The Search for Nesting Turtles

This season with our nest surveys coinciding at the same time as our Wood turtle predation study, which you can read about in our previous post – CSI: Wood Turtles, we’ve had the opportunity to go about locating nesting turtles in a new way.

While we have trail cameras set up to monitor predation, we also have some set at fenced off entrances to known turtle nesting habitat. These cellular-network cameras send us a photo any time a turtle (or other animal) enters or exits the nesting habitat, which allows us to go check the area for a nest without needing to constantly patrol the nesting area. Locating Wood turtle nests can be particularly challenging because the turtles can nest at any time of day, and patrolling the area 24/7 would be impossible. The cameras have enabled us to better allocate our limited time and helped us find and protect a nest at a site we wouldn’t normally have been able to survey.

Blanding’s turtle digging an egg cavity

Locating nesting Blanding’s turtles is a more predictable task, as they almost always nest in the evening, and they only come up on land when preparing to nest. To find their nests, we go out at 6pm on each of our known adult females, identifying if they are out in the wetlands, or have come up on land to nest. If up on land, we can locate that female specifically, but then must wait for her to actually lay her eggs.

Blanding’s turtle laying eggs

The process of a female picking out the right nest location is no quick job, and in fact some females will take days to scope out a location to lay their eggs. Even once the spot has been chosen, digging a cavity to lay the eggs in, laying the eggs, and then burying the eggs and heading back to the wetlands can take hours. So despite locating a female once up on land, the time and effort to protect her nest does not end with simply locating her. Sometimes our staff are out into the wee hours of the morning waiting for a turtle to finish nesting!

Protected Blanding’s turtle nest. Wire mesh prevents predators from digging up and eating the eggs. Later in the summer, this mesh will be replaced with a metal cage to allow the hatchlings to emerge safely.
Nesting Box turtle located during a visual survey

While trail cameras and radio tracking are both successful methods of locating nesting turtles, they only work if we have previously come across adult females and put trackers on them, or if we have experience at the site and are familiar with where the turtles are nesting. At some sites, this is not always the case, which leads us to another method in our search for nesting turtles: visual surveys. Visually surveying is quite plainly observing a site for nesting turtles. While it can be a tedious method, it provides us with an opportunity to find new females within a population, which we could then radio track and use their nesting location to better understand the sites nesting habitat.

Above all, one of our most beneficial methods of locating nesting turtles, is you! Receiving “turtle tip-offs” from citizen scientists just out enjoying an evening walk or maybe even in their own backyard, has helped us find new turtles and protect dozens of nests.

What to do if you see a turtle nesting (May & June in Massachusetts):
Watch closely during these nesting season months of May and June for any turtles up on land looking for a place to lay their eggs. Keep pets away, and avoid getting too close as turtles can be easily spooked and she might decide that the area isn’t safe if she’s disturbed. Remember, nesting can take several hours, so leave the turtle to do her thing. (Note: if you live in a neighborhood adjacent to one our conservation focal areas, you will have received a postcard with information on what to do if you spot one of “our” turtles. Otherwise, this information pertains to the general public and to general turtle nesting activity).

Once the turtle nests, it is best to just leave be to hatch naturally (this takes approximately 60-80 days). However, if the nesting location is problematic, for example, in a spot that will be driven over or where construction must take place, you can contact us at fieldconservation@zoonewengland.org to find out how to safely relocate the nest.