Saturday, June 6, 2009

Make Way for Adirondack Turtles

Evening walks in the spring are utterly enjoyable, despite the blackflies and mosquitoes. Every trip out the door is like opening a gift: the anticipation of some wondrous thing, the joy of seeing it for the first time. Even though we expect certain events at certain times of the year (because they occur regular as clockwork), they still delight us when we see them. I suspect this is something that harkens to our primitive selves, like watching the flickering flames of a campfire.

Tuesday evening Toby and I took our walk down to the Hudson River, checking some of “my” nestboxes along the way. The sun was out and a nice breeze was blowing – almost enough to keep the insects away. We toured around the Information Center at the river’s edge, noted that the water level is back down, and then turned around, heading for home. I was thinking that fairly soon we should start seeing the wood turtles wandering the roadsides in search of good nest sites, but I figured that it was still a bit too cool, thanks to the recent cold front.

Suddenly Toby stopped, sniffing the road. We investigated the pavement, which yielded nothing that I could see, and just as I was turning back around to continue our walk, I spotted her: the first wood turtle of the season. She was on the side of the road, her back to us, standing completely still. She wasn’t very large; her carapace maybe eight inches long. I greeted her and stroked her shell, which she didn’t seem to appreciate for she tucked in her legs, tail and head, doing her best to disappear. A quick scan of the sandy road shoulders didn’t turn up any evidence of recent digging, so I’m not sure if she had already laid her eggs or if she was just starting to search for a site.

This is the time of year when turtles of all stripes emerge from the woods and waters to lay their eggs. They search for good sandy soil that is easily dug. Using their powerful hind legs, they scoop out holes and fill them with ping-pong-ball-like eggs. The soft, leathery shells allow the eggs to drop without sustaining any damage. Once they finish laying, the turtles push the sand back over the eggs, completely hiding all evidence of their labors, and then wander off to continue their lives in the woods (or waters) they call home.

But turtle survival is a tenuous thing. Temperature is important for the development of the eggs (it also determines the sex of the embryos). If the weather is cool and wet all summer, they may not develop at all. Then there are the predators. Like warm-blooded metal detectors, foxes, raccoons and coyotes sniff out turtle nests along the roadsides; when one is located, they dig it up and devour the contents. Sometimes nests are laid in sandy roadbeds only to later on be paved over by road crews. In the almost nine years I have lived here, have never seen a wood turtle hatchling. Snappers, yes, we see baby snapping turtles every year (they must be hardier souls), but never a baby wood or painted turtle.

From late spring throughout the summer I tell people to be on the lookout for turtles. If you see a turtle crossing the road, do your best not to hit it. Better yet, you can be a turtle’s best friend if you pull over and assist it in its travels. Most turtles you can pick up, gently, like you are holding a sandwich, and just carry across the road – take them in the direction they were heading and let them go. Larger snappers, however, you might want to lift with a shovel (I always have one in the back of my car – good for snow removal in winter, turtle removal in summer). And if you should find a turtle that was not so lucky, and was hit by a car but is still alive, put it in a box and call a rehabilitator. You’d be surprised what they can do with fiberglass and super glue these days!

Remember, too, that many turtles are protected by state law. This means you cannot legally collect them, either to sell or to keep as a pet. Likewise, if you should have a pet turtle, like a red-eared slider for example, never turn it loose in the wild! This is how non-native populations become established. Some non-native species are not problematic, but too many others become invasive, using up natural resources and pushing out native species which cannot compete with the aggressive newcomers.
Our native wildlife and plants are having a tough enough time surviving in today’s changing world – let’s not make things more difficult for them by introducing additional competitors.

Photo by Steve Silluzio.

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





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