Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Turtle spotters wanted

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Graham Stockfield with an injured turtle
Graham Stockfeld from Turtles Australia holding an injured broad-shelled turtle found in the Gunbower Forest. Bendigo TAFE students, Nykia Pickles (left) and Alison O’Brian, assist. Photo: Kirstin Nicholson.

Kirstin Nicholson, The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper

A turtle nest – a wonderful construction, dug by the female to lay her eggs in and filled back up to keep the eggs safe from the world until they hatch up to a year later.

The broad-shelled turtles are out nesting at the moment, so they are on the move and it’s more likely you will see them now than at other times of the year. They nest between March and April. To nest, the female must leave the water environment and can travel up to 500m on land to dig her hole and lay her eggs. This leaves her vulnerable to predators and other dangers like vehicles when crossing roads.

Despite being backfilled, the eggs are still in danger from predators like foxes and water rats. While we may not be able to easily identify a turtle nest, unfortunately a fox can. The broad-shelled turtle inhabits this area but is endangered in Victoria. They need your help. Have you seen any?

Graham Stockfeld from Turtles Australia has been visiting the Gunbower and Cohuna area several times a year to protect the nests and collect data. “This time of the year is when the broad-shelled turtles are out nesting. They’re an endangered species of turtle. If we find a turtle nesting, we protect its nest and stop the foxes getting in. When we can’t find the broad-shells nesting, we go to where we know they nest and record all their nests that have happened and have been dug up by foxes and any other predators. We record all that data so we can get a picture of what’s going on. Also, any other turtle activity we record as well.”

Depending on the location, the nests are protected with a square of plastic trellis and a square of chicken wire. This, Graham says, has the best results, stopping both foxes and water rats. Most of the time it is enough to stop predators and keep the eggs safe until they hatch.

Finding nests is not easy, so Graham and the team rely on the public to notify them of turtle sightings and nest locations. Speaking to The Bridge on his last visit in March, Graham said, “We rely on the local community up here to help us out and they are fantastic. We’ve just done a nest this morning in Gunbower. Somebody spotted a turtle in their garden a couple of nights ago and messaged us through Facebook. They told us where it was, and we managed to get there this morning and protect it. Hopefully, it will survive for the 12 months the eggs stay in the ground, so it will be this time next year before it hatches.”

Even raided nests, or partially dug nests are recorded. All that data, including data on other turtle species is recorded on TurtleSAT, a website that anyone can upload to. “At the moment we’re out in the paddock collecting the data, then tonight we’ll go back and punch all that data into TurtleSAT because it’s a standard way to collect all the data for us. We collect all the information then there’s a few different scientists who look at the data and analyse it and write scientific papers on it. It all feeds into the long-term picture of what’s going on around the country. You’ll see most of the records are around Gunbower Island and a few around Sydney, but we’re the biggest user of the application,” said Graham.

TAFE students assisting Turtle Australia
Alison O’Brian and Abigale Parker from Bendigo TAFE protecting a broad-shelled turtle nest that was reported to Turtles Australia by a resident in Gunbower. Photo: Kirstin Nicholson.

Education is also a large part of Turtles Australia’s role. Templestowe College has been bringing students in years 7-9 to the Gunbower area since 2018. Students spend a week in March with Turtles Australia on their annual ‘Turtle Camp’, helping with field work. It is an invaluable experience for the Melbourne students who may not otherwise visit the area and get to see the local wildlife up close and personal.

Local children also benefit from Graham’s visits when he takes turtles to district schools. “We’re hitting all the kids who are going to be working on the farms in years to come, it’s just making them aware of what’s happening around their area, and hopefully they’ll be looking after the animals 20, 50 years from now.”

Graham will be back in the area from April 17 to 26. If you have seen any turtles, nests or unfinished nests at any time of the year, give him a call on 0473 554 500. Turtles Australia is a volunteer-based organisation and Graham and the team are giving up their own time (and taking time off work) to keep the turtles safe. If you see Graham, give him a big welcome.

The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper 15 April 2021

This article appeared in The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper, 15 April 2021.

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