A Place to Call Her Own

When you think about restoring habitat for aquatic turtles, you might think about river clean-ups and wetland restorations – a dry, sunny slope is probably not what you imagine. But that’s just where a team of Zoo New England staff and volunteers gathered recently to improve habitat for our threatened wood turtles. 

Wood turtles live in and along streams and rivers, and compared to most of our other native turtles, they spend a good deal of time up on land, foraging for food, such as insects, snails, worms, mushrooms, and berries. When it comes time to lay their eggs, female wood turtles go off in search of open, sandy areas to dig a nest. But sometimes they can have trouble finding an adequate spot, one that isn’t shaded by trees or choked with vegetation. Since these turtles rely on the warmth of the sun to incubate their underground nests, a sunny spot is a must.

Five masked people in work clothes swinging mattocks, picks, and rakes at a sunny hillside with pine trees in the background. Their work is creating an exposed patch of bare soil.
ZNE staff and volunteers clear a section of sunny hillside for use by nesting wood turtles.

At our wood turtle conservation site in Acton, MA, the best open area near the turtles’ home stream is on the edge of a town baseball field, but the open sunny areas were all very close to the bleachers. Working with us, the town of Acton hired contractors to clear an area of young trees and shrubs (nearly all invasive species) last winter. This spring we gathered a group of volunteers to scarify the soil and remove any remaining surface vegetation – exposing some patches of dry sandy soil that are perfect for turtle nests. Scarifying the soil also helps keep plants from immediately regrowing in the area, which would shade the turtle nests.

Three people drag a bulging blue work tarp up to the top of a hill with obvious effort.
Three workers haul a tarp full of plant material uphill to be added to slash piles, where they will provide cover and habitat for insects and small mammals.

In early spring, it was hard to see much difference between the mowed/cut areas versus the scarified areas, but by June (turtle nesting season) the grasses and forbs in the mowed areas had grown tall, while the scarified areas were still mostly clear and open. And much to our delight, the turtles noticed the difference too! Of the two nests we found and protected in Acton this year, both were in the open, sandy patches we had created just one month earlier.  

An area of bare dirt surrounded by tall grass and dandelions. In the center of the image, a pale brown turtle can be seen digging in the soft dirt.
One of the wild female wood turtles digging in her nest in the new scarified area created by ZNE’s habitat improvement. The hatchlings from this nest will go on to be headstarted by school classrooms!

To a human eye, these bare patches might seem unsightly or even bad (“Where are the plants?!”) but to a turtle, these open patches are beautiful nesting areas. In the future, working with Acton and Mass Wildlife, we plan to further “develop wood turtle real estate” at this site by planting native tree, shrub, and grass species that will provide excellent cover for turtles during their summer-time foraging. Additionally, if possible, we will plant native shrubs (dogwoods and alders) alongside parts of the adjacent brook and insert logs into sections of the stream bank to improve the turtles’ wetland habitat.