Turtle nesting season is nearly upon us! Usually here in the Land Between bioregion by the last week of May we would be seeing the first nesting turtles lay their eggs. However, this year we have had an interesting spring, which at times felt a little more like winter dragging directly into summer – skipping spring altogether! What does this mean for our turtle friends? Well, now that the warm weather has finally arrived we expect to see a lot of turtle activity in the coming weeks as they make up for lost time. Nesting should start anytime now as we head into June.
Turtle Guardians are starting to report more and more turtle sightings along roads. Most of these turtles are likely females heading towards their nesting sites. Did you know that turtles tend to lay their nest at the same site year after year? Turtles have great memories and within the first few years of their life they establish their home range and create a mental map of this territory. Research has shown that for the most part turtles tend to nest and overwinter in the same spots within their home ranges every year.
There are four turtle species here in the Land Between that like to lay their nests in open areas, with soft ground like sand, gravel and loose dirt – which means they will lay their nests in soft road shoulders, in dirt roads and ATV trails. These four species are Painted Turtles, Snapping Turtles, Blanding’s Turtles and Wood Turtles (listed in order of most common to most rare).
Our other three turtle species like to nest close to their home wetlands and water bodies so it is rare for them to nest on road shoulders. Northern Map turtles like sandy, open areas like the four species above, but unlike those turtles, the highly aquatic Northern Map Turtle does not like to travel very far from its home lake. So Map turtles will usually lay their eggs in an open sandy area very close to the water. Spotted Turtles also don’t travel far from their wetlands, but they prefer sheltered, wooded areas and will often lay their nest under decaying leaves. Eastern Musk turtles (Stinkpots) lay their nests the closest to water of all the Land Between turtles. Musk turtles will nest within mere metres of their wetland under leaves, decaying vegetation or rocks.
Get your turtle vision on. Watch out for nesting turtles on road shoulders!
This June and first few weeks of July make sure to watch out for Painted Turtles, Snapping Turtles, and Blanding’s Turtles on roads and road shoulders. These are the three turtles you are most likely to find crossing roads, and nesting in soft shoulders. Of course you never know, there is always the chance of finding one of the more aquatic species that tends to stay off roads (Map, Spotted, Musk), or even the extremely rare Wood Turtle.
You will know a turtle is nesting if she is lying down in the ground with a pile of turned up soil behind her. She might also be rocking back and forth from side to side slowly as she alternates using her back legs to either dig or cover her nest. It can take turtles a few hours to complete the nesting process – Snapping Turtles often take the longest as they need to dig the biggest nest and lay the most eggs. For your reference check out the summary table that compiles the nesting stats for the Land Between Turtles in Central Ontario.
Threats to nests
The biggest threat to turtle eggs are predators. Within 24 hours most turtle nests are dug up and eaten by predators like raccoons, foxes, skunks, coyotes, ravens etc. For instance, within provincial parks in Ontario predation rates for Snapping Turtles are between 60% and 100%, meaning that the vast majority of eggs are eaten before they ever get to hatch – in some cases all of them are eaten!
Now you might be thinking, well how can turtles have survived this long if their nests are so easily found and eaten by other animals? Well, the answer is that while predation rates for turtle eggs have always been high, unfortunately human development has made them higher. This is a phenomena called “subsidized predation” which means that densely populated areas like cities attract and support larger populations of meso-mammal predators (medium sized mammal predators), so there are more predators around to feed on turtle nests than there would be in an undisturbed area. This is because with more people there is more garbage around for these critters to eat and so their populations grow to be larger than they would be if they were only eating their natural diet. Who would have thought that not containing your garbage properly so that foxes and raccoons can’t get into it, could indirectly cause more turtle eggs to be eaten?!
Another threat to turtle nests is the pet trade and poachers. Many people mistakenly think that there is no harm in digging up eggs to hatch and sell; or in taking hatchlings out of the wild to have at home.
The Turtle Guardians program has an entire citizen science program devoted to helping protect nesting turtles and their nests. Check out the “Nest-sitting” program on our website (https://www.turtleguardians.com/turtle-nest-
sitters-training-and-reporting-forms/). If you find a turtle nesting on your own property you can build a nest-cage that will protect the eggs from being scavenged by predators and give them a fighting chance! For information on how to build your own nest cage out of chicken wire and how to properly install it using tent pegs, check out our Nest-Sitting training webinar.
If you find a nesting turtle you can also report it to the S.T.A.R.T. (Saving Turtles At Risk Today) hotline : 705 955 4284, and if you are within their permit area, they may come to dig up the nest and incubate the eggs in their turtle incubator at Scales Nature Park. This action is allowed under special permits as it can help bolster turtle populations- especially in areas with higher nest predation or lower population densities. Once the eggs hatch the baby turtles will be released back at their nest location so they can start out where they would have if they had remained in their nests.
When will successful nests hatch?
As you can see from the summary chart of nest stats, the length of time that eggs remain in the nest before hatching (ie. incubation period) can vary widely within a species and also between species. In general, here in the Land Between and Central Ontario we can expect to see baby turtle hatchlings emerging out of the nest starting at the end of August continuing until the end of September. The exception to this is the Painted Turtle, whose hatchlings will often overwinter in their nests after hatching from their eggs. You will can see baby Painted Turtles emerge from their nests in the spring – with most of them coming out in the last two weeks of May.
Written by Meredith Karcz, Senior Conservation Technician