Stalking the painted turtle

 Jeannette Ross photos
The Woodcock Nature Center campers don’t mind getting their hands wet, or dirty for that matter, and that’s a good thing considering they have spent much of the summer catching turtles.

“The kids’ favorite thing is canoeing,” Woodcock Executive Director Mike Rubbo said of summer camp, and their favorite thing about canoeing is catching turtles. “It’s an obsession with them.”

A scientist by training, Rubbo took that obsession and ran with it, creating a turtle population study to gauge the health of the Woodcock pond. At the same time, he is introducing the campers to scientific research.

The turtles the campers caught are painted turtles — although a snapping turtle was also caught last week — which are plentiful. But in future years if there is a decline, that could indicate problems with the pond that merit a closer look.

Last Thursday, the campers caught seven turtles. But one group has caught as many as 16. Since the program started in late July, 25 turtles have been caught.

The campers go out in canoes in teams of three or four. Rubbo and one or two counselors go out in kayaks to act as lifeguards, and two or three more counselors watch from the dock.

When a camper catches a turtle with a net, they paddle back and it is put in a big black plastic tub with an inch or so of water. After about half an hour, when everyone comes back, Rubbo makes two notches in each turtle’s shell, one on the left and one on the right, and then puts it back in the pond. He records the catch in a notebook, whether it is a “new” turtle or one they have caught before. The campers don’t touch the turtles directly, since they can scratch or bite and may carry salmonella.

The notch does not hurt the turtle, Rubbo said, likening it to trimming a fingernail.

The whole point is “trying to introduce them to collecting data to better understand the ecology here,” Rubbo said. The campers “enjoy doing it. They feel they are helping Woodcock. It exposes them to scientific research.”

Last Thursday, Aug. 4, a group of fifth and sixth graders headed to the pond outfitted in life vests.

“It’s pretty fun,” said Graham Wayland, an 11-year-old from Wilton. “It’s always a mystery where they are. Sometimes they pop their heads up, all covered in seaweed.”

Elizabeth Rogers, a 10-year-old Ridgefielder, agreed. “It’s hard to tell if it's a lily pad root or a turtle. I’m pretty sure that’s how it adapts.” Her canoe-mate, Teagan Flynn, 11, also from Ridgefield, nodded in agreement. “They find a way to adapt,” she said of the turtles. “They’re hard to see.”

One of the reasons Elizabeth enjoys the project is “you get to experience nature first-hand.”

Ten-year-old Dylan Mackinlay, a Ridgefielder, said he enjoys it because “I succeed. This year I caught like six.”

“It’s difficult, but it’s very exciting when you catch one,” said Robin Somma, also 10, from Wilton.

The fourth member of the all-girl crew, Melody Royaee, 11, of Ridgefield, said, “the really cool thing is we release them and don’t just keep them.”

As the campers went out in their canoes, they paddled across the pond very slowly, stalking the turtles among the lily pads. They looked over one side and then the next, moving on to a potentially better area if they were coming up empty.

It was not long before they found success. Among them was Graham’s canoe, which he shared with Aidan Lambrech and Aidan Shaw.

“We caught a tiny turtle!” Aidan called out. “We’re calling him TT!”

Later, Graham said he saw two more turtles, but they were not able to get to them.

Hayden Webb, one of the boys who caught the small snapping turtle, about the size of a saucer, examined it in the tub. “That was the most intense catch,” he said.