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Turtle proponents seek scientific support

By Joseph Cattana,
The Kingston Whig-Standard,
July 31 2017

After two years of helping to protect Douglas Fluhrer Park’s fresh water turtle nests, Mary Farrar and the Friends of the Inner Kingston Harbour are seeking help from scientists to help with their project.

Since 2016, approximately 50 volunteers have travelled north along the park’s shoreline up to Molly Brant Point and back south along the retaining wall adjacent to the K&P Trail, tracking turtles that move away from the shore to create a nest for their eggs. With 12 people continually signing up for the 30-minute morning and night shifts, the group has found more than 100 nests each year from the painted, northern map and snapping turtle species.

Although Farrar admits the volunteers are in the early stages of their work as “citizen scientists,” they have already learned a lot.

“We have gotten pretty familiar with recognizing if you have five or six holes and one of them is patted down on top, that’s the one that we’re serious about,” she said.

After the first year, the Friends of the Inner Kingston Harbour received a grant from the Community Foundation for Kingston and Area. With a stipulation to have Queen’s University students involved as part of the agreement, Farrar said they teamed up with Prof. Steve Lougheed from Queen’s to find students to assist them.

Over the course of two days — June 27 and July 18 — students Aaron Sneep and Dayna Zunder travelled along the K&P Trail to record the location of the turtles’ nests. Following behind nesting turtles and finding areas already protected by Farrar and her volunteers, Sneep and Zunder used GPS equipment to record the co-ordinates and create a map where they lay their eggs.

Through this year’s research, Farrar was excited to find that the turtles are spawning along the proposed Wellington Street extension.

“We are very happy about that because the turtles are our allies and we don’t want the Wellington Street extension,” Farrar said. “If we have 60 or 70 turtles laying eggs where they are wanting to put a road, it just doesn’t seem right, aside from the fact that the road doesn’t seem to be necessary in the first place.”

Not only holding the research for themselves, every month the Friends of the Inner Kingston Harbour have sent their findings to Ontario Nature, a group based in Toronto that protects wild species and wild spaces through conservation, education and public engagement.

Although they have done a lot of research on turtles as a general species, Farrar said most of what they have found online is about sea turtles, not the fresh water turtles that live along Kingston’s shoreline. As a result, Farrar has questions about fresh water turtles’ sense of smell, their ability to aqua bask, and if their eggs communicate as embryos, just to name a few. By adding a scientist to the group to look at the research, Farrar believes these will be solved.

“Something more serious should happen [here] because there are so many questions, I think it would be a fabulous research project for somebody really interested in that,” Farrar said about potentially getting a research grant from Queen’s or the University of Ottawa.

The Friends of the Inner Kingston Harbour aren’t focused on just saving the nest, but also on educating Kingston’s residents. Through events with the Mohawk and Anishinaabe Indigenous Peoples, Farrar said the turtle awareness project is about connecting people to the earth.

But the learning doesn’t stop there. Farrar said the Friends work with Kenny Ruelland from Kingston’s Reptile and Amphibian Advocacy group to host shoreline walks for kids.

“He can just look in the water and kind of suddenly start, creep up to the shoreline and grab a turtle out of the water and the kids are just thrilled,” she said. “He’s really wonderful.”

Even with the success of keeping predators such as raccoons and mink away from the nest — from her last check only two of the protected nest were predated (uncovered early), compared to eight that were non-protected — Farrar knows she still has more work to do.

“It may seem as though we have tons of turtles here, but I think we are way too snobby and detached from the reality from the world which is that we are creatures like all of creatures, and all should have a space and a habitat where they can survive and flourish.”