Archive for October, 2009

Wellfleet Bay Offers Outer Cape Adventure of Rescue and Discovery

Saturday, October 17th, 2009

Recover Endangered Sea Turtles & Marine

Megafauna from Storm Tossed Beaches

Sunset Beach

Fall Weather Front Passes Cape Cod Beach at Sunset

Fall brings dramatic change to Cape Cod.  Not just foliage, but the whole fabric of seaside life transforms from easy summer to harsh winter.  Westerly winds howl across the bay and blow gentle wavelets into rumbling breakers that reshape beaches and deposit ocean treasure in the wrack line.  Buried among seaweed, flotsam and jetsam are adventure and discovery in the form of ocean creatures that are tossed ashore to succumb in these fierce conditions.  Thanks to beach patrols launched by Mass Audubon‘s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary over the past 20 years more than a thousand of the most endangered sea turtles in the world have been rescued from these impossible circumstances and restored back to the wild.  Countless marine mammals, ocean fishes and other sea critters have been recovered, and amazing discoveries have been chronicled in nature magazines and scientific journals.


Tiny Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle Rescued in November 2008

On the weekend of November 13th to 15th, Mass Audubon invites a few adventurous individuals to join its crack team of rescuers.  (Click here for pdf narrative and schedule.) From Friday to Sunday afternoon, teams will scour beaches from Provincetown to Dennis in search of distressed animals.  In between high tide patrols, participants will take a bayside cruise to Billingsgate Shoal to investigate grey seal populations, as well as overwintering seabirds and sea ducks.  Experts will reveal secrets of marine biology and ecology in seminar settings and one-on-one lab work, and still have time to join participants for quiet dinner conversation about the future of the world’s oceans and their most precious species.

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Sea Turtle Patrol Discovers Storm Tossed Seal

Still, the most extraordinary adventures come with nighttime high tides.  In crisp November skies, stars hang like Christmas ornaments suspended in a shimmering, Milky garland hung across the constellations from Sagittarius in the south to Cassiopeia in the north.  Footsteps fall silently in the soft, moist sand.  The only sound comes from pounding surf that explodes in your path as an 11-foot flood tide recedes to reveal the secrets it left behind in the seaweed strewn wrack.  The beam of your flashlight arcs from dune to sea and back again, searching for mysterious shapes in dark shadows.

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Upside Down Kemp’s Ridely Rescued from Cape Cod Beach

You never know what the night may present.  Perhaps a cold-stunned Kemp’s ridley sea turtle that has been tossed onto the beach by a northwesterly gale.  Recovering this semi-tropical animal from the cold darkness before hypothermia sets in overnight will make the difference between life and death for this turtle and may make the difference between survival and extinction for this critically endangered species.

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Seven Foot Ocean Sunfish

Around another bend might lurk a giant ocean sunfish trapped on the flats by a receding tide.  This bizarre looking creature represents the largest bony fish in the ocean and can be found on Cape Cod beaches each fall.


Electric Torpedo Ray Found by Sea Turtle Patrol on Wellfleet Beach

For an electrifying experience, don’t discount a large torpedo ray that stuns its prey with 220 volt charge.  Ouch!  Last year brought nearly a dozen torpedo rays onto bayside beaches from Truro to Sandwich.

Nature, especially on the Outer Cape, offers no guarantee of weather or animals.  Stranding events are driven by prolonged wind conditions, specific water temperatures and tidal flows.  The 13th through 15th of November were chosen because historically this period has been extremely active.  But no matter what has been found in the past, what is absolutely guaranteed to greet you around the next bend in the shoreline is the adventure and the challenge of the unknown.

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November Sunset Sea Turtle Patrol

The bottom line is that the Ides of November offer a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the adventurer deep inside you; the one who remembers so fondly those great moments of summers past and who finds the walls of boardroom, classroom, operating room, living room, corner office or cubicle a bit too claustrophobic to endure the whole, long winter without a refreshing breath of cutting edge discovery.  Welcome to a weekend unlike anything you have ever experienced.  Welcome to the Marine Animal Stranding Weekend.

For more information about this exceptional opportunity, contact Melissa Lowe ( at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary at 508-349-2615.  For a virtual preview of some of the experiences that may greet you, click on Turtle Journal and enjoy the postings from November 2008.

A Siege of Herons Occupies Blackfish Creek Marsh

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

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Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)

This week seems to be dedicated to learning unusual collective names for birds.  Yesterday we dealt with a murder of crows and today we’re documenting a siege of herons that has occupied the salt marshes of Blackfish Creek in South Wellfleet.

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Blue Heron (Modern Pterodactyl) Takes Flight

During warm summer days we glory in sighting an isolated great blue heron as it works the marsh channels around Lieutenant Island.  Our greatest pleasure comes when a heron takes flight in surprise and voices a gravelly “kraak” as it rises about the tall swaying grass.  To us, they resemble a prehistoric pterodactyl as they battle on-shore breezes.

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Siege of Great Blue Herons in Fox Island WMA

As fall sets in and bright green marsh grasses mellow into tans and browns, herons gather into goodly sized groups.  We spied more than a dozen foraging through the marsh channels of the Fox Island Wildlife Management Area (WMA) between Indian Neck and Paine Hollow in South Wellfleet.

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Photo Quiz:  Can You Find the Eight Herons?

The first Turtle Journal quiz, sadly with no prize to offer other than personal satisfaction, asks, “Can you find the eight great blue herons in the above image?”  You may wish to click on the picture to blow it up to higher resolution before straining your eyes.

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Unamused Raptor

The overlord of the Lieutenant Island salt marsh, our favorite marsh hawk was, like Queen Victoria, not amused by the antics of these gangling autumnal visitors.

A Murder of Crows — Lieutenant Island Tragedy

Monday, October 12th, 2009

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A Murder of Crows

Each September and October, a homicidal gang of crows loiters in the pitch pine trees of Lieutenant Island on Outer Cape Cod.  This murder of crows lurks in the branches, cawing ominously as they wait impatiently for tiny diamondback terrapin hatchlings to tunnel to the surface from nests where they have been incubating in safety for the past three months.  Once movement in the sand is spotted, caws rise to an ear-splitting, felonious volume and the murder of crows swoops down for the kill.  They gobble hatchlings like crispy potato chips, crowing to each other, “Bet you can’t eat just one!”

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 Felonious Crow Plans Next Assault

Without protection, baby turtles have no chance.  Even when enclosed in chicken wire cages to exclude predators, hatchling instincts tempt them into trouble.  They are programmed to scramble fast and furious for the closest vegetative cover to hide in the safety of camouflage and concealment of the salt marsh for the next three years.  So, hatchlings often scurry to the edge of the cage and poke their heads through the wire.  Nasty crows most obliging help relieve them of whatever body parts extrude from the cage or fall within pecking reach of their murderous beaks.


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A Murder of Crows Haunts Turtle Point

As I approached Turtle Point for nest checks this week, a murder of crows circled the skies spying for tasty snacks.  Walking along upper Marsh Road, I spotted one stealthy suspect in the middle of the dirt road, swaggering back and forth, and pecking furiously at the ground.  Caught “in flagrante delicto,” the crow abandoned its prey to flee an extremely agitated turtle researcher sprinting in its direction with eyes of fire and a scientific caliper poised to fly like a boomerang.

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Tiny Terrapin Hatchling Attacked by Crow

The once inch, quarter ounce terrapin hatchling had tucked its body as deeply into its shell as it could.  Still, its tail protruded and the crow had nearly severed the tail from the body.  See closeup below.

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Hatchling Tail Nearly Severed by Attacking Crow

By and large, I get my revenge by ensuring that most hatchlings avoid this fate and the murder of crows goes hungry and frustrated.  But when babies crawl out of unprotected nests, these black-winged gangsters are free to launch their felonious assaults.  But be aware, dastardly crow, there’s a turtle researcher in your future and he caws more raucously and he attacks more ferociously than any murder of crows.

Unusual Terrapin Hatchling Discovered on Lieutenant Island

Sunday, October 4th, 2009


Unusual Diamondback Terrapin Hatchling

A “wild nest” at the base of Turtle Point’s scruffy dune yielded 12 hatchlings that had scrambled from an emergence hole into the abutting salt marsh and one very unusual baby at the bottom of the egg chamber.  (ASIDE:  We protect a small percentage of nests that we discover during the June-July nesting season.  Those nests that we don’t find until they begin to hatch in September, we term “wild nests” since they have not been protected by predator excluders.  The ratio of protected nests to “wild nests” is greater than one to twenty.)


Large Yolk Sac and Fly Larva

The unusual hatchling had pipped, but had not completely emerged from its eggshell.  Its head, the anterior of its shell and its forelimbs were exposed.  This hatchling’s eyes had not yet opened and its shell contained very little pigment.  The greatest and most immediate concern, though, was an infestation of fly maggots that had invaded through the pipped eggshell.  Maggots were feeding on the egg white and had become embedded in the exposed umbilicus and large yolk sac.


Comparing Unusual and Normal Terrapin Hatchlings

Comparing a typical terrapin hatchling in the background with the unusual hatchling in the foreground, you can see boh the lack of pigment in the shell and the sealed eyelids.


Limited Pigment, White Tail, Six Vertebrals, Five Right Costals

Additional anomalies included six vetebral scutes rather than the normal five and five right costal scutes rather than the normal four.  The mostly white tail also lacked normal pigment.


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Unusual Terrapin Hatchling Discovered

The video above documents my initial examination of the unusual hatchling after it had had an opportunity to hydrate in warm water and after maggots had been removed.


Closeup of Challenged Terrapin Hatchling

Once this little hatchling had been bathed in warm fresh water for about thirty minutes, its eye completely opened and it began to track visual stimuli normally.  Still, the lack of pigment makes for a very unusual looking terrapin.


Protected Nest 136 Hatches

The same day the wild nest which held this unusual baby turtle hatched, protected Nest 136 also hatched.  The picture above and the video below provide a good comparison to contrast a normal emerging terrapin hatchling with this most unusual baby.

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Normal Hatchling Emerges from Protected Nest 136

Menhaden Seek Refuge in Sippican Harbor and Fall Prey to Harvesting

Thursday, October 1st, 2009


Great Blue Heron on Watch in Sippican Harbor

Each fall in late September and early October, large numbers of menhaden mass in Sippican Harbor to avoid depredation by fierce and aggressive blue fish.  Also know as pogies, bunker and alewifes, menhaden are not used directly for human consumption, yet they form a key element in the oceanic ecosystem as a critical link between plankton and upper level predators. 


Menhaden Infested with Parasitic Copepods

By this time of the year, many menhaden that enter coastal estuaries are beset with parasitic copepods, as well as dotted with injuries incurred in narrow escapes from blue fish attacks or foul hooking.

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Menhaden Escape Blue Fish and Fall Prey to Harvesting

Menhaden form into large balls as the most effective strategy to survive violent attacks by aggressive blue fish.  Unfortunately, this strategy creates a hugh vulnerability to harvesting by commercial fishermen.