As They Take Flight, Bird Banders Reflect on Fall Migration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy and Lila ogling that Dickcissel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you on the beaches!

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

Summertime Travels of Box Turtles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following post was contributed by UMass researcher Patty Levasseur.

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

Patty surveys Blackfish Creek for signs of swimming terrapins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, there’s Alexander.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Joys and Sorrows of Being a Coastal Waterbird Monitor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was I ever wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then something very odd happened.

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

There they were!

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

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

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

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

Jacey–on a good day at Tern Island!

Catching Up With An Old Friend

On June 29, 2016, I rescued a diamondback terrapin that had been hit by a car during a nesting run on Lieutenant Island in Wellfleet. Most of the time that would have been the end of her story. Most turtles that are hit by cars die and the only happy ending is when any still viable eggs can be harvested and placed in a nest. Losing a breeding adult is especially sad because the species is considered threatened in Massachusetts.

But this turtle had a much different story. We not only managed to hatch and release five of her progeny, but we saved the adult turtle, too! All with the help of Tufts Veterinary School and Wellfleet Bay volunteers and staff.

Female diamondback terrapin hit by a car on Wellfleet’s Lieutenant Island in June 2016. (Photo by Karen Strauss)

The last time I saw this turtle was in mid-September 2016 as I released her into the water at the Lt. Island bridge and watched her swim away. She had a large crack running the length of her carapace that was held together with a small piece of steel wire and I worried about her survival. 

A steel wire was used to hold the cracked carapace together so the shell could start to heal.

Over the next several summers I kept watch, hoping to encounter her on a nesting run, but she was nowhere to be found. 

And then on June 24, I read an email from my fellow volunteer Heather Pilchard who runs the Monday night Lieutenant Island nesting shift. At Turtle Point they had watched a nesting turtle that had a big crack down her carapace. 

This turtle shows that rehabbing an injured diamondback terrapin pays off! (Photo by Nancy Rabke)

The details were scarce and the email didn’t include a photo, but it immediately felt like it had to be my old friend. How many turtles have giant cracks down their backs, anyway? I emailed back and asked Heather if there was a wire or holes in the marginal scutes where a wire might have been. Sure enough, the wire was still there, holding the turtle together.

The car injury to the terrapin’s shell appears to be healing nicely. (Photo by Nancy Rabke)

Almost exactly three years after she was hit by a car, this turtle was nesting! Most of the time when you rescue and rehab wildlife, you never know what happens to them after they are released. To know that this turtle not only survived but has thrived is a gift and has given me great joy. I will continue to look for her every summer that I am back at Lieutenant Island helping this beautiful species survive.

This post was contributed by diamondback terrapin volunteer Karen Strauss.

Karen Strauss releases the rehabbed terrapin in September of 2016 at Lieutenant Island Bridge.

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 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 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 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.