Confessions of a turtle conservation research assistant

I am a physical geography student at the University of Fraser Valley, and joined Wildlife Preservation Canada  to work with the western painted turtle recovery program in the area this season. We are looking for western painted turtles so we can monitor the health of the population, protect nests to increase juvenile recruitment and remove eggs at risk to incubate them to safely hatch at Greater Vancouver Zoo before returning them to the wild.

Monitoring endangered western painted turtles during nesting season is an itchy unpredictable job. With nesting running in the evening from around mid-May to mid-July, the turtles have chosen peak mosquito season to draw researchers into the field.

The swarms of mosquitos around parts of the Nicomen Slough which runs along the north side of the Fraser River between Hatzic Lake and Lake Errock are suspected to be an important contributor to the larger turtle population. As someone who loves cold weather, it is not fun trying to balance wearing enough layers that the bugs cannot bite, and not being too hot. Even wearing a bug suit and reapplying mosquito repellant left me rushing into an ice-cold shower as soon as I got home because of all my bites after a few demanding shifts. On cooler days, I could hack back blackberry bushes and other invasive plants from the nesting beaches but, with the western painted turtles preferring sunny 20-30°C days to nest, my shifts often ended up being rescheduled. Luckily, mosquitos are not the only animals that also love early summer weather.

Turtle nesting beach on Nicomen Slough in Deroche, BC

Me, Nicole Drewitz, battling the mosquitos while monitoring for turtles.

It has been an increbible experience for seeing wildlife. Here is a list of what I have seen while working:

  • a lot of birds including three turkey vultures.
  • coyotes
  • black bears
  • one fat raccoon (hopefully not from eating turtle eggs!!!)
  • beavers
  • frogs
  • wandering garter snakes
  • Horses
  • dogs including two friendly blue Frenchies named Bonnie and Clyde.
  • a yellow-bellied slider (invasive turtle)
  • western painted turtles of course (including one missing a front and a back foot that was taken to the Greater Vancouver Zoo to help her nest successfully before she was released).

Before taking this position, I could not picture turtles being able to express anger (other than snapping turtles), I have since learned that is not true. Apparently, turtles just like other reptiles can hiss at you??? They can also swim aggressively to claw you when you hold them to take measurements. I even forgot to take a picture of one turtle because she decided to lay an egg in my hand after she had finished burying an entire nest. That felt very passive-aggressive.

As seen by the smudged paint this was not a happy turtle.

Some of them can be very dramatic when you want to look at the bottom of shells (their plastron) to ID them.

Working in nature, far away from any busy cities is one of the main reasons I decided to study environmental science. I am grateful I had this opportunity and got to enjoy the views while working and my latest position as a Wildlife Technician with Wildlife Preservation Canada.

Nicomen Slough at sunset in Deroche, BC.

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