A Little Help for 15 Little Friends

I’ve been working for the Canadian Wildlife Federation for a few years now. I’m quite familiar with our freshwater turtle conservation program and I’ve often seen the incubators – and cute turtle hatchlings! – in our office. Additionally, our Turtle Team holds a “staff release” every year, where everyone is invited to help release baby turtles into the wild. I had done that in 2019.

During the summer of 2022, however, I had the opportunity to experience something special – with 15 Blanding’s Turtle hatchlings from my neighbourhood!

I live in Constance Bay, which is a peninsula on the Ottawa River and part of the city of Ottawa. On the evening of June 13, 2022, my partner arrived home after a bike ride and said: “I think there’s a turtle laying eggs on the side of road!”

I absolutely wanted to go see, so we jumped into the car and drove to the spot. There was indeed a mother Blanding’s Turtle on the shoulder of the road, in an area where there are no houses, laying her eggs.

Mother Blanding’s Turtle, with her distinctive yellow throat, laying her eggs in Constance Bay, Ontario, in the evening of June 13, 2022. @Annie Belair | CWF

As per the instructions of our office’s Freshwater Turtle Specialist, David Seburn, I had to cover the nest with a board and put something heavy on top, like a rock, to prevent nest scavengers such as foxes, Skunks and Raccoons from digging up the eggs and eating them. I went back twice that evening with a board and brick, but the mother turtle was still there! Because I had to go to bed, I was terrified that the nest would be raided during the night. Fortunately, it was intact in the morning, so I was finally able to cover it up with my board and brick to protect it.

The Turtle Team from the office came the following day to excavate the nest in order to put the eggs into an incubator at the office. There were 16! Since Blanding’s Turtles are endangered, and since the babies’ journey to the water would have been perilous along this road (it was about 620 metres to the water in a straight line), we were happy to increase their chances of survival.

Sixteen Blanding’s Turtle eggs collected by CWF’s Turtle Team on June 15, 2022. We number each egg and add a symbol, a dollar sign in this case, to identify them. Note that egg #15, which was upright in the nest, unfortunately will not hatch. @Annie Belair | CWF

Afterwards, all my partner and I could do was wait for “our” babies to come out of their eggs!

On Monday, August 8, a technician noticed that one of our eggs was starting to crack. The next day, David came to my cubicle and asked if I had a few minutes. I followed him to the room where the incubators are kept, and he handed me the container into which they had placed our eggs: there were four little turtles walking around! There were also a few little heads coming out of some of the other eggs. It was REALLY exciting! Right away, I called my partner on FaceTime to show him our babies, then I called to show my sister, and then my mom!

August 9: The first Blanding’s Turtle hatchlings are out and about in their container! @Annie Belair | CWF

In the end, 15 of our 16 eggs hatched. After being cleaned up, weighed and measured by the Turtle Team, the hatchlings were ready to be released on Friday morning (August 12). I met David halfway between our office and Constance Bay, and he gave the container holding my 15 baby turtles.

August 12: Fifteen Blanding’s Turtle hatchlings ready to be released in Buckham’s Bay.@Annie Belair | CWF

We also happened to have guests over at the time: two of my partner’s cousins with their spouses and kids. We used a public access to make our way to the marshy tip of a local bay. Logically, hatchlings need to be released into the body of water closest to their nest. David had also recommended going to a spot with lots of vegetation, so the hatchlings could easily hide.

Here I am with one of my baby turtles! It’s so tiny! © Catherine Massie

And so we all got a turn (or two!) at releasing a tiny turtle into the water! Il was a beautiful, sunny day and it was wonderful to watch them explore their new environment.

Oooh, this is new! A Blanding’s Turtle hatchling checks out its new, marshy surroundings. @Annie Belair | CWF

I admit I expected them to swim away into the bay, but no! They stayed close to shore and buried themselves into the mud until only their little head stuck out! It was actually pretty hard to find them again after taking our eyes away just for a moment. I figured it was their instinct to immediately hide, so they could not be seen by predators.

First item on the agenda: hide in the mud! Can you see the little turtle’s head sticking out? @Annie Belair | CWF

I had the honour of releasing the last one; it was really a fantastic moment for all of us. Now it’s a bit hard to accept that there is nothing more we can do for them, but we know the nest was saved because of us, and the hatchlings were spared the dangerous trek from the nest to the water. It breaks my heart to think of these minuscule turtles digging their way out of this gravelly nest and walking hundreds of meters to find water, crossing forests and roads with cars, pedestrians, bicycles, skateboards, horses, dogs, cats and wild animals. We can now only hope that some of our baby turtles will survive long enough in the wild to reproduce.

Of course, I also hope to see more Blanding’s Turtles around my house. I’m also thinking that every year, in mid-August, I should go out more to see if I can find any species of baby turtles emerging from their nests and trying to make it to the water; I could then give them a hand and take them directly into the bay. True, you have to be at the right place at the right time but perhaps, just like I did this year, I could help a few more!

For more information about our freshwater turtle conservation program, please visit our website at HelpTheTurtles.ca. If you don’t live in the Ottawa area and you find a turtle nest, you can build a nest protector to protect it from predators. You can also add all your turtle observations to our “Help The Turtles” project on iNaturalist.ca; every observation counts!