Ecosystems biologist Connie Miller Retzer lowers a camera into a hole no larger than a loonie and watches as an image of the underground cavity comes to life on a video screen.
A beetle scuttles by and a white egg shard is spotted in the dirt, but if baby western painted turtles nested there over winter, then they’d already climbed out of the hole and made the crawl to Nanaimo’s Diver Lake.
“It looks like they’re all gone,” she said, her eyes still glued to the screen as she gently rotates the snake inspection camera. “It was kind of what I was trying to find out. I don’t see anybody there anymore.”
Nests like these aren’t easy to find for the native turtle, a species-at-risk, but biologists have a little help this year.
Western painted turtles are about to lay the next generation of turtles, and wildlife cameras at Diver Lake and Buttertubs Marsh are mounted and ready to record the action.
There are three known sites in Nanaimo where the reptiles can be found; the most robust population is at Diver Lake where there are about 17, followed by Buttertubs Marsh and Cathers Lake.
Miller Retzer, who works for the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, and consultant Christian Engelstoft, a wildlife biologist with the Habitat Acquisition Trust, agree the population is a bit precarious.
It’s all small numbers here – 13-20 turtles in one place and 3-10 in another – compared to the Interior, where a wetland can have 300-400, Engelstoft said.
The species is threatened by the urban world that surrounds it, like roadways, development and even people, who can pick them up or release a competitive pet turtle species, the red-eared slider, into the same environment.
The focus of Engelstoft and Miller Retzer is on getting a better idea of where populations are on the Island and if the turtles can reproduce and sustain themselves.
“The first step in any conservation of the species is knowing where it is and that’s really where we are at in most places. We don’t know where the turtles are,” said Engelstoft. “Making nesting grounds here and Victoria and Port Alberni is something we do on the side and hope, basically cross our fingers and hope, in the long run it will help them.”
Work has been done by stewards like the City of Nanaimo and the Nature Trust of B.C. to create artificial nesting beaches at Buttertubs. Last year, one artificial beach was expanded to include a section of trail, and the path was re-routed to compensate for the loss of a former nesting site at a planned development across the street.
Trudy Chatwin, former species-at-risk biologist with the province, said the beaches provide a habitat to nest that’s critical for them to survive.
“They were nesting on hard-packed gravel of the trail previously so we’re hoping that this is a place where they’re undisturbed, they can come and nest and people and dogs won’t bother them and they can have some babies,” said Chatwin, who cleared a beach of weeds this month in anticipation of nesting season as Engelstoft and Miller Retzer set up cameras that will help gather information about where the turtles are nesting, how many are using the site and if anything is preying on the eggs.
It’s also considered a way to find out if restoration work is successful.
There’s evidence the turtle might be in decline and Miller Retzer said it’s a wake-up call that if there’s not an effort to do something to protect or restore their habitat, or conserve areas where they are, they’ll wink out. The western pond turtle, native to B.C., can no longer be found in the province.
“We have to be careful that we conserve their habitat so they don’t keep going down in terms of numbers and reproductive capability. Here we don’t have very big populations in Nanaimo so we’re keeping a close eye,” she said, adding it’s important to conserve all species.
“We don’t want anything to go extinct, and every species has its part in the ecosystem and plays a role and often we don’t realize how important it is until it’s gone.”
The public can help the western painted turtle by not releasing pet turtles into the wild and by reporting to the ecosystems biologist at 250-751-7221 when they see nesting turtles or baby turtles. A photo will help the biologist confirm the species of turtle.