Archive for March, 2009

Stalking Long Shadows of T. Rex in Brainard Marsh

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009


Hazy Rumors of T. Rex Sightings on South Coast

Turtle Journal turns down no challenge, retreats from no obstacle, avoids no risk to life or reputation, in order to gather documentary evidence of natural or even supernatural phenomena for its loyal readers.  So, with the same aplomb with which we approach terrapin hatchlings, we launched an expedition to the South Coast of Massachusetts to pursue hazy rumors of creatures descendent from Tyrannosaurus rex roaming loose within Brainard Salt Marsh.

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Stalking Shadow of T. Rex through Brainard Marsh

We won’t reveal our source, but Turtle Journal recovered shadowy footage of Tyrannosaurus rex-like creatures prowling the dense woodlands surrounding a freshwater pond within Brainard Marsh, a protected sanctuary of the Sippican Lands Trust.  It’s been said that a daring photographer discovered these shadowy predators some time ago, began tracking them stealthily, then found himself their prey as the critters began stalking him in coordinated motions reminiscent of Jurassic Park velociraptors.  We make no claim one way or the other, and let the footage speak for itself.


Tyrannosaurus rex Descendents at Brainnard Marsh Pond

The Turtle Journal team visits the Brainard Marsh pond each year in early spring to check on its spotted turtle population.  This year we came forewarned and equipped to document rumors of T rex-like critters that had moved into Brainard Marsh.  As we approached the pond, we spotted two-legged creatures clearly descendent from the Tyrannosaurus rex lineage.  In fact, if we accept the endorsement of Ben Franklin, we might still label these animals T. rex; that is, king turkey!


“King Turkey” –  Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo)

According to National Geographic, How Dinosaurs Morphed to Turkeys, “Turkeys are descended from predatory dinosaurs called theropods … The T. Rex dinosaur was actually a giant turkey – a new study of ancient proteins retrieved from a Tyrannosaurus rex fossil have confirmed that birds are the closest living relatives to dinosaurs.


One of a Rafter of Turkeys Taking Refuge in Brainard Marsh

Whether a small modern dinosaur or a large historic bird, the wild turkey is a truly noble animal.  Turtle Journal agrees with Ben Franklin that the turkey is an American original whose restoration into the habitat of Southern Massachusetts enriches Nature and our lives.  Watching a rafter of turkeys move smoothly and covertly through background thickets creates a singularly profound moment of renewal.


Nesting Osprey in Brainard Marsh

Leaving the turkeys to the solitude of the pond, we strolled further down the path toward the estuary and walked passed an osprey sitting on its nest at the edge of the salt marsh.


Seals Basking in Estuary off Brainard Marsh

Looking to the east, we encountered a pod of seals lazing on exposed rocks in the estuary off Brainard Marsh.  During a fifteen minute stop to check for the emergence of spotted turtles, we had compiled quite a collection of exotic sightings.  Now, if the weather would simply warm up enough for turtles to emerge from brumation, we could focus on the journal’s principal focus.  But in the mean time, we’ll enjoy whatever Nature allows.


Cape Cod Times “CapeCast: Pilot Whale Graveyard”

Thursday, March 26th, 2009
CapeCast: Pilot Whate Graveyard
Today on CapeCast:  “We head out on an epic adventure to learn all about a mysterious whale skull that was found on Lieutenant Island in Wellfleet.  See the video of a possibly fossilized whale skull exhumed from a Wellfleet beach, and decide for yourself.  Could it be thousands of years old?
Pilot Whale Graveyard
For earlier Turtle Journal reporting on this discovery, see Discovery of Historic Pilot Whale Bones Hints at Cape Cod’s Past.
Pilot Whale Skull

Behind the Scenes of the CapeCast Report on the Pilot Whale Graveyard

Thursday, March 26th, 2009


Eric Williams and Jason Kolnos (CapeCast) with Don Lewis

Eric Williams and Jason Kolnos, the energetic team behind the success of the Cape Cod Times CapeCast feature, visited the western shore of Lieutenant Island on Wednesday, March 25th, to investigate the mystery of the “Pilot Whale Graveyard.”  Their smooth and professional broadcast is presented in the Turtle Journal posting above or can be viewed in high quality YouTube by clicking on “Pilot Whale Graveyard.”


Jason and Eric Plan Shoot with Don (Center)

But smart people know that a “smooth and professional” shoot takes detailed planning, tons of technical skill and a heckuva lot of plain hard work to make the untidy complexity of scientific exploration in the messy setting of uncontrolled field conditions appear seamless, fun and easy.  That’s the hallmark of true professionals like Eric and Jason.


Getting Perfect Angle and Best Sunlight and Shading

Every shot needs to be thought through to present the best, most informative image to the viewer.  Brilliant sunshine and long shadows can be your friend or your foe, depending on your preparedness.  Like chess, you need to be thinking five and six moves out rather than photographing a “come as you are party.”


Nature Cooperates with Near Perfect Photographic Conditions

Lighting conditions on Wednesday could not have been more beautiful.  We reached the site a little after two thirty and had excavated the skull after an hour’s heavy lifting.  So, by the time we reached the money shot, long afternoon shadows were pouring in from the bay, creating dramatic images to spotlight the moment.


Jason Kolnos Records Background Audio for Video Voice Over

The most challenging technical aspect of the shoot was audio.  Wind whistled down the beach and deafened sounds more than a foot or two from the microphone.  Jason recognized the problem from the outset and recorded audio to voice over the action shots.  That’s just one example of professional planning that transformed the final product into a smooth, seamless, high quality broadcast.

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Behind the Scenes Glimpse of CapeCast Report

Watching the raw footage filmed by Turtle Journal cameras from behind the scenes gives you an even more palpable sense of the professional magic brought to the shoot by the CapeCast team.  Kudos to Eric Williams and Jason Kolnos of the Cape Cod Times.

Experimental Oyster Reef off Lieutenant Island Survives a Long, Hard Winter

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009


Oyster Reef off Lieutenant Island Survives Long, Harsh Winter

Turtle Journal returned to the oyster reef restoration project off Lieutenant Island in Wellfleet Bay a few days before the Vernal Equinox.  This project is spearheaded by Mass Audubon‘s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary under the leadership of its director, Bob Prescott, in collaboration with federal, state and town partners.  While oyster reefs formed a key element of Wellfleet’s historic natural coastal ecosystem as documented by early European explorers, this critical habitat had been eliminated from Wellfleet Bay in modern times.  Experimenting with methods to recreate oyster reefs within the Outer Cape ecosystem will offer coastal communities options to restore a key underpinning to their traditional harbor and estuarine ecologies.

Our Turtle Journal assessment: the rudimentary reef structure emplaced  last August survived an extremely challenging winter quite well.

Flashback to Fall 2008

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Flashback:  Oyster Reef in Early Fall 2008

Last September Turtle Journal cameras probed underwater to capture the experimental reef after its first couple of months.  These images provide a good baseline against which to judge its current condition.

In a September 23rd, 2008 posting on the Wellfleet Bay Natural History Blog, Bob Prescott explains why’s and wherefore’s of oyster reef restoration.

Why oyster restoration? It’s not just because they taste great and are increasingly rare in the wild.

Oyster reefs–that’s what a mass of oysters growing together is called. It is a huge complex structure that is home to many, many species of marine invertebrates and fish, both adults as a feeding area and juveniles to hide in. That habitat is almost completely gone from Wellfleet Harbor.

The ecological services that a reef provides are missing from the harbor ecosystem. Oysters help keep the water clean by pumping 60 gallons of water over their gills every day. Also, they lock up nitrates that are overwhelming the coastal system’s ability to absorb.

We talk about conservation and restoration, right down to the waters edge, but what about all those habitats that we have lost because we overfished them? When an oyster reef is overfished, the shell, the structure itself ceases to exist. No more habitat.

For me, it is about protecting all the habitats that make up this sanctuary and restoring those that are missing or in decline. The oyster reef is one example of a key coastal habitat that needs our help.

In August we began the construction of the new reef near Lieutenant Island in Wellfleet Bay.

A later blog entry on November 1st, 2008 explained “How To Build An Oyster Reef.”

Flashback to Winter 2008/2009

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Wellfleet Bay Ice Bound, Winter 2008/2009

The winter of 2008/2009 proved quite long and harsh for the Great White North.  Record snow pelted Cape Cod and ice floes clogged Wellfleet Bay, completely enveloping the new oyster reef.  As brief thaws set in, massive ice sheets weighing in the tons were dragged across the reef like ploughs.  Bright yellow marker buoys from last summer were torn from their moorings, and we feared that the reef itself might have been ripped apart.


Ice Covered Oyster Reef in February

(Courtesy of Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary)

Bob Prescott and his team documented ice cover over the oyster reef in early February.  If you look closely at the top left of the ice pack, you may spot a juvenile seal basking in the winter sun (see close-up below).


Close-Up of Seal on Ice Pack off Lieutenant Island

(Courtesy of Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary)

Back to the Present

On Saint Patrick’s Day, the Turtle Journal team waded out to the oyster reef at low tide.  As seen in the image at the top of this post, the reef structure survived the long, harsh winter quite well.  When Don reached the reef, he frightened away a chubby seagull that had been plucking young, juicy shellfish from the substrate and slurping down their contents. 

oyster-reef-21-mar-09-004-840  oyster-reef-21-mar-09-003-840 

Young Oysters Survive Harsh Winter on Oyster Reef

The surf clam substrate still holds a nice set of spat and young oysters.  Bob’s crack team of oyster researchers will visit the reef shortly to conduct a scientific assessment of the density of  shellfish to compare against the data they documented in the fall.  They will also begin installing various additional substrates to determine the best structure on which oysters might best accumulate into a viable, self-sustaining reef within the harsh conditions of the Outer Cape.

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Life Returns to the Oyster Reef

The water is still pretty cold in the inter-tidal zone off Lieutenant Island.  So, life is returning slowly as the sun climbs higher into the sky each day.  Periwinkles and mud snails are moving about now, and pesky, invasive Asian shores crabs have been active all winter under rock fields in front of the western seawall.  But we were lucky this day to discover a lonely hermit crab strolling along the edge of the reef as an early sign of spring.  Only yesterday, March 24th, snow flurries driven by a fierce northeast gale assaulted the Outer Cape.  In the Great White North, spring comes slow and hard, and must fight its way onto the calendar.

For more detailed information on oyster reef restoration, you may follow the project on the Wellfleet Bay Natural History Blog.

Severely Cold-Stunned Terrapin Rescued from Wellfleet’s Chipman’s Cove on Saint Patrick’s Day

Monday, March 23rd, 2009


Female Diamondback Terrapin #2074

Andy Koch, the Town of Wellfleet shellfish warden, rescued a severely cold-stunned diamondback terrapin from Chipman’s Cove during the low tide of Saint Patrick’s Day.  This mature female turtle had been unearthed from her winter hibernaculum and had become exposed to frigid nighttime conditions on the Outer Cape.  Andy called Mass Audubon‘s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary to report the find and graciously offered to transport the critically injured animal to the sanctuary for treatment and rehabilitation.  You may recall that another frozen female terrapin had been rescued from Chipman’s Cove in late February (see Frozen Diamondback Terrapin Rescued from Near Certain Death in Wellfleet Harbor).  This turtle, #2102, is fully recovered and waiting impatiently to be released once waters in Wellfleet reach 55 degrees F.


Burst Blood Vessels from Freezing

Even a cursory examination of her condition indicated that her greatest exposure to freezing conditions had involved her head and forelimbs.  Several times in the spring when Don has observed terrapins emerging from brumation (reptilian hibernation), he has spotted them still partially buried with head and forelimbs exposed, as though they had burrowed into the mud tail down and head up.  In this turtle’s case, she exhibited fresh bleeding from both eyes and her mouth.


Eyes Still Show Effects of Burst Vessels

Later, after she was cleaned and gradually warmed, her eyes still showed the effects of burst blood vessels, presumably from the freezing cold.  Also, she began to exhibit signs of earlier subcutaneous bleeding in her forelimbs, indicating that they too had been exposed to freezing conditions.  We worry about the bleeding in the eyes because in several previous cases, it has been an indicator of some sort of brain damage that prevented the animal’s full recovery.  In these cases, the turtles were unable to navigate when released into the  wild.  They would either move endlessly in circles or later be found back on shore motionless in the spot where they had been released.

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Examination of Cold-Stunned Turtle After 72 Hours of Rehab

72-hours into her rehab, she is moving slowly, but independently, and she is tracking light and movement.  Obviously, you can see from the video clip that this severely injured animal has a long way to go.  But she’s a reptile and reptiles are extremely resilient critters.


Nesting Trek for Diamondback Terrapin #2074

We were able to identify this mature female as a previously captured and marked terrapin.  Wheaton College interns had originally found, measured and marked #2074 on June 27th, 2005 on a nesting run at Anawan Road off the Fox Island Wildlife Management Area to the south.  To reach this nesting location from her brumation site, #2074 would have had to make a one-way 4.5 mile trek.  Since Wellfleet terrapins generally nest twice annually, separated by an average of 17 days between clutches, and since they generally return to the mating aggregation in Chipman’s Cove between nesting runs, #2074 would have made this 4.5 mile trek four times a year.

In 2005, #2074 measured 18.1 cm straight-line carapace length, weighed 1041 grams with eggs, and was assessed as 10 years old.  On March 17th, 2009 she had grown to 19.0 cm carapace length and weighed 1231 grams without eggs.  Obviously, she still sported the same split 5th vertebral with three scutes (see photograph at beginning of post), a nice anomaly that helps to confirm her identification.