Author Archives: Jenette

Wellfleet Bay Volunteer Has Catbird’s Seat at Banding Station

As any new birder knows, identifying birds beyond the backyard regulars can be frustratingly slow-going.

But volunteer Mary Lou Heintz was determined to learn her birds. An avid fan of all things outdoors, she took an intensive weekend course in bird banding when she lived in Connecticut.

A year ago, Mary Lou moved to Harwich and wanted a chance to get more experience. “I talked to Mark (Faherty) about helping out (master bander) James Junda and he said ‘Why not?’. Then when I asked James, he just said ‘Take a seat!'”

The bird banding crew (left to right): Mary Lou, James and Dan.

The bird banding crew (left to right): Mary Lou, James and assistant bander Dan Lipp.

That was last spring and Mary Lou has been sitting at the banding table with James through two migration seasons.

The station records a bird's species, age, sex, weight, wing length and which net caught the bird.

The station records a bird’s species, age, sex, weight, wing length and which net caught the bird.

She has spent much of her time as data recorder and, of course, watching James quickly and ably band, weigh, measure and age birds that are caught in the 17 mist nets stationed around the sanctuary.

Given her eight weeks of apprenticeship, James has started to put Mary Lou to small tests “When we’re checking the (mist) nets,” she recounts, ” he and Dan will say, ‘Okay, what bird is that, Mary Lou?'”.

Then, there’s  the delicate and crucial art of safely removing a netted bird. The rule of thumb is : first remove one wing, then the head, the other wing, and the feet.

Slowly, gently, and under James Junda's supervision, the bird is removed from the mist net

Slowly, gently, and under James Junda’s supervision, the bird is removed from the mist net

Mary Lou says her seat at the banding table and seeing birds up close has taught her the importance of identifying birds by narrowing down the choices based on bill and wing shape.  “Sometimes they’d show me a simple fall goldfinch and I’d want to think it’s something else,” she says.

Name that bird (BLPW)-reduced

Name that bird!

But by this late stage of fall migration, Mary Lou knows James is holding a warbler (slender bill compared to the  goldfinch’s wider one). But it was still tricky…except for those yellow feet, a great field mark for identifying  Blackpoll Warblers in the fall!

Note the very yellow feet of this bird

Note the very yellow feet of this bird

For all the seriousness with which she takes her learning opportunity, Mary Lou says there’ve been many fun moments banding birds. “Getting out at sunrise every day, holding birds, working with James who’s so intelligent and patient,” she says.  Mary Lou loves seeing raptors up close but says a small collection of kinglets that came through one day was also pretty special.

A kinglet collection from left to right: female golden-crowned, male golden-crowned, male ruby-crowned (by Dan Lipp)

A kinglet collection, from left to right: female golden-crowned, male golden-crowned, male ruby-crowned. (photo by Dan Lipp)

Wellfleet Bay’s banding station, overseen by master bander James Junda, operates during spring and fall migration. Bird banding is the foundation of bird research. It also presents the opportunity to directly engage the public with birds, their remarkable adaptations, and the importance of conserving their habitats.

The Life and Letters of Diamondback Terrapin Monitors

They travel in small packs and are as reliable as the next high tide. You’ve probably seen them, outfitted with backpacks often stuffed with small blue flags.

Wellfleet Bay’s dedicated terrapin volunteers—citizen scientists, actually—take turns covering all known nesting sites in Wellfleet, Eastham and Orleans. Teams go out each morning and evening in June and July, looking for nesting turtles or signs of a newly laid nest so that eggs can be protected with a predator exclosure cage.  In August and September, the process resumes to watch for hatchlings.

Checking for late season nests on Lieutenant Island

Checking for late season nests on Lieutenant Island

Terrapin folks keep in touch daily through an email group in which they speak their own kind of abbreviated language: (“There is a PE in the last Way 100 TG that does not have a nest tag on it. Does anyone know anything about it?”). Sometimes an email reports a shift as having been uneventful but concludes with a naturalist’s flourish:  (“0 nests, 0 tracks, 0 terrapins, 1 dead shrew”).

And consider this somewhat startling email on July 6 from Barbara Brennessel : “Found one terrapin strolling around the Mobil station in Wellfleet”.

Veteran turtle monitor Denis Ambrose is famous for his poetic field reports:

A warm sunny morn
Perfect I could have sworn
With so many nests all week
A place to nest I thought they would seek
But all we found was a depredated nest
That darn raccoon sure is a pest.

Raccoon inspects turtle garden (WBWS)

Raccoon inspects turtle garden (WBWS)


As with any wildlife conservation effort, there are often disappointing experiences, such as this report from Lieutenant Island posted by Sue Reiher on June 25th:

A discouraging 6 depredated nests this morning; 1 on the road just passed the Electric Garden, 2 along lower Way 100, 2 at Turtle Point and 1 on upper Way 100 for a total of 40 eggs.  It looks like some entire eggs, shards and all, were carried away by the marauding raccoon and some nests looked like they had been bombed.     

Depredated Terrapin Nest (Ron Kielb)

This is what just one depredated terrapin nest looks like (Ron Kielb)

But there are uplifting moments, too. Karl and Judy Goldkamp often share some of the beauty of the marshes and uplands where they walk:

Some flowers blooming caught our eye.  Saint John’s Wort (medicinal and invasive) yellow. Called St. John’s because it blooms at Saint John’s day (June 24th). And the Butterfly weed, also know as Pleurisy Root and listed in the US Pharmacopeia up until recently, has a great botanical name— Asclepias tuberosa. Couldn’t resist displays of color while on search for terrapins.

Butterfly Weed in Orleans, Karl Goldkamp

Butterfly Weed in Orleans, Karl Goldkamp

And on July 1st, with a morning of unsettled weather on Lieutenant Island, shift leader Karen Strauss shared her outing with the group:

Joyce and I were at LI this morning, enjoying the beauty of a marsh shrouded in fog. We listened to the rolling thunder get close faster than it was supposed to and hoped to get done before the skies opened up.  At Yucca we found a huge hole dug by a fox, sand scattered widely, with what we at first thought was a viable egg left behind. Alas it was cracked. We headed back to the cars. Lightening flashing in the sky.

Still, with the exception of times when nests are destroyed, turtles are hit by cars, or brutal green head flies are feasting on exposed skin, it seems there are very few bad days to be a terrapin monitor.


photo by Ronald Kielb

2014’s first nest on Lieutenant Island (photo by Ronald Kielb

Veteran Hawk Watcher Logs 16th Year

Don Manchester scans the horizon for spring migrants

Don Manchester scans the horizon for spring migrants

Don Manchester, Wellfleet Bay’s dedicated hawk watcher, says apex predators have always fascinated him. But hawks have been special.

” There’s something regal about them. I love the way they soar and dive. Whether I was working or fishing, I’d always stop if a hawk was around.”

After retiring as a surveyor (a good job for a hawk watcher), Don spotted an ad for a volunteer to man the Hawk Watch at Pilgrim Heights in Truro. He’s been there for 16 springs and intends to mark his 20th.

Don’s all-time high for numbers of raptors in a single season is about 2700. This year has been slower with only about 900 recorded. But among those 900 were some rare kites—a Mississippi and an even rarer Swallow-tailed Kite, a bird usually found no farther north than South Carolina. Don’s sightings of these birds will be included in the spring migration report of the Hawk Migration Association of North America where he has sent his data for the last 16 years.

Swallow-tail Kite, April 24, 2015 (photo by Don Manchester)

Swallow-tail Kites, April 24, 2015 (photo by Don Manchester)

The pleasures of the Hawk Watch include more than avian delights. Don says from his perch overlooking East Harbor, the bay and the ocean he has enjoyed many great wildlife moments.

“The other day a pack of coyotes serenaded me from the dunes— in the middle of the day,” he says. “After they stopped, an ambulance went by and they started up all over again!”

A  fisher is caught on camera in May near Pilgrim Heights

A fisher is caught on camera in May near Pilgrim Heights (photo by Don Manchester)


How Go the Plovers: A Coastal Waterbird Team Status Report

Piping Plover season is in full swing in the Outer Cape.  The past several weeks have seen the addition of three nests, the loss of three nests, and most recently, four chicks hatching at one of our beaches!

Piping Plover Chick at Brewster's Crosby Landing (photo by Rachel Smiley)

Piping Plover chick at Brewster’s Crosby Landing (photo by Rachel Smiley)

Nesting Piping Plovers face many threats and as monitors we’re doing our best to alleviate the stress on the birds as much as possible.  The most effective way we can do this is to fence in good nesting habitat.  The plovers’ best defense is their coloration which completely camouflages them as any plover monitor can attest!  Even when we know exactly what we’re looking for, it can seem almost impossible to spot a nest.  The fencing ensures that people walking on the beach don’t step on a well hidden plover nest.

Piping Plover incubates a nest (photo by Rachel Smiley)

Piping Plover incubates a nest (photo by Rachel Smiley)

Along with human activities, plovers face many other threats.   Fox, coyote, crow, and even owl tracks can be seen frequently along the beaches.  All of these, along with other predators such as raptors, raccoons, and even domestic pets endanger the nesting birds.  We’ve already lost one nesting adult to a fox and an egg to a crow.

Great Horned Owl tracks at Truro's Fisher Beach

Great Horned Owl tracks at Truro’s Fisher Beach (photo by Rachel Smiley)

Despite all of the threats they face, one of our plover pairs at Crosby Landing has survived through 26 days of incubating and hatched chicks.  Now the hard part begins— the parents have to keep track of four active chicks!  Hopefully, our other nests will see the same success.

A Plover pair: female at the left, male to the right (photo by Rachel Smiley)

A plover pair: female at the left, male to the right (photo by Rachel Smiley)

Rachel Smiley will be starting her junior year at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. She is a Natural Resources major.

Early Returns from Springtime Bird Banding

Our bird banding station has opened for spring business.  As of mid-April, we were seeing what you’d pretty much expect. But, as always, getting such a close look at even the most common birds is a pleasure.

Tree swallows, hopped up on breeding hormones, have inadvertently flown into the mist nets a few times. This one below is a second year female whose upper parts show only tinges of blue-green color right now.


Second Year Female Tree Swallow

Second Year Female Tree Swallow (photo by Aya Rothwell)

Banding station manager James Junda says next year this bird’s feathers will be all green compared to the dark blue coloring of this male.


Male Tree Swallow (photo by Aya Rothwell)

Handsome male Tree Swallow (photo by Aya Rothwell)

Here’s another second year bird, a male Red-winged Blackbird. While these young fellas aren’t ready to hold down a territory with multiple females (or harems), James says their brown feathering sometimes allows them to blend in with brownish females and breed with them on the sly!

Second year male red-winged blackbird (photo by Aya Rothwell)

Second year male red-winged blackbird (photo by Aya Rothwell)

The final photo shows why banding provides such unique opportunities to appreciate birds at close range. This may be the most colorful Mourning Dove you’ll ever see.


Male Mourning Dove

Male Mourning Dove

Mourning Doves don’t have flashy breeding plumages, but in the hand, you can easily see the iridescent pastels this male has.

If you haven’t been to a banding demonstration make sure you get to at least one session this spring. We can’t wait to see the species that will surprise us!


Horseshoe Crabs and Red Knots—An Old Cape Cod Connection?

Breeding horseshoe crabs are far more plentiful in Orleans than Wellfleet

Breeding horseshoe crabs are far more plentiful in Orleans than Wellfleet

Sanctuary Director’s Message: May 2015


Spring! I think we understand the concept, but it’s something we rarely see on the Outer Cape. This year, it looked like it wasn’t going to be even a remote possibility.

Having said that, the first of the salamanders have migrated and piping plovers and osprey are returning. Water temperatures, however, are still cold and I think it will be a while before the first of the horseshoe crabs come in with the tides and begin to lay their eggs–an event that has been going on since the glacier created Cape Cod 25,000 years ago and sea levels started to rise.

In Wellfleet, we have little reason to think there will be any noticeable increase in the horseshoe crab population. They’re not going to go extinct, but they show no signs of recovering. There is one bright spot in some Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries data from a survey last fall that showed a slight upward tick. Maybe we’ll see more crabs once spawning begins in May and June.

There is a new player in the horseshoe crab story. The Red Knot, whose dependence on horseshoe crab eggs is well known in New Jersey and the mid-Atlantic but largely undocumented in Massachusetts, was recently listed as a federally-protected threatened species.

Red Knots feeding on horseshoe crab eggs at Delaware Bay (photo by Greg Breese, USF&W)

Red Knots feeding on horseshoe crab eggs at Delaware Bay (photo by Greg Breese, USF&W)

The horseshoe crab and Red Knot connection may have been ruptured in the 1800s and only now are we seeing them re-connect. We might be seeing more spring Red Knots as they feed on horseshoe crab eggs at Nauset, South Beach, and Monomoy where horseshoe crabs are protected and populations of crabs are the highest levels recorded in the state. This is pure speculation on my part, but it has been percolating for a while as more information has come in from multiple historical sources.

In 1850, there was a report from a market hunter (they used to shoot lots of shorebirds for food for Boston residents, but that’s another story) of over 25,000 Red Knots on Billingsgate Island. They wouldn’t have been there if there weren’t either horseshoe crab eggs in the spring or tiny blue mussels around the remaining oyster banks. This is truly a fascinating story that is just beginning to be teased out.

We hunted the Red Knot and other shorebirds, like the Eskimo Curlew, to the edge of extinction and harvested horseshoe crabs for fertilizer and pig food in the 1800s and early 1900s. Those are facts. Then we wonder why the Red Knot no longer feeds in Massachusetts during its spring migration. As I said, maybe we are seeing the restoration of this ancient connection that was lost over 150 years ago.

Bob Prescott
Director, Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary


April Director’s Message: A Chance to Save Terrapin Nesting Habitat Forever


If you live in Eastham or you love terrapins, then we need your help!

The sanctuary is part of a local effort to acquire a rare parcel of upland in Eastham. It’s not only unspoiled and beautiful, but it’s of great ecological value to state threatened diamondback terrapins. It’s known as Terrapin Cove.


Turtle Garden at Terrapin Cove

Turtle Garden at Terrapin Cove


 A case statement is available on the sanctuary’s website, but beyond that material, why do this?

1. Terrapin Cove is one of only a handful of sites where terrapins can nest without having to cross a road. No matter how many terrapin eggs successfully hatch and the hatchlings make it to Rock Harbor Creek, Bea’s River, or First Encounter Marsh too many female terrapins are getting run over when they cross roads to find suitable upland nesting sites. This species will go extinct in Eastham if we can’t preserve upland nesting areas adjacent to the marshes where the turtles live. This is one site we can preserve forever by approving its purchase at Town Meeting.


2. This site is climate change-proof. Some terrapins nest on the First Encounter barrier beach, but as sea level rises and the beach is starved for sand and flooded more and more often, the terrapins will no longer be able to nest there. Then where will they go? Terrapin Cove has lots of elevation and will be there for terrapins forever. Please help by donating to our $25,000 challenge. Your donation will be matched.


3. This land will be there forever, owned by the Town of Eastham, with a conservation restriction held by the Eastham Conservation Foundation and Mass Audubon, and managed by staff and volunteers from Mass. Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary.


Any Eastham resident interested in supporting this initiative is invited to one of two Open Houses planned at the site on April 25 and May 2 from 4-6 p.m.


Thank you in advance for your help.


Bob Prescott
Director, Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

A "pipping" hatchling greets world

A “pipping” hatchling greets world


Citizen Scientist Profile: Karen Strauss

It’s usually pretty easy to spot volunteer Karen Strauss: she’s the one with the camera, whether it’s a special community event, a nest of hatching turtles, or a turtle necropsy. Probably a third of the sanctuary’s photo library has come from Karen!


Karen Strauss on recent vacation in Belize

Karen Strauss on recent vacation in Belize


An active citizen scientist, Karen may be one of the relatively few who gets excited about horseshoe crab season when the sanctuary conducts annual surveys around Wellfleet Harbor and Pleasant Bay.  It can be tedious work, but Karen says she enjoys it, especially when she gets to patrol at night.


Horseshoe crab spawning at night (photo by Karen Strauss)

Horseshoe crab spawning at night (photo by Karen Strauss)

“Cape Cod breathes quietly then, ” she notes. “There are no distractions. It actually gets to be a popular time to do surveys, especially as the nights get warmer. There’s even a waiting list! ”

Karen moved to Eastham from her native New York City where she enjoyed an eclectic professional career including stints at Microsoft running computer networks. Later, she branched out into photography and documentaries as well as writing for computer magazines.


Karen packs her car with sea turtles bound for the New England Aquarium in Quincy.

Karen packs her car with sea turtles bound for the New England Aquarium in Quincy.


As most of her fellow volunteers know, Karen is also a huge turtle fan and is regularly on the scene during sea turtle stranding season. Currently, she’s working on a book about her passion for all things turtle. But it’s her work as a shift leader for nesting diamondback terrapins that gives her the greatest satisfaction.

” You get to see the whole cycle with terrapins,” she notes. “From the females coming up to nest to the babies emerging in late summer.”

Karen says the best part of her volunteer experience is being allowed to try so many things, to learn, and ultimately to teach others. She says learning to relocate terrapin nests from potentially dangerous areas has been gratifying as well as knowing that her re-located nests may do better than natural nest sites.

“It’s what’s great about volunteering at Wellfleet Bay. Where else would they let you get so involved?”

Karen, a terrapin nest shift leader, helps newborn hatchlings out of their nest.




Bird Banding: Looking Back on Fall, Looking Forward to Spring

One of 16 mist nets used for bird banding at Wellfleet Bay (photo by James Junda)

One of 16 mist nets used for bird banding at Wellfleet Bay (photo by James Junda)


It won’t be long before the mist nets are up again here at the sanctuary and our bird banding team returns to record the streams of birds that pass over Wellfleet Bay in April, May and June.

In his final report on the fall 2014 migration, master bander and wildlife biologist James Junda  notes there was a “pleasant” level of avian diversity with nearly 70 species captured between September 20 through November 15.

James Junda with two banded Chickadees

James Junda with two banded Chickadees (photo by James Junda)


Of the 20 most common species banded, sitting at the top of the list —not surprisingly—the Black-capped Chickadee. Care to guess the second most common? A Cardinal? (Nope, that was number 4). A Blue Jay? (Number 18, believe it or not). Number 2 was a Myrtle Warbler (that’s the bander’s term for the subspecies of Yellow-rumped Warbler in the eastern US), although they didn’t show up in the nets until early October when they began pouring through. Some stayed for the winter.

In fact, the banding data nicely reflect the ebb and flow of fall migration, with Gray Catbirds the second most common bird banded in the first two weeks. It fell to third most common in week three, then down to 11th by week four. Dark-eyed Juncos didn’t appear on that list until weeks six and seven (late October to early November) when they debuted as the number one  most common bird banded.

James with newly arrived Dark-eyed Junco

A newly arrived Dark-eyed Junco (photo by James Junda)


As we’ve mentioned in a previous post, bird banding on the property dates back to 1929 and records just from those first few years show how much has changed around here. As science coordinator Mark Faherty notes in the 2014 banding report, 183 Vesper and 51 Grasshopper Sparrows were banded on the property  in 1931 alone! Today, both birds are listed as threatened in Massachusetts, as the relatively treeless post-agricultural landscape of the Austin era has since grown up with forests and subdivisions.

It’s sobering to speculate which of the common birds we are banding today will amaze Wellfleet Bay banders 80 years from now.

Grasshopper Sparrow (photo by Ryan Schain)

Grasshopper Sparrow (photo by Ryan Schain)

Dissecting the Sea Turtle Season

They’re not pretty, but necropsies are an important part of understanding the lives of sea turtles and the many challenges they face.

A necropsy is not for everyone; but each winter at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, we have a packed house as staff and volunteers from Wellfleet Bay, the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance, teachers and students gather to examine the inner workings of a sea turtle.

courtesy of Krill Carson and NECWA

courtesy of Krill Carson and NECWA


Some people learn to cut. Others prefer to keep a little distance from the viscera and scribe instead. Both jobs are important, especially because we will have necropsied about 400 turtles by early March.

Cutter and Scribe_red

courtesy of Krill Carson and NECWA


Although there is a bit of gore, some organs are fascinating such as this trachea and pointed throat spines which keep a turtle’s food, such as jelly fish, flowing to the stomach.


photo courtesy of Karen Strauss

photo courtesy of Karen Strauss


Examining stomach contents may not sound appetizing but it can be revealing. Here, we see the remains of a turtle’s crab snack:


courtesy of Karen Strauss

courtesy of Karen Strauss


Also found:  stuff that turtles shouldn’t eat but too often mistake for healthy food , such as latex balloons:


courtesy of Karen Strauss

courtesy of Karen Strauss


This loggerhead turtle accidentally swallowed a fishing line, another common turtle threat. The turtle died of cold-stunning, but the line caused major internal injuries from stem to stern, all of which would have killed him or her eventually.


Fishing line (exiting turtle's mouth). Note how much of it is coiled to the left)   photo by Karen Strauss

Fishing line (exiting turtle’s mouth). Note how much of it is coiled to the left ( photo by Karen Strauss)


Will these necropsies explain why more than 1200 turtles stranded on Cape Cod last fall? No. But they do offer us tantalizing bits of data, such as the isopods (marine relatives of pill bugs) we found for the first time in about a half-dozen turtles.

Isopod found in Kemp's ridley necropsies (photo by Karen Strauss)

Isopod found in Kemp’s ridley necropsies (photo by Karen Strauss)


Marine isopods are found in  huge floating mats of seaweed that support juvenile turtles and other marine life in the Gulf Stream. It raises this question: did the big spike in turtle strandings come, in part, from a section of mat breaking off and floating into Cape Cod Bay, bringing lots of young turtles with it? It could be one of many possibilities.

Meanwhile, our work continues. We could use more help with scribing, so if you’re interested, contact volunteer coordinator Diane Silverstein.

WBWS Volunteer Janet Drohan, courtesy of Karen Strauss

WBWS Volunteer Janet Drohan, courtesy of Karen Strauss

Our thanks to Karen Strauss for the video of a necropsy ; and to Karen and Krill Carson for the photographs.