A “Shell” of a Good Time in the Field
Today, we are hearing from Alyssa Martinez, the summer outreach intern at the New York Field Office. Alyssa is a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar through North Carolina State University where she is studying zoology. She brings a passion for environmental education and hopes to share her experiences in the field (here she is with a bog turtle)!
With one foot in the muck and both eyes focused ahead, I lunge forward…. SLURP! My boot comes out of the unsympathetic wetland soil beneath my feet. This may not be a typical day on the job for an outreach intern, but for me it was an opportunity to find North America’s smallest turtle in a rare, yet diverse habitat. I trailed behind a team of biologists, hoping to find and record important scientific information about these tiny critters.
Bog turtles are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Populations have declined primarily by habitat loss and fragmentation. During my first full week as the outreach intern, I was lucky enough to get out in the field and spend some time helping with bog turtle surveys. Having just started working with the New York Field Office (NYFO), I was excited for this new experience.
Equipped with hip-waders and a stick, I was ready to find some turtles. The stick is used to probe the mud and vegetation in search of turtles, but it also has the added benefit of saving your fall when the mud starts claiming your foot.
I was told by some veterans on the team that a distinctive sound can be heard when your stick hits a turtle shell. The sound was described as hollow and woody; easier said than done. For a rookie, other things sound hollow and woody when you hit them. Many times I probed into the mud with my stick, hit something that sounded like a turtle shell, felt a rush of excitement, and reached into the mud only to come up with a reed, log, or other non-turtle matter.
After many unsuccessful attempts, I was so hungry to find a turtle and desperate to contribute to the efforts, that my mind started tricking me and I would see turtles everywhere: dead leaves started to look like shells, twigs sticking out of the mud became turtle heads; you name it. In the end, all I found were dead leaves, mud, and the occasional frog. I guess beginner’s luck wasn’t on my side.
Although I didn’t personally find a turtle, the team ended up finding several turtles throughout the day. At first we found spotted turtles, and then finally I heard a member of the team yell “bog turtle!”
Now I could finally see the small size of this species. I was used to handling juvenile turtles of this size, but these were mature adults and only the size of my palm! I am familiar with eastern box turtles that have yellow markings on their shell, and painted turtles which have bright red plastrons (“belly” side of a turtle’s shell), but bog turtles are more subtle in their markings. You can see the distinct orange-yellow spots on either side of their heads and the tree-ring-like patterns on their shell. Much like a tree, these rings are counted to determine the age of the turtle.
In the past, I have helped out with Blanding’s turtle surveys and I worked at a turtle rehabilitation facility at my college, so turtles are dear to my heart. Getting a chance to see this small, rare species out in the wild was an opportunity of a lifetime. While I didn’t have the bragging rights of finding a turtle of my own, I truly enjoyed the experience. As a newbie in the field, I was constantly learning from a team of very knowledgeable people. Noelle Rayman-Metcalf, an Endangered Species Biologist at the NYFO, helped me identify what birds were providing the soundtrack of our exploration, as well as the different types of plants in the wetlands that indicate the health of the habitat.
I came away from the experience exhausted and full of new information. I knew if I was given another chance to go out and get my boots stuck in the mud in pursuit of finding bog turtles, I would without a doubt.