June 30, 2016
By: Megan Miller – Lead Field Technician OTCC
So I landed my summer dream job this year. For the past month I’ve been tracking Blandings turtles for a headstart program with the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (formally known as the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre). I’ve been volunteering with this nonprofit for a number of years but had yet to experience the field work that they do throughout the summer months. Those that had had the opportunity to take part in this project before me had explained the hard work and time required for a successful tracking season, but what they didn’t portray was the sheer beauty and enjoyment I would get out of being in the field. I have had the opportunity to learn the different personalities of each turtle we track and gotten to know their habits. Lindsay; the one who gives chase whenever we approach her. Sue; the one who pokes her head out of the water as if she’s asking “you guys looking for me?”. Annita; the cheeky one, who enjoys swimming around moss beds as we follow her with our antenna.
Although sometimes the work can be daunting, and the weather and bugs unforgiveable, I have grown to love this place. The landscape is picturesque. At first the trees were bare with only a few tellings of warmer seasons, but now the forest is lush with green, and pops of colour here and there are signaling the flowers are beginning to bloom. In the month I have been here I have seen more new birds to add to my lifer list than I have in the many years I have been studying in school. I happened upon my first ever moose, have witnessed some of the biggest fish in the lake mock my coworkers as they try their hand at fishing, and have watched the sun go down on countless perfect days.
I still have three more months out here. We will soon be adding more turtles into the mix to track and the work will become more daunting. However the dreaded flies are beginning to disappear and the days are sunny. With my hopes that next month will be as entertaining as the last, I go out into the bog with my antenna held high.
As a boom of thunder rolled across the lake, the first day of the work week had come to an end. I had never yearned for a heavy rain so intensely before in my life as I had when I saw the first signs of the coming storm. For weeks previous to the deluge, the weather had been nothing but hot and the water levels had fallen drastically, as such portaging became a must as the marshes became parched for water and the grip of the cranberries grew tighter. Telemetry equipment, turtle traps, litres of water, food, paddles, life jackets and more, only added to the weight that made slogging the canoe across mudflats and over slabs of Canadian Shield even harder.
The rain finally came and my heart was lifted from the sphagnum bogs which the turtles call home. We made it to our cabin home and tore off our filthy, sweaty, stinky waders and changed into our warm dry clothes. Paper work isn’t usually so exciting, but with flashes of lightning kissing the dusk, cracks of thunder echoing from the heavens and rain muting all other sound, paper work just feels right. Hours passed and the storm seemed to be going strong. Paper work complete I went to sleep.
As the morning sun began to shine its yellow beams across the emerald green, forested horizon the anthem of birds, who act as my alarm, began to warm their vocal cords. Phoebes, robins, vireos, rose-breasted grosbeaks and more fill the air with their symphony performance just for me and the day seems promising.
I’ve had my cereal and my fruit, my lunch is packed and my semi-dry gear is once again begrudgingly adorned. My spirits are high with the hope that last night’s storm was enough to raise the water levels so much as to make navigating the mangrove-esk cranberry marshes even slightly more manageable. But the water levels had not risen and my hopes promptly sank. However the turtles need to be found and the work must be done so we trudge on, smiles on our faces and the knowledge in our hearts that we are working for a better future for our little shelled allies of the bog.
By: Dylan Cook
May 16, 2016
This past week the OTCC started back up with their turtle monitoring; studying the behaviour, habitat use and survival of juvenile Blanding’s turtles in eastern Ontario. This is my first time working with turtles in the field and it has already proven to be quite the adventure. I had no idea what to expect, but when we arrived at the quaint old log cottage by the lake where we are staying, I saw the canoes and the weathered, pink granite sloping down into that dark blue water and I was instantly hooked. Every morning as we paddle down the lake to our study sites the loon is there to greet us, floating calmly on the still water as we glide by. As we approach the swamp, a disgruntled beaver lets us know exactly how he feels about the intrusion by slapping his tail indignantly on the water. Even when the turtles are difficult to find, there is never a need to look far for wildlife; I’ve already managed to check off several birds in the back of my field guide that I had never seen before, including a Great Crested Flycatcher.
It was a beautiful, sunny week and though the lake is still frigid, the water in the shallower wetlands is rapidly warming; increasing the activity of turtles and other cold-blooded creatures. Tromping through marshes, bogs and thicket swamps in chest waders is actually exhausting work but well worth it when you get to see a ribbon snake weaving its way through the twisted branches of the low bog shrubbery, skirting above the soggy ground in effortless arboreal locomotion. Or see a mink frog materialize from a clump of verdant moss as it leaps into the water at your approach –this prehistoric landscape is blooming with life and working out here puts you right in the thick of it. In the forest, the modest flowers of spring are poking up through the bed of pine needles and oak leaves, speckling the ground with colour. Some, like the small, white starflowers are in bloom before they even sprout leaves. The blackflies are also alive and well, and so are the mosquitoes, but luckily the cottage and the breeze on the lake both offer us a respite from these tyrants. In the evenings, we can sit out on the screened in porch, peer out as the black night falls over the lake and listen to the night come alive. Flies buzz at the screen. The loons sound their icy calls back and forth across the lake to each other while a barred owl hoots along in harmony, to the tune of, “no soup for you, no soup for you all!” And all the while somewhere out in the blackness, the whip-poor-wills chant out their name long into the night.
In just a week we were already able to find nearly all the turtles that were monitored last year. Most of the juveniles are about the size of a clenched fist, and I found them to be surprisingly elusive and sneaky, with an obstinate disposition that, together with their perpetually grinning faces, makes them pretty adorable. I was able to track down one of our turtles, named Jackie, who had managed to wedge herself under a floating hummock of moss, and who was particularly persistent, and nearly successful, in her efforts at escaping back to her hidey-hole as we were taking her measurements. There are spots in the bog where you can be walking on seemingly solid ground one second and up to your hips in water and peat the next. All of us have fallen into these sinkholes at least once, providing a bit of comic relief for the rest of the group as we trudge about, following the turtles’ transmitter signals around the bog. It has only been a week and I am still learning the ropes, but we’ve had a great start to the field season and I am really looking forward to becoming much better acquainted with all the turtles, my fellow field technicians, and this beautiful place over the coming weeks.
Blanding’s turtles travel quite a bit and love every type of wetland. Some wetlands are a bit easier to traverse than others. When I am out tracking, every moment brings out a new adventure, and that’s what I love about tracking so much.
There is nothing like spending your days in such circumstances as these: pulling a canoe through waist deep mud; cutting through the forest and walking through a swamp thicket so deep you feel as though vines are wrapping around you and pulling you into quick sand; having so many black flies and mosquitoes flying around that you naturally begin doing a shaking dance where your arms are slapping anything that touches your skin…even when you are safe in your tent; surfing the canoe through hummocks so tight, you feel as though you are stuck on the 401 during rush hour and sometimes you even begin to swear at the unforeseen log that jams you surprisingly! Oh yes, this warms my heart. Adventures like these are always worth it once you find the turtle.
Here is a video I created of some of my tracking adventures.
Turtle season is in full swing and May is slipping away. The primary goal for this spring season was to find juvenile Blanding’s turtles. It has been a successful season so far, with the findings of two new Blanding’s Juveniles. This is no easy task, as juveniles are very good at hiding under logs, sticks, hummocks and anything else they find in the water. My first encounter was with Juls, an approximately ten year old Blanding’s turtle. Juls happened to be hanging around a shallow area of a fen during my population surveys and I have caught Juls 2 more times since.
My next encounter was with Ziniah, a four-year-old Blanding’s turtle who was also caught during my population survey. That was an exciting catch, as the headstart turtles are also four years old, so we can learn a lot about there size, growth and behaviour from following Zi.
Another wild juvenile (Dean) who we caught last year has moved to a new location approximately 250 yards away. That makes Dean’s movements since found total almost ½ kilometre…and who says juvenile turtles don’t move around!!
So many exciting things we are learning and with this fantastic weather I can’t wait for the continued adventures on the horizon.
Spring has begun and we are back ‘turtling’. It’s good to be back!! Springtime is busy…checking on overwintering turtles, looking for new wild juveniles and doing population surveys. My first weekend, I typically feel like I’m floating on a cloud… My excitement is boundless and my senses are honed in on all the springtime happenings. I just love tracking turtles at this time of year! I get the general location of the turtle and then stand back and watch its behavior. I am able to spy on these shy creatures due to the lack of vegetation growth at this time of year. Sometimes I even catch them mating! Often times they are out basking or just sitting under the water. So far I have caught all but 2 turtles and I am so happy to report they all made it through hibernation! Some such as Anne…well they weren’t in the last place I left them.
Let me introduce you to Anne Headstart. Anne was born in August of 2011 through artificial incubation at the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre in Peterborough, Ontario. (Anne is a name given to her…but doesn’t mean she is a female. I am using this name but she may be a male, we won’t know her sex until much later in life!) Her mother died before she was born, and Anne never met or knew her father. Anne was raised for two years at the centre with 8 other siblings. Anne was released in a beautiful fen in July of 2013. Anne was a wanderer right from the start. She instantly wandered across the fen in her first year, stopping and overwintering right where she left off. The following year she dabbled around beaver lodges and within one week she made her way across a huge rock into a swamp thicket. Anne spent her days in the thicket sunbathing on sphagnum moss, sitting in mud and swimming in sticks. I left Anne in that swamp thicket last November, and when April came upon…she was not there. Oh Anne where did you go now? Well she made her way into a big fen similar to the one she was originally released in. Dear Anne, traveler at such a young age…maybe this will be your new home. Only time will tell.
So much gratitude for this opportunity… and the adventure continues!
KTTC Field Technician
It has been a while since our last post about the little Blanding’s turtles that we search through the wetlands to find each week. We had an incredible season last year- every turtle that was raised at KTTC and released into the wild made it in to hibernation. Our staff and volunteers will be posting to let you know how they are doing now, check out Field Technician Lynda’s first blog post of the year below:
The sun is peaking through the clouds, the air temperature is minus twenty-two degrees and the wetland is covered in snow and ice. The headstart Blanding’s turtles we released last season are out there somewhere. After spending summer and fall tracking their movements, I left them during the cold season (I hibernate as well!) This year it felt like a long, cold, winter so when the temperature increases to plus one, that intuitive pre-spring bell starts ringing. I go into what I like to call a “pre-spring awakening”…where I go into the pre-turtle phase of pure excitement about all the spring emergences that are about to start occurring. I begin to feverishly plan all of my seasonal movements and the big moment for me is when I take out all the field equipment and camping gear and go through it piece by piece…checking it off the list…deciding what new gear I need. After pulling out of MEC, I the begin refurbishing the canoe. Sanding…. filling the holes…. painting…. such a beautiful thing! After I pass through the pre-spring phase…. it’s nitty gritty time. The weather is warmer…more importantly the lake is not frozen anymore. It’s Turtle Time!
My first weekend out- I set up the tent and got the antennae ready. Off I go to find some turtles! The water levels are high, which means my canoe can get just about anywhere in the fen. My very first turtle I tracked was real easy…. it was out sunning itself along the edge! It’s alive!
Down the list I go, headstart turtle after headstart turtle…all found alive at this site. They made it through this cold, long winter…. but is that really surprising? Turtles are resilient; they have an innate ability to survive in the harshest circumstances…when you seemingly think that there is no way they could have endured that injury or cold weather…they keep on going. They have survived for millions of years and have remained structurally the same; a resilient reptile that lives in a shell. One of the beautiful lessons I receive from turtles is that in times of what seems to be chaos or unbeknownst changes there is stillness…. stillness within each of our “shells”. It reminds us that we are all going to be all right.
Turtle season has begun and so have the adventures they always take me on!!
The art of tracking turtles…let me set the mood. I have just canoed to a sweet gale swamp thicket wetland, which was where I last saw the turtle. I am standing in my canoe, antennae in hand. I begin to point and hammer down the antennae from left to right. Listening to the sounds of the beep, I decipher where they are getting the loudest and I bring my arms together to the loudest point. I then start canoeing in that direction. Now that seems so easy, right? Did I mention that the turtle could be a kilometer away, in the middle of a thicket, with 3 portages to get past…it is like trying to get to the nearest exit on the 401 during rush hour traffic…. you see the destination but you are moving as slowly as a turtle, and don’t think you will ever get there!
Today I am going to write about George and recount some of his adventures. One of my favorite new sayings lately (with all fun intended!) is “Seriously, George!”
George was born/hatched in a hole, probably a south facing hole with lots of sandy soil , away from a lot of vegetation so it was exposed to the bright sun. He possibly had anywhere from 3-19 brothers and sisters, but you see George doesn’t know anything about his family. Soon after he was hatched, he walked away from his brothers and sisters and set off on a path of his own. He never knew his mother, she left before he was born and his father wanted no part in any of his life. George, the mere size of a quarter, walked out into the world and against all odds survived (<1%-15% survivorship rate). He probably grew up in a wetland with lots of cover and shallow water. By the time he hit 14-20 years old, his hormones started pumping and all heck broke lose! We all know these as the “teenage years”. George was becoming interested in the ladies and was ready to start dating. He is not exclusive to one female…. so he moves around quite a bit. At this time, George is estimated to be anywhere from 25-40 years old, which is considered “being in his prime”! George enjoys travelling, keeping active, and eating. He “resides” in a sweet gale swamp thicket and is quite a “good-looking” Blanding’s turtle. His carapace (shell) has an abundance of beautiful yellow spots, he has big, beady, beautiful eyes and his yellow chin shines like the sun. Not to mention, he is a good-sized Blanding’s and keep’s himself in wonderful shape!
I met George in the early springtime, when we were out looking for Blanding’s turtles. When he was found in the trap one morning, it was decided, he was getting a transmitter! What we didn’t realize is how hungry he was; he was found several different mornings in the trap, having an easy snack. I quickly became accustomed to the predictability of George. I would go to the wetland and George would hang out near the entrance, or just back in the channel a bit. Early on in my trapping days, I would excitedly go to the trap and see a turtle’s head pop out of the water. Yes, a Blanding’s turtle!! (I won’t lie, a small dance did occur) and to all the excitement, I would pull out the turtle and laugh! Seriously George! I usually don’t handle the turtles a lot, so as not to disturb them, but every month I try to catch them and quickly take their measurements. When it was George’s monthly check-up, off I went to the easily accessible channel in the swamp. Out of the canoe I went, hearing the beep getting louder and louder; it was an area easy to navigate with just a few hummocks. The beep became really loud, so I knew he was within the area. I put my hand in the water to see if I could feel him; I definitely couldn’t see him. And just to clarify- I do blindly put my hand in the water and start to swim around under there. I have yet to be attacked by a swarm of leeches (knock on wood!), or grabbed and pulled under by some sort of graboid! (referring to the big worm like creature that swallows people whole in the funny/supposed to be scary 90’s movie called Tremors with Kevin Bacon…Reba McIntyre is classic in that movie!) A few seconds later I noticed the beep was very low…that is a good indication the turtle is swimming. So I got up and readjusted my antennae…. I figured out the direction and off I went and repeated the same events. I was losing the beep so quickly; you see George had some open water to work with. After a couple of minutes of following him swim, he took a very unpredictable right turn and started swimming around a hummock. He was just about to fool me into staying in the hummocks when he made a dash for the open water and I reached my hands down and scooped him up. George is a quiet scratcher; he will let you hold him then BOOM, his arms and legs sway back and forth, trying to reach every corner of your arm. I worked quickly, and had him checked in and out of the “clinic” in no time. George was looking good. My arm on the other hand……
The next week I went to check on him, there was no signal! Okay, seriously George, where in the wetland did you go? I went to the front and back of the swamp-nothing! I decided to make a trip to the far east side of the swamp, but it is nearly impossible to get the canoe through the water, so I decided was to portage it on land. First, I walked to the end of the route on land, to the water’s edge to see if I could hear a signal- I did! The faintest beep was heard, like when you are ready to go to sleep and hear the faintest sound of your partner trying to tell you a story! So I portaged the canoe through the rocky outcrop. Once on the other side, I found a bit of open water which led to a beaver dam, followed by a swamp thicket, then more open water after. As I was trying to follow the beep, the terrain got a little more difficult. I portaged the first beaver dam and as I got closer realized there were three more! Including one dam that was almost chest height. I decided it was best to traverse this area on land. Off I went to find George’s location, climbing up steep slopes and cutting through juniper shrubs and lots of blueberries (which can be very distracting!) The beep was getting louder. I got to the other side and BAM!…there was a small lake. Guess where the loudest beeps were coming from? That’s right the farthest corner away. Seriously George! What in the world took George to this area? Food? Females? He must have known from last week that I was following him! Yes, that must be it! In all seriousness, Blanding’s turtles can travel quite far and love to have expansive wetlands for all their adventures.
George has continued to hang out in the farthest east side of the wetland, moving around within that area, checking out each community, until last week when I went to his predictable location: he wasn’t there! He is off on another adventure and it is not currently in the sweet gale swamp thicket. I am sure he will show up again on my radar. …Sometimes they go off grid for a week or two weeks (such as Carl…. but he is a story on his own!).
Thank-you George for all the laughter you have brought and the lesson on predictability: I think that life can be so predictable sometimes, but what is predictability? It is a projection about the future from past experience. If we always thought life was predictable, a shift in energy could not occur. And sometimes it is just a small shift we need to bring us back into clarity. And clarity is the present moment. Being present in every moment is hard to do, but that is probably the most amazing adventure to be in. That’s why we feel so clear in nature. Nature is the present moment. George you are the present moment.
KTTC Field Biologist
Field season has been in full swing for over a month now. I have been tracking Blanding’s turtles from sunrise until sunset, driving from northwest to northeast, canoeing through lakes, marshes, swamps and fens and catching Snapping turtles, Painted turtles, Blanding’s turtles and fish. I just can’t get enough. The field season completely consumes my whole being. I have been tracking 42 turtles in 4 different locations across Ontario and have also been surveying for juvenile Blanding’s turtles in one specific location. Every week I camp out for a few days at our biggest site and have been soaking up each and every adventure! I have many stories about connections and lessons learned through turtles that I would love to share with you. Follow the turtles and I on this journey…………the first story I share is my very first weekend out using the traps.
I awoke just before the sun was about to rise. The silence penetrated throughout my being…I was so excited to start the day! This was my first weekend out tracking and trapping the turtles. At this point I had tracked all the turtles successfully (21 in total) and just had to check my trap. I had slept thinking only of turtles….and specifically of all the ones I was going to catch in my trap. In my dream there were so many they were falling out of the net. A quick breakfast and then it was time. This morning (as of every other morning I am camping) I am making oatmeal (how original). I find when I am camping everything tastes amazing….even the slightly burnt mushy oatmeal I was eating. I literally threw a few spoonful’s down my throat and couldn’t wait any longer, the suspense was killing me! I had to go check the traps!! Setting and checking traps is such an exciting experience! It’s like Christmas in the summer. I often think about what is happening in the traps at night……are juvenile Blanding’s going into the traps, having a small party in there, eating the bait and then sneaking back out just before I get to them? Oh how I would love to set a camera in the traps to see if anyone is sneaking out! It had been raining on and off all weekend and I was right in the middle of the lake yesterday when a real soaker happened. Rain was coming down so fast, I felt like I was in the shower with my clothes on. This morning the sun was shining and the rain had passed. All my clothes were still soaked, but thank-you (whoever it was) to the invention of quick drying gear, I knew I would be dry in no time. With one last check to make sure I had all the equipment needed….off I paddled to my first site. From my typical campsite it usually takes approximately 20-30 min to get there with 1 short portage. This morning I was pretty wound up…I’m sure I took minutes off the paddle. The site is a sweet gale swamp thicket. Sweet gale (Myrica gale) has an intoxicating sweet smell that comes off the plant when rubbed against, going through a thicket is like walking through a candy store!
As I entered the site, I had set a trap on the right. The closer I got to the trap; I swore I saw something move. I “casually” got out of the canoe and right away saw one turtle!!! It was a Blanding’s turtle! I could feel my breath starting to heighten. I picked up the net and not only was there one but there were two more turtles!! All Blanding’s turtles!! I dropped the trap back down and began to do a little dance…3 Blanding’s turtles…..Yes! I felt like I needed to share this with the world. I thought this was the biggest news since Wayne Gretzky got traded! I began to focus and started the processing. Processing turtles is like being a customer service representative; you are not sure what type of turtle (customer) will show up…the patient/well-behaved, the biter, the hiss-er or the scratch-er. I started assessing each turtle looking for parasites or injuries, taking measurements and assessing their age. Determining the age of a wild turtle is all estimate. Each turtle grows annual rings on there shell, so you can count the number and determine the approximate age, but as the turtle ages their rings start to fade so it could be a 70 year old turtle! Unlike humans there skin does not wrinkle with age, there organs don’t degenerate, nor do they “slow down” with age (all pun intended). On the contrary, as female Blanding’s turtles age they have more clutches and more eggs in each clutch. I’m sure there probably is a scientist out there trying to figure out how humans Can get some of those genes! After processing them, I determined I had 3 adult turtles: 2 males and 1 female. I notched there shell with a file using our number code and released them back into the swamp. I then collected the trap and started my paddle back to camp to gather my gear. The weekend had passed so quickly, and I felt like I was in heaven with the moment. My hunt for wild juveniles is still on! As I paddled my canoe out of the swamp and introduced myself back to society, I felt a wave of certainty, a knowing that I am exactly where I need to be, and that in every moment we all are exactly where we need to be. That in every moment we are choosing the next: so find what inspires you and ride the wave! You see the inspiration is always within and is waiting to be set free!
I just left the site and I am already itching to get back out! ……..More adventures to come.
Lynda Ruegg, KTTC Field Biologist
The weather cooperated and we were off into the swamp to release the first clutch of headstarted Blanding’s turtles released this year. The transmitter weighs only 4 grams, and is attached simply with epoxy, onto the shell. The turtles don’t notice it is there, and yet it allows us to pinpoint their location. Here, I release one of our headstarted turtles, in what is hopefully a very successful nursery area!
David’s property is very close to where the mother of these headstarted turtles was killed. His property is ideal for juveniles, and is one of the most extensive properties in the area. We are extremely grateful that he has allowed us access for our research!