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Don Lewis, Massachusetts Audubon Society,
Fox Island Wildlife Management Area

Winter Catchup ó 8 March 2002

Winter is a hard season for animals out here at the end of the universe.  Harsh conditions, wailing noríeasters and tidal surges combine to compromise the hardiest creatures and leave them stranded along the Cape Cod shore.  This year is no exception.

Sea turtles strandings are an annual event, beginning this year on 7 November with the first Kempís ridley and continuing until the last live turtle ó a loggerhead ó was rescued on 29 December.  The New England Aquarium in Boston, where our sea turtles go for initial treatment and rehabilitation, invited volunteers to visit with their rescued turtles on 26 February.  With the media frenzy surrounding the event, one might have thought the Beatles had re-invaded the States.  But, no, it was only the latest wave of off-shore visitors: the Turtles.

Looking quite different from their cold-stunned appearance on the beach, the turtles proved in fine form.  A Kempís ridley rescued on the afternoon of 16 December (see A Blizzard of Sea Turtles) in 39°F water temperature showed how much she had improved.  It really is hard to believe that these turtles are the same species we pull from the beach.

The loggerhead I lugged off Linnell Landing at sunset on 13 November (see The Big One That Didnít Get Away) also made a miraculous recovery and now swims freely in her huge tank at the aquarium, eating green crabs and praying for an early springtime release.

Meanwhile, back in the Land of Ooze, harp seal pups began to arrive by the dozens, lounging on beaches and hiding in hurricane holes to catch a breather from the storms.  Most are quite healthy, if a bit tired, and need to seclusion the Cape offers in winter to recharge their batteries.  Some, though, need a bit more attention.  But not this character whom I discovered resting on Lieutenant Islandís plover point.

And this last week we witnessed our most serious mammal stranding of the year.  A pod of white-sided dolphins followed bait fish deep into Wellfleet Harbor to its northwest corner, just as the tide dropped precipitously beneath them.  First three dolphins stranded in the tidal flats near the Herring River dike, while a dozen more were trapped at the riverís mouth.  A construction team, working on a cottage overlooking the harbor, raced down the bluff, stripped off their heavy boots, and waded into the icy water to save these magnificent 400 pound mammals.  With raw hands turned pink then white in the cold, they splashed water on the dolphins for over an hour until the Stranding Network arrived on the scene.  Even then, they refused to leave until forced off the flats by the returning flood tide.

At least seven of the animals were freed and released into deeper water and a few more stranded throughout the bay got away as the tide gushed back in.  As usual, the whole community responded.  From shellfish constables to construction workers, all pitched in to work side-by-side with the rescue professionals of the Cape Cod Mammal Stranding Network.

In addition to white-sided dolphins and some common dolphins, weíve also had a spate of harbor porpoise strandings this last few weeks.
On Saturday night, a woman heard cries coming from the marsh grass in Chipmanís Cove.  She vectored on the sound and discovered an ailing harbor porpoise left high and dry by the receding tide.  I reached the spot in a few minutes and kept the animal warm and comfortable as we waited for the stranding team to arrive.  With temperatures plunging, luckily I had a nice “turtle” afghan in the jeep, perfect for just such an occasion.

On the domestic turtle front, Bubbles has become demanding while waiting for her springtime release.  She seems completely healed from the punctured carapace and cracked bridge (see Holiday Guests ó 13 December 2001) she suffered in mid October.  In fact, she insisted
I install an indoor shower in her tank to remain clean and pretty for her April coming-out party.

Finally, the over-wintering hatchling exposed by storms in January (see Expecting the Unexpected ó 18 January 2002) has adopted a regular behavior pattern while she waits out winter.  She burrows under the sand in her faux paludal tank for about a week, then slips out on a bright shiny morning, strolls around the aquarium to flex her muscles, then soaks in her fake pond to rehydrate.  Later in the day she searches the tank for the perfect spot and spirals back down under the sand for another week-long nap.