When Todd Carnahan saw the photo of a turtle that had wandered into a Metchosin garage, he was elated.
The picture showed signature yellow body stripes and vivid red markings on the belly shell, which clearly identified it as a western painted turtle. It was the first time one of the endangered reptiles had been seen in Metchosin.
“We have never had any reports from the Bilston Creek watershed. It’s a population which is new to science,” said Carnahan, who serves as land care co-ordinator for the Habitat Acquisition Trust and is asking residents with wetlands on their properties to photograph the distinctive reptiles and phone in sightings.
“Residents may have seen them before, but didn’t know the significance and that they are endangered. If it has got a red bottom, it’s the one we are looking for.”
The garage turtle and another one reported in the area, but not photographed, appear to be healthy, nesting females, meaning they could be the tip of a population iceberg, said Carnahan, who is hoping HAT researchers will find a thriving colony in the ponds, wetlands and watershed, which drain into Witty’s Lagoon.
There are also unsubstantiated reports of another population in the Cowichan Valley, but Carnahan isn’t getting excited yet, as it’s possible there could be remnant populations with no breeding females, since turtles live for 50 years.
About 250 turtles are believed to remain in the Pacific coast population. The numbers are threatened by development on ancestral nesting sites, roads and loss of natural cover on wetlands.
In previous decades, populations would use wetland corridors to link up and breed, but many of those are now blocked.
A new tool in turtle tracking will help identify corridors and provide essential information, such as where the Metchosin turtle population is hanging out. A grant from the provincial Habitat Conservation Trust Fund will allow HAT biologists to attach tiny transmitters to turtle shells.
The contribution of about $7,000 will buy equipment for the high-tech telemetry project, but staff funding is needed and HAT is looking for partners, Carnahan said.
Painted turtles, the only native turtle left on Vancouver Island, are known to live in Elk and Beaver lakes, Langford Lake, Eagle Lake and Great Central Lake near Port Alberni.
They travel up to 300 metres from ponds and wetlands to their nesting areas — and that’s often when they get into trouble.
Signs on Beaver Lake Road warn drivers to slow down to avoid hitting turtles on the move, and Carnahan is hoping similar signs will be erected near Eagle Lake in the Highlands.
“Every year, the turtles come out of the lake and there’s a dangerous stretch of road there. A big nesting female looks like a rock if you’re going too fast.”
To report sightings, phone 250-995-2428 or e-mail [email protected]