Heading Out: Why the turtle crossed the road

JASON SHIELDS PHOTO | This box turtle lay its eggs alongside a stone path in our front yard. It dug two decoy nests nearby before spending almost three hours developing the real nest.

Most kids love the zoo. I know I did. It was thrilling to see “wild” animals up close. But any experience I had in a zoo waned in comparison to the first time I saw a garter snake dart from the cavity of a rotting log in my grandfather’s woodpile. Here was a real live creature in its natural setting with no thick glass or steel cage between it and me.

We surprised it, I guess, and it instinctively slithered away, disappearing under a log pile. My initial reaction was to recoil but, once I was over the shock, I wanted to pursue the serpent and catch it. When I was very young and before moving to Shelter Island, we had kept fish, snakes, turtles and frogs in tanks in the front room of our apartment. The animals were purchased from pet stores. But these weren’t so much pets as captive creatures and the novelty of watching a fish swim in circles or a turtle sit on a rock in a few cubic feet of contrived habitat wore off rather quickly.

Here on the East End, the woods around us are alive with creatures. If you’re lucky enough to live in a wooded area, you probably don’t have to go any farther than your backyard to discover local mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. More often than not, we stumble upon our outdoor inhabitants when we’re doing routine activities like yard work. But you can plan backyard explorations and usually cross off a checklist of animals. This time of year, one likely candidate is the eastern box turtle.

There are two species of box turtles in the U.S., eastern and western, and four subspecies of the eastern box turtle. The subspecies inhabiting our region is simply known as the eastern box turtle (T. carolina carolina) and its range is from northern Florida to Massachusetts and west to Illinois.

Their high-domed, brightly-spotted carapace (top shell) is very recognizable and they appear to be more tortoise than turtle. But the box turtle is more closely related to painted turtles and other aquatic species than to tortoises despite its appearance and habitat preference. Box turtles are not aquatic but will wade in shallow fresh water. Generally, you’ll come across them in wooded areas that aren’t inundated with underbrush. Not that they’re adverse to bittersweet and bull briars — but we are.

As you’d expect, just about everything box turtles do is slow, including maturing and reproducing. They reach sexual maturity between seven and 10 years. Females, which have a higher, more dome-shaped carapace, lay between three and six eggs each spring. Over the course of a lifetime, which can last up to 50 years, only two or three of these eggs will result in adult turtles. With the odds already stacked against them, box turtles in developed areas face the added hurdles of crossing roads, finding their way around obstacles like fences, and “fragmentation” of their habitat in general. Fragmentation in this sense is the partitioning of natural habitat by human development. As turtle populations become more isolated, the probability of inbreeding increases, which could ultimately lead to genetic defects and the demise of box turtles in a given area.

Dangers faced by our local turtles are real, as evidenced by the occasional dead turtle we pass on the road. Box turtles are the most common victims but the diamondback terrapin, our only native saltwater species, also sometimes must run the gauntlet when land stands between it and its desired destination. That was the circumstance for a female diamondback crossing the road on the causeway to Ram Island last week. A friend of mine and teacher on the South Fork, Mark Mobius, photographed the dead turtle and its eggs, which were strewn alongside the carcass. Careless driving most likely caused this unfortunate death, which Mark said occurred probably in daylight not long before he took the picture.

The dead turtle Mark found was going to lay her eggs in the sand. Diamondbacks are rarely seen on land but this time of year the females leave the water to make their nests. Viewing diamondbacks in the water can be done from a drifting boat or kayak. You can spot their heads breaking the surface and if you drift in the area you’ll usually see them reappear every so often.

My earliest memory of seeing turtles in the wild was when I was about five years old and was walking with my mother and father on a road along Shelter Island’s Fresh Pond. Ahead of us was a smattering of what appeared to be dried leaves moving across the road as if nudged by a breeze. They were in fact newly hatched snapping turtles. It’s a vision etched in my memory banks. I was a serious monster movie fan and these little creatures were the spitting image of some Japanese movie maker’s creation of a monster turtle.

Female snapping turtles are on the move in late spring, looking for places to lay their eggs. I remember encountering a large female while leaving the interior of Shelter Island’s Mashomack Preserve. She was in the dirt road, blocking my exit, and I wasn’t confident in my ability to physically move her without getting a finger snapped. I called Preserve Director Mike Laspia and he showed up to see the turtle. As we watched, it slowly moved to the side of the road, Mike told me snapping turtles typically lay their eggs in soft, loamy banks, which, in Mashomack, can be found alongside some of its roads. He told me they will make several false nests, hoping to fool raccoons looking for an easy meal of turtle eggs.

At least once a year I pull over to escort a large snapper across a road. There’s always some sort of bog or pond nearby. Several times I’ve encountered what I assumed were the same turtles making the same treks around the same time of year on consecutive years. Hardly shy, a large snapper will track you with its head and, standing up high on its four legs, seem poised to lunge at anything that comes into range. I love watching shows in which animal handlers grab snappers as if it’s second nature. I’ll leave that to the experts.

Enjoy the terrarium that is our backyard, wooded lot across the street or the municipal open space in your community. A good rule to follow is “leave it as you found it.” And please resist the temptation to make a wild animal a pet for the kids, even if it’s meant to be temporary. We do enough to disrupt the natural flow around us. Instead, keep your eyes peeled for our pedestrian terrapins. If you spot one, pull over and escort it to the side. Who knows, maybe it will be the start of an annual rendezvous.