Category Archives: Nature

Screech Owl Rescue and Release

Screech Owl Rescue and Release: A Wildlife Success Story

by: Natural Resource Officer Sean Kortis


Watch a video of this owl’s release

Last month, I was working in town when I received a report from Sandy Neck Park Manager Nina Coleman regarding a small owl that was trapped within the chimney of a home in Marstons Mills. I drove with Coleman to the residence where we located the owl in the back corner of the fireplace. At first glance, the owl was difficult to locate. Owls are masters of camouflage, and this particular animal happened to be a Gray-Morph Eastern Screech Owl. Needless to say, it managed to blend in quite well with the ash inside the fireplace, and it took a few seconds to realize that it was not just a charred piece of wood we were looking at!

After locating and identifying the owl, we started on a rescue plan. I donned the bulky wildlife rescue gloves (Screech owls may be small, but their talons are no joke) while Coleman staged a safe barricade in front of the fireplace, just in case the owl decided to fly out into the house.

While we had the advantage of a small, confined fireplace, the owl still managed to evade several capture attempts by ducking under the grate and hopping from side to side. However, we were ultimately successful in capturing the animal and placing it safely in our wildlife rescue bin!


While the owl looked to be in good health, we wanted to first transport it to the Cape Wildlife Center in order to get a proper check-up and determine if the animal could be rehabbed and/or released. As always, Cape Wildlife Staff did a wonderful job in helping us out with this animal. After a few good checks, it was time to bring the animal to the aviary to determine if it could safely and successfully take-off, fly, and land. We followed Cape Wildlife staff to the aviary and watched this owl nail all three tests flawlessly. Besides smelling a little bit like soot, staff decided this animal was healthy. A silent flight and graceful landing meant it was ready to return home that day!


Coleman and I were joined by Sandy Neck Operations Supervisor Donna Bragg on a quest to find a nice location for this owl’s release. A scenic cranberry bog bordering a forested pocket of woods on the outskirts of a nearby Marstons Mills neighborhood seemed like a perfect fit. On our walk down to the bog, an owl pellet was observed on the ground in front of us – perhaps this was the owl’s domain before it found its way into a chimney during the last harsh winter storm?

owl pellet

After opening the wildlife box and grabbing the owl, it did not take long to take flight and return to the forest it likely called home. Watching it fly off, completely silent, weaving through a maze of branches, was an incredible sight and and incredible experience; to witness such a majestic bird in-person.

Throughout the years, we have observed, captured and rescued a lot of injured wildlife. Unfortunately, many of these animals do not get happy endings like this one. But this experience was something that I will never forget. To see such a majestic creature receive a second chance is special and it makes it all worthwhile.



Barnstable Natural Resource’s Annual Public Terrapin Release @ Sandy Neck

Check out this video of our annual public Terrapin Release courtesy of Cape Cod Community Media Center!

It was a beautiful afternoon, and despite high tides and a saturated marsh from the new moon, everyone had a blast – especially Lucky, Crimpy, Diamond and Last Chance who were eager to return to the marsh where they will spend the rest of their turtle lives!

Seals on the Beach: What to Do



Some of the most common questions and interactions we get this time of year have to do with observing seals, a type of marine mammal, out of the water and laying around on shore.

To some it may seem unusual to see a “marine” mammal out of the water. However, unlike dolphins and whales, seals do in fact leave the water for a variety of reasons, and it is actually critical to their survival in many cases.

Here are some important notes to keep in mind should you encounter a seal on the beach.

  • It is quite normal for seals to leave the water and haul out on beaches, especially this time of year. Juvenile seals are finally hunting and surviving on their own, and the first winter can be difficult. These animals must often haul out on the sand in order to warm up, rest and conserve energy. By disturbing a resting seal, you may be putting its life at risk if it is forced back into the water when it is still weak or vulnerable.
  • Seals, like all marine mammals, are Federally protected. You must keep at least 150ft away from these animals at all times, for your safety and the safety of the animal.
  • The International Fund for Animal Welfare’s (IFAW) Marine Mammal Rescue Program can help to assess seals for any potential injuries or issues an animal may be suffering. To report an injured marine mammal or even to report sightings of healthy marine mammals, please call the IFAW Marine Mammal Hotline at 508-743-9548IMG_20170126_105049478
  • Although dogs are allowed off-leash at Sandy Neck until March 15th, it is paramount that your pets also stay at least 150ft away from any marine mammals on the beach. Seals and Dogs are closely related (Order- Caniformia) which means both animals have the potential to transmit pathogens and disease across species. For the safety of our wildlife and the safety of your pets, it is important to stay away from any interactions which could potentially put one or both parties in danger.
  • While many seals, especially juveniles appear cute and friendly, approaching these animals is dangerous. Seals have a set of sharp teeth and will defend themselves if they feel threatened. A bite from a seal can easily become infected leading to long-lasting medical issues. This additional stress can also be detrimental to the animal’s overall welfare.

The winter is a wonderful time of year to walk the beaches and observe the landscapes and wildlife of Cape Cod. However, it is important that we all be considerate of the animals who are struggling to make it through a vulnerable time of the year. Please maintain a safe distance and allow these creatures to rest and recover from the harsh elements of the winter season.


Sean Kortis
Natural Resource Officer




Terrapin Hatchlings Emerge!

unnamed (4)Sandy Neck Turtle Monitor Eva Golden and Sandy Neck Park Manager Nina Coleman pose with a couple of day-old Terrapin Hatchlings before releasing them safely into the salt marsh

Keep a careful eye out while hiking on the marsh trail of Sandy Neck. For the next 3 months, these tiny, quarter-sized turtle hatchlings will be emerging from the sand dunes and making the treacherous journey back into the marsh where they will spend the rest of their lives. Although thousands of hatchlings may emerge, only about 1 in 100 will make it to adulthood.

Luckily, the phenomenal weather this summer has allowed many nests to begin hatching earlier than normal, providing these cute little hatchlings with plenty of time, energy and resources to give them a better shot at survival.

unnamed (3)


 Sean Kortis                                                                                                                                                              Barnstable Natural Resource Officer


Diamondback Terrapins Emerge to Nest at Sandy Neck Beach

It’s July on Cape Cod. The hot sun hangs high upon the air, clouded by a layer of haze from the harsh humidity. The greenhead flies have finally erupted, and they swarm the banks of the Barnstable Great Marsh in search of unsuspecting victims.
But amidst all of this chaos, Diamondback Terrapins are taking advantage of the sweltering sunshine, as they emerge from the banks of the marsh in order to lay their nests among the towering dunes of Sandy Neck. Rarely seen, these turtles quickly disappear back into the grassy marsh, leaving nothing behind but a unique set of tracks that wind and weave across the dunes beyond the trail.
The Diamondback Terrapin is a threatened species in the state of Massachusetts. Sandy Neck is their northern-most range, and one of the last remaining strongholds for this species on Cape Cod. Terrapins are the only turtles in the world that live in brackish water; in estuaries where freshwater runoff from rivers and streams mix with the tidal flow of the oceans to form a diverse habitat rich in productivity.
These fascinating creatures will continue to nest until mid-July, laying between 10-20eggs at a time before departing back to their native marshlands until next summer. The warmth of the hot summer sun will help to incubate the eggs under the sand until they hatch in the fall, when they will have to make the treacherous journey back into the marsh as quarter-sized hatchlings.
So when the heat of the summer and the frustration of the greenheads seem to be getting the best of you – just remember that this weather is an important part of the beautiful changing seasons of Cape Cod. For without it, our threatened Terrapins, who have persevered for so long, despite habitat loss, hunting, shifting ecosystems, and depredation, might fade among the grains of sand that blow upon the dunes, and disappear to nothing but a long-forgotten story that flutters through the breeze.
So thank the hot and humid days, for they ensure the future generations of Terrapins an opportunity to hatch into this wonderful land that we call Sandy Neck for many years to come.
Sean Kortis
Barnstable Natural Resource Officer

Signs of Spring – Amphibians Emerge to Breed at Sandy Neck

Sean a
If you are driving to Sandy Neck in the evening, you may notice a loud and familiar sound along the road. The high-pitched chorus of the Spring Peepers has returned to nearby wetlands at the park. These quarter-sized tree frogs are quite loud for their size, and can be heard over a mile away. While the first peepers were heard faintly in February, they are now out in full force, calling out in hopes of finding a mate. Spring Peepers are often one of the first signs of spring, and an indicator of warmer days ahead.

Here are a few videos of the Spring Peeper activity at Sandy Neck last week

Last week, we were also lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the rare and elusive Eastern Spadefoot emerging for the first time this year. While there was no breeding behavior documented, their presence above ground so early in the year is a great sign. Warm temperatures, heavy rains and a high water table will hopefully provide the right conditions for this state-listed species to breed in 2016. Spadefoots are listed as Threatened in the state of Massachusetts, and they have not successfully bred on Sandy Neck since 2013.
Sean b
Remember, amphibians will continue to breed throughout the Spring and early summer. On warm, rainy nights, please drive slow and keep an eye out for Frogs, Toads, and Salamanders crossing the road.

Snowy Owl release on Sandy Neck


Norman Smith -- with help from his granddaughters Alexa and Carmella -- release Wampatuck, the latest Project SNOWstorm owl. (©Ray McDonald)

Norman Smith — with help from his granddaughters Carmella and Alexa — release Wampum, the latest Project SNOWstorm owl. (©Ray McDonald)

Here’s a great way to ring out the old year and usher in 2016. The newest Project SNOWstorm owl is Wampum, an adult female captured at Logan Airport in Boston by Norman Smith and relocated to a safer spot on Cape Cod earlier this week — with one of CTT’s new third-generation GPS/GSM transmitters on her back. She’s the 36th Snowy Owl we’ve tagged since Project SNOWstorm started in December 2013.

Wampatuck, already an adult, was originally banded by Norman last winter at Logan, and returned this year. (©Ray McDonald)

Wampum, already an adult, was originally banded by Norman last winter at Logan, and returned this year. (©Ray McDonald)

What’s more, this is Norman’s 35th year of work with snowies at Logan, one of the longest-running Snowy Owl projects in North America. During the mega-irruption of 2013-14 he moved more than 120 snowies from the airport, but even a more normal winter like this one, when numbers are much lower, he’s been busy — Wampum was the 15th snowy he’d moved from Logan this winter.

Caught, but in her case not banded — because she was already wearing one of Norman’s USGS leg bands. Turns out this was an owl he’d first captured and banded last winter at Logan, when the molt pattern in her flight feathers showed she was already an adult.

(Watch for a profile of Norman and his decades of Snowy Owl research in an upcoming blog.)

Wampum’s transmitter was underwritten by a generous donation, and while the donors wish to remain anonymous, we are nevertheless grateful for their support.

I had a chance to help Norman fit Wampum with her harness and transmitter, at the Blue Hills Trailside Museum in Milton, Mass., which Norman directs for Massachusetts Audubon. Because she was a bit of a biter, Norman draped a thin cloth hood over her head as we started, but like most Snowy Owls Wampum was remarkably calm in the hand as we eased the woven Teflon ribbon harness around her body and over her wings, testing it repeatedly for fit before we knotted, sewed and glued the attachments.

In addition to recording precise GPS locations, CTT's new third-generation transmitters are include a temperature sensor and an accelerometer to record movement. (©Ray McDonald)

In addition to recording precise GPS locations, CTT’s new third-generation transmitters are include a temperature sensor and an accelerometer to record movement. (©Ray McDonald)

Wampum was something of an anomaly this winter — the third female  Snowy Owl Norman has caught at Logan so far, tipping the scales at a respectable 2,260g. She was also the first adult; all the others have been juvenile males. In contrast, SNOWstorm collaborator Tom McDonald in upstate New York has caught all adults, and all but one of them have been female. Whether that’s just coincidence, or an actual pattern of distribution this winter, is anyone’s guess.

Regardless of age or sex, Norman and Tom report that all the snowies they’ve caught this winter have been fat and healthy. That’s in contrast to the situation in the western Great Lakes, where more than a few snowies that appeared in October wound up at rehabbers, unusually thin. It’s possible these birds were coming from different areas, and perhaps with different dynamics driving their movements south.

Norman and two of his granddaughters, Alexa and Carmella Nihill, released Wampum on Dec. 30 near Barnstable on Cape Cod, about 60 miles (95 km) southeast of Logan. Normally, we name our tagged birds for their capture or release sites, but in this case the site name — Sandy Neck Beach — had already been used. (Sandy Neck, you may recall, was a bird Norman tagged in 2014 that subsequently drowned on Martha’s Vineyard during a violent nor’easter.)

Why “Wampum”? The word comes from the Algonquian wampompeag, and refers to the tubular, purplish-black beads that coastal tribes made from the shells of quahog clams or (in the case of white wampum) the inner spiral of channeled whelks. In addition to its ceremonial and diplomatic value, wampum became the general currency of the 17th century Northeastern fur trade, and the area where Wampum (the owl) was released was one of the Native centers of wampum manufacture in the 1600s.

And by the way — if Carmella (age 5) and Alexa (3) seem a little young to be helping their grandpa handle large raptors, it’s in their blood — their mother Danielle, Norman’s daughter, and his son Joshua, were helping their dad trap, handle and band Snowy Owls and other big birds of prey when they were about the same age.

In the days after her relocation away from Logan Airport, Wampum moved south across Cape Cod and west to uninhabited Nonamessett Island. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

In the days after her relocation away from Logan Airport, Wampum moved south across Cape Cod and west to uninhabited Nonamessett Island. (©Project SNOWstorm and Google Earth)

After her release, Wampum hung around Sandy Neck Beach until dark, then headed south across the cape to Hyannis. She spent most of the day on the harbor breakwater and on Great Rock, which sticks up about a mile from shore. As dusk fell on New Year’s Eve, she took off across the southern shore of the cape moving west toward Falmouth.

Relocated owls usually bounce around a bit — often hustled along on their way by established snowy owls defending their winter territories — until finding a quiet spot of their own. Fortunately, Wampum hasn’t been moving back toward Logan. She continued south and west, and at last report was on uninhabited Nonamessett Island, one of the Elizabeth Islands that extend southeast from Cape Cod, between Buzzard’s Bay and Martha’s Vineyard.  (Like most of the Elizabeths, Nonamessett is owned and managed by the Forbes family of Boston, which made its shipping fortune in the 19th century.)

It will be interesting to see if Wampum stays in the Elizabeth Islands, which would provide plenty of good habitat and solitude, or if she crosses the channel to Martha’s Vineyard, which is a traditionally good spot to find Snowy Owls in winter. Either way, we’ll know about it, thanks to her solar-powered transmitter. We’ll have her interactive map posted soon, and updated regularly thereafter.

Her transmitter just visible between her wings, Wampatuck heads for the end of Sandy Neck after her release. (©Ray McDonald)

Her transmitter just visible between her wings, Wampum heads for the end of Sandy Neck after her release. (©Ray McDonald)