Turtle Time in Lanark County!
By Dr. Paul Keddy
June is [nearly] here. The nesting turtles are back! March is for maple syrup, in April it’s goodbye to the melting ice, in May the leaves come out, and in June it’s turtle time!
Every one of these annual events reminds us where we live; the previous statement could not be made in Paris or Los Angeles. Of course, if you are a high rise building dweller who rarely ventures outside the big city, you may not appreciate my point. Here in Lanark County, every June, many turtles crawl out of their ponds and streams and start crossing the highways looking for nesting sites. Elsewhere tourists might pay a fortune, say, to travel to South Africa for lions, or British Columbia or Quebec for whales, but here the wildlife comes to visit us!
CAUTION PLEASE: Crossing the road! In June, Lanark County turtles cross the roads to look for nesting sites. The three species most often seen are the painted turtle (left), Blanding’s turtle (middle), and snapping turtle (right). Please, drive carefully, and let them nest in peace. Images courtesy of Toronto Zoo Adopt-a-pond conservation program.
Most of the time turtles are rather secretive – hibernating nearly half the year on the bottom of lakes and pond. Much of the rest of the year they swim around looking for dead things to eat and occasionally taking a break to warm up in the sun stretched out on a log. Overall, turtles are harmless, and in fact do some good since they are efficient scavengers that clean up dead animals from our water supply. All of our turtles – even the large snapping turtle – are opportunist feeders. They eat whatever they can conveniently find, which is mainly insects and dead fish. Biologists have spent many years studying turtle diets –by counting the items in their stomachs – and have this well-documented. Even large snapping turtles, which get blamed for eating ducks or game fish, rarely have any of these items in their stomachs. They too eat carrion. Yes, snapping turtles will snap at you — when on land — particularly if you let your dog frighten them, or if you poke them with a stick. Many people would do the same.
Let me mention, too, that every part of the world has its own set of turtles. If you were lost, and someone gave you a list of local turtles, you could pin down almost exactly where you were. North America has just over 50 species in all. Some places, like the west coast, are impoverished, having just one species. Other places, like Louisiana, are blessed with turtles – more than 30 species. Lanark County, has exactly, five. In approximate order of size, beginning with the smallest, they are musk turtle (or stinkpot), painted turtle, map turtle, Blanding’s turtle and snapping turtle. All but the painted turtle are now considered species at risk – that is, they are declining. Two, the musk turtle and the Blanding’s turtle, are officially considered threatened species. The decline has two main causes, (1) death on roads and (2) destruction of wild places.
NESTING IS A DANGEROUS TIME!
So, for about 50 weeks out of each year, turtles are rather quiet, inoffensive neighbours, who pretty much keep to themselves. In this way, they might set a good example for human neighbors, like the ones with the loud stereos and motorbikes … but I digress, I was asked to write about turtles. My point is that, finally, after 50 weeks of peace, all hell breaks loose in mid June! All the females of reproductive age climb out of the water and begin the laborious task of hiking around to find a nesting site. It is probably terrifying for them to leave the familiar water and venture onto land, but the nesting urge is too strong to resist. Once they find just the right location, they dig a hole, bury their eggs, and leave. That is the end of motherly care. The eggs are heated by the summer sun, and then, in September, baby turtles about half the size of walnut dig their way up to the surface and somehow find their way back to water.
This means that without fail, near the middle of each June, we are treated to a parade of female turtles, wandering around our roads and properties, trying to nest. They have been doing this for about 200 million years, more or less. Turtles existed before the dinosaurs, and they even survived whatever it was – an asteroid collision? – that eliminated the dinosaurs. Despite their long history, turtles just have not had time to learn to adapt to two new things: cars and roads. That tiny brain has no idea that a road means danger. And so, increasingly, we are losing our turtles as the reproductive females (and often the eggs they contain) are killed on highways.
Biologists have calculated how important certain types of individuals are to their species survival, i.e. their “reproductive value”. New baby turtles have low reproductive value because only a few ever survive –skunks, raccoons, crows, fish and even bullfrogs eat them. This high mortality rate for babies is natural for turtles. However the reproductive value of the adult female turtle is extremely high. Once she has made it to 20 years old she has the capacity to make up for the high mortality rate of the babies by laying from 10 to 30 eggs every year for decades. The turtles being killed on our roads are usually the adult females — with the highest reproductive value. When a female is killed – it means the loss of hundreds of offspring she might have produced over future summers. These loses cannot be replaced. As a result, turtles that were present in my childhood, like musk turtles and Blanding’s turtles, are now uncommon. Not only do turtles just cross roads, they are actually attracted to roads. The warm sand and gravel along the road side makes a perfect nest site. So turtles will come long distances to climb onto the shoulder and lay their eggs. If drivers are careless, the highway becomes a ribbon of death.
SO WHAT CAN WE DO?
1. The first is to accept and even appreciate this annual event. Just as the maple syrup flows in March, so do turtles flow across our roads in June. We might even build an annual tourist event around the nesting week. We could put up some highway crossing signs at critical locations, or better still, plan ahead and build small underpasses when roads are being reconstructed. And, of course, we have to protect critical nesting areas from subdivisions. More urgently there is the immediate issue of death on the roads.
2. Drive carefully. Turtles are slow-movers, so it really does take a complete idiot to hit one with a car.
- Don’t tailgate (which your driver training instructor no doubt told you anyway), as you may run over a turtle that the car in front just missed.
-Help them out. Stop, and carry the turtle the rest of the way across the road – in the direction she was headed, of course. Yes, some will not appreciate your help, and might try to scratch or bite, so keep a pair of gardening gloves handy and perhaps a shovel to help lift. A big snapping turtle is heavy, so I would recommend extreme care – probably best to simply act like a shepherd.
- Alert other drivers. Yes, you can stop your car and let other people know that a turtle is crossing the road. Not a good idea at 100 kilometers per hour, perhaps, but certainly feasible on many side roads.
-Let them nest in peace. If one arrives in your yard, keep the pets away, and let the children watch quietly from a respectful distance more than ten feet away. Think about the respect we give to pregnant women, and give the pregnant turtle the same courtesy. If she does nest, you can put a piece of chicken wire (not mosquito netting – that will trap the baby turtles in the fall) over the nest. Then, wait. Given the right amount of sun and rain, baby turtles should emerge in September.
One of the joys of living here is the annual spectacle of the June turtles. If you still think you must drive so fast that you ignore the crossing turtles, may I respectfully suggest you consider moving to downtown Phoenix or Las Vegas or Toronto, or one of our other larger urban centers, where you won’t have to be inconvenienced by other living creatures. Learning to share the landscape with wild animals is part of what it means to live here. We might start with courtesy to turtles, and then extend it to frogs, birds, butterflies, bears and all the other animals that lived here long before our ancestors decided to settle in North America.
Not everyone can personally save a blue whale, or a black rhinoceros, but everyone can drive responsibly, and, like a good boy scout, help the occasional turtle across the road.
This article on turtle nesting season was prepared in 2009 by Dr. Paul Keddy on behalf of the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists and is reposted here in May 2016. Dr. Keddy, is a local Lanark County resident, and scientist and author of many articles and books on wetlands and wildlife including Earth, Water, Fire: An Ecological Profile of Lanark County; Dr. Keddy’s website: http://www.drpaulkeddy.com/ For more information on identifying Lanark County turtles, please visit a local bookshop or consult the Toronto zoo’s adopt- a- pond website www.torontozoo.com/adoptapond/turtles.asp.
Ontario Nature Action Alert
Unfair chase: The spring bear hunt is bad policy founded on bad science
The Ontario government is proposing to extend the two-year spring bear hunt pilot for another five years and to expand it into all areas where fall bear hunting is currently allowed (EBR Registry Number: 012-5485). The excuse? Public safety. The reality? Study after study shows that shooting more bears does not reduce human-bear conflicts.
The government’s fall-back rationale is tourism dollars. Accordingly, the plan is to open up the hunt to trophy hunters from outside the country.
Ontario’s spring bear hunt was originally cancelled in 1999. Many felt that the spring hunt was not sporting or fair chase as hungry bears came out of hibernation and were attracted to bait stations where they were shot by hunters waiting on platforms – like fish in a barrel. For the next 15 years, black bear hunting was limited to the fall. But in 2014 the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) decided to reinstate a limited spring hunt as a pilot.
The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario’s 2014 – 2015 report provides troubling information about the so-called pilot. In reinstating the hunt, the ministry ignored the advice of its own expert Nuisance Bear Review Committee. It failed to put recommended conditions on the hunt such as: prohibiting the killing of all females; providing proof of the age and sex of the bears killed; and timing the hunt to reduce the vulnerability of females.
One thing the ministry did require was that hunters who had purchased a bear hunter licence tag report on their spring hunting activities. But less than 50 percent of the hunters complied with the requirement, begging the question of what the government could actually have learned from the pilot. As noted by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, “incomplete information on the number, age, sex and location of the bears harvested each year prevents the MNRF from effectively evaluating the hunt’s ecological impact and making informed management decisions.”
Indeed, collecting data on two critical factors that are known to lead to an increase in human-bear conflicts – natural food shortages and the availability of garbage – were not part of the ministry’s proposed approach.
Please join Ontario Nature in opposing the unjustifiable extension and expansion of the spring bear hunt. The government should be listening to experts and scientists who have found no evidence that the spring hunt reduces nuisance activity by black bears. Instead, the government should invest in educational programs and solutions to human-bear conflicts that are supported by evidence and science.
Please send in comments by the November 30 deadline. Be sure to reference Environmental Bill Registry #012-5485. Comments can be sent in via the EBR site also at this link. Search for EBR #012-5485.
The not so hidden world of ‘human-related threats to birds’ – cats, houses and cars!
What are the leading causes of human-related bird mortality in Canada?
Findings are in an Environment Canada report (Avian Conservation and Ecology 8(2):11) which can be found at http://www.ace-eco.org/vol8/iss2/art11/ The report details the sources and studies used to generate the data and the range and caveats associated with the numbers which are included.
Michael Runtz (distinguished author of Wild Wings: The Hidden World of Birds) usually dwells on the positive. And although he does not like to look at the negatives, at our February lecture, Runtz outlined these leading causes of bird mortality related to humans. He also gave many insights into a range of other threats, including invasive species, climate change (for example studies with Gray Jays) environmental toxins etc.
Per year in Canada, the leading causes of bird mortality related to human activity, are the following. These factors (cats, buildings, cars) are associated most closely with highly populated areas, and this is where most bird kills due to these causes occur, states the report:
# 1 killed by feral and domestic cats (70- over 200 million birds killed per year)
# 2 collisions or electrocution due to power lines (25 million birds per year)
# 3 collisions with houses (20 million birds per year)
# 4 collisions with vehicles (14 million per year)
A full report of Mike’s talk will be posted soon. Note: photo of Gray Jays by Howard Robinson
Message from Ontario Nature
PLEASE NOTE: for up to date information regarding this Ontario Nature Action Alert, go to Ontario Nature’s website.
Canada’s most recognizable butterfly is in trouble. You now have the opportunity to speak up for monarch butterflies and urge the federal government to strengthen its draft management plan for this iconic species. While the plan certainly proposes some strong conservation measures, it is weak in terms of its overall objectives, targets and deadlines for action. We must do more for the monarch. The public consultation period on the draft plan ends on December 8, 2014.
The monarch was listed as a species of special concern under the Species at Risk Act in 2003. It has declined dramatically over the past 15 – 20 years and is threatened by many factors including loss of breeding, nectaring and overwintering habitat, and the widespread use of pesticides and herbicides. Last winter, monarchs occupied just 0.67 hectares of their overwintering habitat in Mexico, only about 10 percent of their ten-year average of 6.39 hectares (1994 – 2014).
For many years, conservation efforts focused on habitat loss in the Oyamel fir forests of Mexico. While large-scale illegal logging has now been largely addressed, small-scale logging is an ongoing concern. But, there is a growing recognition that the reduction of milkweed in the monarch’s breeding habitats in the United States and Canada is also driving monarch declines.
The draft management plan identifies broad strategies and conservation measures needed at the international, national and local levels. But to be effective it needs to be significantly strengthened in the following ways.
1. The first objective of the plan should aim to recover Canada’s monarch populations, not just to “maintain the current Canadian contribution to the overall North American monarch population” (p. iii), as stated in the draft plan. Given that this species is known to be in decline, aiming only to maintain the current population simply enshrines a low and unacceptable baseline. Instead, the objective should be to halt the decline and increase the population within ten years.
Recommendation 1: Revise the first objective so that it reads: “to mitigate threats to the monarch butterfly and ensure that there is sufficient breeding, nectaring and staging habitat in Canada to recover Canada’s contribution to the overall North American monarch population;”
2. The strategy dealing with Conservation and Management of Breeding and Nectaring Habitat (section 6.3, Table 5) does not address the use of pesticides in agriculture. The use of glyphosate herbicide in conjunction with glyphosate-tolerant crops is a key threat to the eastern population of monarchs.
Recommendation 2: Under the Conservation and Management of Breeding and Nectaring Habitat strategy, include measures to address the impacts of pest control products used in agriculture.
3. The timelines for action under the Conservation Measures and Implementation Schedule (Table 5) are vague and distant (2019 and beyond). There are no responsibilities or roles assigned to any parties, including federal or provincial governments. Similarly, the indicators listed under Measuring Progress (Section 7) lack baselines, concrete targets and deadlines. A plan without these important features provides a very weak framework for decisive, timely action and for measuring solid progress.
Recommendation 3: Revise the Conservation Measures and Implementation Schedule so that it includes more precise timelines as well as clearly defined roles and responsibilities to ensure timely and effective implementation of the plan. Similarly, revise Section 7 so that it includes baselines, concrete targets and deadlines for assessing progress.
Please join Ontario Nature in requesting a more robust management plan for the monarch butterfly. Remember, the deadline for comments is December 8, 2014.
Your comments can be submitted online: http://www.registrelep-sararegistry.gc.ca/document/default_e.cfm?documentID=1582
Or you can direct your comments to:
Place Vincent Massey
351 St. Joseph Boulevard
Please see the sample letter below to send to Environment Canada.
“Dear Environment Canada,
I urge you to strengthen the draft management plan for the monarch by:
1. setting a clear objective to recover populations in Canada and increase their numbers within ten years;
2. including measures to address the adverse impacts of pesticides and herbicides used in agriculture, a known threat to the species; and
3. including concrete targets, clear roles and responsibilities, and precise timelines for action and for measuring progress.
A plan without these important features provides a very weak framework for decisive, timely action and for measuring solid progress.”
To our sister Ontario Nature Naturalists:
The Prince Edward County Field Naturalists (PECFN) is appealing the Ostrander Point Crown Land wind project at the highest Court in Ontario. The hearing will occur at Osgoode Hall Dec 8-9. Ostrander Point Crown Land is situated in an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) – a refuge for migrating birds, bats and butterflies – it contains provincially significant wetlands, globally imperilled Alvar habitat and is the home and breeding ground of several avian, reptilian and amphibian species at risk, such as the Blanding’s turtle.
On Dec 8-9 PECFN will be defending the Environmental Review Tribunal ruling that overturned the Ministry of the Environment’s approval of the Gilead wind turbine project, which was later overturned at Divisional Court. At present the Divisional Court’s ruling on Ostrander Point undercuts the ability of the Environmental Review Tribunal to make decisions based on the evidence before it. PECFN’s appeal of the Divisional Court ruling is a precedent setting case that impacts the validity of the Environmental Review Tribunal, the Endangered Species Act and the Environmental Protection Act. As such it will affect environmental law across Ontario.
As Justice Blair, who granted a stay against any construction on the site said, “the issues raised on the proposed appeal are issues of broad public implication in the field of environmental law”.
The Evening Grosbeaks appearing at bird feeders this fall are one of Canada’s declining species. It has declined 78% in the last 40 years. Other examples of species decline: our iconic Canada Warbler: 80%; Rusty Blackbird: 90%; Olive-sided Flycatcher 79%; Bay-breasted Warbler 70%. And in September the World Wildlife Fund reported that animal populations have fallen on average by 52 percent since 1970. The findings pertain mostly to vertebrate species, including mammals, birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles.
The root cause of these decimations is simple – loss of habitat. This loss of habitat and the species they support is a crisis for our planet superseded only by the projections of even worse decimations caused by climate change. Not only do we humans urgently need to stop the use of fossil fuels, we also need to urgently move to conserve the habitats of our remaining wildlife.
In order to stop fossil fuel use we must implement conservation by investing in retrofitting all 19th-20th century technology in our buildings and vehicles and begin to build alternative sources of power. It is imperative that these new developments be sited in places that we humans have already removed from nature in order to preserve the scarce wildlife lands that remain. New developments should not be sited in land that functions as significant habitat for wild species.
Our undeveloped wild places play a vital role in mitigating the effects of climate change. Forests and wetlands sequester carbon keeping it out of the atmosphere, while tall grass prairies actually remove carbon from it. Wetlands prevent flooding and erosion and replenish our aquifers. Alvars and other seasonal wetland habitats filter contaminants, keeping them out of our streams and lakes. What allows these invaluable habitats to mitigate climate change are the wild species they support. Without these wild species, they will no longer function. Eventually they will cease to exist at all.
Prince Edward County’s South Shore is the last undeveloped land along the northern shore of Lake Ontario. If this industrial development is allowed to proceed it will be surrounded by another 29 turbines in the centre of the IBA and pave the way for hundreds of more turbines along Lake Ontario shorelines, including at Amherst Island which is world-renown for the owl populations that overwinter there. They will join TransAlta’s turbine project on Wolfe Island which has caused the highest mortality rate of birds and bats in North America with the exception of Altamont pass in California and displaced the indigenous and wintering Red Tail Hawk and Short Eared Owl populations. A concentration of hundreds of industrial turbines along this intersection of two major migration corridors will form an impenetrable barrier, causing mounting declines for our migrating species and substantial degradation to the habitats along the migration routes that they stage in.
The 50 members of PECFN have raised almost $200,000 to pay the legal costs of these appeals against Gilead Power, the Ministry of Environment and the 291 corporations of the Canadian Wind Energy Association (CanWea). This small organization needs the support of Field Naturalist clubs and concerned citizens from all parts of Ontario because the work we are doing will affect environmental law for the Province and the County. Donations may be made online at www.saveostranderpoint.org or by cheque to Ostrander Point Appeal Fund, 2-59 King St, Picton K0K 2T0.
Prince Edward County Field Naturalists