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Posts Tagged ‘endangered turtles’

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When Railguy and I were driving down a country road yesterday, we passed a marker indicating a turtle crossing area ahead. The road bisects an attractive swamp and marsh, something that could only happen in a crazy world, so it’s not too surprising that turtles would be seen there.

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Sure enough, there at the edge of the road was a turtle, making its leisurely way to the other half of the swamp. We stopped the car and I got out to give him or her a hand.

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It was a Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata), easily identified by the orange-red pattern at the edge of its carapace, or upper shell. It quickly withdrew its head and feet when I picked it up. I asked Railguy to hold it while I took a frontal photo.

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Then I settled the turtle at the edge of the water that it had been heading towards.

There are eight species of turtles in Ontario. The Painted Turtle is the most common and widespread species. Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) are still present in significant numbers but are vulnerable in some areas where populations were once stronger. The remaining 6 species (Blanding’s, Musk or Stinkpot, Map, Spotted, Spiny Softshell, and Wood) are all in trouble, listed as threatened or endangered. Threats to turtles include the loss of wetland habitat, road mortality, pollution, collection as pets, and predation. These pressures may soon overwhelm these important wetland ecosystem members.

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But wait! That naughty turtle! The sign clearly indicates that turtles are to cross the road between May and September, and here it is only March! You can report miscreants to the Ontario Turtle Tally linked here, and help them keep track of these poorly-behaved individuals.

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Why did the turtle cross the road? Probably for the same reason as the chicken: to get to the other side. I recently came across my first road-crossing turtle, early in the season. He was just a little guy, parked in the sun, halfway across the road. It wasn’t a busy road, but when you move at the speed of a turtle, any road crossing is hazardous. I stopped my car and got out to give him a hand. It was obvious that his mother had told him “Never talk to strangers!”, because as I approached, he withdrew tightly into his shell. I picked him up and, after a couple of commemorative photos, set him down in what seemed like as safe a spot as possible on the other side of the road. Even though he was not disposed to communicate with me, I could tell what he was thinking: what the heck is a road doing in the middle of my home???

Good question. Certainly, in a sane world, it wouldn’t be there, running as it does through a wetland. The road is a sign of Canada’s overpopulation problem. We tend to think of overpopulation as a problem in China or India, but the fact is, there are way too many people right here in Ontario. Canada may be a large country, but most of its 30 million or so citizens live in a narrow band along the southern border. This fringe is the same region that is home to much of the country’s biodiversity, and too many people have stressed many regions to the limit. A good example is Carolinian southwestern Ontario. Although Carolinian Canada makes up just 1% of Canada’s land area, it has a greater number of flora and fauna species than any other ecosystem in Canada. One third of the rare, threatened and endangered species of Canada are found there. Ninety to 98% of the natural habitats in this region have been destroyed or altered by human activities. All that is left of the once-rich natural diversity is huddled in a scattering of parks and conservation areas.

In the case of turtles, the arrival of so many humans invading their habitat has been nothing less than a disaster. Most Ontario turtles live south of the Canadian shield. After 250 million years of residency here, when they survived even the cataclysmic forces that killed the dinosaurs, 6 of Ontario’s 8 hard-shelled turtle species are now threatened with extinction. The cause? Us.

The wetland homes of turtles have been drained or filled in at an incredible rate in the last century. Pollution and pesticides take a toll, but among the greatest hazards facing turtles are roads. In overpopulated Ontario, roads run everywhere and cars don’t stop for lumbering turtles. Many turtles are run over and killed on roads. A perfect example of our inability to control our excesses, our horrific impact on the domain of turtles, is ongoing right now in Ottawa. A planned extension of the Terry Fox Drive is poised to destroy the wetland home of a population of the threatened Blanding’s Turtle. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups are fighting to put the development on hold, but delays are likely to be temporary.

The environmental footprint of the average Canadian is a size XL…extra large! When the number of people living in a region can not be permanently maintained without depleting resources and without degrading the environment, you have a serious overpopulation problem. And in this case, the Blanding’s Turtles are the latest victims.

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The trail now follows the edge of the river, and a sign about dragonflies and damselflies, the odonates, suggests that there will be lots to see in the summer months. As noted in the sign, odonates are threatened, as are many, many species, by the loss of suitable habitat. The polluting of waterways and draining of wetlands take a huge toll on wildlife. Two-thirds of Ontario’s wetlands have been lost or severely damaged and many surviving wetlands are threatened.

The highpoint of the hike, both literally and figuratively, was the marsh lookout. Sturdily constructed, it offers a beautiful view out over the Tay river and marsh.

Even at this time of year, you can see signs of life, as tracks crisscross the ice surface. It is always wonderful to see a large marsh or swamp. Wetlands are vitally important, filtering out sediment and pollutants, cleaning the water we all depend on, and providing habitat for a wide range of plants and animals.

A sign on the lookout highlights Black Terns (Chlidonias niger) and Least Bittern (Ixobrychus exilis). Again, it isn’t clear whether these species nest at this location or they just hope they will! The Black Tern breeds mainly on the prairies of North America, but its range extends east into western Quebec. During breeding season, it uses freshwater marshes, but from October to April it winters by the sea, mostly on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Central and northern South America. The Least Bittern was considered abundant in large southern Ontario marshes a century ago. It’s decline has matched the destruction of its habitat as marshes are drained.

Jebb’s Creek, a tributary of the Tay that winds through the reserve, provides important spawning and nursery habitat for fish. With the mild weather, the ice had melted back and revealed some open water.

Other wetland residents who have suffered mightily for the sake of “progress” are Ontario’s turtles. There are eight species of turtles in Ontario. The Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata) is the most common and widespread species. Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) are still present in significant numbers but are vulnerable in some areas where populations were once stronger. The remaining 6 species (Blanding’s, Musk or Stinkpot, Map, Spotted, Spiny Softshell, and Wood) are all in trouble, listed as threatened or endangered. Threats to turtles include the loss of wetland habitat, road mortality, pollution, collection as pets, and predation. These pressures may soon overwhelm these important wetland ecosystem members.

Amongst the cattails of the creek and wetland, several nest boxes for Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) could be seen. Wood ducks are thought by many to be the most beautiful native ducks in North America. [For some lovely photos of a wood duck pair, visit Evening Stroll at Xenogere.] They nest in the cavities of trees close to water, but a good cavity can be hard to find. Conservationists have sought to help the wood duck population by providing nesting boxes in wetlands. Some of the Reserve’s boxes were the standard wooden boxes, but there was also a plastic style, which I haven’t seen before. In checking on them via the internet, I found that they have pros and cons. The plastic boxes are sturdy and can be made from recycled plastic, but it seems that at least one study has found that the ducks are traditionalists. This study by H.W. Heusmann and T. Early suggests that wooden nest boxes are preferred, but the study is dated 1988, and perhaps newer plastic boxes have a more appealing design.

Farther along the trail, we noticed these wood chips on the snow, causing us to look up for the source.

A branch has been stripped of its bark. At first, we thought it was the work of a porcupine, but on closer examination of the branch with her binoculars, Birdgirl concluded a woodpecker was the culprit.

The last section of the trail meanders along the edge of open pastureland. The field was dotted with milkweed. I was surprised that many of the pods still contained their downy seed packages.

Back at the parking lot, we looked over the Reserve’s management initiatives as outlined on their visitor information sign. The Reserve was established in 1972 and their comments on encouraging the Canada geese population suggest this sign was written some time ago. These days, you are more likely to hear of efforts to discourage the now-numerous geese.

In all, it was a pleasant, easy hike for a winter’s afternoon. It will be nice to revisit the trail in the spring when the wetland sleepers reawaken.

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June is turtle season in Ontario. This is the time of year when turtles are most often seen as they travel to their nesting sites. Unfortunately, “hitting the road” can sometimes be all too literal for turtles as they risk their lives crossing roads. I spotted the above Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata) in the middle of the road, apparently basking in the sun. When I got out of my car to move (probably) her, she quickly withdrew into her shell. Painted turtles are about 11 to 14 centimeters long, with females larger than males. As this turtle was at the top end of that range, it was likely a female. I set her down in vegetation at the side of the road she had been heading towards.

Since she was being so co-operative, I snapped a few pictures before leaving her in peace. You’d think a “painted” turtle might have a more colourful shell, but it is just the margin of the carapace (upper shell) and the red and yellow striping of the legs and neck that give the turtle its name. The individual sections of the carapace are called scutes. The lower shell is called the plastron. Painted Turtles are noted for their habit of basking in the sun, sometimes lining up together on partially submerged logs. Northern turtles survive the winter by hibernating in the mud of ponds or streams. Painted turtles can survive without oxygen while hibernating for up to five months, longer than any other known air-breathing vertebrate.

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There are eight species of turtles in Ontario. The Painted Turtle is the most common and widespread species. Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) are still present in significant numbers but are vulnerable in some areas where populations were once stronger. The remaining 6 species (Blanding’s, Musk or Stinkpot, Map, Spotted, Spiny Softshell, and Wood) are all in trouble, listed as threatened or endangered. Threats to turtles include the loss of wetland habitat, road mortality, pollution, collection as pets, and predation. These pressures may soon overwhelm these important wetland ecosystem members.

If you see a turtle on the road, you can stop and help it across the road, or direct traffic until it makes it on its own. For more on helping turtles cross the road, check out Outside Up North. You can contribute to knowledge about turtle numbers and movement by reporting sightings to the Ontario Turtle Tally.

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