Turtle nesting season is underway and conservationists are asking Muskoka residents to do their part in protecting local turtle populations.
Nesting season starts mid-May and extends into July with peak season occurring throughout the month of June. Conservationists like Kelly Wallace, managing director and founder of the Think Turtle Conservation Initiative, are concerned that Ontario could reopen right at the peak of nesting season, increasing the number of motorists and turtles sharing the roads. Road mortality is one of the foremost concerns for Ontario’s turtles and after nesting, female turtles are exhausted, putting them at an even higher risk.
“They just move so much slower, so it makes them more vulnerable on the roads,” Wallace said. “They are so precious. All turtles are, but they’re so precious because they’re our breeding pool, and we keep losing them to road mortality, so we just have to protect them at all costs.”
Assisting local turtles, on and off the roads
When it comes to helping turtles on roadways, it’s important to pull over safely and move the turtle in the direction it’s already headed. Small turtles can be held at the middle of the shell while snapping turtles need to be held from the back with hands on either side of the tail. (For more tips on turtle crossings, read our past coverage here)
For turtles that don’t make it across the road without injury, residents should call or text the hotline at Saving Turtles At Risk Today (S.T.A.R.T.), a local conservation initiative launched in 2013, so that the turtle can be transported to the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre (OTCC) for treatment. Even in dire cases, some turtles can be rehabilitated for their injuries.
“There are times when people come across turtles, and to them, the turtle looks like it’s beyond hope,” Wallace said. “The shells very cracked up and it’s bleeding and they think that’s it, but the thing about turtles is they have a very, very unique metabolism that’s very slow and for a turtle to die, it actually can take hours, days, even longer.”
Even if the turtle itself doesn’t survive, it could be a female carrying viable eggs, so it’s important to call the hotline for help. Another way to protect turtle eggs is by keeping your distance from nesting females, which can be easily spooked.
“You don’t want to do that because a turtle that gets spooked, it will leave the nest and then it hasn’t laid its eggs,” Wallace said. “It’ll probably lay them somewhere else, but there’s always a chance it may not.”
Female turtles that don’t expel their eggs can suffer from egg retention or dystocia, which can be life threatening. A turtle disturbed while nesting could also leave the nest without filling it in or dump eggs in the water, putting the lives of the future hatchlings at risk, so always keep a distance and keep canine companions away from nesting sites.
Homeowners with a nest on their property can help by installing a nest protector, which allows the nest to get sun and rain without being exposed to predators. It’s important to remember that the nest protectors cannot be installed on roadsides or other public property without express permission, Wallace said, or the person who installed them could be held liable for damage or injuries if an accident occurs at the location.
For nests without protectors installed, there are still ways to help deter predators. Smoothing out the top of the nest can mask its appearance to predators, Wallace said, and marking the nest with a stone or something similar will help identify the area of importance. Nesting females leave a strong scent, so if it doesn’t rain for a while, it can also help to simulate a light rain over the nest, ensuring that you don’t overwater and drown the eggs.
Though the hope is to save as many nests as possible, some eggs will be lost as part of nature’s set of checks and balances, Wallace said, but there are ways to help even after a nest is lost.
“If somebody sees a nest that a predator got to, we always suggest moving the shells away from the site and tidying it up because in the feeding frenzy, there’s always the off chance that maybe one or two eggs managed to survive,” she said. “Hopefully nature will find a way and those might be the two little hatchlings that make it through.”
Boosting declining turtle populations
The S.T.A.R.T. team often installs nest protectors and collects eggs from precarious areas because the majority of turtle nests are predated if no action is taken to protect them, said Kelsey Moxley, field projects coordinator for S.T.A.R.T., and Sarah Delaronde, assistant S.T.A.R.T. project coordinator, in a written statement to Muskoka411.
About 80 per cent of turtle nests are preyed upon by animals like skunks and raccoons that live near human communities, they said, so collecting eggs allows them to incubate turtles at the Georgian Bay Turtle Hospital and release them at their point of origin in hopes of boosting declining populations for species at risk. Because of the many threats facing turtle populations, the S.T.A.R.T. team urges locals to call the hotline after assisting turtles in the area.
“Don’t forget to call our hotline about the turtle once it is out of harm’s way and if it is a Blanding’s or a Spotted turtle, hold onto the turtle until further instruction from our hotline call,” they said. “Saving even one adult turtle can help local populations. An adult female can live for decades, laying eggs and helping to increase the population.”
The hotline is available all hours of the day for Muskoka residents to call or text when they see a turtle in any condition, whether it be a species at risk, nesting, injured or even dead. Their team can help transport injured turtles to the OTCC and the information they collect helps to better the understanding of turtle populations in Muskoka.
When reporting sightings, it helps to get as much detail as possible, including the species, approximate age, the location of the sighting and what the turtle was doing at the time. For homeowners with nests on their properties, the S.T.A.R.T. team is happy to provide assistance on protecting nests and they can also survey for species at risk on properties containing wetlands.
“Residents in Muskoka who are ‘at the right place at the right time’ play a large role in turtle conservation. If we want to help these species at risk, we need to do it together as a community,” they said in the statement. “The first year during the launch of our hotline, we only received about 30 calls. Last year we received over 800! Over the years, the community has really increased support for protecting species at risk and we hope that it continues to grow.”
To contact the S.T.A.R.T. hotline, call or text 705-955-4284. To ask questions about turtle conservation, or to have the team survey the wetlands on your property, you can also reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.