Catching Up With Some Headstarting Alumni

posted in: Local Conservation, Turtles | 1
A hand holds two small Blanding's turtles with patterned shells over the surface of the water. The water has several wetland plants poking up from the surface, and both turtles are looking out at the wetland curiously.
Two of the latest cohort of headstarted Blanding’s turtles being released into their new home at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord.

Headstarting turtles has been a major component of Zoo New England’s wildlife conservation efforts for several years. The headstart program benefits a number of turtle species by raising their vulnerable young in captivity for the first 9 months of their life. At the same time, the program provides a positive education & conservation experience to kids in several local schools that participate in raising the turtles and releasing them back into the wild. Some of these headstarts have been radiotracked to gather data on their survival, habitat use and movement throughout their respective wetlands. Due to limited resources and staff time, many are not tracked and are instead released back into the wild without radios. So, what happens to these turtles after they go back to the wild?

Over the last several months the field conservation team at Zoo New England has focused its efforts on recapturing juvenile headstarts. Our team has methodically placed turtle traps throughout Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in hopes of recapturing Blanding’s turtles that have been released into the wetland since the headstarting program started in 2003. One of the main goals of these efforts is to try calculating survival rates of the hatchlings we raise and release back into the wild. From our trapping effort, we can attempt to calculate how many of our released headstarts are surviving from year to year or all the way into adulthood. As we speak, there are some headstarts that we have been tracking for several years that may be reaching sexual maturity and may soon begin to breed, which would help bolster the population at Great Meadows. 

A hand holds an adult Blanding's turtle above the surface of the water, which is covered with wetland plants. The turtle has his head extended and is looking left.
Waldo, a 2010 graduate of our headstarting program, recaptured for the first time in a decade this summer!

Recently we’ve had some exciting news with the appearance and capture of some juvenile Blanding’s headstarts raised a decade ago in Concord Carlisle High School (CCHS). One turtle named Waldo (Notch #39) was born in 2009 and released as a CCHS 2010 graduate headstart into Great Meadows in June of 2010. Waldo was caught 4 other times in Great Meadows up until 2011, but then had not been seen for a decade until he was captured just a couple weeks ago in a new location at Ball’s Hill. This site is a series of vernal pools and wetlands just across the Concord River where some adult Blanding’s have been known to travel from Great Meadows. This capture is particularly exciting news, as only one other headstart besides Waldo has been recorded making a movement from Great Meadows to Ball’s Hill. 

We also recently captured 2 other headstarts born in 2012 that also came from the headstart program in Concord Carlisle High School. One named Bond (Notch #1004) was captured for the first time in 8 years this spring and had not been seen since his initial release in June 2013. The other named Cashew (Notch #1006) was from the same 2012 headstart cohort as Bond, and similarly had not been seen since his initial release but was recaptured this spring. Both are also graduates from the CCHS headstarting program and are enjoying their home in Moore’s Swamp, an expansive wetland area adjacent to Great Meadows in Concord.

We can only hope that our headstarts are doing well after they are released, but our work this year has given us a glimpse into the lives that several of our headstarts have been living. This year we have been fortunate to capture 26 individual Blanding’s turtle headstarts at Great Meadows. It has been lots of hard work dragging loads of heavy traps and equipment through the mucky water and dense vegetation of Great Meadows, but well worth the reward of capturing and checking in on the wonderful headstarts surviving there.