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>



2018 Terrapin Nesting Season: The Good, the Bad and the Better

First–the good news! Thanks to the efforts of over 100 dedicated volunteers the 2018 terrapin nesting season has come to a close with our lowest number of depredated nests at this point in the season.

It’s a group effort! Volunteers Nancy Rabke, John Ogas, Sandy, Ogas, and Sue Reiher on nest patrol. (Photo courtesy of Sue Reiher).

This year we protected a total of 335 terrapin nests in Wellfleet, Eastham, and Orleans.

At WBWS we found a total of 57 nests: 56 protected and only 1 depredated (dug up and eaten by predators). Across the bay at Lieutenant Island 93 nests were found: 76 protected and 17 depredated (down from 40 this time last year). Elsewhere in Wellfleet, Old Wharf Road had 14 nests (3 depredated), and at Indian Neck and Great Island, 107 nests were located (45 depredated).

In Orleans, a record number of nests were found at White’s Lane– 13 protected nests with no depredations so far! In Eastham, another big terrapin town, 178 nests were found (9 depredated).

Now, the bad news. This summer, the terrapins of Wellfleet Bay met their greatest challenge crossing busy roadways.  Eight turtles were run over in Wellfleet and 11 were hit in Eastham with the highest incidents at Bridge Road and Samoset Road.  That makes a record 19 terrapins that were run over by cars during the nesting season this year.  Unfortunately, only one of those nineteen turtles survived.

Turtle shells are tough but not much of a match for a car or truck. (Photo by Maureen Duffy)

Without some intervention it’s a problem that may only get worse. The more nests that successfully hatch and send young turtles into the world, the more that will manage to reach adulthood to reproduce. And, increasingly, more of those adult females will be run over given our heavily developed shorelines.  It’s a trend that threatens to reverse all the progress made in rebuilding the population.

With the 2018 turtle nesting season behind us, Wellfleet Bay has committed to devoting staff time to developing plans to mitigate hit-by-car turtles.  We’ll be reviewing methods that have had success elsewhere, surveying the local roads where the most incidents occur, and working with towns and residents on a plan to direct nesting turtles away from traffic.

Despite the high turtle death toll on the road, the staff and volunteers at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary have reason to believe some eggs salvaged from unlucky turtles may still hatch. This year we were able to remove eggs from 5 of the turtles that were hit on the road. We remain hopeful that despite their trauma, these eggs will show the resilience so often seen in turtles and will produce healthy terrapin hatchlings.

Sometimes the eggs from a female terrapin killed by a car can be saved and placed in a manmade nest, often with a high degree of success. (Photo by Sandy Ogas)

If you should happen upon any turtle attempting to cross a road, if safe for you, please help her cross safely.  Moving her across the road in the direction she was heading can save her life and the lives of the countless eggs she is yet to produce.  Female terrapins lay two clutches of 8 to 14 eggs each year.  Saving just one terrapin can add up to 28 hatchlings each year that she lives–as many as 600 in an average lifetime– and could make the difference in the diamondback terrapin’s fight for survival in Wellfleet Bay.

Every hatchling is important but it takes many, many of them to replace a breeding female. Terrapins don’t reach sexual maturity until the age of 8 or 9. (Photo by Maureen Duffy)

This post was contributed by Maureen Duffy, a marine biologist, who heads the Wellfleet Bay diamondback terrapin team. Maureen also will be leading the sea turtle rescue team this fall.

Plover Season Hatches Some Surprises

As summer seems to be winding up, Piping Plover nesting season seems to be winding down. The last of Wellfleet Bay’s monitored Piping Plover nests on the Outer Cape, from Tern Island to Truro, have hatched.

Although it seems we monitored a lot of chicks this summer, many didn’t survive to fledge. A total of eleven pairs produced 17 chicks. Unfortunately, a number of chicks were eaten by predators, but 10 of them have fledged (meaning they can fly, at least a bit) or are pretty close to it.  If the rest of the chicks make it, this would give us a productivity rate of around 1.54. The state’s target for a stable population is 1.24. So it’s good news!

Adult female and two 12-day-old chicks at Beach Point. (Photo by Jeannette Bragger).

I came into this season with a little plover experience, but not enough to realize how invested I would become in each and every one of the nests we monitor. Each location has its own struggles such as predation, human disturbance, or overwash. One of our biggest issues this season was depredation by crows, who got quite a few of our nests.


Crosby Landing Beach in Brewster had two pairs with nests. The first pair fledged 4 chicks, which we are thrilled about! The second pair wasn’t so lucky, as their nest was depredated by crows just a few days before it was due to hatch. Often times, a pair with a failed nest will try again, but it was apparently a little late in the season for this pair to re-nest.

A predated nest is a disheartening sight. (Photo by Briana Pascarelli).

While each site has its own issues, they also have had some surprises.

While we’ve traditionally had at least one pair of plovers at Fisher Beach in Truro, the birds keep us guessing with the new and creative nesting spots they find there. For at least the third year in a row, a pair of plovers nested in a large blowout behind the dune on the main beach. This isn’t a typical location for plovers to nest, but monitoring from prior seasons has led us to check here. Once the nest hatched, this pair, amazingly, walked their tiny chicks out of the steep dune blowout over to the shore of the Pamet River where the family remained until the chicks fledged. A couple of weeks later, we unexpectedly found a second nest right on the shore of the Pamet where we’ve never had a nest before. This pair, sadly, lost all of their chicks, but the first pair fledged all four.

Just across the Pamet from Fisher, Corn Hill Beach had two pairs of birds, but only one was successful, hatching 3 chicks. We also had a small Least Tern colony here, but it seems as though a coyote found its way into the colony and those who survived dispersed. This unfortunate predation event occurred right around the same time the second pair at Fisher lost their 4 chicks.

Over on the ocean side of Truro we have a pair of plovers at Ballston Beach who finally had success on their third nest attempt. Crows got their first two nests and are the prime suspect in the disappearance of two of the three chicks.

The “y” shaped tracks of the American Crow near the predated nest are pretty distinctive. The smaller tracks are plovers’.

Another Truro beach gave us a pleasant surprise this summer. A site at Beach Point that hadn’t had plovers in a couple of years suddenly had a nest! Beach Point is well north of our other Truro sites but fortunately, we have some amazing volunteers who help us throughout the season. For example, Jeannette Bragger has monitored Beach Point almost every day.  She is also the one to thank for the majority of the photos I’ve included in this post. Beach Point had a 3-egg nest and 2 of the 3 chicks have survived.

Kudos to the parents of this Beach Point chick for successfully raising him/her and a second chick on a very busy beach! (Photo by Jeannette Bragger)

Maybe my nicest surprise was finding a late one-egg nest at South Sunken Meadow Beach in Eastham. Since 2012, this beach had been home to a banded plover we called El Bandito, who we fear may have been eaten by a Snowy Owl shortly after his return in April. But it brightened our season when 3 chicks hatched, and although they’re not Bandito’s, it is still some very exciting news!

Two of three day-old chicks hatched at South Sunken Meadow Beach (Photo by Saul Fisher)

As I noted at the beginning, the birds are starting to think about fall even in mid-summer. Flocks of several dozen Piping Plovers have been spotted as they and other shorebirds start to stage–or group together– before flying south for the winter. It’ll be exciting to know that our fledglings have started their first long journey and may soon be as far away as the Bahamas or even Cuba!

While writing this post, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed each time I wrote about an unsuccessful nest, until I looked at the bigger picture. The potential success for our Piping Plovers this year is very high and we can use what has happened this season to protect even more nests next season. It has been a great experience to be a part of this field season, and we can only hope that numbers for Piping Plovers keep heading in the right direction.

Chicks born and raised at Brewster’s Crosby Landing Beach (photo by Susan Wellington).


This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay’s coastal waterbird field technician Briana Pascarelli. A graduate of the University of Rhode Island with a degree in wildlife conservation and biology, Briana enjoys field work and is also a turtle enthusiast. Before coming to Wellfleet Bay, she worked as an attractions cast member in Disney’s Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Orlando.


Five Turtles Returned to the Sea are Leaving Tracks

Wellfleet Bay staff and volunteers were on hand in early July when the New England Aquarium released 5 rehabilitated loggerhead sea turtles rescued last fall. The release was at West Dennis Beach on Nantucket Sound. The loggerheads were rescued by Wellfleet Bay volunteers and staff last fall, after they washed ashore, cold-stunned, on Cape Cod Bay beaches.

One of 5 loggerheads released on July 2nd at West Dennis Beach. All were rescued from Cape Cod beaches the previous fall due to cold-stunning. (Photo by Karen Strauss).

Each sea turtle was fitted with a satellite tag to monitor its movements. The turtles were given color-coded names for easier tracking on the map. The New England Aquarium has been sharing images every couple of weeks showing us where the turtles have been going since leaving shore.

Here’s where they ended up six days after the July 2nd release in West Dennis.

Perhaps because of abundant whelk and crabs, the turtles covered a large swath of northern Nantucket Sound, with Blue Bell swimming all the way to Nantucket and back. (Image courtesy of the NEAq).


A week later Blue Bell, Brick Red and Banana Mania did a lot more swimming through extremely busy boating areas, but the turtle known as Laser Lemon appeared to hang around Harwich. Pink Sherbert continued foraging in the Hyannis/Centerville area.

At least 3 of the loggerheads were swimming in boat-infested waters!


Three weeks after release, Blue Bell and Brick Red continued to forage in areas of shoals in Nantucket Sound, where shallower water may make it easier to find and catch prey. Laser Lemon seemed to be content in its general area off Chatham and Harwich. Pink Sherbert made one foray into Nantucket Sound, then stuck close to Hyannis/Centerville, along with Banana Mania.


This image reflects a shorter time frame than the others. At least 3 of the loggerheads were swimming in waters with very heavy boat traffic, including ferries! (Image courtesy of NEAq).

Our turtle team finds the tracking interesting because it’s the first time we’ve had an idea of where turtles move during the summer when so many come to feed. Previously, rehabbed turtles were released in August and most, given the approaching fall, scooted south.

A lot of very hard work, state of the art veterinary care, and heart have gone into saving these 5 loggerheads. We’re really hoping they stay out of trouble and that sometime next month they’ll start thinking about moving to warmer waters.

NEAq and WBWS staff watch a tagged loggerhead return to sea. No doubt, all were hoping the turtle would have smooth sailing from now on. (Photo by Karen Strauss).

Sea Turtles a Year Round Focus at Wellfleet Bay

Wellfleet Bay turtle volunteers and most of the turtle staff have been focused on diamondback terrapins lately, but the sanctuary’s sea turtle work continues all year long. In fact, it’s expanding!

Besides the well-known cold-stun sea turtle rescue operation in the late fall and early winter, Wellfleet Bay staff are the federally mandated responders to every sea turtle stranding in southeastern Massachusetts during the summer and early fall. These “summer” strandings are single turtles, most of which were killed either by vessel strike or entanglement in lobster/fishing gear.

Responding to a stranding: Turtle team members Bob Prescott, Karen Dourdeville, and Olivia Bourque traveled to Nantucket to necropsy this beached leatherback in September of 2016. (Photo by Olivia Bourque).

Recently, WBWS partnered with Coonamessett Farm Foundation, NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center, and Marine Biological Laboratory in applying for a Massachusetts Environmental Trust grant to fund additional studies from the summer strandings. We just learned that this proposal was successful, and we’ll share funds with the three other organizations to study lipids/fatty acids and stable isotope samples from these summer strandings. This research further emphasizes the importance of not only rescuing live, cold-stunned sea turtles in the late fall/early winter, but also the importance of learning as much as possible from dead sea turtles.

Comparing notes on necropsy techniques at the New England Aquarium (photo by Karen Dourdeville)

In June, the Wellfleet Bay turtle team spent a day at New England Aquarium’s rehab facility in Quincy, where Katie Puliares-Bonner walked them through the NEAq protocols for sea turtle necropsies (animal autopsies). These protocols are very similar to what WBWS staff already do, but it was useful to compare notes and to acquaint the new WBWS turtle team members with sea turtle necropsies.

Katie also demonstrated techniques for taking samples for histology analyses, which WBWS staff also hope to add to their summer stranding sampling work. The samples for histology analysis will be sent to Brian Stacy, of NOAA, an expert who looks at tissues microscopically to determine definitive cause and timing of death.

Summer means more boaters are in our local waters, so the chance for vessels to strike sea turtles obviously increases. Already this year, we’ve responded to two vessel-struck loggerheads and one leatherback, all in Buzzards Bay.

Many boaters are unaware that sea turtles come to southeastern New England to feed in the summer. As boating gets busier more of these endangered and threatened turtles fall victim to deadly propeller strikes. (Photo courtesy of Mike Margulis of Extreme Marine Diving Services).

Since 2003, WBWS has operated a sea turtle sightings hotline for boaters, asking them to report sightings at or by phone at 1-888-732-8878. The website tries to alert boaters to watch for the turtles and to educate them about what the turtles might look like in the water.

We have also set up a Facebook page called Sea Turtle Sightings New England. We hope anyone who has a boating or fishing friend will like and follow the page and share it. The more we get the word out about the sea turtles in our waters now, the better we can protect these animals.

Turtle team: (from left): Noah Epstein, Maureen Duffy, Ben Thyng, Karen Dourdeville (middle), Becca Settele and NEAq’s Katie Pugliares-Bonner. (Photo by NEAq staff; Bob Prescott and Patty Levasseur not pictured)

This post was contributed by Wellfleet Bay sea turtle research associate Karen Dourdeville.


The Massachusetts Environmental Trust generates the funds used for grant awards from the sale of specialty license plates. Learn more >

The Art and Science of Finding Terrapin Nests

Learning to find a diamondback terrapin nest takes practice. Our volunteers are trained to find nests (so they can protect them) but as most will tell you, the turtle is trying her best to hide it. And turtles usually do a good job.

Still, there are some classic nesting signs: swirling, comma-like tracks, and often a roundish disturbance in the sand that indicates deeper, darker sand has been kicked up to the surface. Sometimes, there’s a narrow ridge created by the terrapin’s shell as she digs.

Classic diamondback terrapin tracks (photo by Nancy Rabke).

But the signs aren’t always so easy to spot. That’s where experience and a hard-to-define sixth sense kick in.

There’s a sign here that a turtle has nested. Can you spot it?

Over the years, some terrapin volunteers have developed reputations for having special nest detection powers. One of them, Heather Pilchard, says being an artist could help her see what others may not at first glance.

Heather surveys “the scene”. Holes aren’t always made by turtles. Rodents, foxes and raccoons are prime suspects. (photo by Meredith Harris).

“I actually like to treat each turtle garden (nesting site) as a crime scene,” she laughs. “I try to stop and take in the whole picture, look for tracks, and reconstruct what went on: where the tracks lead and how many turtles may have made them.” Heather confesses that sometimes she’s been so focused she’s missed seeing the actual turtle!

Veteran terrapin volunteer Theresa Hultin says it’s hard for her to explain how she’s become a nest finding expert. One of her teammates, Peggy Sagan, confirms Theresa’s powers are amazing. “Maybe she just smells the eggs!” Peggy suggests.

Theresa notes that knowing where turtles prefer to nest does help. “They like to lay eggs against things…vegetation, the edges of roads, and already protected nests.”

Terrapins nest in the darndest places. Teresa and team check the steps at a home on Lieutenant Island.

She says she also takes her time surveying each nest site, which can make her teammates a little crazy. And she says she’s even been known to use the power of prayer before heading out on a shift. “I’m very religious,” she notes.

Theresa finds it hard to explain her nest discovery talent. “I just look for something that seems a little off.” Those little cages are the predator excluders that teams install once they discover a terrapin nest.

Terrapin researcher and author, Dr. Barbara Brennessel, says finding nests in a cultivated turtle garden, which is maintained each season and raked between shifts, is different than searching for nests in wild terrain. She and her Wheaton College interns cover Indian Neck and Great Island.

“The trick is to walk the same area day after day so that we know every footprint, any new terrapin tracks, every test dig, every disturbance, no matter the cause.  If we see something new, we start digging,” Barbara says. And, she adds, that they make a point of doing their patrols at high tide to increase the chance of finding a turtle in the act of nesting.

Wheaton College interns relocate a nest to a safer spot (photo by Barbara Brennessel).

Tracking down nests is tricky in Orleans, too. In a section of Orleans Conservation Trust property known as White’s Lane, volunteer Chuck Dow and teammates cover a combination of man-made turtle gardens and what’s known as  “Cape Cod lawn”—a combination of grass clumps, small patches of sand, and weeds that don’t allow for tracks.

How do you ever find a nest in here? But the White’s Lane crew has–several times this year!

Nevertheless, Chuck’s found 7 of 13 protected nests at White’s Lane this summer. Given the natural terrain and cobbly, hard-packed surface of the turtle gardens there, he looks for slight depressions and disturbances in the soil rather than tracks.

Chuck and the White’s Lane team have to look for nests by digging in hard-packed soil.

He says it wasn’t until one of his teammates weeded and raked a turtle garden and a turtle later nested there that he had his very first view of terrapin tracks so common at other nesting sites. “So that’s what everyone’s been talking about!” he recalls thinking.

Regardless of their individual detection methods, these volunteers are quick to credit more experienced colleagues for giving them valuable tips. “Sue Reiher was the one who taught me things to look for,” Heather says. “The odd bits like a twig or piece of moss a turtle will toss on top of the nest as camouflage.”

Is it a nest? Heather investigates. (Photo by Meredith Harris)

Northern diamondback terrapins are listed as Threatened in Massachusetts. Since 2006, Wellfleet Bay has worked to protect terrapin nests and hatchlings to help boost the local population. Last year, well over 2000 hatchlings were released in salt marsh uplands in Wellfleet, Eastham, and Orleans.

Sanctuary Plays a Part in Native Bees Study

Only the sharpest eyes would likely notice the small yellow flags out in the bird box field and along the top of the Bay View Trail.

Bee researcher Nick Dorian marked this Colletes nest with a yellow flag so he can follow changes in the bees’ populations over the next few years.

The flags were placed there by Tufts University PhD candidate Nick Dorian who’s researching two closely related species of native ground-nesting bees known as cellophane bees: specifically known as Colletes inaequalis and Colletes validus. More about why they’re called cellophane bees in a minute.

Many of us would likely mistake a Colletes nest for an ant hill, except the hole is bigger. Both bee species Nick is studying can be found in pine barrens, a globally threatened ecosystem that is characterized by nutrient-poor, sandy soil. It’s not clear to what extent the bees have been impacted.

Unlike honeybees, which were brought here from Europe, the vast majority of native bees  (there are about four thousand species in North America) don’t form hives or produce honey—or even sting for that matter. “Native bees evolved with our native plants, so they are best equipped to pollinate in natural, and often agricultural, landscapes,” Nick points out

Female Colletes build their nests underground in early spring and lay their eggs inside. And here’s why they’re called cellophane bees: the name comes from the plastic-like substance the bees use to seal each egg into small water-proof cells that branch off from the main nest tunnel. Before sealing the eggs in, the female provisions them with a regurgitated “pollen soup”,  a combination of nectar and pollen. The eggs hatch into larvae, which develop exclusively on the “pollen soup” that their mother left for them. Once big enough, larvae spin a cocoon and overwinter as adults in the nest .


Colletes bees kick off the 2018 breeding season with the male atop the female. Males die after the breeding season, even if they never mate with a female. Note yellow dot on the female’s thorax which allows Nick to know which nesting aggregation she belongs to.

Nick says he chose the two species, in part, because they tend to nest, not in colonies, but near each other. As a result, he can study a lot of bees at once: he’s monitoring 1000 nests at his main study site in New Hampshire.

Just a small section of Nick’s study site. The nests are located in close proximity, which makes it easier for him to use plastic cups to keep bees from re-entering the nest just long enough to safely capture, mark them, and release them.

Because the nests are near one another, Nick can capture the females as they come and go, marking them with numbers for tracking. He also takes a sample from their pollen sacks so he can determine the plants they’ve been visiting.


Colletes inaequalis (Unequal Cellophane Bee) emerges from her nest, marked # 385.

Because so little research has been done on the two species, there is a lot to learn about C. inaequalis and C. validus.  For instance—how many nests an individual female builds and what success her offspring have. Also, C. inaequalis is a generalist when it comes to foraging; C. validus forages exclusively on blueberries and nests only near that plant.  “One thing I’ll be looking at is the differences in population growth rates between a floral generalist and a specialist,” Nick says.

Although Nick found only 20 Colletes nests at Wellfleet—too few to produce robust results—he says it will serve as an interesting comparison to his much larger New Hampshire site. “Wellfleet is at a different latitude and has a different climate.  It’s worth watching.”

He’s already had one potentially intriguing observation here at the sanctuary: a C. validus nest that was not located near a blueberry bush but instead bearberry (which is related to blueberry). Is it possible this blueberry specialist may actually forage on other plants? It’s too soon to say but it’s one of many things Nick will be watching when his field work resumes next spring!

Nick at his native bee study site in New Hampshire (photo by Max McCarthy).

Our thanks to Nick Dorian for the photos and for all his assistance with this post. Nick, a man of many scientific interests, also volunteers at Wellfleet Bay’s bird banding station.

A Long Winter’s Nap: How Do Box Turtles Know When to Emerge in Spring?

Many of our local reptiles have evolved ways for dealing with cold weather. Eastern box turtles hibernate or brumate in burrows which they excavate in soft soil. Here they spend the cold months in a state of dormancy using as little energy as possible. Box turtles are freeze tolerant; they are the largest vertebrate that can withstand icing of their internal organs (for a short period of time).

We think we know what triggers brumation in the fall: air and soil temperatures and length of day each plays a role. But what are the cues that cause turtles to emerge in the spring, especially since light rarely penetrates the burrow?

I wanted to see for myself so I designed a brumation study around two radio tagged box turtles here at the sanctuary to see just how soil temperature affects their entering and exiting brumation.

Data loggers for recording soil and air temperature at two box turtle brumation sites in the winter of 2018.

The plan would be to closely monitor each turtle as the weather got colder and note when the animal entered brumation. At that time I would place an electronic temperature data logger in the burrow with the turtle as well as an identical control logger at the surface to monitor ambient temperature. I programmed the loggers to record temperature every 4 hours. My guess was that the soil temp would fluctuate with air temperature.

The two turtles that I chose are resident turtles who typically brumate at opposite ends of the sanctuary in different habitats. One brumates in the woods while the other overwinters in successional habitat between the woods and the heath field. Both are older adult turtles; #63 is a big female while #348 is an average size male.

You can just barely see turtle # 63 as she begins to dig her burrow. The gray device on her shell is a radio tag so she can be found.

The female entered her brumation burrow on November 1 with the ambient temp at 44 degrees and the soil temperature at 58 degrees. She rested at a depth of 5 centimeters for most of winter, which is somewhat shallow (average brumation depth is about 10 cm). Would she survive our exceptionally cold winter?

Volunteer researcher Tim O’Brien measures turtle burrow depth. (photo by Kim Novino)

I checked both turtles every couple of weeks and noted their positions within their burrows monthly by reaching in and touching them. The female stayed in her burrow for 178 days. She saw an average ground temp of 42.1 degrees and a minimum temperature of 33.0 degrees (January 4th).  On April 26, she emerged.  The air temperature at the burrow on that date was 53 degrees and the soil temp was 50 degrees.


Still a bit sandy from her winter’s rest, turtle # 63 welcomes spring.

The male entered brumation on November 26, fairly late in the season yet typical for this turtle.


Turtle # 348 begins his winter dig.

On that date the air temp was 40 degrees and the soil temp was 50. He eventually rested 18 cm below the surface which is fairly deep for a box turtle. He brumated for 161 days.


Data logger records air and soil temperature at a turtle burrow.

# 348’s average ground temperature was 42.2 degrees and he saw a minimum ground temperature of 34.9 degrees (January 8th). He emerged sometime between May 2 and May 4. The ambient temperature on May 3 was 57 degrees and the soil temp on May 2  was 50 degrees.

Turtle # 348 emerges in early May.

So what did we learn? It appears based on our very small sample size that both turtles, brumating at different locations and at different depths, saw nearly identical average soil temperatures throughout their brumation. I also found it interesting that each turtle emerged when the soil temp in its burrow hit 50 degrees. Also each turtle experienced a nearly identical minimum temperature which was just above freezing.

So is 50 degree soil temperature the trigger that causes box turtles to emerge in the spring? Also, do they seek a depth in the soil that will allow them to rest comfortably in temperatures ranging from the low to mid-40s and avoid freezing temperatures? I plan to monitor a larger sample size of turtles on the sanctuary this winter to see if we can answer some of these questions.

Tim O’Brien can often be found in this pose in late autumn at Wellfleet Bay. (photo by Kim Novino)

This post was contributed by turtle volunteer Tim O’Brien, who, when he isn’t studying box turtles at the sanctuary, can be found transporting injured box turtles and diamondback terrapins to Tufts Wildlife Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton. He and his wife Kim Novino also rescue cold-stunned sea turtles in the fall.

Missing Bandito: Popular Banded Plover is No More

We often say that April and May are the best part of the coastal waterbird field season because Piping Plovers are returning and in full courtship mode. At that early stage, we’re usually feeling pretty hopeful. The season is too fresh to be marred by predators or stormy weather.

This spring we were especially delighted to welcome back an old friend, a plover dubbed some years ago “El Bandito” for the yellow and green bands placed on his legs by researchers.

Bandito – named for his colorful leg bands – Photo courtesy of Sherri VandenAkker

Bandito made his breeding season debut on an Eastham beach in 2013. He didn’t have a mate (he was young and inexperienced, which apparently is less appealing to females). He was described in our field log as a lone banded male who occasionally clashed with other males.

El Bandito in his rookie season in Eastham. (Photo by Mark Faherty).

In 2014, Bandito returned and this time he had a mate. They managed to fledge one out of four chicks, just slightly below the rate needed to sustain the Atlantic coast population.

Bandito becomes a dad for the first time in 2015 (photo by Rachel Smiley).

In 2015, Bandito and mate fledged three chicks. As it turns out, the season proved to be Bandito’s zenith in breeding success.

Bandito with his brood from the 2015 season (photo by Sherri VandenAkker).

The following season, he and Mrs. B. lost nests at several different locations and fledged no offspring.

Last spring, Bandito again returned to his favorite nesting site in Eastham. But there was no female to be had. He even zipped over to First Encounter Beach to look for a mate and later over to Crosby Landing in Brewster where, from what we could tell, he actually managed to woo somebody back to Eastham. But the new bird did not stay and Bandito’s summer was a shut-out.

So, on April 9th of this year when our colleague Joel Wagner discovered El Bandito back at his favorite beach for a sixth year, our hopes were revived. The season was starting off right, we thought.

Bandito returns to Eastham April 9, 2018 (Photo by Joel Wagner)

But as April progressed, visit after visit to Bandito’s beach produced increasing reports of “few tracks, no bird seen”. By May it was clear Bandito had vanished.

Over time, Bandito, like any banded bird, has provided information about his longevity, breeding success, challenges, and behaviors. But now he’s left us with only questions. What the heck happened this year? Did the Snowy Owl who lingered on his beach in April snack on him? Did he decide that his beloved nesting site had eroded too much over the winter?

Bandito won our hearts with his bravado and tenacious fatherhood and he helped lighten the inevitable disappointments of a field season. This spring, many of our plover nests have been eaten by crows– some nests just days before their scheduled hatch dates. We also discovered a group of beachgoers had broken through our protective fencing and signs and built a bonfire next to a plover nest only hours away from hatching (amazingly, it survived!). These unpleasant events are common in a coastal waterbird season, but Bandito–even when he wasn’t having a great year–could always make us smile.

We know odds are that Bandito is gone for good. So it was bittersweet when our field technician Briana Pascarelli recently found a one-egg nest at his beach. It belonged to a pair that did not include our banded bird. But if the nest hatches and produces chicks, it will raise our spirits. And Bandito will have provided one more insight into what Piping Plovers are facing out there.

New nest at Bandito’s beach. Fingers crossed! (Photo by Briana Pascarelli).