By Kate Frazer
"Just look for the places you’d go if you were a turtle," explains restoration specialist Angela Sirois as she leads the group deeper into the wetland. Surveying the maze of small streams, mounds of matted vegetation and twisted trees in the muddy valley, the task of finding a tiny bog turtle seems easier said than done.
Luckily, we have technology on our side.
Sirois is using her telemetry kit to track turtles whose shells have been outfitted with small radio transmitters. She walks carefully, pointing the giant antenna toward the ground to pick up a signal. It’s like she’s taking the pulse of the land.
Before long, the series of beeps gets faster and louder. Her hand disappears into a subterranean tunnel, then emerges with a squirming turtle.
A Familiar Face
The turtle stretches out its neck and grasps Sirois’ finger with its tiny scaled hand. The location of a small notch in its shell reveals its identity.
"This is L4R1," says Sirois. “She’s especially exciting to find because we’ve been tracking her since 1990, when she was just a hatchling. She’s 18-years-old now. We’ve followed her to a nest and have watched her lay eggs. The fact that she’s been recruited into the breeding population is a good sign that this wetland is providing the right habitat.”
Researchers – many sponsored by The Nature Conservancy – have been studying the movements of the threatened bog turtle in the Berkshires’ calcium rich wetlands for nearly three decades. This region is one of the few places on Earth with the long-term data necessary for understanding the habitat needs of these long-lived creatures.
Protecting Turtles, Protecting Wetlands
After weighing and measuring the turtle and inspecting her shell and her radio, we return L4R1 to the mucky tunnel and continue our search.
"This is a perfect world for bog turtles," says Sirois. The wetland unfolds at the foot of a mountain. The streams run down the rocky slopes collecting calcium, then braid through tall grasses in the valley. During a time of year called spring emergence, turtles use these rivulets like roads as they cruise around in search of mates and nesting areas.
But development in and around wetlands like this one has left the bog turtle population extremely fragmented. The two distinct populations of bog turtles in the Eastern U.S. are separated by a 250-mile gap, with Northern bog turtles occurring in fewer than 200 sites in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland. The fact that these populations cannot mix, decreases their genetic variability and, potentially, the longevity of the species.
Small Creatures, Big Hopes
"What we learn about bog turtles here can help us protect the wetlands they use throughout the entire region," explains Sirois. "We’re finding that maintaining the right hydrology and diverse native plant communities is essential."
That is why the Conservancy couples its research efforts with restoration projects. For years, the tri-state Berkshire Taconic Landscape program has deployed teams of interns each summer to control invasive plants like Phragmites that invade bog turtle habitat and destroy basking and nesting areas.
Sirois, who began her conservation career as an intern in this program, admits that tackling invasives is monotonous work. "It has taken years of control by intern crews to create the kind of wetland that bog turtles seek for nesting," she explains. "This kind of work is never really done. But each year, it gets easier to maintain the open habitat these turtles need."
With her eyes still scanning the ground for turtles, Angela points out a group of nice hummocks that once was a patch of Phragmites. "We recently found a bog turtle nesting here," she says. "While it’s not direct proof, it is one very hopeful sign that our restoration work is making a real difference."
Kate Frazer is a Nature Conservancy conservation writer based in Boston.