'Time out for turtles': Volunteers prepare Vermont beaches for spiny softshell hatchlings
On a recent clear and breezy Saturday morning in North Hero, dozens of volunteers of all ages gather at a picnic table on the sandy beach.
Vermont Fish and Wildlife biologist Toni Mikula collects the group and gets them started clearing the beach.
From August to October of this year, more than 1,200 spiny softshell turtles hatched on beaches in the northeast quadrant of Lake Champlain. According to Mikula, this is the third best year since monitoring began in 2002.
As hatchlings, the spiny softshell turtle is about the size of a sand dollar with an olive colored shell, and full grown females can top 25 pounds. The species was listed as threatened in Vermont in 1987 in part because of a loss of nesting sites.
"If we don't get the weeds out, it will make the turtles stuck."Lenox Crofts, 6-year-old volunteer
The goal of the annual beach cleanup is to clear the sandy shores so the beach doesn't become overgrown with weeds and willows, making the sand an unsuitable habitat for turtles to lay their eggs next spring. While the event is focused on protecting spiny softshell turtles, map turtles, painted turtles, and snapping turtles also benefit from these nesting efforts.
“A lot of the shoreline now is lawns or marinas or things like that, so it's really important for the turtles that we maintain these sites for them,” Mikula says. “But it's also important for people, because this is really the best way that we have to kind of get the word out about softshell turtles, and you know, the conservation that we're doing to try to keep this species in Vermont.”
First, volunteers roll up a large stretch of chicken wire, which was being used to protect the nests during this past hatching season from animals like raccoons.
Next, they disperse across the sandy strip, raking and pulling up vegetation along the shore.
Ben Simmons is among the crew. He’s the president of the University of Vermont’s Wildlife & Fisheries Society, and he’s joined this morning by about 15 of his fellow club members.
Simmons is crouched by a stretch of willow plants, which he tells me are nearly impossible to pull up due to their sturdy roots.
”So we just gotta chop 'em up,” he says.
Simmons is a senior studying wildlife biology, and he spent part of his summer excavating turtle nests with Mikula.
“Just being involved in the conservation of a threatened species in the state, and something that could so easily experience population decreases, is important to me as a wildlife biologist,” Simmons says.
Just down the beach, Wildlife & Fisheries Society co-leader Mia Harris has already pulled out the vegetation in her area and is raking the underlying sand.
Harris says that her club is playing an instrumental role in today’s clean up.
“This is strenuous work,” she says. “It is important to get young people out doing this stuff.”
“When people come to this event, they really get engaged, they get to see baby softshell turtles, which you know, hardly anybody will ever see a social turtle in the wild. So that’s pretty special, especially for young kids, and gets them really excited about conservation.”Toni Mikula, Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department
And Harris isn’t just talking about college students. Some of the volunteers are a bit younger than that. Like 6-year-old Lenox Crofts.
“If we don’t get the weeds out, it will make the turtles stuck,” says Crofts, who is standing at the edge of the lake, searching for shrimp and other signs of wildlife in the water.
This is the first turtle cleanup day he’s attended, but he says he definitely wants to come back next year.
Biologist Toni Mikula says that's a common trend among volunteers.
“When people come to this event, they really get engaged, they get to see baby softshell turtles, which you know, hardly anybody will ever see a social turtle in the wild,” Mikula says. “So that’s pretty special, especially for young kids, and gets them really excited about conservation.”
Toward the end of the clean up, some of the youngest volunteers excitedly gather around two white paint buckets. Inside are six recent hatchlings: five spiny softshell turtles and one map turtle. They were recently hatched at Sandy Point in Swanton, but have been living at the ECHO Center in Burlington to grow a little stronger. Now that they are bigger, their chances of survival are higher.
After cleaning the beach for an hour, it's time for the six hatchlings to be released back into the lake. Once the turtles are released, the crowd will relocate to Sandy Point in Swanton to repeat these same efforts at the next site.
Mikula and Simmons each take a bucket, and carefully place the hatchlings in the weeds one at a time, where they will be able to hide from predators such as snapping turtles and big fish.
“We’re going to spread out. You get to see the turtles go off on their merry way, OK?” Mikula says to the group.
Mikula says if all goes well, hopefully they’ll be back in about 11 years as adults to lay their own eggs.