The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - SHERYL NADLER Sheryl@sh­eryl­

It was just past 7 a.m. and I was grip­ping a cof­fee in one hand, the steel guard rail that rims Cootes Drive with the other.

A thin strip of gravel the only thing sep­a­rat­ing my walk­ing buddy and me from the trans­port truck bar­relling down the hill and right to­ward us at 80 kilo­me­tres an hour. At least.

While I pushed fur­ther into the grass, hop­ing to give the mam­moth truck all the room it needed to make the curve, Dun­das Turtle Watcher Caro­line Thom­son pressed on like it was a sunny Sun­day stroll through a sum­mer meadow.

It wasn’t. Did I men­tion it was rain­ing, too? Of course it was.

She walks this route reg­u­larly from mid-May to the first week of July and then again from mid-Au­gust un­til the end of Septem­ber — from the Hamil­ton Air Force As­so­ci­a­tion on King Street East, along the Des­jardins Canal, up and then down Cootes.

Thom­son is among the roughly 50 vol­un­teers with Dun­das Turtle Watch (DTW for those in the know) who walk in pairs along three routes in Dun­das look­ing for tur­tles that have wan­dered too close to the road in search of nest­ing spots — and nest­ing tur­tles whose eggs will need pro­tec­tion from preda­tors like snakes, rac­coons, teenagers.

The highly or­ga­nized group works in shifts: the morn­ing shift is out be­tween 6 and 9 a.m., re­splen­dent in or­ange and yel­low re­flec­tor vests. There’s an evening shift, as well, and a turtle hot­line any­one can call if they see an out of place turtle or one that seems to be in dis­tress.

“Part of the thing we do on this walk, as well as look for tur­tles and try to get them off the road, is we record what gets hit for other na­ture groups such as the RGB or On­tario Na­ture,” says Thom­son, who has found car­casses of swans and fawns, snakes and sala­man­ders as well as tur­tles. “We share our stats.”

If Thom­son’s name sounds fa­mil­iar, it’s be­cause she’s been an outspoken Dun­das wildlife advocate since mov­ing to the area 11 years ago. An am­a­teur wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher, she was bowled over by the di­ver­sity she found there and has used her pho­to­graphs to fight for con­ser­va­tion of eco-sen­si­tive ar­eas like the Des­jardins Eco Park.

“It’s a beau­ti­ful, beau­ti­ful piece of swamp,” says Thom­son. “We should em­brace the fact that we have it rather than not help it. And when you’ve got an­i­mals that come from the up­per Es­carp­ment and want to come down to the canal, they’ve got to cross this road and it’s just lethal.”

Which brings us to the flash­ing turtle signs on Cootes, the ones we’ve all seen and kind of ig­nore. When the lights are flash­ing, it means the tur­tles are ac­tive. And al­though the speed limit on that stretch of road be­tween quiet West­dale to tran­quil Dun­das is in­ex­pli­ca­bly 80 km/h, the DTW is hop­ing we’ll slow down and keep an eye out for wildlife.

“We ac­tu­ally have had a few re­ports of peo­ple swerv­ing to hit one of these big snap­pers,” says Thom­son, who is also an advocate for low­er­ing the speed limit on Cootes. “And for us it’s very dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand how you can even hit them. They’re huge. I mean, do you hit a rock?”

Well, as the say­ing goes, there’s no fix­ing stupid. Or, in this case, a word I can’t use in a fam­ily news­pa­per.

So what hap­pens if you do find a turtle on the road or in dis­tress? Thom­son cau­tions against pick­ing up snap­ping tur­tles with your hands, be­cause, um, they do snap and can be quite dan­ger­ous, she says.

Thom­son and the other vol­un­teers carry shov­els and buck­ets and/or blan­kets while on pa­trol. If they find a snap­ping turtle on or too close to Cootes, they’ll set up py­lons around it, ease it into the bucket or onto the blan­ket and move it to a safer lo­ca­tion.

If in doubt, call the hot­line num­ber on one of the signs along Cootes and a DTW vol­un­teer will ei­ther come to the lo­ca­tion or walk you through the steps to move it.

“When you see a turtle and it’s try­ing to cross, you al­ways move it to the di­rec­tion that it’s head­ing, ob­vi­ously,” says Thom­son. “Be­cause if you bring it back here it’s go­ing to try again, right?”

Right. Makes sense and is not some­thing I nec­es­sar­ily would have con­sid­ered.

“Should you find a hatch­ling in the fall, you want to pick it up, put it in some tis­sue or a lit­tle plastic con­tainer with some air flow and take it to a slow mov­ing part of the creek,” she says.

Al­ways re­port sus­pi­cious ac­tiv­ity to the po­lice or the Min­istry of Nat­u­ral Re­sources, adds Thom­son.

If you’re in­ter­ested in vol­un­teer­ing with Dun­das Turtle Watch, are cu­ri­ous about at-risk species or want to help them fight for a lower speed limit on Cootes, visit their web­site.


Dun­das Turtle Watch vol­un­teer Caro­line Thom­son, pa­trolling Cootes Drive.


A painted turtle. Look out for these lit­tle guys, and big­ger snap­ping tur­tles, if you are driv­ing around Dun­das.

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