This spring, I have found a new project – I know- it boggles the mind! I have become involved with the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute’s Blanding’s turtle rescue.
Blanding’s turtles are on the endangered list, meaning they could face extinction. So with the patient tutoring from turtle veterans, Diane and Harold, I went out today for my first day in the field.
It was a cool morning, mostly sunny with some cloudy periods.
We drove along a road that had been used by Bowater (lumber company) into a stand of old growth forest. We kitted up and walked down to the Medway River. We collected the canoes and paddled along a breathtakingly beautiful section of river.
Our first order of business was to check turtle traps that had been set earlier in the week. The traps are rather like lobster traps. The turtles swim in, attracted by the bait, and can’t get back out. Great care is taken to place the traps so the turtles can breathe.
The first couple of traps we checked were empty. The next trap contained 12 painted turtles and one Blanding’s. How exciting! The Blanding’s,Sue, was a senior turtle, who had already been equipped with a transmitter so we examined her, checked her identifying notches, and let her go.
We finished checking the traps and then went ashore and walked along the pond’s edge. It was very hummocky and we had to be careful not to step into deep holes. Taking along a paddle to judge the bottom as we walked along saved us from some soakings.
We tried using the radio transmitter. It is definitely something that needs to be practiced. Eventually we did find another Blanding’s – she was in a trap we had just checked out! She also had a transmitter.
We noted her notches and let her go.
We returned to the canoes and spotted three more turtles and were able to scoop them up for identification. One was a juvenile female named Laurel. We were able to see her growth rings clearly and judged that she was about eight years old.
At one point, two turtles were in front of the canoe. I dipped up one with the net and scooped the other up in my hand. I had my hands full of turtles! I turned to Diane and laughingly asked, “What do I do now?”
We were very excited that we had the great fortune to see four Blanding’s turtles on my first trip out.
We set a couple of new traps on a small island in the river and sat watching the water slide by as we ate our lunches.
We had to return to MTRI by 2:00 but felt we’d had a very successful day.
It started out as a rainy day. We wondered if we would find any turtles, since they tend to stay in the water if the sun isn’t out. We had to check the traps, so we went out despite the weather.
The river was flat calm and misty. We looked in a couple of traps and there were no turtles. Then we tried using the radio transmitter to locate a male adult named Jason. This worked very well and we found him next to the riverbank. We checked him over, I practiced reading his identification notches, and we let him return to the river.
We carried on checking the other traps. Two of them contained both painted and snapping turtles. Harold was courteous enough not to ask me to remove them from the trap. Snapping turtles get cranky when confined, and are capable to biting off a finger. (Taking them from the trap involved carefully untying the trap from its anchor, opening the mouth of the trap and tipping the turtles out. Not as easy as it sounds!)
When we went to check our last trap, I got excited. I could see a large Blanding’s in the trap. I fished him out and checked him for ID notches. I couldn’t find any. I passed the turtle to Harold and he confirmed that there weren’t any notches. The turtle had marks on the center of his plastron as well and Harold was quite sure he hadn’t seen this fellow before. We had found a new adult turtle!
I was ecstatic. I helped to record the data – things like weight, length, etc. and to take photos of the new turtle. Because we were the first ones to find this turtle, we could name him. How cool is that!? Harold let me decide on his name and so he became Grant.
We released Grant back where we found him and paddled about the river hoping to spot another turtle, but with the clouds (the rain had stopped) and the water temperature being only 15 degrees, the turtles were snugged down in the water. We called it a day and hiked back to the truck.
There was a mix of sun and cloud this morning, but the temperature was still cool.
We had a turtle to return to the pond. She had been found yesterday and had a radio transmitter attached to her shell. She was released at the same spot on the pond as where she’d been found.
We checked the traps, and I had the dubious pleasure of re-baiting them with sardines. My hands may smell fishy for days.
Only one trap contained any turtles – one painted and one Blanding’s. She’s the Grandmother turtle of the pond, Sue, and is seen quite frequently. I met her on my first day out.
As we were paddling from the pond, I spotted a Blanding’s turtle in the water. We paddled up to it and I scooped him up. It was Grant, the turtle I had named on my 2nd day out. We recorded the sighting and let him go on his way. It was nice to visit with him again.
We watched the shoreline as we canoed back up the river. We noticed a blackbird nest (grackle, I think). I was able to get close enough to it to see 4 eggs, robin’s-egg-blue with dark brown splotches.
We carried out equipment and a canoe that may be needed in a few days in another area. On the drive out the road, we noticed two deer standing on the verge.
We are hoping the sun will one day come out in force, inviting the turtles to climb onto the banks and sun themselves.
A group of us went into Keji park to a meadow (aka bog) to look for turtles. It was an overcast day. The area had not been checked in a while and a visual survey of turtles was thought to be a good idea. Nine of us took part in the “turtle blitz”. Unfortunately, nobody told the turtles to be out where we could count them. We searched for several hours and even had Boomer the sniffer dog with us, but we did not see a single turtle. Oh well, we got lots of healthy exercise.
Today was a trap checking day. It was sunny and HOT – about 30 degrees by noon.
Several traps were completely empty. Perhaps the turtles are tired of the sardine diet. We did find a trap with two snapping turtles, and a couple of traps held painted turtles. One trap also contained a male Blanding’s turtle I had not met previously – Hemmy, the turtle for whom the pond is named.
We decided to try to get a blood sample and after a couple of tries did manage to get a drop. Hopefully it will be enough for the DNA testing.
We did visual surveys as we paddled along the bank. We spotted Sue, Holly and either Chrissy or Sabrina (could tell without capture by the radio on their backs) and several painted turtles, including a juvenile.
We checked out the birds’ nest again. The mother was sitting on the eggs.
It rained torrentially yesterday, but today was cloudy with a few sunny breaks.
Our mission today was to radio track the female turtles to see if they were moving to the nesting sites.
The river was very high after the rain yesterday and swelling its banks. The tiny streams we had to cross to get to the canoe were no longer so tiny. We tightroped across one of them on a fallen log. I feared for the birds’ nest and was heart-sick to find that my fears were justified. It had been completely flooded out.
Harold asked me to use the radio to try to locate the female trutles that had transmitters attached to their shells. He showed me how to program the radio to pick up the different frequencies and we began the hunt. Using radio tracking involves a lot of science and a bit of art and luck. I got better at it as we went along, and we eventually found all the female turtles. It did not appear that they were heading inland to nest. Perhaps the lower temperatures and high water kept them where they were.
While we were searching in Hemmie’s pond, we found Sue, lying on the bank. We left her and went on looking for other turtles. Then we spotted one! It was Sue again. Five times we found Sue! It felt like she was keeping an eye on us while we paddled around “her” pond.
It was not a good day for finding turtles visually – too cold for them. (We did locate Hemmie visually.) We didn’t even see a single painted turtle. We felt good about locating the females with the tracking device though.
I got a tour of the old gravel pit that is a favourite nesting site for several of the turtles. Harold told me that the owner has decided not to allow access on the land this summer. That means that turtles that nest there will not be protected. I just do not understand some people.
We headed back to the truck and began the drive home. We saw a large deer as we were heading out the road.
It has been lovely weather the past couple of days – mostly sunny and warm. I got a call from Jeffie asking if I would like to go out to a nesting site with her and her husband this evening. Of course I would!
We arrived at the nesting area around 7:00 pm. Turtles usually nest at night. We split up – Jeffie went to check the lake shore and Troy and I hiked into four known nesting sites. We found one Blanding’s turtle in three of them!
Once we had checked all the sites, we made the rounds again to see how the turtles were progressing. All three of them had started to dig in the gravelly soil, using their clawed, paddle-like back legs to push away the stones to create a swallow pit.
One turtle, Janine, was digging on a ledge of shale. I was amazed that she was able to scratch and scrape a hole there at all. She was very nearly finished digging as we approached her.
We waited, staying back so we didn’t spook her, until we saw her stretch out her neck and make a gulping motion. This showed that she had begun to lay her eggs. Then it was safe to approach her. Blanding’s turtles go into a sort of trance once they begin to lay their eggs, and are unaware or unconcerned of the rescuers’ presence.
Janine seemed to be having some difficulty with the first egg. She strained for several minutes (and I found myself straining with her) before, at last, the first egg landed in the nest, followed quickly by the second. The first egg was fairly large. I breathed a sigh of relief. It looked like she’d be okay.
Troy wanted to check on the other two turtles again, so he left me to watch Janine, to record how many eggs there were and at what time they each arrived.
It was such a privilege to witness the egg laying. I sat on the shale ledge, next to the turtle, surrounded by quiet trees as the sky deepened to dusk. Fireflies winked in the underbrush, like tiny twinkling stars. What joy to be there, being a part of nature’s rhythm.
Janine laid 9 eggs. Most of them came in twos, like the first two eggs. It took about a half hour. She rested for a few minutes, and then began to cover the eggs. It was a slow and pain-staking process. Again using her back legs, she scraped gravel over the eggs, and tamped it down. It took about two hours for her to complete this.
Troy returned as Janine was burying her eggs. He reported that the other two turtles had also laid their eggs and were covering their nests.
We sat quietly and waited for Janine to finish her chore as night descended on the forest, drawing a dark, gauze curtain over us. An occasional night bird called, and mosquitoes droned in clouds over our heads. (Thank goodness for bug jackets!) It was very peaceful.
At last, Janine moved away from her nest. We placed a protector over it and secured it with large rocks. Her nest would be safe from predators such as raccoons. Janine slipped off into the woods. She would likely find a small nearby pond where she would rest for the night, and then return to the lake the next day.
We packed up and began our trek out of the woods. We met Jeffie at one of the other nest sites. She had returned from the lake. She and Troy had been texting back and forth during the evening. She had placed a protector cage over one nest and was waiting for the last turtle to complete her task so her nest could be covered as well.
This last turtle, Elaine, soon moved away from her nest and the protector went on. She wandered over to my boot, and scrambled against my leg for a moment before heading into the woods. I felt that she was saying thanks and good-bye.
We continued down the old road to our cars. It was magical, winding through the trees in the soft dark, with only small flashlights to show us the path ahead.
As we walked along, I marveled at the effort these small creatures expend in order to lay their eggs. They trek inland, perhaps a kilometer or more, through forest vegetation, in order to reach the nesting site. They search, using their front legs and necks, for a suitable spot. Then they labour for a couple of hours to dig the nest in dense gravel or shale. They lay the eggs and then work diligently to bury the nest, concealing it. Then they have to make their way back to their feeding area. What force drives them to do all this?
Just as we approached the cars, fat raindrops plopped down through the darkness. Great timing! We were very pleased with our night’s work. Three nests lay snug and safe. In 72 days, the nests will be revisited and the hatchlings will be released.
I was afraid I would miss out on the emergence of the baby Blanding’s. My late summer and early fall were busy, stressful and full of family commitments. It was also wet and cool and not conducive to luring hatchlings from their nests.
So I was thrilled when Jeffie called me to ask if I’d like to go out one day and help her check to see if any babies were emerging, and I was free.
It was a beautiful fall day. The previous day had rained, so everything had a fresh, ferny smell as we drove out toward the nesting sites. The autumn colours were bursting vibrantly against the pale blue sky.
We set out, hiking into the woods, with great hopes. But as we checked on nest after nest, we became more disappointed. No sign of a hatchling. Jeffie feared that the cold, damp spring had prevented many of the eggs from maturing.
Our final nest to check was out on a tiny island. We paddled on serene water to this unlikely nesting site, perched on a rock in the middle of the lake. A few scrubby bushes and one determined spruce tree clung to this island. I concentrated on enjoying being in the canoe on such a perfect fall day, trying not to dwell on the disappointment of not seeing any hatchlings this year.
As we approached the nest, I didn’t see any tiny turtles. But Jeffie noticed a small depression in the gravelly shale and felt it was an emergence hole. She lifted the protective cage and carefully sifted the gravel. A hatchling!! She had found one! My heart soared. Jeffie set the loonie-sized turtle in my hand. I couldn’t stop smiling as it doggedly marched across one palm and then the other.
Jeffie took measurements, such as length, width and weight of the hatchling. She noted that it still had a fair amount of egg sac still attached, and that was a good sign. Hatchlings seem to over-winter on the nourishment provided by this. This active little fellow stands a good chnace of surviving its first winter.
We checked the nest again. A small, snub nose poked from the emergence hole. Another turtle was on its way out. It chose not to come out any further, though, while we were there.
We set the fully emerged turtle in a safe spot, under a bush, and replaced the cage over the nest. Jeffie would return the next day to see if any other turtles had scrabbled from the nest.
We paddled back to shore and hiked back to the car, tried but content.
The fall leaves were shed from the trees. The tamaracks glowed, golden in their fall folliage. Four of us – Harold, Diane, Greg and I – were on a quest to find turtles that had radio transmitters attached to their shells, and to retrieve the expensive devices so they could be refurbished during the winter.
The turltes had left their summer feeding grounds and had wended their way to their winter homes. We paddled up meandering streams, some no wider than the canoes, snaking back and forth through the woods. At last, Harold and Diane felt we were close to where the turtles would spend the winter months, and we dug out the radio receivers.
As Harold told me, early in the season, radio tracking is part science and part intuition. We took turns using the antennae, searching for the females that wore the transmitters. We set the receiver for the various call numbers and follwed the beeping signals when they came in clearly.
We got a strong signal and homed in on it. We couldn’t see the turtle from the canoes, so Harold and Diane pulled up to the bank and stepped out onto the marshy ground. Rosie, an apprentice turtle sniffer dog, jumped out with them.
Using the receiver and our eyes, we at last saw the turtle, slipping along the bank. We were able to net her and Harold pried the transmitter from her shell. Then we returned her to the frigid water.
In this way, we found all the radioed females but for one. Sue was reported a while ago as having a broken antenna on her transmitter. If that was the case, we wouldn’t be able to pick up a signal. Harold and Diane were not too worried. Sue is always around in the spring, popping up to say hello. Her transmitter could be retrieved then.
We paddled back down to the river, satisfied at a job well done. I felt truly blessed to have experienced the entire turtle rescue cycle this first year of my involvement. I had helped to count turtles in the spring, and discovered a new male, whom I was priviledged to name. I helped with radio tracking females, and saw one laying her eggs. I saw a brand new baby turtle, freshly emerged from its nest. And I helped to radio track females to retrieve their radios.
I was asked if I would like to do turtling again next year. I didn’t even have to stop and think about it. Yes, of course!