Posts Tagged River Cooters

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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Animal Visitations

Summer sunrises are complete in my yard, now that the Wood Thrushes are back for their nesting season. Their haunting voices — a cross between the airiness of a flute and the rich depth of an oboe — echo through shadowy woods as the rising sun shoots golden rays through holes in the canopy. If you don’t know this song, listen to the link provided above. It is exquisitely beautiful.

All the birds are very busy right now, either nesting or feeding nestlings or newly fledged chicks. A gang of juvenile crows loiters around my bird feeders until their lookout spots me at a window. They scatter into the deep woods, raucously laughing at me.

This year, I grew a number of annual flowers from seed, including a mix of dahlias, salvias, and snapdragons. I transplanted them in the bed along my front walk about a month ago, and they settled in nicely, blooming well. Then one morning about two weeks ago, this:

Murder victim #1

Murder victim #1

And this:

Murder victim #2

Murder victim #2

Two of the six dahlia plants I had nurtured from seeds in my greenhouse for months had been destroyed, their roots devoured. I knew immediately which critter to blame: pine voles.

Two species of voles are common in my region, but I’m fairly certain my plants were not murdered by meadow voles. I base this on what I’ve read of the habits of both species, and on the bodies I find occasionally lying in my driveway. I think a neighbor cat is likely coming to my yard to hunt, leaving trophies of its work behind for me to admire.

For years, indestructible lantanas grew in this bed. But they always grew too tall, requiring me to hack them back regularly — and I wanted to grow something different there. With the help of some strong garden assistants, we dug out the lantanas, which turned out to have woody roots so deep that we had to cut them to get the plants out. Lantanas, as you likely know, have fragrant, resinous leaves and flowers. I suspect the compound responsible for their fragrance is also in their roots, which is probably why the voles always ignored them.

But dahlias are apparently vole candy. Dahlia roots form tubers, and my seed-grown plants were already sporting these fleshy root forms. If you look at the photos above, you’ll see that the salvias surrounding the dead dahlias are undamaged, likely because salvias have fragrant resinous leaves and stems — and probably roots — just like the lantanas before them.

Too sick to seek out replacement plants myself, I sent Wonder Spouse out to find replacements that would fit with the other plantings. He came home with:

Verbena 'Candy Cane'

Verbena ‘Candy Cane’

So far, this eye-popper has been unmolested, and I predict it will remain that way, because verbena leaves are spicy too.

The other plant he brought home was a pale-flowered penta. These annuals are pollinator magnets, and Wonder Spouse did a nice job of finding a color that is compatible with the other plantings.

So far, the penta has also remained unmolested.

So far, the penta has also remained unmolested.

The other four dahlias are blooming well and are quite pretty in a petite way. I’ve been taking photos. I’ll show them to you soon.

The voles are also wreaking more havoc than usual in my vegetable garden. In fact, I think their population may have risen considerably this year, likely due to last year’s lush vegetation that was fueled by above-average rains. Every time we water the veggies, caverns open up — entries to vole tunnels. I won’t use poisons, and cats can’t get into my deer-fence-enclosed veggie garden. I’ve recently read that spreading cayenne pepper around plants and in the vole tunnel entrances will deter the voracious rodents. I’ll let you know how that works.

We had a much more interesting animal visitor about two weeks ago. As Wonder Spouse was pulling out of the driveway early one morning, he suddenly stopped and signaled me to join him. In the strip of lawn between our road and our front woods was this creature:

River Cooter?

River Cooter?

This female turtle is probably a River Cooter, but Florida Cooters are also common in my area, and the species interbreed. For sure, she’s a Cooter, and she was digging a hole for her eggs right beside our busy road!

She was a big one — somewhere between 12 and 14 inches from nose to tail. She hadn’t started laying eggs yet, and I was worried that her hatchlings would head for the road and get squashed, so I decided to relocate her to the floodplain, where we’ve seen Cooters laying eggs before.

Of course, I had to document this visitation, so I ran into the house, grabbed my camera, and stopped off to get our new wheelbarrow. She was too big for a bucket, and I know better than to try to carry a turtle that big for any distance. It’s about 200 yards from where she was digging to the edge of the creek on my floodplain. I figured using the wheelbarrow as transport was my best bet.

First, of course, I tried to get a better shot of her.

Apparently camera-shy, she started to flee -- straight for the road!

Apparently camera-shy, she started to flee — straight for the road!

I ran in front of her and with my gloved hands (turtles bite!) I picked her up and quickly transferred her to the wheelbarrow. The plastic orange tub was too slippery for her to pull herself out. I grabbed another quick photo.

She was not pleased.

She was not pleased.

Before we headed down the hill, I snapped a shot of the hole she’d started. She had made quite a bit of progress.

The hole was about three inches across.

The hole was about three inches across.

As gently as possible, I pushed the wheelbarrow with its turtle cargo down to the floodplain. I deposited her beside the weeds (mostly evil Japanese bamboo grass) growing near the creek. She sat there glowering at me.

She wouldn't move until I moved out of her line of sight.

She wouldn’t move until I moved out of her line of sight.

Once she couldn’t see me, she high-tailed it into the tall weeds beside the creek. When I walked back to where I’d left her, all I could see was a trail of freshly flattened weeds.

I hope she found a nesting spot to her liking in a nearby sand bar.

I hope she found a nesting spot to her liking in a nearby sand bar.

I don’t know how sensitive Cooters are to disruptions. I can only hope that moving her away from the road was the right thing to do. I try not to interfere with the wild creatures that share my land with me. But the image of squashed freshly hatched baby turtles was too horrible to ignore.

 

 

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