last spotted turtle of the season; Tufts students’ documentary

A month after my last journal entry, and the day after the first
killing frost, I sit down to an account of late September in the Far
end of the Great Alder. This is the oft-described – in my books and in
this journal – shrub swamp compartment to which many spotted turtles
retreat for the winter. This niche serves as the overwintering zone of
more spotted turtles than any other I have been able to discover in my
Digs history. But I have not pushed the boundaries of my search-areas
much in some years now. With three consecutive days of high-August
weather the last week of September I came here in hopes of having one
more spotted-turtle sighing for the year. I have had sightings in
October and even in November in past years, but the spotted turtles
rarely show themselves as August deepens and autumn comes on. Leaves
had thinned considerably in the alder and winterberry thickets, but
the lush growth of the royal fern mounds, though going to tawny and
umbery browns, and sweeps of ochre and gold tussock sedge and reed
canary and bluejoint grasses continued to make searching difficult.
In great contrast with the situation here at thaw, when the vegetation
has fallen away and been pressed down by snow and ice, and the turtles
are compelled to take the first sun of another active season, they
seldom bask at the onset of hibernation, and are rarely on the move
in the narrow channels. There is little likelihood of seeing and
stalking a turtle up for some final sunning; my predominate strategy
consists of shifting to sites in which I can survey some sections of
channels, settling into a motionless vigil, lodged against alders,
screened by fern and sedge, and waiting and watching for a quarter to
half an hour, then relocating to watch from another coign of vantage.
I do this at thaw also, but mix this with slow moving searches and
stalking of turtles sighted on basking mounds. Great work if you can
find it – how many times over so many seasons have I pursued these
annual rituals cum rites.

On the middle day of the three, 27 September, I braced myself against
alders, standing mid-thigh deep in the mud, sunken leaves, and water
(the latter generally 8″ to a foot deep), with a spray of reed canary
grass in front of me. I could see into ten feet or so of channels to
my left and right and, straight ahead. Not many sites in this terrain
of the spotted turtles allow such an extended vista. A turtle-watch
in autumn is quite different from a hawk-watch. I had determined this
to be my final stake-out of the visit; but that decision is frequently
re-visited before actual departure. For twenty one minutes, nothing
but the slow, mesmerizing drift of clear water, and occasional, very
occasional, flickers of movement on the surface caused by water
striders or backswimmers – there is little visible invertebrate life
in this habitat element. I see little evidence of a food chain that
would support the spotted turtles during their active season – they
come here for the winter, and as soon as things warm up enough at
thaw, move outward to far richer feeding grounds, such as the Swale.
Such habitats also serve as their mating grounds. Then, on that twenty
first minute, a sudden brief trembling of the surface of the channel
directly ahead of me. Very brief indeed, but it was certainly a
movement caused by a turtle, at the farthest extent visible to me.
And in this sector of the Far End I have only seen spotted turtles.
One can only be patient, motionless, and hope for a clearer sighting,
a better bearing on the turtle’s precise location and movement, and
hopefully a closer approach by the turtle. And in this sector of the
Far End I have only seen spotted turtles.

Then came a flash of yellow spots, black shell, in a thin shaft of
sunlight penetrating the channel – the water is clear, but is seen as
black almost everywhere but where the sun strikes into it. I knew any
sighting would be stunning – it has always been for me – and under
these seasonal ambient and habitat conditions the rush is especially
intense. And it is nothing less than a rush, even after six decades of
experiencing it. To heighten the already heightened, my fleeting
vision of the turtle indicated that it was a juvenile, or subadult.
With spotted turtles, this has been the rarest of the rare. I am
certain that some hatchlings orient here from nearby sparse shoulders
of a hayfield, where several spotted turtles nest each year, that some
niches within this niche serves a nursery role for the species. I have
made dedicated searches for hatchlings and juveniles where the
microhabitat would appear to favor them, or they favor it; my one find
being a three year old, in August several years ago.

The debate at this point is whether to make a rush to where the turtle
appears to be, and risk his disappearance, which can occur all but
instantaneously in this habitat – selected largely for that reason, or
wait for that closer approach, better bearing. Then came more
movements on the surface, more rapid – the turtle could have seen me
and was perhaps taking flight. I tracked the surface disturbance with
my eyes, trying to compute where the turtle was heading, and made my
move. Not easily done in this compressed but difficult and spotted-
turtle-favoring world: my feet become almost rooted in the mud when I
am in one place so long, the criss-crossing of alder branches and
soft, sinking substrate constrain forward, or backward or sideward
advances. Three awkward strides brought me to within reach of where I
thought the turtle was. A glimpse of the little spotted shell proved
my determination wrong – the turtle had shifted to the right side of
the channel, not the left… the channel is only a foot wide, but that
narrow margin, little distance, is enough to cause me to come up empty
handed. But with that one more vision I thrust blindly to the re-
adjusted site and felt my hand come in contact with and close over the
shell of a splendid five year old spotted turtle.

I documented the turtle in my notebook, made tiny identifying notches,
and set him on the edge of an alder mound at the capture site. He was
in the water and out if sight in what seemed a nannosecond. It is not
likely I will see this one again in this dense, ultra-concealing
habitat. But perhaps in five years or so, if I am yet able to be at my
swampwalking, and the young turtle begins the migratory ways of his
kind, I will find him in the Swale.
Or (remotely) possibly here again. In any case, I marked the location
with a strip of surveyor’s tape with “5 y.o. Cg. 27 Sept 2011”. The
blaze tape is not easily discernible among lingering leaves of red
maple saplings and the scarlet winterberries; but when I return in
spring for those beginning of the season searches and vigils, it will
be evident in the gray maze of the branches and let me recognize this
precise place. I returned the day after this signal finding to repeat
my search regimen – no turtle seen. Unless there is a several-day
truly mild spell (temperatures in upper 60s and 70s) it is not likely
I will come back here until thaw, when I will likely have to make my
way on snowshoes and wear neoprene, not gore-tex, waders.
* * * * *

In early October the Team of Four from Tufts U., Molly, Laura, Jeff,
and Jay returned to complete video-recording me for a documentary
they will enter in an Environmental Film Festival at Tufts (by
coincidence, one of my alma maters, along with the School of the
Boston Museum of Fine Arts). They were responsive, stimulating,
thoughtful, insightful, terrific to work with. They want to do a
piece on wetland preservation vs. development issues, and want to have
me serve as the main voice. This was an honor for me and another
opportunity for me to put forth the turtle Party Line, the main, if
not sole, mantra of which is the call to go beyond stewardship and
even conservation to preservation, preservation as in true ecological
sanctuary, “exempt from publik haunt” (my oft-repeated quote from
Shakespeare), independent of human service. This call is leitmotif of
FOLLLOWING THE WATER, my last book, which has brought me responses
from people who find it too sad to read, and others who feel I am
declaring their conservation work to be in vain. As I state in the
book, I do value such efforts, and recognize the sacrifice and hard
work involved in conservation initiatives, but have to say I see a
grievous lack of places that are established for ecosystems and
biodiversity first and foremost, as opposed to becoming human theme
parks, playgrounds. This is a theme I may address in winter writings
here. I begin to turn to my “indoor season” of drawing and painting,
writing, and language study. I will likely make a few more streambank
searches for late-season wood turtle sightings, but I am now almost
exclusively in my east and west Arbeitzimmer, workrooms of the above
mentioned winter pursuits.

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Copyright © 2009 David M. Carroll. All rights reserved.