BTC Newsletter - September 2015
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Box Turtle Connection Newsletter 

September 2015


This issue, September 2015, features an article on how to buildbrush piles for box turtles on your property, a profile of Ann Somers, Box Turtle Connection Project Leader, and recommendations on what you, the general public, can do to help box turtles! 

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On Wednesday, September 9th from 4-5 PM in 200 Sullivan Science Building at UNC Greensboro, Dr. John Roe from the Biology Department at UNC Pembroke will be giving a talk titled -- "Responses of Eastern Box Turtles to prescribed fire in the North Carolina Sandhills."  UNCG Biology seminars are open to the public. More information can be found by contacting UNCG Biology -

Build It and They Will Come:

Miracle Brush Piles
Mike Vaughan, Ann Somers and Ashley LaVere

It is almost too good to be true.  It is amazing how easy it is to make even a small piece of property wildlife friendly, so that you can notice the before-and-after difference.  Here is a start: give up mowing at least half of what you are mowing now and build some brush piles. Here’s how to help box turtles and many other animals and get the joy of watching them too.

The need for cover is important for all wildlife including box turtles of all ages.  Even a turtle that ordinarily spends most of its time in the field-forest edges will likely utilize available shelter in grassy fields as well as in forests. Our observations indicate that some box turtles spend a great deal of time in tall grassy meadows where well developed shelters may not exist, so these are great places for brush piles either in mid-field or along the edge.

A brush pile can be haphazardly created or deliberately built. Some deliberate methods may be more creative architecturally, but following the few simple steps below will ensure a safe and stable shelter for wildlife.  It requires a chainsaw, some pieces of tree trunk, and some woody brush.   A good size for this type of pile is five feet square, though smaller ones can be useful too.

To build a deliberate five foot square pile:

1. Cut several logs five feet long, about six inches in diameter, to provide the foundation layer.  Freshly cut logs will make a longer lasting pile, but wood that has been dead for some years can still be used. 

2. Space six or seven logs on the ground parallel to each other, separated by six to seven inches, to allow space for turtles to crawl between them. 

3. Lay a layer of smaller logs, say three to five inches in diameter and five feet long, across the first layer.  These logs should touch each other, providing a roof for the spaces you’ve created with the first layer. 

4. Lay a third layer across the second one and this time the logs can be smaller, whatever is available.  These will add weight and stabilize the lower two layers.

5. Finally, the pile you have built now needs to be made wildlife friendly – and attractive. This can be done by heaping on top any pieces of brush, weeds, and debris that you have available.

 1. Foundation layer. 2. Second layer, starting third layer. 3. Third layer complete. 4. Finished Brush Pile.

Deliberately building a shelter is not always necessary, haphazardly throwing fallen or trimmed branches into a pile can effectively create a wildlife shelter, either in fields or forests.  It is fun to build onto the original structure as the seasons pass, creating different wildlife rooms.  It’s anybody’s guess what the wildlife dynamics are in such piles, but creating additional rooms theoretically allows prey refuge from outside predators as well as other inhabitants.

This brush pile was made by loosely piling the prunings from nearby blueberry bushes. It serves as excellent habitat for lizards, turtles, frogs, snakes, insects, birds and mammals. 
This article has been edited for length and content appropriate for this newsletter. A full-length version of this article will be featured in the 2016 Box Turtle Connection book, which will be made available on our website.
We're always on the lookout for photos, videos, and art about box turtles! Feel free to send them to us via our email address:, or via our Facebook page! 

Ann Somers - BTC Project Chair

The following is a conversation with Ann Somers, the BTC Project Chair about the project. Her responses are designated as AS.

Q: How long have you been interested in Box Turtles?
AS: I first fell in love with box turtles as a little girl in Guilford County when I discovered one while tromping in the woods around my country home.  It was like getting a marvelous present.  It was wild and it was gentle.  It gave me a warm feeling I’ve never forgotten.  I still feel that way when I find a box turtle

Q: What made you start the BTC?
AS: I cooked up the idea about 10 years ago but sat on it until an opportunity arose to present such a proposal to folks who could actually help make it become a reality. Those folks turned out to be NC State Parks.
The opportunity came in the form of an invitation to participate in a think-session about how universities and the state parks could cooperate on projects.  Brian Strong, Chief of Planning and Natural Resources and NC Division of Parks and Recreation, invited me to participate. I sat in the meeting for several hours listening to university folks from around the state brainstorm ideas.  Then, when other ideas were flailing, I presented the idea of the Box Turtle Connection.  Brian liked it.
So I formed a committee called the Box Turtle Collaborative to think out the details of a statewide volunteer box turtle data collection project.  It included folks from several agencies and universities.  The Box Turtle Connection project was formed by the Box Turtle Collaborative in 2008. The most important partner besides state parks was the NC Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC) since they operate an online database called PAWS.  The importance of having a central database that is protected in perpetuity cannot be overestimated.  This is the difference between successful projects and those where data ends up on individual computers or on hard copies under somebody’s bed. 
The trick is that the Project Leaders across the state enter their own data.  It is not sent to me to enter it and it is not sent to the WRC to enter it.  It gets entered without having to create a staff position to get the job done.
Of course UNCG has an important role to play too.  I lead the project with the help of Ashley LaVere, former student at UNCG and Anna Smith, UNCG’s biology department webmaster.  Anna and Ashley keep the web presence going and manage postings and questions from the public.  Ashley writes the “Turtle Talk Tuesdays” on the Facebook page. The three of us keep in touch with the Project Leaders and manage the PL training, along with help from the WRC.

Q: How has it changed over the years? 
AS: Getting feedback from the Project Leaders has been extremely helpful.  They have helped us discover inconsistencies in the research protocol and have made suggestions on how to improve the project.  As a result  we will, in 2016, publish a revised version of the Somers and Matthews (2006) The Box Turtle Connection book.  Like its predecessor, it will be available free online.

Q: How long do you want the project to last? What are some milestones you’d like to see the BTC achieve? 
AS: I keep saying this project is intended to last 100 years and I think it actually has a chance.  Why, you might ask, would I say something so outlandish?  I can offer three reasons. 
One, people love box turtles.  As long as there are rangers and educators in the parks and environmental facilities and private individuals who are able to collect data, there will be interest.  It does not take a lot of time and it really is fun.
Two, it is very inexpensive.  Because we have always operated on a shoestring, no legislator or funder can rob us of our budget.  We simply have not had one. We have relied all this time on small donations from organizations like the HERP Project and the Zoo Society and other offerings to keep the project running.  The Haw River State Park allows us to meet there at no expense.  Although the state parks and the WRC offer some degree of staff time, it has been miniscule drain on those agencies in comparison to other projects that are collecting a similar amount of data.
Three, turtle are long lived and some will live long enough to carry their notches into the next century. The turtles themselves and the PAWS database will be our message to generations hence that there were a fleet of folks in the first part of the twenty first century who cared enough to send them the data.  It is our gift to folks we will never meet.

Q: What do you like to do in your spare time?
AS: I like to kayak whitewater rivers and have a ton of fun doing so.  Also, I’m conducting a wetlands restoration on my own property for salamanders dependent upon ephemeral wetlands for breeding.  

Want to Help Box Turtles? Here’s How.

1) Make your property box turtle friendly by leaving some areas unmowed and building brush piles if you have room!

2) When you find a box turtle in N.C. or S.C. (alive or dead), you can enter that record on the Carolina Herp Atlas (

3) When possible to do safely, help box turtles across the road. Move them in the direction they are walking but only about 5-10 ft off the road.

4) Do not take box turtles from the wild as pets! When box turtles are taken from the wild to be pets, they are not able to breed, & the delicate balance of the box turtle population is thrown off. As more and more turtles are taken from the wild, less offspring are born and the population declines.

5) Do not move box turtles from one location to another. You can spread a disease from one population to another. Moving them is very stressful because they try to find their home, which can result in the turtle dying.

6) If a box turtle nests in your yard, leave the nest alone. You can create a cage made of hardware cloth or chicken wire to make it more difficult for predators to dig up the nest. Leave space for hatchlings to emerge.

7) Support the protection of wild areas & habitats where box turtles might live.

Thanks to Gabrielle Graeter, NC Wildlife Resources for these tips! Photo courtesy of NCSU Turtle Rescue Team

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