Cold-stunned Turtles Find Friends Across the East

By Christine Harris

Sea turtles are exotic creatures encountered while snorkeling off the shores of tropical islands, but many sea turtles will journey as far north as the Gulf of Maine. In fact, leatherback sea turtles will travel as far north as the Arctic Sea in pursuit of jellyfish. Like all reptiles, sea turtles are cold-blooded and abrupt decreases in water temperature can leave them stunned. This is what happens to dozens of sea turtles that wash ashore on the beaches of Cape Cod Bay each fall in Massachusetts.

An adult Kemp's ridley sea turtle.  Photo courtesy of USFWS.
An adult Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

This fall has seen the most stranded turtles of any fall on record. The turtles are juveniles that rode the jet stream northward and have been foraging in the area during the warmer summer months. As the temperatures cool the turtles begin to head south but many of them become trapped in Cape Cod Bay. A cold snap in early November quickly cooled water temperatures cold-stunning many turtles. When they become stunned the turtles can no longer swim and are carried along by wind and currents. Fortunately, coordinated efforts from volunteers, non-profit and government organizations, and numerous facilities in Florida, North Carolina and beyond have saved hundreds of these doomed turtles.

Between November 3 and November 26 the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary with the help of countless volunteers and the Cape Cod National Seashore recovered over 1,000 sea turtles, both alive and dead. Of those turtles, around 600 were found alive. About eighty percent of the turtles recovered were Kemp’s Ridley turtles, the world’s most critically-endangered sea turtle species, while the remainder were green sea turtles and loggerhead sea turtles, also endangered species. Even a couple of unusual hybrid sea turtles have been found. Scientists are hopeful that the fact that such large numbers of juvenile Kemp’s Ridleys have washed up could be an indicator that the species is being protected on its nesting grounds on the Gulf of Mexico.

With such a large number of turtles, the small Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary was soon teeming with chilled turtles. Typically stranded turtles found by the Sanctuary are brought to the New England Aquarium’s Rehabilitation Facility in Quincy, Massachusetts to continue their recovery. With the unprecedented influx of cold-stunned turtles this fall, the New England Aquarium facility quickly filled and other rehab options were needed. Fortunately for hundreds of turtles, aquariums and rehab facilities across the East stepped up to take them in.

In the early morning hours of November 26, 193 Kemp’s Ridleys that were at the New England Aquarium’s Rehabilitation Facility were loaded into padded boxes and driven to Joint Base Cape Cod. There the turtles were loaded onto a Coast Guard HC-144 aircraft that flew them to Orlando, Florida. After arriving in Orlando the turtles were distributed to seven marine animal rehab facilities in Northern and Central Florida. The same morning another fifty Kemp’s Ridley and green sea turtles were brought to Norwood, Massachusetts where a private pilot met them and flew them to North Carolina to be distributed to aquariums.

A green sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.
A green sea turtle. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

Though the influx has slowed, turtles are continuing to be found on Cape Cod Bay beaches regularly though at this point most that are washing up are dead. A dedicated group of people continue to survey the beaches daily in search of any survivors.

Featured image: A Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle hatchling on a beach in Alabama. Photograph courtesy of USFWS.

A Greener Thanksgiving

By Christine Harris

Thanksgiving is a day of overindulgence. Americans eat and drink too much. We travel long distances by car or plane. From an environmental perspective, Thanksgiving is not typically a green holiday. However there are many easy ways that you can decrease your emissions and use of resources and still have a meaningful holiday. Here are a few tips to make your Thanksgiving a bit greener:

Grow your own: In most parts of the country fruits and vegetables can be grown well into the fall. With a little planning many of your Thanksgiving favorites can come right from your own backyard or a plot in a community garden. If it’s too cold to keep the garden going into November, harvest earlier and freeze or can.

Check out your local farmer’s market: If you can’t grow it yourself, buy it from someone else who has grown it locally. You may even be able to find a locally raised free-range turkey at a farmer’s market or local farm.

Public market, Seattle. Photo by Christine Harris.
Seattle Pike Place Market. Photograph by Christine Harris.

Limit travel: Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel days of the year. Millions of us get on the road or in the air to celebrate the holiday with friends and relatives. Consider keeping your Thanksgiving celebration close to home. Technology has given us wonderful ways to connect with loved ones without having to burn tons of fossil fuels. Use face time or Skype to say hi to Grandma instead of making the 300-mile drive. If you are obliged to get on the road, make sure that your tires are well inflated to improve gas mileage. If your family has more than one vehicle take the more fuel-efficient option and carpool with friends and family if possible. Air travel uses far more fossil fuel than driving so if you are flying consider researching options for carbon offsets.

Plan the meal: If you are hosting, have a plan for what you will prepare and what your guests will bring. This will eliminate the possibility of having several of same dish and being left with too many leftovers.

Use what you have: Disposable plates and silverware are convenient, but using dishes you already have saves you money and lessens that amount of waste you produce.

Courtesy of Wiki Commons.
Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Use natural decorations: If you like to decorate opt for natural decorations you can make on your own instead of elaborate store-bought centerpieces. Collect brightly colored leaves or cut some of that bothersome bittersweet in the backyard to use for homemade decorations.

Rethink Black Friday: One day of indulgence is often followed by another for those who partake in the retail “holiday” Black Friday on the day after Thanksgiving. If you plan to shop on Black Friday go into it with a plan. Figure out what you need and where you need to go to get it and stick to only those purchases and places. Don’t buy things you don’t need just because they are a good deal. If you can resist the urge to shop on Black Friday you can celebrate the counter-culture holiday of Buy Nothing Day instead. Avoid the crowds and spend a relaxing day with family and friends.

Featured image: American turkeys. Photograph by Christine Harris.

Birds and Brew: How Coffee Plantations Can Help or Hinder Migratory Birds

This yellow warbler summers in North America but travels thousands of miles to spend its winters in Central America. Photo by Christine Harris.

By Christine Harris

As we sit and observe warblers, tanagers, and grosbeaks as they flit about our yards and visit our feeders each spring, it is hard to comprehend that these small wonders have traveled thousands of miles from the forests of Central or South America to arrive at our doorsteps. We enjoy these colorful birds while they are here, but how often do we stop to think about where they go in the winter, and what they find when they get there?

After oil, coffee is the most valuable legal export in the world and more than half of the world’s coffee is grown on plantations in Central and South America in Brazil, Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Peru, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Columbia. Prior to the 1970’s the majority of these plantations produced shade-grown coffee in which coffee was grown under existing forest cover or under trees planted by the farmer. These types of farms were valuable to the avian community in providing cover and natural food sources. In response to concern about a fungus and a desire for higher yields, coffee growers began to develop more sun-tolerant varieties of coffee in the 1970’s and soon full-sun coffee farms had taken the place of most shade-grown farms. Though full-sun coffee farms produce higher yields, they support less than a quarter the number of bird species as shade-grown farms. Additionally, full-sun farms don’t reap the benefits that trees provide to shade-grown farms in soil quality and erosion control and in turn require the use of more fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

As full-sun coffee farms take away valuable habitat, eliminate food sources, and introduce harmful chemicals into the environment, birds that live in Central and South America year round or as winter migrants are facing more of a challenge in finding healthy, food-bearing habitat. Consumers have become more aware of the impact of full-sun coffee farms on the avian community, and many are demanding shade-grown, “bird-friendly” coffees and in turn a panoply of certifications and labeling mechanisms have cropped up to inform consumers of what they are buying. Though wading through the labels can be confusing, knowing the meaning of different certifications can help you to make an informed decision when buying coffee.

Products labelled “bird-friendly” by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center are subject to the most stringent guidelines. These coffees are organic and meet strict requirements for both the amount of shade and type of forest where the coffee was grown. The environmental certification most often seen on coffee is that of the Rainforest Alliance which also certifies tea, cocoa, and fruit. In order to receive this certification coffee must be produced using alternatives to chemical and pesticide use (though it does not require organic certification), and farms must practice erosion control and limit water use. The Rainforest Alliance does have shade requirements, though not as strict as those required for “bird-friendly” certification. Additionally, coffee blends containing only 30 per cent of beans meeting certification requirements are allowed to carry the label. “Shade-grown” labels are unregulated and appear on many specialty coffees, but carry no guarantee of healthy forest composition or density.

Fortunately there are now several “bird-friendly” coffee options available. To find a distributor near you check out the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Bird Friendly Search at: