Spring is always exciting as colorful and charismatic birds move north for a new breeding season. But April 2022 has been especially birdy at the sanctuary, including visits by a couple of unexpected species.
Birds Making News
First, a lovely male Indigo Bunting sporting his eye-popping blue breeding plumage was spotted for several days, somewhat improbably, on the mud flats of Goose Pond. This wasn’t the only Indigo Bunting reported on the Cape this month, but they are definitely a treat at this time of year.
Soon after the first bunting sightings, an adult White Ibis, only the 5th record for Cape Cod, showed up in a Wellfleet Bay saltmarsh creek—another muddy backdrop! Any visitor to Florida can routinely spot these birds, often on the sides of roads in drainage ditches, but it was very cool to see this handsome southerner in a coastal Massachusetts setting.
Mid-April has also been remarkable for all the kinglets along the Massachusetts coast, including the Outer Cape. These charming, tiny songbirds showed up in numerous areas along the bayside during the middle of the month, sometimes by the dozens. James Junda, who operates the sanctuary’s bird banding station, says for three days in a row the station recorded more Ruby and Golden-crowned Kinglets each day than are typically seen in an entire spring season! He says the larger than usual numbers may have been caused in part by bad weather in the mid-west pushing migrating flocks east to the Cape.
“The good news—they’re all in very good shape, “ James says. “ They have good fat levels and there’s a good mix of ages.” He notes that kinglet numbers at the station were also unusually high last fall, which was also true for Hermit Thrushes and Northern Flickers, two other species that have been seen in large numbers recently. All four species, James says, are among those you’d expect to see moving through this month.
While it may not seem as gratifying as rescuing a live, cold-stunned sea turtle from a beach, Wellfleet Bay’s sea turtle program serves another important function: as a valuable resource to area scientists working to learn more about sea turtles, their life cycles, and how to better protect them.
Typically, after each rescue season, sanctuary staff, volunteers, and researchers from government and other scientific organizations gather at a state-of-the-art lab at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to necropsy sea turtles that did not survive the cold-stun period. Many of the scientists collect samples from these turtle carcasses for their respective studies.
A Shortened Schedule for Samples
In part because of COVID restrictions last year, we were unable to hold our full schedule of necropsy sessions. But this spring we were determined to necropsy at least enough turtles to provide the necessary samples to keep these important research projects going. In two sessions, Wellfleet Bay sea turtle staff, a handful of volunteers, and invited outside research colleagues gathered at WHOI to necropsy a small portion of the 2021 cold-stun carcasses.
Researchers and Their Studies
Outside research samplers participating this year were from NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, the Coonamessett Farm Foundation in Falmouth, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, Roger Williams University, and the University of Rhode Island.
One of the researchers, Dr. Matthew Ramirez, a post-doctoral investigator at URI, joined us to take samples for comparing stable isotope data across different sea turtle tissue types (e.g., humerus bone, skull, scute, muscle, skin), which provide information about diet and habitat use over different lengths of time (weeks to years). Dr. Ramirez’s inter-tissue isotope comparisons will increase capabilities of integrating stable isotope data collected from modern studies and historical museum specimens to better understand long-term changes in sea turtle ecology.
Another study, started by Dr. Samir Patel from the Coonamessett Farm Foundation two years ago, involves looking at the bacterial microbiome composition within the digestive systems in cold-stunned sea turtles. This information will be used to improve understanding about turtles’ foraging preferences. Results from the cold-stunned turtles will be compared to gut contents from live caught turtles from the Mid-Atlantic to understand demographic and regional differences between turtle microbiomes.
While we were pleased to give our colleagues an opportunity to collect new samples for their work, we missed many of our regular necropsy volunteers at this year’s limited sessions. We hope to be able to return to our traditional necropsy sessions before long. We will keep you posted!
This winter we were excited to discover Eastern Screech Owls roosting in a nest box installed in a wooded area not far from the Discovery Center.
Although lots of people put up boxes for screech owls, it can take months or years before the owls find them, and often squirrels or mice find them first. In the case of our nest box, it had previously been occupied by a Northern Saw-whet Owl, breeding Wood Ducks, and even a honey bee colony!
Inspired by our recent screech owl activity, plans were made to try to attract a far less common species to the sanctuary—the Barn Owl.
Barn Owls are pretty rare in Massachusetts. They’re listed as a Species as Special Concern, mostly because of the loss of farms and open fields. Their known breeding range is generally limited to the Vineyard and Nantucket. Last year a pair of Barn Owls in Yarmouth lost their nest when a barn’s roof collapsed. One of two owlets survived and was released last September after undergoing three months of rehabilitation at Cape Wildlife Center.
It’s our hope that the new nest box at Long Pasture will draw any Barn Owls that may be scouting out a new nest site or looking for a roosting space next winter.
Putting up a free-standing nest box isn’t complicated, but it does require many helping hands. Our Barn Owl box was built and painted by Long Pasture volunteers Rick Hamel, Lee Hawkins, Mike Poissant, Jeff Keffer, David Winther, and John Richtarik. It was installed with the assistance of students from Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical School in Bourne, who helped lug the hefty box and its three 20-foot-long posts across an open field. Then, very carefully, they raised it.
Once the owl box was raised and secured, metal flashing was applied to each post to deter climbing predators, like raccoons.
We also applied flashing to the tree where our screech owl box is located after the game camera caught this photo last fall.
We hope Long Pasture visitors will keep an eye on the Barn Owl box. As we’ve learned, you never know who’s going to move in!
The 2021 field season for monitoring and studying the sanctuary’s Eastern Box Turtle population has drawn to a close and it was a pretty exciting one! Our headstarted turtles continued to grow and we found more turtles we hadn’t seen before. We also recorded our first instance of flesh-eating flies.
Our headstarted box turtles, now four years old, put on some weight and really extended their range on the property as they began to explore and develop their own home territories. As is the case with young turtles, they are very good at staying hidden. Even with the radio transmitters attached to their shells, they can be difficult to locate.
One headstart turtle in particular (seen below) moved from Eastman’s Field and over to Goose Pond and then back. She ended up brumating (hibernation for reptiles) last October in nearly the same place as she did in 2020. This is also common for box turtles, which frequently exhibit brumation site fidelity.
On a sad note, one of our headstarts died in brumation in its first winter. The cause remains a mystery. The digital temperature monitor placed into her brumation burrow to record the winter soil temperatures did not indicate that she was exposed to freezing temps in the burrow and her weight was good when she entered brumation. We don’t clearly understand the survivability of young turtles and particularly those that die during brumation. This is one of the box turtle mysteries we’d like to unlock.
One of the indicators of a healthy turtle population is juvenile recruitment, that is, the addition of new turtles to the population. At Wellfleet Bay we sometimes find young box turtles and adults that we have never recorded before. This is good because new turtles can provide some genetic diversity. This year we found a higher than usual number of new turtles. It’s possible in some cases they are just passing through and we’ll never see them again. But some of the young turtles we’ve discovered in past years are seen every year now and someday, we hope, will help keep our population stable.
Something we haven’t seen at the sanctuary before—signs of flesh-eating flies. Box turtles can sometimes become infected with them. Late this season one turtle exhibited an exit hole from a sarcophagid or flesh-eating fly larvae. These flies, of which there are numerous species, use the box turtle (or other organism) as a host for their larvae to eat and develop within. This process is called “cutaneous myiasis” and it’s a natural one. Small localized infestations on a turtle are typically not an issue for a healthy animal, but more severe infestations can be serious. Are the flies just now coming to Wellfleet or have they always been here and we just missed them? We’ll pay close attention this question this coming summer.
We reviewed the turtle found with myiasis with a reptile veterinarian and, happily, we determined that no larvae were present within the turtle. The larvae had completed that stage of their life cycle and left the host, so no medical intervention was required.
What’s on tap for box turtle monitoring in 2022? The continuation of our decades-old mark/recapture studies, the monitoring of our headstarts and, we hope, the creation of a searchable box turtle data base for the sanctuary. One thing is certain–there is always plenty of work to do!
The following post was contributed by volunteer Tim O’Brien, a box turtle researcher. Tim, along with his wife Kim Novino, are also active sea turtle volunteers.
This is the time of year when our collective attention turns to gifts. So for this seasonal message I’d like to unwrap the meaning of gift and offer those that come “without ribbons. [That come] without tags…without packages, boxes or bags.”
Look up the word gift in the Merriam Webster dictionary and the first definition provided is “noun: a notable capacity, talent, or endowment.”
The past year was filled with countless illustrations of notable talent and skill demonstrated by Mass Audubon Cape Cod staff and volunteers. It is these gifts that are at the heart of our region’s success and accomplishments. Presented here are some shining examples from the past year:
January: Meticulously recording and finalizing data for the 2020 cold-stunned season to officially reveal that it was the second largest number of cold-stunned sea turtle strandings on record (1000-plus!)
February: Navigating the nuances and frenzy of open enrollment for Summer Day Camp and early registration for local families which increased opportunities for Cape kids to attend camp at a discounted rate.
March: Learning a new technological platform to deliver the 25th Cape Cod Natural History Conference online so local research—spanning the subjects of microplastics in seals to nesting Bald Eagles on Cape Cod—could be shared with over 250 registrants.
April: Tapping into professional know-how of engaging children creatively in the outdoors while simultaneously meeting COVID safety protocols so we could run April Vacation Adventures and get “back outside actually TOUCHING real-life nature again with all our kiddos!”
May: Focusing tirelessly (for way more than 24-hours!) on Bird-a-thon, building both awareness of and a community of enthusiastic birders which resulted in record-breaking fundraising for our region’s bird conservation and education programs.
June: Lending a helping hand to herptiles (reptiles and amphibians) was an exciting theme this month: the first-ever documented breeding of trans-located spadefoot toads in Massachusetts occurred in a vernal pool that we created at Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary; the surprise discovery, and subsequent rescue, of a tiny ring-necked snake discovered at the ocean’s edge during a Field School walk in Truro; and the identification and protection of over 400 terrapin nests in five sites in three towns (Wellfleet, Eastham, Orleans) monitored by 160 volunteers and three staff yielded 5,000 terrapin hatchlings—that is 1,000 more baby turtles than last year!
July: Realizing record-breaking visitation at Wellfleet Bay with over 8,300 people counted at the admissions desk (more than 1,500 than previous record), and realizing how vital time spent outside in nature is to so many people, and how important our welcoming sanctuaries are in the grand scheme of things.
August: Logging in countless hours of labor cleaning the buildings, managing rubbish and recycling, mowing fields, and maintaining trails to make our sanctuaries inviting and safe for record-breaking visitation!
September: Orchestrating a magical celebration and ribbon-cutting for the Discovery Center’s opening at Long Pasture that brought friends, colleagues and supporters together for our first in-person event in a very long time.
October: Wielding chainsaws for days to tackle fallen trees—oaks, cherries, cedars, and pines—toppled by a powerful nor’easter that ripped through Massachusetts and affected all of our sanctuaries on the Cape with blocked trails and power outages.
November: Enjoying the return of schoolchildren and college groups for in-person programming at the sanctuaries including students from Monomoy Regional Middle School studying bird migration and undergrads from Penn State’s Adventure Literature program.
December: Managing scores of media inquiries and visits from reporters and documentary filmmakers all interested in capturing video and stories about cold-stunned sea turtle rescue, and raising international awareness of our important work as first-responders in this impactful conservation program!
Now as January approaches, staff will begin to get together to plan another exciting year of educational programs for all ages and audiences, summer camp, preschool, wildlife science and monitoring, ecological management, campground reservations, volunteer training, and much, much more.
I am incredibly proud of being part of such a talented and dedicated group of people—a true gift and source of endless pride. Happy New Year!
This post was contributed by Melissa Lowe, Regional Director of Mass Audubon Cape Cod.
Every cold-stun sea turtle season has its special characteristics and this year’s will be known for how long it lasted— well into January!
As of this posting, we’ve rescued or recovered over 700 sea turtles, our fourth busiest year. Last year we had over 1,000 by the end of the season. But now that we’re about half-way through January, it’s clear the season is finally wrapping up.
Because of a very warm fall, the first cold-stunned turtles came in about two weeks later than usual, November 17th. After that, they came in almost daily, including one 94-turtle day.
One noteworthy turtle was a live Kemp’s ridley with a balloon string running through its entire GI tract. We’ve only seen this situation in two turtles from previous years and both were dead. We’re looking forward to hearing more about the latest turtle and our fingers are crossed for its full recovery.
Two stranded turtles have had tags, meaning both were previous cold-stun victims. A green sea turtle found on Nantucket, unfortunately, was dead. The turtle was rehabbed last winter and released in June at West Dennis Beach. We also had a return ridley, a turtle that stranded last fall and was rehabbed and released off North Carolina last spring. Happily, it was alive when it was rescued by Michael Lach at Ellis Landing in Brewster!
Our awesome corps of volunteers covered miles of beaches from Dennis to Provincetown, many of them walking on some cold, windy overnight and predawn beach patrols.
Wellfleet—and Great Island in particular–was a stranding hot spot. This 3-mile-long barrier beach in Wellfleet requires almost daily coverage and a round-trip walk of 6 miles! We’re constantly amazed by the “regular crew”—Bruce Hurter, Bruce Beane, Charlie Sullivan and John Cumbler, all of whom walk that long, often lonely trip. We’re also grateful that the Cape Cod National Seashore rangers frequently patroled that stretch by truck, often giving our turtles a lift and bringing them to the sanctuary.
A shout-out, too, to the volunteers who were ready to drive turtles to the New England Aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital in Quincy and the National Marine Life Center in Buzzards Bay, sometimes with only a hour’s notice!
We also want to acknowledge all the casual beach walkers who kept an eye out for stranded sea turtles, folks walking their dogs and those visiting the Cape for a weekend, including this familiar-looking guy who responded to a stranded ridley at Ryder Beach in Truro!
The season concluded, as it usually does, with loggerheads. To our amazement, several of these larger turtles were still alive when they stranded, despite being exposed to much colder January temperatures. In one case, our sea turtle team was directed to administer preliminary first aid by “swimming” two loggerheads so that they could start to warm up a bit and re-hydrate. The New England Aquarium’s Sarah DiCarlo, on the phone, gave instructions as our staff oversaw activity in the baby pools!
Given our unusually warm fall, it’s probably no surprise that it took longer for the sea turtles remaining in our waters to become cold enough to start washing ashore. In fact, this year is the latest start ever for the Cape’s annual cold-stun event.
For more than 40 years, sea turtles that feed along Cape Cod Bay in summer have become trapped by the Cape’s hook shape. It started in the 1970’s with just a few; last year it was over 1,000. As the water temperatures fall below 60 degrees, sea turtles start to slow down. When those temperatures near 50, turtles become immobile and cold-stunned, and start washing ashore.
A mid-November cool snap and gusty northwest winds finally brought in the first three cold-stunned Kemp’s ridleys around Rock Harbor in Orleans and Eastham on the 17th.
Despite the delayed start to the season, our turtle staff kept busy.
At beach parking lots and paths, new signs were posted displaying photos of cold-stunned turtles and information about what to do should you find one. Our team distributed 90 new beach signs.
As volunteers waited for the first turtles to strand, they were encouraged to reacquaint themselves with their assigned walking beaches. That’s because “winter beaches” can be dramatically different than summer beaches, with higher than usual tides and erosion that can leave very little sand to walk on. It can be even harder to follow at night!
Eastham’s Boat Meadow Beach, a stretch north of Rock Harbor, is known for its irregular shoreline, frequent overwashes and marshy patches that can snag turtles. Waterproof footwear is definitely required!
We’re also thinking about more efficient ways to scour the beaches for cold-stunned turtles, especially the extensive tidal flats between Brewster and Eastham.
Recently, members of the sea turtle team led by sanctuary director emeritus Bob Prescott worked with drone pilot Steve Furlong to see if flying a drone across the beach and the flats would help detect turtles.
A recent test showed that despite flying the drone at relatively low altitudes, it was difficult to distinguish a plastic model of a small Kemp’s ridley from a patch of codium (a dark green, clumpy seaweed), so work continues on ways to improve identifying turtle-sized objects on the beach.
The days are growing shorter and cooler as we approach the holiday season. Along with these changes, another season – the fall migration of birds in North America– is drawing to a close. As migration concludes, the bird banders at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary have wrapped up their work for the year.
I have volunteered at the banding station since 2017, and I am still excited to see what each new day will bring. Observing a bird in the hand gives me a better appreciation for the special adaptations that each species has evolved to best fit its unique ecological niche. I have gotten close-up looks at many species that I have glimpsed only fleetingly, if at all, in the field.
There have been over 300 species of birds observed at the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, but most of those birds don’t reside here; they are simply passing through on their way to their breeding or wintering grounds.
Or some are just very lost, such as this Tropical Kingbird that was first spotted by assistant bander Megan Miller this month. It’s only the third time this species has been recorded on the Cape.
Wellfleet Bay’s master bird bander, James Junda, is licensed to band songbirds, and our nets are designed and placed to capture both migrating and resident songbirds. The sanctuary offers many different habitats – open fields, mixed deciduous and coniferous woodlands, salt marsh, and a freshwater pond. Over the course of a typical fall, we will band about 75 different species, including well over one hundred resident Black-capped Chickadees and many migrants. We still get an occasional “first” for the station. This fall, I was lucky enough to extract our first-ever Fox Sparrow, which is rarely seen on the Cape outside the winter months.
As the season progresses, there are several peaks in migration. Some are driven by weather; for example, a northwesterly wind in the fall will cause more birds to ride the wind on their way southward. Others are caused by species’ differing diets. Swallows and flycatchers, which are highly dependent on insects, tend to head south before birds that can survive on seeds and berries. As a result, each day brings something new.
In early October, we were inundated with Blackpoll Warblers. Seeing so many of these tiny birds in a short time helped me get over my fall warbler confusion and eventually learn to determine their age and sex.
Blackpolls breed in the boreal forest in Alaska and northern Canada and winter in South America. As they make their southward journey in the fall, the Cape can be their final stop before flying nonstop to Venezuela – a trip that requires four days of continuous flapping!
Blackpolls arrive later in the fall than most warblers of their type (size, diet, wintering grounds) to avoid the possibility of flying non-stop through hurricanes which, in New England, are most likely to occur in September. To prepare for this incredible journey, they build up their bodies’ fat content until their weight nearly doubles. Meanwhile, organs that are not necessary for the trip shrivel to a fraction of their normal size.
A little later in the season, we began to catch Golden-Crowned Kinglets. At about 3 ½ inches long and the weight of a nickel, these tiny balls of energy are only slightly larger than a hummingbird. And yet, they can survive winter temperatures down to -40° Fahrenheit! This capability is even more impressive to me after I hold one in my hand and realize how fragile they are. Some of these birds will over-winter here, and you may find them in shrubs or deciduous trees.
The bird population at Wellfleet Bay is constantly changing with the seasons, so keep a sharp eye, and you may spot something new during each visit. I will be there, observing the changes and looking forward to the spring banding season.
This post was contributed by bird banding station volunteer Tod Christie.
October is typically a busy time for Wellfleet Bay’s sea turtle staff. A great deal of preparation is underway for the approaching cold-stunned sea turtle season, which involves training new staff and volunteers, checking rescue equipment, coordinating with rehab partner organizations, and numerous other tasks.
But in October, especially a warm one, many sea turtles are still actively foraging in our waters.
The recent stranding of a live, 600-pound male leatherback in a marsh near the mouth of Wellfleet’s Herring River demonstrated the critical role that Wellfleet Bay plays in saving these endangered and threatened species. It also showed the power of partnerships.
Sanctuary director emeritus Bob Prescott was the first to respond to calls about the stranded leatherback and realized that the turtle, which stranded during the morning’s low tide, was trying to move farther upriver with the incoming tide.
A veteran of challenging sea turtle rescues, Bob saw that the leatherback was healthy and would need to be moved for release to open water. After working to keep the animal in place, and away from potentially dangerous oyster beds, he directed operations to move the huge turtle to the edge of the marsh where it was hoisted to a cart by more than a dozen people.
Protecting, transporting, making health assessments, tagging and releasing the endangered sea turtle required many experienced hands and equipment. This dedicated group included staff and volunteers from Wellfleet Bay, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and the New England Aquarium (NEAq), as well as volunteers from the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance.
IFAW provided their rescue experts and specialized equipment (usually used for moving stranded marine mammals), and NEAq provided their veterinary and rescue staff to make important health assessments, administer infection-prevention medications, and apply federally-permitted satellite and acoustic tags for the unique opportunity to track and learn more about this endangered species.
The leatherback was released back into open water that afternoon at Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown. We hope this turtle continues to do well and that its track provides important information for sea turtle conservation researchers.
This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay sea turtle stranding coordinator Karen Dourdeville.
After ten long years of dedicated conservation effort by Mass Audubon staff, volunteers, and citizen scientists, the population of eastern spadefoot toads (Scaphiopus holbrookii) translocated to Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary has finally reproduced!
A pilot project started by Long Pasture Sanctuary director Ian Ives and Bryan Windmiller of Zoo New England was initiated in 2011 to re-establish the species at Mass Audubon’s Ashumet Holly Wildlife Sanctuary in East Falmouth where a native population of spadefoots once existed.
With permission from state wildlife officials, toads from a healthy population at Sandy Neck Barrier Beach in Barnstable were headstarted as tadpoles by partnering with Cape Cod schools. Young toads were then translocated to Ashumet Holly. Over 10 years, 40,000 young toads—or toadlets—were introduced to breeding pools (vernal pools) created specifically for this project. Each year, we monitored the pools for signs that our toads were reproducing, the ultimate goal of any successful conservation program.
“Monitoring is a long and arduous process and you don’t see results in a day or a week or a year,” notes project coordinator Jay Cordeiro. “Long-term monitoring involves measuring hydroperiod (the length of time that there is standing water), assessing toad population demographics and dispersal, estimating survivorship, documenting evidence of breeding, and continued observation once a population has become established.”
We were successful with most of those objectives. But until this summer, there was no evidence of breeding, despite many searches for eggs and tadpoles along with audio recordings “listening” for calling male toads.
2021 brought some favorable conditions. May was the third warmest on record and a band of rain showers provided a good soaking overnight on May 28, prime conditions for spring spadefoot breeding. On May 29, chorusing males were seen and heard for the first time at Ashumet Holly. This was late compared to previous years on the Cape, but followed similar chorusing activity on Barnstable’s Sandy Neck and elsewhere in the state.
It was our first eureka moment!
Male spadefoot toads utilize vernal pools only for breeding, spending most of their lives on land foraging at night and often underground during the day. Presence of active males in the pools is a good indication of readiness to breed. Witnessing this activity was not only unanticipated, but what followed went beyond what was expected once these first individuals made their way down to the pools from upland habitat.
On May 31, toads continued to call in both pools and we saw males and females amplexing (mating embrace of certain amphibians). Another eureka moment.
As exciting as these developments were, we still couldn’t find eggs or tadpoles in either pool. However, on June 13th, project field assistant Sarah Couto observed spadefoot tadpoles in one of the pools. The ultimate milestone!
The only disappointment was that the tadpoles we found did not survive. The reason for the mortality is not clear and we are investigating possible causes.
What made 2021 our breakthrough year? Several factors likely contributed to it. Tadpoles were successfully translocated to this site for seven of the last ten years and a critical density threshold of adults has likely been reached to trigger reproduction. One particular factor that might have been very important to this year’s success was the decision last year to manually scour a few inches of built-up vegetation from the surface of the material lining two manmade vernal pools. Surface plants were absorbing the water faster than the pools could fill and both pools continued to dry prematurely. The scouring enabled the pools to achieve the very specific hydroperiod the toads require— deep enough to support tadpoles, but not too deep to attract numerous invertebrates, which feed on spadefoot tadpoles! Finally, environmental conditions (temperature, rainfall, humidity, etc.) were obviously suitable for breeding this spring at Ashumet.
Project staff and volunteers will continue to monitor the population throughout 2021 and hope for a repeat performance during the 2022 breeding season. We’re thrilled that the establishment of a self-sustaining population of spadefoot toads may well be within reach!
This post was contributed by Jay Cordeiro, spadefoot toad project coordinator at Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary.