Watching Wildlife While Social Distancing

Around the country, Covid-19 has shut down wildlife programs and nature walks. But on Cape Cod, marine mammals and shorebirds live on, and naturalists continue to observe.

Find more of our Covid-19 coverage.

Cape Cod, which Henry David Thoreau described as the “bared and bended arm of Massachusetts,” is one of the last stopping points for endangered right whales in the United States. In late winter, these 70-ton cetaceans come to Cape Cod Bay to feast on zooplankton before moving onto feeding grounds farther north by the end of April. Nearby, short-eared owls swoop down to catch voles, mice, and the occasional songbird on the dunes of Provincetown, which Thoreau called “the sandy fist.” If you’re lucky, this time of year on Cape Cod it is possible to see both animals during the same morning walk.

photo of osprey
Osprey numbers have increased from only two pairs on the cape in 1972 to more than 200 pairs on Cape Cod and surrounding islands in 2018. Photo by Susan Wellington for Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, Mass Audubon.

But it isn’t always easy to spot wildlife. “The ocean’s surface is a bright shiny mirror that we most often see ourselves in,” says naturalist, poet, and Cape Cod resident Elizabeth Bradfield. “We don’t know what’s going on under the waves.”

Like many naturalists around the world, Bradfield’s plans are on hold because of the coronavirus. As nature centers, parks, and environmental research organizations around the nation close to limit the spread of Covid-19, the seasonal migrations of many animals may go on without the usual human fanfare. For the time being, naturalists are forbidden to lead groups of people into the wilds, and yet many are finding ways to reveal the social lives of animals during the pandemic.

The naturalists of Cape Cod provide one example. They live and work in a rich landscape, all the while aware of its vulnerability. With climate change, more powerful storm surges erode the shoreline, sometimes creating new inlets — damaging existing wildlife habitat as well as human habitations up and down the cape. Extending into the Atlantic Ocean, the peninsula consists of rocks and debris left behind by retreating glaciers around 15,000 years ago and additional sand brought by wind and waves. Animals come to its estuaries and salt marshes, hardy woodlands, and surrounding waters to feed, grow strong, and prepare for breeding.

This time of year, Jesse Mechling, director of Marine Education at the Center for Coastal Studies, usually leads whale walks to Race Point and Herring Cove (the knuckles of the cape) to see right whales. He goes out before the walks just to see what’s there. “They’re wild animals, so you never know.” Sometimes the groups walk a mile-and-a-half on sand to the lighthouse off Race Point before seeing whales. Other times, they find them when they first walk onto the beach.

“Some days it’s really dramatic and amazing. You see these giant skim feeding animals, or you see breaches,” says Bradfield. “Other times if you go down to the beach it can be really hard to get a sense of what you’re seeing unless someone can talk you through it.” To the untrained eye, skim feeding right whales look like rocks moving upon the water. They hold the top of their mouth just above the surface as they use their baleen to trap prey.

A skim feeding North Atlantic Right Whale in Cape Cod Bay. These up to 70-ton cetaceans feast on microscopic zooplankton. Photo by Center For Coastal Studies, NOAA permit #19315-1.
A skim feeding North Atlantic Right Whale in Cape Cod Bay. These cetaceans, which can weigh up to 70-tons, feast on microscopic zooplankton. Photo by Center For Coastal Studies, NOAA permit #19315-1.

But Mechling’s walks have been cancelled for the time being, as are his school visits. Students won’t get to enter his life-size inflatable right whale to act out the fate of zooplankton as it passes through the whale’s three stomachs. Later in the spring, students probably won’t get to board boats to collect water samples to get a microscopic glimpse of the world the whales inhabit.

People need to see right whales and learn about what is happening to them, says Mechling, since right whales are “headed possibly to extinction in our lifetime.” Currently, there are around 400 North Atlantic right whales in the world. Many visit Cape Cod Bay each year. In 2017, the center’s aerial observation team spotted nearly half of the global population in one ten-hour flight. Recently, the team was grounded for two weeks after one pilot came into contact with someone who had the coronavirus.

While the aerial survey team resumes their flights, Mechling hopes the public will also observe the whales online. For now, he has turned to producing videos to post on the center’s Facebook page. He plans to shoot some whale walks, leading viewers up over the dunes, and along Race Point and Herring Cove in search of whales feeding close to the shoreline. He also plans to start filming a short “daily beach report” with his son. They’ll visit different beaches, and measure the salinity, dissolved oxygen, and temperature of the water; these numbers provide clues to ecological health. Combining science with stewardship, they’ll also clean up the beach for sixteen-minutes-and-twenty-seconds, returning it to something like it was in 1620 when the pilgrims arrived.

Phil Kyle, a former president of the Cape Cod Bird Club, is still waiting to hear if he will be interpreting wildlife for Barnstable Harbor Ecotours this summer. For now, he goes birding, volunteering his time to Long Pasture Audubon Sanctuary in Barnstable for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and logging what he sees via the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, contributing to the platform’s ongoing effort to engage citizen scientists and track bird populations. This data allows scientists and conservationists who spot something unusual, like a sharp decline of nesting snowy egrets on a nearby island, to take action, such as to limit human access.

In the first week of March, Kyle woke early to visit the Herring River in Wellfleet (on the lower forearm of the cape) to see the water roiled by thousands of herring fish as they swam upstream to spawn. Osprey dove and plucked fish from the current. Two opportunistic bald eagles trailed the osprey until they dropped their catch.

Unlike the endangered right whale, populations of osprey have risen steadily over the past forty years. At their lowest point in 1972 there were only two pairs on the cape. In 2018 there were over 200 pairs on Cape Cod and the surrounding islands alone.

Osprey nest in unlikely places — chimneys, buoys, and dead trees — as well as on man-made platforms on marshes. In Harwich, there is a nest above a telephone pole and another on a light pole in the center of Bud’s Go Kart track. At the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, where Kyle was head naturalist before he retired, the osprey live stream offers another avenue for public observation, showing an osprey nest in the making: a rising stack of dried cordgrass, sticks, and branches, some with pine cones still attached. Later in the season, one might see a colorful scrap of fabric or a child’s plastic shovel, as osprey are known to weave debris into their aeries.

Elsewhere on the cape, Brian Carlstrom, superintendent of the Cape Cod National Seashore, takes stock of the damage done by the winter. “We’re in pretty good shape,” he says. Typically, this time of year, the staff assesses “mother nature’s” impact on stairways, ramps, trails, and bathrooms, as well as bicycle paths that wind through the wilds of Provincetown. While nature centers and facilities are closed because of coronavirus, the trails are open. Signs urge beach walkers to practice social distancing to limit the spread of Covid-19 and to pack out their own trash.

photo of cape cod dunes
While Cape Cod nature centers and facilities are closed because of coronavirus, trails are open. Photo by Patrick Burns.

When I spoke to Carlstrom over the phone, he stood at Crosby Landing Beach on the bay side (the bend of the elbow of the cape). Four people walked nearby, but didn’t get too close. “I just saw my first osprey today,” he told me. “That is a sure sign of spring.” He and his staff have been posting on Facebook for the Cape Cod National Seashore — recently, a picture of the rising sun “dedicated to all those who are providing critical services during this crisis.” In another post, an image of a piping plover stalking the shoreline on its twig-like legs. These once-endangered sand-colored birds forage in small groups or alone, and make their nests on the sand. Targeted conservation efforts have helped the population begin to rebound.

When I ask Bradfield about why the interpretive work naturalists do is so important, she says that after spending some time outside with a naturalist, people return home better “attuned to the emergence of certain animals and flowers and their passages through.”

She adds, “I find a lot of solace in examining the lives of animals and seeing how they engage and helping them to understand human lives as well.”

Bradfield frequently posts on Instagram what she sees in her private walks along the beach and bay. Piles of clamshells, a whale vertebra, “a coyote feasting on a harp seal carcass,” a video of a rivulet of water making a track through dry sand; her posts show seasonal changes and the animals whose paths she has crossed, and, ultimately, how species are intertwined.

While Covid-19 ripples through communities, isolating friends and families, the beaches remain, the water in constant motion, the whales breaching or feeding, spending time frolicking together in what are known as surface active groups. The shorebirds fly overhead, or stand still among the grasses, coming close, then drifting apart. Housebound, we might take the naturalists up on their invitation to look, even if from afar — as they walk the beaches, hoping to see whales, or bend to the surf to pick up a shell. Ospreys will build their nests and fill them with young in the months to come. The question is, when those birds take their first flights in July and August, will we still be watching, whether through a screen or from a nearby trail?

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