Archive for November, 2010

Thousands of Mermaid Purses Wash Ashore in Sandwich

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

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Mermaid Purses (Skate Egg Cases)

As Turtle Journal continued sea turtle patrols this week, Sue Wieber Nourse encountered an interesting phenomenon on Sandwich beaches just west of Sandy Neck.  Lying within the high tide wrack were thousands of mermaid purses, skate egg casings, and hundreds of natural sponges.

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Thousands of Mermaid Purses Wash Ashore

While it’s not unusual to discover tens of mermaid purses scattered in the wrack, or perhaps even a hundred on a long stretch of beach, the discovery of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of skate egg cases densely mingled in the wrack is quite unusual.

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Mermaid Purse (Raja sp.)

These mermaid purses are the egg cases of a skate (Raja sp.).  Sue holds one in her hands for comparative sizing.

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Thousands Washed Ashore in Wrack Line

As she walked along the beach, the density of skate cases remained the same for nearly a quarter mile.  Spot checking the egg cases, she discovered none with a baby skate still inside.

Giant Ocean Sunfish Discovered on Lieutenant Island

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

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Ocean Sunfish on Lieutenant Island

A 7-foot diameter ocean sunfish (Mola mola) stranded on Lieutenant Island’s north shore.  The relatively fresh specimen was discovered by Lydia Adler Okrent as she walked the island beach.  Lydia sent photos of the animal electronically to her mother and island resident, Becky Okrent, now in Manhattan.  Becky in turn notified Turtle Journal that the animal had stranded, so that we could document the incident and derive scientific data from this unfortunate creature.  The stranding death of ocean sunfish along Cape Cod Bay beaches is an annual phenomenon that remains a mystery to researchers.

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Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) in Lieutenant Island Salt Marsh

This morning Sue Wieber Nourse of Turtle Journal visited Lieutenant Island to document the ocean sunfish.  This specimen measured 6 foot 2 inches from snout to the trailing edge of its caudal fin and 7 foot 7 inches from the tip of its dorsal fin to the tip of its ventral fin.  Based on examinations of many stranded sunfish over the last two years, we believe that these individuals that succumb to Cape Cod tides each fall appear to be relatively young, perhaps juveniles.  A necropsy of this specimen will be conducted to determine its gender and to gather more information on potential causes of death for these magnificent ocean creatures.

Should you find an ocean sunfish or any other interesting fauna on the beaches of Cape Cod and New England, please call our Turtle Journal hotline at 508-274-5108 or email us at 


Early Tuesday afternoon “Krill” Carson conducted a necropsy of this animal and determined that it was a young female.

Wild Turkey Gangs Invade Marion Village for Thanksgiving

Monday, November 15th, 2010

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Halloween Pumpkins Stand Guard Against Wild Marauders

Halloween’s over and now garish pumpkins stand sentinel over Marion’s precious garbage.  Yet nothing, not even these ghoulish masks, seems to dissuade roving gangs of wild turkeys from invading our gentle town.

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Wild Turkey Gang Rumbles through Marion Suburbs

Toms and Hens; Jets and Sharks; they stormed through quiet side streets of Marion’s upscale “Village.”  Where else in America are trash cans decorated with pagan totems for Monday pickup?

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Rival Turkey Gangs Clash

Feathers ruffled as rival rafters crossed paths in the middle of the road.  You can almost hear the driving rhythm of Bernstein’s West Side Story echoing in the autumn leaves.

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 Turkeys Distracted

Then, as quickly as it flared, the clash subsided when turkeys caught the whiff of oily pumpkin seeds.  Toms and Hens clucked and cackled in ululating unison, building bird-brained courage to assault another totem guarded treasure can.  Turtle Journal asks, “Can Thanksgiving come too soon to rescue our gentrified towns from the horror of rampaging gangs of wild turkeys?  Bring in your garbage, suburbia; the turkeys are coming!”

Stranding Weekend: November Wildlife Cruise

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

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Naviator Steams into Wellfleet Harbor

Turtle Journal and Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary led a November cruise to Billingsgate Shoals at the mouth of Wellfleet Bay as part of the Stranding Weekend Program offered by Mass Audubon.  After completing an afternoon of quahog harvesting in the bay, Captain Rick Merrill skippered the Naviator into Wellfleet Harbor to pick us up for the cruise.  During spring and summer, the Naviator conducts exceptional marine life cruises with Mass Audubon naturalists aboard to help visitors explore the wildlife of Wellfleet Bay.  Rick also charters the Naviator for fishing trips during season. 

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Turtle Journal’s Sue Wieber Nourse and MAS Dennis Murley

Turtle Journal’s Sue Wieber Nourse and Mass Audubon Dennis Murley, Stranding Weekend instructors, helped participants identify significant aspects of the Wellfleet Bay habitat and pointed out various wildlife species during the cruise.  Collectively, they bring two lifetimes of experience as scientist, researcher, naturalist, adventurer, educator, conservationist, rescuer and explorer of Cape Cod geology, geography, history, flora and fauna.

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Pre-Cruise Safey Briefing on Wellfleet Dock

We met on Wellfleet Pier a little after 3 pm.  Stranding Weekend partcipants were joined by other Mass Audubon visitors for a cruise of Wellfleet Bay.  Before boarding the Naviator, Dennis Murley reviewed safety procedures, introduced instructors and provided a preview of what to expect.  While an important focus of the Stranding Weekend was tropical and semi-tropical sea turtles, the layered dress of participants clearly indicated that this cruise was anything but a tropical event.

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Leaving Harbor for Wellfleet Bay

Winds blew from the north bringing in a gripping Arctic chill, especially when the boat cleared Wellfleet’s protected harbor and tacked into the breeze.  The Naviator backed from its slip and cruised by the working fishing fleet tied to the town pier.  We cruised west through the channel, pointed at Griffin Island (right) and Great Island (left), connected by the low tumbolo called the Gut.  Once past the  breakwater, the Naviator turned south (left) toward Billingsgate Shoals.

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Bundling in the Bow

When we were heading north, the apparent wind transformed conditions aboard ship to a Shackleton expedition.  Passengers ducked low under protective bulwarks and huddled together for warmth.

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In Search of Tropical Sea Turtles!

They wrapped themselves in winter scarfs and hoodies, thrust hands deep inside the warmest pockets, and they endured … in best Shackleton tradition.

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Approaching Billingsgate Shoals

But when the boat pointed south with the wind to our backs, decks came alive.  Binoculars scanned the horizons for shorebirds and water fowl.

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 Brants in Wellfleet Bay at Dusk

Loons, gulls, gannets, ducks, geese and many more species dotted the horizon, which had begun to turn pinkish orange as an early dusk swept over Cape Cod Bay.

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Gray Seals Occupy Billingsgate Shoals

Billingsgate Shoals rise from Cape Cod Bay each low tide.  A century ago this once 60-acre island was still inhabited as a fishing community.  But the ravages of erosive storms sank the island below Cape Cod Bay; the last lighthouse abandoned and destroyed in 1915.  Today, Billingsgate is sometimes called the Atlantis of Cape Cod by oral historians and folklorists.  Day trippers boat to the shoals to use its exposed tidal flats for picnicking and shellfishing.  Eel grass beds around the shoals are rich in striped bass schoolies and blues in season.  In the “off season,” another set of tourists arrive to exploit the low-tide exposed sandbars:  gray seals.  As we approached the shoals on Saturday, hundreds of seals, backlit by the rapidly setting sun, had already claimed prime spots on just emerging sands.

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Gray Seals Hauled out on Billingsgate Shoals

Hauled out on the tidal flats, plump, well nourished seals spread their ample bodies across the sandbar, occasionally belly-crawling a few feet left or a couple of inches right or flopping a bit up or a tad down to optimize their level of comfort.  In the fast flowing current around the island, seals played and wrestled and surfed.  A few curious and courageous individuals spy-hopped their way toward the Naviator to examine the exotic critters (us) basking on this mysterious floating island.  Come to think of it, with layers of clothing triple and quadruple wrapped around our bodies, perhaps we too waddled like seals as we spy-hopped above our bulwarks to examine the exotic creatures luxuriating on their mysterious rising island.  Yes, I suppose the correct definition of “specimen” and “observer” depends on which side of the zoo’s bars you’re occupying.


Gray Seals on Billingsgate Shoals

Shackleton would be proud that we returned to harbor with a full complement of crew, eager to endure yet another “on the edge” adventure during Stranding Weekend.

Stranding Weekend: Duck Harbor – Great Island Beach Patrol

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

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Patrolling Beach at Duck Harbor

Saturday morning of Stranding Weekend opened with a beach patrol.  Participants and instructors vanned to Duck Harbor in northwest Wellfleet on Cape Cod Bay.  With winds blowing north-northwest, the group trekked south from Duck Harbor to Great Island.  This long peninsula protects Wellfleet Bay to the east from prevailing storms that march relentlessly west-to-east across New England.  It also “catches” cold-stunned sea turtles as they are tossed by the prevailing winds onto the shoreline of Cape Cod Bay.

(NOTE:  Click on photographs for larger images which will appear in a separate window.)

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Duck Harbor in November

Duck Harbor is no more, but perhaps may rise again.  Around the turn of the last century, the flow of salt water from Wellfleet Bay and the Herring River was choked by a dike in Chequessett Neck.  The former islands of Griffin and Bound Brook and several others, which once were separated by salt marshes and brackish branches of the Herring River, exist now in name and memory only.  The photograph above looks north toward Bound Brook “Island” with Duck “Harbor” only imagined in the darkened, low-lying vegetation where toads now emerge in spring rains.  Perhaps, after decades of “planning,” the offending dike will finally be replaced.  Marshes will flourish again as habitat for dwindling populations of herring and terrapins, and a critical eco-system will be restore.

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What’s That in the Bay?

On reaching the beach we surveyed the coastal scene.  Provincetown, distinctively emblematic with its Pilgrim Monument, rose above bay waters to our right.  Invisible across the cloud covered bay lay Plymouth where Pilgrims settled after their brief stay on Outer Cape Cod.  I guess the Cape had already become a “relaxing vacation spot” nearly four hundred years ago. 

“What’s that?” exclaimed the chorus of adventurers as binoculars sprung to the ready.

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What’s That on the Beach?

“What’s that?” echoed barked vocalizations from the bay, as equally curious mammals stared landward.  One harbor seal, spy-hopping behind another, whispered, “Pilgrims … They’re baaack.”

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Examining a Live Rock Crab

Under the storm-tossed wrack line, the place where seaweed, flotsam and jetsam accumulate with the tide, resides a museum of discoveries for the inquisitive explorer to investigate.  A soft-shelled rock crab, a bit lethargic from the cold, was excavated from the wrack.  Recently molted, its shell was still soft to the touch and brought out stories about steaming bushels of Chesapeake Bay blue crabs and soft-shelled crab sandwiches.

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Cape Cod Bay Atlantic Rock Crab (Cancer irroratus)

We saw another specimen of the Atlantic rock crab during our afternoon cruise in Wellfleet Bay.  The captain had been dragging for quahogs and brought up a lonely crab that sat atop fishing gear in the stern of the boat.

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Cape Cod Bay Atlantic Rock Crab (Cancer irroratus)

After photo-documenting this obliging specimen, we returned it to the bay.

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A Rock Crab in the Hand

Each field school participant enjoyed the opportunity to examine the Atlantic rock crab before we tucked it safely back under the protective wrack.

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Comparison:  Rock Crab versus Green Crab

A bit further down the beach we discovered two molted crab shells that illustrated the differences between the Atlantic rock crab and a European bio-invader, the green crab (Carcinus maenus).  And, yes, it is just as “mean” as the pronunciation of its scientific name might suggest.

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Checking the Wrack Line

The blanketing wrack offered a hidden encyclopedia of coastal species, and everyone joined in the act, lifting, poking and prodding eel grass piles for discoveries.  As new specimens arose, instructors Sue Wieber Nourse and Dennis Murley would cite their natural history, enriched with exotic tales of lore for each species.

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Cape Cod Bay Blood Ark (Anadara ovalis)

A blood ark appeared.   This interesting bivalve is one of the few mollusks that have red blood; hence the name.  It sometimes goes by the title of Bloody Clam.

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Cape Cod Bay Blood Ark (Anadara ovalis)

Ironically, when viewed from this angle, the “Blood” Ark takes on a heart shape!

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Sue Wieber Nourse Explains the “Mermaid’s Purse”

Sue Wieber Nourse found “mermaid’s purses” mixed among the eel grass mat.  The mermaid’s purse, also called the devil’s purse, is actually an egg casing for a skate.

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Patrolling the Beach toward Great Island

And so the morning progressed.  From discovery to discovery this band of intrepid adventurers explored the wind-swept beach.

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Examining Decorator Worm

A decorator worm proved the next specimen.  

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Close-Up of Decorator Worm

This invertebrate critter appears to adorn itself with every tiny bit of broken shell and debris that can be found along the shore. 

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The “Eider Problem”

Dennis Murley stopped the group at one of several dead eider carcasses that we discovered along this stretch of beach.  He talked about the research that was ongoing to determine the cause of these deaths, which considering the thousands upon thousands of eiders that occupy the bay at this time of the year, may be from multiple causes.  Several flocks of hundreds of eiders skimmed across the wave tops as we walked the beach.  Research on this matter continues. 

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Chubby Little Sanderlings

Tiny plump sanderlings worked the entire length of the beach from Duck Harbor to Great Island.  They flitted along the shore a few feet in front of the group, working in the waves for morsels of food.  When we approached too closely, they’d take flight and work the beach behind us.

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Gulls Take Refuge Under Towering Coastal Bank

Gulls of several varieties hunkered in the protective lee of towering coastal banks.  On occasion, these apparently well fed birds waddled to the water and half-heartedly poked for something munchable.  For the most part, though, they seemed to enjoy the spectacle of energetic humans plodding down the beach.

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Erosion Claims Coastal Development

Those towering banks on the Outer Cape always remind me of the Egyptian pyramids with their appearance of resilience and permanence.  Yet, coastal banks and dunes are actually the opposite of rigid pyramids.  They maintain their permanence through resilience as a soft impact barrier to the relentless onslaught of wind and sea.  As Dennis noted to the group, the “angle of repose” remains constant.  Sea and surf eat away at the bottom of the bank, and the top gradually falls to assume the same angle of repose as the leading edge of the bank moves slowly, constantly and inexorably inland.  Resilience holds true; permanence is an illusion.  And as if to underscore that point, the remnants of a coastal cottage lies destroyed in the advance of the sea and the retreat of the bank.

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Erosion Exposes Deep Well Pipes of Former Cottage

Maybe a hundred feet seaward of the collapsed foundation lies the remains of well pipes that had plunged deeply into the aquifer to provide drinking water for this coastal cottage.  Images serve as a clear reminder of the transitory nature of human imprint on the ever changing landscape of Outer Cape Cod.  Created by the retreating Laurentide glacier 15,000 years in the past, the Cape will inevitably succumb to the advance. 

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Cleaning Up

Doing our small part to undo some of the human impact on this fragile habitat, the team collected debris as we patrolled the beach from Duck Harbor to Great Island.