Tag Archives: turtle

Urban Surveys: Get involved with Nature

From left to right we have Logan Kline, Sarah Carpe, Sheldon Mason and Adler (AJ) Pruitt

From left to right we have Logan Kline, Sarah Carpe, Sheldon Mason and Adler (AJ) Pruitt

Today’s post comes from Sheldon Mason, one of our Masonville Cove Baltimore Urban Conservation & Education Interns, in conjunction with the National Aquarium in Baltimore, MD.

I have always loved turtles, they are by far my favorite reptile. Recently, I have had the opportunity to help monitor the population of one of our native turtle species: the eastern box turtle. The eastern box turtle is listed as a vulnerable species according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and as a result population surveys are being conducted at Patuxent Research Refuge.

One of the many box turtles kept in the veterinary house at Patuxent

One of the many box turtles kept in the veterinary house at Patuxent

Where should we look for box turtles? Sandy Spencer, a wildlife biologist on the refuge, says that they can literally be anywhere. Out in the forest at Patuxent Research Refuge, we were searching for box turtles as part of a survey, led by wildlife biologists. As we explored the forest in search of box turtles, we looked next to rocks and logs, places we thought were suitable habitat. When we finally found a box turtle, which was located in a forest full of ferns, we had to write a description of the turtle, details of its surrounding environment, as well as other data.

In order to mark the turtle, we had to drill holes on the edge of the shell and we notched the side. There was a key we used to notch them in a certain way so the turtles can be assigned a number. I asked Sandy why she was doing this survey and she explained that this survey was conducted years ago and they wanted to compare the present and past populations. This was the first time I have ever met a biologist and I was very surprised that they were in a field more than a lab or an office.

A baby box turtle that has not been notched yet

A baby box turtle that has not been notched yet

The work out in the field reminded me of the Bioblitz that we had at Masonville Cove. A BioBlitz is an annual event at Masonville where participants record all the wildlife they find that day and upload it to iNaturalist. Working at the reptile station at the Bioblitz, I realized that the survey that we were conducting on iNaturalist was similar to the one at Patuxent. iNaturalist is a citizen science app, a program used to share wildlife observations with the scientific community. The Bioblitz was promoting citizen science and I was starting to see how something as user friendly as iNaturalist can help scientists learn more about wildlife populations. The whole idea behind citizen science is to encourage all people to be a part of real scientific studies in their own environment and iNaturalist is a great application to get people involved.

I am very fortunate to have had experiences within a career path that interests me. While we have had other experiences during this internship program, this one may have personally made the greatest impact in my career choices as well as how I interact with wildlife.

An older bog turtle found during a survey. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

Bog turtles…the canaries in the coal mine

A young bog turtle found during a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

A young bog turtle found during a survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

I'm Bethany Holbrook, and I work at our New York Field Office. You'll be hearing from me every week! Stay tuned for tales from the great state of New York. USFWS photo with Bethany holding a bog turtle

I’m Bethany Holbrook, and I work at our New York Field Office. You’ll be hearing from me every week! Stay tuned for tales from the great state of New York.

It’s a warm summer day. I’m standing in a tall, wet, grassy field with the sound of bullfrogs and water splashing as I pull my boot from the muck that swallowed it. After hours of walking around in a swamp under the hot sun, I finally found what I came looking for: a tiny 4-inch-long turtle.

This is New York’s smallest turtle species, the bog turtle.

There are only 40 to 60 wetlands that support bog turtles in New York, most of which lie within the southeastern portion of the state. While that might seem like a lot, it’s not. The bog turtle is protected under law as “endangered” by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and as “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Bog turtle numbers have dwindled as their wetland habitat has been destructed for commercial, residential and road development. Sometimes, wetlands are drained for farmland, or they grow into mature woods or become overgrown with invasive plants like purple loosestrife and common reed.

Bog turtles don’t choose just any wetland for their habitat. Suitable habitat is usually described as spring-fed meadow wetlands or open-canopy fens that may have fairly mucky soil with limestone underneath, and channels interspersed, called rivulets. These channels contain 1-3 inches of water that meander through small islands of sedge. It takes biologists hours upon hours to carefully examine these landscapes for the elusive bog turtle.

A forested wetland that has been destroyed to build a housing development. Credit: Lara Cerri

What was once a forested wetland has been converted to a housing development. Credit: Lara Cerri

Our agency, guided by a recovery plan, leads efforts to recover this species within its northern population range. The plan includes goals and objectives that partners will achieve to eventually “delist” this species over time, meaning bog turtle populations will be secure enough that state or federal protection is no longer needed.

Our office works with federal and state agencies, non-governmental organizations, universities, private consulting firms and private landowners in two main areas of New York: the Prairie Peninsula-Lake Plains area (counties bordering the southern portion of Lake Ontario) and the Hudson-Housatonic area (counties that are east of the Hudson River).

A primary goal of the recovery plan is to restore or enhance bog turtle habitat on private, state and federal land. This makes collaboration among all of our partners essential to accomplish efforts like site visits, health assessments, annual meetings and various restoration projects.

An older bog turtle found during a survey. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

An older bog turtle found during a survey. Credit: Bethany Holbrook/USFWS

Some may ask, why spend all this time and effort on a turtle?

For me, the reason is easy…bog turtles are the “canary in the coal mine” for wetlands. If we find that something is negatively impacting bog turtles, it could be a sign that the wetland they use is in trouble — the same wetland we use for fishing, swimming, boating or flood protection. That’s why it is our duty to protect bog turtles and their habitat; our efforts not only protect other aquatic species, but we also benefit.

So, you can see why I spend all day stuck in the muck, hunched over a tussock to find one of these special little guys.

If you’re hooked on these turtles like I am, I invite you to learn more about what we do for bog turtles by reading my upcoming posts.

Students take pride in contributing to turtle conservation

BLANDING'S TURTLE

BLANDING’S TURTLE
This medium-sized freshwater turtle inhabits wetlands in parts of the upper Midwest, New York, New England and southern Canada. Throughout the Northeast, populations appear to be declining. More

Bristol County Agricultural High School students have partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others to help nurture Blanding’s turtles, considered threatened in Massachusetts, and later release them with a greater likelihood of survival at Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge in Sudbury, Mass.

The program, intended to establish a new population at the refuge, involves collecting hatchlings in the wild, raising them in captivity and releasing them back in the wild when the turtles are large enough to survive most predation. Head-start programs are one of many tools that the Service considers in the conservation of species like the Blanding’s turtle.

Over the last three years, Bristol Aggie teacher Brian Bastarache and Stephanie have led students in releasing more than 150 turtles. This year’s release was on May 23.

“These young adults will hopefully be the future advocates for natural resource protection,” Stephanie said. “They will be our conservation leaders. Many of these students won’t ever forget this project, and they’ve realized the difference a single person can make, and that’s perhaps the most long-lasting benefit of this endeavor.”

Students participating in the project in 2011

Emily Faulkner, student: Being a part of this Blanding’s turtle head-start program here at Bristol Aggie has taught me so much – and not just about this species. I never knew there was such a thing as a Blanding’s turtle. I learned much more about myself, as well. I never thought before that I had the potential to do anything. I used to be that person that just stood back and watched.

I now realize that I have the potential to do great things, and not be that spectator watching the world make mistakes. I can actually make a difference. So many people today have the mindset that they can just sit back, relax and let the world move for them. If everybody thought like that, this world would be a big mess. It’s because of people like us here at the head-start program that this world keeps turning. I am so proud to be considered as one of those people, and if it wasn’t for this project, I may never have been one of them.

This experience has made the biggest difference in my life; it was both fulfilling and educational. It helped me see the true value in myself and the importance of working as a group.

Ashleigh Dernier, student: It was sad when we released them, because it might have been the last time we will ever see them. We would not be able to feed them, weigh them or measure them every week anymore. I was happy to see the turtles finally in their habitat, where they will be part of a new population at the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge. It’s exciting to see how they have grown. We learned a lot thanks to these little turtles and working with them.

We’re more ready than most to work out in the field after we graduate high school and college since we have some experience. I’ll miss them, but they’re right where they belong now, and hopefully, they’re all doing well. It’s a lot of fun to help raise the turtles, and I’m sure the next group of kids to head-start them will have a lot of fun too.

One last check on a Blanding's turtle before release. Credit: Keith Shannon/USFWS

One last check on a Blanding’s turtle before release. Credit: Keith Shannon/USFWS

Alexandra Lopes, student: I often hear of how no other high school gets the chance to work with rare turtles or be the ones to release them back into their natural habitat to begin a new population. Talking to kids from other high schools I realize that everyone who said that is right. No other high school does this, which makes me extremely grateful that I have had this opportunity to work with such amazing animals. You find yourself getting excited when it’s the day to weigh and measure them. When I weighed them and they gained a few grams, I got excited, and when they grew a few millimeters, I was amazed.

Letting them go was a little sad. I was thinking that we would not be able to see them every day, but remembering the fact that we helped start a new population of these turtles makes it all worth the tiny bit of sadness. Watching them swim away in the home where they belong gave me an amazing feeling of accomplishment. I will never forget this project.

Kendra Espinola, student: The Blanding’s turtle head-start program made me realize I can make a difference in the world. I enjoyed every second I had with the turtles our class raised. The heart-breaking part was to let them go after raising them for several months. It was worth it, because one day they will get old enough and make clutches (nests of eggs) for future classes or thrive again.

This project made me feel special, like I could do anything I set my mind to. Maybe I will participate in a project much larger than this in the future. I know I can succeed if I work hard enough towards my goal.I am happy to have worked on this project, to interact with wildlife like I have never done before. My parents were so proud of me when I told them about the project and going to the release. If I had the chance to do this head-start program again, I would leap at the chance. It was a wonderful experience for me and I will never forget it.

Stephanie Koch, biologist: It has been such a pleasure meeting the students through the years and seeing their excitement, enthusiasm, and yes, sadness, on release day. But their sadness is a true testament for how hard they have worked, and how invested they are in the conservation effort. That enthusiasm and investment will spill over into countless conversations they have in the future with peers, family, and maybe even a few complete strangers…and so the story will continue to be told.

Brian Bastarache is a mentor to these students. He finds a way to integrate the turtle head-starting into so many facets of the school curriculum. The students learn the importance of taking careful notes, of entering and analyzing data, and determining what you can (and can’t) conclude from these data. He challenges the students to think, ask questions, find answers and rethink.This is why we got so many great questions on the release day! And this is why these students will make a difference in conservation in the future.

The students look at a snapping turtle found while releasing the Blanding's turtles. Credit: Keith Shannon/USFWS

The students look at a snapping turtle found while releasing the Blanding’s turtles. Credit: Keith Shannon/USFWS

More:

  • Blanding’s turtles head-start release (video)
  • Bristol County Agricultural High School gives ‘threatened’ turtles a head start in life (news story)
  • Blanding’s turtle conservation in the Northeast (website)