Archive for November, 2008

Another Ocean Sunfish Washes Ashore on Cape Cod

Friday, November 21st, 2008

Stranded Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola)

When autumn winds churn Cape Cod Bay each November, that seemingly placid sea broils in angry froth and surrenders cherished secrets along its high tide wrackline.  This year has been no exception, and in fact has offered more than its annual share of ocean treasures.  From a large blue shark to electric torpedo rays, interesting critters have dotted bayside beaches from Provincetown to Bourne.  Large ocean sunfish (Mola mola) joined the castaways as reported in Turtle Journal on November 1st [Exotic Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola)] and November 12th [Two Giant Ocean Sunfish Wash Up on Cape Cod Beaches].  The team confirmed the stranding of yet another sunfish on Thursday at Boathouse Beach on South Wellfleet’s Lieutenant Island.

Ocean Sunfish on Boathouse Beach, Lieutenant Island

Lieutenant Island’s north facing beach takes a beating each fall and winter as prevailing north and northwest winds pound the shoreline.  So, any research visit to Wellfleet includes a quick survey of this area.  As we crossed the footpath by the boathouse, a good-sized ocean sunfish occupied the spot where family bathers congregate each summer.  The rising tide lapped a few feet below the carcass, preparing to reclaim this secret on the next cycle.  We plan a revisit on Friday’s low tide to attempt a necropsy to determine … if we can … the cause of death of this fourth large ocean sunfish we have encountered in November.  Hopefully, the sea will cooperate.

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Stranded Ocean Sunfish 

We took some general, preliminary measurements in case the bay decides to permanently retrieve its treasure.  We made the mistake of not doing so at the Shirttail Point ocean sunfish early this month because its necropsy had been scheduled for the next day.  Spring tides reclaimed that animal before the scientific team could reach it.  We won’t make that mistake a second time.

Skin Discoloration Suggests Older Carcass

This Lieutenant Island ocean sunfish measured 6 feet 1.5 inches from the tip of its snout to the trailing edge of its caudil fin.  It measured 7 feet 4 inches from the bottom of its anal fin to the top of its dorsal fin.  As you can see from the photograph above, its skin shows discoloration and cellular breakdown hinting that the carcass has been bouncing around the bay for some time.  We’ll know with more certainty after Friday’s necropsy.

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Sunset Sea Turtle Patrol

The wind backed to the west for Thursday night’s sea turtle patrols, still whistling in at over 15 knots.  A few sea turtles had come in during the day scattered from one surprising ridley at Ballston Beach in Truro on the ocean side to another Kemp’s ridley at Linnell Landing in Brewster.  A green sea turtle also appeared, unusually encrusted with barnacles and algae; the greens we find each fall are normally pristinely clean as though they had just emerged from a car wash.  While the Turtle Journal team found no sea turtles on our legs of the patrol from Great Island in Wellfleet to Ryder Beach in Truro, the stunning, unspoiled beauty of a Cape Cod sunset unlittered by sights of human civilization creates a balanced serenity in an otherwise unruly, frayed and jaded world.

Tiny Kemp’s Ridley Rescued in Freezing Conditions

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle @ Linnell Landing, Brewster

She may not have been the smallest Kemp’s ridley sea turtle we’ve ever rescued from Cape Cod Bay.  Don seems to remember a 1200-gram ridley from early in the 1999 mass standing season.  But at 8.5 inches straight-line length (nuchal to notch) and 1470 grams mass, this seriously cold-stunned sea turtle surely fell in the lowest 1 percentile size class.  With that size and the razor sharp points along her vertebral keel, we assessed her as a very young ridley.  She proved a great find for the Turtle Journal team as we patrolled Brewster (Cape Cod) beaches on Wednesday afternoon.

(ASIDE:  No, we don’t know that this turtle is a female, but we can be hopeful and “she” reads better than “it.”)

Brewster Coastline from Breakwater (left) to Crosby (right)

Howling winds persisted on the Cape, shifting to north-northwest at 25 to 30 knots.  Temperatures had dropped so fast that moisture had rapidily precipitated from super chilled clouds, producing our first snowfall of the season.  Perfect sea turtle stranding conditions on Cape Cod!  As we described previously (Leapfrogging Sea Turtle Patrol Yields Surprise), the wind vector indicated a center point for the stranding search along the northeast-facing Brewster coastline.  We decided to begin our patrol at Breakwater Beach (left edge of Google photo) and leapfrog to Point of Rocks, Ellis, Linnell and end at Crosby Beach (right of photo), a little over three miles to the east.  The trick to survive these brutal conditions (for the two-legged mammals, that is) is to keep the wind at your back or over your shoulder as you search the beach.

Tiny Kemp’s Ridley Tossed on the Beach by a Rising Tide

The sun flashed in and out of clouds as wind flung them across the sky as easily as the crashing waves tossed debris on the beach.  Aided by the blow, the rising tide forced us to dance across seawalls and zigzag through sand fencing as we were pinned to the dunes by breakers.  And, yes, we did get a bit wet, mostly from spray but also when we were trapped by a few overly aggressive waves.

With nothing to show for 2.9 miles of the 3 mile trek, we were torn between elation to get back in the warm car and disappointment in not finding a cold-stunned turtle to rescue.  But those feelings turned around in an adrenaline rush as Don spotted a dark oval shape thrown onto the white foamy beach about a 100 yards ahead.  It had all the right characteristics of shape and color, but it was awfully small.  Waves began to circle and retrieve the object in the rising tide, so he sprinted and caught the turtle as water started to drag it back into the surf.

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Kemp’s Ridley Beach Rescue and Field Assessment

Kemp’s ridleys are critically endangered sea turtles.  Each fall a large number of juvenile ridleys in the two to four year age cohorts get trapped in hook of Cape Cod by fall’s dropping temperatures and become cold-stunned in the bay.  Once water temperature drops below 50 degrees, they become helpless and are at the mercy of wind and tides for movement.  Eventually, the prevailing autumn westerly gales blow these turtles onto a high tide beach along the inner, bayside beaches.  The earlier in the season those strandings occur, the higher the percentage of animals that we can save.  This year has been calm and mild, delaying the stranding and jeopardizing turtle lives.  But that all changed the last few days, and especially on Wednesday.

Measuring 8.5 Inches and Weighing 1470 Grams

Once at the car, we did a quick field assessment.  The first procedure to check is whether you can get a reaction from the animal to indicate that it is still alive.  One thing that we have learned through the decades of cold-stunned rescues is that it is nearly impossible to determine for sure … absent rigor mortis … whether a sea turtle, beating its heart once a minute, is alive or dead.  But it helps to know for sure that you have a live animal, at least for the human spirit, anyway.  This little turtle was not in rigor, and showed some eyelid reaction and muscle movement in the front flippers.

Cold-Stunned Kemp’s Ridley with Algae Buildup on Plastron

You can see from the plastron (bottom/ventral surface) that algae has accumulated during the turtle’s period of stupor.  Also, the reddish skin near the posterior flippers indicates blood pooling from reduced circulatory flow while its heart rate has been so slow.

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First Stop to Recovery: Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

First stop on her journey to recovery is Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, turtle rescue central on Cape Cod.  The turtle will undergo triage at the sanctuary and will be stabilized in a “cold room” while transport is arranged to Boston.  At the New England Aquarium, the turtle will receive emergency medical care and will undergo rehabilitation.  The reason for the “cold room” is that these animals must not be allowed to warm up too quickly.  Protocol calls for about five degrees a day.  That’s why, once we have rescued a sea turtle from the beach, we turn off the heat in our cars, crack the windows and shiver all the way to the sanctuary. 

Kemp’s Ridley Rescue from Linnell Landing

Sea turtle patrols will continue so long as the winds sustain.  Twice a day, at each high tide, a small army of layered and bundled volunteers will patrol beaches in search of cold-stunned sea turtles.  If they are as lucky as the Turtle Journal team was on Wednesday, they too will return to their cars with a precious handful of life.

More Torpedo Rays Jolt Cape Cod

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008


Large Torpedo Ray on Wellfleet Bayside Beach

Turtle Journal learned today of the sixth and seventh torpedo ray sightings of the fall season.  You may recall that we had reported previously about Shocking Discovery! Torpedo Ray in Wellfleet Bay, Torpedoes Los!, and More Torpedo Rays Raise More Questions.  Today’s reports add to the mystery of torpedo ray strandings on bayside beaches this season.  The “old boys network” says that a couple or three torpedo rays a season may have been the most documented by observant naturalists in other years, and many seasons saw no torpedo rays at all.  There’s always the possibility that greater awareness of this cool critter has prompted more consolidated reporting.  Whatever the cause, Turtle Journal hopes to document this season so that successor naturalists will have a base line against which to judge their findings.

Bob Prescott, Don Lewis & Kemp’s Ridley at Tip of Great Island (1999)

The National Park Service plays a key role in our sea turtle rescue operations each fall season.  The long, long stretch of bayside beach from Pamet River to the tip of Great Island proves very difficult to patrol by foot at every high tide.  Miles and miles of sandy beach with no public roadways to leapfrog out to the distant tip of Jeremy Point.  Several Novembers ago, Bob Prescott (Wellfleet Sanctuary director) and I returned from a long, cold Brewster beach patrol at 10:30 pm to find a blinking light on the Sanctuary turtle line.  “We just got back from a beach walk out to Jeremy Point,” an anonymous voice relayed, “where we found a stranded sea turtle.  We didn’t disturb it.  Left it on the beach.  It was alive when we left.”  Just what we wanted to hear so late at night with freezing rain, howling winds and plunging temperatures.  We sped to the parking lot on Griffin Island and hiked the three miles out (wind at our backs) and three miles back (sleet in our faces) with a small Kemp’s ridley tucked under my overcoat.

Torpedo Ray Found North of Great Island by NPS

Now NPS rangers graciously patrol the bayside beaches all the way down Great Island in search of cold-stunned sea turtles.  When they find stranded turtles, the rangers deliver them to Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary for triage and stabilization before the turtles are driven by volunteers to the New England Aquarium for medical care and rehabilitation.  But it all starts with the turtle “EMTs” who rescue them off the beaches and thanks to the National Park Service the long, lonely stretch from Griffin Island to Jeremy Point is no longer a “sea turtle dead zone” during stranding season.

Torpedo Ray with Superimposed 2-Foot Measuring Stick

Today, Ranger Kelly patrolled that lonesome stretch and discoverd a freshly beached torpedo ray south of Bound Brook (yes, the Bound Brook of American toad fame) in north Wellfleet.  He called the 24/7 Turtle Journal hotline (508-274-5108) to alert us to the discovery, and our team will dispatch to the site tomorrow to obtain scientific measurements.  For general reference, we’ve inserted a 24-inch bar into the photograph above to hint at the large size of this electric ray.  We thank Ranger Kelly and the NPS for the three photographs of the torpedo ray for tonight’s post.


Senior Mass Audubon Naturalist Dennis Murley

Dennis Murley of Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary coordinates beach searches for cold-stunned sea turtles during the fall.  We called him after our talk with Ranger Kelly to alert him that his patrols might encounter the torpedo ray and that we would be returning to the animal on Wednesday to take measurements and to investigate possible causes of its demise.  Dennis told us that he had rescued a trapped torpedo ray in North Truro last week.  A lifelong Cape Codder, Dennis exclaimed, “The biggest darn torpedo ray I’ve ever seen.”  He said the ray had been trapped by a falling tide and Dennis was able to drag it to open water where he saw it swim away.  Because of the location and the timing, there is a possibility that the ranger’s find (torpedo ray #6) and the ray that Dennis rescued (torpedy ray #7) are one and the same.  We’ll know more after we examine it on Wednesday.

(ASIDE:  Are we the only ones who are left wondering about Dennis, who is widely known for walking barefoot year around, and his encounter with the live, 220-volt electrically charged torpedo ray?  That’s what we call a natural, non-habit forming stimulant!)

Leapfrogging Sea Turtle Patrol Yields Surprise

Monday, November 17th, 2008

Saving the World One Toad at a Time

Winds howled across the bay Saturday into Sunday, blowing first at 30 knots from the south southwest and then 25 knots from the west southwest.  Air and water temperatures still lingered too close to 50 for any real expectation of cold-stunned sea turtle strandings, but with a high tide at 1:30 pm on Sunday, the temptation was too great to resist for a beach patrol.  Something like a road trip … only without the road, and without the trip, too.

Cape Cod Bay: Place a Pin in the Center

To plan where to focus your search, you need to understand that cold-stunned sea turtles are helplessly in stupor, and are tossed about like flotsam and jetsam.  Look at the map above and place a compass or a pin in the center.  Plot the reciprocal direction of the wind and use where it hits the coastline as the mid-point for your search.  So, with winds out of the west southwest, the Turtle Journal team leapfrogged from Bound Brook in north Wellfleet through Ryder Beach in south Truro to Fisher Beach and the Pamet River. 

Leapfrogged?  Yes, leapfrogged.  When patrolling high tide beaches for sea turtles, you’re out in the worst (or best, depending on your perspective) wind conditions and often the worst weather conditions with freezing rain or icy snow pelting the ground and everything and everybody between sky and ground.  The best approach is always to walk with your back to the wind.  Easier said than done?  Not if you leapfrog.  With a single vehicle and two sets of keys, someone is dropped at the first beach and walks with back to the wind.  The second person drives to the next beach, usually about two miles away, leaves the vehicle and begins walking with back to wind to the next beach.  The first person picks up the car and leapfrogs, and the process continues until the end of the patrol.

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Sea Turtle Patrol at High Tide on Ryder Beach, Truro

It was sensational … in the literal meaning of the word.  Screeching winds, crashing waves, rumbling breakers overwhelmed hearing.  Blistering sand and ricocheting spray assaulted unprotected skin.  Sunny warmth battled with chilly gusts.  Brilliant blues, blinding whites competed with darkening clouds and then premature sunset.  It was an afternoon that defied description and won.

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Cold-Stunned American Toad on Bound Brook Dunes

While the beauty of the afternoon exceeded expectation, the lack of sea turtles met expectations.  Still, leapfrogging must have given us an edge to find another cold-stunned critter in the dunes between the parking lot at Bound Brook and the beach.  Movement caught Sue’s eye as she climbed the dune and she spotted an animal in a depression that had been filled with water by the weekend rains, but was now only damp.  She approached and found a toad that was clearly having difficulties in the cold blast.

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Examining Cold-Stunnded American Toad (Bufo americanus)

Although rare, we would have expected to find perhaps a spadefoot toad or a Fowler’s toad in this dune habitat.  Yet, the specimen appeared for all the world to be an American toad (Bufo americanus).  Oh, well.  That will teach us to leapfrog!

American Toad (Bufo americanus) Weighs 246 Grams

We examined the animal in detail on the beach, and perhaps because we had no turtles to bedevil, we recorded weight and measurements.

American Toad on Freezing Cape Cod Beach at Sunset

The sun had fallen low on the horizon when we encountered this toad and temperatures were dropping faster than the Dow Jones Index on Wall Street.  Its behavior was unusual and it wasn’t responding well to the deepening cold.  So, we filled a bucket with sand and brought it to the Turtle Journal lab for a couple of days of rest, recuperation and warmth.  This critter may not be a turtle, but if you don’t have one around, perhaps you can save the world with a toad in a pinch.

Snappy, Houdini and Van Gogh @ Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

Follow the “Yellow Leaf Road” to Wellfleet Bay

If you follow the Yellow Leaf Road off Route 6 in Wellfleet, you’ll discover more than a thousand acres of pristine beauty, preserving natural Cape Cod habitats and vistas, and saving the native wildlife of Massachusetts for generations unborn.  The entrance to this peaceful refuge, Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, lies just off the main highway.  While its rustic trails, many handicap accessible, offer peeks at unspoiled nature in the raw, don’t miss the magical world that resides inside the sanctuary’s new nature center with a cast of incredible creatures that mystify and delight.  We’ve never seen a kid whether three or one hundred three walk away from these exhibits without a broad smile and a look of wonder. 

Director Bob Prescott Examines Cold-Stunned Sea Turtle

There’s always something extraordinary happening around the corner.  First-ever restoration of an oyster reef ecosystem on Cape Cod, conservation of  a rapidly disappearing native heathland, research to save the ancient and noble horseshoe crab, satellite tracking of osprey journeys, study of sudden salt-marsh die-off on the Outer Cape, educating the next generation of young naturalists, and this month, rescuing the world’s most endangered sea turtles from certain hyptothermic death on Cape Cod beaches (see First Cold-Stunned Sea Turtle of 2008 Rescued). 

What’s next to discover?  Walk around the bend and see.

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“Snappy” Twice as Large and Four Times the Attitude

If you read Turtle Journal, then you’ve met Snappy already (see Meet “Snappy” at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary).  When the Turtle Journal team visited East Fairhaven Elementary School on Wednesday to “talk turtle” to fifth graders, a group of boys serenaded us with a rap song featuring … you guessed it … Snappy, whom they had met on the web site.

When we visited the Nature Center on Friday, we noticed that Snappy had doubled in size and quadrupled in personality since late September.  We also heard a rumor that Snappy has been “stepping out” on the Sanctuary staff.  The word is that the juvenile snapper disappeared sometime last weekend.  Staff assumed that someone had taken Snappy “for a walk” to a local school for an educational program and he’d soon return.  By Thursday, concern rose and flashlights came out to search for the AWOL snapping turtle.  He was found hiding in a corner of the wet lab, a bit dusty but no worse for wear. 

By the time we saw him on Friday, Snappy had resumed his King of the World attitude and was plotting his next escape.  So, boys and girls, look carefully in the corner of your rooms before bedtime.  That scratching sound may not be the wind blowing the drapes, but the Return of Snappy!

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“Houdini” and the Squirrel Proof Bird Feeder

The Nature Center at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary offers exciting outdoor adventures without the nasty side effects of actually being outdoors.  No, we don’t mean that virtual magic that you get by reading Turtle Journal.  There’s a corner of the center dedicated to quiet observation and reflection … with large picture windows and open vistas of the gorgeous salt marsh beyond and protected bird feeders immediately outside.  We’ve watched visitors spend a hugely satisfying winter day, just sitting by those windows with a book in hand while gazing occasionally at the exquisite beauty within arm’s reach.  And no one has ever watched a winter sunset over Try Island from this vantage without being transformed by the experience.  We even enjoy watching snow showers blow in from the bay to blanket the surroundings in fluffy whiteness.

Friday, we dwelled a moment ourselves in quiet meditation until we burst into raucous laughter at the antics of Houdini.  Cape Codders pride themselves on creating perfect squirrel proof bird feeders … that are never squirrel proof.  Yet, the quest continues.  Houdini, for sure that must be his name; Houdini climbed the center pole and pondered, much like humans on the other side of the glass, which of the three squirrel proof feeders offered the best chance of a good meal.  He decided and sprung into action.

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“Van Gogh” Paints the Tank Red … and Yellow, Too

Finally, on the way out we stopped by the fresh water tank again for a last glimpse of Snappy before he disappeared once more for a weekend adventure.  Instead, we caught sight of Vincent Van Gogh, a juvenile painted turtle, who transformed the tank into museum art with his deep reds and bright yellows.

The Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary has much to offer any time of the year.  A rainy day?  What could be more satisfying than spending time with nature inside a wonderfully designed platinum green building and entertained by the coolest personalities that nature has designed.