Author Archives: Wellfleet Bay

Building a Case for Horseshoe Crab Conservation

As I search for horseshoe crabs in the tall seagrass of the incoming tide at the sanctuary beach, it’s easy to imagine I’m in the warm waters of an ancient sea. I’m transported to the pages of the dinosaur-themed coloring books I filled in as a kid, even though 450 million years ago, when horseshoe crabs first made their debut, plants were just starting to make their way onto land, and dinosaurs were as futuristic as flying cars are now.

I continue my search, find two stray males, and wonder if our current era —the Anthropocene—could be the horseshoe crab’s last. How incredulous their ancestors would be to hear that the largest threat to their species is not an ice age or a meteor, but an upright biped unable to curb its consumption.

I squint up at a familiar silhouette on the horizon. It’s the harvester, scooping up horseshoe crabs with a long-handled net. It feels like he’s stealing from me. Every crab he gets is one that will not come to the beach next week to spawn, to pass on its DNA and get counted by survey volunteers. Instead, its destiny is to become bait for the whelk and eel fisheries. 

The harvester is acting perfectly within his rights. According to Mass Reg section 6.34, it is legal for permitted harvesters to collect up to 400 crabs for bait a day in Wellfleet Bay—as long as they are not taken during the week of the new and full moons when horseshoe crabs are supposed to be spawning in the highest numbers. For years the sanctuary and local shellfishermen have urged the state to impose a harvest moratorium to try to give the minuscule local horseshoe crab population a chance to recover. But despite our years of monitoring and data collection, the state so far has declined.

Spawning horseshoe crabs at Nauset Beach. The population here is recovering due to the Cape Cod National Seashore’s ban on harvests.

Down the road toward Orleans, in Pleasant Bay, it’s easier to find horseshoe crabs spawning. They appear in desperate, male-dominated hordes. It’s not an elegant affair—the males scuttle over each other, latch onto my boots or transect poles in a frenzied search for females laden with eggs. It looks like a large amount of horseshoe crabs, but I inherited a world missing 90% of its wildlife and I don’t really know what a lot of anything is.

In Pleasant Bay, horseshoe crabs are targeted for blood rather than bait. Unlike the bait harvesters, biomedical harvesters can take up to 1,000 horseshoe crabs a day. While the extraction of blood is designed to be non-lethal, it is estimated that up to 30% of horseshoe crabs don’t survive the process. Further, since females are bigger, they are more likely to be targeted, likely explaining the highly male-skewed sex ratio in this embayment. 

Their goal is to obtain Limulus amebocyte lysate, (LAL) extracted from horseshoe crab blood. Amebocytes (the A in LAL) are the invertebrate equivalent to white blood cells and are extremely adept at clotting around pathogens to provide defense. Health professionals use LAL to ensure the cleanliness of medical devices that come into contact with blood and injectables, including vaccines. Clearly, this stuff is useful but does the fate of modern endotoxin testing have to rest solely on a prehistoric and declining species?

Before horseshoe crabs were used for endotoxin testing, rabbits were the test subject of choice. Now, there are synthetic alternatives, the best known being recombinant factor C assay (rFC). This substitute has been approved in China, Europe and Japan, but not in the US. With more research and higher demand, synthetic options could eliminate the need for a biomedical harvest.

While horseshoe crabs are up against major hurdles, they are not without allies. Drive around the Cape long enough and you’ll see lawn ornaments in their likeness, statues of horseshoe crabs clinging to buildings, jewelry shaped like them, postcards with their image stamped on the front. Here at Wellfleet Bay, there are dozens of volunteers ready to dedicate their time to check the beach for them at high tide, willing to go out into dense marsh, down beat-up staircases, sometimes in the middle of the night, just to contribute to the study and conservation of this species.

Volunteers at Pleasant Bay preparing to survey for horseshoe crabs. A female is trailed by two males. (Photo courtesy of New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance).

There are many reasons to protect horseshoe crabs. One is so we can continue to benefit from their blood, and harvest them for commercial fisheries. Another is so we can marvel at the flocks of shorebirds in Delaware Bay who depend on their eggs to fuel their flights to the Arctic breeding grounds. Some find them worthy of saving for the chance to meet a living fossil. These reasons are all compelling, but my favorite reason to protect horseshoe crabs is also the simplest: because they were here first and we can.

The author, Abigail Costigan, holds a horseshoe crab with a broken tail or telson. Horseshoe crabs should never be picked up by the telson, which they use to navigate and to right themselves.

This post was contributed by Abigail Costigan, Wellfleet Bay’s horseshoe crab field coordinator.

Why I Love Volunteering at the Bird Banding Station

I’d never done anything remotely resembling bird banding in my life. My education and my career are in French language, culture, and literature. Until I started at the banding station several years ago, I had never even held a bird in my hand. What made me think I could extract a bird safely from a net, put it into a cotton bag, and deliver it to the banding station? I had no idea, but I was intrigued and knew it would be a unique experience.

On the surface, the volunteer responsibilities are clear enough: get up at 3 a.m. (at least in my case), help set up the 25 mist nets at sunrise, extract birds safely from the nets, deliver them to the station unharmed, take down the data provided by the banders, remove and pack up the nets. In reality, it’s much more complicated.

Even putting up and taking down nets is a challenge. Done incorrectly, twisting the nets or dropping one, becomes a major headache. You could end up spending the next several hours removing leaves, twigs, grasses from the delicate net strands without actually making a hole. Thankfully, I’ve never dropped a net but it’s one of my nightmares.

Mist nets are made of a super fine mesh and are very easy to snag on things and damage.

But despite the stress, checking the mist nets is the most satisfying, focused, and enjoyable part of the volunteer job. It involves walking a total of 4-7 miles per shift, trying to keep up with people who are all 20 to 40 years younger than I, extracting the birds successfully, bringing them back to the station, and accurately recording the data the banders call out. Recently at the end of our shift, James Junda, who oversees the banding station, said to us: “ We had 75 birds today. We were all in a groove.” High praise indeed and very much appreciated by all of us.

Each cotton bag contains a bird. The bags allow in plenty of air and birds stay relatively calm until they are banded and released. (Photo by Jeannette Bragger)

As a scientific research project, licensed bird banding has protocols that must be followed exactly and consistently. It was one of the first lessons we all learned from James Junda, a master bander. We learned by watching, by asking questions, and by repeatedly doing each task under close scrutiny and supervision. Making occasional and easily correctable mistakes was assumed; making irreparable, life-threatening mistakes was not an option.

What saved me from being a total nervous wreck during the first few seasons was that James and Valerie, the assistant bander, were right there with us, watching, guiding, correcting, explaining, and giving advice. As I approach a net, there are still instances when I use my radio to ask for assistance. Knowing when to ask for help requires me to assess a situation accurately and to have good judgment. The ego cannot be involved. It’s all about the birds; it’s not about me.

This is a data sheet where we record information about each bird we band. The banders call out the required information as they examine a bird. It’s critical we capture it all accurately before the bird is released.

As a bird is removed from the bag for processing, we are ready to write down a lot of key data: the bander’s initials, the number of the band that will be attached to the bird’s ankle, the species, sex, and various measurements and other observations.

In this example (circled in red in the above photo), the bander was James Junda (JJ), the bird was a recapture (that is, a bird we had already banded at some point), the number of the band was (2891-87953), and the alpha code for the Baltimore Oriole is BAOR. The rest of the data covers age, sex, and size. In this case, the bird’s plumage (P) indicated it was a male and at least two years old ; wing chord = 93 millimeters; mass/weight =33.4 grams (28.3495 grams = 1 ounce, hence this BAOR weighed a little over an ounce); date = May 19, 2021 (not visible in this photo); time = 0850; net the bird was caught in = 19; status = 300 (a code that means the bird was processed and flew strongly and well when it was released). It’s not important to remember all these data points. But it is important to know the concentration required and the potential confusion when two or three banders are all dictating numbers to one or two volunteers!

Unless you’ve banded thousands of birds like James and Valerie, it’s difficult to ever feel fully confident. At least for me, that means that every shift has its challenging moments that require calm, concentration, good judgment, full responsibility for my actions, and, above all, in my opinion, humility. For me, it’s truly humbling to be reminded, for example, that the Wilson’s Warbler, weighing a third of an ounce (5-10 grams) has just flown 3,500 miles from his wintering grounds to arrive at Wellfleet Bay.

Migrating male Wilson’s Warbler at the banding station in 2021. (Photo by Jeannette Bragger)

So why do we love volunteering at the bird banding station? As expressed by some of my fellow volunteers, we are all motivated by our desire to learn as much as possible about birds (Todd Christie), by our shared interests as team members (Teresa Corcoran), by the challenges (Frank Mockler), and by the feeling of holding a delicate bird in the hand (“It’s pure magic,” says Peggy Sagan).

Now that the banding season has come to a close, we can get more sleep and relax until we start all over again on September 1! I dedicate this post to the banders and volunteers who have all become friends and have taught and helped me. See you all in the fall!

Jeannette Bragger, second from left, with the banding team in 2017. (Photo by Peggy Sagan)

This post was contributed by Jeannette Bragger, who’s been a banding station volunteer at Wellfleet Bay since 2016.

Bringing Back the Spadefoot: What We’ve Learned at Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary

The Eastern Spadefoot Toad gets its name from distinctive protruding cartilage “spades” on its hind feet. This feature helps the animal to dig itself quickly below ground where it spends much of its life, emerging on warm stormy nights to feed and breed in temporary water bodies.

Historically widespread in Massachusetts, the spadefoot is now found in only a handful of locations in the state due to development. It’s classified as threatened on the state’s endangered species list. The two remaining population strongholds occur on Cape Cod, including Sandy Neck Barrier Beach in Barnstable and the Provincelands in the Cape Cod National Seashore.

Spadefoots can be identified by their cat-like vertical pupils.

More than ten years ago, we wondered—could a spadefoot toad population on the Cape be restored and, if so, where?

In 2011, Long Pasture Sanctuary director Ian Ives and Bryan Windmiller of Zoo New England set out to re-establish the species at Mass Audubon’s Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary in East Falmouth. Back in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, spadefoots were documented to have existed at Ashumet. By the early 2000’s, they were all but gone. 

It was determined that restoring spadefoots at Ashumet would require “seeding” individuals from the healthy Sandy Neck population.  This would involve collecting eggs and tadpoles, headstarting them (by partnering with Cape Cod schools) and translocating the young toads—or toadlets– to breeding pools created specifically for spadefoots.

Like wood frogs, spadefoots depend on temporary pools of water free of fish and other predators to successfully breed. At Ashumet, we created or restored seven vernal pools of varying sizes and depths. Over the years, we have raised and released 40,000 spadefoots. (We’ve learned that school children are very good at captive-rearing toads!)

One of the vernal pools created at Ashumet Holly for reintroducing spadefoot toads. (Photo by Jay Cordeiro)

But the real work is determining the toads’ survival rate and what they require to successfully reproduce and maintain a viable population.

Most spadefoot tadpoles never make it out of their pools due to water drying before they metamorphose (develop into young toads). We remove that limitation from the equation by translocating newly metamorphosed toads to Ashumet. Over hundreds of search hours in the last 9 years, we have confirmed that at least 123 translocated toads have survived at Ashumet. And through marking and recapturing, we’ve learned that some toads have survived for at least 4 years.

One very young spadefoot toad, one of thousands released over the last 10 years at Ashumet Holly. (Photo by Jay Cordeiro)

Our search for a better way to find our translocated spadefoots has led to an intriguing partnership with Dr. Kristine Hoffman at St. Lawrence University, who’s been working with Newt, a toad-sniffing detector dog!  Newt, a Labrador retriever, has the potential to increase overall capture effort and provide us with greater detail on our population. Newt continues to progress in his training having successfully located toads in the wild this season.

Even when they’re visible, spadefoots are very difficult to see. (Photo by Jay Cordeiro)

We also need to find evidence of breeding. Unlike spring peepers, which begin to call for mates after the first warm rainy night in March and continue through spring, spadefoots have more specific requirements. They need heavy rains and high water tables to sustain any temporary pools long enough for their eggs and tadpoles to develop. Due to reduced spring rainfall on the Cape, spadefoots at Ashumet have not had these conditions present in the last 2 years, which may have discouraged any potential breeding attempts. Another challenge the toads face in the Northeast—the northern end of their range—is relatively cool spring weather. Cool temperatures retard the development rate of spadefoot tadpoles, confounding their ability to get out of their pools in time.  Adaptations that were effective in warm climates are seemingly less successful in cooler regions, effectively explaining their rarity in Massachusetts, and complicating our efforts to restore their populations.

Despite regular visual and dip net surveys and even audio recordings “listening” for calling male toads, we’ve found no evidence of breeding so far at Ashumet Holly. Why? In addition to the adaptive challenges we’ve mentioned, there are many other variables at play. For instance: many amphibians return to the pools where they started their lives. Does this apply to spadefoots and are translocated animals at a disadvantage? Our work has led to another question–are male spadefoot breeding calls innate or learned? Could our captive-raised animals be missing out on an important lesson?

Cape Cod school children have demonstrated they are very good at headstarting spadefoot toads. (Photo by Jay Cordeiro)

We are slowly testing individual hypotheses to rule out potential causes and get closer to the answers, so stay tuned for updates from the 2021 field season!

This post was contributed by Jay Cordeiro, Spadefoot Toad Project Coordinator and Ian Ives, director, Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary. Ian recently spoke about the spadefoot project at the annual meeting of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey.

Sanctuaries’ Purple Martin Colonies Becoming Hot Real Estate

For Cape Cod bird lovers, there are many rites of spring; hearing the first buzzy call of a phoebe or witnessing a returning Osprey or Piping Plover. People prepare their hummingbird feeders and clean out nest boxes in the hope they’ll eventually be filled with baby birds.

At Wellfleet Bay, we recently spotted our first Purple Martins, a relatively new breeding species for the sanctuary, as they return from their wintering grounds in South America. In this part of the world, martins generally nest in colonies and are almost totally dependent on people for nesting habitat—whether it’s old structures or nest boxes designed especially for them. On the Cape there are fewer than a half-dozen colonies.

A 24-unit Purple Martin condo complex at our sister sanctuary, Long Pasture, comes with an amazing view of Barnstable Harbor. (Photo by Heidi Filmer-Gallagher)

Back in 2015, we installed brand new Purple Martin “condos”, gourd-shaped PVC nest boxes that hang side by side from brackets attached to a pole. In that first season, our condos attracted only one bird, a sub-adult from a Mashpee colony (many martins have color-bands to help track where their young turn up the following spring). The next year brought our first pair of nesting birds from colonies in Mashpee and Connecticut. That pair produced two chicks, one of which, a female, has been breeding at our sister sanctuary, Long Pasture, for the last couple of years!

Newly hatched martin chicks don’t look too cute at first but their nests are beautifully decorated with fresh leaves and grasses. (Photo by Chris Walz)

Last summer Wellfleet Bay’s 12-unit condo was filled with nests that produced a total of 33 chicks! At Long Pasture a 24-unit martin condo installed in 2017 has been nearly sold-out since 2019. Last year it produced 81 fledglings.

It’s pretty hard to miss Purple Martins. They’re large swallows—the largest—and males are a midnight blue with black wings. They’re also very vocal, producing a series of pretty chirps and chitters, often as they hang out on the nesting gourds or as they fly. They’re very tolerant of people and probably the only bird at the sanctuary that rivals wild turkeys as crowd-pleasers!

A female martin feeds her chicks. A male, possibly her mate, stands guard at right. So much of martin life during the breeding season can be easily observed from a distance. (Photo by Jeannette Bragger)

Besides a dependency on people for housing, Purple Martins face another challenge on the Cape; our notoriously cold, wet springs can reduce flying insects, which the birds depend upon for food. At the start of the 20th century, a spring cold spell basically wiped out the local martin population.

Purple Martin housing has more requirements than simply erecting a gourd rack or “apartment house”. Martins won’t nest just anywhere. Their nest boxes should be installed in open areas away from trees and near water. You also have to watch regularly to make sure aggressive, introduced species like House Sparrows and European Starlings don’t move in; they can remove and kill martin eggs and chicks. Pole guards should be installed so that other predators, like raccoons and snakes, can’t climb up and wreak havoc.

This spring, thanks to a generous grant from CAF Canada, a second 12-unit Purple Martin condo complex has been installed at Wellfleet Bay. We can’t wait to see how long the new vacancies last!

Wellfleet Bay’s second new gourd rack at right. Will it have tenants this year?

Mass Audubon Cape Cod would like to thank both CAF Canada and Bill Leitch for funding the latest Purple Martin gourd racks at Wellfleet Bay and Long Pasture, respectively. Wellfleet Bay’s first Purple Martin nest rack was donated by Bird Watcher’s General Store.

Babies’ First Brumation: How Young Box Turtles Survived their First Winter

The arrival of spring brings the emergence of the sanctuary’s eastern box turtle population, six to seven months after they began their transition to brumation (reptile hibernation) in the fall.

One of our exciting box turtle projects last year was the release of five headstarted box turtles reared by students at Bristol Agricultural High School in Dighton.

These are the 5 young box turtles headstarted for two years at Bristol Agricultural High School
just before they were released at the sanctuary last May. (Photo by Tim O’Brien)

These turtles originated on property that abuts the sanctuary in late 2018. The folks at Bristol Aggie kept them until May of 2020 when each turtle’s average weight was about 200 grams—approximately that of a 4–5-year-old turtle! At that weight, the shell begins to ossify and the plastral hinge is functioning, allowing them to fully withdraw into their shell and resist predators. We released all five on the sanctuary property last May, equipped with radio transmitters, and have been monitoring their progress since.

A close view of a headstarted turtle wearing its transmitter. (Photo by Tim O’Brien)

Last summer was hot and dry, and in the fashion of young turtles, our headstarts spent most of their time hidden. We released them in different areas of the sanctuary and after some initial movement, they settled in. Over the entire season, we monitored their weights to make sure they were eating and maintaining hydration. They all sustained their weight and a couple actually gained some weight. I looked in on them 2-3 times per month. One turtle’s radio transmitter failed, so the whereabouts of that animal remains unknown, although it’s likely still on the property. As turtles begin to emerge this month, I’ll focus on finding that turtle and changing out the bad transmitter.

Because these turtles spent their first two winters in the care of Bristol Aggie, we were keen to learn if they would know how and when to enter into brumation. They all did fine. As is typical of box turtles, most selected brumation sites in the woods and buried themselves in soft detritus. One turtle went its own way and brumated in a field with no canopy cover, unusual but not unheard of. We looked in on them once a month throughout the winter and measured the length and depth of their burrows. And now for answering the big question: How did the head starts fare in brumation?

On a recent warm April afternoon walk, I looked in on the young turtles. All were still in brumation, but one turtle (#86.1), was sitting at the mouth of her burrow with head extended as if contemplating emergence.

This little box turtle looks very ready for spring! (Photo by Tim O’Brien)

I suspect that the cooler weather that immediately followed pushed her back into her burrow to wait for another day, but it is very gratifying to know that she made it through her first brumation cycle! Her temperature data logger will show us the temperatures that she experienced in the burrow all winter. After she emerges, I’ll change out her transmitter and follow her again this year. It is our hope and expectation that she will establish a home territory on the sanctuary property and contribute many offspring over the years. We’ll keep you posted!

Tim O’Brien is a veteran volunteer at Wellfleet Bay and when he’s not tracking down box turtles with his radio antenna, he and his wife Kim Novino are rescuing cold-stunned sea turtles and occasionally injured diamondback terrapins

Spring Brings Birds and Banders

It’s always exciting to have bird research back at Wellfleet Bay where bird banding on the property dates back to the 1920’s. Last year the spring migrants returned, but the bird banders could not due to the COVID-19 epidemic.

Banding station operator James Junda and his second bander (and spouse) Valerie Bourdeau were able to resume operations in the fall, but were limited to managing with just one volunteer per shift to check up to 25 mist nets each hour. “For COVID safety reasons we could only use volunteers capable of extracting birds on their own,” James reports. Experienced volunteers were a big help, but James says he also looks forward to being able to bring back a few more volunteers this year when conditions allow.

Socially distanced but still working together. Volunteer Jeannette Bragger (left) records data last fall as banders James and Val call it out.

Last year’s fall migration was productive. James reports the most species diversity since the station began operations in 2014, with 81 species recorded. The banders also had a rare “foreign” recapture—a young Gray Catbird they netted at the end of September that had been banded across the bay in Brewster earlier in the month.

It was an especially good fall for catbirds, which was the station’s most common species last year. Despite the summer’s severe drought, a number of plants at the sanctuary produced a good crop of berries and fruit-loving birds, like catbirds, cardinals, and vireos responded.

“Another fruit-eating species, the Yellow-rumped Warbler, had its biggest fall ever at the station and was the fourth on our “most captured” list,” James notes. But he also notes, the banding station in Brewster reported a drop in yellow-rumps, which shows why it’s important to look at data both locally, regionally, and throughout the flyway to draw meaningful conclusions.

This Swainson’s Thrush was one of 8 captured last fall. Usually, the banding station gets only a few.

Nevertheless, fruit-eating birds were definitely a recurring theme in Wellfleet last fall. The station also banded higher than usual numbers of far less common fruit lovers: Swainson’s Thrush, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Philadelphia Vireo, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

There was also a new species for the banding station in 2020—a Common Redpoll. This bird wasn’t here for fruit, but was part of the flood of “winter finches” that poured into the area due to to a poor seed crop in their usual wintering grounds in the far northern US and Canada.

A Common Redpoll shows the red on the head that gives it its common name. Adult males also
have a rosy wash on the chest, indicating this bird was either an adult female or a hatch year bird.

Below are the top 30 species recorded for each of the past 7 fall banding seasons.

Tallying up the 2020 Sea Turtle Rescue Season

With our last live cold-stunned sea turtle rescued on December 28th, we’ve been reflecting on what made this season standout from others.

Of course, there’s the fact that more than 1,000 turtles were rescued or recovered, the second biggest year on record. But what was especially gratifying was the record high number of live turtles rescued—75% of the total compared to about 50% in a more typical year. Presumably, the fact that the month of November was the second warmest ever played a role.

As usual, most of the turtles that cold-stunned were Kemp’s ridleys (Lepidochelys kempii), which are critically endangered and the world’s smallest sea turtles. There were 64 loggerheads (Caretta caretta),16 greens (Chelonia mydas),and possibly 3 hybrids.

Two ridleys, one alive the other dead, had PIT tags, which are similar to pet microchips. Information from the tags told us that both turtles stranded on Cape Cod during the fall of 2017. One was released off North Carolina the following year, the other off Martha’s Vineyard. Repeat stranders are very rare but every year, we get at least one.

It’s always exciting when an ID pops up as the PIT tag scanner is waved across the turtle! (Photo by Michaela Wellman).

One question we’re asking this year: where were the big loggerheads? In previous cold-stun periods loggerheads weighing 70-100 pounds or more were fairly common. This year, we only had two weighing over 80 pounds and one weighing less than 9 pounds. One theory is that because of the unusually warm water in Cape Cod Bay and favorable southerly winds, larger loggerheads may have maintained enough swimming mobility to make it out of the bay before temperatures got too cold.

A loggerhead lineup. Most rescued this fall were on the smaller side. Did larger ones get out of the bay in time?

Finally, we want to give a special shout-out to the more than two dozen sea turtle hospitals around the country now caring for well over 600 turtles rescued by our volunteers and staff. There’s no doubt that this loggerhead (below) found on Wellfleet’s Great Island in December looks a lot happier as it convalesces at Sea Turtle Recovery in New Jersey!

This loggerhead sea turtle is recuperating at Sea Turtle Recovery in New Jersey.

Director’s Message: Finding Relief in Nature’s Rhythms

Despite all the uncertainty and change that 2020 brought, the reliable rhythms of the animal world brought me extra relief. The new year ahead promises a repeat of these simple, natural gifts and they are ours to receive every day. Here is what I look forward to on Cape Cod in the upcoming calendar year:

Winter sunset at Wellfleet Bay.

January / Full bird feeders

My backyard bird feeding station doesn’t attract anything rare, but that’s okay because it’s the regular and reliable visits from Black-capped Chickadees that I enjoy the most. They linger in the cedar tree above, checking out the scene, and then quickly drop in, grab a sunflower seed, and flit back to their branch to crack open their prize, or stash it under the cedar shakes of my barn.

February / The presence of animals revealed in snow

Looks like someone’s been having fun!

I love heading out after a snowstorm to look for animal tracks. The skies are often a bright blue and the gleaming, fresh snow offers the patterns of all sorts creatures that moved about in predawn hours. I especially love seeing signs of otter. Their bounding tracks interspersed with long belly slides seem joyful.

March / The anticipation of Ospreys
Uttering the phrase “Saw my first osprey of the year” really energizes me! One of Cape Cod’s harbingers of spring, they return around the middle of the month as the days get longer and the ponds free themselves of ice. Their commitment and fortitude is enviable as they brace against late winter snowstorms from atop their platforms, confident that brighter days are ahead.

April / Early emergence of spadefoot toads

Heavy spring rains at night spur the movements of frogs and toads to ephemeral pools and puddles where they announce themselves, often loudly, with mating chirps and trills. The chance of encountering the rare and elusive Eastern spadefoot toad, otherwise subterranean, is what encourages me to don rain gear and head out into the deluge. The warm cup of tea afterwards is nice too.

May / Horseshoes at tide’s edge

As water temperatures begin to warm in May, horseshoe crabs crawl closer to shore to spawn. One of my favorite memories is strolling along the beach at high tide, the calm waves gently lapping on shore, and watching the dark shapes of horseshoe crabs move at the water’s edge in search of one another. Their purpose so ancient and elemental.

June / Turtles all the way up

Diamondback terrapin and its habitat.

Without a doubt, June is all about turtles. It’s the start of nesting season and turtles are up and about, and sightings abound of snappers crossing the road; painted turtles leaving the pond; box turtles on the prowl; and diamondback terrapins seeking sandy spots. And for me, this month is also characterized by the passionate and dedicated people who volunteer to help these species thrive in our shared landscape. I enjoy watching their daily movements almost as much as seeing the turtles themselves. The volunteers are much easier to spot, anyway!

July / “Be balm”

Echinacea being a balm. (Mark Faherty)

The flowers come alive with activity. Insects of all shapes and sizes fill the gardens. There are enormous red wasps probing the stiff burgundy cones of Echinacea; smaller, black wasps hang from bee balm’s fringed flowers; honey bees, bumble bees, and yellow jackets all vie for a spot on the purple spikes of catmint; cabbage whites chase one another from choice blossoms; and a single monarch lands on the butterfly weed. It’s easy to find reverie in the hum of summer when in the garden. 

August / Bats

Walk a wooded edge at dusk and look up. Be patient and watch the breaks in tree canopy which are bright against the silouhetted trees. And there it is! A bat! It darts, dips, and twists so fast as it hunts insects. The Chiroptera’s flight is choreographed to the metallic sounds of late summer insects—crickets, grasshoppers, and katydids—and the flash of fireflies. I could watch this dance for hours.

September / Shorebirds

Whimbrel arriving. (courtesy of Shawn Carey)

I’m not alone in a return to the beach post Labor Day. Shorebird migration is in full swing this time of year. Shorebirds of all kinds mingle together to probe the sand with their sensitive bills in search of worms, small bivalves, and other marine invertebrates. Least Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, Semipalmated Sandpiper (not to be confused with the Semipalmated Plover), Short-billed Dowitcher, and Willets are among those who visit our coast as fuel up for their continued journeys. This mixed flock also quivers with chatter as they communicate with one another in soft call notes. Occasionally they are interrupted by the plaintive whistle of a Black-bellied Plover taking off in flight. I like to sit a while and listen.

October / Skeins of sea ducks

Mid-autumn brings back skeins of sea ducks in Cape Cod Bay. Massive flocks of Common Eiders move restlessly offshore, scoters raft up between the waves, and Red-breasted Mergansers hunt fish in the shallows. The Cape’s deep ponds also welcome ducks this time of year. I love seeing the black-and-white Buffleheads and Hooded Mergansers paddling around.

November / Sea Turtle Season

If rescued quickly, most cold-stunned turtles can be medically treated and eventually released. (photo courtesy of Christine Bates.)

Water temperatures drop and north winds pick up, signaling the start of the sea turtle stranding season and rescue efforts. The first time I felt the flipper of a cold-stunned sea turtle it reminded me of what my cheeks felt like after being out sledding for hours in the clear nights of late winter. Soft yet impossibly cold. It’s amazing that many of these turtles, appearing lifeless and frozen, can be rehabilitated and released back into the wild. An incredible success story.

December / The courtship of owls

Great-horned Owl, courtesy of Ryan Schain.

Step outside into the late afternoons or long nights of December and listen for the mellow hoots of Great-horned Owls drifting through the pines. This is their courtship season and a pairs’ duets are easy to pick out in an otherwise quiet time of year. The males have a deep hoot, the females slightly higher pitch. I love having them as company on night walks in the woods.

This post was contributed by Mass Audubon Cape Cod Sanctuaries director Melissa Lowe.

Turtles to Remember in a Memorable Rescue Season

This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay Sea Turtle Stranding Coordinator Karen Dourdeville.

Each cold-stunned sea turtle season is different, but 2020 is turning out to be one for the scrapbooks! With 1,000 turtles rescued or recovered from our beaches–our second busiest season ever– there are a few that stand out for me for different reasons.

The Starters

Three Kemp’s ridleys rescued in Eastham on November 3rd started off our second busiest season ever. Staff and volunteers were ready for them, and more turtles quickly followed that day. These turtles and many others are now receiving care at marine animal rehab facilities in Florida.

It’s good to be an early strander. Early bird turtles have a better chance of recovering and returning to the wild.

Go Green

The next day, November 4th, we rescued the first green sea turtle of the season. Greens are not as hardy as the ridleys and loggerheads in cold water, so getting greens in early is good!

The Big Guy

November 20th saw the stranding in Truro of a huge (350-lb) mature male loggerhead. Wellfleet Bay’s rescue effort was made possible due to quick action and help from Truro town workers. Despite expert veterinary care at New England Aquarium’s Animal Care Center, this magnificent animal suffered from multiple health issues and only survived several days. His stranding, rescue and care, however, represent to me what this project is all about – people coming together to help endangered and threatened sea turtles. He also served as something of a poster child for the project, gaining nationwide concern and support.

This big mature loggerhead was rescued by Truro DPW and other town employees from Great Hollow Beach in North Truro.

Too-Big-for-a-Banana-Box Kemp’s ridley

Then there’s the biggest Kemp’s ridley so far this year, a live 7.1 kilogram (15.6 lbs.) turtle rescued on Great Island on December 10th.  This turtle was too big to fit in a banana box, so it traveled to the New England Aquarium on foam like the heavier loggerheads do. The ridley is at the upper right in the photo.

Three loggerheads and one Kemp’s ridley.

Note the “noodles”, which we use to support the outer edge of the plastron on larger turtles. This takes pressure off the central plastron and helps the turtles breathe.

The “Pocket” Loggerhead

l’ll never forget the season’s first really small loggerhead, weighing in at a “whopping” 3.9 kilograms (8.5 lbs). It fit quite easily in a banana box!

Does it look like James Nielsen has a ridley? Nope, it’s a very small (“pocket”) loggerhead.

Two Tesla Turtle Taxi Riders

The “Tesla Turtle Taxi” has been operational again this year. One of our volunteers from Falmouth has twice met the ferry from Martha’s Vineyard, picking up two live Kemp’s ridleys that stranded on the Vineyard. The volunteer drives these turtles directly to New England Aquarium’s Animal Care Center. While on the Vineyard, the turtles were cared for by Gus Ben David, the former Director of Mass Audubon’s Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary. Gus has a special “reptile room” that he keeps at 55 degrees–perfect for cold-stunned turtles!

The Gripper

And then there’s the Kemp’s ridley found “swimming upside down” in the Mill Pond, near Pamet Harbor in Truro. Back at the sanctuary’s Turtle ICU room, this little guy/gal wouldn’t let go of its towel. In order to get its weight, I had to hold the turtle and let the towel drop onto the scale to zero it out, then lower the turtle and its attached towel onto the scale.

Sea turtle # 945, AKA “The Gripper”.

The Hybrid

During most cold-stun years, we rescue at least one turtle that shows distinct evidence of being a hybrid. Inter-species mating among sea turtles is well-documented. On December 3rd, what clearly appears to be a hybrid was rescued in Truro. Its scute pattern on carapace and plastron, general body shape, and head scales and shape indicate a probable cross between a green and a loggerhead. DNA blood analysis from veterinary care can determine the cross.

Companions in the Dark

Turtles are processed by Wellfleet Bay sea turtle staff in our Turtle “ICU” room. In a typical year, weighing, measuring and assessing turtles is often a group effort . COVID protocols  this year, however, have changed that. Now, only one staff member works at a time in the ICU, so processing is a solitary undertaking. But it’s solitary only from a human perspective. When I’ve been processing turtles late at night or in early morning hours, with darkness and stillness outside, I often hear live ridleys moving around in their cozy banana boxes, awaiting the next transport by a volunteer driver. Sometimes one turtle even props its “beak” on the edge of a hole in its box, and I imagine it watching me as I work. Fine company!

Sea Turtle Heroes

Sea turtle rescue is also memorable because of all the people who make such a difference in the lives of these endangered and threatened animals.

Huge thanks goes out to Wellfleet Bay volunteers and staff, as well as the community at large, including Cape Cod National Seashore National rangers, Truro municipal employees, the Wellfleet harbormaster’s crew, and responsible beach walkers. And of course a big shout-out to our rehab partners at New England Aquarium’s Animal Care Center, the National Marine Life Center, and more distant rehab centers. Also thanks to Turtles Fly Too, whose volunteer private pilots have transported nearly 500 turtles by air this season! And, as always, we’re grateful to our partners at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for so skillfully managing and coordinating an unusually busy season— and in a pandemic!

Young Box Turtles Face First Big Chill

Now that the days are becoming shorter and nighttime temperatures are beginning to drop, Wellfleet Bay’s resident box turtles are preparing for brumation, the reptile version of hibernation. Unlike a woodchuck or a bear, turtles do not fatten up and snooze the winter away in a cozy den. In fact, it’s almost the opposite!

Last May, we began our first long-term study of juvenile box turtles, focusing on five turtles that were “head started” over the last winter at Bristol Agricultural High School in Dighton. The youngsters were released on the sanctuary outfitted with radio transmitters to allow periodic monitoring.

The transmitter tag is applied harmlessly to the turtle’s shell with glue. It will emit signals
for about six months after which a fresh transmitter will have to be swapped in. (Photo courtesy of Tim O’Brien).

These two-year-old turtles are the size of five to six-year-old wild box turtles. Our primary study goal is to determine if they will behave like the youngsters that they are, or like the somewhat older turtles they resemble. Although our study is still in its early stages and is far from conclusive, I would characterize the behavior of our head starts so far as more typical of two- year-old turtles than six-year-olds.

Size comparison: Our head started two-year olds are the size of the larger turtle shell shown above. The smaller (and partially chewed carapace) belonged to a wild two-year-old box turtle. (Photo courtesy of Tim O’Brien).

Each head start was released in a different area of the sanctuary. They spent most of their time hiding under leaf litter or buried in detritus, which is very typical for small (two-year-old) turtles. Certainly our hot and very dry summer may have contributed to this behavior, but in general their movements were few and when they did move they didn’t venture very far. This helps to explain why seeing a tiny box turtle in the wild is such a rare occurrence; they hide most of the time and just don’t move much.

At first glance it may look like this young turtle is preparing for winter. But this photo was taken this fall when the air was still warm. The very hot, dry summer apparently sent a lot of our box turtles under under leaves and soil to access cooler temperatures and moisture. (Photo courtesy of Tim O’Brien).

Because of the heat and drought, this was not a good growing year for box turtles. Many of them estivated—or were dormant– all summer. Regardless, each of the hatchlings appeared healthy when I weighed and measured them recently. Two were up a few grams in weight and two were down a few grams. One turtle has had a transmitter failure, so its exact location is unknown. The transmitter problem could be caused by a malfunction of the electronics or by a small critter like a chipmunk gnawing the antenna off (yes, it happens). I know in general where the turtle is and I’ll spend some time searching for it now that the vegetation is receding.

Box turtles on the sanctuary property begin to enter brumation toward the end of October and the last one disappears around Thanksgiving. Their body temperatures cool gradually, and –unlike mammals preparing for hibernation–they’ll stop eating weeks before brumation in order to empty their GI tracts. Trying to brumate on a full stomach could be fatal, as food still in the GI tract could decay and lead to an infection.

Each turtle selects a brumation site in well-drained yet moist soil or leaf litter and digs a burrow where they slip into a state of torpor until April or May. Somehow, they know just how deep to dig their burrows in order to avoid freezing temperatures. The burrows here in Wellfleet range in depth from about one to seven inches, with the average being a mere two to three inches. How do they survive the cold? Box turtles are freeze tolerant; they are the largest vertebrate that can withstand icing of their internal organs (for a short period of time).

One of the behaviors that we will be watching for this fall will be when the head starts begin digging their first brumation burrows and settling in for the winter. Let’s remember that these turtles spent their first two winters in captivity, warm and with plenty of food. Will they know when it’s time to brumate? Will they know how and where to dig? I suspect they will, but like a guardian angel I’ll be watching!

Tim O’Brien is a veteran volunteer at Wellfleet Bay and when he’s not tracking down box turtles with his radio antenna, he and his wife Kim Novino are rescuing cold-stunned sea turtles and occasionally injured diamondback terrapins. (Photo courtesy of Kim Novino).