Monday, June 20, 2016

Time for Turtles

by Beth Sullivan
As the season warms up, the frog sounds begin to diminish. No more Peepers , no quacking Wood frogs. We still hear the Gray Tree frogs before a rain, and if we're lucky, we can hear Bull frogs chorus through the summer.
But now is the season for the silent turtles.
The frogs and salamanders can lay eggs in the cold water and they themselves can tolerate being nearly frozen. But the reptiles emerge from hibernation a bit later than most amphibians-they require warmth to fuel their life-drives-for feeding, mating and nesting. Because they do not stay with their nests, they rely on the warmth of the sun to incubate their eggs.
If you have lived near a pond or lake, you know you can count on Painted turtles to emerge first, finding their way onto rocks or logs or mossy banks, to sit in the March sunshine. Their dark shells capture the sun's warmth and fuel their cold blood to inspire them to move. If you have ever noticed a whole collection of turtles, all sizes, sitting along a log in a pond, these are the painted turtles.
Painted Turtles leave the pond to find a warm, dry spot to nest.

Sun bathing for warmth

The Eastern Box turtle is strictly a land turtle. They may be found soaking in shallow puddles, but cannot swim. They walk acres of territory, hoping to encounter a mate, and if they are successful, they too seek sunny warm sand and gravel in which to lay their eggs.
A Box Turtle may choose to come out of the woods to dig in your lawn.

The male Eastern Box Turtles have bright red eyes.

The other aquatic turtle that is commonly encountered at this time of year is the Snapping Turtle. As every kid knows, these are the ones that look like dinosaurs: jagged long tails, plain gray/black muddy colored shell and beady eyes that just dare you to get too close. By the time they are of the age to lay eggs, they have reached a good size. And while they may be slow to move across a lawn or roadway, their heads are lightning-fast and their powerful jaws can do a bit of damage to one’s soft tissue on hands or feet. All species of aquatic turtles are dependent on warm sandy areas to lay their eggs. They leave the pond, sometimes to travel a short way to a sandy beach. In many instances, however, they seem to take a long journey away from their wetlands to find a perfect spot. It might be a sand box, compost pile, a vegetable garden, or your lawn.
This female chose the soft sand on a busy roadside to create her nest.
There are local legends-turtles that are huge, that return to the same area, year after year, for decades, to lay their eggs. Even if a building or a road has blocked the way, nothing will deter a mother Snapper on a mission.
When cleaned-up, there is beauty in a Snapping Turtle, but the sharp beak and powerful jaws are not to be treated lightly.

We know there is such a whopper living in the White Cedar Swamp Preserve, off Jerry Browne Road. I have seen her myself. Today while driving that stretch, we noticed a Snapper, not THE snapper, right at the edge of the road, with a well scraped-out hole for laying eggs. Surely a precarious place, and certainly not a good one for the young to hatch from later in the summer. We got out to check on her; another car also stopped to keep traffic away from her. We were not about to try and move her, but fairly quickly she decided on her own, that having gawking humans was not her idea of ideal circumstance for what she needed to do. So she turned around slowly and slid ungracefully down a grassy slope into the slow moving stream that led back to her pond. We can only hope she will find a safer, sandy place to nest.
You may encounter a Painted Turtle well away from water, likely a female in nesting season.

All Snappers snap

If you encounter a turtle on the road, you can stop, if it is safe to do so. All species of turtles can bite, so be careful and do not under any circumstance go near the head of a Snapping turtle, no matter what size. If you can safely do so, you can guide or assist the animal to the side of the road it was heading toward. Do not assume it was going to water, it may be a mom on a mission.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

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