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How did the turtle cross the road? With some help from its friends

By Sheryl Nadler,
The Hamilton Spectator,
July 5 2017

It was just past 7 a.m. and I was gripping a coffee in one hand, the steel guard rail that rims Cootes Drive with the other.

A thin strip of gravel the only thing separating my walking buddy and me from the transport truck barrelling down the hill and right toward us at 80 kilometres an hour. At least.

While I pushed further into the grass, hoping to give the mammoth truck all the room it needed to make the curve, Dundas Turtle Watcher Caroline Thomson pressed on like it was a sunny Sunday stroll through a summer meadow.

It wasn’t. Did I mention it was raining, too? Of course it was.

She walks this route regularly from mid-May to the first week of July and then again from mid-August until the end of September – from the Hamilton Air Force Association on King Street East, along the Desjardins Canal, up and then down Cootes.

Thomson is among the roughly 50 volunteers with Dundas Turtle Watch (DTW for those in the know) who walk in pairs along three routes in Dundas looking for turtles that have wandered too close to the road in search of nesting spots – and nesting turtles whose eggs will need protection from predators like snakes, raccoons, teenagers.

The highly organized group works in shifts: the morning shift is out between 6 and 9 a.m., resplendent in orange and yellow reflector vests. There’s an evening shift, as well, and a turtle hotline anyone can call if they see an out of place turtle or one that seems to be in distress.

“Part of the thing we do on this walk, as well as look for turtles and try to get them off the road, is we record what gets hit for other nature groups such as the RGB or Ontario Nature,” says Thomson, who has found carcasses of swans and fawn, snakes and salamanders as well as turtles. “We share our stats.”

If Thomson’s name sounds familiar, it’s because she’s been an outspoken Dundas wildlife advocate since moving to the area 11 years ago. An amateur wildlife photographer, she was bowled over by the natural diversity she found there and has used her photographs to fight for conservation of eco-sensitive areas like the Desjardins Eco Park.

“It’s a beautiful, beautiful piece of swamp,” says Thomson. “We should embrace the fact that we have it rather than not help it. And when you’ve got animals that come from the upper Escarpment and want to come down to the canal, they’ve got to cross this road and it’s just lethal.”

Which brings us to the flashing turtle signs on Cootes, the ones we’ve all seen and kind of ignore. When the lights are flashing, it means the turtles are active. And although the speed limit on that stretch of road between quiet Westdale to tranquil Dundas is inexplicably 80 km/h, the DTW is hoping we’ll slow down and keep an eye out for wildlife.

“We actually have had a few reports of people swerving to hit one of these big snappers,” says Thomson, who is also an advocate for lowering the speed limit on Cootes. “And for us it’s very difficult to understand how you can even hit them. They’re huge. I mean, do you hit a rock?”

Well, as the saying goes, there’s no fixing stupid. Or, in this case, a word I can’t use in a family newspaper.

So what happens if you do find a turtle on the road or in distress? Thomson cautions against picking up snapping turtles with your hands, because, um, they do snap and can be quite dangerous, she says.

Thomson and the other volunteers carry shovels and buckets and/or blankets while on patrol. If they find a snapping turtle on or too close to Cootes, they’ll set up pylons around it, ease it into the bucket or onto the blanket and move it to a safer location.

If in doubt, call the hotline number on one of the signs along Cootes and a DTW volunteer will either come to the location or walk you through the steps to move it.

“When you see a turtle and it’s trying to cross, you always move it to the direction that it’s heading, obviously,” says Thomson. “Because if you bring it back here it’s going to try again, right?”

Right. Makes sense and is not something I necessarily would have considered.

“Should you find a hatchling in the fall, you want to pick it up, put it in some tissue or a little plastic container with some air flow and take it to a slow moving part of the creek,” she says.

Always report suspicious activity to the police or the Ministry of Natural Resources, adds Thomson.

If you’re interested in volunteering with Dundas Turtle Watch, are curious about at-risk species or want to help them fight for a lower speed limit on Cootes, visit their website.