The bright yellow throat of the Blanding’s turtle can help biologists recognize one from a distance (Photo: Emilie Schuler / Grassroots Wildlife Conservation)
Habitat loss, speeding cars and other hazards have reduced the population of the locally threatened Blanding’s turtle in the Northeast. Grassroots Wildlife Conservation has teamed up with local residents to safeguard the nests that the turtles make in their neighborhoods. Living on Earth’s Jenni Doering tagged along with GWC’s Bryan Windmiller and his team in Concord, Massachusetts to follow a mother turtle as she lays her eggs.
CURWOOD: From PRI, and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston, this is a special edition of Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The turn of a year is a time for reflection, a time for looking ahead with hope and resolve and assessing the year gone by. These past twelve months have been eventful and full of drama, triumph, failure and achievement. But we’re not looking at politics today, we’re taking a close look at the struggles and successes of a species with an ancient lineage.
Over the past year or so, Living on Earth reporters Don Lyman and Jenni Doering have been following the life story of one of our native New England creatures, the Blanding’s turtle. And as Jenni reported from Concord Mass, the life story of the Blanding’s Turtle begins in high summer.
[SOUNDS OF BIRDS]
DOERING: On a summer evening at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, you’re surrounded by tall reeds, lilypads on shallow ponds, and turtles. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll spot the dark, high-domed shell and bright yellow throat of a Blanding’s turtle basking on a log. The turtles are right at home here, but Massachusetts lists them as a threatened species. That’s partly because young Blanding’s turtles face many dangers.
WINDMILLER: They’d have maybe a 1 in 80, 1 in 100 chance of living to be adults.
DOERING: That’s Bryan Windmiller, the Executive Director of Grassroots Wildlife Conservation. The nonprofit is working to shift those odds and give baby Blanding’s turtles a better start in life – appropriately, by sending these youngsters to school so young humans can care for them and raise them for a year.
WINDMILLER: And we call that head starting -- you know, from like the human Head Start program – we give the little turtles a head start in life. We give them at least a forty-fold increase in their chances of surviving to adulthood.
DOERING: The head start cycle begins each summer during turtle nesting season, when Bryan and his team search for the mother Blanding’s nests to protect them. The headstart program is crucial because Blanding’s turtle hatchlings are an easy snack for predators. Their tiny half-dollar-sized shells are actually folded inside the egg and Bryan Windmiller says they’re still soft for months after they hatch.
WINDMILLER: So we take them when they’re at that real vulnerable stage and we give them to schools, and they raise the turtles for nine months, take care of them all winter, keep them warm, feed the turtles as much as they want. And in that environment, they grow super quick, so when we let them go, they’re on average about 12 times, sometimes 15 or 20 times heavier; they’ve got a much bigger shell, really strong shell; they don’t have to worry about chipmunks, they don’t have to worry about bullfrogs, they don’t have to worry about blue jays, and garter snakes.
DOERING: But natural predators aren’t the only hazards that threaten the turtle hatchlings.
WINDMILLER: Sometimes they’d be destroyed completely unintentionally by people, because sometimes they nest in farm fields that would get plowed, or they nest in people’s perennial beds that might get turned over and stuff like that.
DOERING: Bryan says that because of these threats -- from both natural predators and human development -- the Blanding’s turtle population here has been declining for decades.
WINDMILLER: There are only about 50 adult Blanding’s turtles here at Great Meadows, spread among a bunch of wetlands. And that’s down from probably 150 in the early 1970s. So our overall goal here is to help restore this population.
DOERING: And despite having just a few dozen adult Blanding’s turtles, the population at Great Meadows is actually the third largest in Massachusetts, and the fifth largest in the Northeast. So boosting numbers here could give the species a significant leg up locally.
WINDMILLER: We’re gonna start on our main business for the evening, which is looking for the moms. So we’ll start by going up in the tower and we’re gonna check with a radio tracking receiver, we’re gonna check on the signals of the moms that haven’t nested yet around here. And we’ll get a sense of where they are, and then we’re gonna go look for some of them.
[STEPS ON TOWER]
DOERING: The metal, twenty-foot-high tower overlooks most of Great Meadows and is a good high point for radio tracking. We meet up with Lea Kablik, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who helps with the tracking. Lea turns on the receiver and holds the antenna over her head, pointing it in different directions.
[RADIO TRACKING SOUNDS]
DOERING: The beeping sound clues Lea in to where the turtle could be. It’s faint right now because this turtle’s not close.
[MORE RADIO TRACKING SOUNDS]
DOERING: Do they all sound the same?
KABLIK: Yeah, each beep sounds the same as all the others, it’s just knowing what frequency that you have programmed into the receiver.
WINDMILLER: The turtle has a radio station. And it’s just like all the turtle radio stations, the different radio turtle stations, are playing exactly the same tune – but you can listen to all the different ones that sound exactly the same just by dialing in your particular channel. So this year, altogether we’re tracking eleven females here at Great Meadows, one of whom we’re just not picking up a signal from; two have nested; and so with the one that’s not working, I guess that leaves us eight to run after right now. We should go start off looking for 2028.
DOERING: We drive to a quiet neighborhood just a short distance away. The lawns are well-kept, the backyards have big shade trees, and we see several residents hanging out on their porches on this fine June evening.
WINDMILLER: Yeah, well, we’re over at the side of this house, and this is where Chris and Stephanie and Lea last night tracked turtle number 2028, and they put a little thread bobbin on her just as a visual way of tracking her in case she decided to nest late at night. Blanding’s turtles almost always nest as it’s getting dark, and usually they’re done by 11 or so, but some of them like to stay really late, and we don’t, so if people need to leave, then sometimes we put these thread bobbins. So as the turtle walks, the thread just spools out until it runs out, and the turtle just walks away; they don’t detain the turtle, but unfortunately in this case, the thread broke, so now we’ll go find the turtle with her radio.
DOERING: Actually, it turns out a well-meaning neighbor thought the turtle was trapped, and the good Samaritan cut the thread. But on the whole, Bryan says, having the neighborhood involved is a great boon for turtle conservation.
WINDMILLER: If you do it right, if you involve the people to the extent that you can – the local human population can be an asset for conservation, instead of a problem. Because that’s the tendency – biologists assume that people are always the problem. And yet, here, the turtles are nesting in people’s front yards; people are on – you know, they tell us, they call us when they see turtles, they’re looking out for the turtles, they’re looking out for the nests; we have several thousand schoolkids in Massachusetts who raise young turtles for us as part of this conservation program, so people are in all kinds of ways directly helping out.
[RADIO TRACKING NOISES]
DOERING: Lea starts moving around with the radio tracking equipment. Getting an accurate signal is proving difficult because the radiowaves bounce off of the flat sides of the houses. I ask Bryan where the turtle we’re looking for, number 2028, would most likely be nesting.
WINDMILLER: Well, if she’s going to be nesting, she’s going to be nesting in an open, relatively sunny place. There’s a good chance the turtle right now is just continuing to kind of hide in some of the shrubs and plantings near the house. Blanding’s turtles take a long time. The moms are really meticulous about finding a good spot to nest, and they almost never nest the first night that they come out of the water. They’ll often spend a few days, a week, sometimes, on land; sometimes they’ll walk around, we’re just like chasing them around these neighborhoods; and they dig a few holes there, don’t like it, dig a few holes there; and check out an area and sometimes they’ll go all the way back to the wetlands of Great Meadows, and they’ll hang out in the water and then come back a few days later and finally nest.
[RADIO TRACKING BEEPS]
DOERING: We keep searching for 2028, but she’s proving elusive. A resident comes up to Lea to say she’d seen the turtle not long before.
NEIGHBOR: Okay, she was like right up on the pavement – and just wanted to let you know, that was the last time I saw her… maybe 45 minutes ago?
KABLIK: Oh really! Okay.
NEIGHBOR: Yeah, yeah. So it wasn’t that long.
KABLIK: Okay, Thank you.
NEIGHBOR: And I’m not sure how fast they move!
KABLIK: Surprisingly fast.
NEIGHBOR: It had the antenna and it had duct tape on it. She was basically where that watering can is. Right at that corner.
WINDMILLER: By far the loudest spot is still in the ivy here.
[BEEPING AND RUSTLING SOUNDS]
DOERING: Finally, Bryan locates the turtle in the front yard of the house next door.
WINDMILLER: Yeah, she’s in the mulch.
HICKLING: Looks like she’s digging right now. You can see the pile of mulch just behind her that she’s kicked out of the way right there, on the edge.
WINDMILLER: Yeah, she’s definitely working, she’s certainly trying to do something over there.
DOERING: We need to be really quiet and keep our distance to make sure we don’t disturb her.
WINDMILLER: Yeah, I mean you never know, the turtles are funny. Turtles who nest over here are obviously used to seeing people, and this turtle – we’ve caught this turtle – this is 2028 – I think we first caught this turtle ten years ago as a juvenile, it’s a pretty young mom. So she’s used to people. But just instinctively, Blanding’s turtles, all turtles are very wary when they’re first starting to commit to laying their eggs. Once they start laying their eggs, it’s like they go in a trance, and it doesn’t matter what’s going on around them, they’re going to try and finish. But before she actually starts laying her eggs and commits herself to her nesting spot, the best thing is to leave her be right now.
DOERING: While we wait, Bryan explains that the ponds at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge aren’t actually natural. People created them as duck ponds for hunting, and many of the turtles still living at Great Meadows were here first.
WINDMILLER: They predate Great Meadows. Those ponds were created in the 1950s. So a lot of the older turtles at least were alive before those ponds were created. So they’re used to, or at least were born into, a radically different environment. Henry David Thoreau caught a Blanding’s turtle at Great Meadows in 1854. He killed it because a buddy of his, Louis Agassiz, had started the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard and really wanted a Blanding’s turtle for his collection. So Thoreau gave him a Blanding’s turtle and then wrote in his journal about how guilty he felt over killing the Balnding’s turtle. And you can still see the Blanding’s turtle, it’s on display at the MCZ at Harvard. And so the turtles were here, but the environment was totally different. I mean you imagine, it was called Great Meadows because a lot of it was the wetlands, were kinda shallow, much more open but not ponds.
DOERING: An hour or so later we return to the nest site – and turtle 2028 is gone. Bryan gently digs in the mulch to uncover her nest.
WINDMILLER: There we go.
DOERING: That’s pretty cool.
WINDMILLER: Yeah, so we can just expose the top three eggs of her nest – actually you can see at least four. They’re about four inches deep. We’re very glad, she started about 7:30, it’s now about 11:30, looks like she pretty recently finished, so this is awesome. And this is really a typical kind of place for the Blanding’s turtles to nest here, she’s kind of near their stone paved walkway over to the front entrance of the house. And right in their mulch bed by their little perennial border about ten feet off the side of the house, a very nice spot for her nest. So now we’ll just cover it back up with dirt, like she did, like Mom did, and put a screen over it so raccoons and skunks can’t get it.
DOERING: Bryan goes to the car to get the protective metal screen and stakes.
[METAL CLANKING SOUNDS; CAR DOOR SLAM]
WINDMILLER: So here in the suburbs it’s mostly skunks and raccoons. Foxes dig up turtle nests sometimes too. In this neighborhood in particular, there are a lot of skunks around here, and they’re very good at finding turtle eggs.
DOERING: Bryan thinks nesting Blanding’s turtles may intentionally find refuge in housing developments.
WINDMILLER: The great majority of them nest in places just like this, right by people’s houses. And at least I like to believe that the turtles have sort of figured it out that this is actually in many ways a better place for them to nest. First, they’re able to find these warmer little microhabitats, next to asphalt driveways, and little bits of landscape rock, and in mulched areas, where also the mulch will absorb some of the sun’s radiation. But in addition I think the turtles may have learned that when they nest in a place like this right up against somebody’s house, it’s really rare for raccoons and skunks to bother them.
[MORE METALLIC SOUNDS]
DOERING: He lays a square of chicken-wire mesh on the spot where the nest is buried and pushes metal stakes firmly into the mulch to hold it down.
DOERING: With the screen in place, turtle 2028’s nest is protected, and for tonight, the work of Bryan Windmiller, Chris Hickling, Lea Kablik, and Grassroots Wildlife Conservation is done.
WINDMILLER: And then we just wait, and we put the temperature loggers down by the eggs to monitor the nest temperature so we can try and guess whether they’re gonna be boys or girls. And just wait until late August or September, when the babies come out.
CURWOOD: That’s Bryan Windmiller ending that report from Living on Earth’s Jenni Doering in Concord, Massachusetts.
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