Author Archives: Jenette

Pioneer Bird Puts Beach Back on Plover Map

One bright spot in an otherwise gloomy coastal waterbird season has been a plover nicknamed  “El Bandito”, a banded male that hung out alone at South Sunken Meadow Beach last year, a beach that had been effectively plover-less for the last several years. The bands on his legs told us that El Bandito was banded by researchers from Virginia Tech while on his winter territory in Georgia in 2012.

El Bandito returns to South Sunken Meadow for his second season

El Bandito returns to South Sunken Meadow for his second season

When he returned to South Sunken Meadow this April, we were curious to see if he would pair up with a female this time. He did. And in May he had what was likely his first experience defending his territory against multiple competitors. This is science coordinator Mark Faherty’s entry in the field log for May 8th:

“Pandemonium. Bandito was presenting scrape to mate and she got in it, but then she ran away from his high stepping (pre-copulation) attempt. Soon after, three additional males appeared at waterline and Bandito spent 20 minutes chasing them away. ”

El Bandito scraping last year to no avail

El Bandito scraping last year to no avail

On June 24th, Bandito and mate ended up with a four egg nest. After it hatched only two chicks were seen. And then there was just one. But, at last report, El Bandito’s first near-fledgling was seen stretching its wings in preparation for flight.

Son (or daughter) of El Bandito, 2014 (Nancy Rabke)

Son (or daughter) of El Bandito, 2014 (Nancy Rabke)

Considering what a dismal season it was for plovers on the Outer Cape, El Bandito did darn well on his first nest.  Now the question is…will he return to South Sunken Meadow next year?

Wait Before Whacking Weeds: Some Could Help Wildlife

Pokeweed berries loved by birds but toxic to people and other animals

Pokeweed berries loved by birds but toxic to people and other animals

The next time you’re mowing, weed-whacking or otherwise ridding your yard of unwanted plants, take a closer look. Some of them may produce a lot of food and habitat for wildlife.

This is not to say you shouldn’t guard against invasive species, such as spotted knapweed, multiflora rose or Asian bittersweet.

But consider the ubiquitous pokeweed, a native plant that probably will never win a prize at a flower show.  As science coordinator Mark Faherty points out, pokeweed provides a late summer feast for lots of birds (though its berries are toxic to people and pets).

Sachem butterfly on red clover(another often-overlooked plant)

Sachem butterfly on red clover (another often overlooked plant)

“I remember one fall day watching 6 Baltimore orioles, multiple flickers, a flock of bluebirds, 11 cedar waxwings, a flock of robins, and some other birds all fighting over a single pokeweed in James Nielsen’s yard,” Mark says. “The bluebirds always strip the (pokeweed) plant  just outside the staff entrance.”

Insects, including important pollinators like bees, butterflies, and moths, also use weedy plants. Lowly crabgrass is a host for the Sachem butterfly, a species that has colonized Massachusetts from the south just in the last three years.

And you never know when what seems like an anonymous little plant can become important.

“The Baltimore checkerspot (butterfly),” Mark says, “used to rely mainly on the uncommon wetland plant white turtlehead for its egg and larval stages. But over the past 30 years, it’s been using what is essentially a lawn weed – a non-native called lance-leaved or English plantain.”  The butterfly’s switch to this new host plant has contributed to a surge in its population in

Bugs love Queen Anne's Lace

Bugs love Queen Anne’s Lace


Our resident plant expert Dennis Murley  suggests some other “weeds” that provide a lot of food for wildlife, though he says in some cases it’s not clear if  birds are drawn by seeds or insects feasting on the plant:

This “wild” corner near the sanctuary’s staff entrance is a bird magnet, especially in winter.

Sanctuary to Host Regional Diamondback Terrapin Meeting

Diamondback Terrapin

Diamondback Terrapin

The northeast region of the Diamondback Terrapin Working Group will hold its annual meeting at the wildlife sanctuary Saturday, September 27 with a field trip day planned for Sunday, the 28th. Meeting organizer, Barbara Brennessel, says the conference is an opportunity to learn about current research on terrapins and to share information.

“You don’t have to be a scientist or expert to attend. The presentations will allow everyone to learn more about this fascinating turtle,” she says.

Barbara would like to hear from anyone who’d like to give a presentation or present a poster.  Those interested in attending should also contact her. The sessions are free but $10 donations will be requested at the door to defray meal expenses. Onsite dorm-style housing is available for $30 per person per day.

Hatchlings on the go

Hatchlings on the go

Among the topics on the agenda for this year is what’s being done to protect terrapins at New York’s JFK airport; conservation efforts in Rhode Island; and a report on a regional conservation strategy funded by the Northeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies Regional Conservation Needs Grant Program

The Working Group was formed in 1994 by a group of scientists, researchers, regulators and private organizations to address growing concerns about a declining terrapin population in several locations throughout its range.

Mystery Fly Plagues Terrapin Nests

Turtle nests have many predators: red foxes, raccoons, skunks and flies. How much damage can a fly do? A good deal when it’s in its larval form—or a maggot.

Maggots have been associated with many diamondback terrapin nest failures over the years, though it’s not clear whether maggots actually target healthy nests or are  attracted to damaged/dead eggs.

Which fly is it? (photo by Karen Strauss)


Because diamondback terrapins are listed as a threatened species in Massachusetts, terrapin team field leader Ronald Kielb Jr. and veteran volunteer Karen Strauss wanted to learn more.

Their first objective was to determine which species of fly they were dealing with. Last fall, they collected some pupae from a turtle nest on Indian Neck.  Later, Ron managed to get adults to emerge in the wet lab. He then contacted an expert on sarcophagid (flesh-eating) flies at the Smithsonian Institution who was unsure about the species and referred him to Thomas Pape, a world authority at the University of Copenhagen.


These fly pupae are typically found near the top of a terrapin nest.


“Dr. Pape asked us to mail the flies over to him,” Ron says. This proved to be easier said than done. “The clerks at the post office were perplexed when I said I would like to send some flies to Denmark”.

The lab samples had been fixed in ethanol which is banned by the US postal service for any packages that require air flights. So Ron removed the flies from their liquid preservative and placed them in small tubes which were double bagged. Then there was the matter of what to declare on the customs form.

“Should I just write ‘dead flies’?” he recalled asking. Ultimately, that’s pretty much what he did do. ” I was instructed to write ‘Dead flies for scientific research. No commercial value’.”

This week, Ron received an answer from Dr. Pape, who was able to identify the fly species: Tripanurga importuna . He also forwarded a paper submitted by Canadian scientists in 2007 which concluded that these flies primarily are drawn to dead tissue but will on occasion go for live embryos and hatchlings too.

So what have we gained from this project?  Science coordinator Mark Faherty says it’s the nature of scientific inquiry to investigate something

for its own sake because you never know what might end up being useful in the future. “It’s pieces of the puzzle,” he says. But Ron is hoping for more.

“Now that we know what fly it is,” he says, ” maybe we’ll get a better understanding of its ecology which could lead to experiments for ways to better protect our terrapin nests.”

First terrapin nest of the year on Lieutenant Island (photo by Ronald Kielb)



The Many Mysteries of the Horseshoe Crab

Whether it’s the basic question, “What is that thing?” to “How have they managed to survive 400 million years?”, horseshoe crabs have always provoked curiosity. Now, with horseshoe crabs declining around the world, the more urgent question is, how can we help them?

Helen Cheng talks about tags and where to locate them

Helen Cheng talks about tags and where to locate them (photo by Gini Russell)

Starting in 2000, Wellfleet Bay has been surveying local beaches for horseshoe crabs during spawning season to try to get a handle on local population status and to tag crabs to study their movement patterns.

As with most of our conservation and research programs, the surveys and tagging require a lot of help from volunteers.  This spring, Helen Cheng, a graduate student in zoology at the University of New Hampshire, is coordinating the horseshoe crab monitoring. New volunteers are trained on how to perform surveys and the correct way to tag a crab.

Volunteer Nancy Raabke uses drill to place a tag on a crab (photo by Ginie Russell)

Volunteer Nancy Rabke uses drill to place a tag on a crab (photo by Gini Russell)

Helen, who studies horseshoe crabs in New Hampshire’s Great Bay Estuary, says one of the questions driving her research is what stimulates a crab to breed. For a long time it’s been assumed their breeding was tied to astronomical high tides and the lunar cycles during May and June. Massachusetts has banned horseshoe crab harvests during those limited periods.

Successfully Tagged HSC_Ginie Russell

A successfully tagged horseshoe crab


But Helen says her work has shown the old assumptions may not always hold true and that other factors, such as temperature, may be more important for triggering spawning. Solving this horseshoe crab mystery may be crucial to the animal’s survival, since the answer could result in more effective protections for these fascinating creatures.



How to Raise an Osprey Pole in 60 Minutes or Less

Team crosses two salt marsh creeks to bring pole to site

Team crosses two salt marsh creeks to bring pole to site


First, you should have a good Cape Cod spring day: a little sun, cool, with a light wind. You also need at least a dozen people, some of whom are quite strong, others who are good at offering helpful advice from the side lines, and others who take videos.

We had all of that today at Skaket Marsh in Orleans where our latest osprey pole has been installed. We started at about 2 PM.

Digging  the 5-6 foot trench

Digging the 5-6 foot trench

The second step was to dig a 6 foot deep trench. That’s part of where the strong people come in.


When it’s time to raise the pole, some of the crew are at the base of the pole and others are at the ends of taut ropes used to lift the pole from the top and to stablize it. The crew made it look easy.

Our thanks to all the groups who helped out: the Orleans Parks Department and Harbormaster; the Orleans Conservation Trust; and Americorps.

Raising the Pole. No sweat!

Raising the Pole. No sweat!

By 3:02 PM, all done! So, when will the ospreys come? That’s what we asked project supervisor Dennis Murley as the operation wrapped up and participants were asked appreciatively to sign their names to the pole.






A ‘Parcel’ Post on Oystercatchers

AMOY tern island_Keenan Yakola

The American Oystercatcher (photo by Keenan Yakola)

On Tuesday June 7, 2013 coastal waterbird colleague Tom Faughnan and I encountered the largest group—or parcel—of American Oystercatchers we’ve ever witnessed. (A group of these birds is known as a parcel—as in a ‘murder’ of crows, which also is rarely used!)

Part of our job is to look for American Oystercatchers that have bands on their legs to assist an Atlantic coast study aimed at reversing declining oystercatcher populations.  These bands have colors that correspond with the state they were banded in and a 2 digit combination of either letters or numbers that represent the individual. For example, American oystercatchers banded in Massachusetts are yellow with black letters or numbers.

When we arrived at one of our sites near Tern Island in Chatham we could not see the flats but were greeted by the wonderfully playful calls of several American Oystercatchers. I said to Tom, “Sounds like a large flock!” but I don’t think that either of us was anticipating its actual size.

A partial parcel of oystercatchers (photo by Keenan Yakola)

A partial parcel of oystercatchers (photo by Keenan Yakola)

Peaking over the crest of the small dune, we observed 17 oystercatchers which is a much larger number than the usual 3 to 5 that we normally see. Our managers speculate these may have been birds that didn’t find mates this season or lost nests to predation.

We sprinted back to the truck to grab our cameras and raced back to get some photos. Then the challenge of reading the bands was upon us. As we were reading band combinations, two more birds came in. This pattern continued until the group had reached a flock size of 27! Tom mentioned that it was like we were on their wintering grounds in Florida where flock sizes can be in the hundreds.

As the tide rose we watched the birds fly off in small groups until almost all had left and relocated at the end of Scatteree Road (also known as Minister’s Point), which is an excellent location for viewing these birds at a lower tide. It was an amazing experience in which we were able to get 13 band combinations including one bird that had red band which means it was banded in Georgia!

If you are interested in looking for oystercatchers and their bands, be sure to bring a spotting scope! These birds don’t let you get very close. For more information about reporting banded oystercatchers, how to read their bands and for some general information on the research into this fantastic bird, visit If you’d like to see more of my bird photos, click here.

Keenan Yakola
Wellfleet Bay Coastal Waterbird Program

Wellfleet Bay’s Hawk Eye— Don Manchester

Don Manchester on Hawk Watch

Don Manchester on Hawk Watch, North Truro

For nearly 15 springs, Don Manchester has manned a post at Pilgrim Heights in North Truro to count the raptors migrating north along the Outer Cape shoreline. It can be a lot of counting: in 2010, Don and a few assisting volunteers spotted nearly 2700 birds. That record year included 14 black vultures, 21 bald eagles and 9 Mississippi kites.

HawkWatch3_Don Manchester_reduced

Northern Harrier over Pilgrim Heights (Don Manchester)

With permission from the Cape Cod National Seashore, Don mans the Hawk Watch site from March through June. So far, he says, this spring’s migration has been disappointing—only about 750 raptors as of this posting. Don says it’s all about wind direction: the more days with a southwest breeze, the more migrants that can be seen and counted. This year, he says, there were a lot of days where the wind was out of the northeast. Don and Wellfleet Bay’s numbers are reported to the Hawk Migration Association of North America. The long-term, consistent data are valuable to gauging changes in the populations of these species.

Science coordinator Mark Faherty notes the Pilgrim Heights site is only one of many data points for North American hawk counting. But over the years, a few trends have emerged.

“We’ve seen increases in kestrels (puzzlingly, because their numbers along the east coast have been falling), ospreys (expected), red-shouldered hawks (rapidly increasing breeder in eastern Mass as far as the Upper Cape), and a startling decline in northern harriers,” Mark says.

American Bald Eagle2

Immature bald eagle flies over Pilgrim Heights June 5, 2013 (photo by Don Manchester)

As Don says in this video, the vast majority of the birds seen at Pilgrim Heights are young birds, not ready to breed, and traveling a bit off course.

Wellfleet Bay is always looking for volunteers to help Don record hawk numbers or to provide information to passing visitors so he can focus on the skies. If you’re looking to improve your birding skills and you’d enjoy doing it in a breathtaking location, consider spending a couple of hours a week with the Hawk Watch project. Contact Diane Silverstein if you’re willing to help.

Click here to find directions to the Hawk Watch.

The Coastal Waterbird Season: The Early Days

PIPL_Mark Faherty

“We’re back!” (photo by Mark Faherty)

The piping plovers, terns and oystercatchers returning to the beaches that Wellfleet Bay monitors have gotten down to the business of nesting—and we’ll  keep you posted on how it’s going. But as veteran nest watchers will tell you, a season has its highs and lows—sometimes many lows. A nest may get washed over, crows may snatch eggs(as they already have) and red foxes, as many Cape Codders know, are everywhere.

For this initial post on the start of the season last month, we want to keep it light and hopeful and focus on a time when the birds were just returning and anything seemed possible.

We’ve had a few exciting things occur in the past few weeks:


South Sunken Meadow bird was banded on wintering grounds in Georgia (T. Faughnan)

Not one, but two banded birds showed up on our beaches—one at Corn Hill, the other at South Sunken Meadow. Both birds, we discovered, were banded in separate studies. And what we’ve learned from these birds, so far, is that plovers don’t necessarily stay at beaches where we first see them. The South Sunken Meadow bird headed over to Crosby Beach in Brewster and then returned; the Corn Hill bird stayed for awhile, then just up and left, with no further reports. But there may be news on him yet!

The other exciting development is that oystercatchers nested on Lieutenant Island. Thanks to coastal waterbird team member Keenan Yakola for these great shots:

AMOY Nest Lt Is_Keenan Yacola AMOY on Lt Is._Keenan Yacola





And we leave you with news of the special help we’ve received from some imaginative and motivated Truro first graders who created special signs for our symbolic fencing at Corn Hill Beach. If these kids are any indication, future nesting shorebirds will have plenty of great advocates!

Truro KidsPIPL sign