By Mary J Metzger
Special to the Voice
GROTON -- Julie Lisk is looking for Eastern Box Turtles in northern Middlesex and Essex Counties -- and could use the community's help in finding these state-listed cryptic creatures.
"Nobody knows what's going on with box turtles in this part of the state," she said. "This may be the northern extent of their range in Massachusetts. There are scattered reports of populations in southern New Hampshire and southeast Maine, but we just don't know how far north they are."
Lisk's survey is conducted through Zoo New England's Grassroots Wildlife Conservation program, which has a contract from the MassWildlife's Natural Heritage & Endangered Species Program.
Her quest is the result of an alternate lifetime path and a chance encounter with Handsome Fellow.
"In September 2016, I was volunteer radio tracking one of the Blandings turtles that had been head-started by the Groton Dunstable Regional High School's biology department, through the guidance of Bryan Windmiller's Grassroots Wildlife Conservation, when I saw a male box turtle cross the road," she recalled. "I contacted Bryan and within 40 minutes we got a call from State Herpetologist Mike Jones, who said 'get a radio on that turtle.'"
Jones suspected there were box turtles in the area as there was a pattern of sporadic random reports, but no populations had ever been documented.
"My husband and I went back and miraculously re-found the male turtle, which was later named Handsome Fellow for his colorful appearance," she said.
Lisk spent the winter looking at maps and thinking "where would you look for a box turtle?" They are widely dispersed, and difficult to find, but these generalists have three key elements in their habitat. They like upland forests, early successional (field/scrub shrub) habitat, and open sandy nesting areas.
By February 2017, an idea of a project began to form in Lisk's head and she decided "the best way to do this was to throw myself into it."
"Yes," said her husband, Tom Murray, who is a self-taught accomplished naturalist himself, and author and photographer of Insects of New England & New York. "You need to resign from your job and look for box turtles."
There was nothing in Lisk's early life to suggest such a trajectory. Like all kids then, she played outside in the Finger Lakes region of New York where she grew up. But she was a Visual Arts major in college. She developed an interest in using nature in her art work, first by looking at wildflowers. And as way leads on to way, she found herself looking at birds.
"One day I saw a duck land in a tree in the cool wetlands behind our house in Groton," she said. "I discovered it was a wood duck and starting putting up nesting boxes for them."
From there it was a slippery slope. She signed up for a course in Wetland Ecology through the Radcliffe College Seminars, a continuing education program where she was working on an intense Landscape Design Graduate Certificate. The course was taught by Bryan Windmiller, and for two years she volunteered with his work in Sudbury doing vernal pool certification, amphibian egg mass counts, and spotted salamander surveys. Her natural skills of seeing these animals led to paid work as a field biologist consultant in various development projects around the state.
The 2009 economic turndown meant fewer opportunities for her consultant work, so she fell back on her gardening skills for income. But she had also become discouraged by the increasing lack of concern for wildlife she saw in the implementation of her mitigation plans which, unless there were definite regulations, were never carried out.
There has to be a documented population of box turtles to trigger the environmental reviews that would protect them. Trying to be useful, Lisk took the plunge. By the end of last summer she had found a total of 13 box turtles, five male and five female adults, which are now being radio tracked, and three juveniles. She also found and protected four nesting sites. One female turtle, "Speckles", double-clutched during the season. With the help of a local licensed wildlife rehabilitator she has head-started 7 hatchlings which will be released when they reach 150 grams of weight.
Lisk has documented a likely population of Eastern Box Turtles. And if confirmed by further research, this will make Middlesex County one of only two places in the world (the other is in Michigan) that has four rare turtles: Spotted, Blandings, Wood and Eastern Box in one place.
Lisk credits local and state turtle conservation enthusiasts with helping during the first year of her volunteer work. A grant from the New England Herpetological Society provided $1,000 for five of the radio transmitters. The NHESP contract provides her a paid position for the next 6 months to scope out other places in Northern Middlesex and Essex counties to document box turtle populations.
These colorful, high-domed turtles are the only ones that can completely close up in their shell. They are not found basking on logs in ponds. Anyone who sees a box turtle, or has historical knowledge of box turtles in the area, is asked to call 339-221-4261 to help document this uncommon species. A picture of the turtle's shell (which is unique for each individual) may also be sent to www.mass.gov/nhesp.