Posts Tagged ‘Turtle Journal’

Very Late Spotted Turtle in Brainard Marsh

Monday, October 20th, 2008

Mature Female Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata)

Every day brings a fresh surprise to Turtle Journal.  As we write this post tonight the thermometer has plunged to one degree above freezing.  This morning pegged a little higher at 41 and nudged ever so slightly upward during the day under clear skies and hefty northerly winds.  Since we figured critters would be scarce, we shot some distant photos of Bird Island this afternoon in preparation for a future kayak trip when winds subside.


Brainard Marsh, Sippican Lands Trust

On the way back to the office, we stopped at Brainard Marsh, a 6.1-acre conservation area under Sippican Lands Trust.  We’ve been monitoring the spotted turtles in a small pond in the middle of the property for the last few years.  With cold winds and chilly temperatures, we didn’t expect to find anything, but the area is quietly beautiful on an autumn afternoon.

Female Spotted Turtle; Notice the Anomalous Bump

Crunching over fallen oak leaves and wind-snapped twigs, we approached the pond as stealthy as the Keystone Kops.  At the edge of a moss covered bank, we spied a small, seemingly immobile rock with yellow dots about 25 feet ahead through thick bramble.  Even though we toe-danced forward, our crackles should have aroused a brumating turtle.  Yet we reached the still immobile “rock” that was cold to the touch and discovered a mature female spotted turtle, fully tucked in and apparently sound asleep.  She must have crawled up the bank to bask in the noon day sun, only to fall into chilly shadow by mid-afternoon.

Female Spotted Turtle on the Move

In bright sunshine she warmed up and stretched her legs.  This turtle sports quite a bump on her carapace (top shell), left of the 4th right costal.  You may notice that she also has a number of shell abrasions and an unusual number of vertebral scutes (8) running down the center of her carapace.

Female Spotted Turtle; Note Colorful Neck, Flat Plastron, Thin Tail

She could easily be identified as female based on gender dichromatism in this species.  Females have bright colored necks (orange or yellow), while males are darkly colored (brown).  Females also have a flat plastron (bottom shell), while males have an abdominal cavity in the center of the plastron.  Finally, females have a slender tail, while males have thick tail.

Male Spotted Turtle; Note Dark Neck, Plastron Concavity, Thick Tail

The image above is a typical male spotted turtle for comparison with dark colored neck, plastron concavity and thick tail.

Female Spotted Turtle Carapace (Top Shell)

A close-up of her carapace (top shell) shows the eight vertebral scutes down the center, as well as her yellow spots.  While they may seem ornate out of context, when she is within her element, the randomly spaced dots blend perfectly with background pond flotsam floating across the surface of the water.  For those who feel particularly sharp-eyed and skilled at turtling, you may enjoy the test below.  Find Waldo; that is, locate the spotted turtle in the photograph.

Where’s Waldo?

Yes, Virginia, there is a spotted turtle in the picture.

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.

Wake of Buzzards Haunts Wellfleet Harbor

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

True the economic picture has turned bleak with the market hovering around 9000 this morning as this post gets written.  Still, we were surprised yesterday by a wake of buzzards perched on a dead copse of trees and haunting Wellfleet Harbor.  (Yes, Virginia, “wake” is the collective noun for buzzards … and a rather appropriate one, we might add.)

Wake of Buzzards — Sign of the Times?

Certainly not a commentary on the town, I’m sure.  Wellfleet Bay is, in the opinion of Turtle Journal, one of the most gorgeous natural locations anywhere in the developed world.  Yet, even the most stone hearted, cold-blooded, turtle-like person could be forgiven for wondering whether these vultures might portend troubled times ahead.  Somehow, we suspect that this image won’t make it onto a glossy, chamber of commerce picture postcard of Outer Cape must-see sights. 

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Turkey Vultures Roost on Dead Trees Overlooking Wellfleet Harbor

These magnificent, if somewhat threatening, scavenger birds are turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) that feed almost exclusively on carrion.  While some might be repulsed, we’re certain that Ben Franklin would have considered them among the best of birds as he lobbied hard for the selection of the turkey rather than the eagle as our national symbol. 

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) in Wellfleet Harbor

Not very skittish, these buzzards allowed us to approach within a few feet, not too surprising because they have few natural predators and are protected from us under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  We clicked away in silence but when the camera beeped to change digital storage devices, the vultures decided the better part of valor was to take a long, graceful glide around Chipman’s Cove.

Turkey Vulture Rides the Thermals Above Wellfleet Harbor

Monet School of Menhaden

Saturday, October 11th, 2008

Island Wharf (Center); Long Wharf and Beverly Yacht Club (Right)

Last evening about an hour before sunset, the Turtle Journal team strolled to the Marion town docks at Island Wharf in Sippican Harbor.  Located just north of the Beverly Yacht Club, the docks lie close to Ram Island and the outlet to Buzzards Bay.  So many yachts are moored in the protected inner harbor that one might literally hopscotch from deck to deck across the broad waterway.  This busy location translates into fewer sightings of shy estuarine critters seeking safety from predators and dangerous encounters with humankind.

Inner Harbor and Island Wharf Left of Ram Island; Buzzards Bay Right

So, rather than “on assignment,” we were merely enjoying a pre-sunset, postprandial walk from Turtle Journal Central along the south bank of Sippican Harbor.  As we climbed down the ramp, we were surpised to see a group of menhaden circling within feet of the empty floating dock.  This late on an October evening, the sun had dipped so low in the southwestern sky that it bathed the harbor in long waves of light and transformed the scene into a blurry impressionist reflection of reality as the rays ricocheted in the thick, plankton rich top layer of harbor water .  Ghostly fish cruised through the water with silver scales casting off flashes of reds, blues, violets and eerie grays.

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Monet School of Menhaden

The effect was stunning; an impressionist’s canvas painted in light and life.  As we walked back with the image echoing in our memory, we thought had Monet kept fish in his Giverny water garden, he would surely have imported menhaden for such an autumnal moment.

Rescuing a Crabby Hermit (While Others Chase a Mermaid Manatee)

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

The Turtle Journal team ventured to Dennis today to document the wayward manatee that has somehow wandered from Florida up the Atlantic Coast and through Cape Cod Canal to become trapped by cold bay water in picturesque Sesuit Harbor near the biceps of Cape Cod.  We arrived about ten minutes too late to spy the manatee which had headed higher upstream to avoid the rush of chilly bay water flushed into Sesuit Harbor with the rising tide.  The story from the harbormaster says that a special C-130 is winging its way to the Cape and a team will “rescue” the manatee this weekend, so it can be transported back to sunny Florida.  We also learned that special food had been dispatched and would arrive anon to add more zest to this warm water creature stuck in Cape Cod fall.  News crews had flocked to this tiny hamlet to tell the tale of a Great Manatee Rescue.  The following YouTube piece appeared on Cape Cod Times on-line.

Manatee in Sesuit Harbor in Dennis on Cape Cod

Given a doe-eyed sea cow in the area, it’s not an easy task to pitch the rescue of a crabby hermit.  Mon dieu!  No one ever accused a flat-clawed hermit crab (Pagurus pollicaris) of the crime of cuteness.  Who cares whether such a shiftless critter that scavenges its own home survives?  Well, the answer to that question is the Turtle Journal cares, especially if we can get good footage.

Flat-Clawed Hermit Crab in Fractured Whelk Shell

We happened across this hermit crab, the lone survivor of a predatory seagull that had been slurping crabs from their adopted homes in whelk shells.  A scattering of empty shells lay among the rocky shore of Silvershell Beach off Sippican Harbor.  This one particular shell had been dropped from great height by the seagull, cracking the shell in multiple locations and exposing the crab to depredation.  Luckily for the crab, but not for the seagull, we arrived just in time to interrupt the process.  Unfortunately, its home was destroyed and the compressed shell had lodged the hermit crab so tightly that it couldn’t squirm out to find a new home.  But give a human a heavy rock and it can work miracles that even a seagull can’t accomplish!

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Meet the Crabby Hermit

Now that we had removed it from its fractured shell, we owed this crabby hermit a new home.  The seagull had left us two choices of whelk shells just about the same size as its former home.  Not being a crab ourselves, we placed the two whelk shells in the water equally distant from Crabby, but we nudged it a bit toward the shell on the left that seemed through a human eye the nicer home.  Wrong.

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Crabby Hermit Rejects the Human’s Favorite for a Home

Well, clearly even a crabby hermit has its standards and the home we had favored didn’t meet them.  Perhaps the whelk had too many slipper shells (Crepidula fornicata) that might irritate its tender abdomen as the hermit crab tucked its largeness into the tight quarters of its new prospective home.  Whatever the reason, our rescued hermit crab finally felt sufficiently comfortable with the second whelk shell to snuggle into its new home, protected once again from predators.

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Crabby Picks a New Home

Was it too much to ask for a simple thank you?  I guess so.  But then again, with a little anthropomorphic delusion, we can see Crabby waving its broad claw as its disappears under the rising tide.  Sure, it must have been waving.  Well, something was waving.  They don’t call them waves for nothing.  Do they?

Epilogue:  And the mermaid was rescued, too, on Saturday morning, October 11th, 2008 from Sesuit Harbor in Dennis, Cape Cod.  This animal sets the record of the furthest north that a manatee has ever been documented.  Oh, yes.  Dennis is a merman.

Manatee Rescued from Sesuit Harbor in Cape Cod Bay