Monday, September 23, 2013

My Summer as a Turtle Tracker

How fun! Completely forgotten about... I was looking through old files and found this from summer 2006. Yes, I was a turtle tracker for the summer, and yes, it is one of the hardest jobs you can imagine! Beat the crap out of my physically, really, and mentally. Emotionally, too, with the communal living situation, though not touched upon here. I'm so thankful that I can NOW look fondly upon the experience.
Completely unedited and in its entirety. Enjoy and please ask questions! 

My Summer as a Herpetological Field Assistant (Turtle Tracker) in Lockport, IL
Summer 2006

Oh, Lockport. How do I describe thee?

Taking this job, I had absolutely no idea what I was in for. Lacking any field work or research experience, I counted myself fortunate to land this opportunity. Staying at the field house in Lockport, I was part of a team of other turtle trackers, as well as some snake people. The premise of the turtle activity was a Masters project for tracking the spatial movements of turtles in various habitats. The focus of concern was on Blandings turtles, which are state endangered. There were 3 sites:

Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve, consisting of mostly dolomite prairie, cattail marsh, and some ponds, right off of the Des Plaines River. There were about 75 turtles total radio-tagged – Blandings turtles, Spotted, Snapping, Painted, and Musk turtles.

Keepataw Black Partridge Forest Preserve, right where the wonderful I-355 extension is being built. That’s right, straight through the marsh. There’s a lovely electrical buzz and crackling from the huge powerlines, as well, that cut through here. We had only a few turtles here (Blandings) for the numerous traps we had set, but there was much drama with turtles in the construction zone.

Goose Lake Prairie State Wildlife Area, temporarily, because this area of wet unfragmented prairie turned out to be a huge game of hide and seek with what few turtles (Blandings) we had. The turtles would stay put in their pond for a little while, randomly take off, and leave us blindly searching for them. They were laughing all the way.

Daily, there would be a team for Lockport Prairie, and for Goose Lake Prairie and Keepataw. At Lockport Prairie, you would be given a few areas (West Marsh, Railroad Marsh, East Pond, etc.) to track turtles in. Each turtle has a small transmitter attached to their shell, and each is a different radio frequency. Your job was, with radio antenna in one hand, receiver in the other (in which you typed the radio frequency), and with your “turtle bag” flung over a shoulder, was to track your given number of turtles, anywhere from 10-15, through all of the habitat and weather conditions that nature can throw at you. Once you find a turtle, as indicated by the increasing “beep, beep” sound of the receiver, you take down all of the data in that location on your handy little clipboard: GPS coordinates, temp, humidity, vegetation type and height, water depth and temp, etc.

And daily, hoop traps would be checked to see if we could catch any more Blandings turtles to put transmitters on. Often, we caught Painted turtles. Whatever turtles we caught, we would haul back to the truck, measure, mark (make notches in their shell), and release. Your day was guaranteed a bit more interesting if you caught a gigantic Snapper in the trap.

The same process would occur at Goose Lake Prairie and Keepataw, except for the fact that we tracked fewer turtles in these areas, and that at GLP, it was not uncommon to lose turtles for a few days, and then by some miracle, track them to some obscure pond or marsh a half mile away that we would’ve never known existed. But by God, or sheer insanity, or both, we tracked through the brambles of raspberry, clumps of sedge that are put on this Earth in order to break your ankles, through swarms of painful, blood-sucking horseflies (mosquitoes are playful compared to them), f%*#@ing Wild Parsnip (forget Poison Ivy!), the death mud, and above all, the Death March to Oak Pond, assuredly one of the vortexes of Hell.

I regret not saving the job description, but may this be a lesson for all future field workers: exposure to harsh field conditions is no understatement, and is a warning flag. Such a job is not for the weak!

I honestly don’t know how I survived. The first month, I was plagued with blisters on my heels that would not heal, because I was wet everyday, and only 2 days off in-between for the wounds to dry out was not enough. Ugh, it was so, so painful.
Not to mention, everyday getting scratched by vegetation – namely cattails, which grew to 10 feet late in the summer. But river rushes were the worst, because they catch your skin as you drag it across the leaves. I thought my scars would have faded by now, but they haven’t.

I could go on and on. About having to rescue traps underwater when after a heavy rain the canal waters were released, flooding the Des Plaines and all connected water bodies (a.k.a. Lockport Prairie and Keepataw). About losing signals in the cattails, and water up to your waist, trying not to drop equipment in the water, feet stuck in mud, slipping on rocks, evil bugs (Carl always won the imbedded tick game), 90 degree weather . . . it’s all there. I wore out the soles of my gym shoes. And it’s amazing how as much as you wash, the marsh smell never leaves your clothes (and the dirt never leaves the toenails until a couple weeks later).

Such an experience as Lockport deserves this long narration. I absolutely loved working with the turtles – without that, I would not have stayed long.
But I thankfully leave this story to the winds of the prairie, whom I am no match for. Utmost respect to this harsh and beautiful landscape.

This is how we did laundry
Taking data
Fresh scars

Shoes worn to the end

Catch of the day
Some people still don't believe me when I mention turtles this big... here's proof

Giant powerlines through Keepataw, and home to many turtles
Myself with tracking gear 
Blanding's turtle
Hoop traps for catching turtles
I-355 construction through the marsh


  1. Oooh Yay turtles! I didn't know you did this kind of thing. Thanks for sharing.


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