Archive for May, 2014

Terrapin Crashes Tabor Academy Graduation

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Diamondback Terrapin Crashes Tabor Academy Graduation

A curious diamondback terrapin crashed the Tabor Academy graduation this morning. Although uninvited, she snagged the best seat in the harbor, a rock exposed by the receding tide.  Her rock came with a clear unobstructed view of the festive graduation tent, as well as the Marine Science Center that she helped to build.

 Female Diamondback Terrapin in Sippican Harbor

Turtles rock literally and figuratively, as illustrated by this mature female perched in the middle of Sippican Harbor.  If anything brought together the leadership of town (Marion) and gown (Tabor Academy), it was the unshakeable belief, stentorianly expressed in a voice akin to that of legendary Foghorn J. Leghorn, “There are NO, I say NO, turtles in Sippican Harbor” … any evidence to the contrary not withstanding. That evidence to the contrary was discovered by Jaeger Chair scholar Sue Wieber Nourse and her advanced marine science students at Tabor Academy beginning in the spring of 2003.

Boston Globe Coverage of Tabor Academy Terrapin Research

(Click Each Page to Enlarge)

As reported in the Boston Globe in December 2003, Sue Wieber Nourse’s breakthrough results led to a prestigious National Fish & Wildlife grant to export her hands-on research methodologies nationally.  Her work also formed an illustrative practicum for the National Science Foundation’s COSEE (Centers for Ocean Science Education Excellence) initiative.  This signature marine science research program at Tabor Academy enlisted a consortium of SouthCoast and Cape Cod partners that included the NMFS Science Aquarium in Woods Hole, the National Marine Life Center, the Massachusetts Audubon Society, the Buttonwood Park Zoo and the Lloyd Center for the Environment.

Wieber Nourse’s Tabor Students Locate Endangered Turtle Nesting Site

(Click Article to Enlarge)

Under Sue Wieber Nourse’s guidance, advanced marine science students at Tabor Academy’s Schaefer Oceanology Lab scoured local barrier beaches and salt marsh systems to locate nesting sites and nursery habitat for elusive diamondback terrapins.  None had ever been discovered on the SouthCoast of Massachusetts.  Her students soon identified a major nesting site off Buzzards Bay, and documented its presence and importance with Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program (NHESP). Going through this formal research and documentation process ensures that vulnerable habitat is preserved, while at the same time, teaching students through personal hands-on actions what is required to effectively save endangered species and fragile habitat.

Tabor Students Involved in University-Level Research

(Click Article to Enlarge)

While Sue Wieber Nourse held the Jaeger Chair, Tabor Academy remained the only secondary school in the nation engaged in such high level field research, analogous to ongoing studies at Hofstra University, University of Georgia, Davidson College, University of Texas, Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and several other colleges and universities on the Atlantic Coast. This celebrated marine science research breathed life into Tabor Academy’s slogan as the School by the Sea.

New Bedford Standard Times Front and Back Page Coverage

(Click on Each Page to Enlarge)

By the Fall Semester 2004, the terrapin research program began to reap conservation dividends.  Nests that students discovered in the Spring Semester were covered with predator excluders, and the turtle eggs had incubated in warm sand through the long, hot summer days.  In September, Sue Wieber Nourse’s new marine science students savored the unique experience of watching baby terrapins hatch, putting an exclamation point on the success of this powerful and innovative research program.  An exciting educational discovery transforms into a significant conservation event through the magic of hands-on learning.

Marine Science Center Opened in Fall 2005

Entering its third research season with a now well established national reputation, the diamondback terrapin research program transitioned from the old Schaefer Oceanology Lab to the newly opened marine science center, dubbed by Tabor Academy as the Center for Marine and Nautical Sciences. Spotlighting the critical importance of hands-on research as a highly effective tool in sparking a lifelong scientific curiosity within students, Sue Wieber Nourse keynoted the dedication of the center.  At the same ceremony, she received the Jaeger Chair for Marine Studies in recognition of her outstanding accomplishments on behalf of Tabor Academy and for her national leadership in science education.

The diamondback terrapin research program ended at Tabor Academy in June 2008 when Sue Wieber Nourse received a year-long sabbatical, during which she co-founded Turtle Journal and subsequently assumed executive leadership of Cape Cod Consultants where she continues her breakthrough work in marine science research, environmental assessments, wildlife rescues, sensitive habitat restoration, endangered species conservation, and hands-on educational experiences in both formal and informal settings.

Herons Reinforcing Nest for Babies

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Male Great Blue Heron Brings Twig to Mom and Babies 

With chicks the size of Baby Huey stumbling around a flimsy treetop aerie, great blue heron parents spent the weekend reinforcing the nest.  Each time dad returned to the nest with a new twig to add to the nest, mom greeted him lovingly, and the kids were simply amused by all the action.  The chicks hatched on May 14; for details, see We Have Great Blue Heron Babies!

Male Great Blue Heron Departs for More Twigs

As though by magic, once the twig was passed to mom, dad lifted his wings and rose into the air.

Male Great Blue Heron Scavenges Material from Deserted Nest

He glided silently to a nearby tree with an abandoned nest that he scavenged for building material.

Male Great Blue Hero Returns to Nest

On a breeze and a thermal, dad floated back to his nest with another twig.

Great Blue Heron Nest Getting a Bit Crowded

As mom and dad worked away, the kids settled down in the comfort of the swaying bough.

Momma Great Blue Heron and the Twins

The parents continued all weekend, twig after twig, until the nest became sturdy enough to support their growing family.

Terrapin “Cover Girl” Resurfaces after 15 Years

Tuesday, May 20th, 2014

Diamondback Terrapin 829 Cover Girl 

Every turtle has a story to tell and a lesson to share.  While researchers eschew bonding with wild animals, the truth is there’s always a special critter or two through the years that you remember fondly.  Female Terrapin #829 played such an important conservation role as the face of Cape Cod diamondback terrapins that she holds a special place in our hearts and minds.  In 2000, her glossy photograph graced the cover of Natural New England Issue #2 to represent this species in trouble on Old Cape Cod.  Her captivating beauty, which appeared in countless publications and multimedia presentations, helped inspire a community conservation effort that turned around the outlook for diamondback terrapins on the Outer Cape … and has helped preserve fragile coastal uplands and restore critical salt marsh systems.

[ASIDE:  Yes, we know.  That’s political science, not hard science.  But it’s Turtle Journal’s thesis that effective conservation is the nexus of sound science and smart political science.  Each on its own is necessary, but insufficient.  You must do both with equal skill and intensity.]

Diamondback Terrapin 829 in Blackfish Creek

We chose Terrapin 829 for this role because of this wonderful photograph taken on the stunning brilliant day of her first capture on September 26th, 1999.  The backdrop is Blackfish Creek, Wellfleet Bay and Great Island in the far background.  On this perfect fall day, as most Outer Cape terrapins were preparing to enter brumation, healthy Terrapin 829 weighed 1394 grams, her carapace measured 19.6 centimeters and her plastron spanned 17.6 centimeters.  Based on our Outer Cape growth model, we estimate her age in 1999 as around 30 years.

Proof of Concept:  Capturing Terrapins from a Kayak (1999)

We captured Terrapin 829 from a kayak with a 10-foot dip net at 7:15 in the morning in her native Blackfish Creek.  She was one of the first terrapins netted in this proof-of-concept approach that subsequently became the principal methodology for water captures on the Outer Cape and SouthCoast.  Terrapin 829 was also the next to the last active terrapin we observed in 1999; all others had already burrowed under the ooze for a long winter’s snooze.

Terrapin 829 in 2002 with Traumatic Shell Damage

On June 3rd, 2002, we sampled terrapins in Wellfleet Bay’s prime mating aggregation: Chipman’s Cove.  We netted ten female terrapins; nine were first time captures.  Terrapin 829 proved the only recaptured turtle. Since we first saw her in September 1999, she had suffered traumatic shell damage to her front left quadrant, probably caused by an encounter with a boat.  See Life After Celebrity originally published in Terrapin Diary and now posted on Turtle Journal.

Terrapin 829 15 Years Later (May 2014)

On Friday, May 16th, the Turtle Journal team visited the Chipman’s Cove mating aggregation for the first time in the 2014 season.  We waded into the flooding cove and hand-netted six diamondback terrapins:  two recaptures and four first timers.  The very first turtle we netted was the quite distinctive Terrapin 829, easily recognizable by the injury to her left front marginal scutes.

Terrapin 829 Still a Cover Girl Beauty at 45!

In 15 years Terrapin 829 has grown 25 millimeters in carapace and plastron lengths, while maintaining the same weight.  She’s still quite a beauty, especially when she shows her right profile and hides the cracked marginals.  We suspect her recent glossy image will still grace many a publication and more than a few multimedia presentations.

Still Hot — Female Terrapin 829 Pursued by Handsome Male

How hot is she?  When we observed Terrapin 829 paddling through the shallows of the Chipman’s Cove mating aggregation on Friday, she was hotly pursued by a handsome male terrapin.  Note the gender dimorphism of diamondback terrapins illustrated by this pairing. Female Terrapin 829 weighs 3 pounds and is 7.8 inches long; the large mature male, #6103, weighs 2/3 pound and is 4.9 inches long.

Saving Elvers on the SouthCoast of Massachusetts

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

Slightly Pigmented (American Eel) Elver (Anguilla rostrata)

The Turtle Journal team had an opportunity to play a role in the life cycle of American eels (Anguilla rostrata) this weekend, to learn a lot about tiny elvers, to document the huge challenges to their survival, to engage in some hands on field research and discovery, to save a few hundred juveniles and to work towards smoothing the journey for new generations of American eels within the SouthCoast watershed.  Like so much else in the natural world, we humans hold the future of this species in our own hands, just as Sue Wieber Nourse holds a tiny elver in her hand as we lift it past an obstacle to its survival. 

American Eels Spawn in the Sargasso Sea

The epic journey of the American eel (Anguilla rostrata) is a literal ocean odyssey with few equals in the marine world.  American eels spend their lives in fresh water ponds and estuaries on the East Coast of North America. When the time comes, and eels can live long lives, mature adults leave the ponds where they spent their lives.  They slither through bog, creek and river to reach an estuary as they begin their long, long ocean journey to the Sargasso Sea.


American Eel Life Cycle by GRYPHON Media Productions

[This brief video funded by Unamaki Institute of Natural Resources (Cape Breton) and Parks Canada provides an excellent overview of the life cycle of the American eel (Anguilla rostrata).]

It’s a one way trip.  Adults will consume all their energy stores to produce and externally fertilize eggs in a giant spawning in the Sargasso Sea.  Each female can lay millions of eggs and dies after egg laying.  When hatched, the larvae develop into leptocephali and float in the currents like tiny leaves, ever moving closer to North American shores where they metamorphose into glass eels.  As they enter estuaries and fresh water systems, they develop pigment and become elvers.

Tiny American Eel Elvers Scale 10-Foot Water Control Device

In this epic journey from Sargasso Sea in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to a local SouthCoast pond, elvers must traverse enormous challenges, the most serious being obstacles erected by human development:  dams, hydro-power systems, water control regimes, fast flowing culverts, flood control devices and so on.  After a perilous trek of thousands of miles from the mid Atlantic ocean, tiny vulnerable elvers get stopped within inches of their goal by human contraptions for which evolution never prepared them.  And that might be the journey’s tragic end were it not for their extraordinary tenacity and persistence … augmented with a critical assist from caring and knowledgeable locals.  One such local planner called Turtle Journal on Friday, May 16th, to report that elvers had been sighted at a SouthCoast cranberry bog as they were trying to scale a 10-foot vertical water control device.

Hundreds of Tiny Elvers Squiggle Straight Upward

On Saturday morning we visited the bog and found hundreds of tiny elvers wriggling up the vertical 10-foot device in an attempt to reach the fresh water pond where they would spend their lives.


American Eel Elvers, May 2014

We documented the process, and later spoke with the bog operator about potential assists to facilitate the elvers’ passage through the water control device.  Years ago the bog operator had constructed a concrete and rock “ladder” with continuous water flow leading from the creek to the pond.  We observed many elvers using this passage to reach the pond.

Tiny American Eel Elver and Don Lewis’ Thumb for Sizing

While no longer glass eels because they have become somewhat pigmented while moving through estuary and creek, the overwhelming number of elvers were quite small as indicated by the photograph above with a Don Lewis’ thumb to gauge sizing.

~ Eighteen Inch American Eel Climbs Ladder into Pond

As we watched the concrete “ladder,” a large (~ 18 inch) American eel slithered up the stairs.  We suspect that at this stage of development it would be called a yellow eel.

~ Eighteen Inch American Eel Slithers into Pond

After climbing the concrete “ladder,” the eel slipped into the pond and lazily powered itself into deeper waters.  During the two hours we observed this ladder, elvers of various sizes and stages of development made the passage from creek to pond.  First, they scaled a six foot tight rocky passage, then they completed the transition by climbing the wet concrete stairs.

Thousands of Elvers Obstructed by Newly Installed Culvert

Saturday night we pored over watershed maps to trace the path from the bog to Buzzards Bay through Aucoot Cove and associated creeks, streams and bogs.  We identified the likely pathway for the elvers and highlighted a potential obstacle to their passage.  On Sunday we visited the site of the potential blockage, and Sue Wieber Nourse observed thousands of elvers backed up by a newly installed, gushing culvert.

1/2 Gallon Pail Yields ~ Hundred Obstructed Elvers

How many elvers were frustrated by the new culvert?  We dipped a half gallon pail into the creek and quickly pulled it out.  In that brief instant, a hundred tiny elvers flooded into the half filled pail.  We contacted the planner for the site immediately, alerted him to the situation and talked about potential quick and long term fixes.

A Boost for a Hundred Elvers

Alas, we still had our 100 elver bucket.  It reminded me of the story of the old man (or sometimes a young girl) and a beach full of starfish.   If you’d like to read a version of this story, click here.  Yes, we couldn’t help every elver make that passage from creek to pond.  But we sure could give a huge boost to the 100 elvers in our plastic sampling bucket.  If just one or two or five or ten of those 100 elvers made it back to the Sargasso Sea and laid millions of eggs … Well, perhaps our quixotic gesture wasn’t as foolish as we originally thought.  In fact, since we’re saving the world one turtle at a time, maybe we can save the world one yellow elver bucket at a time, too. We lugged the bucket across the trail to the pond and poured 100 elvers into their new home.

We Have Great Blue Heron Babies!

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

 Male Great Blue Heron Listens to Chattering Chicks

As the Turtle Journal team approached the SouthCoast rookery this morning we heard the unmistakable nattering of newborn great blue heron chicks echoing from their treetop nest.  The male heron, evicted for the babies, stands on a branch under the nest, staring up at the noisy kids that chatter persistently, insistently and incessantly for attention.

Female Great Blue Heron Prepares to Feed Chicks

The male had just brought a freshly caught pond fish to the nest for momma to distribute.  The female great blue heron tiptoes around the chattering chicks, picks up the fish, and begins processing it for the babies.

Female Great Blue Heron Predigests Fish

She swallows the fish to predigest it for the babies.

Female Great Blue Heron Feeds New Chicks

Then, after a few minutes, she shares the regurgitated fish with her pleading chicks.

Female Great Blue Heron Rests on her Brood

Once the sated kids quiet down, the female great blue heron settles in the nest with her resting brood beneath her.

Male Great Blue Heron Flies Off to Fish for Mamma and Chicks

But there is no rest for the male great blue heron.  As momma feeds the babies, he glides down to the pond to hunt for more fish to satisfy the chicks when they begin to lobby for attention once again.


Male Great Blue Heron Hunting for Fish

The male great blue heron moves with delicate stealth as his eyes scan the murky shallows for movement.

Fish in Pond by Great Blue Heron Rookery

The pond surrounding the rookery is filled with fresh water fish of just the right size for great blue herons.

Male Great Blue Heron Stabs for Fish

The hunting heron spots his prey and stabs quickly at the water with open beak.

Male Great Blue Heron Catches Fish for Mom and Chicks

Success!  The great blue heron catches another fish for his hungry family.