Monthly Archives: July 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Neighborly Nest Watchers Aid Terrapins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


His Wish to See a Turtle is Spot On!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a Better Fly Trap: Day Campers Conduct Science Experiment

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

Other worldly-looking things which appeared in the field!

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

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


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

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

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

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

The black sphere looks and feels like an exercise ball.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


The Anatomy of a Horseshoe Crab Study

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

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

Horseshoe crab with acoustic tag, courtesy of Mike Long

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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