It was a tricky year for the western painted turtles and for wetland monitors. Luckily, even in the topsy-turvy year of 2020 we were able to get into the field and help out one of British Columbia’s endangered species. A good thing too. Not only did the season start off with a lot of cooler days and rainy weather, we also experienced a lot of flooding and an increased mosquito population. While many can say they’ve donated blood, I can say that I have spent much of my time being an unwilling interspecies blood donor!

Generally during the evening after donning full body mosquito suit and as much bug spray as I could stand, I would see a turtle and assess what it is they were up to. They could be wandering, digging, basking or just letting me know I’m unwelcome with a hiss.

One of our nesting female turtles, giving us her lovely “neutral turtle” face.

Site preparation

Despite delays in much of the world, the turtles carried on with their nesting season; albeit a little later than the normal mid-May to mid-July period. Much of the work in May involves habitat restoration, where we go in to clean up the nesting sites. This includes wrestling blackberry runners, pulling up blackberry roots, cutting back blackberry bushes, and some general weeding and removal of debris. Thankfully, the mosquitoes aren’t quite in full swing at that time and you can shed blood in this battle without fear of attracting an itchy aftermath. As we are making the nesting areas optimal for the painted ladies some of the early nesters will swim by with scrutinizing looks and roam the weeded areas judgmentally.

If we see a turtle we watch them first, sometimes at a distance if they are alarmed by our presence or go into rock-mode and not move until they feel safe. At times I felt akin to a stalker, searching for my targets and watching from behind bushes or intently looking through binoculars to assess their behaviour. If they seem to be a little aimless, or are ready to head back home I’d run in and capture them. Sounds like a criminal offense when you don’t insert the word turtle anywhere in there, doesn’t it?

Data collection

We want to encourage nesting so we don’t want to intefere with the turtles unless they don’t look like they’re going to get to digging right away. When we do get our hands on an individual turtle we record data like their ID, shell size, tail, and claw lengths. These data records allow for comparisons to past years and let us see the individuals’ growth over time.

Identifying a turtle can be a tedious task but western painted turtles have beautiful patterns on their tummy’s (called plastrons) which are unique and act the same as a fingerprint. Each pattern is correlated to a shell-code, which is like a name, and we safely write the code on their shell so we know who they are all season – handy if you don’t want to be re-recording the same turtle over and over.

Nest protection

 When a turtle makes a nest we need to make sure it is protected, this means moving ones that are laid in unsafe areas like, peoples yards, roadways, roadsides, and industrial places like quarries. While a small fraction of the nests do get collected for incubation at Greater Vancouver Zoo, the rest are given a safe spot and a “cage” is placed on top to protect the eggs until they are ready to hatch. Helps for knowing where not to step too!

Here a cage is applied over a nest. This keeps out digging predators like raccoons and also marks the nest so we can check on it later. The mesh size is such that should hatching and emergence occur before

Nesting behaviour

Often turtle basking is done on floating logs or fallen branches that they can access from the water. We would count how many we could see and use it as an indicator that we might have a busy nesting day.

Turns out these ladies like to tease us biologists by swimming by our weeded sites, not leave their sun spots or refuse to nest. Some of them would bypass the beautifully made nesting sites, where we can protect their eggs, in order to cross roads, climb hills, and attempt to nest in the rockiest of areas. As you can imagine, a turtle digging in a densely compact, rocky path might be really hard to accomplish.

However these ladies seem to be as figuratively hard-headed as they are hard-shelled. There are turtles that insist on attempting, and very surprisingly sometimes succeed in, digging in the middle or sides of gravel paths and quarry hills. One such painted lady was my nemesis this season, turtle #18-567.

This female turtle decided to nest in the middle of the rock fall at the quarry.

A turtle biologist’s nemisis

I’ll back up a little. Each biologist in any similar position might understand and even have a nemesis in the field. This is an individual who seemingly continuously mocks your effort in some way. For me it was #567, or “Nemmy”, who insisted she nest at a very steep, very rocky area that also happened to be a u-turn spot for drivers. I had even dug perfectly usable holes for her in there, however refusing to take any help, the single independent painted lady carried on to make a total of seven attempts over the span of a little over a week. Each time I would capture and release her at the nearest nicely groomed and safe beach. Eventually I decided to release her at a much further beach from the main nesting site.

A few days went by and she was seen far from her release site and back close to her “special spot”. Finally, a total of a month and six days after her first seen attempt, her 9th attempt to nest was a success on the groomed nesting beach. Yes, you are correct, the beach I released her at six separate times beforehand. She was mostly seen by me on my shifts, not on any of the other biologists shifts, hence my nemesis. Although a frustrating process, probably for the both of us, it was incredibly rewarding when she ultimately nested.

Invasive species

Asides from blackberry removal it is also important to keep an eye out for the western painted turtle’s invasive competitor, the red-eared slider. I found one on one of my shifts and lucky for future western painted turtles this one had not yet laid a nest. Sliders are hardy, reach sexual maturity fairly early, grow large, grow fast, and more often than not out compete western painted turtles for resources. These resources include basking areas, nesting sites and food that native turtle species get bullied away from, often literally. The western painted turtles here have been competing with these sliders in a mortal game of survival to exist.

With limited access to crucial resources our painted ladies and guys experience a higher mortality rate. So for the survivorship of our native species the invasive ones like red-eared sliders and bullfrogs need to be removed from these habitats.

Removing red eared sliders is crucial for the survival of the western painted turtle.

Record breaking year

2020 was a record breaking year for nests. The site I worked in had 56 nests in 2019 and over 60 this year. In addition the record number of eggs per clutch went from 24 to 26! This is an accomplishment for that little painted lady considering most of the larger clutches I counted were closer to 17 eggs.

Having so many eggs in the field made it a little difficult when the site flooded half the beaches and the entirety of a regular search area. This meant that a lot of nests that were in previously safe and protected areas needed to be moved, some of them for a second time. There are certain cases where a flooded nest can survive but to increase their chances we needed to move them.

A flooded horse field often used by turtles. The dry field starts in the foreground right after the blackberry, and the decorative red maples are normally well onto dry land. From where this photo was taken, water would not normally be visible.

Relocating nests

Once eggs are laid there is a certain amount of time  before you have to be meticulous about how they are moved. If eggs are over 48 hrs you have to be careful to keep each egg in the same orientation they were inside the nest. Even then we are careful with rotation of eggs after the first 24 hours. This can be difficult since the turtles don’t dig large openings to their nests. You have to place them into a transfer container then place them again into a new nest spot, all the while mimicking as perfectly as possible the same orientation you found them in. Now imagine doing that with mosquitoes biting you through any part of the protective gear we wore that touched skin or thin material. Thank goodness for their inability to bite through my gloves, otherwise the job would’ve been insanely draining, literally.

Hope for the population

The season for nesting had its difficulties for sure, however the rewards were great. Seeing these turtles returning for many years, some of them with many war wounds from wild encounters (missing tail tips, a leg, front claws, and chunks of outer shell!) shows how resilient these creatures are and need to be. Seeing tiny hatchlings basking on logs next to much larger, experienced individuals gives hope the population will continue to thrive and flourish.

Throughout our season we were surrounded by nature, thoughtful private landowners, considerate visitors, and the breathtaking sunsets. Even with the adamant, parasitic, unwanted guests it was hard not to appreciate all the beauty that came with the work I did there.

Sara McDonald

Western Painted Turtle Nest Monitoring Technician

Sara joined WPC for the 2020 season with the Fraser Valley Wetlands Recovery team  to conduct nest monitoring and protection. This season, that sometimes involved wearing a full body mosquito net.