Sunday, December 12, 2010

Spring-Autumn turtle radio tracking recap

I realized that I never once blogged about my turtle searches and radio tracking that took place in the spring through autumn in a place we collectively call "the park." We did numerous snake, rare plants, raptor, and turtle studies at the park in the past couple years. I was never involved until this spring when everyone was mobilized there at once. More people = more trouble and harder coordination in my eyes. This was no exception. We had 4 walkie talkies spread over 10 people in an area where cell phone reception was null to spotty at best. At times, it was comical. People without walkies would be yelling for attention and people with walkies thought they were talking to someone far away when in fact they were talking to someone 20 feet away. Total miscommunication and mayhem style.

Our mission in the spring for my group was to find rare turtles. I was one of the few that couldn't find any. It got to the point that I didn't want to go because it was pure frustration for me to see everyone find turtles but me. By late spring, we were allowed to place radio transmitters on rare turtles and we were radio tracking several turtles. Also by late spring, it was sweltering and you had to wear hot hip waders to get around the rocky, rapid, and deep streams. Bears and poisonous snakes abounded. Nevermind, the steep and foreboding terrain. You'd be in a dense brush area and you would see bear dump after bear dump....clearly a bear nest/napping area. It didn't give you a warm and fuzzy feeling and any rustling noise was met with alarm. We were told to never go out to the park alone due to all of the above reasons.

I had periodically radio tracked the turtles in the summer and it would be challenging. The turtles liked to hide in the most ridiculous areas....under dense barberry neck high in a wind-thrown part of the woods. It was a spot where dozens of trees had blown down in a wind shear event. Barberry has those nice needle thorns. You'd spend an hour searching one small area just to find one turtle.

By fall I saw on my schedule that I was go out radio-tracking at the park alone. We were all busy so I didn't have a chance to find out if that was a mistake for for real. I was apprehensive because weird things always happen to me when I sent out alone and I just had a feeling. But I geared up and tried to make the best of it. I attached the radio receiver to my belt, had a walking stick in one hand and the radio antenna in another. Radio antenna was wired to the receiver on my belt. I had a field vest one and a backpack on top of that. I felt like an one-man band. I found the signal of first turtle near this large hole along a stream in the top picture. I couldn't get a visual on the turtle but it had to be there. So I moved on.

I continued on and saw what appeared to be a rare turtle across the stream 1/2 in the water 1/2 out. As I got closer, I confirmed it was a turtle and not a rock/mirage. I reached out to grab it and it was really really heavy and I noticed another turtle was attached. Yikes! I couldn't hold them up with one hand so they slipped back into the water. This is when things get fuzzy. I must have thrown the antenna and walking stick onshore (and yet still attached to antenna) and grabbed the two quickly swimming and now separated turtles. It was a miracle that I grabbed them both. I get back to shore and now have two large, biting, scratching, and angry turtles. I'm now supposed to measure, take notes and photos, mark, and attach radio transmitters to them. I really can't swing this alone. It's a struggle just to hold them both. I frantically call the office (with cell phone held to my ear by my shoulder) and after numerous attempts I get through. Several phone calls later I get someone to come out and help. It's a 45 minute one way drive but that gives me time to calm down and start the work up. I dump the contents of my backpack out and the turtles are put in....jail if you will. I am hoping in the 1+ hour that I will forced to stand in one area that a bear, poisonous snake, random hiker, and the rain won't strike. The male was very calm and relaxed at the bottom of the bag. The female was attempting a jail break every 5 seconds. Each single measurement I took of him, I had to put her back in the bag. I managed to finish the measurements and markings before my boss came. We finished up and radio-tracked the others without incident.

I wanted to show my boss this hole and see if we could get a visual on the first turtle. That's when things kicked it up a notch. He crawled in the hole and announced "we got copulating turtles in here." It was the radio tracked female turtle and a suitor. So I crawl in. Mind you that if I am in that hole, you can't see me at all. I get down on my belly and snap the picture at the very bottom. That's when the hole was named the "grotto." We've been back to the grotto a bunch of times. But now with the break in the drought, the hole is no longer mostly dry. I'm off to radio track turtles this week and I am very curious if something rather large, furry, and black had taken up winter residence in there.....if you know what I mean.