notes of 8 September, 2011, continued; wood turtles; hatchling wood turtles; Jefferson salamander

To begin, I want to clarify something from that previous journal
entry. In describing my going into the spotted turtle habitat I call
the Far End of the Great Alder Carr after tropical storm Irene had
effected a significant recharge
I mention the typical flood periods there as having a “… low, steady
drift (of water)”. This should read “…slow, steady drift…”. I
regret the typos that invariably show up in my journal entries (where
is my Peg Anderson, my copy editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt when I
need her?). It occurs to me that I describe these seasonally flooded
wetlands that are so critical for the spotted turtles, primarily
during hibernation, in some detail in the namesake chapter of my last
book, FOLLOWING THE WATER. And the map shown on the end pages gives a
pretty good picture to go by.

I also wanted to add that as I left the swale after finding that
spotted turtle of 14 July, driving out the logging road, I saw a wood
turtle crossing that dirt road. I have found wood turtles in this area
from time to time over the years, but sightings in this area are very
infrequent. The reach of the permanent stream that flows through this
part of the Digs is for some distance more suited to painted and
snapping, and occasional spotted and Blandings turtles, than wood
turtles. Due to the rather level lay of the land and beaver activity,
it is more a marshy stream, with sediments predominant; rather than
the scoured, sandy, gravelly bottom of a moderate gradient favored by
wood turtles. (I often refer to the overlap in stream and river
habitat of wood turtles with that of wild brook trout.) This was a new-
to-me 14 year old female who had recently been attacked. Her front
legs had wounds at the joints (fortunately the predator was not able
to work her legs out of her shell and eat them); and her tail was
badly chewed right to the cloacal opening. These will heal. It is
possible that a dog had discovered her, as there is a house nearby,
one built on what was formerly a turtle-nesting site (“Snapping Turtle
Knoll” in Year OF THE TURTLE). Or it may have been a natural predator.

On 2 August I found a far less fortunate wood turtle in the main area
in which I have observed them. A long-familiar female, one of the
oldest of her colony I suspect, had been hit by mowing equipment
during the last haying. I could piece the four sections of her
carapace together for identification; the fragments of her plastron
were “exceedingly smooth-worn”, as I have described her in past
notebooks. She was one of a dozen or so females who seem to do all the
egg-laying, one of those wood, spotted, or Blanding’s turtles turtles
l think of as a matriarch of the population. She has been nesting over
the 24 seasons I have been making observations here; doubtless she had
nested for some years before i first recorded her, and doubtless she
would have continued for some decades more were it not for this
casualty. She was right at the border of the mown field and the narrow
strip, ranging from 1 – 3 meters in width generally, between the field
and the tree line of the wooded ridge above the brook. The wood
turtles here are in the main well-distanced from a paved road, but
different kinds of road kill can happen, and every such fatality,
particularly of a breeding-status female, is a great loss to the colony.

I continued wood turtle searches along these edge habitats, or
ecotones in following weeks, finding a number of them. On the 23rd of
August I took up my annual walking of the dusty trails of the
hatchling wood turtles. Perhaps “sandy trails” would be accurate, but
it is typically a dry and rather dusty time of year (I describe this
in detail in “A Drink Along the Way” in FOLLOWING THE WATER). This is
one of the most compelling times of my seasonal rounds with the
turtles. I set out a bit later than usual – wood turtles generally
hatch earlier than the other species in this region, beginning around
mid-August (earlier, on occasion) and often ending before the first of
September. One factor in my irresolution this season was that nest
predation was extremely heavy at nesting time. During that period I
sadly documented 13 nests that had been taken by predators, and it
seemed quite possible, if not likely, that one had been spared. This
made the odds quite prohibitive that I would have even one of those
encounters along the trail with a nest-to-water journeying hatchling.
But again, this is for me a most compelling moment in the season of
the turtles, one that draws me back in spite of all odds, reluctances
and discouragements of various kinds, etc. And extremely slender odds
of finding are a constant of so many turtle searchings – searchings in
general. I saw what looked like the possible exit hole of a nest from
which hatchlings had successfully emerged. But it wasn’t as clear as
is usually the case, and I saw fine extracted sand around the vague
rim of the depression in the sand. If turtles dig out, all sand or
earth falls back in behind them – they dig out, all others, from
exploring predators to wasps burying the prey with which they deposit
their eggs, dig in, scattering very small to sizable mounds of sand
beyond the excavation. I walked on.

The next day I looked at the small depression again. I looked more
closely. The fine sand around the rim had actually been removed by
ants who had had infinitesimally small holes right beside it. I knelt
down, reading the sand far more carefully, clearly – suddenly I felt
all but positive that this was a somewhat obscured exit hole. I dug
in, quickly encountering five wood turtle eggs that had failed to
develop, and then felt a hatchling who was still in the chamber. The
hatchling was alive. Beneath him I found the shells of five eggs that
had been pipped. One belonged to one not yet ready, for whatever
reason, to leave the nest. Four siblings had broken free of their
eggshells, dug out, and taken up their nest-to-water journeys.

I brushed sand away from the little turtle I had been so lucky to
find… odds, luck… and of course the reality that one never knows,
one must simply go and look. And look again… and again. Once again,
this comes to me so often, I spoke that quote of Louis Pasteur’s, “In
the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.” My
mind should have been far better prepared the day before; luck gave me
another chance. I had reason to believe that this might be my
hatchling wood turtle for the year. But two day later as I stopped my
car along the hayfield road, where there is some sparse grass in the
shallow ruts, and parts of the sand road are in the shadow of a tall
stand of white pines, as I have over the years found hatchlings
wandering right along that road at mid-day, and they would be very
hard to see here. So I get out and look ahead before proceeding, and
then backing in to where I leave my swamp car in the great shadow.
Just a few steps ahead I met one. This has happened often enough over
my history here that I am led to believe that hatchling wood turtles
on nest-to-water journeys at mid-day, when it can be as hot as any
desert out on the sunlit sand, orient toward the shade cast by the
white pines that stand on a ridge above the brook they are seeking.

I will have to leave my account of Jefferson salamanders until my next
posting. Hasta entonces.

Be Sociable, Share!

This entry was posted on Saturday, September 10th, 2011 at 1:59 pm and is filed under Site News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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