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Ambassadors saving turtles at Nanaimo's Buttertubs Marsh

Nanaimo and Area Land Trust stewards and volunteers on guard during nesting season

Turtles at Buttertubs Marsh weren't always threatened, but with urbanization came an increase in raccoons, and if there's one thing those little bandits love more than the trash which attracted them, it's delicious endangered turtle eggs.

That's why volunteers with the Nanaimo and Area Land Trust are out every night for three months during western painted turtle nesting season to make sure the population doesn't disappear from the marsh completely.

"We don't actually know the population numbers here of western painted turtles. It's a challenging site to do a thorough visual survey, which is the way you would do it without having lots of money to do marking and recapture," said Linda Brooymans, NALT's stewardship manager. "The highest number we've ever had is one of our volunteers did a visual survey and counted six at once. That's a low number, that's alarmingly low, so we do think there is more than that, especially since we had [about 23 nests last year]."

NALT began collecting data in 2021 on mid-Island turtle populations with a volunteer-based survey program. The next summer, a resident reported a nest in Buttertubs Marsh prompting Brooymans to visit the area. When she arrived a few days later she found it was already predated. It would turn out to be a much bigger problem than an isolated incident.

"We were looking at other nest sites and you could see all the shells so it was a question of how many of these nests are being predated," Brooymans said. "They had high predation rates naturally in nature, but because this is an urban area you have a different predator-prey dynamic with what are called 'subsidized predators.'" 

Using funds from the province, in 2023, NALT was able to purchase cages and install additional cameras to collect data and protect new nests at the marsh with the help of volunteer turtle ambassadors. 

The ambassadors began patrolling the area nightly during nesting season between mid-May to July. They installed wire cages over recent nests with holes big enough to allow the infant turtles out after their year-long incubation and hibernation period, but small enough to prevent raccoons from digging them up. Trial and error resulted in the cages being increased from one square foot to two, a necessity due to the predators' ingenuity. NALT also found issues with the non-labelled cages being removed, so this year's cages are labelled in the hopes that people will understand the importance of not touching them.

"The cages were ripped off in the fall and the winter, we didn't know where our nests were," Brooymans said. "I think some people thought it was an eyesore if they didn't know what it was or they thought it was dangerous."

While there is marked nesting areas just for the species, NALT found the turtles liked doing it their own way.

"The original assumption was there weren't a lot of turtles because they weren't nesting on the nesting beach until people were saying, 'I saw a turtle nesting, but it wasn't on the nesting beach, it was right beside it.'" 

One of the most popular nesting sites is a specific part of the dike trail. Another is a little more inconvenient, with the turtles choosing the courtyards of the nearby affordable housing complex on Buttertubs Drive. Fortunately, management and residents are welcoming to NALT's work, allowing volunteers to come onto the property and place cages over the nests. 

If there's one thing the program doesn't suffer from it's lack of volunteers. In 2023 NALT had 21 volunteer ambassadors, a number that jumped to about 60 this year. The reasons the ambassadors volunteer may vary, but one common theme is a love for nature.

"I was very excited when I heard there were turtles here and [it's] something to do to protect them," said Kate Mooney, whose first shift was June 6. "I've been calling it turtle club to all my friends and they all kind of think I'm nuts."

Ambassadors receive training to patrol the walking trails and look for nesting turtles between 6 to 8 p.m. Nesting can take several hours. First the turtle finds a suitable spot and begins digging, which takes about an hour. After she's done, she begins laying, then gently tops the nest with dirt before retreating. 

Once the babies emerge from the nest, they aren't home-free just yet. The infant turtles need to survive predation by invasive bullfrogs which would happily make them a snack. In addition, the infants face competition for resources with the invasive red-eared slider – a turtle species believed to be brought to the Island by irresponsible pet owners. 

Up until very recently it wasn't known that the sliders were even able to breed in the wild, but that changed when a provincial biologist working with NALT uncovered one of the caged turtle nests at Diver Lake and found that while the painted turtle offspring didn't survive, a previously unknown nest of sliders, sitting right beside did. The sliders were ultimately euthanized.

"Diver Lake actually has a stronger population of western painted turtles and a smaller population of sliders. We think, but we're not sure, it's the flip-side of that here," Brooymans said.

According to a NALT guide, the sliders having a "rough, domed shells and yellow cream carapace (bottom shell) and usually have a visible red marking behind their eyes" while the painted turtles "have a smooth, shiny shell that is relatively flat and a bright orange-red carapace."

Aside from challenges in nature, there are also problems with people seeing the nesting painted turtles behaving oddly and mistakenly thinking the turtles need help. 

"They pick her up and they put her back in the water," Brooymans explained. "She's trying to nest and she's continuously being picked up and put back in the water because this is a busy trail here."

Those interested in volunteering can e-mail

"Our end goal is to be able to look out on the marsh, you see turtles on the log and there are some juvenile western painted turtles on the log," Brooymans said.

Jessica Durling

About the Author: Jessica Durling

Nanaimo News Bulletin journalist covering health, wildlife and Lantzville council.
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