Category Archives: Updates

An Incidental Bio Blitz at Wellfleet Bay

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

I recently had time to take a quick walk here at the sanctuary.  The day was sunny and warm, albeit a bit breezy. But conditions were good to scout for dragonflies and damselflies around mid-day at Silver Spring pond.  Most dragonfly and damselfly species are active on sunny days between 10:00am and 2:00pm, so my timing and the weather conditions were good for looking for odonata, the order to which dragonflies and damselflies belong.

Silver Spring Trail

I chose to walk the Silver Spring trail because it has numerous places to access the pond shore and scan the emergent vegetation for odonates (or odes in the parlance of dragonfly and damselfly enthusiasts).  The trail was out of the wind and a great place to look for the diminutive damselflies that alight on trailside vegetation. 

As soon as I entered the Silver Spring area, I heard the distinctive begging calls of a young bird.  My attention was temporarily diverted from the trail edge to the repetitive vocalizations coming from the immediate area.  I was surprised to discover a bird peering out of the nest cavity hole only a few feet away!  As soon as I realized the bird was a fledgling Downy Woodpecker, the adult arrived with food and administered a meal to the young bird.

First baby picture? (Photo by Jim Sweeney)

I decided to continue towards the Silver Spring bridge to avoid any interruption of the feeding of the young woodpecker.  Immediately, I noticed several low-flying Fragile Forktails moving slowly in and out of the sun-dappled vegetation near the bridge.  This species of damselfly is inconspicuous and easily overlooked, but it is widespread in its distribution throughout the state and found in a variety of wetland habitats. 

While walking slowly along the trail, I paused occasionally and looked closely for any movement.  I was checking an opening in the thickets when I noticed something move quickly on the ground.  It was definitely not an ode, but I could not see what had moved so quickly and for such a short distance.  When I raised my binoculars, I spotted a Fowler’s Toad blending in with the background leaf litter thanks to its cryptic coloration.  This species of toad prefers sandy habitats in eastern Massachusetts.  It is more often heard than seen and sounds like a bleating sheep when it gives its nasal raaaah call.

A Fowler’s Toad but not from Silver Spring Trail. This photo was taken at South Beach in Chatham, classic Fowler’s Toad habitat.

When I looked at the vegetation at the edge of the pond, I observed Blue Dashers and Slaty Skimmers, two dragonfly species that are common throughout the state.  In the same general area I sighted a large red and orange dragonfly with dark patches on its wings.  The Painted Skimmer is not as common as the aforementioned species, but is still regularly encountered at wetlands throughout the state.  A few feet away, a Painted Turtle suddenly emerged from the water and provided a nice photo opportunity.

This basking painted turtle’s colors show how this species got its common name. (photo by Jim Sweeney).

On one of the paths leading to the pond shore, I noticed a small dark butterfly alight on a flower at the edge of the trail.  A closer examination with optics revealed a Northern Broken-Dash, a skipper that flies quickly and erratically and easily evades detection.  In the same area, only about eight feet away, I noticed a Little Wood-Satyr perched on the mulch covering a portion of the trail.  This woodland species of butterfly is not as flashy and charismatic as the well-known Monarch, but it is every bit as interesting if one has the opportunity to take a close look at it.

A lovely Little Wood-Satyr (Photo by Jim Sweeney)

When I reached the end of the path, I decided to check the vernal pool located near the nature center.   I was pleasantly surprised to see a Great Blue Skimmer alighting on a nearby cattail.  This species is uncommon in Massachusetts and mostly occurs in the southeastern part of the state where it is typically found near small pools in Red Maple swamps.   This species, which is more southern in distribution, sometimes makes northward incursions into Massachusetts in late spring/early summer.  This individual may have arrived on the outer Cape with the southwesterly winds that occurred that day.

Great Blue Skimmer (photo by Jim Sweeney).

My goal during this brief mid-day stroll was to see a few dragonflies and damselflies at the sanctuary.  I did not anticipate the diversity of species encountered on this hundred yard walk.  This is what I find most rewarding about time spent in the field.  The element of surprise and being in the right place at the right time can turn a quick ramble into a lesson in biodiversity!

Another view of the unusual Great Blue Skimmer (photo by Jim Sweeney).

Sea Turtles Reported from Near and Far

The sea turtle sighting season is underway and Wellfleet Bay’s seaturtlesightings.org website has been getting reports from near and far. In fact, very far!

Locally, the first report came on June 8th with information about a live leatherback off Sakonnet Point in Rhode Island, just south of Buzzards Bay.

This is typically how leatherback turtles appear from the point of view of a vessel. (Photo by Nicole LaRoche). Happily, this turtle was reported to look healthy and swimming with its favorite food–jellies.

Eight days later we received word of another leatherback that had stranded at Horseneck Beach in Westport, Massachusetts. But this report was grim. The turtle, a sub-adult male, had been killed by a vessel-strike, an all too common fate for sea turtles, especially in our busy waters.

Thanks to the global reach of the Internet, our Massachusetts-managed website also hears from people thousands of miles away.

This spring a kayaker off northeastern South Africa reported watching a large loggerhead with a satellite tag swimming about a mile offshore on May 19. Through our contacts with international sea turtle colleagues, we were able to connect the observer with researchers at uShaka Sea World, in Durban, South Africa. In an email, they said it could be their old friend, “Herbie”, a female turtle they had cared for for 15 years:

 “Two years ago, Herbie started nesting on the beach in our Turtle exhibit and we made the difficult decision to release her. For the first few months, the (satellite) tag worked properly and we were able to monitor her movements. However around April 12, the tag stopped transmitting and we have been a little concerned about her. Her last position was just North of Sheffield Beach, KwaZulu-Natal. When we were able to track her, we found that she spent a lot of time on the reefs cruising up and down the coast. It is very possible that the turtle spotted is Herbie. As you can imagine 15 years is a long time to care for an animal and we would really like to confirm that it is her and that she is still in good health. It’s incredible that your network was able to get that message to us.”

A second interesting inquiry came from a summer resident of Martha’s Vineyard wintering in eastern Nicaragua where sea turtles are hunted and sold for meat. This individual told us he pays the hunters and then releases the turtles. He wanted to know whom to contact should he buy a turtle with tag on it. We were able to refer this report to a colleague in Florida who has done green turtle research in Nicaragua.

It’s gratifying to see that people everywhere want to protect sea turtles and it’s easy to help. If you’re a boater or you know one, please encourage them to watch out for turtles and not to use autopilot. And let them know about seaturtlesightings.org for reporting any turtles they see this summer. The information is used to benefit turtles that feed in our waters and helps sea turtle research.

This loggerhead was spotted and reported by Amy Warren, who works as a whale watch naturalist out of Newburyport. We love to receive these kinds of pictures! (Photo by Amy Warren).

This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay sea turtle research associate Karen Dourdeville, who oversees the seaturtlesightings.org website and hotline (1-888-SEA-TURT).

Doing our Part for Pollinators

It’s only a year old, but the sanctuary’s new pollinator garden is lush with growth and color. We asked science coordinator Mark Faherty, who oversees the garden, about his goals for the project and whether it’s turning out as he’d hoped.

Th new pollinator garden includes a winding path through the plantings. We’re getting lots of questions from visitors and plant labels are coming!

You’ve focused on native plants. Is that the idea– the more natives the better?

Yes. Natives are not necessarily preferred by generalist bees like bumblebees, who are happy to visit your catmint and butterfly bush, but having a variety of natives is the best way to provide food for a lot of different types of native bees and other pollinators, some of which are pickier. The other reason is that native insects, like moths, butterflies, beetles, leafhoppers, etc., use native plants as larval host plants or food sources, and those insects are important in their own right, plus they provide food for birds and other wildlife. The typical Asian nursery plants that people tend to landscape with don’t support the same diversity of native insects, even if they are buzzing with bumblebees.

The beautiful purple foxglove was a non-native remnant kept because of its popularity with bees. The white Penstemon digitalis at left is native.

Did you start with a formal design?

Yes, I provided the plant list and worked with BlueFlax Design of Harwich on the design. They worked pro bono and we are very grateful.

What has been the biggest challenge in this project?

Rabbits eating dozens of plants and killing quite a few.

Mark has been using diamondback terrapin predator exclosures to protect his smallest plants from these voracious (but adorable) beasts!

On the bunny question: do they eat pretty much anything or have you noticed they favor some plants over others?

Some plants seem to be 100% rabbit proof (columbine, Agastache, Helenium), others are rabbit candy and can’t be left unprotected for a day (asters, phloxes, lupine, Liatris, the native bunch grasses). Seeing what they eat and don’t eat has been valuable and allowed me to compile a list of rabbit proof plants for a Cape Cod pollinator garden.

The lush Red Columbine with its tubular flowers is perfectly adapted to the hummingbird’s bill. Mark says this plant is his favorite.

Have you had wildlife reaction to the new garden yet?

A wildlife garden should be a messy garden, so we leave the seed heads up in the fall, and the birds and other wildlife clearly appreciate it. I’ve also seen Orange-crowned Warblers in the garden twice in the last year – a rare migrant that likes weedy, sunny spots. The hummingbirds are loving the Columbine and Trumpet Honeysuckle – I barely see them at the feeders this spring. And the bees and butterflies were all over the place late last summer when things were peaking. As the pollinators get used to the plants being there each year they will visit even more.

Bees are giving this garden rave reviews.

Do you hope to use the garden for educational purposes–do you anticipate doing a few public programs?

Yes – it’s meant to be an educational garden. It generates a lot of conversations, and landscaping is a way that literally anyone with some property can benefit wildlife. We want to help them do the right thing by providing the best information about choosing plants to attract and benefit wildlife as well as limiting pesticide and fertilizer use, reducing lawn cover, etc.

What will be your gauge for determining whether the garden has done and is doing what you wanted?

The ideal is a relatively maintenance free (ha ha) garden of overwhelmingly eastern US native plants that attracts and feeds a variety of wildlife (but not rabbits because Eastern Cottontails are not native to New England!).

Wellfleet Bay’s new pollinator garden wouldn’t be possible without the support of Mike Sarcione, David Consalvi, and the students of Cape Cod Regional Technical High School as well as BlueFlax Design.

Horseshoe Crabs Connect Us to Spring

The following post was contributed by Dana Grieco, the sanctuary’s horseshoe crab researcher who oversees our annual spring crab surveys on the Lower Cape.

You may have heard species described as “bioindicators” when they help researchers understand the health of their surrounding ecosystem. However, you probably haven’t heard the term “people-indicator” – a species that helps people understand how they relate to other animals within the ecosystem.

You likely haven’t heard this term because it doesn’t exist! After all, humans are a species, a member of the animal community, but calling another animal species a “people-indicator,” which is not scientific in the least and made solely for the purpose of this post, can serve as a reminder. And sometimes, humans need reminders. Enter the “people-indicator” for spring: the horseshoe crab. After all, what better spokes-animal for this connection than one who has been on earth for over 450 million years?

At Wellfleet Bay, horseshoe crab surveys started mid-April. The weather was cold and rainy and the tides were high. Volunteers with wind-stung faces scanned the beach looking for horseshoe crabs, saw few, and trudged on through high water and the occasional very wet feet. The horseshoe crabs stayed hunkered down in the deeper water, and very few were visible from shore.

Sally Husson, Meredith Harris, and Donna Cooper walking over the flooded Sanctuary boardwalk, April 17th 2019.

May entered the same way April left, and our volunteers were out surveying on quite less than “beach days.” Though the horseshoe crabs also had an agenda for May, not many came up to the beach to spawn. However, when the sun crept out, so did the horseshoe crabs, and our volunteers donned smiles and short sleeves to survey them.

Gerri DeMitrio, Marie Broudy, and Sally Husson surveying horseshoe crabs on the Sanctuary beach, May 20th, 2019.

Later in May, we finally got a taste of that first quintessential “spring day” here on Cape. Our volunteers were in full good cheer, many had traded in Wellies for water shoes, and as they gathered on the beaches to survey, it seemed they weren’t the only ones gathering. The horseshoe crabs were also capitalizing on the weather!

Horseshoe crab cluster at Priscilla’s Landing, Orleans on May 20th 2019

It was the first true sign of spring, the kind of day that makes your footsteps lighter, the kind of day that can make a person go twirl around outside. These “people-indicators” reminded our volunteers that humans and horseshoe crabs both exist in an ecosystem that revolves around the wind, weather, and on Cape Cod, the tides.

So, when that first sunny day hits next May, and it sends you to the ocean, shoes in hand, keep a look-out along the shoreline – our “people-indicators” won’t be too hard to find.

Sea Turtles Provide Picture of Plastics Problem

“I’m going to lay out the entire length of this turtle’s gastrointestinal tract on the table,” Wellfleet Bay sanctuary director Bob Prescott told a very quiet room of Wayland seventh graders.

The students were getting the rare chance to observe the necropsy of a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle as part of a new curriculum on marine plastics pollution developed by Wellfleet Bay education and science staff.

Sanctuary director Bob Prescott presides over a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle necropsy for Wayland high school students.

Educator Morgan Peck says schools and students are increasingly concerned about the impact of plastic and other ocean debris on marine animals, especially endangered and threatened sea turtles. “The fact we found so many macro-plastics during our winter necropsies this year provided the perfect platform to explore this topic,” she notes.

In a necropsy last winter, this string from a balloon was found running through the entire GI tract of a Kemp’s ridley. The string was in the process of destroying the turtle’s intestines and eventually would have proved fatal.

The sanctuary’s sea turtle conservation program includes a series of necropsies each winter at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on turtles that wash in dead. “The cold-stun phenomenon provides a pretty rare chance for sea turtle researchers to have access to young turtles that simply aren’t seen very often,” Morgan says, “so this is an amazing opportunity for students.”

Bob says this year more marine plastics were found in necropsied turtles than in all previous years combined.

Sea turtle research associate Karen Dourdeville (left) and sanctuary director Bob Prescott prepare to open the turtle’s GI tract so that students can examine the contents under microscopes.

As promised, Bob deftly removed the GI tract of a Kemp’s ridley turtle that died in last year’s cold-stunning event on the Cape and laid it out, starting with the turtle’s esophagus, which is lined with backward-pointing papillae and direct food to a turtle’s stomach.

Seeing this organ and understanding how it functions provides a vivid illustration of why marine plastics are so dangerous to sea turtles.

“If a sea turtle consumes plastic or other marine debris, it can’t regurgitate. The object either passes through and gets excreted, or it remains stuck inside the turtle where eventually it can kill the animal,” Bob explained.

Along with seeing samples of macro-plastics recovered from previous necropsies, the Wayland students looked at tissue samples under microscopes to search for very thin fibers, which is how some micro-plastics appear.

While some students searched turtle tissue for micro-plastics, others examined gastrointestinal samples taken from previous necropsies to see what turtles were eating before they became cold-stunned.

Morgan reminded the students that, although the idea of tackling the plastics problem is daunting, they have power as consumers and citizens to urge companies and policymakers to make changes in the production and disposal of single-use plastics.

Innovative new consumer products show how easy it can be to replace the plastics in our lives.

If your school is interested in learning more about Wellfleet Bay’s marine plastics program, contact Morgan Peck at mpeck@massaudubon.org

When Box Turtles Get their Wake-Up Calls

The following post was contributed by turtle aficionado and volunteer Tim O’Brien who’s been studying the sanctuary’s box turtles for the past few years.

For the last two winters I have been studying the brumation ( reptile hibernation) habits of the sanctuary’s Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) population to get a better understanding of the environmental cues that trigger emergence from the turtle’s long winter snooze. Identifying these cues could improve our conservation efforts by limiting potential aboveground turtle mortality in the spring.

Box turtles avoid the stressful winter temperatures by burying themselves in soft soil or detritus and remaining dormant. Using radio transmitters and temperature data loggers, I followed the turtles into brumation and recorded their behavior within their burrows.

A classic brumation burrow.

Last year I studied two turtles and followed each into brumation using the transmitters. Once a turtle was in its burrow, I placed a temperature data logger directly adjacent to the carapace. Using the data from this device, I noted that each turtle emerged in the spring when the soil temp in the burrow reached 50 degrees. This year I followed five turtles–4 females and one male–and again monitored them all winter long. Would this larger study group provide different results?

As for the start of brumation, most of our box turtles this year entered their burrows by November 1st.  But one male– we call him #348– waited until November 18th. This variation in schedules is not unusual. One group of turtles will enter brumation on the early side in mid-October and typically emerge fairly early by mid-April. Other turtles, such as #348, enter brumation late and also emerge late, sometimes waiting until mid-May. Individual brumation periods are a life history strategy that helps to protect the population in the event of a sudden spring frost or other environmental event.

This past winter I checked the turtles every two weeks, noting depth and length of brumation burrow, position in the burrow, and any form of site disturbance from a predator (thankfully there were none). I had a data logger in with each turtle as well as one control logger positioned above on the surface at a central location at the sanctuary to record air temperature.

Ah, spring! This female’s wake-up call came in mid-April–pretty early, given how cold and wet the month was.

After the turtles emerged I removed the temp loggers from the burrows and downloaded their data. Our turtles averaged 175 days in brumation. The data loggers are set to take a temp reading every four hours, so that’s over a 1000 data points per turtle!

The temperature graph for # 348, who was the last of my study turtles to go into brumation and the last to emerge.

After crunching the data, here is what I learned. The lowest soil temperatures recorded (temps that the turtles were exposed to) in each burrow ranged from 31.8 degrees to 34.5 degrees for a mean average of 32.6 degrees. (Box turtles can withstand freezing temps for short periods of time in their burrows). The average soil temperature within the burrow for the duration of the study ranged from 39.8 degrees to 44 degrees for an average of 41.5 degrees. This is significant because the depth of the burrow ultimately determines the soil temperature that the turtles will be exposed to (soil temps are less harsh as the depth of the burrow increases).

I find it interesting that turtles who brumated at different depths and in divergent areas of the sanctuary were all exposed to a fairly narrow range of average soil temperatures. How do they know how deep to dig to avoid sustained freezing temperatures? This is yet another mystery waiting to be solved!

This is me, with my left hand deep into turtle # 348’s long burrow. In the past two years, it’s ranged from 8-10 inches, more than double the average. As a result, his burrow never got quite as cold as the others.

Emergence soil temperature ranged from 49 degrees to 54 degrees for an average of 51.1 degrees. So again, for the second year in a row and with a larger study group size, the turtles emerged when the temp of the ground around them in their burrows reached approximately 50 degrees. It’s important to note that a turtle may emerge over a period of days, lured outside initially by a sunny day and then temporarily sent back in the burrow by a chilly one.

A late riser! This female box turtle, who was not part of the study, waited out the Cape’s fickle spring weather to make her emergence over Memorial Day week-end! The sand on her shell indicates she had yet to experience her first cleansing rainfall of the year.

What’s next? This year I have a different set of turtles on radio transmitters along with my two long-term study turtles. I’d like to attach button-type temperature loggers directly to the carapace of the turtles as they enter brumation this coming fall. Having the logger directly attached to the turtle will give me more precise temperature readings. The more we know about our box turtles, the better stewards we can be for them.

Why Watch Pine Warblers?

When he’s not doing bird research at Wellfleet Bay’s bird banding station, what biologist James Junda really likes to do is—more research!

For the past year, James has had his eye on Pine Warblers. It’s a species that hasn’t been studied very much and the sanctuary offers a special opportunity to do so.

Pine Warblers are among the first warblers to return in spring and breed on the Cape. (Photo courtesy of Jason Lacson).

“They’re very common here and they have small territories,” James explains. “ They can be hard (to study) because they nest atop pines that can be 100 feet high or more. It makes observing courtship and nest productivity almost impossible.”

James’ study site is the sanctuary campground where the pines, like most on the Outer Cape, are shorter than average. Also, the understory is less dense, making it easier to track a bird moving around in lower branches.

Last summer James and his team color-banded 15 Pine Warblers breeding in the campground. Territorial males were lured to a net by a decoy and Pine Warbler recordings. It worked within minutes.

Hold that pose! Amazingly, this decoy Pine Warbler was made with a 3D printer by researcher Frankie Tousley! (photo courtesy of Frankie Tousley).

One immediate goal was to see how many of those color-banded males would return to the campground this spring and where. “Between 6 and 8 of our birds have returned and set up their territories in the campground,” James says.

Study birds are banded with unique color band combinations for re-sighting purposes.
This bird with the orange/red, blue/silver bands showed up at the sanctuary’s feeders in
early April. (Photo courtesy of Jason Lacson).

Color banding the birds allowed James’ team to locate each male’s territory on a grid map of the sanctuary’s campground (looking from south to north):

Using the color band codes, can you find the campground territory that belonged to the bird
shown above?

Determining a bird’s territory takes time. A procedure known as “wander mapping” is used in conjunction with the campground grid. It starts with spotting a bird and then recording where it wanders. It’s much easier said than done!

“You’ll note sex and any color bands,” James explains. “Then behaviors such as foraging, and where the bird is foraging, and types of foraging—gleaning, hovering, hawking, or sallying—and then other behaviors like nest-building, singing, bill wiping, preening, fighting, looking around…”

But you can help with the study without working so hard. James is encouraging visitors to take photos of any color-banded Pine Warblers they see at the sanctuary. There’s also a map of the study site available on his website.

Watching for the Birds of Spring: Banding Station Marks Fifth Year

Wellfleet Bay’s bird banding operation hit a modest milestone last September, marking its fifth fall migration since it set up shop in fall of 2014.

After a hiatus of about 30 years, mist nets returned to Wellfleet Bay in September of 2014.

We realize that for bird monitoring 5 years is still very much a blink of an eye compared, say, to a period of 30 years. But in that relatively short period time hundreds of school kids and adults have had the chance to watch wild birds and the people studying them at very close range.

But here are some things we can state with certainty about last fall: Banding manager James Junda and his team captured 2,083 birds, nearly 1,500 of them new birds. Seventy-four species were netted, the second most since the first banding session in fall of 2014.

Here were the top ten species for fall of 2019:

Pine Warbler
Gray Catbird
Black-capped Chickadee
Blackpoll Warbler
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Chipping Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
American Goldfinch
Song Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow

-Pine Warblers apparently had a great breeding season in 2018. Note the color bands on this bird’s legs. The bands are used to re-sight breeding birds being studied at the sanctuary.

Pine Warblers, which breed on the sanctuary and elsewhere in the region, had a huge year—325 birds compared to only 32 in 2015. James says the addition of a new net in Pine Warbler- preferred habitat on the sanctuary may be partly responsible for that strong showing.

One of the challenges of drawing conclusions about bird abundance over short periods of time is the impact of weather. Cold fronts that overlap with a given species’ migration window can influence what kind and how many birds you capture among years.

We saw our greatest diversity of species—a total of 42– during a prolonged period of cold fronts with northwest winds in the second half of October, right smack in the middle of peak migration for kinglets and sparrows. Swamp Sparrows managed to make our top ten list with about triple their usual numbers and there was a similar increase for Ruby-crowned Kinglets, White-throated, and White-crowned Sparrows. (In fact, White-crowned Sparrows were 5 times more numerous last fall than in all previous years combined!) The delightful Brown Creeper, also an October migrant, ranked 12th on our list, with 42 captured.

Note the curved bill on the Brown Creeper, perfect for grabbing insects and spiders from the furrows of tree bark. These birds are almost impossible to see as they hunt on a tree trunk.

But some familiar fall birds were relatively scarce. We logged far fewer American Goldfinches—75 compared to 171 in 2017—and Yellow-rumped Warblers were down, with only 34 captured last fall. We had over a hundred of each species the previous two years.

Where were these guys last fall? Yellow-rumped Warblers or Myrtle Warblers are one of the most common fall migrants on the Cape. They’re the only warbler that overwinters here in significant numbers.

The banding station’s fifth anniversary was marked by at least one celebratory moment. The first chickadee banded here in fall of 2014 was recaptured. It was fun to see this old friend still alive and well!

This bird clearly calls Wellfleet Bay home. It was first banded when the station opened in September of 2014 and as of last October, it was still here and looking great.


Connecting the Dots … and Reducing Stress for Sanctuary’s Box Turtles

This post was contributed by volunteer Tim O’Brien who’s currently doing a study of eastern box turtles and works to conserve other threatened and endangered turtles.

In 2018 we instituted a non-permanent paint dot marking system for the sanctuary’s eastern box turtles. Here’s why.

There’s anecdotal evidence suggesting that repeated handling of box turtles over time can soften their predator response mechanism. I see this in some of our older resident turtles who have been exposed to decades of day campers and public programs. This could be an issue if a turtle encounters a predator and does not fully and quickly withdraw into its shell.

Unlike most turtles, a box turtle can pull its head and appendages fully into its shell. A hinge in its bottom shell folds up to close off the front, practically sealing the animal in a perfect box. Predators apparently get tired of waiting for a turtle to emerge and abandon it.

Each year we try to process (measure and weigh) every box turtle on the sanctuary at the beginning of the season and again at the end of the season. Often, turtles are captured and processed by interns and volunteers who may not know that the turtle has already been worked up and entered into the data base in a given year. Some turtles are inadvertently processed many times in a year, sometimes even on the same day! It can be stressful to them. To help alleviate this problem, we instituted a paint dot system this year to minimize handling of turtles.

Most of our box turtles are permanently identified using a variation of the Cagle marking system (making tiny notches in the marginal scutes with with a small file). This allows us to uniquely identify the turtle for life.  But what we needed was a short term way to determine whether or not a turtle had been processed in a given year. So now in addition to reading the permanent scute notches, we put a small dot of non-toxic, water-based paint on a vertebral scute that corresponds to the month the turtle was processed. Each of the five vertebral scutes correlates to a month (May – Sept).

Turtles can be active for more months than it has vertebral scutes. So if a turtle is found in April, the paint dot would still go on the first scute for May. Same thing for a turtle found in October; the dot would share the September scute. (Drawing by Tim O’Brien).

The color of the paint denotes the year and we will change the color every year. We use paint colors with earth tones to somewhat blend in with the turtles natural carapace colors. For example, V2 (the second vertebral scute) corresponds to the month of June and yellow was the paint color for 2018. So a small paint dot on V2 indicates that the turtle has had its initial processing of 2018 in June and there is no need to handle this turtle again until the fall. The paint dots seem to last the season, but can easily be scratched off for next year. We used this system all season in 2018 and it seemed to work fine.

Can you tell when this turtle was last handled? Hint: the turtle is facing us. (Photo by Tim O’Brien).

We hope that using this new system will prevent over-handling of our resident box turtles so they can live comfortably and be as safe from predators as possible!

A box turtle demonstrates the predator response for which it got its name. (Photo by Tim O’Brien).

Picturing a Sea Turtle Necropsy

We often say that the sea turtle necropsies we conduct each Saturday in winter at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are not for everyone. It’s a long day, there’s a lot of standing, the lab is chilly, and there are dozens of dead turtles being cut open.

But those conditions have not discouraged sea turtle volunteer Karen Strauss, a gifted photographer. She’s been documenting these sessions for seven years. In that time, Karen and her camera have captured some compelling and informative images.

One of the headlines from of this year’s sessions are the visible plastics discovered in some turtles.

Remains of what appears to have been a plastic shopping bag. (Photo by Karen Strauss).

There’s been growing public concern about the massive amount of plastics that end up in the world’s oceans. Karen’s pictures provide a sample of that problem and, as she says, make the abstract real. “When you show photos of balloons in a turtle’s stomach, the problem goes from something people have heard about to something more tangible.”

Remains of plastic balloon fill a turtle’s stomach (Photo by Karen Strauss).

This year, Karen and camera were on hand to document the lobster bands found in a Kemp’s ridley’s intestines. These bands are placed on the lobsters’ claws when they go to market so they don’t use them on each other or anyone handling them.

Lobster claw bands are a common plastic found on Cape Cod beaches. (Photo by Karen Strauss).

Karen’s work also reveals the elegance of sea turtle physiology, such as the small organs that work with the larger ones, which allow the animal to perform a basic life function, such as eating. “One of my favorite structures in a sea turtle are the papillae that line the esophagus,” she says. A picture of a piece of sea lettuce trapped in the papillae of a green sea turtle’s esophagus stayed with her. ” You think about this as maybe the last thing this herbivore ate.”

The ivory-colored papillae line the turtle’s esophagus and serve to keep food moving toward the digestive tract even when the turtle expels water through its mouth. (Photo by Karen Strauss).

Karen says she understands why some people may not find a sea turtle necropsy appealing. But instead of seeing dead turtles, Karen says she sees a special opportunity.

Wellfleet Bay is very fortunate to have use of a state of the art necropsy suite on the Quisset campus of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. (Photo by Carol “Krill” Carson).

“Every year, we have the largest collection of juvenile Kemp’s ridleys—basically healthy animals that have died only because of cold-stunning.” The necropsy sessions are attended by academic and government scientists engaged in research which ultimately could result in better conservation for an endangered species. The sessions, she notes, are also valuable for students. “We’re training the next generation of scientists by giving them a rare experience.”

Bridgewater University masters student Michael Rizzo examines a tissue sample. (Photo by Krill Carson).

No matter how many pictures she’s taken during Wellfleet Bay necropsy sessions, Karen says it’s the chance to learn that keeps her coming back each winter. “Just when I’m about ready to say we’ve seen it all, we find something new.”

Karen and her camera focused, yes, on an intestine. (photo by Krill Carson).

Close-up or macro photography is very challenging. To get a good picture of a turtle’s digestive tract that had a balloon string running through it, Karen had to merge 18 or more pictures together into a massive single image that showed both the full length of the intestines as well as all the detail. “Looking so closely at a turtle’s anatomy has given me the chance to learn so much more”, Karen says. ” I love to find out how things work.”

This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay sea turtle volunteer Karen Strauss. We’re grateful that Karen works hard to document our necropsies so well and that she’s so generous in sharing her terrific work.  Our thanks, too, to Carol “Krill” Carson of the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance for sharing her picture of Karen and many dozens of others over the years.