By Aleksandra Ostojic
She peeked her head out of the dirt as the morning sun wrapped her face like a warm blanket. Her head followed her body as she cautiously wormed out of the nest she had dug the night before for her first ever clutch of 24 eggs. Several nights had been spent in hiding under piles of fallen leaves during the arduous search for the perfect nest, and in the world that surrounded her, a world of shiny-shelled monsters, fury beasts and noises from every direction, finding that perfect spot had been nothing short of a miraculous feat. The eggs were buried safe underground now and she was ready to make the long journey to the green paradise by the water.
Birds chirped far overhead and smooth grass bent gently under her feet as she put one foot cautiously after another and made her way out into the open sun. Suddenly a loud noise whipped past her ears, low but abrupt like thunder escaping the earth a mere few feet away. She retreated into the safety of her shell and, frozen still, listened to the world outside. The creature approached in a frenzy, growling and sniffing- it had set its eyes on a prize but the hard shell blocking the way was a maddening obstacle. Her little heart raced while giant paws pushed, sharp teeth bit, and loud growls echoed in a deafening ring. More noises followed, and to her delight the creature backed away. It let out a few more waning barks then was gone just as quickly as it had appeared. The ever-familiar steady rumbling of the shiny-shelled monsters started in the distance. They were so fast, sometimes they stopped, sometimes just zoomed by with mysterious purpose. Best to be safe, she stayed tucked away and waited as the rumbling eventually faded. It was time to move on.
With caution in her head and determination in her heart, she pushed on towards her paradise by the water, a safe home to tuck into and wait out the long winter. Once again one foot went in front of another as soft grass turned into hard ground. Another low rumbling roared in the distance. The shiny shelled monsters were faster than anything she had ever seen, certainly faster than she could ever be, and this one was coming right towards her. With lingering thoughts of watery bliss she did all that she could do against this impending danger and once again retreated into the safety of her shell. It got closer and closer, louder and louder and suddenly silence.
It had stopped. For the third time that day she poked her head out slowly, betting that it was safe to be vulnerable again. The shiny shelled monster was still next to her and by its side was one of the tall creatures. Sometimes they were loud and scary, but usually they were gentle. In her distant memory they gave her food when she was just a little hatchling. They gave her water and a soft safe place to sleep. This one was like those from her past, quiet and gently, as it slowly picked her up and whisked her to her destination, a patch of green beyond the hard path of the shiny-shelled monsters. It roared once again, this time far behind her and disappeared as the last one had earlier that day.
Thankful for the assistance from the creature, she continued onward. From here it was soft dirt, tall grass and the crunching of sticks beneath her feet as she finally set her sights on the paradise by the water. The cluster of green shrubs shimmered in the orange rays of dusk light, the thin but sturdy branches bent elegantly over the water’s edge. She stepped into the small enclosure, the cool water wrapped her body while the shrubs hid her from the world beyond. She made it.
New England is home to 10 native species of small, terrestrial turtles, each with their own journeys to make and obstacles to cross. This story is not an unfamiliar one to many of them- populations have declined over the years due to habitat loss, fragmentation, and predation as we built on nesting sites and constructed roads across what were once their homes and migration paths. But a rocky road does not mean a bleak future, as organizations like Grassroots Wildlife Conservation and the New England Aquarium work tirelessly with threatened and endangered turtle species to restore and protect their populations. Grassroots Wildlife Conservation, one of the partners of the live blue™ Service Corps, works with the State-threatened Blanding’s turtle at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord, MA.
The first step to ensure the survival of this population was to identify the biggest threats they face. Wildlife refuges and protected conservation lands are important for preventing development of turtle habitat, but young turtles are still vulnerable to predation and sensitive to small changes in the environment. “Adults are smart,” explained Byran Windmiller, executive director of Grassroots Wildlife Conservation, “They have learned over the course of their lives to not get into too much trouble in our human landscapes.
The problems are babies and juveniles. Surviving to adulthood is key.” Bryan leads many of the Blanding’s Turtle habitat restoration projects in and around Concord, but a fundamental component to their species revival efforts is their headstart program. Every fall, from late August to September, tiny hatchlings emerge from their nests and are only active for a few short months before hibernating for the winter. To give these hatchlings a better chance of survival, organizations such as Grassroots Wildlife Conservation and the New England Aquarium collect and raise them in safe, warm, food-rich environments. After nine months, these turtles reach the size of a three-year old non-headstart turtle. Such growth means they are big enough to avoid the mouths of many hungry predators! One challenge for Bryan and his team was finding a suitable home for the little ones. With limited habitat space in zoos and aquariums, Bryan turned to an unlikely but welcoming source- the school his children attended. Since the first successful matchup, over 20 schools across Massachusetts have joined the effort.
Since many turtle species take several years to reach adulthood, (18-22 years for the Blanding’s Turtles specifically), headstart programs are only one step in a long conservation journey that includes turtle monitoring initiatives, habitat restoration work and rescue/ rehab of adult turtles. As these programs grow, so do education efforts. One of the major objectives for conservation groups like Grassroots Wildlife Conservation is to spread awareness that these turtles exist right in people’s backyards and they need a little awareness and care from us to ensure their safety in the world that we’ve built. “Patience on everybody’s part and the ability to put together a project that’s going to last many years” is, according to Bryan, one of the most difficult but necessary parts of turtle conservation. We face our obstacles just like the turtles face theirs, but with continued dedication from conservation groups and increased awareness from everyone, we can help provide our hard-shelled friends with safe passages and more space to make their paradise by the water.
Ready to get involved? The Service Corps partners with Grassroots Wildlife Conservation on a variety of habitat restoration projects in the fall and spring. These efforts are aimed at creating and restoring areas these turtles need for feeding and nesting. Visit our calendar to see upcoming events. You can also “live blue” at home to protect turtles. Stay tuned for some stories on how to help!