First Finds at a New Field Site!

posted in: Local Conservation, Turtles | 0
A wetland landscape with clusters of cattails, abundant lilypads with white flowers, and a treeline in the background

A beaver slaps its tail in the marsh.  White-tailed deer drink at the water’s edge. A Northen harrier soars overhead and piliated woodpeckers call in forest. Numerous dragonflies, damselflies, and bees buzz and whiz by among the pond lilies and aquatic smartweed.  Among them several species of frogs and fish lurk in the water below. 

Where am I? New Hampshire? Surely somewhere at least an hour from metro Boston? No, surprisingly, all this is within the city limits of Lowell – specifically the Lowell-Dracut-Tyngsborough State Forest.  As the name implies, the state forest stretches across all three communities and it covers over 1,100 acres.  Among the animals that live within its wetlands and forests is the rare Blanding’s turtle, distinguished by its smooth, domed shell and bright yellow chin.  This is a state-listed threatened species found at scattered locations in New England from eastern Massachusetts into central New Hampshire and southern Maine.  The fact that they occur in this forest at all is special, especially since the area is surrounded by residential and suburban neighborhoods and very busy roads.

A Google Maps satellite photo of Lowell-Dracut-Tyngsborough State Forest, showing its proximity to Lowell immediately east-southeast, Dracut to the northeast, and Tyngsborough to the west. The Merrimack River snakes along the forest's western and southern borders.
Lowell-Dracut-Tyngsborough State Forest exists in a matrix of urban and suburban development, but the nearby Merrimack River feeds its rich wetland habitat.

Zoo New England’s Field Conservation Department is working along with the Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, and the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust to study the turtles at this location. In the past few weeks, we’ve started a pilot program to survey the extensive wetlands in the parks.  There was a survey conducted in 2007 by a local herpetologist who recorded both Blanding’s and spotted turtles (another species that is locally rare in Massachusetts) in the State Forest.  Our goal is to resurvey those areas and areas of the park that have yet to be searched over the next couple of years.  We hope to assess the population and attach transmitters to the shells of adult females so we can radio track them throughout the year, and especially during the nesting season in June. 

Sadly, females will often get hit by cars as they cross roads to look for a warm, sunny spot to lay their eggs.  As with our other Blanding’s turtle field sites, we suspect these females nest in yards in the abutting neighborhoods; they may even be nesting within the city limits of Lowell.  Once a nest with eggs is found, we’ll protect the nest from predators like raccoons and skunks with mesh. The hatchlings to emerge usually late August to late September. At that point we’ll collect the hatchlings to give them a “head start.”  This means we raise them for 9 months indoors so they can grow to a large, healthy size and be released back into the park in June to help increase the population of these rare turtles. We hope to distribute any hatchlings to Lowell and other surrounding schools as part of our HATCH education program.  

So far, we have found several adult females and outfitted them with radio transmitters.  We have captured adult males and even young juveniles, which strongly suggests that the habitat is good for any future releases.  Wondering how we capture turtles when we’ve never even been to a site before?  Basically, we use “hoop traps,” which consist of mesh netting stretched over a collapsible metal hoop frame. The mesh forms a funnel on either end of the trap so turtle can easily go in but hard to go out.  The traps are baited with nice, oily sardines, which disperse the smell of food throughout the marsh and attract turtles to the trap. Part of the trap is always kept above water, so the turtles still have air to breathe. 

A person in brown waders, shown from the solar plexus to the knees, holding one Blanding's turtle in each hand. Both turtles are facing the camera, and the turtle on the left's bright yellow chin is clearly visible.

Many folks we run into tell us about the “sun turtles” (eastern painted turtles) and the giant Snapping turtles that nest and lay eggs in their yards.  Blanding’s turtles do the same thing, but are rarer and much less often seen. If you live in Massachusetts, definitely reach out and report to us any Blanding’s turtle you see, even if you’re not sure – we’d be happy to help identify it! 

Zoo New England Field Conservation e-mail: 

Zoo New England Turtle Hotline: (508) 970–9453