Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Nature responds to Cape Cod's warm winter

Spring is here. Actually, it never left.

By Rich Eldred
Posted Feb 08, 2012

The 50-degree days this week were another reminder that so far this is the winter that wasn’t. Outside of occasional cold days temperatures have been balmy and it’s rained far more than snowed.

“It’s been a crazy year,” observed Mark Faherty, science coordinator at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. “We had a green darner (a dragonfly) in December at Fort Hill. Insect activity is high because of the lack of frost.”

Faherty is also president of the Cape Cod Bird Club and he knows Cape Cod always gets its share of stray birds, lost migrants or ones blown in by storms. But the weather has enticed several to hang around.

“There has been an ash-throated flycatcher at Fort Hill (a bird more at home in the western scrub), a painted bunting in Eastham (it lingered at a feeder until Jan. 25) and a western kingbird in Orleans,” Fahey reported. “There was a massive flock of warblers at Marconi [Wellfleet].”

Those warblers should’ve gone south.

“Small insect eating migratory birds go to the Caribbean or central America where they spend the winter,” Fahey noted. “This December there were an inordinate number of insectivores ones that were hanging around the Cape. A black-throated blue warbler is still in Wellfleet, coming to a suet feeder. There have been a lot of late [migratory] seabirds, shearwaters into late December.”

A grey catbird was reported in Barnstable in mid-January. On the flip side, birds that winter on Cape have found other homes. Ducks that usually float on our ice-free ponds can do the same on the mainland.

One of the most unusual birds was a brown booby.

“That’s a big mostly tropical seabird. The only place they breed is Hawaii, you can see them off Miami,” Fahey explained. “One was found in Dennis in August and it ended up on the Breakwater in Provincetown through mid-December. So a bird that is never seen north of Miami was hanging out in Provincetown fishing with cormorants.”

The same bird turned up at Cape Cod Canal at the end of last month. The mid-Cape Christmas bird count (Dec. 27) produced a record 136 species.

While the weather has been kind to birds, so far, it has been a grim story with cold-stunned sea turtles.

“We’re up to 149 turtles, so it’s well above average,” reported Sanctuary Director Bob Prescott, who head sup turtle rescue efforts. “That’s a pretty high number, and because of the lateness of the season there are more dead than alive. We had 55 live (Kemp’s) ridleys and four [live] loggerheads out of 13. Right now there are only 31 live ridley’s and two live loggerheads in rehab. So in the end we’re seeing significant mortality.”

Normally, the cold-blooded turtles go south but some get caught in the relatively warm waters of Cape Cod Bay. When the cold weather shocks them the wind and waves toss the limp turtles up on shore. This year the warmer temperatures and lighter winds have left them in the Bay longer - chilled by low temperatures for a longer time but not helplessly washed ashore.

“This was a new experiment in nature,” Prescott said. “It was a nice experimental design. The turtles didn’t strand until well after Thanksgiving. There weren’t many northwest or westerly winds to blow them ashore. We were getting southwesterly winds into early December.”

In early January the water temperature was still 44 degrees, very warm for that time of year but too cold for turtles.

“On big windy days the water over the tidal flats in Brewster and Orleans is 10 to 12 degrees colder,” Prescott noted.

Most of the dead turtles are juveniles. Prescott pointed out that next year could be the first when the impact of the Gulf oil spill shows up. The spill was in 2010 and the two-year old juveniles will be here next summer.

“We’ll see what the sea surface temperatures mean for springtime. Often when we get warmer waters we get more warm water fish, black sea bass, scup might spawn in the Bay in greater numbers,” Prescott added.

One concern is deer ticks. When the temperature tops 35 degrees they’re active. A freezes will slow them down but not stop them as it would a mosquito.

“They actually synthesize glycerol, they make anti-freeze,” said Larry Dapsis, an entomologist with Cape Cod Cooperative Extension Service. “So if you go to an area like Wisconsin where it’s 30 below, they’re happy out there. We’ve recorded Lyme disease cases 12 months a year.”
Cape Cod remains a deer tick hotbed.

“Based on our research about 50 percent of adult ticks carry Lyme disease,” Dapsis said, adding that he’s been getting tick calls since October.

“Deer ticks carry two or three diseases, one that’s got out attention is babesiosos. Over half the cases in Massachusetts occur on Cape,” he noted.

Babesiosis attacks blood cells and causes flu-like symptoms.

Dapsis predicted that the dearth of acorns last fall will led to low mice populations next summer. If the deer tick nymphs can’t feed on a mouse they are more likely to bite humans.

“In 2004 we had a lack of acorns. In 2005 we had a 47-percent increase in Lyme disease,” he explained.

So there is something else to look forward to. He also predicted a big year for winter moths this spring, not so much because of the warm winter, but due to a heavy flight of mating moths in late November.

Dapsis warned gardeners to be on the lookout for two new pests: the brown marmorated stinkbug, an imported bug that invades homes in the winter and devastates crops in the summer. The spotted winged drosophila (a fruit fly) has also arrived in Massachusetts and can destroy soft fruit crops. It has spread here from British Columbia in just two years.

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