Category Archives: Updates

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).

Sea Turtle Update: Summer Monitoring, Fall Rescues and COVID-19

With numerous reports of lion’s mane and other species of jellyfish in our waters this summer, we were pretty certain endangered leatherback sea turtles would soon follow. Leatherbacks, the world’s largest sea turtle, feed almost exclusively on jellies. And by late summer some of that feeding was occurring in Vineyard Sound, one of the most heavily-trafficked bodies of water in the Cape and Islands region.

Leatherback feasting on a lion’s mane jelly fish. (Photo courtesy of Melanie White, MV Granite State).

Unfortunately, on September 13, a dead leatherback showing a severe vessel strike wound was reported on West Chop, Martha’s Vineyard. It turns out that this leatherback had been flipper-tagged. The tag revealed that the mature female was tagged as she crawled ashore to nest on Chiriqui Beach in eastern Panama, on March 22, 2019. She returned to nest on Chiriqui Beach that same year on April 10th and 20th.

We always hate to see any leatherback killed in our waters, but the death of a reproductive female is especially heart-breaking. And judging from the measurements of her carapace from Panama, 2019 may have been this turtle’s first of possibly many reproductive years.

This dead leatherback with clear injuries from a vessel-strike
stranded at West Chop on Martha’s Vineyard.
(Photo courtesy of Liz Dengenis).

We continue to remind boaters and other vessel operators sea turtles are here and can be difficult to see. We also strongly encourage anyone who does see a sea turtle, alive or dead, to report it to seaturtlesightings.org.

COVID-19 and the Fall Cold-stun Season

Due to COVID-19 safety considerations and funding restrictions, the 2020 cold-stunned sea turtle season will be different and difficult. Just how difficult will depend on many factors including weather, number of turtles, and major COVID-related changes–not just at Wellfleet Bay but also at our partner cold-stun rehab organizations.

Planning for our cold-stun rescue operations started basically with only two certainties: cold-stunned turtles will wash up on Cape Cod Bay beaches and we will not leave them there. Beyond that, we are re-working every step of our protocols, including with volunteers, with sea turtle rehab organizations and among Wellfleet staff. These changes are based on eliminating contact between people, and will be conveyed to sea turtle volunteers in detail soon.

Not only will masks be needed this fall but teamwork will have to occur at a greater distance and will likely require more time to process sea turtles. (2019 photo courtesy of Carol “Krill” Carson).

One important, though disappointing change to the 2020 cold-stun season: Wellfleet Bay will not be able to accept any new sea turtle volunteers for the 2020 cold-stun season. We regret this but it’s necessary, in part, due to staffing limitations. But there’s some good news, too. Our 2019 team members Jess Ciarcia and Jacey Corrente are returning for the 2020 season!

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

Helping Salt Marshes Keep Up with Climate Change

Salt marshes, like oceans and forests, are critical buffers from the effects of a fast warming planet. Healthy salt marshes capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store carbon in spongy peat beds that form the base of the marsh. A thriving salt marsh can store at least three times as much carbon as an equivalent area of mature tropical rain forest.

Salt marshes do more than store carbon. They provide food and shelter for countless animals, including birds and many commercially important fish, and they reduce flooding and erosion by absorbing excess floodwater and slowing waves. But that’s only if they’re reasonably healthy and can keep up with rising sea levels.

Mass Audubon Climate Change Adaptation Ecologist, Dr. Danielle Perry (in the distance), and her assistant, Thomas Eid, measure out a 200-foot survey line (transect) through the marsh.

On an August morning, Mass Audubon’s Climate Change Adaptation Ecologist, Dr. Danielle Perry, and her volunteer assistant, Thomas Eid, began to pace out a series of randomly chosen 200-foot survey lines, also known as transects, to study various plant species and their locations, the peat condition that supports the marsh, and even the upland surrounding the salt marsh.

Data collection: salt marsh plants and natural and unnatural marsh features are recorded along each survey transect. The survey method used was the Rhode Island Marsh Rapid Assessment Method.

This is a pilot survey, one of five Dr. Perry is conducting at different salt marshes at Mass Audubon sanctuaries, including Barnstable’s Great Marsh at Long Pasture. The goal is to determine to what extent each marsh is being impacted by climate change and sea level rise.

Dr.Perry looks for signs of roots in the soil that would indicate this salt marsh pool formed as a result of vegetation die-off. (No roots were found, so the pool appears to be natural!)

Is Wellfleet Bay’s salt marsh at risk? One way to answer the question is to look at the cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), a species from the low marsh which floods twice a day at high tide. If cordgrass is found in the high marsh, which floods only periodically, then it suggests sea levels are rising high enough to promote cordgrass encroachment into the high marsh.

“There are some good signs here,” Dr. Perry notes. “There’s healthy cordgrass in the low marsh (the part of the marsh flooded by high tide twice a day), but there’s also evidence of cordgrass encroaching on the high marsh ,” she adds. She says cordgrass displacing salt marsh hay (Spartina patens) in the high marsh could lead to loss of the habitat critical to breeding birds, such as the Saltmarsh Sparrow.

The Saltmarsh Sparrow is considered highly vulnerable to sea level rise because its low-lying nests in the marsh are increasingly at risk of flooding.

Other worrisome climate vulnerability indicators are the presence of man-made ditching (once believed to control mosquitoes), bare patches of peat, and low spots—areas where peat is subsiding.

Dr. Perry’s left boot reveals a low spot in the high marsh– a sign of peat degradation.

Such conditions can increase the risk of erosion and flooding stress, which can severely degrade the marsh.

With fewer natural predators to keep their populations in check, fiddler and purple marsh crabs are excessively digging burrows (see holes near base of the cordgrass) which can weaken and erode peat beds. Erosion can also be caused by excess nutrients that prevent grass from forming strong root systems.

If salt marshes are to survive sea level rise they need to adapt through landward migration or what’s known as vertical growth.

Landward migration involves marsh movement into upland areas. Dr. Perry notes that Wellfleet Bay’s marshes have some room to do this but not as much as the Great Marsh in Barnstable, which has a lower shoreline profile and less development. “Some of the upland areas at Wellfleet lack a gradual slope that would allow the marsh to move landward to keep up with sea level,” she says. Vertical growth means increasing the height of salt marshes through added sediment and helping marshes keep pace with current and rising sea levels.

Wellfleet Bay is surrounded by coastal banks and some structures that could make it hard for the marsh to move landward as sea level continues to rise.

Dr. Perry hopes to complete her pilot study this fall and eventually survey the remaining salt marshes at Mass Audubon’s coastal sanctuaries next summer. The information will be used to inform and prioritize climate change adaptation projects for Mass Audubon sites. “Some of those projects will involve relieving some of the flooding stress marshes are under or identifying specific sources of nutrient pollution that might be controlled or eliminated to protect marshes,” she says.

Piping Plovers and People: It’s Complicated

In June coastal waterbird volunteer Jeannette Bragger and fellow-volunteer Nancy Braun began monitoring a Piping Plover nest on a very challenging North Truro beach. In this post, Jeannette details how the season went—for them and the birds.

The female of our Piping Plover pair settles back on her well camouflaged eggs. The adults take turns incubating the nest.

Life is tough for Piping Plovers on the Outer Cape. Not only do they often have to contend with extreme weather conditions, they are also regularly stalked by predators like crows, grackles, foxes, and coyotes. And then there are the people. That’s where it gets complicated and where Mass Audubon’s coastal waterbird monitors try to help.

People’s attitudes toward these endangered and highly protected plovers range from love, fascination, and curiosity to indifference, annoyance, and outright hostility. In a few cases, the negativity may result in undesirable actions by a few people. That’s when it becomes complicated.

Imagine being the size of a ping pong ball, not being able to fly yet, and finding yourself in a crowd of people/children, whose primary desire is to have fun, to run, and to play ball. And sometimes they carelessly abandon trash that can attract predators!

The four chicks hatched between June 28 and 29. Here, they were six days old and exploring the world with “Dad” on Fourth of July.

For the most part, things went well with our plover pair that nested on a private resort property this year.  Not only were the owners and caretakers of the resort cooperative and helpful, many of the guests became engaged in monitoring the nest site and then even “babysitting” the four chicks!

By my estimates, my friend and fellow-volunteer Nancy Braun and I talked to between fifty and a hundred adults and many more children staying at the resort. Some had never heard of Piping Plovers, some knew a little about them, and most had never seen them.

Plover chicks roam the beach within a day of hatching and feed themselves. It speeds up development but it also makes tiny chicks vulnerable to beach traffic.

That all changed for many of the resort guests this summer. As I passed by the cottages to check the birds, guests wanted daily updates. When the chicks hatched, they knew we had to see four with the parent(s) so we could document that we had not lost any to predators. “Did you see four, did you see four?” was the perennial question as families sat at picnic tables eating a meal. One group applauded when I told them that yes, indeed, I had found the four with the parents and that they were doing well!

I learned people’s names and some of their stories. They knew my name and wanted to help. If we had trouble finding the chicks, we simply asked someone on the beach if they had seen them. “They were just here…they went that way…we saw them this morning…they’re over there…no, we’re sorry but we haven’t seen them…” were the usual responses. As we left the site, we often semi-seriously designated one group to be the babysitters until we could return later in the day. It became a game that made people feel responsible.

It’s important to note that Saturday and Sunday are turn-over days at most cottages, and hotels in our area. With every turn-over, the people we knew departed and a new set of guests arrived. That also meant that our education work started all over again!

Two of our many helpful resort guests: Leslie Knot, a professional photographer, and Veronica Garza, a stand-up comedian, and their dog Colin (a nature lover and always on a leash!).

Two of the guests at the resort were particularly helpful. Veronica and Leslie arrived from Brooklyn and were thrilled to be on the Cape. They were already familiar with plovers and immediately started looking out for them. As Leslie said: “ We watched the parents defend the nest and saw the chicks hatch and grow. It was an honor to check on them each day and to look out for them.”

“Four chicks?” This was the question we were regularly asked by guests after we checked the plovers. Once, people applauded when we told them yes!

Was everyone equally cooperative and receptive to the plover story? Regretfully, no.

From the woman who repeatedly let her dog chase them; to the man who said he couldn’t control what his children were doing; to the man who jogged through the chicks and said they were faster than he was; to the person who left French fries near the site and didn’t understand that his action would attract dangerous predators; to the teenager who was hitting a baseball in the mudflats where the chicks were feeding and were clearly visible… these were the people who had to be reminded that it’s a state and federal crime to endanger, harass, or in any way disturb protected birds like Piping Plovers.

Of course, we also explained why NO birds should be harassed. In one case, after repeated infractions of the law, the woman who disregarded the leash law finally had to be reported to the authorities. But, in general, we tried very hard to simply help beachgoers understand and cooperate before we explain the possible penalties.

For the most part, our resort guests were kind, interested, cooperative, curious, and helpful. I heard one family explaining to a group of kids that they shouldn’t run near the birds because they could hurt them. They showed them the chicks and the kids were thrilled. The adults repeated exactly what we had just explained to them. It was very gratifying.

Hello! With so many people looking out for the birds, the plovers became used to beachgoers and seemed curious about them. Even the vigilant adult birds didn’t seem to mind their chicks “visiting” people.

Our summer plover monitoring ended on a high note, except that we lost one of our chicks. It’s heart breaking to lose chicks but this year’s survival rate (three of four) is still a success. The odds are not stacked in the birds’ favor. In 2018 we lost two of the four chicks, and in 2019 all four were depredated. Maybe our presence and the people who helped us made it marginally easier for them. But ultimately, they have to take care of themselves. Will they make it to their wintering grounds? We’ll never know. But we wish them well and want to believe that they’ll survive the journey.

“Dad” (upper left) watches two of his brood about to lift off. When chicks can fly, plover monitors can claim success. All photos in this post are courtesy of Jeannette Bragger.

Volunteers and Staff Go Extra Mile to Protect Nesting Turtles

Before the pandemic, a highlight of the Wellfleet Bay field season was the diamondback terrapin nesting cycle. Terrapins are a Threatened species in Massachusetts and Wellfleet is the northern edge of their range. In a normal year, small crews of volunteers regularly patrol nesting hot spots in Wellfleet, Eastham and Orleans to find and protect nests and– later in the summer– to release hatchlings. But COVID-19, as with so many things, has scaled the effort back.

A diamondback terrapin makes her way back to the salt marsh after nesting along the Goose Pond Trail.

This summer, in order to ensure the safety and well-being of volunteers, nest checks are done by only one volunteer with a staff member following a few minutes behind to cover tasks that can be time consuming or overwhelming on a busy nesting day. The idea is to limit a one-person shift to two hours. In the past a busy day could keep a team out twice that long.

Tony Pane checks out a hole he later concluded was probably dug by a raccoon or a fox.

Veteran terrapin volunteer Tony Pane, accompanied one recent morning by his daughter Laurie Foster, says it can be nice to leave the labor-intensive work to the turtle staff. But he notes there’s also a downside to no longer working with a team. “I miss the camaraderie we had. It also means I can’t delegate the paperwork to someone else!”

Tony Pane’s daughter Laurie tries to locate the “throat” of her first terrapin nest as her father provides instruction.

The sanctuary’s terrapin staff follows volunteers twice a day every day. Terrapin field technician Jessica Ciarcia says the new system has been going smoothly but recalls one very challenging day on Lieutenant Island, which is just north of the main sanctuary.

“I got to Way 100 and saw six terrapins, some heading one way, some the other.” Way 100 skirts the salt marsh on the island’s southeast side and over the years has been the scene of many turtle fatalities due to cars.

As Jess was keeping an eye on one nesting turtle, a UPS truck was driving up the road. She ran toward the truck, waving her arms. As it turns out the driver was coming to tell Jess there was another terrapin at the bridge! His truck stopped just in time. “The front wheel was practically touching the shell of the nesting turtle,” Jess says. “The poor guy– you could just tell he loved terrapins.”

Close call on Lieutenant Island! Fortunately, this driver was aware of nesting terrapins. The nesting turtle is circled in white.

It’s not clear why, but for the sanctuary and Lieutenant Island nesting seems to have been on the lighter side this year ( while last year was a record year for many sites). The sanctuary this year recorded a total of 67 nests, ten of which were depredated. And Lieutenant Island had a total of 125 nests, 51 lost to predators.

Discerning where a terrapin has nested after the fact can be tricky. But there are likely few turtles that have sneaked a nest past volunteer Heather Pilchard. Heather is famous for finding nests others have missed. “Being on my own this summer means I’m able to focus more,” she says. But the two hour limit on a shift also means she has less time to make the rounds. “In your heart you want to find every nest,” she notes. “But you just do your best.”

As terrapin program supervisor Bob Prescott looks on, Heather Pilchard works to install a predator exclosure around the second of two hard-to-find nests she found one July evening at the sanctuary.

Learning about the Secret Lives of Baby Box Turtles

Wellfleet Bay has been tracking mature box turtles for years, but young turtles, secretive by nature, have been far less studied.

In late 2018 we had a unique opportunity to investigate a clutch of five eastern box turtles that had hatched in late August at a home next to the sanctuary. When the homeowners realized they were unable to raise box turtles and that it was illegal to keep them in Massachusetts, they contacted the sanctuary for help and we contacted MassWildlife. Box turtles are listed as a species of concern in Massachusetts.

Due in part to the fact it was too late in the season to release the hatchlings into the wild, the state allowed us to “head start” the turtles with the seasoned turtle staff at Bristol Agricultural High Schools Natural Resources Management Department in Dighton.

A Bristol Agricultural High School student measures a head start hatchling. (Photo courtesy of Brian Bastarache.)

The folks at Bristol Aggie are well versed in caring for and raising young turtles for eventual release. We asked them to rear our box turtles until they were large enough for us to attach small radio transmitters so that we could observe them long term. We developed a study plan to monitor movements, growth rates, home range establishment and brumation patterns. This will be the first time that the sanctuary has had the opportunity to begin a long-term study of juvenile box turtles.

While at the high school, the turtles were watched over by the students and staff, fed a healthy diet, and kept at optimal temperature in the modified greenhouse that the school uses to raise turtles (a spectacular new facility is under construction now with completion expected later this year). As part of their curriculum, the students weigh and measure the turtles weekly and record that information on the individual turtle’s chart. The enthusiasm and dedication of the students involved in this program is really exhilarating.

“Number 3” weighed in at 59.5 grams in December of 2018. His/her weight more than tripled during the 18-month head start period. (Photo courtesy of Brian Bastarache.)

During the eighteen months that the turtles were at Bristol Aggie they grew quickly. When we picked them up in May and brought them back to the sanctuary they averaged 10 centimeters in length and 200 grams, roughly equivalent to a 5-6 year old wild turtle! On May 21st we released them at the sanctuary to begin our project.

Big baby! This turtle has the body of a 5 year old but was hatched just 18 month ago. (Photo courtesy of Kim Novino.)

Each turtle was set free in a different strategic location on the property known to be used by other box turtles. Prior to this all the turtles were measured and weighed. All were photographed and given ID numbers that were notched into their marginal scutes (the edge of their shells) to positively identify them. Finally, I fitted each turtle with a 6 gram Holohil radio transmitter to allow me to track it for 6 months. After six months, I will need to change the transmitter and install a fresh one. I’ll continue this until they are large enough to comfortably wear a 9 gram transmitter that lasts a full year.

Turtles are weighed, measured, and marked before their release so they can be followed for what we hope are many decades to come! (Photo courtesy of Tim O’Brien.)

So how are they doing? It’s only been a few weeks, but each turtle is settling into its new habitat. One of the questions we are looking to answer is whether the turtles will act like 20 month old turtles who hide most of the time, or will they act more like 6 year old turtles who tend to explore a bit more?

Upon release each turtle sought cover immediately which is what we expected. During their first week, two turtles traveled 50-100 feet. On my last check, each turtle was either buried under leaf little or in a small grass form. I observed one turtle eating a slug which I consider to be a good sign that they are settling in!

This recently released youngster appears to have found a place in the sun.(Photo courtesy of Tim O’Brien.)

This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay box turtle researcher Tim O’Brien.

Keeping a Protective Eye on Piping Plovers

Piping Plovers have a tough life. Their parenting job begins as soon as the first egg is laid. Then come the hatchlings that are unruly and adorable and need protection 24/7. But not many of the chicks actually survive.

Wellfleet Bay volunteers Jeannette Bragger (left) and Nancy Braun (right) keep close watch on nesting Piping Plovers at a busy bayside beach in North Truro. Plovers are on the federal and state endangered species lists.

 For those of us who monitor one or more nests, this is a difficult time. We get attached (we know we shouldn’t) and we’re heart-broken when/if the chicks disappear one after the other, day after day.

In 2018, two of four chicks fledged; in 2019, all four were predated. When we still had a last intrepid little one from that brood, we were all rooting for him. But he perished also. I still look at his picture, those of his siblings, and his parents.

A dad and his chicks (yes, there are two in this photo!) Summer 2018. (Jeannette Bragger)

So why do we do this every summer, year in year out? I do it because we can document them, get to know them, educate people about them, and root for them. They need us and we have do our best to protect this endangered bird.

For my friend and fellow volunteer, Nancy Braun, it’s about caring about all creatures great and small: “Whales, owls, foxes, horseshoe crabs, turtles, plovers… Any excuse to be outside…and Piping Plovers are so cute!”

Being a Piping Plover is even tougher here on the Outer Cape than in many other places. Thousands of people come to our beaches where these amazing birds are trying to survive and raise their families.

The arrow points to the symbolic fencing surrounding the plover nest. (Jeannette Bragger)

Plovers have to put up with a range of disturbances– wedding tents near their nesting sites, crowds of adults and children on the beaches. And people with dogs. Dogs who like to chase birds. To let them run off-leash is a disaster for Piping Plovers, particularly for the newly-hatched chicks who can’t outrun a dog, are about the size of a golf ball and weigh even less. And their camouflage is so perfect that you wouldn’t know it if you stepped on one.

Just some of the many disturbances Piping Plovers have to contend with on a Cape Cod beach. (Jeannette Bragger)

Fortunately for us, most visitors are interested in learning about these birds and understand the need to walk mindfully and give them room.

People and dogs are not the only ones who raise the risk level for Piping Plovers. High tides can wash over the nests. Crows love the eggs. As do foxes, coyotes, grackles, and, depending on location, snakes and raccoons. The chicks are always highly vulnerable.

While we can’t protect them from the predators and the weather, we can tell people their story, show them their pictures, and make the birds’ survival part of their personal experience.

A pair of plovers blends in beautifully in their nesting habitat. (Jeannette Bragger)

This year’s pair of birds has a nest with the typical four eggs. The adults don’t incubate until the fourth egg has been laid (this is so that all eggs hatch approximately at the same time). During the day, it’s primarily the male who does the job while the female is feeding. Laying eggs about every 36 hours is strenuous and takes a lot out of the female. She needs to feed and regain her strength for the next egg.

Three plover eggs, almost a full clutch, can easily be mistaken for three beach pebbles. (Jeannette Bragger)

The male is an incredibly attentive parent, not just by incubating the eggs but also by helping protect the chicks once they’ve hatched (a serious job for both parents). And it is the male who stays with the young until they can fly and survive on their own. The female, on the other hand, often leaves the family a couple of weeks before to begin her migration southward.

Incubation requires focus! (Jeannette Bragger)

We visit the site every day, keeping a respectable distance and using binoculars to observe the birds. We get attached (we can’t help it), we watch them, and we believe that they get to know us. We have unforeseen adventures with them, like the day a young off-leash black lab chased the male off the nest and through the dune grass. It was dramatic and scary. The dog came within feet of the nest and could easily have destroyed it. But the male bird, seeing the danger, immediately distracted the dog, who narrowly missed stepping on the eggs.

The male returned to his incubation duties very quickly after the danger had passed. And the female soon arrived and they traded places on the nest. Surprisingly, the male then approached us and followed us for a while before flying to the beach. We want to believe that he knew we had helped his family-to-be and was thanking us. That’s just make-believe, but it’s one of the aspects of this volunteer job that keeps us going.

Maybe we’ll be lucky this year and have four hatchlings and four fledged birds. Maybe the male will come back in 2021 to start a new family, and perhaps we’ll all recognize each other!

The payoff for all coastal waterbird monitors–chicks! (Jeannette Bragger)

This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay volunteer Jeannette Bragger. This is her third summer as a coastal waterbird monitor.

Tough Time Reveals Silver Linings

Sanctuary Director’s Message

I received a text from my niece describing how her soon to be six-year-old son fell in the salt marsh. The story goes they ventured off the trail that skirts the marsh edge to peer into one of the deep pools known to teem with mummichogs that wait for the next high tide. As they got closer to the pool, the ground beneath them became muddier and wetter and Jase sunk knee-deep into the ooze. His mom easily pulled him out, but the marsh temporarily claimed one of his rubber boots and socks for its own.

The story made me grin from ear to ear.

The salt pannes of Wellfleet Bay.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t delight in his muddy mishap. I was just thrilled they were outside, exploring, and getting into nature. And they are not alone.

One of the silver linings of this pandemic and the stay-at-home orders is that more people are getting outside. From my kitchen window I see walkers and runners on the road in summertime volume. While hiking in the woods with my dogs I have to dodge people I have never seen before on familiar trails. And on sunny days the tidelines of well-known beaches are like a conveyor belt of humans.

While it makes social distancing a challenge, seeing all these people outdoors gives me hope. We are turning to nature in our times of need and discovering it is essential to our well-being. Breathing in the fresh spring air, listening to the ocean’s roar, smelling sun-warmed pine needles, watching the birds at the feeder, feeling wet marsh mud. Nature in all its forms heals us.

The natural world also offers us lessons in resilience. Misadventures like falling into the marsh will occur, but such experiences can teach our children (and adults!) how to bounce back from unexpected set-backs. We know that resilience is not only a critical lesson in these uncertain times, but it empowers us throughout our lives. 

This temporary pause in the mindless hustle-and-bustle of our normal routines is focusing our attention on what we truly value—and it is clear that getting out in nature rises to the top. This reminds me of the important role that the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary plays. Not only does it provide critical habitat for a diverse array of wildlife, it is also one of the many protected open spaces where kids and grownups can recreate, rejuvenate, and connect with their natural heritage. And it is this critical connection that will ensure not only the future of the places we love but will allow us to meet the challenges posed by the changing climate and other threats to the nature that so clearly sustains us.

While the sanctuary remains closed for the time being for safety reasons, rest assured it will reopen and all of us will be able to soak up the sights, sounds, and scents that we’ve been missing about this very special place. But in the meantime, get outside wherever you are. Look. Listen. Play. Breathe. Dive deep into your natural surroundings and emerge the stronger. Muddy boots and all!

Melissa Lowe
Director, Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

Spring Birds Embrace Change

I enjoy seeing the brilliant red and black plumage of a male Scarlet Tanager and hearing the ascending buzzy song of the Northern Parula as much as anybody else in spring. But what’s been the biggest draw for me are the fascinating life histories of these birds. It’s the reason I get up before dawn, forego a reasonable breakfast, and embrace sleep deprivation in the month of May!

What interests me the most about migrants is how they live before they arrive in Massachusetts and, in some cases, after they pass through. 

As I thought about spring migration at the sanctuary last year, two species came to mind immediately: the Tennessee Warbler and the Eastern Kingbird. Both live very differently now than at other times of the year.  

Last May I was fortunate to see and hear several Tennessee Warblers at Wellfleet Bay. 

This Tennessee Warbler was photographed at the sanctuary’s bird banding station last spring . Tennessee Warblers are not from Tennessee and were given the name only because the first one described was found there. Photo courtesy of Jim Sweeney.

The song of this species starts like a typical warbler song, but quickly becomes much faster, increases in pitch, and finishes like an urgent alarm.  One particularly obliging bird sang frequently from the south side of Silver Spring on the morning of May 31 (a later than average arrival date).  The loud and distinctive song was discernible from the chorus of migrants that chose this location to rest and feed for the day.

Tennessee Warblers breed in the boreal forest from southeast Yukon to Nova Scotia and parts of northern New England.  During the breeding season they feed mostly on insects.  One of their preferred foods is the caterpillars of the Eastern Spruce Budworm moth, a plain brownish species of the genus Choristoneura.  Eastern Spruce Budworm moths are prone to periodic outbreaks and during these times the caterpillars can be abundant. The caterpillars feed mostly on Balsam Fir and White Spruce and can decimate vast tracts of forest during outbreaks (the most recent outbreak defoliated more than 7 million hectares of forest in Quebec). Tennessee Warbler numbers increase in response to these periodic outbreaks, as do Cape May and Bay-breasted Warblers.

When wintering in the tropics, the Tennessee Warbler, a drab greenish-gray bird, switches from bugs to primarily fruit. But it also subsists on nectar (and some insects). In Central America it has been observed “stealing” nectar from the flowers of Panama Queen (Aphelandra sinclairiana).  The warbler pierces the base of the flower bract with its fine-tipped bill and takes nectar without returning the favor through pollination!

Tennessee Warblers have a different social life on their wintering grounds where they’re quite gregarious. During a trip to Nicaragua in 2008, I was mesmerized by a flock of fifteen that had concentrated in and around a fruit producing tree in the country’s highlands.  In twenty minutes I observed all fifteen birds dart in and out of the tree for a meal.  The number of Tennessee Warblers I saw visiting one tree exceeded the number of individual birds I had observed in Massachusetts in the previous five years!

Then there’s the Eastern Kingbird, which usually arrives in Massachusetts at the beginning of May.  Last year we were graced with the presence of an early arriving kingbird at the sanctuary on April 16.

Photo courtesy of Sherri VandenAkker

Known for their highly aggressive behavior during the breeding season, Eastern Kingbirds are extremely territorial and do not tolerate the presence of other Eastern Kingbirds at the outset of the nesting season.  In addition, they frequently challenge much larger species (e.g., crows and hawks) that get too close to an active nest.

Eastern Kingbirds are not too friendly to others, especially other kingbirds, during breeding season. Photo courtesy of Brenda Doherty.

These birds lead completely different lives during spring migration and while they are wintering in the tropics.  They form flocks and travel in groups while migrating in spring.  North of Mexico, it is not unusual for this species to form flocks of up to a dozen birds.  Years ago, while birding with a group at Cape May, New Jersey in early May, I saw a flock of twenty Eastern Kingbirds alight on nearby trees during the morning flight at Higbee Beach.  This species is believed to be a day time migrant and we were lucky to see such an unusually large flock of birds at this famous coastal migrant trap.

While wintering in the tropics, Eastern Kingbirds form even larger flocks and move about in search of fruit.  This social and cooperative behavior might be surprising to anyone who has observed an unsuspecting American Crow wander too close to a kingbird nest here in Massachusetts!  

Tennessee Warblers and Eastern Kingbirds may not have the same visual appeal and allure as species like Magnolia Warblers, Indigo Buntings, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks.  But when I hear the two or three part staccato song of the Tennessee Warbler or the excited and stuttering wheeze of the Eastern Kingbird in May, I think about their winter experiences in places like Panama and Colombia and the changes they embrace with the arrival of spring.

This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay special programs coordinator Jim Sweeney.

Finding Sanctuary Close to Home

Sanctuary Director’s Message

We’re saddened that the threat posed by COVID-19 has required Mass Audubon to temporarily close its sanctuaries to visitors. I know how special our properties are to our members, volunteers, and friends. And Wellfleet Bay is in the truest sense of the word a sanctuary for many, especially during difficult times. And, wow, we are all going through a rough patch right now.

Silver Spring, Summer 2019 (photo courtesy of Elizabeth Brooke).

But really, what we are experiencing is beyond compare. In light of that, Mass Audubon made the very hard decision to take these extra measures for the next couple of weeks so we can do our part in helping stop the spread of the coronavirus and keeping all of us healthy.

Not only are these difficult times, they are unprecedented times. In my 25 years working for Mass Audubon, I have never known us to close the sanctuary’s grounds and trails to visitors except for major events like snowstorms and hurricanes—or Wild, Wild Wellfleet!

Until our Wellfleet Bay community can resume our normal interactions, I’d like to share a short reflection on one benefit of staying close to home.

If you’re not used to it, working from home takes a certain discipline and focus that takes some getting used to. My temporary office this past week has been in my kitchen. If I’m not distracted by the dust bunnies that need vacuuming or the dogs that demand petting, I find my gaze drifting up from the computer to the birdfeeders outside my window.

Today in between answering emails I noticed: several chickadees (or the same one over and over!), Tufted Titmice, a Song Sparrow, tons of grackles and robins, and one Red-bellied Woodpecker. I also heard, clear through the closed windows, a Blue Jay imitating a Red-tailed Hawk. While not a super impressive list, all of the birds I saw were so enjoyable and relaxing to watch.

I’ve always been a fan of sit-and-stay birding—choosing one location, slowing down, being patient, and observing life that unfolds around you. Birds are a lovely distraction right now and their cheery songs are a promise of all the good things the spring season has in store. 

And lo-and-behold, when I looked back at my email inbox this message from one of the Sanctuary’s long-time front desk volunteers appeared: “Soooo happy the bluebirds are back in my birdhouse. We, who are living in this beautiful part of the world, sure are lucky people.”

Yes, Shirl, thanks for that reminder, we are lucky—for our feathered friends, and our human ones too. 

Stay well, everyone. I hope the view outside your window also brings you comfort and encourages you to reflect on all that is good in your life. We look forward to hearing what you observe during this time of settling down and sticking closer to home—and we are even more eager to see you all again in person at Wellfleet Bay in the very near future.

Melissa Lowe
Director, Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary