The beauty of painted turtles and where you can see them this spring

·3 min read
Painted turtles can be found around the Milk River basin, said naturalist Brian Keating. (Brian Keating - image credit)
Painted turtles can be found around the Milk River basin, said naturalist Brian Keating. (Brian Keating - image credit)

Calgary-based naturalist Brian Keating's love of turtles began close to home.

While living and working in the Creston Valley area in southeastern British Columbia some years ago, he arrived home to find a painted turtle digging her flask-shaped nest in his dirt driveway.

Over the course of several hours, the turtle softened the hard-packed dirt, dug a hole by alternating each back leg and laid about a dozen eggs (painted turtles can lay up to 23). Afterwards, she packed the hole and then left back to the pond.

"I was in nature heaven!" Keating said.

"I set up a 'cage' over the site so they wouldn't get predated, calculated when they should hatch, and remarkably, I was there when the young emerged from the soil!"

Incubation lasts for about 76 days, Keating said, and the temperature of the nest determines whether male or female offspring will form. Above 29 C means females, and below 27 C means males. If it's between, a mix of both are produced.

When it came time for the babies to emerge, Keating "assisted" by carefully breaking the surface of the nest.

"When 'my' youngsters hatched, I was amazed to see that on the plastron of the tiny baby turtle was a belly button," Keating said, referring to the underside of the turtle's shell.

"It was like unwrapping the best present ever. I can still remember the incredible feeling [of] relief, excitement and success of watching and photographing the tiny turtles emerge."

Brian Keating
Brian Keating

Keating admits he did walk the turtles to the water to ensure a nearby crow, or an oncoming car, wouldn't interrupt their journey.

"I produced a slide show of my experience that I used in public presentations for years after the event."

Today, Keating still finds time to watch turtles in nature. Over the May long weekend, he found at least a dozen turtles sunbathing on logs in the Rocky Mountain trench near Cranbrook, B.C.

Painted turtles can also be found in the Milk River basin, known by their bright yellow markings on their neck and legs and their patterned, "painted" undersides. They can be as big as a dinner plate and are the only native freshwater turtle in western Canada, Keating said.

There are three subspecies in Canada: the Pacific coast population (Western), which is "threatened," the intermountain population (Midland) — the species Keating observed over the long weekend — is of "special concern," and the Prairie/western boreal and Canadian shield population (Eastern) is "not at risk."

Brian Keating
Brian Keating

Keating said loss of wetlands, pollution and car traffic are impacting turtle populations, but more and more places across the country are adding "turtle-crossing" signs asking drivers to be careful.

If you're planning your own turtle-watching adventure, you'll want to find the right habitat and approach slowly, Keating said. When the sun has been up for a while, the turtles will perch themselves on half-submerged logs or on lake edges.

Or, like Keating, you can take a quiet canoe ride, practice your patience and wait.

For more fascinating stories about Alberta's wildlife from naturalist Brian Keating, visit his website and check out these stories:

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