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Protected turtle found in Turtle Creek neighborhood

A newly-hatched western pond turtle is small enough to be eaten by a bullfrong, one of many perils it faces.

Nick Geist
Published: Monday, April 8, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 4, 2013 at 10:11 a.m.

Kerry Peachey was headed out the door of her Turtle Creek neighborhood home to pick up her twin girls from school on Monday, March 25 when she noticed something unusual in her driveway: a big, brown turtle.

“Her head was out and she was looking around,” Peachey said, adding that at first she thought someone had lost a pet. Peachey posted her finding in an online forum for her neighborhood, asking if anyone had lost an 11-inch turtle.

Group members thought she was pulling their leg, given the name of the neighborhood, Peachey said.

The neighborhood, north of the intersection of Sonoma Mountain Parkway and East Washington Streets and bordered by two creeks, was presumably named after turtles that were once abundant in the area. But several residents interviewed for a 2008 article on the subdivision said they'd never seen a turtle there.

So the turtle's appearance surprised many — including the Peachey family, who lives near Washington Creek but had never seen a turtle there before. Even though the creek is nearby, it is low on water and hard to access due to a fence and retaining wall, leading them to wonder how the turtle got to their driveway in the first place.

They called Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue and kept the turtle for the night, dubbing her Lucky. Peachey's fourth grade twins helped feed her romaine lettuce and water at the suggestion of a neighbor.

Laurie Osborne of Sonoma County Reptile Rescue arrived the next day. She was pleased to discover that she was a western pond turtle, a protected species and the only turtle native to California that lives in fresh water.

Nick Geist, who studies the turtles at Sonoma State University, described the unassuming, olive-shelled species as “easily overlooked and underappreciated,” adding that not many people realize that it is California's only native freshwater turtle, let alone that it is on “a slow, inevitable decline.”

Western pond turtles were once incredibly abundant in California, but in the last half century, rapid development of their habitat and competition from other species has put them in peril.

“It's not like you never see them,” Osborne said of the species. “They're out there, but they're losing their habitat to (red-eared slider turtles) and people.”

She said she rescues hundreds of turtles a year, but the majority are red-eared sliders, a common house pet that is often released into the wild where it out-competes the mild-tempered western pond turtle for resources.

Another challenge is predation from the non-native American bullfrog, a large frog that eats the turtle's tiny hatchlings.

To give the turtles a fighting chance against their competitors and predators, Sonoma State University runs a “head starting” program for the turtles in partnership with the Oakland and San Francisco zoos.

Geist spearheads the program, overseeing research with his graduate students to gain information on the turtles' diets, home range, nesting patterns and more.

Each nesting season, Oakland Zoo, San Francisco Zoo and Sonoma State students track, mark and monitor female turtles. Then they protect nests with devices to prevent predators from digging them up, or collect the eggs and incubate them in a lab. Hatchlings are hand-raised for a little under a year. In those relatively luxurious conditions, they can quickly grow to the size of a 3- or 4-year-old before being released into the wild.

As of 2011, more than 100 turtles have successfully been released back into the wild, according to the Oakland Zoo. Geist said most of the turtles are currently being released in Lake County, where they thrive due to a lack of development and plenty of suitable lakes and streams.

He and his students have studied western pond turtles that live in Shollenberger Park but are currently not releasing any young turtles in Petaluma or Sonoma County.

Because, ironically, the Turtle Creek sub-division didn't provide ideal habitat for the turtle the Peacheys found, Osborne took her away, likely to be released into a more suitable area.

Osborne and Geist added that the chances of seeing a turtle are more likely this time of year, during mating season. They'll travel many miles from water to find mates and other water sources, often getting hit by cars or harassed by predators, like dogs.

If someone finds a turtle and there is a freshwater source nearby, Geist encourages escorting the turtle back toward that water source. Osborne added that anyone who finds a turtle that appears to be out of its natural habitat can call Sonoma County Reptile Rescue at 829-8152.

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@ar guscourier.com.)

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