Hunting for Head Starts
On a very hot July morning, I headed to Great Meadows to meet up with Dr. Windmiller to do some tracking of the recently released head starts. We were met by two interns for the Fish and Wildlife Service, Zack and Jarrod, and John from the zoo. Being a pretty hot day, I thought perhaps hanging out in a pond wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Dr. Windmiller had brought me a different pair of waders from the ones I wore the last time, and I put them on over my shorts, tucked my camera in the little zipper pouch on the top part of the overalls, and tucked my “booties” into a pair of my old running shoes. Dr. Windmiller selected two radio frequencies for two Sudbury head starts and we started off to what I thought would be the open water.
So, needless to say, I was quite surprised when we did not head into the open water. Instead, we headed right into the forest of cattails. I was amazed at how tall these were and how I quickly felt like I was deep in a jungle. I didn’t have any sense to where we were, I just kept following Bryan deeper and deeper into the field of cattails. He would stop and point out various plants to me — pretty ones such as Button Bush, as well as not so nice plants: a type of rose that is extremely thorny, and another one called something with an arrow, that could also tear up your arm pretty well. John held the radio tracker as we headed deeper and deeper towards where the signal was coming from. We finally arrived at an area where the signal was pretty loud. John switched the big tracker to a smaller one, and kept on looking. Shortly, he and Bryan were down on their knees, digging in the mud. And before long, I was holding a mud covered Blanding’s turtle head start, who did not look very happy to be in my hands. She kept her head pretty much inside her shell, probably wondering what was going on. She was weighed, measured, photographed, and then put back into her muddy home. Bryan took an
inventory of the types of plants that were around her. I was surprised that there was really no water where she was found, and asked Bryan about what they would eat in this type of habitat. It became pretty clear to why the data the students had crunched indicated that the head starts don’t gain a lot of weight here initially. Zack and Jarrod had picked up the signal of this turtle’s tank mate pretty close to where the head start we had found. Bryan and John started helping them and before long, about 6 feet from where we found the original one, they had found the tankmate deeply burrowed in the mud as well. This turtle was much more interested in seeing what was going on. His head was out, looking around, while he tried to push off my hand. After his weighing and measuring, he too was put back into his mud bath.
We headed back out of the cattails to decide on the next turtle to try and find. Bryan mentioned to Jarrod to watch out for these “ditches” that contained rather deep, yucky water. Taking a breather for a moment, we decided what radio signal to go into and then it was back into the cattail forest. With the hot sun blazing down on us, we traversed through the cattails. The signal brought us to a small pool of water that was about two feet deep. The biologists started searching again. This turtle did not cooperate, swimming all over the little pool. Zack finally stuck his entire arm into the water and muck and voila — up came turtle number three of the morning. This turtle had more of the habitat
that I thought they would have. Again, we went through his measurements and then he was plopped back into the water. Everyone mentioned that the water was rather cool, so I stuck my legs into the water. They were right, it was almost refreshing. One of the things I have enjoyed about these experiences is the opportunity to meet biologists and to listen in on their conversations. The four of them sat in the water and talked about their research experiences. Growing up and even in my first career as a Food Scientist, I thought of biologists as the people in white lab coats who worked in labs. But becoming involved in this project, I have had the opportunity to meet biologists who do many different jobs. I have enjoyed hearing about the Fish and Wildlife Services interns’ experiences and enjoyed watching Bryan’s mentoring of the younger biologists. This has been a great learning opportunity for me and maybe in my next life, I’ll come back as a Wildlife Biologist.
Back to those ditches. We started going back to the trail. Bryan and Zack were talking about toads, when all of the sudden, my foot sank into knee high guck and got stuck. I heard that sucking sound of my foot in the mud. I called out to Bryan and Zack who turned back and helped me out. My shoe remained in the muck and Zack leaned in and pulled it out. His mother would undoubtedly be proud of his manners in helping this middle age teacher out! As soon as that foot got out, in sunk the other one. Two shoes were no longer white at all! I quickly heeded Bryan’s advice to step on the roots, and managed to not get stuck again.
In the parking lot, some of us took off our waders while we determined our next step. We had been at this for two hours and yielded three turtles. John decided to take Zach up to see the vernal pools where a third of the turtles were also released. Up we went to a street, out of our cars, and onto the bike path, where we were quickly greeted by hoards of hungry mosquitoes. It was funny that in the cattails, there were no problems with biting insects, but this was quite different. We didn’t track during this trek, but it gave me a pretty good idea of the area and how the turtles would be in a more aquatic environment in this area. Looking back, probably out of the three release areas, I would envision this might be the easiest place to actually find the head starts.
Back into our cars, we headed to Moore’s Swamp, which Bryan had deemed the most difficult place to find the head starts. Having been in this swamp on two occasions, I could attest to the rather unstable bottom and the deep water. We quickly applied the strongest mosquito repellent available and I led the group to where we had left off Lynn D not that long ago. I pointed out the area, John and Zack turned on their radios, and off we went. It was pretty apparent that she was not where we left her. Zack quickly climbed into another part of the swamp while Jarrod, John, and I headed into the swamp to reach a pennisula. I carefully traversed the knee deep water. We came on a hill, where the signal was evident, but not that strong. John led us down a hill to the other side of the bridge where we had let Yertle go. That was water I was not looking forward to crossing as I remember how deep that was. John switched to Yertle’s frequency, where he picked up a weak signal. Into the swamp once again I carefully walked, not wanting to take a face plant. Out of the water, up another hill, down back through the trees we went. Finally we arrived at the outer edge of the swamp nearer the cemetery, where both Jarrod and John thought the signal was stronger. Out the three biologists waded, the water becoming deeper and deeper with every step they took. I admired their perseverance in looking for Yertle and Lynn D. However, after a while, it was pretty clear that they were living in pretty deep parts and they wouldn’t be easily caught. I was surprised at how far they had traveled. John mentioned how rich of a feeding ground that this is for the turtles and how they must be quite large. This was the ideal habitat for the turtles, safe from predators with plenty of great food to chow on. Slowly we headed back towards our cars. It was 1:00 o’clock by now and 4.5 hours in the blazing sun was enough. Even though we did not find Yertle and Lynn D, I felt good that we did hear their signal and that they have such a great new home.
This movie will give you an idea of our morning – so enjoy!