By: Dylan Cook
May 16, 2016
This past week the OTCC started back up with their turtle monitoring; studying the behaviour, habitat use and survival of juvenile Blanding’s turtles in eastern Ontario. This is my first time working with turtles in the field and it has already proven to be quite the adventure. I had no idea what to expect, but when we arrived at the quaint old log cottage by the lake where we are staying, I saw the canoes and the weathered, pink granite sloping down into that dark blue water and I was instantly hooked. Every morning as we paddle down the lake to our study sites the loon is there to greet us, floating calmly on the still water as we glide by. As we approach the swamp, a disgruntled beaver lets us know exactly how he feels about the intrusion by slapping his tail indignantly on the water. Even when the turtles are difficult to find, there is never a need to look far for wildlife; I’ve already managed to check off several birds in the back of my field guide that I had never seen before, including a Great Crested Flycatcher.
It was a beautiful, sunny week and though the lake is still frigid, the water in the shallower wetlands is rapidly warming; increasing the activity of turtles and other cold-blooded creatures. Tromping through marshes, bogs and thicket swamps in chest waders is actually exhausting work but well worth it when you get to see a ribbon snake weaving its way through the twisted branches of the low bog shrubbery, skirting above the soggy ground in effortless arboreal locomotion. Or see a mink frog materialize from a clump of verdant moss as it leaps into the water at your approach –this prehistoric landscape is blooming with life and working out here puts you right in the thick of it. In the forest, the modest flowers of spring are poking up through the bed of pine needles and oak leaves, speckling the ground with colour. Some, like the small, white starflowers are in bloom before they even sprout leaves. The blackflies are also alive and well, and so are the mosquitoes, but luckily the cottage and the breeze on the lake both offer us a respite from these tyrants. In the evenings, we can sit out on the screened in porch, peer out as the black night falls over the lake and listen to the night come alive. Flies buzz at the screen. The loons sound their icy calls back and forth across the lake to each other while a barred owl hoots along in harmony, to the tune of, “no soup for you, no soup for you all!” And all the while somewhere out in the blackness, the whip-poor-wills chant out their name long into the night.
In just a week we were already able to find nearly all the turtles that were monitored last year. Most of the juveniles are about the size of a clenched fist, and I found them to be surprisingly elusive and sneaky, with an obstinate disposition that, together with their perpetually grinning faces, makes them pretty adorable. I was able to track down one of our turtles, named Jackie, who had managed to wedge herself under a floating hummock of moss, and who was particularly persistent, and nearly successful, in her efforts at escaping back to her hidey-hole as we were taking her measurements. There are spots in the bog where you can be walking on seemingly solid ground one second and up to your hips in water and peat the next. All of us have fallen into these sinkholes at least once, providing a bit of comic relief for the rest of the group as we trudge about, following the turtles’ transmitter signals around the bog. It has only been a week and I am still learning the ropes, but we’ve had a great start to the field season and I am really looking forward to becoming much better acquainted with all the turtles, my fellow field technicians, and this beautiful place over the coming weeks.