Wildlife in Wellfleet

White fox, Truro, by Desmond  Tetrault

White fox, Truro, by Desmond Tetrault

We’re fortunate in Wellfleet to have frequent interactions with wildlife.

We’ve always had many birds around the house, but are now likely to have more since we just set up a bird feeder. Even though it’s late in the season, some chickadees and American goldfinches have been happy to discover that. The goldfinches seem like a different species from the bright yellow ones we saw in the spring mating season.

Birds that live near the water here, such as loons, mergansers, gulls, and gannets have also been feasting. Last week the water temperature dropped suddenly, resulting in the stunning of many small fish. The birds were happy to scoop up the unexpected bounty, so they’re very visible near shallow waters.

Blurry fox, Wellfleet marina

Blurry fox, Wellfleet marina

A more unusual visitor is the white fox. We know of two now, one residing in Wellfleet and one in Provincetown. We saw the Wellfleetian at the pier last night. It was as interested in us as we were in it. The quick smartphone photo doesn’t show much, but at least you can see that the eyes are not red as they would be for an albino fox. This condition is called leucistic. See also A fox of a different color in Provincetown – Gate House.

Turtle rescue at Mass Audubon

Turtle rescue at Mass Audubon

The same cold snap that stunned the fish and pleased the birds was a disaster for the sea turtles. Hundreds of turtles in Cape Cod Bay have been washed ashore. Most are endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles or leatherback turtles, and one is the largest loggerhead turtle ever to come ashore in Massachusetts (300 pounds, 3 feet long). About a thousand have been rescued and taken to the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, and later to the Animal Care Center in Quincy.

Citizen Science in Wellfleet

Herring River estuary

Herring River estuary

The current habitat for communication between science and the public is dysfunctional. One need only look at the “debates” about climate change or disease prevention to see the problem.

Scientific findings are regularly misrepresented and sensationalized in the mass and social media. Even when well presented, those findings are ignored or distorted, attacked through faulty arguments, or tied to unsupported inferences. At its best, current science/public dialogue tends to be one-way, with the occasional enlightening article, book, or video, followed by public commentary. This rarely serves to deepen  understanding, much less lead to enhanced inquiry.

State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference 

Wellfleet marina

Wellfleet marina, note osprey nest, upper left

The 10th Annual State of Wellfleet Harbor Conference held yesterday at the Wellfleet Elementary School represents an alternative to that typical dysfunctional science/public relationship. One refreshing note was an effort by scientists to explain not only the results, but also the assumptions, methods, and theories behind them. People asked about the selection of factors to study, or about habitat assessment in tidal river versus bay sites, not to discredit a finding, but to understand more about how results were achieved. The conference was itself a small data point for the case that ordinary citizens can engage in science-based discussions, given enough time and well-crafted presentations, displays, videos, and other materials.

Poster session

Poster session

You can see from the schedule that there was a wide variety of presentations and posters. There was talk about dolphin mass strandings, bathymetry, auditory evoked potential, sentinel species, estuaries, cross-shore sediment transport, salt marsh backup, turtle gardens, terrapin clutches, brumation, eutrophication, cultching, winter/spring blooms, quahog seed, anoxic shellfish, temperature-dependent sex determination, anthropogenic effects, and many other topics related to the diverse ecosystems of the Outer Cape.

There were some good videos from the Friends of Herring River and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Brian Sharp complemented the latter with a talk and a tour of the IFAW van used for marine mammal rescues. This was especially salient given the mass strandings of dolphins in Wellfleet Bay in the early part of the year.

Mayo Beach, with groin

Mayo Beach, with groin

These presentations emphasized the interconnectedness of ecosystems, with humans as an integral part. Mark Borrelli from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies talked about how groins and revetments prevent local beach erosion, e.g., to protect a house, but shift the erosion elsewhere. Thus, they are simply “erosion relocation structures.” Sarah Martinez from the Mass Audubon Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary presented a poster on the consequences for horseshoe crabs of their use as bait for conch and eels. Moreover, the revetments that relocate beach erosion also disturb the spawning, much of which occurs above the high tide mark.Vincent Malkoski from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries spoke about the data on horseshoe crab fisheries. These findings have led to harvesting closures for five days around the new and full moons in May and June to allow lunar spawning. Diane Murphy from the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension and Woods Hole Sea Grant spoke on the relation between oyster and clam growth and the wide variety of habitats they find in Cape Cod Bay.

Avoiding Either/Or Thinking 

Fishing boats

Fishing boats

One consequence of creating the forum in this way was that discussions avoided the either/or kind of thinking often expressed in mainstream media. For example, although most of the participants shared deep commitments to preserving natural environments and generally opposed rampant development, I heard statements such as “you can’t say that dredging is always bad or good; the decision is about choices and values.” There would then be productive dialogue that critiqued human-made alterations of the shoreline, estuaries, ponds, and so on, but acknowledged values others might hold for commerce, recreation, or housing. Zero-based planning  is no longer an option in the Wellfleet area: Every change today, even one that seeks to undo earlier construction, interacts with a myriad of alterations over centuries and can have unintended consequences for the environment.

Interactive map

Interactive map

Multilogue

Through Q/A, posters, and ample time for informal discussion, the conference fostered one to many, many to one, and many to many conversations among participants including scientists in the same and other disciplines, students, and general public. There was an interactive map on which people could write their hopes and concerns and peg them to a geographic spot. The map activity will be continued at the library to solicit input from those who did not attend the conference. I saw numerous examples of scientists taking seriously the concerns or knowledge of the public.

This was perhaps enhanced by the fact that many of the projects involve direct citizen science participation , e.g., the river herring count, the horseshoe crab spawning assessment, terrapin sightings, and the dolphin rescues. Others involve coordination with local activist organizations, such as the Wellfleet Conservation Trust.

Some were of special relevance to those involved in commerce, such as oyster farmers. Jessica Smith and Barbara Brennessel from Wheaton College had an interesting poster on a study of genetic diversity among hatchery versus reef oysters, showing, as one might expect, a greater diversity for the reef oysters. This provides indirect support for seeding oyster beds with pelagic, rather than hatchery, veligers. Some oyster farmers still collect these wild larvae for seeing their beds, despite the method being considered slower, difficult, and old-fashioned. A quahog farmer of 30 years was able to add comments about changes over three decades that was missing from most of the shorter-term scientific studies.

Sustainability

IFAW van

IFAW van

Perhaps a meeting like this requires a supportive habitat such as Wellfleet in order to thrive, just as the terrapins, horseshoe crabs, eels, dolphins, ospreys, and other creatures do. Would it fail to survive elsewhere?

Richard Lewontin points out in The Triple Helix that no organism can survive without a supportive environment, but also that no living environment exists without organisms. In this case, the conference organism succeeds because of the town environment, but also shapes it to become more supportive of exactly the kind of discussion heard today.

The conference was well-organized with good snacks, including clam chowder. I came away with a renewed appreciation for the special beauty of Wellfleet, but also sadness about what we’ve done to destroy this, and so much else of the natural world. The fact that a conference such as this is so rare punctuates that sadness. How much did you hear from political candidates or mass media this year about protecting the environment we all live in and depend upon?

Small but good things are worth preserving. I hope to make the conference an annual event.

Almost counting herring

Black Pond, Wellfleet

Black Pond, Wellfleet

Because of the warm winter on Cape Cod this winter, the alewives are returning early to the local rivers. Alewives are a type of herring. They’re anadromous, meaning that they live in the ocean, but swim up freshwater streams to spawn.

Their population is declining in New England, so the River Herring Network organizes herring wardens and volunteers (called “monitors”) to assess their numbers during the spring run. The counts go on for two months, with volunteers assigned specific times each week to count.

field test kit

field test kit

Locally, the count is connected with efforts by the Friends of Herring River to restore that river to something akin to its condition before the Chequessett Neck Road Dike was installed and the surrounding wetlands were developed.

Susan got the official training for the count, so she’s the real Monitor, but I went along as a volunteer for the volunteer. I guess you could say that I was an Unofficial Herring River Estuary Alewife Monitor Assistant (UHREAMA).

water temperature

water temperature

We decided to cycle to the site for our first scheduled count. It’s only a half hour away, but has some good hills and soft sand paths to make the cycling interesting. We passed Black Pond and a friend’s house on the way. You can these and other photos at photos from the count.

The official count site is at a beautiful bend in the tiny Herring River, with a fallen willow marking the spot and serving as a convenient shelf for the field test kit. Byu the way, there are many Herring Rivers. This is the one in Wellfleet.

Here’s the data for our first foray:

  • Time: 9:07- 9:17 am
  • Air temperature 12 ºC
  • Water temperature: 13 ºC

Unfortunately, the number that matters most is this one:

  • Number of herring: 0

Somewhere else, this bridge over the Herring River would be seen as in need of a little repair, but here, it’s just a reminder of the alliance between culture and nature in the National Seashore area. That alliance isn’t without its problems, as we can see in the decline of the Herring River and its herring, but at least there’s an effort to try to make it work.

Popper, Wittgenstein, and the raccoon

We had a visitor last night. Like a previous one of her kin, she managed to visit every room, leaving small gifts on the floor and thoughtfully rearranging books, wall hangings, pottery, and other items.

This one had a special talent for philosophy. She was particularly interested in Karl Popper’s critique of teleological historicism and his reanalysis of Plato, as he develops in The Open Society and Its Enemies. One question she wanted to explore was whether raccoons enter houses with the intention to be ornery or do they just fall in because I haven’t come up with a way to secure the skylight screen. Popper would argue that there are genuine alternatives in history, multiple causal processes, and a role for raccoon intentionality. But I’m not sure how that helps to answer the question.

Hoping to appeal to her desire for conscious agency as well as her stomach, I set out some cut apples and banana peel in a trail across the counter to an open window. But her drive to remain curled up in the philosophy section was too strong, and she ignored all my offerings.

I noticed that our visitor preferred to stay in the Popper section and didn’t give any time to poor Ludwig Wittgenstein, his antagonist in the famous confrontation at the Cambridge University Moral Sciences Club. As there was a wood stove in the room, I thought I might reason with her using the fireplace poker, just as Wittgenstein had done with Popper in 1946. In that event, Popper stormed out, which would have been a pleasant outcome in this case, given my moral perspective.

But she held her ground, insisting that Wittgenstein’s view of formal philosophy as nothing but language games was an abdication of moral responsibility, that the Open Society could not be maintained without strong raccoon ideals. I argued that “open” in this case did not include raccoons. This led to a discussion about the danger of a priori categories and the need for dialogue across differences. While I appreciated the general argument, I felt that Wittgenstein might have a valid point in this case, and that it was time to terminate the game.

I assembled a set of tools in order to move to the next stage in this debate: the poker, large leather fireplace gloves, a broom, a blanket, a powerful flashlight, fresh fruit to appeal to her culinary desires. All I was missing was the courage to grab on to her and show her to the exit. As I said above, poking with the poker had no effect.

Fortunately, we had some helpers with more resourcefulness and courage than I. It took all three of them and a large plastic tub, but they managed to corner the raccoon in the tub, cover her with a blanket, and take her to the woods, where, I believe, her interest in environmental philosophy can be more profitably continued.

References

Photo opportunity

I was recently invited to appear in a book for the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. They’re featuring people who played an important role in creating the museum, famous people who enjoyed the museum, and for some reason, me.

This project involved making photos of the people in scenes with museum artifacts. In my case, that was to be antique telescopes. It’s not hard to find antiques, since even the new ones from my day are now over half a century old. The photography was to take place in Austin.

My photo shoot went OK in the end, but was a near disaster in many ways. Skipping over several minor problems, which made me a few minutes late, I arrived at what I thought was the site, the J. J. Pickle Research Campus, only to be told that I had come to the wrong place. Michael O’Brien, the photographer, did not have any office there, but could definitely be found at CMA (?) on the main University of Texas (UT) campus. *All* I had to do was drive down Burnet Rd to 183, take IH 35, get off at 24th St, and find my way to his office. That was a white knuckles drive in the Austin traffic, in an unfamiliar car, especially when I don’t see well while I’m waiting for new contact lenses.

Anyway, I eventually got to the main campus, but at the opposite corner from CMA. I was given a map, but it didn’t show construction. So, I’d drive ten blocks down a narrow street, with cars on both sides, people on bicycles, pedestrians walking haphazardly, while searching for a street sign I could read. Then I’d come to a construction barrier, which meant I had to back up and go a different way. I eventually reached what I thought was CMA.

There were of course no parking spaces, save for one with large signs declaring how your car would be towed within seconds and crushed to a pinpoint of dense matter for use in a cosmology department experiment if you even thought of using it. It was my mother’s car, but she wasn’t there, so, deciding for her, I took the chance. Inside CMA, which by now I’d decided was a top secret agency, known only to a few others with three-letter acronyms, I asked for Michael O’Brien. No one would admit knowing him, and he wasn’t in the directory.

I kept pressing on, meeting people in the special needs communications department (obviously some kind of intelligence agency function), radio-television-film (propaganda department), and eventually journalism. Under relentless pressure, I finally got someone to claim him.

Unidentified But Helpful Person: Would you like his phone number?
Me: Thanks, no, I have that and already called it, leaving a message.
UBHP: He has a cell number.
Me: Oh, can you give me that?
UBHP: No, but I could call it for you.
Me: Please do.

To my surprise, we reached Michael. Almost immediately another call came in, undoubtedly from some little-known war region, so we went on hold, I had to move to another room, needed to, but couldn’t find the other phone, had trouble reconnecting, and so on. Eventually, we were able to talk, most certainly being recorded by CMA operatives. I apologized; he apologized.

Then, I learned where he was, at the J. J. Pickle Campus: “All you need to do is get across the campus, head north on that same IH 35, take 183 north to Burnet Rd. Just come in the main gate [exactly where I’d been before].” We’re in building 6.

So, I retraced my previous harrowing drive, finally making it the photo shoot. I was sweaty, dehydrated, frazzled, rumpled, everything one needs to be ready for an expensive, high-stakes photo op.

Building 6 turned out to be Vertebrate Paleontology. It’s filled with fossils of creatures who blessedly never had to deal with Austin traffic, construction, vicious tow operators (I got away this time), or  gigantic campuses. I wanted to explore the building, but we (the photo crew of three and I) were after all now an hour late.

So, we moved directly into photos. Poor Michael and team must needed to take several hundred, searching for one in which I didn’t look like the after photo from the evil tow company’s crushing operation. Eventually he succeeded.

But I’m almost certain that when he said he’d gotten a good one, that he’d focused on the telescope alone, and I was out of the frame. As Dewey’s idea of end-in-view tells us, standards for success need to accommodate to changing reality. The sharks managed to stay away.

Anyway, we were done. I hope the book is a success in spite of me.

One bonus of the adventure was that I got to meet Wann Langston, a famous UT paleontologist (above left). He’ll be featured in the book because of his research on fossils in Texas, which played an important role in the Museum’s early development, including my own experiences in the “Rocks and Fossils” classes.

Langston shared some of his current work on fossilized giant crocodiles from the Big Bend area. I think they were Deinosuchus. He showed us several models made from creatures with jaws big enough to swallow a man whole, especially one who by then was exhausted from his photo shoot (harder than you may think) and his explorations of the UT campus(es).

Blind people and elephants: We need to ask

blind_elephant[These comments grew out of a discussion in our Community Engagement class.]

The parable of the blind men and the elephant (see also the Wikipedia entry) has been told and retold many times. In that story, blind men feel different parts of the elephant, each concluding that the elephant is only what they directly feel.

For example, as John Godfrey Saxe’s poem re-telling would have it, different men saw the elephant as a wall, a snake, a spear, a tree, a fan, or a rope. E.g.,

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, “Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The story reminds us that reality may be viewed differently depending upon one’s perspective. But our fascination with it reveals that we, too, see only part of reality, making judgments about blindness based on not seeing actual blind people encountering actual elephants.

In Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See, Javier Téllez takes the story in a new direction, by asking blind people to interact with a real elephant. (interview with Téllez and curator Mark Beasley)

As quoted in Greg Cook’s review in The Boston Phoenix, participants said things such as:

“It felt like a tire, a car tire, except it was warm. It wasn’t a good feeling.” “When I first went to touch it, I bumped into it, and I thought it was the wall. It felt like thick lizard skin.” “I felt an ear that felt like a hat and a trunk that felt like a hand.” “You feel the ridges and the bumps. And you can feel the life pulsing through it. You can’t hide it.” “It felt like I was touching some curtains.” “I imagined it to be quite large, but I couldn’t really sense how wide or tall it was. . . . And then I couldn’t tell if the damn thing was breathing or not breathing.”

Despite all the many tellings and re-tellings of that story, the actual blind people saw the elephant in ways not included in the standard versions of the parable. They helped me to see both blindness and elephants in new ways.

It’s good to recognize that people see the world differently, but to know what those different ways really are, we need to ask.