Turtle lovers hatch plan to protect roadside nests

It's egg-laying season for freshwater turtles in the Ottawa area, and that means a team of reptile lovers from the Canadian Wildlife Federation is hard at work.

Canadian Wildlife Federation team rescues eggs from danger, animal and human

Why did the turtle cross the road? Maybe she didn't. This adult female snapping turtle might look like she's trying to cross the road, but she could just as well be looking for an open, sunny spot to lay her eggs. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

It's egg-laying season for freshwater turtles in the Ottawa area, and that means a team of reptile lovers from the Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF) is hard at work.

For the past two years, the group has hunted for adult female snapping turtles and Blanding's turtles in the act of laying eggs at the side of the road.

Ain't she pretty? (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

They wait until the turtles are finished, then collect the eggs to take back to an incubator — where they're safe from predators like raccoons and crows, and from human threats like passing vehicles and road maintenance crews.

The team has to act fast: One night last week they marked the location of an egg-laying turtle, left for a few hours to collect the eggs from two other nests, and when they returned, a raccoon had eaten every single egg.

Turtle egg shells sit empty after being eaten by a raccoon. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Once the eggs hatch in the CWF's incubator — the survival rate there is about 90 per cent — they're returned to the wetland closest to their original roadside nest and released close to water.

Adult female snapping turtles can lay anywhere between 20 and 50 eggs per nest, depending on the size of the adult. (Canadian Wildlife Federation)

"We are playing God, there's no question about that, but we're playing God anyway. We build roads that go right through wetlands. That's very stressful to turtles. We're running them over by the hundreds every year," said David Seburn, the CWF's freshwater turtle specialist.

"So I think what we're doing has very, very little effect on turtles compared [to] ... almost certain death."

This baby northern map turtle was killed on the road. In the past two years, the Canadian Wildlife Federation's Ottawa turtle team has found about 1,000 dead turtles on area roads, many of them adult females. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Turtles lured to roadside clearings

Why do turtles pick such dangerous spots to lay their eggs? It's not their fault. They're drawn to open spaces that catch a lot of sun, because they need the warmth to incubate the eggs.

That makes dark roads and roadsides, unshaded by trees and bushes and warmed by the heat of the day, especially alluring.

A Canadian Wildlife Federation employee holds some baby turtles. (Canadian Wildlife Federation)

In addition to collecting eggs, the CWF's turtle team has been conducting a survey of local roads to see which are generating the most turtle roadkill.

Over the past two years they've discovered the remains of more than 1,000 turtles, according to Seburn, many of them adult females.

David Seburn, a freshwater turtle specialist for the Canadian Wildlife Federation, also writes a turtle blog for the federation. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Turtles 'need all the help they can get'

All eight species of freshwater turtle in Canada have been deemed at risk, with 50 to 80 per cent of eggs and hatchlings falling prey to predators. 

"That makes turtles one of the most endangered groups of wildlife in Canada, which is something to think about," Seburn said.

"We think about polar bears or caribou, but [what about] turtles? 100 per cent of our species are at risk, so they need all the help they can get."

An adult female snapping turtle sits in the brush near the side of a road. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

But sometimes, well-meaning people can mess things up.

To a passerby, an adult female perusing the roadside for a spot to nest can look like she's trying to cross. Seburn advises people to observe from at least three metres away before trying to move a turtle.

Turtles attempting to nest will often have dug up a little soil, and may be wedged into the ground a bit. They'll be using their back legs to dig, one leg at a time, until the nest is about as deep as their leg is long.

"You don't want to get too close to the turtle when she's digging the hole, because at that point she's very easily spooked," Seburn said.

Once she starts laying eggs, she won't stop. In total, the nesting process takes three to four hours.

As of 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, the team had collected just more than 400 eggs so far this egg-laying season.

Spotted a nesting turtle on the side of the road? You can call the CWF, but there are only so many eggs they can take, and they're reaching the end of their collecting season.

Spotted a nesting turtle on your property? You can build a simple cage to keep predators at bay. The website has a .pdf you can download with instructions.

How to help while driving? Slow down, and watch out for turtles on roads in June, July and August.

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning and Hallie Cotnam