Saving a Sea Turtle for the First Time: A Student Shares her Story

When my biology professor announced that the class had a weekend trip dedicated to rescuing cold-stunned sea turtles in Wellfleet, we were thrilled! We discussed six papers, and read more than twenty about the physical and biological factors of cold-stunning to prepare for the trip. But reading these papers could never have prepared me for the breathtaking feeling of rescuing sea turtles in real life.

The first thing that Unity College tells its new students during convocation is that we are going to make a difference. Attending a school that focuses on being environmentally conscious and encourages experiential learning inspires a future focused on protecting the blue planet. But sea turtles are charismatic megafauna.They are the celebrities of National Geographic and often serve as a poster child for plastics pollution mitigation. When you live in New England, you never think you are going to see those tropical species in person. Mass Audubon gave us that opportunity.

After a five-hour drive from Maine on a Friday afternoon, and being up even later for preparatory lectures on cold-stunned turtle procedures, you would think a 5:00 a.m. wake-up call would produce groggy young adults. But the last thing you could see in our eyes was regret. Everyone was cheerfully stuffing hand warmers into their gloves and socks to get ready for the surveys ahead.

Unity students walk the high tide line and watch the water’s edge for stranded sea turtles.

After two hours of marching through the sand, we were disappointed we didn’t find anything. I felt sorry for turtles that couldn’t make it to shore, and were instead freezing in the bay. As we were gearing up to head back to the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, our guide, Bob Prescott, received a call about a sea turtle found in Brewster.

It’s always good to have a group on the beach to rescue a loggerhead.

He asked us if we had room in one of our vans for a 90 pound loggerhead. We guaranteed that we had plenty of room!

Putting advance preparation into action!

Like wildlife paramedics we loaded the lethargic turtle into our trunk and carefully remembered our brief training. Loading the turtle. Fifty-five degrees. Carapace upright. Flippers comfortable. Be quiet. Is this happening? I was scared to drive because I kept thinking that if we hit a pothole, the turtle would die, and I’d go to jail for killing a member of an endangered species!

The loggerhead is unloaded before being weighed, measured and assigned a number by Wellfleet
Bay staff. Photo by Cheryl Frederick.

But we made it to Wellfleet Bay and with the staff’s help, were able to process it and measure its straight and curved carapace lengths, widths, and weight.

Large calipers are used to get straight line measurements for a turtle. 

Then, the loggerhead was ready to take its next step towards rehabilitation in Quincy at the New England Aquarium.

Smaller calipers for smaller turtles.

We were able to process a few Kemp’s ridley sea turtles that had been brought to the sanctuary, observe a professional Kemp’s ridley necropsy, and do another beach survey.

But nothing compared to that first feeling of rescuing a sea turtle for the first time. Upon reflection, I am forever grateful to Wellfleet Audubon and Unity College for providing this rare opportunity to interact with marine life. It made me feel like an educated biologist-in-training and am so glad I’m able to spread the mission of protecting biodiversity. Thank you, Wellfleet Bay!

This blog post was contributed by Jordan Baker, a marine biology major at Unity College in Unity, Maine.

Sea Turtle Season Offers Several Surprises and One Deep Freeze

The idea that this fall’s cold-stun sea turtle period could be a memorable one occurred to us when turtles began stranding about 2 weeks earlier than usual, in mid-October.

Sea turtle staffer Ben Thyng nets a Kemp’s ridley during a school boating trip off Dennis.

Only days before rescuing our first cold, immobile turtles, we’d found several live, swimming turtles out at sea—a pretty unusual occurrence. Our marine life cruise off Dennis netted one lively Kemp’s ridley. A second ridley was discovered not long after that during another school research trip off Dennis. Both turtles represented a special opportunity to study active sea turtles in the period before they likely would have become cold-stunned.

Then two more surprises happened.

Wellfleet Bay volunteer Sandy McKeen with stranded live leatherback at Ellis Landing in Brewster. (Photo by Jay Hubbell).

Two young leatherback sea turtles, which are not typically susceptible to cold-stunning in part due to their very large size, stranded in Brewster and Eastham within two weeks of each other. While most leatherbacks that come ashore are dead, both of these turtles were alive.

New England Aquarium staff surround the Eastham leatherback to assess vital signs, such as heart rate and respiration and to administer emergency care.

Each animal required special assistance and many hands to get moved from the beach and into a vehicle for trips to the New England Aquarium’s Animal Care Center. Unfortunately, neither leatherback survived.

A week before Thanksgiving, traditionally a busy period for strandings, the forecast called for conditions that we knew would be deadly for sea turtles trapped in Cape Cod Bay. Overnight temperatures in the teens combined with northwest winds of at least 30 miles an hour practically guaranteed scores of turtles would come ashore and that most would not be alive.

The cold arrived the night before Thanksgiving. On the day before, 87 turtles stranded.  Most were alive. By Thanksgiving afternoon, 82 turtles had come ashore and all but about 5 were dead. The dead ones were like blocks of ice, many of them appearing to have frozen as they made a final attempt at swimming. It was depressing.

This deceased Kemp’s ridley, like many that came in, looked like it had been frozen in place.

The “flash-freeze” event made national and even international news over the holiday weekend. While the turtle die-off was certainly part of the cold weather story, in some cases it was reported as an isolated event and not in the context of the hundreds of sea turtles that already had been stranding due to the bay’s normally cooling waters.

It’s that larger context that offers a slightly brighter picture. As air temperatures began to moderate after the holiday, the number of live turtles we recovered from beaches started to increase again. And they’re bigger turtles. The loggerheads are starting to come ashore, including this massive mature loggerhead sea turtle, possibly the largest ever to strand in Massachusetts:

Of course this hefty turtle had to come ashore on Wellfleet’s 6 mile-long Great Island! Thank goodness for Chris Anderson of the Cape Cod National Seashore and his truck! And our friends at the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance who helped us lift!

This fall has had so many twists and turns that we hesitate to offer any more predictions. But it does appear we’re headed for another big year. Not as big as the 1200 turtles recovered in the fall of 2014, but likely our second biggest cold-stun period ever. In the meantime, we’re continuing to do our best to help as many live turtles get the life-saving care they need to return to the sea.

Helping a Little Turtle Face Its First Winter

After a dog disrupted the overwintering process of an eastern box turtle hatchling last week, we were faced with the dilemma of how to put him/her back and allow natural overwintering or brumation to take place.

This baby needs to brumate! An eastern box turtle that hatched in the summer of 2018 is facing its first winter. (Photo by Tim O’Brien).

I tried to research methods others have used to introduce hatchlings into late season brumation, but couldn’t find out very much. So, I crafted my own process based on careful thought and intuition based on my many years as an amateur herpetologist. My plan was to house the hatchling within a paper tube that would deteriorate within the ground, yet afford the little turtle some breathing space until he acclimated.

We cooled the turtle to 50 degrees overnight. The next day I dug a hole next to a brumating adult so I could be reasonably confident this was a good spot.  Since they can’t dig very well, hatchlings likely brumate under leaf litter. But I wasn’t comfortable just placing the little guy under leaves that late in the season. Since most adults brumate at a depth of 10 centimeters or less (about 4 inches), I placed the hatchling at that depth. I decided to use a paper tube plugged each end with soft detritus and some breathing space in the middle.

Box turtles spend the winter about 4 inches below a soft layer of decomposing leaves and soil. (Photo by Tim O’Brien).

I put the turtle in the tube and placed the tube at a 45 degree angle within the hole. This angle would allow him to dig deeper if need be or crawl out if he wanted to. I also placed an Onset temperature logger in the hole at 10cm to record temperatures all winter. As I’ve reported in the past year, I’m currently involved in a study of box turtle brumation which includes recording soil and air temperatures at turtle overwintering spots around the sanctuary.

The paper tube will serve as a sort of house to ensure the hatchling has some initial protection and the ability to move if necessary. (Photo by Tim O’Brien).

I’ll monitor the young turtle throughout the winter since I don’t want the tube to collapse and prevent his emergence in the spring, assuming that he makes it. But I sure hope he does. I’ll keep you posted!

 

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

Bird Study Gives Students a Science Boost

Becoming familiar with the tools of the trade

Fourth graders from the Harwich and Chatham Elementary Schools have been studying birds this fall. But not just for an hour or so or even a day. They’ve been taking part in a year-long curriculum developed by Wellfleet Bay educators which combines a series of in-class lessons with actual field experience and even a chance to watch bird researchers at work.

During an October visit to the sanctuary, the students rotated through several activities, including one about how to identify birds.

Students learn to observe field marks and to use a basic field guide to identify birds. It’s not easy–one person describing a robin can result in someone else selecting an oriole!

In this activity, one student holds a photo of a bird, another tries to describe its field marks, and a third student, with her back to the student describing the bird, uses a kid-friendly field guide to try to determine the species. It can be tricky!

Wellfleet Bay educator Morgan Peck discusses plants that birds use.

The birding curriculum was developed to support state education frameworks for life science, which requires students to understand concepts such as adaptation and ecosystem functions. Having the chance to observe differences in birds’ beaks or to see a bird in the process of making its first (and possibly its last) fall migration makes these abstract ideas more tangible.

Outdoors, students took a walk to identify plants used by birds, such as oaks, pines, and the black cherry tree with its bird-friendly bark:

 

Finally, there was a chance to see bird researchers in action! The sanctuary’s bird banding station catches birds, measures and weighs them, and checks their physical conditions. A small metal band with a unique number is placed on their ankles so that they can be  monitored and studied.

Bird bander and researcher James Junda.

Students learned about the delicate mist nets used to capture songbirds and how the location of the nets (there are 22 in all) helps us to understand how birds are using the sanctuary’s various habitats.

On this particular morning, northern winds had brought in a wave of kinglets, including this Ruby-crowned Kinglet, a bird pretty easy to identify when it displays the red feathers on its head!

Kinglets usually only show their colorful crown feathers when they’re excited or angry. This bird’s probably a bit of both!

A familiar feeder bird was captured in the mist nets, giving bander James Junda a chance to discuss why songbirds have different leg lengths.

 

Before ending their day at the sanctuary, the students were invited to touch a banded
White-throated Sparrow before it was released. Banding assistant Valerie Bourdeau showed them how to do it carefully.

 

 

Wellfleet Bay school programs coordinator Spring Beckhorn says by focusing on birds, students gain initial insight into how animals function and interact with their habitats.

“Seeing a bird in the hand makes concepts like migration and adaptations for flight come to life for the students, ” she says.  “We hope that this experience will be memorable and maybe even pique their curiosity to continue to learn more about wildlife and its relationship with the rest of the natural world.”


Thank You!

 Wellfleet Bay would like to thank the individuals, foundations, local businesses, and community organizations whose generous support made our 2018 conservation and education programs possible. Gifts and grants allow us to continue to research and protect the unique ecology and wildlife of Cape Cod and educate children about their local environment with hands-on science programs.  Each year, Wellfleet Bay provides classroom lessons and field investigations to nearly 2,100 students on the Outer Cape.

Anonymous (2)

Brewster Conservation Trust

Cape Cod Five Charitable Foundation Trust

Cape Cod Young Professionals

The Chatham Fund of the Cape Cod Foundation

Eversource Energy Foundation

Max and Victoria Dreyfus Foundation

Harwich Conservation Trust

Mary-Louise Eddy and Ruth N. Eddy Foundation

Massachusetts Cultural Council

Massachusetts Environmental Trust

Robert B. Our Co., Inc.

Robert Verity Clem Memorial Scholarship Endowment Fund

Tern Foundation

Tiger Baron Foundation

W. Vernon Whiteley, Inc.

Wellfleet Shellfish Promotion and Tasting―SPAT

Women’s Club of Chatham, Inc.

Wellfleet Bay Leadership Friends and all supporters of the Sanctuary

What’s with All the October Sea Turtles? Flurry of Healthy Turtles Precedes Arrival of Cold Ones

October 22 was the official start to the cold-stun sea turtle season on the Cape, a relatively early start. Four Kemp’s ridleys, the most endangered of all sea turtles, were rescued that day in Eastham and Brewster.

Bob Prescott holds a very small Kemp’s ridley netted from a marine life cruise out of Sesuit Harbor in Dennis.

Given that the bay temperature was still relatively warm, finding our first cold turtles was a bit of a surprise. Still, we had had inklings that the turtles were on their way.

Spotting or finding sea turtles, despite the Cape’s cold-stunning phenomenon, is pretty rare. When sea turtles venture north in the summer, they are usually well offshore. The only time they’re spotted is usually by boat or when they’re killed or injured and wash in.

So two weeks earlier, when two basically healthy Kemp’s ridleys on the same day were recovered on the Brewster flats, we took notice. Then, a week later two ridleys were spotted swimming in the bay during our marine life cruise on the Albatross.  A crewmember managed to net one turtle, despite very choppy sea conditions.

The lively turtle was brought back to our wet lab for weighing and measuring before joining the two Brewster turtles for assessment at the New England Aquarium. This turtle and the others give the aquarium a rare chance to examine sea turtles before they slip into cold-stunning.

The aquarium reported that the internal body temperatures for the turtles were in the range of 72-65 degrees, definitely not cold-stunned, which is usually 50 or below. Then a week later, our first cold turtle washed in with an internal temperature of 47. Cape Cod Bay was still about 57 degrees.

So what’s going on out there? Sanctuary director Bob Prescott, who has decades of cold-stunned sea turtle experience, has offered one educated guess: Recent turtle recoveries have all occurred in areas with extensive tidal flats. Perhaps the warmer turtles spent less time exposed to colder air temperatures (by not being exposed to multiple low tides) but the cold-stunned animals were less fortunate.

When you factor in the many ridley and loggerhead sightings this past summer (which Wellfleet Bay tracks), it does have us thinking the sanctuary will be a busy place this fall.

A Passion for Plants

While it could be argued that turtles, birds, and horseshoe crabs seem to preoccupy most of the sanctuary’s staff and volunteers, a wild organism doesn’t always have to qualify as fascinating fauna to get some attention around here.

Nancy Braun takes copious notes whenever she’s looking at and studying plants. (Photo by Jeannette Bragger).

Among the most enthusiastic advocates of the sanctuary’s flora are volunteer naturalists Jeannette Bragger and Nancy Braun, who are often found on the trails together discussing– and sometimes even debating— the identity of the sanctuary’s diverse wildflowers, grasses, trees, and lichens.

Nancy (left) photographs yucca flowers. Jeannette (right) examines late summer asters.

Both women are long-time plant fans and students of local vegetation and both began volunteering at Wellfleet Bay over ten years ago.

“I realized that plants were easier to learn than birds because they can’t fly—they stand still!” says Nancy.

She especially enjoys plants with leaves or flowers with lovely scents, such as sweet everlasting, bayberry leaves, groundnut and sweet pepperbush, all located on the sanctuary if you know where to look—or smell!

Groundnut, a pretty vine and a member of the legume family,  can be found in shrubs along the Goose Pond Trail near Silver Spring. (photo by Jeannette Bragger)

Growing up in Switzerland in the Alps, Jeannette Bragger says she spent most of her time in trees, even doing homework in an old apple tree next to her house!

As trail naturalists, Jeannette and Nancy will occasionally closely scrutinize a plant to provoke a visitor’s curiosity. “That’s when we get a chance to tell them about the plant and the animals associated with it. “We try to give them a “hook”—some interesting story or characteristic—so that they’ll remember the plant after they leave,” Jeannette notes.

A plant with a story: Bouncing Bet, a European native, is also known as soapwort, part of the carnation family. It’s said that when its roots are dampened with water, they produce a mild soap that reputedly was used to clean the Shroud of Turin. We can’t confirm the full story but it does make the plant more memorable! (Photo by Jeannette Bragger).

Jeannette says she and Nancy learned a great deal from botany walks with staff and other volunteers, such as Dennis Murley, Art King, and, more recently, science coordinator Mark Faherty.

Trailing arbutus or Mayflower, the official state flower. (Photo by Jeannette Bragger).

Both women delight in seeing one of spring’s first fragrant white and pink flowers of the trailing arbutus (“Epigaea repens, also commonly called Mayflower—not to be confused with the Canada Mayflower!” Jeannette is careful to note). And Silver Springs’ mid-summer cardinal flowers are also a favorite to show.

The cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Note the paler “albino” version in the middle. (Photo by Jeannette Bragger).

But both volunteers are quick to discuss less appealing plants as well. “Poison ivy,” says Nancy, “is important to point out, too!”  Below, Jeannette considers yanking out noxious spotted knapweed.

Jeannette Bragger regards with scorn a spotted knapweed, an aggressive non-native plant with a purple thistle-like flower that steals resources from other plants that grow near it and is even toxic to them.

Jeannette and Nancy also enjoy leading their fellow trail naturalists on botany walks. Any volunteers interested in joining a walk next spring or summer can contact volunteer coordinator Christopher Green.

 

The Highs and Lows of a Diamondback Terrapin Summer

Nearly a month earlier than last year, the diamondback terrapin hatching season is coming to a close. We believe this shorter season is a result of the warmer than average temperatures this summer. However, even with the shorter season, with the help of our dedicated volunteers and staff, we found an impressive 257 nests across the sanctuary’s three intensively monitored sites–on sanctuary property and in Orleans– resulting in 1,561 hatchlings.

The nesting season’s payoff! A hatchling gets its first view of the world. (Photo by Maureen Duffy)

Those numbers may look big but they are down from last year when we had a total of 321 nests and released 2,358 baby turtles. Only our White’s Lane site in Orleans had an increase this year—160 hatchlings compared to 115 in 2017.

The drop in protected nests and successful hatchlings compared to 2017 could be the result of being at the bottom of what appears to be a regular three-year cycle of nesting highs and lows.

What accounted for our egg loss this season? There were more desiccated nests due to the unusually warm (hot) summer. And though we had little rain, when we had it, it came down hard! Flies took advantage of the wetness and laid eggs that became maggots, which seem to enjoy feasting on turtle yolks. Eight percent of our nests this summer were taken out by these fly larvae compared to just 3% last year.

But it wasn’t all maggots, dryness, and a busy fox on Lieutenant Island this summer. There were some gratifying moments. One of our favorites was when 9-year-old Ani St. Onge, the daughter of our assistant property manager, Aja Reeser, got to release hatchlings that came from the nest of a turtle that Ani and her mom had discovered run over on Old Wharf Road in June.

Ani St. Onge holds a ready-to-go hatchling from a hit-by-car turtle nest in Wellfleet. She then finds a good upland spot with vegetation for the little turtle to hide under. (Photos by Aja Reeser).

The season ended on a positive note at Lieutenant Island where the last three nests each yielded 100% healthy hatchlings–for a total of 36 new diamondback terrapins!

Turtle staff leader Maureen Duffy (left) and volunteers Tina Maloney and Meredith Harris enjoying their final 2018 nest-check shift on Lieutenant Island. (Photo by Heather Pilchard).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks to Wellfleet Bay’s diamondback terrapin team–Becca Settele and Maureen Duffy– for contributing this post.

How Many Diamondback Terrapins Call Wellfleet Bay Home?

Thanks to the tireless efforts of Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary research staff and dedicated volunteers, hundreds of diamondback terrapin nests are protected in the towns of Wellfleet, Eastham and Orleans each year, resulting in thousands of hatchlings released back into the marsh. This is extremely important work, as diamondback terrapins are listed as Threatened under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act.

Nine diamondback terrapins basking on a log in the sanctuary salt marsh (photo by Jeannette Bragger)

Despite all these efforts, we still do not fully understand the health of the population in Wellfleet Bay and there are many questions we still want to answer: What is the population size? What is the age structure? Are we finding mostly old adults? Or are the younger generations surviving? What is the ratio between males and females? Answering these questions will give us insight into the health of the population.

This year, in collaboration with Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, we’ve started exciting research to try to answer our first question: What is the population size of diamondback terrapins in Wellfleet Bay? Unfortunately, it is impossible to capture every terrapin in Wellfleet Bay, so how do achieve a confident population estimate?

First, we design a standardized protocol to capture a sample of the population. This is achieved by collecting the same data, in the same way, during every capture survey. Standardizing how we capture these turtles eliminates bias (influencing results to favor an outcome) and will be a baseline for long term monitoring. We will be using a widely used method for species population monitoring called Mark-Recapture. This involves capturing turtles, marking each individual then releasing them back where they were captured. This procedure is repeated throughout the season. The ratio of marked to unmarked individuals is statistically analyzed and provides an estimate of the population size.

Turtle gardens are cleared areas near salt marshes that provide good nesting habitat.

This research will take a couple years to perfect the survey protocol needed to achieve reliable population estimates. This protocol can then be used year after year to collect more data and achieve more refined estimates. It will serve as a means of monitoring our population and making informed conservation decisions based on population trends over time.

For instance, if ten years down the road research reveals a significant loss of mature adult females as a result of increased road mortality, conservation efforts could focus on creating additional nesting gardens in locations away from roads, installing fencing along road crossing hot spots, or updating road infrastructure to include turtle passage tunnels.

Two Mark-Recapture survey locations in Wellfleet Bay: Chipman’s Cove (top) and The Run (Bottom)

The two sites chosen to conduct Mark-Recapture surveys are Chipman’s Cove near Indian Neck and The Run at the sanctuary. These two sites were chosen because they are known for large (seasonal) concentrations of turtles and are easily accessible. We survey both sites following their assigned survey protocol and capture terrapins via a dip net or by hand.

Once the survey is finished, we process each turtle taking carapace and plastron measurements, weight, age and sex. We also check for any injuries or anomalies on their shells, record that information and take photos. Lastly, we inject each turtle captured with a PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tag just under the skin in their rear left thigh.

PIT tags are a widely used microchip containing a unique number that identifies each turtle. These same tags are also used at the vet to microchip your dogs and cats!

They are minimally invasive and will last the life of the turtle. A hand-held PIT tag scanner is used to scan turtles for these tags. If a turtle has a PIT tag, the scanner will beep and that turtle’s unique number will appear of the screen. Once every turtle is processed, they are released back in the general location they were found.

PIT Tag (Passive Integrated Transponder) on left; tag reader displaying a turtle’s new ID number (right).

The survey protocols for this population study are still in the design and testing phase, however so far this year we have conducted 66 surveys and have captured and marked 188 terrapins! The surveys will continue through early October and resume next spring.

 

LITs participating in processing of the terrapins.

This research is not only exciting for the research staff here at the sanctuary but also for our younger generations of hopeful biologists.

This year a group of 8 LITs (Leaders in Training) from our day camp had the opportunity to come out with us on a survey in “The Run” located right off the sanctuary’s tidal flats. They were grouped with an experienced research staff member and conducted the survey with us–from searching the waters and capturing terrapins to processing and release.

 

The eight LITs who participated in the survey. One last goodbye before the release!

These teenagers were not only able to learn about our research, but participate fully in the process. I’m looking forward to next summer and more opportunities to get kids excited about science. The study and conservation of our diamondback terrapin population in Wellfleet Bay will need to continue long after me and the current research staff. We must do our part to inspire and guide younger generations to pursue careers in conservation.

 

UMass-Amherst master’s student Patricia Levasseur conducting a survey.

This post was contributed by Patricia Levasseur, a graduate student at UMass-Amherst pursuing a Masters of Science degree in Wildlife Conservation Biology. 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.

Veteran Wellfleet Bay Staffer Heads to Outermost Coast

At 30 miles out to sea, Wellfleet Bay is, so to speak, pretty out there. But Melissa Lowe, a 25 year Mass Audubon veteran, is venturing even farther!

Melissa, who’s been Wellfleet Bay’s education director since 2014, is joining the Center for Coastal Studies located at the tip of Cape Cod in Provincetown. She’ll be trading in the sanctuary’s focus on turtles and birds for the whales and seals the CCS has studied and protected for years.

But enough about them; what about us? We asked Melissa what she’ll miss about Wellfleet Bay when she her job takes her to the end of Cape Cod?

“Geez, what won’t I miss about this place? It has been my second home, my second family, for so long. I’ll miss my colleagues, dearly—their creativity, passion and commitment, kindness, and wonderfully smart sense of humor.”

Melissa (left) with poet and naturalist Liz Bradfield during a Cape Cod Field School.

Melissa says in in more than 20 years of work at the sanctuary (she started her Mass Audubon career at the Blue Hills Trailside Museum 25 years ago), she’s most proud of building up the sanctuary’s adult programs, including the Cape Cod Field Schools–weekend programs that offer intensive, in-the-field outdoor experiences.

A lot has changed since Melissa first arrived at the sanctuary. There were only 6 full-time staff members and space was at a premium. “My desk was wedged in-between several others in the old office space and the tiny staff kitchen (read, no sink and a dorm-sized fridge) that is now part of the large, redesigned exhibit hall.”

Other significant changes during Melissa’s tenure here now seem almost unimaginable, such as the fact cold-stunned sea turtle strandings occurred at a relative trickle. (Sea turtles come in by the hundreds now.) And there were no Wild Turkeys back then. (Today they’re as common as squirrels.)

But, as Melissa notes, not everything has changed. “The unwavering energy and vision of Bob (Prescott), our director persists. His guidance throughout my career has been instrumental in my success. And the passion and commitment of all my colleagues over the years has also been steadfast. This organization really attracts special people.”

Bob says Melissa has brought a thoughtful and collaborative approach to her job overseeing the education staff. ” It can actually be harder pulling lots of people into a discussion rather than making a decision yourself,” he notes. By the same token, Melissa’s never been timid about speaking out about an overly ambitious idea. “She’s not afraid to tell me why something can’t be done!” Bob says. “You need someone who can do a reality check.” Bob adds that Melissa’s great sense of humor will also be missed.

Melissa and Sam Peabody, the new pup.

Now, we realize we can’t compete with the Center for Coastal Studies’ dog-friendly office policy. And Melissa is very dog friendly.

“Taking my new pup to work every now and then may just make up for the lack of sweeping views and hooting owls outside my Wellfleet Bay office window…maybe!”

Bird Research at Wellfleet Bay: Last Spring’s Net Results

Bird bander James Junda’s seasonal summaries always contain a lot of information, including technical details that other scientists would want to know: such as, how many nets were used, where they were placed, how long the nets were open and for how many days. It’s not the most exciting information, but it’s important to include because these factors that can influence how many species of birds you band and the overall numbers.

 

In bird banding, net placement is crucial! Nets along the Silver Spring trail were the busiest this past spring with a little over 43 captures per 100 net hours, almost 40% higher than the next busiest nets–those placed in thickets next to the Bay View Trail. Nets in the upland fields near the bird boxes were the slowest in spring, yet they’re the busiest in the fall.

But for many of us, we just want the bottom line: What was the total number of species you banded last spring; what were the most common birds captured; and, of course, what “cool birds” did you get?

Let’s start with the overall numbers from spring of 2018.

The banding station captured a total of 77 species, up by one over spring of 2017, and the most species banded since spring of 2015. A total of nearly 1200 birds were caught.

Most common capture?

Look familiar?

Gray Catbird–a total of 91.

Next was Black-capped Chickadee (62); American Goldfinch (54); Golden-crowned Kinglet (51); and Magnolia Warbler (30) making up the top five species.

 

Summer of 2017 must have been good for Golden-crowned Kinglets. We captured a total of 51. We’d had only FIVE each of the previous two springs!

Before you dismiss catbirds and chickadees as so common that it’s no surprise they topped the list, consider something else the numbers show.

While we had 91 catbirds in the nets this spring, we had 130 last year and a whopping 271 the year before. For chickadees, 2017 saw 87 individuals and 143 the year before that. The downward trend also continued for American Goldfinches—54 were banded this spring compared to 96 last year and 105 the year before. While some of the declines may be due to the fact some species are coming off big breeding years, it’s a trend we’ll keep an eye on.

But there was also good news from the nets. James reports a sizeable increase for some warbler species such as Northern Waterthrush (13 netted compared to just 2 in 2017); American Redstart, Magnolia Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, and Northern Parula.

 

Eighteen Northern Parulas were banded this past spring. We had only 3 of these warblers the same time last year.

While some of these birds did enjoy strong breeding seasons last year, James also notes that spring storms produced “fall-out” conditions when migrating birds were forced down in larger than usual numbers and some ended up in the nets.

 

We’d never had a Cape May Warbler at our banding station until last fall when we captured 6. In spring of 2018, we had 14! These handsome birds had a great breeding season last summer.

As for the cool birds? We’ll call these the one-season wonders, because each species was banded only once: Warbling Vireo, Willow Flycatcher, Blue-winged Warbler, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (first time for the station).

There’s another question James is often asked. Have our banded birds been found by anyone else? Last May two Wellfleet-banded birds were recaptured at other banding stations. One, a Gray Catbird banded here in the fall of 2015 as a hatching-year bird, turned up across the bay at Manomet in Plymouth. A second bird—an American Goldfinch—banded last fall was recaptured in Brewster.

See who shows up in our mist nets this fall by attending one of our Saturday morning bird banding programs. Learn more>