Day 2: Turtle stakeout
Visit Day 1 here.
Stephanie Winton is a conservation biologist from the interior of British Columbia, where you can usually find her in the field studying at-risk reptile and amphibian species. She recently join us in Fraser Valley, where the team, led by biologist Maja Hampson is working on multiple captive breeding, head-starting, and monitoring projects for endangered species.
My second day comes with a change of pace – I am back in the field! In the early evening, I meet Chris, a Wildlife Preservation Canada field technician, at a narrow offshoot of the Fraser River. Our goal tonight is to monitor nesting turtles and the action gets started right away as some local community members, who are driving slowly and cautiously, spot a turtle ambling along the side of the road. I am excited to have found our first turtle so soon and Chris takes me through the process of weighing, measuring, and identifying the turtle. western painted turtles, like their name suggests, have beautiful patterns on the part of their shell covering their belly (the plastron) that are unique to each turtle, like human fingerprints. Chris has a catalogue of turtle “mugshots” that we flip through trying to match the pattern on our turtle. It turns out she is new, so we add her to the database. We can tell she is carrying eggs so that is how we determined she is a female.
Once we have recorded the new turtle, we move her off the road to the beach. This habitat has been specifically created for nesting turtles by fencing it off from human disturbance and clearing away rocks and invasive plants, like blackberries. At the turtle beach we come across two more females who have already started digging out their nests in the soft sand. We check out another nearby area along a dike and find a third turtle digging so we decide to split up and stake out the turtles while they do their work. It is a beautiful evening to be sitting outside by a wetland. I spy more turtles basking on logs in the water, catching those last rays as the sun starts to set. The calls of frogs and birds fill the air while herons, kingfishers, hummingbirds, and buzzing bumblebees fly around me.
Surprisingly not before long, the turtle I am watching starts to head off. Looks like it was a false alarm and she only dug a test pit in the very rocky dike area before abandoning her efforts. I move her to the turtle beach where I join Chris on the lookout. The two turtles on the beach both successfully lay their eggs and cover up the nests. Interestingly, one of the turtles has an old injury on her shell and when we look her up in the database, we see that she was rehabilitated back in 2017 so it is encouraging to see how well she is doing now. Chris carefully places protective cages over top of the nests to prevent predators like racoons, skunks, or even crows from eating the eggs. Throughout the evening we find a few more turtles that we relocate to the turtle beach, but no more nests are laid. A successful evening none the less with two nests protected, a new turtle added to the database, and a rehabilitated turtle laying eggs.
This evening has been a fantastic introduction to the western painted turtle recovery work undertaken by Wildlife Preservation Canada. As this is the only nesting population of coastal painted turtles, it, therefore, plays an extremely important role in the persistence of the species in the Fraser Valley. Unfortunately, this population, like so many others, is threatened in many ways that I have witnessed firsthand tonight including roadkill, the encroachment of invasive plants in critical habitat areas, and nest depredation among others. Monitoring the health of wild populations and understanding the risks they face is an important component of all conservation research and recovery projects.