Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Volunteers search beaches as turtle stranding season begins

By Doug Fraser

WELLFLEET — Charlie Marcus, 12, and his father Peter collapsed in their Eastham hotel room Monday night. They’d flown out from Los Angeles over the weekend specifically to go out on patrols with Massachusetts Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary volunteers, rescuing endangered tropical sea turtles that succumbed to the first cold water temperatures of the season and washed ashore.

Turtle stranding season is here, with 80 sea turtles rescued off Cape Cod Bay beaches over the past week, and brought into the sanctuary for their initial treatment before being shipped to the New England Aquarium turtle hospital in Quincy for rehabilitation.

Monday proved particularly tough. The winds turned bitter cold and blew hard out of the southwest, and the two walked the beaches, picking up helpless turtles and transporting them back to the sanctuary, where they also assisted staff and volunteers who were measuring, cataloging, and taking the first steps in treating the first big pulse of strandings this year.

“There was so much life and death all around us, we were exhausted,” said Peter as the two headed out Tuesday afternoon with volunteers Barbara Brennessel and her husband, Nick Picariello, of Wellfleet, for a mile-long patrol from Great Island to Duck Harbor.

“It was really cold and windy,” Charlie Marcus said.

Every year, hundreds, sometimes thousands of these cold-blooded sea turtles, Kemp’s ridley, green turtles, and loggerheads, become trapped in Cape Cod Bay in the fall, and either cannot find their way out or leave too late and hit a wall of cold water as they approach the open ocean and turn back to the fleeting warmth of the shallow bay. They attempt to shelter in place, waiting out what they may believe is a passing cold front. But with time and the deepening cold, their metabolism slows down and muscles no longer function. They surface, immobilized and at the mercy of the wind that either blows them toward the shore where they suffer from exposure to the biting winds, or out to sea where they eventually die.

Hundreds volunteer every year at the Wellfleet sanctuary for the turtle patrols and rescue work. Brennessel, a retired Wheaton College professor, found it was a natural extension of research work she’d done on terrapin turtles at the sanctuary, although her motives transcended the dispassionate approach of a scientist.

“Every animal is unique, and it’s important because they are endangered species,” she said as she rifled through a mound of dead eelgrass, extracting, and pocketing a plastic sandwich bag entangled in tangled black strands. “They are suffering too, and I feel compassion.”

Charlie was 5 when he read about the diamondback terrapins — which are endangered in Massachusetts, but not listed federally, and live in the brackish marshes from Cape Cod to Texas. He was moved by the Wellfleet sanctuary’s efforts to improve their chance for survival by improving habitat, protecting nests and raising hatchlings for eventual release, and started sending donations.

This year, for his bar mitzvah charity project, he decided to focus on sea turtles. Peter Marcus, a Los Angeles intellectual property rights attorney, was born in Brooklyn and lived in the Berkshires, but spent many childhood summers in Wellfleet. The two decided to return to the Cape to experience turtle rescue firsthand.

“Understanding the full spectrum of life is something I hope to teach my children in a way they don’t teach in school,” Marcus said.

“He’s got that empathetic gene,” Marcus said of his son.

All sea turtle species are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

“They’ve been here longer than people and we want them to stay that way,” Charlie said.

[Source and more photos can be found at the Cape Cod Times website HERE.]

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Why Are Endangered Sea Turtles Showing Up Cold and Seemingly Lifeless on Northeastern Shores?

A green turtle undergoes its daily physical at the
New England Aquarium’s rehab facility. (Danielle Hall)

By Danielle Hall
December 29, 2016

A Kemp’s ridley turtle lies motionless, seemingly dead, along the high tide line on Skatet Beach. It’s exactly as Bob Prescott predicted. Prescott, the director of Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary on Cape Cod, bends down to move the turtle out of the reach of the cold ocean water, and covers it in seaweed to shield it from the wind.

It’s 6:45 a.m. on November 24, 2016. When Prescott looked at the weather report the previous night, he saw that one of the year’s first winter storms would soon be descending on New England, crossing the Northeast from Buffalo to the Eastern coast and bringing with it icy temperatures, lake effect snow, and chilling winds. That’s when he knew he would be up early in the morning, walking the beaches of Eastham and Orleans, in search of turtles.

The middle of October marks the beginning of a dangerous “cold stun season” for sea turtles caught on these Northeastern shores. Hundreds of turtles, mostly Kemp’s ridleys, wash ashore each year once ocean temperatures sink to 50 degrees F. The geography of the Long Island Sound and the curving Cape Cod Peninsula create a barrier to turtles trying to swim south, away from rapidly cooling waters. Before they can flee, icy waters often stun the cold-blooded reptiles into a paralyzed state, leaving them at the mercy of the tides, currents, and wind.

Fortunately, Prescott has cold stun stranding predictions down to a science. Using years of wind and stranding pattern data, he understands how turtles are pushed by wind to specific beaches along the inner arm of the Cape Cod peninsula. But it wasn’t until recently that experts were even aware of the mass turtle strandings that occur across Northeastern shores. Turtle bones from archaeological digs suggest the phenomenon has been occurring for hundreds of years, possibly since the formation of the Cape.

Whether turtles disappeared at some point from Northeastern waters or we simply were unaware of their presence remains unclear. But in the past 30 years, scientists have been stumped by a sudden upsurge in turtles found stranded, motionless and on the brink of death along these shores.

Read more at HERE.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Eversource and Mass Wildlife hold turtle protection program

Turtles are often killed by heavy machinery used along the pathways

By Adam Strzempko

AGAWAM, Mass. (WWLP) – Workers from Eversource, tree service contractors, and environmental consultants, along with biologists from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife gathered on the pathway under the high tension power lines on Moylan Lane in Agawam.

“Eversource has more than 2300 miles of transmission rights-of-away in the three states that we operate, more than 600 miles here in Massachusetts. So we have a big stake in making sure that their habitat is protected and we take our role as an environmental steward very seriously,” said Frank Poirot of Eversource.

“Turtles can often get killed by machinery and heavy equipment so our goal is to train their staff as they’re working through these rights-of-way so they can avoid that direct mortality. Pick the animal up and move it to safety and continue on with the project,” said Mass Wildlife Endangered Species Biologist David Paulson.

The Eastern Box turtle and the Wood turtle commonly live and breed along transmission rights-of-way.

Every year Eversource holds the training for those who work along those paths.

Source and Video: WWLP 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Truro scientist finds link between box turtles and power lines

By Lee Roscoe
Banner Correspondent

March 20. 2016

Clarke placed transmitters on the backs of female box turtles and found that they flocked to the cleared areas under the Outer Cape’s power lines during nesting season. Photo courtesy Raymond Clarke

It’s not easy keeping up with box turtles.

Dr. Ray Clarke, a scientist who spent three years tracking the land-roving reptiles through the woods of Truro and Wellfleet, learned that first-hand.

“It’s hard work. You’re out in 80 to 85 degrees, alone. It's fine going through the pine oak forest. But when you enter the wetlands it can become impenetrable. Once I had a fall over muck — the log broke and I started to sink in. Brier can tear right through your jeans. Cell phone service is spotty,” Clarke says.

His study focused on how the right-of-ways around the Outer Cape’s power lines might be affecting the breeding habits and survival of Eastern box turtles, which are listed as a species of special concern in Massachusetts. A Truro resident, he’s received degrees from McGill and Yale universities and taught ecology and “many kinds of biology,” including evolutionary and marine, at Sarah Lawrence College, where he’s now a professor emeritus. He wanted to avoid retirement’s shock with an ongoing science project, so he brainstormed with Robert Cook, Cape Cod National Seashore ecologist, and initiated a study to appease his curiosity about the relationship between power lines and box turtles.

Clarke wasn’t sure he’d find turtles under the lines, but because he knew from the scientific literature that these terrestrial turtles like to nest in open, disturbed places, he guessed he would

He was correct. From 2011 to 2013, in May and June, he captured 18 females under NSTAR/Eversource power line right-of-ways from South Truro to North Wellfleet. As the turtles lay only four to six eggs, the nests were very hard to discover, so he qualifies the accuracy of whether they were nesting or not: "I only saw one turtle laying eggs, but the pattern of females moving to the right-of-way during the nesting season is pretty strong circumstantial support for that view."

With grants from the Cape Cod National Seashore and help from Lori Erb, who was surveying turtles statewide for the Mass. Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, Clarke placed radio transmitters on the backs of adult female turtles, tracking them with a radio antenna.

“Each turtle’s ‘ping’ is a separate frequency, so you know who you’re following. My expectation was that when the signal would get loudest you’d be near the turtle. But radio waves bounce off trees and hills, and the terrain was hilly, so it could get frustrating when I couldn’t track them efficiently.”

It was a learning curve. “Using tracking equipment was new to me. I'm not a turtle guy. I’m a fish guy.” Describing years of field work, Clarke said he would scuba dive to do population studies of fishes of coral reefs, asking, “How can so many species, hundreds, exist together?” He wanted to understand how they compete and divide up niches, discovering in the process new information which he has published in scientific journals.

The biologist slogged on for more than three years, following his turtles from spring through November, until they dug into the soil under the leaf litter to hibernate. He found that “over a half to two-thirds came in from pretty far, from over 300 meters, to nest along basically a pretty narrow one-kilometer bandwidth the length of the right-of-way.” (He also placed data loggers in the earth to discover that nest areas were 12 or so degrees warmer than turtle hiding places in the forests.)

Clarke’s study suggests, but doesn't yet prove, "a potential for a significant negative impact of the right-of-ways on the long-term health of this population.” Using the “precautionary principal” Clarke advises, “We should avoid potential harm until we know more”— that is, until we know for sure that adult turtles nesting under lines on right-of-ways, as well as hatchlings, are not being run over by utility trucks or suffering illness or death due to sprayed chemicals such as Glyphosate, which the utility company uses to suppress weeds.

Clarke adds that the right-of-ways are also inviting to raccoons and other predators that dig up and eat eggs.

While the Seashore has the biggest population of box turtles in Massachusetts, Clarke says that because of their ability to attain advanced age — 50 to 80 years and beyond — the turtles may appear to be doing well when in fact, because their rate of reproduction is so slow, any hit to their population has repercussions for a very long time.

Clarke says he may write a memoir of his exploits as a field biologist. He is studying how to do that with Rosalind Pace, and his paper on the box turtle study is currently under peer review for possible publication.

Source: Wicked Local

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Worker's snap decision saves turtle in Billerica

By Rick Sobey,

BILLERICA -- Instead of the chicken crossing the road, why does the turtle cross the road?

Actually, the more appropriate question on Wednesday in Billerica was: Who can help a very large snapping turtle cross the road?

Fred Baker of the Billerica Highway Department was the one to save the day, helping the snapping turtle get across Oak Street.

When he saw the turtle, Baker grabbed a neighbor's recycling bin. The heavy-equipment operator placed the turtle in the container and helped it across the street. He survived getting bit by the snapper, but it was close, said Highway Superintendent Ed Tierney.

Baker later told Tierney that he "did what anyone would do."

With many turtles native to Massachusetts labeled "endangered" and "threatened," it's more important than ever to save them, turtle enthusiasts say. For instance, the Groton Turtle Conservation tries to reduce the high injury and mortality rate of Groton's turtles on roads.

This wasn't the first Billerica Highway Department animal encounter. Last week, the department contacted Animal Control because a cat was stuck up in a tree. Animal Control called the Animal Rescue League of Boston, which came out to save the cat.

"We do come upon these once in a while," Tierney said, adding that employees and police once helped save six ducklings in a catch basin at the corner of Boston and Lasallette roads.

A very large snapping turtle was having a tough time getting across Oak Street in Billerica on Wednesday. He got some help from the Highway Department employee Fred who put him in a container and helped him across the street. SUN/JOHN LOVE

Read more:

Saturday, June 27, 2015

New England Aquarium to open new sea turtle hospital exhibit

BOSTON (AP) — The New England Aquarium is opening a new exhibit next week that highlights how it takes care of injured sea turtles.

Visitors to the interactive exhibit that opens Wednesday can learn how injured and endangered turtles are diagnosed, treated, rehabilitated, and then released back into the wild.

Visitors will hear how cold-stunned turtles’ hearts beat slower than healthy turtles after they wash ashore from cold ocean waters. They can see how turtles undergo CT scans, surgery, blood work, X-rays, and treatments with antibiotics, nutrients, and nebulizers. There are simulated respiratory, skeletal, and digestive diagnostic tests that visitors get a chance to try out themselves.

The aquarium last fall took care of more than 700 sea turtles that had stranded in the region.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Freshwater turtles find Cape safe haven

This box turtle isn't afraid to cross a lawn in Orleans. Staff photo by Rich Eldred

By Rich Eldred

It’s time for a new press agent.

Lets face it. Our terrestrial based Testudines, that’s the order of shelled reptiles in zoological speak, or turtles for the layman, dominate Cape Cod from tip to tip. Yet it’s the saltwater variety that get all the press. And why? Because the wash up on our shores in a state of cold-stunned disbelief. Even the diamondback terrapin, which spends the winter safely hibernating in the mud of Wellfleet Bay, has books, such as Barbara Brennessel’s "Diamonds in the Marsh," penned about it.

But turtles of the freshwater persuasion get little respect.

Box turtles are no longer as common as they once were throughout southern New England, they don’t get along well with roads or manicured backyards. But southeastern Massachusetts is a population center and the numbers on parts of Cape Cod, such as the Orleans/Chatham area, are quite high.

Box turtles are the most terrestrial of all our turtles, they don’t even breed in the water. They’ll mate in the spring, when they meet beneath the powerlines, and sometimes in the summer, but the eggs must be laid in late spring, for it takes close to 90 days for them to hatch. Box turtles can actually lay eggs up to four years after mating.

They’ll dig a false nest or two before creating a real one. Nest predators plague all turtles; everything from raccoons and skunks to ants and plant roots.

Unlike other turtles the box turtle's lower carapace is hinged and it can shut its shell tight. So once a turtle reaches sufficient size it is pretty immune from predators and they are famously long-lived. Turtles 80 years of age have been documented and younger turtles, up to about age 15, can be aged by looking at the concentric growth rings on the scales of the lower shell, the plastron.

Roads are the greatest peril to the box turtle. Fortunately, most of their walking around is done just after dawn and in the summer heat they retreat to little coves or self-made shelters under blueberry bushes and leaves. They are more active during rainy weather but tend to have very limited home ranges, sometimes less than a football field in size.

Spotted turtles, with bright yellow spots on each scale of the shell, are not nearly as common as they once were on Cape Cod. They are highly aquatic and prefer swampy acidic cranberry bogs, small streams and weedy ponds to open lakes. The decline in wild cranberry bogs has probably pushed their numbers down to the point they’re now considered rare. They’re easiest to find in the spring when they’re looking for a mate, the dark waters are clear and the spots shine like beacons. Look for them in the ditches or canals of cranberry bogs, or in the flooded wild bogs in the dunes.

Spotted turtles don’t lay a lot of eggs, just three or four, and the use of pesticides in cranberry bogs, and their favored diet of insects, also limits their population.

Snapping turtles are the largest and fiercest freshwater turtles, the record is an 80-pounder and they can reportedly snap a broom handle with one bite. But if you aren’t a duck or a fish you aren’t in much danger if you see one in the water. They’re much more snappy when caught out of the water – note that their shells leave much of their body exposed compared to the box turtle. To compensate for relatively meager shells, the snapping turtle has a long neck that can reach back to its heels.
They are the only edible freshwater turtles, and at one time people would keep one in a barrel out back, fattening it with food scraps in preparation for turtle soup. They’ll range far from water to lay up to 80 eggs in a nest, and those nest are frequently dug out soon after. Never-the-less females after return year after year to the same nesting site.

Similar to snapping turtles but much smaller is the stinkpot or musk turtle. These are probably the least observed turtles on Cape Cod, but they aren’t uncommon. Unlike painted turtles they rarely bask, and seldom wander far from water. The 4-to 6-inch turtles look like oversized olive pits, their shells covered with algae, as the prowl the sandy bottom of large open ponds. They’re active at dusk and active at dawn.

They get their unflattering common name because they exude a stinky, foul-smelling musk when handled. Their shells are also relatively small, so they possess long necks, sharp jaws and a feisty disposition. You can expect them in almost any pond of size but they do like some vegetative cover.

Painted turtles, with their black carapaces and bright yellow plastrons are our most common and visible turtles. There are hundreds in Spring Brook at Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and they love to bask on low hanging branches, rocks and on the knotty roots of wetland shrubs, plopping into the water when visitors walk by. They’ll even bask stacked up like boxes, you wonder how the lower turtle gets any sun. They need ultra-violet light to metabolize calcium to build their shells.

They’re struck with wanderlust and unfortunately are frequently run over by cars as they stroll from pond to pond. While other turtles hibernate the winter away, some painted turtles swim beneath the ice. They’ll begin basking as early as a warm march afternoon.

Their diet is split between plants and small fish, frogs etc.

The closely related Plymouth redbelly turtle is endangered in the state (just 300 left) and while it may have once occurred on Cape Cod is now restricted to large ponds in Plymouth County on the other side of the canal. Look for it in the Miles Standish State Forest in Plymouth. The turtle was once considered a separate species but is now considered a disjunct population of the red-bellied cooter, which ranges from New Jersey to Carolina.