newly hatched martin chicks don’t look too cute at first but their nests are beautifully decorated with fresh leaves and grasses. (Photo by Chris Walz)

Last summer Wellfleet Bay’s 12-unit condo was filled with nests that produced a total of 33 chicks! At Long Pasture a 24-unit martin condo installed in 2017 has been nearly sold-out since 2019. Last year it produced 81 fledglings.

It’s pretty hard to miss Purple Martins. They’re large swallows—the largest—and males are a midnight blue with black wings. They’re also very vocal, producing a series of pretty chirps and chitters, often as they hang out on the nesting gourds or as they fly. They’re very tolerant of people and probably the only bird at the sanctuary that rivals wild turkeys as crowd-pleasers!

A female martin feeds her chicks. A male, possibly her mate, stands guard at right. So much of martin life during the breeding season can be easily observed from a distance. (Photo by Jeannette Bragger)

Besides a dependency on people for housing, Purple Martins face another challenge on the Cape; our notoriously cold, wet springs can reduce flying insects, which the birds depend upon for food. At the start of the 20th century, a spring cold spell basically wiped out the local martin population.

Purple Martin housing has more requirements than simply erecting a gourd rack or “apartment house”. Martins won’t nest just anywhere. Their nest boxes should be installed in open areas away from trees and near water. You also have to watch regularly to make sure aggressive, introduced species like House Sparrows and European Starlings don’t move in; they can remove and kill martin eggs and chicks. Pole guards should be installed so that other predators, like raccoons and snakes, can’t climb up and wreak havoc.

This spring, thanks to a generous grant from CAF Canada, a second 12-unit Purple Martin condo complex has been installed at Wellfleet Bay. We can’t wait to see how long the new vacancies last!

Wellfleet Bay’s second new gourd rack at right. Will it have tenants this year?

Mass Audubon Cape Cod would like to thank both CAF Canada and Bill Leitch for funding the latest Purple Martin gourd racks at Wellfleet Bay and Long Pasture, respectively. Wellfleet Bay’s first Purple Martin nest rack was donated by Bird Watcher’s General Store.

Babies’ First Brumation: How Young Box Turtles Survived their First Winter

The arrival of spring brings the emergence of the sanctuary’s eastern box turtle population, six to seven months after they began their transition to brumation (reptile hibernation) in the fall.

One of our exciting box turtle projects last year was the release of five headstarted box turtles reared by students at Bristol Agricultural High School in Dighton.

These are the 5 young box turtles headstarted for two years at Bristol Agricultural High School
just before they were released at the sanctuary last May. (Photo by Tim O’Brien)

These turtles originated on property that abuts the sanctuary in late 2018. The folks at Bristol Aggie kept them until May of 2020 when each turtle’s average weight was about 200 grams—approximately that of a 4–5-year-old turtle! At that weight, the shell begins to ossify and the plastral hinge is functioning, allowing them to fully withdraw into their shell and resist predators. We released all five on the sanctuary property last May, equipped with radio transmitters, and have been monitoring their progress since.

A close view of a headstarted turtle wearing its transmitter. (Photo by Tim O’Brien)

Last summer was hot and dry, and in the fashion of young turtles, our headstarts spent most of their time hidden. We released them in different areas of the sanctuary and after some initial movement, they settled in. Over the entire season, we monitored their weights to make sure they were eating and maintaining hydration. They all sustained their weight and a couple actually gained some weight. I looked in on them 2-3 times per month. One turtle’s radio transmitter failed, so the whereabouts of that animal remains unknown, although it’s likely still on the property. As turtles begin to emerge this month, I’ll focus on finding that turtle and changing out the bad transmitter.

Because these turtles spent their first two winters in the care of Bristol Aggie, we were keen to learn if they would know how and when to enter into brumation. They all did fine. As is typical of box turtles, most selected brumation sites in the woods and buried themselves in soft detritus. One turtle went its own way and brumated in a field with no canopy cover, unusual but not unheard of. We looked in on them once a month throughout the winter and measured the length and depth of their burrows. And now for answering the big question: How did the head starts fare in brumation?

On a recent warm April afternoon walk, I looked in on the young turtles. All were still in brumation, but one turtle (#86.1), was sitting at the mouth of her burrow with head extended as if contemplating emergence.

This little box turtle looks very ready for spring! (Photo by Tim O’Brien)

I suspect that the cooler weather that immediately followed pushed her back into her burrow to wait for another day, but it is very gratifying to know that she made it through her first brumation cycle! Her temperature data logger will show us the temperatures that she experienced in the burrow all winter. After she emerges, I’ll change out her transmitter and follow her again this year. It is our hope and expectation that she will establish a home territory on the sanctuary property and contribute many offspring over the years. We’ll keep you posted!

Tim O’Brien is a veteran volunteer at Wellfleet Bay and when he’s not tracking down box turtles with his radio antenna, he and his wife Kim Novino are rescuing cold-stunned sea turtles and occasionally injured diamondback terrapins

Spring Brings Birds and Banders

It’s always exciting to have bird research back at Wellfleet Bay where bird banding on the property dates back to the 1920’s. Last year the spring migrants returned, but the bird banders could not, due to the COVID-19 epidemic.

Banding station operator James Junda and his second bander (and spouse) Valerie Bourdeau were able to resume operations in the fall, but were limited to managing with just one volunteer per shift to check up to 25 mist nets each hour. “For COVID safety reasons we could only use volunteers capable of extracting birds on their own,” James reports. Experienced volunteers were a big help, but James says he also looks forward to being able to bring back a few more volunteers this year when conditions allow.

Socially distanced but still working together. Volunteer Jeannette Bragger (left) records data last fall as banders James and Val call it out.

Last year’s fall migration was productive. James reports the most species diversity since the station began operations in 2014, with 81 species recorded. The banders also had a rare “foreign” recapture—a young Gray Catbird they netted at the end of September that had been banded across the bay in Brewster earlier in the month.

It was an especially good fall for catbirds, which was the station’s most common species last year. Despite the summer’s severe drought, a number of plants at the sanctuary produced a good crop of berries and fruit-loving birds, like catbirds, cardinals, and vireos responded.

“Another fruit-eating species, the Yellow-rumped Warbler, had its biggest fall ever at the station and was the fourth on our “most captured” list,” James notes. But he also notes, the banding station in Brewster reported a drop in yellow-rumps, which shows why it’s important to look at data both locally, regionally, and throughout the flyway to draw meaningful conclusions.

This Swainson’s Thrush was one of 8 captured last fall. Usually, the banding station gets only a few.

Nevertheless, fruit-eating birds were definitely a recurring theme in Wellfleet last fall. The station also banded higher than usual numbers of far less common fruit lovers: Swainson’s Thrush, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Philadelphia Vireo, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

There was also a new species for the banding station in 2020—a Common Redpoll. This bird wasn’t here for fruit, but was part of the flood of “winter finches” that poured into the area due to to a poor seed crop in their usual wintering grounds in the far northern US and Canada.

A Common Redpoll shows the red on the head that gives it its common name. Adult males also
have a rosy wash on the chest, indicating this bird was either an adult female or a hatch year bird.

Below are the top 30 species recorded for each of the past 7 fall banding seasons.