Archive for May, 2010

Snapper Rescued from Busy Cape Highway

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

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Why Did This Snapper Cross the Road?

Returning to Turtle Journal headquarters from a nesting terrapin call in the Narrows of Wareham, Sue Wieber Nourse encountered a tragedy in the making on busy Route 6 that serves as a tourist gateway to Cape Cod as we approach the beginning of Memorial Day Weekend.  A medium sized female snapping turtle decided that it was time to make her annual pilgrimage from her wetlands home on the north side of Route 6 to her nesting site on the south side of the highway.  The only obstacle that lay between her and her goal was a four lane highway with cars and trucks whizzing by in both directions. 

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To Get to the Other Side, of Course

Wieber Nourse spotted the snapper edging across the highway as high speed traffic dodged and swerved around her.  The chances of this snapping turtle making it “to the other side” were quite similar to a snowball’s chance of surviving a trip into the raging pit of an erupting volcano.  She stopped her car and waded into the traffic to save the snapper.

Humans Rescue Snapping Turtle from Humans

Out of nowhere a couple of everyday heroes arose to assist Wieber Nourse in the quest.  One of these young gentlemen gingerly lifted the snapper and carefully maneuvered her back to the side of the highway.  Unfortunately, the wrong side of the highway.  Since the snapper had already endured more than enough human “assistance,” it was going to be a challenge, indeed, to lift and carry her back across four lanes of pre-holiday traffic to reach her nesting site on the other side.  Yet, if Wieber Nourse and her helpers didn’t get her across the highway safely, then the snapper would just wait a few minutes and begin to weave and zigzag her way through the traffic once more … with a totally predictable outcome.

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Snapper’s Trip Was NOT Uneventful

So, they employed the Lewis Maneuver by nudging the snapping turtle head-first into a bucket, large enough for her to fit comfortably, but NOT large enough for her to turn around.  Once securely in the bucket with head down and prehistoric tail snapping back and forth, the snapper was quickly raced across the highway while helpers frantically waved down the traffic.  When the snapper emerged from the bucket on the steep slippery slope on the other side of Route 6, she tumbled and rolled, briefly exposing her plastron before quickly recovering and continuing her trek to her nesting site.

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“Let Me Shake Your Hand … Off”

You may not be able to predict the stock market or the outcome of March Madness, but you can easily predict the attitude of a snapping turtle whom you have just rescued from sure death.  They smile whimsically in your direction and imply, “Thank you for that special moment.  Let me shake your hand … off.”

Turtles “Plant Crops” in Wareham Gardens

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

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Painted Turtle “Plants” Egg in Wareham Community Gardens

As late May temperatures soar into the 80s, you can set your calendar to turtle nesting season when painted turtles scramble out of wetlands, ponds and rivers to deposit their crop of eggs representing the next generation of shelled reptiles.  We spotted the first nesting females on Monday afternoon and by Wednesday, nesting had shifted into high gear.  Adventurer and author Dick Wheeler of Wareham spotted a painted turtle nesting in the Wareham Community Gardens off Tihonet Road on Monday evening and immediately reported his sighting to Don Lewis, the Turtle Guy, to see if steps could be taken to protect these babies-in-waiting.

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Two Turtle Nests Protected on Path to Gardens

Sue Wieber Nourse, CEO of Cape Cod Consultants and research scientist, met Wheeler at the Wareham Community Gardens early Wednesday morning to install a nest protector over the eggs to prevent rapacious predators from destroying the nest.  While Wieber Nourse and Wheeler were engaged in protecting one nest, another painted turtle climbed out of the wetlands, crawled into the gardens and found a suitable spot to plant her own crop of six eggs for fall harvesting (that is, hatching).

Painted Turtle Sowing Crop of Eggs in Wareham Gardens

Wieber Nourse and Wheeler witnessed a fairly rare sight.  Watching quietly and carefully from a distance so as not to disturb the nervous turtle, they observed the entire nesting process.  The turtle carefully excavated the egg chamber, patiently deposited six elongated eggs one at a time, then painstakingly covered the nest and disguised its location.  Because this turtle had laid its clutch in the busiest portion of the community gardens, Wieber Nourse decided to relocate the eggs under the same protective predator excluder as the original nest to give them the best chance of survival.

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Painted Turtle Egg Sowed in Wareham Community Gardens

Wieber Nourse gently and individually excavated each egg from the tight packed soil.  She dug a new nest and carefully placed the eggs in similar fashion as the mother turtle had done.  She packed down the soil and re-installed the nest protector now covering both clutches of painted turtle eggs.

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Turtle “Crop” Overlooks Human Gardens

Both nests now rest comfortably on the sunny pathway to the community gardens where the eggs will incubate under the natural heat of a South Coast summer.  So, while human gardeners toil at weeding, watering and tending their vegetable crops, these eggs, which were buried and abandoned by their absentee mom, will lie quietly under the warm earth, choose a gender depending on the temperature at which they incubate, develop into hatchlings with a sharp pointy egg tooth to cut their way to freedom, and finally tunnel to the surface and scramble for safety in the abutting wetlands.

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The Future?  A Juvenile Painted Turtle

With a little luck and a lot of sun, these eggs will hatch in 60 to 90 days to become the next generation of painted turtles in Wareham with beautiful markings akin to this adorable juvenile Lewis and Wieber Nourse discovered nearby in mid April.  While a wild nest faces overwhelming odds of destruction by predators, these babies stand a good chance of survival … thanks to the watchful eyes and intelligent intervention of Wareham’s community gardeners who are already planning a “coming out” party for some magic day in August when “their” hatchlings emerge.

Pint-Sized Plovers Battle Giant Odds on Cape Cod

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

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Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) 

During Saturday’s terrapin sampling on Outer Cape Cod, Turtle Journal encountered an active piping plover (Charadrius melodus) nest that has been protected by symbolic fencing and a nest exclosure by Mass Audubon.  These tiny birds have been pushed to the brink of extinction by pressure from human activities in their nesting zones.  Summer cottages, off road vehicles, dog walking, nature hikes and all manner of recreational and commercial activities that occur within the fragile shoreline that plovers must use for nesting each year create enormous challenges for these tiny creatures. 

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Four Perfect Piping Plover Eggs

Even without the added pressure of humans, piping plovers have a tough time.  Eggs are exposed to the elements in shallow scrapes bare and uncovered by anything except a protective plover parent.  When parents are disturbed from the nest because of human activites, the eggs can … depending on temperature … be lost or delayed in development.  Spring tides overwash nests with regularity, especially in areas that have been sand-starved because of human development along the coastline.  Predators relish plover eggs and these tiny birds are helpless to ward off animals that dominate them in size and power.  Plover parents courageously feign a wounded wing or do whatever they can to tempt the predator to pursue them rather than find the vulnerable eggs.

Piping Plover Guarding Protected Nest

Because plovers must nest in our cherished summer recreational spots, they become the object of anger when they interfere with human sport or enterprise.  “Plovers taste like chicken” has become the mantra of frustrated individuals and groups who have been affected by restrictions to protect threatened plovers.  The dynamics are not pretty.  Beyond inconvenience, plover regulations can cut into revenues and for towns that depend overwhelmingly on summer tourism, losing weeks of spring and summer to plovers can create a huge economic impact.  All sides have valid arguments and complaints, yet for the plovers, the situation is literally life or death.

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Signs Alert Public to Sensitive Plover Nesting Areas 

Mass Audubon, among other environmental and conservation organizations, assist state and federal authorities in protecting plover nests.  They post signs to alert the public to nesting pairs, they erect symbolic fencing to keep humans (and pets) from intruding into nesting grounds, and they install nest excluders over the eggs.  These excluders allow the plover parents to reach the eggs, but keep out larger predators.  Still, the symbolic fencing and excluders cannot keep out flood tides nor can they prevent powerful and aggressive predators from overwhelming these defenses.

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Find the Piping Plover

Plovers are so small and camouflaged that they are extremely elusive and difficult to spot.  (Click on the photograph above to find the plover.)  Their eggs, too, blend in naturally with the beach surroundings.  While these facts help protect plovers and their eggs from predators, we can easily stumble into a new plover nesting zone without signage to warn us.  If you do spot a nest that has not been marked, call Mass Audubon at the numbers listed on the sign above to alert them and to protect the plovers.

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Tiny Piping Plovers Need Our Help to Survive

Plovers need our help to survive.  Despite inconvenience, plovers are an important element of the native Cape Cod habitat and experience.  They deserve our respect and protection.

Baby Mute Swan Cygnets in Marion’s Spragues Cove

Saturday, May 15th, 2010

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Baby Mute Swan Cygnets Newly Hatched

Turtle Journal ventured to Spragues Cove in Marion on Buzzards Bay this morning to check the status of a mute swan nest that we have been following since April 4th.  See Egg Hunt: Who Needs Bunnies When You Have Swans? for the initial story of this nest and a look at a perfect mute swan egg that one of these babies had occupied.

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Mute Swan (Cygnus olor) Adult on Nest

As we approached, one of the adults was patiently sitting on the nest.  Everything seemed as it has been for the last nearly six weeks, except when we got close.

Adult Swan Rises to Expose Baby Cynets

The adult reared up, exposing four perfect baby cygnets, and began hissing in our direction.  Once the adult realized our cameras were no threat, it calmed a bit and allowed the cygnets to enjoy exposure to the warm mid-60 degree breeze.

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Four Baby Cygnets with Adult Mute Swan

The baby cygnets seemed amused by this brief moment of freedom.  They squirmed around and looked hither and yon under the watchful eye of the adult that stood sentry above them.

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Four Adorable Baby Cygnets (Cygnus olor)

They were truly adorable white fuzz balls with black beaks rather than the characteristic orange beaks of adult mute swans.

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“So, this is what they call sunshine.”

With longer exposure came more adventurous exploration as they waddled around the nest looking for the best exposure to the warming sun.

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“Okay, we’ve seen enough.  You can sit now, Mom.”

Soon, though, they settled back down as if realizing that this brief moment in the sun had run its course.

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“Thanks, Mom.” Mute Swam Resumes Sitting Nest

The adult re-sat on the nest, carefully tucking the adorable baby cygnets under her feathers.  And Turtle Journal withdrew for another adventure of discovery.

Where the Boys Are — Male Diamondback Terrapins

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010

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Handsome Male Diamondback Terrapin 

Turtle Journal returned to a very active mating aggregation in Wellfleet Bay on Outer Cape Cod last Friday.  The objective of our sampling expedition was to examine male diamondback terrapins.  While mature female terrapins will be coming on to shore next month to nest, male terrapins never leave the water.  They’re much more elusive and once dispersed after the spring mating aggregation, they are difficult to track and to capture.  So, this Friday we eschewed large females and focused on the smaller males.

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Typical Male Diamondback Terrapin Tail

Terrapins exhibit sexual dimorphism.  A polysyllabic word that simply means that they differ in size between genders.  In the case of diamondback terrapins, females are twice as long and wide, and four times as massive as males.  The key distinguishing feature between males and females is the tail.  Females have small thin tails and males, as demonstrated by the specimen pictured above, have long thick tails.

Where the Boys Are: Heading Back to Mating Aggregation

Who said that turtles have no personality?  Whoever they may be, it’s clear they haven’t spent much time with diamondbacks.  Here’s a small array of personalities that we found during our brief sampling adventure.

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