Posts Tagged ‘Fairhaven’

Red Fox: Wildlife on the Edge

Monday, October 20th, 2008

As humans expand development and invade the few remaining slices of natural habitat in coastal New England, wild creatures are increasingly forced to survive on the edge of civilization, spilling over into once wild, now “domesticated” lands.  For smaller, secretive and non-aggressive animals such as turtles and rabbits and squirrels and chipmunks, we tolerate their presence so long as they don’t get in the way of our cars or lawn movers, or dare to scavenge in our gardens and garbage.  For the larger, more predatory critters, their very existence in our midst poses a threat to our manicured and domesticated lives.  “Coyotes and foxes and snakes, oh my.  Hide your pets, guard your children; the wilderness is coming to a backyard near you!”

Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) on West Island Sun Deck

We must admit that Turtle Journal loves foxes like prodigal children.  Back fifteen years or so, a wily female fox “learned” how to hunt diamondback terrapins in Wellfleet Bay and developed quite a taste for them.  She killed over a hundred of these threatened turtles and fed them to her kits.  We worried that she might pass along this skill to her offspring, but luckily, the skill passed with her.  So, now we can love foxes without reservation.

As the Turtle Journal team drove to West Island on Saturday, hugging the shoreline along Balsam Street heading for the south point, we spotted a beautiful red fox lazing on the side of the road, relaxing like a puppy dog and savoring the long rays of late afternoon sunshine.  We slowed to a crawl to get cameras ready, but impatient weekenders in the car behind us seemed oblivious to the fox, swerved around us and tore down the street to get to the beach for sightseeing.  Go figure. 

Greater New Bedford Area with West Island on the Lower Right

West Island lies on the western coast of Buzzards Bay in Fairhaven and within the Great New Bedford area.  The middle of the island is largely pristine woodlands with dense cottage development along the western shore.  The north, south and east coasts of West Island are covered with sometimes sandy, often rocky beaches with a scattering of salt marshes throughout.  Terrapins were documented on West Island a couple of decades ago, but no sign of their presence has been observed for the last five years of intense search.

The fox bolted across the street toward cottages along the beach.  Sue jumped out with the camera, while Don ran interference with an upset resident.  “You’re not going to do anything to it, are you?  That’s MY fox; I’m taking care of it.  You’re not going to take it, are you?  It lives in my yard and I’m taking care of it.”  While Sue shot footage, Don spoke to the woman about the dangers to the animal and to her family, too, of trying to domesticate a wild fox in such a highly trafficked and developed location. 

Red Fox Relaxing on Sun Deck of Closed Summer Cottage

Sue noted that the fox approached her repeatedly as she photographed it.  At first she thought it might be rabid, but on reflection, it may simply have lost its instinctive fear of humans from being “cared for.”  Not a useful survival trait for a wild fox.  You can see how the animal has made itself at home on the sun-drenched decking of a seaside cottage closed for the season.

Red Fox Returning to Her Litter with a Mouthful (Two Chipmunks)

We had a similar experience in South Wellfleet this spring.  A couple of female foxes raised their kits on the decks of closed cottages abutting the salt marsh of Lieutenant Island.  Not always looking in the best of condition, one of the females learned the skill of hunting chipmunks, an extremely plentiful food supply among the cottages of the Outer Cape.  Once summer residents return in June, though, life becomes more problematic for these wild foxes reared so close to human development.

Sippican Harbor Red Fox Foraging in Salt Marsh at Sunset

In 2005 we observed red fox in Marion Village along Sippican Harbor.  The one pictured above was hunting at twilight along the salt marsh surrounding Tabor Academy’s marine science center.  We spotted fox that summer and early fall romping through the Tabor campus, but haven’t seen any since then.

Five Star Day on West Island

Monday, October 13th, 2008

This afternoon we explored the shoreline of West Island in Fairhaven, Massachusetts.  West Island lies on the western shore of Buzzards Bay across the water from Woods Hole, Falmouth and Naushon Island on the east side.  The weather varied from overcast to broken sunshine with temperatures in the chilly 50s and a strong easterly breeze blowing in off the bay and ocean.

West Island on Left; Buzzards Bay in Center; Falmouth & Woods Hole on Right

West Island is not normally a specimen collector’s delight with shoreline filled inches deep and yards thick with codium and eel grass, but we chanced to arrive at dead low and we decided to explore the exposed tidal pools at the southern point of the island.

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West Island Shoreline with Heavy Codium & Eel Grass Wrack

It proved a five star afternoon: seastars, that is.  We had never found seastars on West Island before, but today they seemed scattered throughout the southern tip of the island, hiding in pools of water under rocks, foraging in tidal pools and hectored by ubiquitous seagulls.

First Seastar (Asterias forbesi) on South Point of West Island

Seastars (Asterias forbesi), often popularly called starfish, have five “arms” which can regenerate.  In fact, the natural history says that a seastar needs only a segment of the central disk along with one arm to regenerate into a new seastar.  We should be so lucky!  With mostly cloudy skies, brisk winds and chilly temperatures, seastars were moving even slower than their normal sluggish pace.  But while conditions weren’t in their favor, they did present us some great opportunities to document these magnificent critters.  The following sequence from our first seastar gives an overview of the creature’s dorsal (top) and ventral (bottom) sides.

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Seastar under Rock; Dorsal (top) and Ventral (bottom) Views

Seastars have spiny skin and belong to the phylum echinodermata along with sea urchins and sand dollars.   The top or dorsal surface of a common seastar consists of numerous scattered spines. Each of these spines are, in-turn, surrounded by tiny jaws called pedicellariae. The pedicellariae remove sand and other debris and occasionally snag passing prey.  The ventral (bottom) surface of the seastar’s arms is covered with tube feet that have suctions at the bottom of each foot.  Each tube foot works in coordination with other tube feet enabling the seastar to grasp prey or move about over various surfaces.  The orange spot in the dorsal core is called the madreporite and is responsible for the movement of water into the vascular system that controls the movement of the tube feet.  The clip below shows the tube feet in action as it moves a shell along one of its arms.

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Seastar Tube Feet on Ventral (bottom) Side of Arms

Seastars are said to prefer clams, quahogs, oysters, et cetera as prey, but will consume snails in a pinch.  Tube feet on the ventral (bottom) surface act like suction cups, securing each side of a bivalve shell while the arms pull them open.  The seastar then inserts one of its two stomachs into the prey and digestion occurs inside the clam, turning the mollusk into liquid that is guided into the seastar’s mouth by cilia on its arms.  The seastar sucks up the liquified clam.

Ventral Surface with Lots of Shelled Critters Moving Along Tube Feet

The second seastar we encountered had previously regenerated one of its arms which was obviously smaller than the other four.  This ventral image below illustrates the size difference.

Seastar with One Regenerated Arm

More active than the first seastar we had discoverd, this one showed off its speed as it “dashed” along a shallow tidal pool.  I know there are some who say that observing a sailboat race is akin to watching grass grow, but it’s clear that those folks have never invested time as spectators in the ultimate sport of champions: seastar racing.  If you have time to invest, we encourage you to enjoy the next two exquisite videos, beginning with the tube-foot dash through the tidal pool.

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Seastar Glides through Tidal Pool

For those who have survived the previous experience, you are well prepared for the ever-exciting seastar sport of gymnastics; that is, tumbling 180 degrees from ventral up to dorsal up.  Judging is based on artistic content, plus degree of difficulty.  A perfect five point landing earns the highest points, especially from the Eastern European judges who are more technically oriented.

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Seastar Acrobatics

We found another seastar hugging the underside of a rock and rescued a fourth from the ravages of pestering seagulls.  The fifth and last seastar we almost missed because it looked more like a butterfly lying in a shallow pool.  It had lost three of its arms and we thought we had run across a goner. 

“Butterfly” Seastar with Only Two Arms

But a closer examination revealed that this seastar had healed from its injuries and was a lively and healthy critter, perhaps proving the point that chopping up seastars only serves to create more seastars!

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Healthy Two-Armed Seastar

A surprising day for the Turtle Journal team.  Temperature, wind, clouds and season conspired against us.  But the gods smiled and gave us quite literally a five star day.