Tracking turtles: on the trail of an endangered species

Tracking turtles: on the trail of an endangered species

SOMEWHERE IN THE WOODS OF SW NS – James Neish stops in the middle of a swamp, grass over his head, mud and water over his ankles. In short arcs, he swings a big antenna, like the kind of antenna people used to have on their roofs for TV.

He swings the antenna to his left, stops, listens to a little black box strapped to his chest, swings the antenna back to his right, stops, listens. Swings and listens. Swings and listens.Then without a word he marches off deeper into the swamp.

Neish is a research technician with the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute and he’s tracking Blanding turtles.

The box on his chest is a radio receiver. The closer he is to a turtle with a transmitter, the louder his receiver will beep.

Blanding turtles are endangered in Nova Scotia – before this spring researchers estimated the population in this province at about 350 adults.

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But this spring, thanks to a tip from a local trout fisherman, researchers found a new group of turtles. Neish and a team of volunteers and staff are trying to figure out how many turtles belong to this new group, where they hang out and where they lay their eggs.

On this day, Neish is travelling with volunteer Harold Clapp, co-op student Carter Feltham and a reporter.

They loaded up a van in the morning with backpacks and hip waders, logbooks and radio receivers. They have spare radio transmitters to stick on turtles, and of course the big antennas.

They drove for an hour on back roads and dirt roads, through private property with special permission, down logging roads, left and right and right, deeper into the woods.

When they were close to turtle territory, Neish strapped a rooftop antenna on the van and they drove slowly listening for radio signals.

Earlier this spring, as they started finding turtles, the researchers glued radio transmitters onto the turtles’ shells.

Each transmitter has a different frequency and Neish knows all 31 off by heart. He has to flip the radio receiver through those various frequencies and listen, flip and listen until he gets a signal.

“There’s Buttons,” he said. “Still quite far away.”

Each turtle has a code number notched into its shell but the researchers also give them names.

Feltham named Buttons for a scar on her plastron, or bottom shell, right where a belly button would be on a human. Turtles are in fact born attached to their yolk but normally their “belly button” grows over and disappears.

Other turtles are named for people. Neish has named one for each of his siblings and Feltham named one for a friend at college.

“She doesn’t know yet,” said Feltham. “I’m waiting for the right moment to tell her.”

Other are named for celebrities: Leonardo Di’Caprio and Clive Owens are both roaming the woods and muddy waterways of south western Nova Scotia.

Feltham, now 20, started volunteering on turtle research when she was 13. She had heard a young biologist, Brennan Caverhill, talking about Blandings.

Her grandparents live near one of the known turtle populations and so she went for a walk along the gravel railbed near their home and found a turtle hatchling.

“That got me hooked right there,” she said.

Mostly she has volunteered with the turtle protection program, which involves long nights watching known nesting sites waiting for turtles to lay their eggs.

Volunteers then cover the nests with a wire box to keep raccoons from eating the eggs.

Clapp was also inspired through Caverhill to start volunteering with turtles.

He and his wife Diane had just returned to Nova Scotia and were settling in when they met Caverhill in 2005.

“He was a bright young researcher, very charismatic and enthusiastic,” said Clapp. “We thought we’d like to learn more about it and now we’ve been doing this for 10 years.”

Neish started as a volunteer with the turtle protection program at Keji and now knows as much about Blanding’s turtles, their behaviour and how to find them as anyone.

Clapp says Neish has a knack for radio tracking.

“It’s a mix of art and science and he’s good at it,” says Clapp as the researchers get out of the car and start following Neish and his antenna into the woods.

Finally they are all standing at the edge of a tiny little ditch of water.

Neish is pointing the antenna at the opposite shore but can’t see Buttons.

“There she is,” says Feltham first.

The researchers fill out a turtle observation card with notes on where and how they found it, the weather, the turtles behaviour, what habitat and what position the turtle was in, plus measurements and descriptions of the turtle.

And then Neish waves his antenna around again. Flips the frequency and listens.

“There’s Marjorie,” he says. And off they go go again into the woods.