A Headstarter’s Habitat in Estabrook Woods

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

When Henry David Thoreau looked across Easterbrooks Country in Concord, Massachusetts, known today as Estabrook Woods, he saw only fields and rolling hills separating him from the surrounding villages.

In the same place where Thoreau might have stood, 160 years ago, seeking inspiration for his writings on the natural world, biologist Bryan Windmiller stood before a group of fourth graders from Concord School to teach them about the endangered Blanding’s turtles living in the wetlands.

In Thoreau’s time, Windmiller said, ponds and swamps didn’t exist the way they do today.

“What animal can change a landscape and create bodies of water?”IMG_2117

As the students walked around Mink Pond, located in the center of the woodland, they discovered the answer. Evidence of beavers was everywhere – dams lined the banks, fallen trees were gnawed through, and bark was chewed off of the tree trunks.

The resulting wetlands create a perfect habitat for Blanding’s turtles.

The students were on a field trip, organized as part of Windmiller’s Blanding’s turtles headstarting program, where turtle hatchlings are given to schools, zoos, and aquariums for nine months before they are released back into their original habitat. The program aims to increase the turtles’ chance of survival.

Windmiller had brought the students to Estabrook Woods to track Joe – a one-year-old turtle he had placed there that morning.

He handed his equipment – an antenna and a radio – to two of the students to manage. Joe had already been outfitted with a radio transmitter so Windmiller and his team would be able to track him.IMG_2123

As the students walked into the woods, the beeping on the radio became louder, signaling that they were closing in on the turtle. They fanned out. One student lagged behind, however, and studied the holes in a log in front of her. Sure enough, there was Joe.

At one year, Joe was roughly the size of a hand. The hatchlings in the classroom – Wasabi and Aqua, named by the students – were no bigger than a half dollar coin.

As the students passed the turtle around, admiring the black and yellow stripes on its shell, Windmiller explained the hibernation patterns of the turtles.

Blanding’s turtles hibernate underwater from October to the early spring, often trapped beneath the winter ice. Their metabolism slows to the point where the only oxygen they need can be absorbed from the water. For warmth, they can bury themselves in the mud.

On the way back to the bus, I asked one of the students if she was able to hold Joe.

“It was amazing,” she said. “Wasabi and Aqua will someday be that big.”

Without the headstarting program, it’s not clear whether this would be true.

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