Author Archives: Jenette

Thinking Warm Thoughts: A Report on the 2014 Nest Box Season

Although many of last summer’s nesting birds departed to warmer climates months ago, some have stayed here, like many of the bluebirds which often shelter in the empty nest boxes when Cape’s beastly winter storms descend upon us.  On sunny days they can be seen flying around the Big Field, going in and out of the boxes, seemingly enjoying the company of their relatives during these non-breeding months.

The 2014 nesting season had its share of surprises, good and bad.

Bluebird by Mark Faherty

Bluebird by Mark Faherty

 It was another banner year for the tree swallows. They have become prolific, successful breeders with very few failures (abandoned nests, broken or sterile eggs).  We’re beginning to think that their increased numbers may be a deterrent to the bluebirds, which have to compete for nest boxes in areas where they regularly nested for years.  Of course it wasn’t helpful to one nesting pair, as well as 2 neighboring tree swallow pairs, that a raccoon climbed the posts, disrupted the nests, and destroyed the eggs.  The raccoon left solid evidence of the raid: distinct muddy tracks on the white pvc posts! Fortunately this was the only raccoon incident of the season, unlike some years when the raids continued for weeks.

Tree Swallow Fledgling

Tree Swallow Fledgling


By mid-August, only 6 bluebird chicks had fledged from 3 nesting attempts while 70 tree swallows chicks had fledged from 24 nests. Chickadees, which prefer nest boxes somewhat hidden in the woods, succeeded in producing 32 fledglings from 6 nests. House wrens, which typically build more nests than they use, further deplete the supply of boxes “for rent”. Considering all of their work, only 9 wren chicks fledged from 2 active nests.


The house sparrows have almost given up trying to nest successfully in our boxes because we keep replacing their eggs with clay decoy eggs.  They nested in only 2 boxes this year, and the 9 clay eggs fooled them into “incubating” them for weeks.

Fake house sparrow egg (right) replaces real one (left). It seems to work!

Fake house sparrow egg (right) replaces real one (left). It seems to work!


A large black racer snake in the dorm field gave us a big surprise one sunny day, and it appeared to fly across the ground when we disturbed it.  Unfortunately those snakes have the ability to climb up the poles and raid nest boxes.  But we can’t wait to meet up with our friend again on a sunny day in Spring 2015!


This report was compiled by Wellfleet Bay volunteers Betsy Richards & Barbara Williamson  who have been monitoring the sanctuary’s bird nest boxes for nearly  a combined 20 years. They submit their data annually to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


Volunteers Barbara Williamson and Betsy Richards checking a nest box

Volunteers Barbara Williamson and Betsy Richards checking a nest box last April

Turtle Volunteers Share Tales from the Stranding Season

Walking a Cape Cod beach in November, as anyone who tries it quickly discovers, requires a combination of several layers of clothing and a teeth-gritting determination to rescue whatever beached sea turtles are out there.

Night turtle patrol

Layered up for night turtle patrol


Night patrol demands not just thick clothing but a willingness to walk a cold, wind-blasted beach in total darkness,  a degree of adventure-seeking, and even guilt.

” I know for me, personally, I cannot stay in my warm house knowing a turtle may be out on the beach freezing to death!” says Donna Tompkins, who, with her husband Barry, covers Rock Harbor in Orleans both night and day.

Volunteers Tim O’Brien and Kim Novino also walk beaches round the clock and even drive turtles to the New England Aquarium in Quincy. Like many volunteers, their reward comes with the smallest gestures.

Volunteer Tim O'Brien loads up car with turtles for drive to Quincy

Volunteer Tim O’Brien loads up car with turtles for drive to Quincy


“When I pick (a turtle) up on a windy beach and it raises a lethargic flipper, signifying that it is indeed alive, I brush it off, cradle it in a towel or my jacket, and tell it that all is well. It sounds silly, but that’s what I do,” Tim says.

He’s hardly the only volunteer who “talks” to turtles. Truro’s Nancy Braun confesses to yelling, “Please be alive, please be alive!” whenever she spots a beached animal. Eastham volunteer Nancy Rabke gives a little pep talk to her  turtles with something like, ” You are going to make it!”

Nancy Rabke brings in turtles from Eastham beaches.


Michael Lach,  who walks beaches in Brewster, says his kids Skyler and Sage don’t often get to look for turtles because of their school schedules. But on one recent Saturday, they scored a dozen turtles in just ten minutes.  They went on to collect 6 more.

” In six years of volunteering,” Michael notes, ” the most I had ever found on one walk was four. What an amazing experience for two youngsters!”


Skyler and Sage Lach (photo by Michael Lach)

Future night patrollers??? Skyler and Sage Lach (photo by Michael Lach)

Turtle Stranding Season 2014: A Look Behind One Extraordinary Year

Now that the adrenalin has stopped pumping, we’ve been thinking about possible explanations for a season that has produced more than 1100 stranded sea turtles compared to the last record year (2012) of a mere 413.

Since most of the turtles we recovered were endangered Kemp’s ridleys approximately  2–5 years of age (juveniles), one might assume they were the product of an especially productive nesting period 2–5 years ago on the beaches of Mexico and south Texas. The data generally support this, especially for the 2012 season. This is what we call the “good news” of this record stranding year: 30 years of conservation efforts have been paying off.

Loading turtles for trip to the New England Aquarium's Quincy facility (photo by David Barron)

Loading turtles for trip to the New England Aquarium’s Quincy facility (photo by David Barron)


But as we hauled stranded ridleys (and some loggerheads) off cold Cape Cod beaches, scientists and government officials were meeting in Brownsville, Texas to discuss a disturbing drop in ridley nesting success both in 2013 and this past year. There was so much concern about the reversal that the meeting was called a year earlier than planned.

The Second International Kemp's Ridley Sea Turtle Symposium, Brownsville, Texas

The Second International Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Symposium, Brownsville, Texas (photo courtesy of Texas Sea Grant)


The prevailing theory is that the decline was linked to the BP oil spill in 2010. Nesting that year, predictably, was down but rebounded to new highs in 2011 and 2012. Then,  the two following years, the number of nests dropped alarmingly, down to 12,000 nests last summer from 22,000 just two years before. As one researcher at the conference put it, “Something very dramatic and unprecedented happened to the survival and reproduction of the species.”

Scientists acknowledge that factors other than the BP oil spill could be to blame for the decline in nesting, such as fewer crabs, the turtles’ primary diet.  The team of scientists and government agencies overseeing the ridley’s recovery are trying to decide how to respond to the discouraging new trend.

For us here on Cape Cod, it could mean a much quieter fall in 2015. And we’ll keep an eye on what happens on the beaches of Mexico and Texas this coming summer.

Gathering Data (photo by Sage Sohier)

Gathering data (photo by Sage Sohier)

Ten Days, Tons of Turtles and a New Record

The current sea turtle stranding season has not only set a new record but has demonstrated the power of community: our trained and tireless volunteers, our incredibly generous neighbors, and the global support of so many people who followed this story from afar and wished they could be here walking a beach or “swimming” a turtle in the rehab pools!

It started, as always, with our intrepid beach walkers.

Donna and Barry Tompkins at Rock Harbor

Donna and Barry Tompkins at Rock Harbor

With a strong west-northwest wind, the turtles started to arrive. Over the week-end of November 15-16, we were amazed to get 50 turtles in 24 hours. A week later, we had 157 in one day.

Vic Salvo (left) and Ed Cestaro (right) report in with turtles

Vic Salvo (left) and Ed Cestaro (right) report in with turtles

On the first of our one hundred-plus turtle days, the call went out for more (lots more) banana boxes and towels.

We asked for banana boxes and we got 'em!

We asked for banana boxes and we got ’em!

Two days later, our front entry was a parking lot of turtles. Five hundred turtles had come through the door  since the start of the season.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday, November 21: a 157 turtle day

There were too many turtles for the New England Aquarium to accommodate and suddenly we were in the sea turtle rehab business. We asked around for kiddie pools and within hours we had donations. Aquarium veterinarians Leslie Neville and Kathy Tuxbury ( a Wellfleet Bay alumna!) gave a crash course to our staff and volunteers on how to “swim” turtles.

Volunteer Bob "Santa" Myslik at the turtle pool

Volunteer Bob “Santa” Myslik at the turtle pool

Swimming turtles quickly became the most popular job. The goal of swimming  is to warm turtles up slowly, to get them moving a bit, and to assess their conditions.

Turtle TLC

Turtle TLC

Our volunteers put in extremely long hours, among them veterinarian Kelly Sattman who we’re pretty sure lived at the sanctuary for about a week!

Turtle Champion Kelly Sattman

Turtle Champion Kelly Sattman

And there are so many others to thank… our good friend Krill Carson who practically quarantined herself in our wet lab taking measurements, weights, and pictures of every turtle that came through. Our colleagues Betsy Ryder and Diane Silverstein worked the phones relentlessly, arranging for drivers, beach walkers, veterinary supplies, ice, towels. Local businesses couldn’t do enough for us. Our Facebook page has a list of them.

And we can’t forget the lady who at the height of the turtle insanity decided someone needed to organize food for the troops. Thank you, Sharon Blair!

Our certified ServSafe personal chef Sharon Blair

Our certified ServSafe personal chef Sharon Blair

The days leading up to the Thanksgiving holiday have been quiet on the beaches. Our turtle total remains at 975 with an estimated survival rate of 75%. The only question now is whether we will have another wave of strandings. Loggerheads, larger sea turtles, typically strand later in the fall.

In the meantime, we hope everyone enjoys whatever down time remains.

A wave from a thankful turtle?

A wave from a thankful turtle?

A Turtle Time Out and a Chance to Catch Our Breath

Where'd everybody go? Not too many new turtles today. So far.

Where’d everybody go? Not too many new turtles today. So far.


Just 24 hours ago, the wildlife was serving as both turtle rescue headquarters and first aid center. We had turtles stacked in the lobby, turtles being bathed in kiddie pools and turtles boxed up and ready for pick up by the New England Aquarium. Today, most of the turtles have been collected by the aquarium which has been doing major triage on its own shipping turtles to aquariums up and down the eastern seaboard to cope with the overwhelming numbers.

Today it is quieter and it’s given us a chance to think about the huge outpouring of support we’ve received from our community: the donated banana  boxes (by the hundreds), towels (ditto), the food and coffee, 50 pounds of ice, kiddie pools, pool thermometers, small heaters….what generous and kind neighbors we have!

And our volunteers…extraordinary. The energy and talent they give us is the main reason we can cope with this unprecedented experience. We can’t say thank you enough.

We  have received about 950 turtles since the stranding period began. About 100 turtles remain and we wait to see what the strong south wind will push in today.

Cold Snap Heats Up Stranding Season

We knew it would happen. After the first round of sea turtles stranded last weekend, things had quieted down. Then Friday’s cold front swept in…and so did the turtles.

Waiting for a lift to Quincy

Waiting for a lift to Quincy

For about 24 hours between Saturday and Sunday morning, 50 turtles were recovered from bay beaches between Brewster and Eastham, mostly Kemp’s ridleys and some green turtles. That’s a new one-day record for live turtles for us; also for the New England Aquarium.  Turtles in donated banana boxes were packed into our lobby to await rides to the aquarium’s Animal Care Center in Quincy.

Turtle beach rescuers, volunteer drivers, and turtles assemble in parking lot

Turtle beach rescuers, volunteer drivers, and turtles assemble in parking lot


At the end of today, we received yet another turtle. The Kemp’s ridley below was brought in by people walking near Jeremy’s Point in Wellfleet. We rely greatly on our regular volunteers, but it’s wonderful when everyone makes an extra effort to save a turtle. This cold ridley may not look terrific, but it’s alive, and will look like a different animal once under the aquarium’s care.

Turtle Rescued from Jeremy Point_Wellfleet2

Another turtle off the cold beach


A Halloween Treat for Ospreys on Little Island

Barely 24 hours before a classic November nor’easter blew across the Cape, a new osprey pole went up on Little Island in West Falmouth.

Walking the pole to nesting site (photo by Mark Faherty)

Walking the pole to nesting site (photo by Mark Faherty)


It was another storm—back in July—that damaged the previous pole, a more homespun version, which lost its platform as well as the active nest resting on it. Sadly, the osprey chicks were killed.

Little Island osprey nest destroyed by June 2014 storm (photo by Nancy McDonald)

 But homeowners on Little Island wanted to restore the nest site.

Raising new pole (photo: Mark Faherty)

Raising new pole (photo: Mark Faherty)


So on Halloween an assorted team of neighbors, staff from Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and various friends gathered under a gray sky to heave, hoist, hold and hammer in a very solid looking nest pole that should withstand the storms and test of time.

New nest pole stands tall (photo by Mark Faherty)

New nest pole stands tall (photo by Mark Faherty)


And we hope the birds will like it!


Pole raisers

More photos from the pole raising.

Banding Station Offers Rare Views of Birds

Blue-headed vireo greets bird bander James Junda (Mark Faherty)


Wellfleet Bay returned to its roots this past month with the re-introduction of bird banding, something that was done very actively here by the Austin family from the 1920’s through much of the 1950’s before the property was acquired by Mass Audubon.

James Junda holds a pine warbler.

James holds a Pine Warbler.

The banding is being conducted by licensed master bander and wildlife biologist James Junda and his assistants Caitie Porro, Michael Novak and Melanie Mancuso. James also oversees the banding that’s been going on for the past several years at the South Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.


A Yellow-breasted Chat poses before its release.

A Yellow-breasted Chat poses before its release.

Bird banding is a fundamental tool of bird research. Not only does it reveal a broader range of birds passing through during migration (compared to birds you can see in the field,) but it allows researchers to identify and record the sex, age, and health of an individual bird. If  carried out for many years, as it once was here, banding produces data that can provide useful information about migrating songbirds, species abundance, distribution and, in some cases, longevity. As we ,earn how migrants are using different parts of the sanctuary, the information can inform habitat management decisions as well.

A relatively laid back mourning dove.

A relatively laid back Mourning Dove.

And banding  offers more than science. It’s also a rare chance to see a wild bird at very close range; to appreciate how it feels, to see details of its feather colors and structure,  and even to get a sense of a bird’s behavior. For whatever reason, Blue Jays placed on their backs while they’re being weighed stay put. Catbirds are always noisy when they’re held. Mourning Doves appear relatively mellow. But as fascinating as it is to see such things at close hand, it seems that just about everyone’s favorite part is when a newly-banded bird gets to fly away.


Juvenile bluebird is ready to get going (photo by Mark Faherty)

Among some of the birds banded since the banding station started work on September 20: a Dickcissel, a Yellow-breasted Chat (twice), three Gray-cheeked Thrushes, a Philadelphia Vireo, a Blue-winged Warbler, a Lincoln’s Sparrow, two Scarlet Tanagers, and a Black-billed Cuckoo.

Terrapin Nesting 2014: The Good, the Bad and the Curious

As nights begin to get downright nippy, our diamondback terrapin nesting season is in its final stage and we start assessing how we and the turtles did this summer. There’s lots of data yet to crunch, but we have some anecdotal assessments to share.

For instance, this was the summer of twins. We had 7 confirmed pairs compared to just one last year. One of those sets of twins included a teeny tiny turtle who’s been dubbed Dixie, a French take on her being smaller than a dime.

Tiny Dixie compared to a normal-sized hatchling


Despite being alive only a couple of days,  Dixie made it on the Internet.

Unfortunately, it was also the year a lot of female turtles were struck by cars as they tried to nest on Lieutenant Island. We had 12 this year, compared to only a handful in previous years.  Lieutenant Island is  the heart of terrapin nesting territory this year with a total of 90 nests versus 60 last year. One bright spot is that our success with harvesting eggs from dead adults and successfully hatching them hovers around 90 %.

Ron Kielb Maintains a Turtle Garden

Ron Kielb maintains a turtle garden


One of the reasons we create so-called turtle gardens, those patches of sandy nesting habitat above the high water line, is to encourage the animals not to cross roads to lay eggs.  Terrapin expert and Wellfleet Bay volunteer, Barbara Brennessel, says a turtle garden installed behind the Mobil Station at Duck Creek two years ago hosted 10 nests this summer. She says that new space seems to have cut down on females trying to cross Route 6 to nest.

So this season, like most others, provides some satisfying gains and a few disappointments. But thanks to our force of knowledgeable and skilled terrapin volunteers, we begin the fall feeling that perhaps we are making a difference to this threatened species.

A hatchling greets the world! (photo by Ron Kielb)

A hatchling greets the world! (photo by Ron Kielb)

Trying to Rescue the Red Knot

Wellfleet Bay has a number of research and conservation projects, but occasionally we get asked to participate in others’ research, too.

For a fourth year, science coordinator Mark Faherty  is among those assisting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife with a survey of migrating red knots, a shorebird whose population has fallen by 75% over the past 30 years and is expected to be added to the U.S. Endangered Species list very soon.

Red Knot adult in breeding plumage with green band

Red knot adult in breeding plumage with green band

The focus of the study is  juvenile red knots to learn more about their movements and their annual survival rate, a crucial component of understanding the overall health of the species.

The information does not come easily. First Mark and others spend a day scouting where the young  birds are hanging out (“Mostly Minimoy and South Beach,” Mark says). Then the capture campaign is launched.

“The goal not only is to band new birds but to recapture those fitted in previous years with geo-locators. The data from those have to be recovered and then downloaded to be useful,” Mark explains.

Mark Faherty participating in the 2013 red knot survey off Chatham

Mark Faherty participating in the 2013 red knot banding at Nauset Spit in Eastham

To capture birds, nets attached to several iron projectiles are fired from buried cannons, trapping birds beneath the netting. Mark says the exercise can be tedious, nerve-wracking and often unproductive if the flock takes off at the last moment. It begins with someone trying to subtly induce the flock to shift in the direction where the nets are aimed, while also protecting the birds from the projectiles. “The folks on the cannons are often waiting a long time for their queue,  ” Three, two, one, fire!”. And when it does come, it’s very sudden,” Mark notes.

Mark says the public can participate in the study if they want to. “Anyone with a spotting scope or point and shoot camera with a super zoom lens can read the bands pretty easily and then report it online. You can instantly see a map of where your bird has been seen before, which is addictive. Sometimes they have been originally banded in South America”.