A Three-Fertile-Turtle Week

Common Snapping Turtle

A possum has been living beneath our front walk/deck for quite some time, possibly years. It strives to avoid us, and we pretend we don’t know it’s there. Until May 21. My area currently suffers from abnormally dry conditions, and the plants and animals are beginning to be obviously affected by the prolonged absence of rain. True drought is imminent, unless the skies bring us copious rains soon.

The air has uncharacteristically – for this time of year – lacked humidity, so our little front water feature requires regular topping off to keep the growing population of tadpoles happy. I was doing that on May 21 just before noon, also watering the plants that surround the little pool, when the possum ambled from beneath the walkway almost beside me. I think it heard and smelled the hose water. I pointed out that it was violating our agreement and that it should scurry back out of sight, but it just stood there blinking at me.

So I sprayed it with the hose. Not hard, but enough to get it wet. I figured that would send it back to its hiding place. But I was wrong. Instead, it turned its other side toward me as if to say, “Please dampen my other side too.” So I did. When it was thoroughly wet, it returned to its spot beneath the deck and did not re-emerge. It was that kind of week around here. The local wildlife seems to be more comfortable showing itself every day.

A wild turkey hen foraging beneath the bird feeders.

Earlier that week for several evenings, a wild turkey hen wandered into our backyard to pick at seeds fallen from the bird feeders. She then wandered up the hill to what I’m calling my Hail Mary Prairie – a tale for another time. Sounding a bit like a chicken, she muttered to herself as she strolled around the yard. We haven’t seen her the last few days, and one of our wildlife cameras showed us why. It captured her escorting six tiny chicks. No more time for solo-muttering for her.

Our wildlife camera caught these wild turkey chicks (left) following a hen (already across the creek).

And then there are the turtles. On May 18 after lunch, I headed back to my vegetable garden to complete weeding the onion bed. To my delight, I encountered a River Cooter just a few steps from the garden gate. She was in the middle of laying eggs. This swamp-dwelling species has occupied the adjacent wetland for decades, and every few years we encounter a female laying eggs. They always climb the hill and dig well above the flood zone, no doubt instinctively knowing that the eggs would otherwise drown. I’ve read that often the young turtles hatch in late summer or fall, but remain underground with the eggs until spring, when they emerge. I took a ridiculous number of videos of her while she worked. Also some still shots, which I share here. She was quite tolerant, basically ignoring me as she laid eggs, then compacted the ground. If I hadn’t immediately flagged the spot, I doubt I’d be able to find it after the next rain.

But wait, there’s more! On the afternoon of May 21, Wonder Spouse encountered another species of turtle laying eggs inside our backyard. Interestingly, this one also chose a nesting spot not far from a gate. Significant? Beats me. This was an Eastern Painted Turtle, another species quite common to the slow-moving waters of local wetlands, but one we had never encountered laying eggs before. Like the much larger River Cooter, she tolerated my excited babblings as I photographed and videoed her egg-laying efforts. When she was done and finished compacting the soil above her eggs, she pushed some nearby dried leaves over the spot. If I had not watched her lay her eggs, I would never have known the nest was there. It made me wonder how often I’ve missed egg-laying visits from this species. And, yes, I flagged the spot as soon as she headed back down the hill toward the wetland. 

That evening, I casually said to Wonder Spouse, “Well now all we need is an egg-laying snapping turtle to complete the trifecta.” You guessed it, on the morning of May 22 when we checked on a new flower bed I planted two days ago with milkweed seedlings, we encountered a very healthy Common Snapping Turtle finishing up what must have been a night of egg-laying. She found the freshly cleared and moistened milkweed bed an ideal spot for her digging. 

By the time we spotted her, she had compacted the soil over a rectangular area, where we assume she had laid her eggs. She appeared to be quite tired and had sort of buried her back end in nearby soft soil. At first we thought she was going to lay more eggs, but as we watched, we decided she was just trying to camouflage herself a bit. Ms. Snapper was far less tolerant of human observation. If she could see me, she stopped moving. If I tried to walk behind her, she’d crane her very long neck around her back to keep an eye on me. Thus, I took mostly still shots of her doing nothing in particular. I had to go into the house before she decided it was safe to head back to the wetland. Of course, I was watching her from a window with binoculars, and when she headed downhill, I ran out and managed to shoot a few videos of her return to the wetland. She remained annoyed with me, refusing to move if I got too close. Finally, she was close enough to tall vegetation and muddy soil that she felt comfortable lumbering along with me trailing her from a respectful distance. Not wearing mud-proof shoes, I watched her bend the tall stalks of marsh grasses as she headed toward the water until I lost sight of her altogether. 

Now, of course, I find myself wandering the property a couple of times a day with a sharp eye out for fertile turtles making deposits. I wonder if they somehow knew that high temperatures were in the forecast – perfect for incubating eggs. Or perhaps it was the full super moon that glowed orange in the sky earlier this week. For me, it will be always be an egg moon, named for all the native creatures currently reproducing themselves around me. 

Wonder Spouse and I have been enhancing the native microenvironments on our five acres for 32 years now. It is deeply satisfying to know that our efforts have been noticed by many other species, and that they feel welcome to live and procreate beside us, even if a few innocent milkweed seedlings are sacrificed in the process.

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  1. #1 by Mary Ann Harville on May 28, 2021 - 11:14 am

    Thank for today’s stories. We too have a water turtle that comes up from the creek and lays its eggs. One year in my potato bed!

    You always teach me something new in each of your stories. Thank you for sharing.

    Our little patch of heaven is just under 10 acres in Silk Hope where we have been for 20 years now and plan to stay!

    • #2 by piedmontgardener on May 28, 2021 - 12:25 pm

      Welcome, Mary Ann! I guess we should be flattered that our local turtles think we prepare nesting grounds just for them. 🙂 Continue to enjoy that “little patch of heaven” you’re working on. As I’m sure you know, every bit of effort pays off a thousand-fold.

  2. #3 by James on May 28, 2021 - 10:10 pm

    Delighted to find your posting in my email tonight after work. Thank you as always for sharing the pictures and recounting the day’s adventures with us

  3. #5 by Diane Stallings on May 28, 2021 - 10:57 pm

    Thanks so much for your post! I just love hearing about the turtles!!


    Sent from my iPhone


  4. #7 by Julie Higgie on May 29, 2021 - 8:14 am

    Loved this article about turtle mamas! I’ve enjoyed seeing a few myself through the years. So beautiful. Your work in writing about nature is so important. Thank you!

  5. #9 by rosegraham1889 on September 21, 2021 - 7:03 pm

    Opossums need a bath, too! I welcomed the opossums living in my city neighborhood after I learned they eat ticks. I give them left-over wet cat food on my back deck. After I saw the raccoons eating the cat food several nights, I started leaving a bigger water dish nearby for them so they could wash their hands. They leave the water dish with very dirty water. I leave water out also for any other wildlife in several places in my backyard. Recently I watched a Brown Thrasher enjoying a water bath in a container that wasn’t much longer than he was. The deer get their own elevated water dish so as to discourage them from drinking water from the bird bath. The nearest creek is too far away for some of these wildlife, and I try to keep them healthy.

    • #10 by piedmontgardener on September 21, 2021 - 7:38 pm

      Welcome, Rose. Your description makes it clear that your native animal neighbors are well looked after. My cameras catch the opossums down by our creek often, which, I guess, is why I was surprised by the behavior of the one I observed. Even with a permanent creek, I clean and fill six bird baths daily, including a shallow, wide one on the ground in my fence-enclosed vegetable garden. I’ve observed small mammals, birds, toads and butterflies enjoying that particular water feature. Without question, adding water to one’s landscape is one of the fastest ways to encourage wildlife visitors. Thanks for stopping by!

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