Turtle Tales – My Day Searching for Turtles in Ontario Wetlands
NOTE: This is a guest blog post from Teva Harrison, Manager of Supporter Development at Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC).
When Jen McCarter emailed me and invited me to join her and Tricia Stinnissen, a former Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) intern, in the field for a day looking for turtles, I jumped at the idea. I don’t have a car, so I booked a seat on a train to London, where they picked me up to drive out to a secret location in Ontario to look for spotted turtles — a globally endangered species that relies on a few special wetland habitats in Ontario, some of which NCC protects.
I woke up bright and early to catch the 7:30 a.m. train out of the city, arriving in London a couple of hours later to meet Jen & Tricia — awesome NCC scientists who specialize in turtles. We drove out to the secret location, where spotted turtles, along with a few other kinds, were documented in 2005. The locations are secret because the spotted turtle is globally at risk, and the species is commonly poached for the pet trade.
Chest waders: an essential turtle spotting accessory
We arrived at the wetland complex after about an hour of driving, and suited up in chest waders. Our backpacks held our lunches, cameras and equipment. Jen and Tricia also carried in big hoop traps that we would leave behind overnight.
It was my first time wearing chest waders, and they took some getting used to. My feet kept getting stuck in the muck, or twisted in soggy grasses under water, but I eventually got the hang of it.
Today, we hoped to see spotted turtles, Blanding’s turtles, stinkpots, painted turtles and snapping turtles.
We made our way through the marsh to an area of more open water, where we set the first trap and baited it with anchovies. Spotted turtles aren’t likely to be caught in the traps, but Blanding’s and snapping turtles are attracted to the smelly fish, and they get trapped, which makes it much easier to count them.
Water, water, everywhere
The day was overcast and a bit cool. Jen took the temperature, and the water was slightly warmer than the air, so turtles were likely hiding out in the water. They certainly weren’t basking in the open. We spent hours walking back and forth slowly through deeper water and little canals, and over uneven marshy ground, even through dense thickets, peering into the rushes, looking for a hint of a turtle.
We saw green frogs, osprey, countless darling little songbirds and small fish. We heard the music of spring peepers, calling across the wetland complex. Hours went by, as we laboriously made our way across the property. There was a lot of evidence of beaver activity on the property, which was changing the wetland, diverting water and draining sections that used to be submerged.
We documented big patchesd of phragmites, or the common reed, an invasive alien plant that towers above the wetland, and crowds out the native species. Phragmites grows so densely that turtles can’t make their way through, and can block transit between seasonal habitats. NCC staff will be removing these plants, and hopefully, they’ll be able to stop them from coming back.
Protips for Turtlespotting
Jen’s protips: stinkpots like to hide under lilypads, and if you feel something move under your foot, it might be a snapping turtle.
After a few hours, Jen told me that she found a dirt clod that looked just like a snapping turtle. She was excited until she prodded it and it fell apart.
Hours went by, with us making our way slowly back and forth across the property, feeling discouraged. When we made the plan to go out, the weather forecast had promised to be perfect: 19 degrees Celsius, and sunny. The forecast was wrong though, and the sun never came out. It was never warmer than 14, and the wind was cool.
Turtle! Turtle! It’s a turtle!
Around 5 p.m., we decided to turn back. I needed to be driven back to the city in time for my train, and it was only getting colder. We slowly made our way back to the traps to check them before we left. That’s when the beginner’s luck I’d hoped for all day struck!
I felt something move under my feet, then I saw a dirt clod in the water, and I thought, not very hopefully, “Wouldn’t it be neat if that dirt clod was a turtle.” I prodded it with my toe, and it floated away in a very un-dirt-clod-like manner. So I prodded it again from underneath, and it tilted, showing its giant tail and super-huge claws.
I started jumping and squealing, “Turtle! Turtle! Turtle! It’s a turtle!”
“Grab it!” Jen said, laughing at my reaction.
“I can’t! It’s too big! You grab it!” I said, and so she did, pulling a 14-inch snapping turtle out of the water. It was incredibly cool, and satisfying, especially after a long day of looking so intently, to find a turtle. I felt so very lucky to be the one who found it, and to be with awesome scientists who could catch it, document it, measure it and tell me about it. I would never have felt confident touching it without them.
Calling it a day
So, still giddy from the late-day find, we made our way back to the traps, checked them (found nothing) and made our way back to land, dragging our tired bodies through the thick, squishy, unreliable sludge in our chest-waders, and onto dry land and dry clothes.
Such a great day! It’s really special for an office bee like me to get to spend a day in the field with NCC scientists. I love that I get to be a small part of helping to protect places like this really special wetland!
Photo courtesy of NCC.