Author Archives: Wellfleet Bay

Plastics Reappear in Cold-stunned Sea Turtles

Necropsies have begun on the sea turtles killed by cold-stunning last fall in Cape Cod Bay. Because there were fewer turtle strandings overall compared to previous years, the sanctuary will hold only two necropsy sessions at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, which include our staff, volunteers, and outside researchers.

During our necropsies, we’ll occasionally see evidence of the many man-made dangers that exist for sea turtles in the wild. Sometimes it’s scars from vessel strikes or entanglement. Last year our necropsy team noted more visible plastics in turtles than in any previous years, including a turtle with a balloon ribbon running throughout its entire gastrointestinal tract. This year, sadly, another Kemp’s ridley we examined had swallowed a ribbon, this time with several balloons attached.

The remains of a black balloon on top of this Kemp’s ridley’s carapace passed through the turtle’s entire GI tract. And it was not the only balloon. This photo is courtesy of Karen Strauss.

As with last year’s turtle, the balloon string ran from the turtle’s mouth all the way through the GI tract and out the cloacal vent.

This yellow balloon, along with the ribbons, was found near the turtle’s mouth. Photo is courtesy of Karen Strauss.

A third balloon–an off-white color–was found in the animal’s small intestine.

Balloons and balloon ribbons suspended in the water column can look like prey to sea turtles. Balloons are also threats to sea birds and should be used only indoors. Photo is courtesy of Karen Strauss.

In the case of both sea turtles the cold waters of Cape Cod Bay was the cause of death. But had it been summer, the balloons they mistook for food very likely would have killed them. We hope more folks will think carefully about any plastics they use and that our necropsy team won’t find any more ingested balloons in a sea turtle any time soon.

Researchers Make the Most of a Quiet Sea Turtle Stranding Season

There’s at least one good thing about having had a slow cold-stun stranding period on the Cape—fewer dead sea turtles washed up on our beaches, which means–we hope– that fewer turtles died overall. That’s especially important since the turtles that strand here in the fall are federally listed as “critically endangered” or “threatened” species. The 2019 season saw just under 300 turtles come ashore.

Through the fall sanctuary turtle staff kept our visitors informed about sea turtle totals as well as the town-by-town numbers. As of mid-January, the total was 297.

However, since the record cold-stun season in 2014 when over 1200 turtles stranded, sea turtle researchers from around the world have had a special opportunity. Juvenile Kemp’s ridleys, the majority of the turtles that strand on the Cape in the fall, aren’t typically seen in large numbers, and the chance to examine the turtles that don’t survive does not occur anywhere else in the world.

Among the researchers the sanctuary assisted recently was a team from Auburn University who set up shop in our wet lab for a week to look for blood flukes in Kemp’s ridley carcasses. Blood flukes are parasitic trematodes or flatworms known to cause disease in some sea turtle species.

That’s not pink beer in those glasses! Dr. Ash Bullard, professor of fisheries, aquaculture, and aquatic sciences at Auburn, uses saline solution in the glasses to preserve tissue samples and any potential blood flukes for examination. His grad student Hayley Dutton is to his right. Bullard also serves as director of the Southeast Cooperative Fish Parasite and Disease Laboratory.

The sanctuary’s sea turtle staff regularly collects tissue and other samples for scientists elsewhere throughout the cold-stun season. The post-season necropsies at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, however, provide an unparalleled opportunity for a number of outside researchers to collect samples for a number of permitted, innovative sea turtle research projects. Most winters, we schedule about a half dozen necropsy sessions. This year, we’re planning only two.

Wellfleet Bay staff and their outside research colleagues are dedicated to making the most of every dead turtle. This dedication, coupled with the relative scarcity of carcasses this year, means that some scientists have been attending our high school turtle necropsies to collect samples, which has allowed students to observe professional researchers at work.

NOAA researcher, Dr. Heather Haas, is removing a tissue sample for evaluating the use of Near Infrared Spectroscopy to age and sex live turtles more easily.

Dr. Heather Haas, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, joined a sanctuary staff sea turtle necropsy session at Monomoy High School to collect bone and soft tissue samples for a new study which, it’s hoped, will lead to a non-invasive way to sex and age live sea turtles. Dr. Samir Patel, of Coonamessett Farm Foundation, joined sanctuary staff and Nauset High School students to take swabs for determining the bacterial microbiome of ridleys.

“The cold-stun sea turtle phenomenon isn’t only a great story about people coming to the rescue of turtles,” says Sea Turtle Stranding Coordinator Karen Dourdeville. “It’s also allowed Wellfleet Bay to facilitate important conservation research and to interact with scientists around the world. This year, some local high school students have been able to watch this science in person as they participated in necropsies in their biology classes.

Monomoy High School biology students participating in necropsies of Kemp’s ridley sea turtles that died as a result of the Cape’s annual cold-stun phenomenon.

Thanks to Wellfleet Bay Sea Turtle Stranding Coordinator Karen Dourdeville for contributing to this post.

Have Fickle Fall Winds Produced Fewer Sea Turtles?

It’s been a popular topic of small talk at the sanctuary this month: what a strange cold-stun sea turtle season it’s been and why we’ve had so (relatively) few turtles.

It’s important to note—we will likely surpass the 300-turtle mark very soon. That may sound like a lot, but last year we recovered more than 800 turtles. The year before that, it was more than 400. So what kept the numbers down?

A Kemp’s ridley washes in at Truro which has had only about a dozen turtles this year (courtesy of Irene Goff).

Bob Prescott, the sanctuary’s director emeritus and longtime sea turtle program manager, believes a combination of southerly winds during the early fall may have helped turtles escape from the bay. And erratic winds may have kept some turtles from reaching shore.

“The wind never blew for more than three tide cycles except when it blew from the northeast,” Bob notes. In fact, Sandy Neck in Barnstable saw more cold-stunned turtles than any other location (and we’re very grateful to have had all that help from the Sandy Neck rangers!)

Due to several nor’easters this fall, a lot of turtles came ashore at Sandy Neck Beach in Barnstable. Turtle 204 may not look happy but it’s now rehabbing at the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay. Our thanks to the Sandy Neck rangers for patrolling their beach for stranded turtles and for allowing us to process turtles inside their gatehouse!

Sea turtle stranding coordinator Karen Dourdeville says also missing from this year’s cold-stun season were the “little ridleys”, the smallest of the young Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, about 8 inches in length or less, that often come ashore in the first couple of weeks of stranding season.

This little ridley didn’t look very good when it came in last fall but, amazingly, survived and was released the following March!

 “We took a preliminary look and found that in 2018, this small size range made up 7 % of total cold-stunned ridleys, “Karen says. ” In 2019 so far, this same range represents just 1.2 % of the total ridleys cold-stunned. Did the little ridleys not get to Cape Cod Bay? Did they get blown offshore early in the fall and not end up in the Bay?”

So many questions!

Another curiosity this fall was the three “repeat customers”—three Kemp’s ridleys with PIT tags (the tags are similar to pet microchips) that told us they’d all cold-stunned on the Cape before! This fact may fuel more debate among turtle conservationists about the best locations for releasing rehabbed ridleys so they don’t make the trip back north.

It’s very rare for us to find a PIT tag in a turtle. These tags are implanted into turtles during rehab and have provided important information about what happens to a turtle after its release.

One final factoid: One of our lowest sea turtle stranding years in the past decade was in 2013 when we recovered only about 200 turtles. But the next year produced a record-smashing season at well over 1200! Does this point to 2020 as a possible big year? It’s far from a scientific prediction. But it does make for good small talk!

What’s So Great about Winter Birding on Cape Cod

The following post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay’s special programs coordinator, Jim Sweeney.

Winter birding on Cape Cod isn’t just good, it’s exceptional!

Early winter weather conditions on Cape Cod can be more like late fall in other parts of the Commonwealth.  Because of this delayed onset of wintry weather, some species that vacate other regions of the state by November will linger on Cape Cod for a month or two longer.

Birders making the trip to Cape Cod in winter eagerly anticipate late lingering waterfowl like Green-winged Teal and Wood Ducks, semi-hardy species like Gray Catbirds, Hermit Thrushes, and Eastern Towhees, and species that are at the northern limit of their winter range on the Cape such as Black-bellied Plovers and Ruddy Turnstones.  These species are anticipated and regularly turn up on the tallies of Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs) on the Cape.

This Gray Catbird apparently was finding enough to eat to spend winter on the Cape (courtesy of Ryan Schain).

Cape Cod’s coastal thickets also host the occasional Yellow-breasted Chat, an anomalous species that has confounded taxonomists for many years.  Historically, this odd bird was considered an aberrant species of warbler, but recently it has been placed in its own family – Icteriidae (not to be confused with Icteridae, the blackbird family). 

This Yellow-breasted Chat was found in a small patch of conservation land in Wellfleet (courtesy of Joel Wagner).

Yellow-breasted Chats do not usually breed in Massachusetts, but some individuals arrive in the southeastern part of the state in the fall and frequently stay until the CBC season begins (sometimes longer, depending on the severity of the winter). 

Birds like chats and catbirds are always fun to find during the winter season on Cape Cod, but it’s the truly unexpected avian phenomena – from rarities to memorable encounters – that reinforce and compel one to endure the biting wind and plummeting temperatures of the season.

Take the CBC in December of 2007: Our group started the day at Fort Hill in Eastham and immediately recorded several target species.  Things appeared to be unfolding as planned until we returned to our vehicles to drive to our next stop.  As we faced the east from the upper parking lot, we observed a large flock of starling-like birds descend and alight on the tops of trees about 100 yards ahead of us.  When we raised our optics to investigate the flock (they weren’t quite right for starlings, after all), we simultaneously realized we were observing a large flock of Bohemian Waxwings! 

Bohemian Waxwings breed in the boreal forest from Alaska to southern British Columbia and eastward to northwest Ontario, but they occasionally irrupt into southern New England in response to food availability.  This species is similar in appearance to the Cedar Waxwing, a species that breeds locally, but it is much larger and grayer with russet undertail coverts.  The collective vocalizations of the flock reminded me of the high pitched metallic sound that my mother’s 1980 Cutlass Supreme used to make!

A small flock of Bohemian Waxwings at the sanctuary in February, 2009 (courtesy of Mark Faherty).

There had been no recent reports of Bohemian Waxwings in eastern Massachusetts, so this observation was a complete surprise.  However, what was even more surprising was the staggering number of Bohemian Waxwings recorded by all parties participating in the CBC that day. The final count was more than 900 birds!  Although Bohemian Waxwings have subsequently been sighted on Cape Cod in much smaller numbers, I haven’t had the good fortune to see this species on the Cape since then.

In March of 2016, A Yellow-billed Loon was discovered at Race Point by a dedicated sea watcher who alerted the birding community immediately.  After establishing that this rare visitor from the Arctic had been consistently observed for some time, a friend and I decided to make the trip to see it.  It was a challenging walk in deep sand and strong winds, but we were rewarded by sightings of many Iceland Gulls and a pair of Common Ravens along the way.  Eventually we crossed paths with a pair of birders who pointed to the general direction where they had recently seen the loon.  After a brief search we were looking at a “state bird”, a species that had never been recorded in Massachusetts before! 

The first state record of a Yellow-billed Loon occurred in February of 2016, just off Race Point in Provincetown (photo courtesy of Keenan Yakola).

A few years ago, I took a solitary stroll along Coast Guard Beach in search of the large and pale subspecies of sparrow known as the “Ipswich” Savannah Sparrow.  This subspecies is about 10% larger than the typical Savannah Sparrow and has a pinkish bill and fine chestnut colored streaks on its sides. This subspecies looks like a Savannah Sparrow that has been stuffed with a golf ball and dipped in bleach for a few minutes!

The Ipswich Sparrow, a subspecies of Savannah Sparrow, is a lovely pale bird which blends in perfectly with its sandy coastal habitat. (courtesy of Jim Sweeney).

The subspecies was named for the town of Ipswich where it was first found by Massachusetts ornithologist C.J. Maynard in 1872.  At first, the ornithological community believed the bird to be a Baird’s Sparrow.  After consulting with several ornithologists and comparing the bird to museum specimens, it was determined to be a subspecies of Savannah Sparrow.  This distinctive subspecies breeds on Sable Island, Nova Scotia (and a few sites on the Nova Scotia mainland) and winters in coastal dune habitat along the eastern seaboard from Nova Scotia to South Carolina.

I was lucky to have several “Ipswich” Savannah Sparrows hanging out with a single Song Sparrow as I was walking the beach that day.  I was surprised by one individual that approached me quite closely.  I even managed to get a few images of this bird, which is normally skittish and easily flushed.  My goal was to see how many “Ipswich” Savannah Sparrows were present in the dunes on that winter day.  Instead I was rewarded with my closest encounter and finest photos of this subspecies to date.

Every time I visit a Cape Cod birding hotspot in winter, I am reminded of interesting observations and encounters I have had with birds over the years. Although I am content to see common birds and observe typical avian behavior at this season, I am motivated by the belief that each visit has the potential to create another memory of something extraordinary.  

Jim Sweeney in the field (literally). You can join him and the rest of our education staff for a variety of birding programs this winter by visiting our online program catalog and registering.


As They Take Flight, Bird Banders Reflect on Fall Migration

Like the birds they’ve banded since September, assistant bird banders Nancy Ransom and Lila Fried are moving on to their overwintering locations.

Both young women worked under the direction of master bander, James Junda, who oversees the sanctuary’s banding station as well as a station on South Monomoy in Chatham. The two split their time at both sites with James and his wife and banding partner Valerie Bourdeau.

“Coming back to Wellfleet after living on an uninhabited island was very different,” Nancy says. “On Monomoy, it was just us and the birds. When we returned to Wellfleet, there were schools and groups and public programs…it was like returning to family.”

The bird banders and their volunteers. Left to right: Nancy Ransom, Jeannette Bragger, Mary Lou Heinz, Tod Christie, and Lila Fried.

Working with school groups was a favorite part of the job for both banders. “Kids never lack for enthusiasm and always ask great question,” Lila notes. “It was especially fun to see their reactions when we showed them a Sharp-shinned Hawk, a very unusual capture for us. What kid doesn’t think raptors are cool?”

Lila and the sharpie. As cool as these birds are, raptors and their dangerous talons can do great damage to mist nets that are meant for songbirds. Luckily, this bird left our nets intact!

The fall was professionally satisfying to both women, who got to see some special birds in the hand—a Dicksissel, for instance.

The Dickcissel in all its glory. This species breeds in the middle of the US but is occasionally seen on the Cape during the fall.

” Lila and I had an amazing time ogling this bird!” Nancy recalls. Lila says she was struck by a Brown Creeper which apparently was born without a leg. “After we banded and released it, I watched in awe as the bird continued its normal creeping behavior up a tree trunk. A great example of the amazing adaptability of birds!”

No left leg–apparently no problem for this resilient Brown Creeper.

Both Lila and Nancy enjoy field research and have done it in some far flung locations—the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Hawaii and American Samoa. Nancy will be in Ecuador this winter where she’ll study molt patterns in birds, which she calls “invigorating”.

“Molt patterns (the timing and replacement of certain feathers) are bio-indicators,” she explains. “A bird’s molt pattern can be affected by how late in the breeding season it was born, nutrition, or other environmental factors.”

Nancy examines feathers of a Northern Flicker. While most songbirds can be aged only up to 2 years old, woodpeckers can be aged up to 4 years because they retain some juvenile feathers as they gain adult feathers and because of feather aging.

Both women note that the independence they were given at both Wellfleet and Monomoy was almost like running their own banding station, something each hopes to do eventually. And Lila says having her parents attend a public banding program was a definite personal highlight.

“I think it helped assure them that I am a professional in my field and that, yes, I can forge a career out of essentially being a bird bum!”

Nancy and Lila ogling that Dickcissel.

Planning with Care for a Big Cold-stunned Sea Turtle Season

The start of the 2019 cold-stun sea turtle season is drawing near! Cape Cod Bay surface water temperature has dropped to the mid-50’s F, and the bay generally has uniform temperature from surface to bottom at this time of year, so we know turtles are already compromised by the cold. When they get cold enough to lose most of their swimming mobility, coupled with strong onshore winds and high tides, turtles start washing onto bayside beaches.

Property manager James Nielsen, a veteran sea turtle rescuer, provides beach training to volunteers.

Sea turtle volunteers are required to undergo at least one training session each year, including an opportunity for on-the-beach training. This fall Wellfleet Bay has more than 250 volunteers to patrol beaches and drive turtles to the New England Aquarium’s Animal Care Center in Quincy. Many of those volunteers are veteran turtle rescuers, but we’re also pleased that a lot of new people have been trained.

Wellfleet Bay’s cold-stun sea turtle program dates back to the early 1980’s when director emeritus, Bob Prescott, who still oversees the sanctuary’s sea turtle program, found more and more turtles stranding each fall.  Back then only a handful to a few dozen turtles washed up. The program changed dramatically in 2014 when a record 1246 sea turtles came ashore. Responders and rehab professionals from Wellfleet to Quincy and other facilities along the eastern seaboard were swamped by cold-stunned turtles.

Since then, federal agencies have been making turtle rescue plans based on the assumption that at least one thousand turtles could become cold-stunned. That number is far more turtles than the New England Aquarium or other nearby facilities can accommodate at one time, so plans are being developed for contingency sea turtle care, including here in Wellfleet.

These plans include keeping turtles for up to several days at the sanctuary, during which time they would “swim” briefly in small, temperature-controlled pools, which provides hydration and raises their metabolisms. They also would be assessed and treated for basic health requirements. To prepare for this possible scenario, Dr. Charlie Innis, Director of Animal Health and expert sea turtle veterinarian at New England Aquarium, recently conducted a veterinary sea turtle training session at the sanctuary.  Among those attending was Dr. Tom Burns, Director of Veterinary Associates of Cape Cod, who brought a crew of twelve vets and vet techs. Tom and his staff have generously offered to donate their services should they be needed for cold-stunned sea turtles. This team actually helped us out during the “big year” in 2014, sharing their techs and lot of veterinary supplies with us.

A crew from Cape Cod Veterinary Associates was among those who attended specialized training by the New England Aquarium.

Other contingency plans may include Wellfleet Bay-trained drivers transporting cold-stuns to a back-up facility, such as the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay. As in all years since 2014, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration helps coordinate the flying of stable turtles from southeastern Massachusetts to marine animal rehab facilities in Florida, Georgia, and other US locations. Those flights are provided by Turtles Fly Too, a volunteer group of private pilots and airplane owners.

Turtles Fly Too pilot Chuck Yanke (right) with Marathon Sea Turtle Hospital staffer Bette Zirkelbach, who received some of last year’s cold-stunned sea turtles from Cape Cod. (photo courtesy of Turtles Fly Too)

These carefully-made plans are all designed to increase the odds of an endangered sea turtle surviving its experience in the cold waters of Cape Cod Bay. But the process begins with finding a cold-stunned turtle on the beach. If you are walking a beach this fall and happen to find a turtle, it is important that you follow these simple steps:

  1. Move the turtle carefully to above the high tide line
  2. Cover it completely with dry seaweed is possible, wet seaweed if necessary
  3. Mark it clearly with a vertical stick, visible piece of beach debris or a large arrow drawn in the sand above the high tide line
  4. Call the sanctuary at 508-349-2615 ext. 6104

Wellfleet Bay staff will retrieve the turtle very quickly. And please do not think you are helping the turtle by moving it to a warm place or into your car – this can kill the turtle!

See you on the beaches!

This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay’s sea turtle stranding coordinator, Karen Dourdeville.

Summertime Travels of Box Turtles

Box turtle volunteer and researcher Tim O’Brien shares some of his field observations from the past summer.

For the last several years I’ve been tracking some of the sanctuary’s eastern box turtles. The turtles have radio tags attached to their top shells which allow me to locate them with a radio receiver and record their whereabouts.

One of my goals is to get an understanding of the individual ranges of box turtles. Generally speaking, some box turtles are faithful to their territories for undetermined lengths of time. Two of my study turtles have been very predictable in their movements—until one of them wasn’t!

Turtle number 348 is a good example. I’ve tracked this medium-sized male for the past 4 years. This period includes not only weekly monitoring during the active season, but twice monthly checks even when he is brumating (hibernating) in the winter.

Will travel for freshwater! Turtle # 348 sporting his radio tag.

Number 348 has exhibited a small home range up in the woods by the Osprey pole. Last summer during a very dry period in August he managed to find his way to Silver Spring and then soaked there for a month. That’s a straight line trip of 1830 feet—more than a third of a mile! Last summer he arrived at Silver Spring on August 5th. How did he even know the pond was there? This year he did it again arriving on August 1st. He only soaked for eight days this time, but he remains in the general area.

It will be interesting to see if he travels back to his regular brumation burrow near the Osprey pole. Box turtles do occasionally change home ranges for various reasons. If he does decide to take up residence on another part of the sanctuary, I’d love to know why. I’ll be keeping an eye on that.

The ultimate unshakeable box turtle may be number 63, a large female who lives in Eastman’s Field.

Number 63 exhibits a classic box turtle response to being weighed.

She brumates up on the ridge behind Goose Pond and travels the entire perimeter of the field between April and November. Her movements are very consistent and in fact I often find her in precisely the same location as the year before at about the same time of year!

Number 63 appears to be smitten with turtle number 238, an older male. I’ve found them mating beneath the same bush at the same time of year two years in a row! This year I found them together in June and although I did not see any mating, it likely did occur.

Turtle # 238 falls head over heels for # 63, literally. A male box turtle can fall backwards and land on its carapace after mating with a female. They usually right themselves but can die if they don’t.

Unlike other animals, box turtles do not have pheromones or other means of attracting a mate. It’s purely visual cues that bring them together in a chance encounter. In the case of #63 and #238, I find it astonishing that they manage to find each other every year! It is this aspect of their life history traits that makes population density in box turtle populations so critically important.

So what’s next? We are raising a clutch of five box turtles at Bristol County Agricultural High School in Dighton. We plan to release the turtles in June 2020 at the sanctuary. If the turtles continue to grow, they could be about 200 grams each by then (4–5 inches). Our intention is to track them from their release date and gradually increase the size of their radio transmitters as body weight allows. We’ll watch as they establish home ranges and, we hope, continue to grow and thrive. If all goes as planned this will be the first long term box turtle tracking study at the sanctuary with head-started turtles. I can hardly wait to get going!

One of the 5 young Wellfleet Bay box turtles being headstarted at Bristol County Agricultural High School.

Special thanks to the amazing students and staff at Bristol County Agricultural High School for their help in head starting our box turtles and terrapins.

The Challenges of Terrapin Field Research: A (Pillow) Case Study

The following post was contributed by UMass researcher Patty Levasseur.

For many years, Wellfleet Bay has worked tirelessly protecting diamondback terrapin nests and releasing hatchlings to help this threatened species. Even so, the health and size of the terrapin population in Wellfleet Bay remains mostly unknown.

Patty surveys Blackfish Creek for signs of swimming terrapins.

To answer some of these questions, we began a mark and recapture study last spring. In May, 2018 we began capturing diamondback terrapins at two locations: Chipman’s Cove, near Indian Neck, and the Run, off the sanctuary’s beach, using a standardized survey protocol. Captured terrapins are also injected with a PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tag just under the skin in their rear left thigh, which contains a unique number identifying (marking) that individual. Lastly, they are weighed, measured, aged, sexed, examined for any injuries, photographed and released back into the water.

Patty holds the terrapin while research assistant Ben Thyng injects a PIT tag. The other team member is Jess Ciarcia.

In our first year, we captured only 46 terrapins in Chipman’s Cove and 159 terrapins in the Run for a total of just 204 terrapins, much lower than we expected. We also had a lower-than-expected recapture rate, with zero recaptures in Chipman’s Cove and only 5 in the Run. These low numbers were not enough data to achieve a confident population estimate of terrapins at either location.

Why was our capture rate so low? Based on years of knowledge from local experts, we know that lots of terrapins are found at these two sites in the spring and early summer. Often, just prior to conducting a survey, we would see many small heads pop up on the water’s surface as turtles swam into the study site. So why couldn’t we capture them?

We decided to review our survey protocol.  But first, a little background.

In order to conduct an effective population study, you must collect data on exactly where you search for your target animal and where you capture each animal. This is usually achieved by using a handheld GPS unit that uses satellites to pinpoint your (and the turtle’s) exact location and keeps track of where you move. In formulating our survey protocol, we wanted to minimize complicated GPS use, thinking it might distract from catching all the turtles we would encounter. Instead of taking GPS points, we opted to use the GPS only to track where we moved by selecting small, pre-defined study spots within our overall survey area so that we would know exactly where we had looked and where each turtle had been captured without the need of stopping to take a GPS point for each turtle.

However, what we learned is that limiting where you can search for turtles also limits the number of turtles you could encounter! We also learned that navigating to each small survey site actually required more time using the GPS and left less time for surveying for terrapins.

So we revised the protocol by allowing freedom to survey the entire study site, using the GPS to track the areas where each person surveyed and to take point locations of where each turtle captured.

But there was a new challenge. How would we ensure we could associate each individual turtle with its capture location? We solved that problem with…pillowcases!

Thanks to some very generous Wellfleet Bay volunteers, many pillowcases were donated to this project. We numbered each pillowcase with permanent marker (the cases were numbered 1, 2, 3, etc.) that would be brought out with the surveyor. It would work this way: When the first turtle was captured, a GPS point would be taken and recorded on the GPS device as waypoint 1 and the turtle would be put in pillowcase number 1. The surveyor would continue searching and when the second turtle was caught, it would be recorded as GPS waypoint 2 and put in pillowcase 2, and so on. Now we had a safe and effective way to keep track of each turtle’s location! Our survey protocol was revised and ready to try out for the 2019 season.

In May of 2019, we began the second year of the population study using our new protocol. Our initial fear of over-complicated GPS use faded shortly after the start of the season, as the new pillowcase method actually involved less GPS use and more survey time than our old method.

Research assistant Jess Ciarcia measures a terrapin while turtle-filled pillowcases await processing.

The results have been great! So far this season, we have captured 236 terrapins in Chipman’s Cove and 251 terrapins in the Run for a total of 487 terrapins! Even more exciting, we have recaptured 27 individuals in Chipman’s Cove and 38 individuals in the Run! Our capture rate increased 139% from 2018 to 2019, providing strong support for our revised protocol. Of course, it’s not just the protocol that achieved these captures, it is also the keen eyes, and quick reactions of the dedicated and skilled research staff here at the sanctuary.

Patty Levasseur (center)and her amazing team: Ben Thyng and Jess Ciarcia.

Based on these numbers, we appear to have enough data to analyze and achieve a baseline population estimate of terrapins in Chipman’s Cove and the Run. Achieving a population estimate in two small locations will not tell us the population size of the entire bay, but it is a critical and exciting first step. In the years ahead, we hope achieve population estimates at more locations, building site specific population profiles in an effort to reach a terrapin population estimate for all of Wellfleet Bay.

This post was contributed by Patricia Levasseur, a graduate student at UMass, Amherst pursuing a Masters of Science degree in Wildlife Conservation Biology via an externship with Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay. Patty has ten years of field research experience ranging from headwater stream amphibians in Oregon to brown tree snakes on the island of Guam to Piping Plovers, Blanding’s turtles, red-bellied cooters, wood turtles, blue-spotted salamanders and diamondback terrapins. She lives in Acushnet, Massachusetts with her husband, 2 dogs and 8 chickens.

Between Camp and College: Wellfleet Bay Offers Leader-in-Training Program for Teens

The following post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay’s Leader-in-Training program leader, Ellen Minichiello

What to do in summer with teenagers who are too old for day camp but too young for most summer jobs?

This question led to the formation of Wellfleet Bay’s Leader- in-Training program. The LIT program gives 14–17 year olds a chance to return to a day camp setting but with new challenges. LITs get to participate in all the research and conservation projects the sanctuary does in the summer as well as work with day camp counselors to help prepare lessons and programs for campers.

LITs (in the green t-shirts) listen to horseshoe crab researcher Dana Grieco discuss horseshoe crab ecology and the work the sanctuary does to monitor their declining population in Wellfleet.

As a longtime environmental educator and naturalist, I was assigned to work with our LITS this summer. I had no idea how fulfilling it would be to work with this age group.

The season started like this. Sarah, from New Jersey, who visits her grandparents on the Cape, told me she wants to be a green building architect.  She clearly feels deeply about it!  She told me that all buildings constructed today should green. 

I’m blown away. My computer reads Sarah is just under 15 years old but my personal interaction with her says the computer must be wrong.  So, how can I help Sarah reach her goals?

I pulled out a guide to the sanctuary’s green building tour, which started back in 2006. We’ve added many more solar panels since then, plus a new electric vehicle charging station. I suggested to Sarah that she update the green building material.  It was wonderful to watch her map out our building, count solar panels, update our green building scavenger hunt, and deliver a mini-tour to the other LITs.  That’s not easy to do when your peers aren’t exactly into the same topic.

Then, there’s Alexander.

It’s a thrill to have a teenager tell me he is interested in birds! He showed up with a camera strapped around his neck every day. We both wanted to improve on our identification of shorebirds this summer. I decided to introduce him to someone on our education staff so he would have a direct connection, a face—a fellow birder to talk to.

Alexander lives locally and has a long history as a camper. He might even work here someday! 

I asked Alexander if he would like to lead a bird walk for the other LITs, a great opportunity to practice in our safe environment and build public speaking and teaching skills. He seemed excited about the idea, scouted the sanctuary for hot spots, and led his first birding program!

Not all LITs have discovered their special interests. But what they have in common is Wellfleet Bay and a shared sense of place. Many of them were at camp together for a number of years. These teens could have spent their summers anywhere but they choose to be here.

Using radio telemetry to track eastern box turtles (photo by Ellem Minichiello).

Kids will always make friends at camp and have fun being outside exploring. But as they grow, will they feel confident enough to advocate for themselves and our natural world?  If an adult doesn’t ask them to think about their passion, maybe they won’t.  I just want to make sure our LITs know they belong here. And that we don’t have to “age out of camp”, ever. And I’m living proof!

August LITs in the pollinator garden with their fearless leader (far right). The basket Ellen is holding contains each teen’s cell phone!

The Joys and Sorrows of Being a Coastal Waterbird Monitor

The following post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay’s coastal waterbird technician Jacey Corrente.

This summer was my first time coming to Massachusetts, let alone the beautiful Outer Cape, and I was excited for what the season would bring.

I eased into my role as a coastal waterbird staff member, gaining familiarity with Piping Plover tracks, determining the difference between an old footprint and a fresh scrape, and learning how to fix a fallen post in the fencing with a rock when you forgot your hammer at the sanctuary!

Jacey Corrente installs symbolic fencing at Beach Point in North Truro. (Photo by Jeannette Bragger)

A few weeks in, we were finding nests left and right. To a newbie like myself, the possibility of a nest being depredated seemed unfathomable. How could I imagine such a thing? Things seemed so good! Compared to last year, we had double the number of nesting Piping Plover pairs and for the first time in years, we had not one but two American Oystercatcher nests– one on the sanctuary’s very own Tern Island in Chatham, and the other near First Encounter Beach in Eastham. 

Four-egg plover nest at Truro’s Corn Hill Beach–always a happy discovery! (photo by Jacey Corrente)
Also, a complete American Oystercatcher nest at Tern Island in Chatham. (photo by Jacey Corrente)
This plover adult and chick in North Truro were monitored regularly by volunteers Jeannette Bragger and Nancy and Russ Braun. (Photo by Jeannette Bragger)

My boss, science coordinator Mark Faherty, kept telling me not get my hopes up because losing nests is inevitable. But the optimist in me thought maybe this year would be different. Perhaps this would be the year with a near 100% success rate!

Was I ever wrong.

It all started on May 10th, when the first of many nests failed. It felt as though nests were persistently depredated by coyote, fox, and, in one instance, man’s best friend. Finding crow tracks leading up to an empty nest also became the norm.

Signs of a coyote or coyotes that we strongly suspect ate one of our plover nests at Corn Hill Beach in Truro.

As a shorebird monitor, I visit nest sites from Chatham to Wellfleet and all the up to North Truro every other day. In doing so, it’s hard not to get attached.

After finding a nest, waiting for the fourth and final egg to be laid, and then enduring the long 26 days of incubation, your hopes build each time you visit. It broke my heart to see a clutch finally reach four eggs only to be gobbled up within 24 hours. 

Another depressing find at our oystercatcher nest in Eastham. (photo by Jacey Corrente)

Sadly, the plovers weren’t the only ones that faced nesting struggles. The American Oystercatchers didn’t have any success this year. When the first oystercatcher nest failed, I no longer questioned nest failure but thought, “What else is new?” But when the second nest failed, I experienced a new form of heartache. An average American Oystercatcher incubates its nest for roughly 30 days. But this oystercatcher pair in Chatham faithfully incubated and tended to the nest of apparently infertile eggs for over 44 days! It was rough for us, but I can only imagine what it felt like to be those birds…

Adding to the distress of our unfortunate season, at Fisher Beach in Truro a vehicle drove through a portion of our fencing, ripping out all our posts, and leaving a nest vulnerable (thankfully, no plovers or nests were harmed). 

An ORV plowed through our symbolic fencing and signs at Fisher Beach in Truro. (photo by Jacey Corrente)

In the midst of this turmoil, Crosby Landing in Brewster became a beacon of hope.

It was here that the first chicks of the season fledged. I remember the day like it was yesterday–two of the four chicks flying over the ocean like pros! A tern colony formed there for the first time in years and expanded, hatching chick after chick. A few weeks later, another three plover chicks hatched just across a narrow channel at the tip of the beach in a brand new location.

Crosby Landing in Brewster was a good spot for plovers and terns this summer. (photo by Susan Wellington)

In Chatham, a nest in a new location yielded three plover chicks which are set to fledge at the end of the month, along with the two more chicks at Tern Island. Our luck seemed to be turning around.

And then something very odd happened.

At Corn Hill, four chicks that were expected to fledge in only a week suddenly disappeared. We figured it was coyotes again since a nearby plover nest had been depredated just a few days before. Days went by with no sign of those chicks. They were on the verge of being recorded as officially lost until…

There they were!

Where have they been??? Our nearly fledged plover chicks at Corn Hill Beach suddenly materialize– the ‘Lazarus Brood’! (photo by Jacey Corrente)

When the first chick came into view, I was totally taken aback. The following questions ran through my mind: Am I hallucinating? Is this really our chick? If so, where the heck has it been for the past week?! Then two more chicks appeared and a fourth further down the beach! A woman tapped on my shoulder and asked what I was looking at in my binoculars. I told her that I monitor Piping Plovers and Least Terns and that we thought our chicks had been eaten until this very moment. I said my coworkers weren’t going to believe me and she replied, “I was here, I believe you!” It was a very happy moment and I’m glad I got to share with a friendly eye witness. 

Although this year has not been the most fruitful of plover seasons, I am happy that I got to be a part of it.  I saw the most adorable chicks, I got to know the Cape a little bit better, but most of all, I was a part of the amazing work that Wellfleet Bay carries out.

Maybe next year’s nesting season will bring American Oystercatcher chicks and not just eggs. Or maybe the predators will disperse elsewhere. I hope the 2020 waterbird technician listens to Mark when he informs them that nests will certainly fail and that you have to be prepared for both the heartbreak and joys of protecting Piping Plovers, Least Terns, and American Oystercatchers!

Jacey–on a good day at Tern Island!