Reflections on turtle nesting season; Interview; Star Island

Never quick on the update, I have been slower than usual here as my
observations on this year’s nesting by wood, spotted, and Blanding’s
turtles have been marked by very heavy nest predation, a subject I
have not been eager to write about. One goal I had for this season was
to try to identify who the nesting wood turtles are, after not having
made any systematic censuses in some years. I attempted to time my
searches to find turtles positioning themselves to nest, or out in the
open during the very beginning of their nest-searching. It is not
uncommon for them to explore for two or three days even, and certainly
to have a period of trial scrapings and diggings before committing to
a site. (Would that this were a more effective deterrent to
predation.) I have observed this with spotted and snapping turtles as
well. Frequently enough they even abandon completed chambers. There
are instances of females setting right to work, digging a nest, laying
eggs and covering them all in one relatively brief act (except for
spotted turtles perhaps, as even if they begin at the site they will
commit to they may nest through the night and complete as late as 9 or
10 the following morning). I had some success in this, reading weather
patterns correctly and calculating nesting times, with finding four
out to nest on a late afternoon associated with a rain event following
a hot and dry period. I also found morning nesters; and was lucky
enough to come upon several who had just left completed nests. I did
come upon a couple of turtles in process, who abandoned their sites
(no eggs) – they may or may not have done this had I not appeared. One
subsequently moved a slight distance and nested all the way through. I
have yet to tally, but believe I identified five or six out of eight I
know to have nested (via trial digs in certain sites, and nests i was
quite certain had been completed). One significant result was finding
only one nesting turtle associated with the west brook of this two-
stream confluence area. She is the one intact adult female I have
found in each season following the winter of great otter predation
five or six years ago. The east branch was hit far harder than the
west, although there were otters present in both. I had expected a
setback in nesting numbers in the vicinity of the east brook, and have
not found signs of nesting associated with this west brook since the
otter attacks; although I did find one yearling (in fall, finished
first growing season). It is possible that this turtle came from the
west brook nesting area; Sheila Tuttle and I documented this in the
1993 study she conducted as her Masters thesis for Antioch New
England. But it is far more likely that the little one came from a
nest I was not able to find.

Not wishing to cause any further disturbance this nesting season, I
did not make searches for turtles during the latter part of the
activity. I was not able to locate the nest site of the east brook
turtle; what I had felt all but certain was a completed nest proved to
be a decoy. I have on occasions found nests dug and covered but
containing no eggs. I made a day search of all known nesting areas
when I felt nesting had just been completed and found that seven of
the eight known nests had been dug up by predators – so early in the
going. Not unusual, the percentage of nests taken, or the immediacy of
the predation. Last season I did not search the nesting areas – as is
the apparent norm for wood turtles, the same sites are used year after
year – until it was time for the emergence of hatchlings. A few days
into this quest I began to find nests dug up by predators, until in
all seven out of eight nests I was able to locate had been taken.
Unfortunately these contained hatchlings on the verge of pipping and
leaving the nest, or even out of their eggshells and ready to dig out.
The one successful nest launched seven hatchlings out of seven eggs.
The scenario of that season, and what is portended for this, is of low
to zero hatchling survival. This made, and will make again this year,
my mid-August into September wanderings during which I look to
encounter hatchlings on their nest-to water journeys (one of the key
times in my year of the turtle, as described in “Nest to Water
Journey” in SWAMPWALKER’S JOURNAL and “A Drink Along the way” in
FOLLOWING THE WATER…), an all but certain futile exercise-cum-
ritual. There was one exceptional year in which I had not documented
nesting at all, but dedicated days to repeated roamings of the nesting
areas and surrounding terrain that I know hatchlings to traverse, day
after day, and in the end had found 11 exit holes of successful nests
and encountered 49 free-range hatchlings. I even came upon five nests
that were in the process of hatching out. I did not find a single nest
that had been dug up. The many hours of crisscrossing this habitat
were surely richly rewarded. There have been years of extremely
limited predation, and years like the past two. I can only hope that
whatever dynamic is at work (I cannot presume to offer a theory)
continues to be cyclical. An annual trend of the degree of nest loss
indicated by this season and last would certainly downgrade the
remarkable recruitment of young into the colony that has been the
standard over my observations here since 1986. I am as puzzled by the
predators as by the coevolutionary forces that may be at play in this
of turtle nesting. Although the wood turtles nest in bare soft sand, I
rarely see footprints I can positively identify. What I do make out
suggests skunks.

I made only two dawn searches for spotted turtles who might have
nested through the night (I describe this, in some past years of data-
gathering a much more dedicated proposition, in “Ariadne Nesting”, in
SELF PORTRAIT WTH TURTLES). I found none in the process. What I did
find my first time out was a freshly depredated Blanding’s turtle
nest, in an area favored by spotted turtles, but used at times by
painted turtles and one or two snapping turtles as well. And this was
in a place far removed from any in which I had ever found any sign of
nesting by Blanding’s turtles. Fourteen eggs were eaten; the clutch
size and the shape and color of the eggshells positively identified
the species of the nester. It was not easy to look at this sunrise
scene. This species is evidently present in very low numbers in the
greater ecology, broader landscape, included in what I call “the Digs”
and well beyond. I thought again of the coevolutionary forces and time
involved in this matter of Blanding’s turtles being here. The turtle
who made this ill-fated nest had likely taken twenty years to reach
breeding age. Then she began to make her long nesting sojourns, dug
her nest and committed her eggs. I thought of the one year of this
nest, that is the time from last nesting season through the activity
of summer and autumn, the long hibernation and finally the emergence
for another round of the seasons, courtship and mating, and then the
process of nesting and the journey back to her resident wetland. All
of this undone in a matter of minutes, quite likely the night of her
nesting. As I counted the eggshells I thought of the entire year that
must pass, and all that is incumbent on this matriarch of her kind,
before she has another chance to entrust a clutch of eggs to a nest.
Her nesting history here may cover six decades or more, and out of
those how many hatchlings might be generated… and out of those, how
many might live the twenty years to begin to take a place among the
breeding adults of the population? These thoughts deepened as on my
second daybreak search I found what looked like another Blanding’s
turtle nest that had been dug up. The site was a likely one, the
eggshells looked right for the species, but the clutch size of five
eggs caused some doubt, and I wondered if it could have been a painted
turtle’s nest. However, clutch size ranges from 3 to 22 in this
species, and this could have been the work of a first-time nester.
Several days later I went to a site in which a Blanding’s turtle has
nested over the years. I had been hoping to find a completed nest,
checking every day to see if there any signs to indicate nesting. I
had thoughts of relocating a nest if I found one, to hatch out in my
back field. I rarely and reluctantly do this – no doubt all the dug-up
nests I was seeing was influencing me. On my mid-day look-in, I found
a nest that had been taken: 16 eggs.

There is a Blanding’s turtle presence here. All indications are that
it is limited, but there is a presence. My belief that this will
persist as long as the habitat remains intact and extensive was shaken
by these observations. But I am seeing only who knows what fraction of
the presence and signs of its persistence. And my time, for all the
artist-naturalist’s wandering and specific field documentation I have
spent, dedicated, here, is of course a snapshot in the time of this
species in this ecosystem, whose persistence itself – as with
ecosystems globally – is by no means assured.

I found several dug-up nests in sites in which spotted turtles have
nested historically; the clutch sizes of three and four, size and
shape of the eggshells, suggested they were of this species. Among
eggshells at one site I found an intact egg. This happens sometimes,
though rarely. That one egg I have transferred to my back field and
screened against predators.

* * * * * *

Two weeks or so ago I had a most interesting interview, by swamp and
in our gallery, with Mary Helen Miller, a writer for the Christian
Science Monitor, who is writing a piece on me for the newspaper’s
weekly magazine. This for a column entitled “People Who Make
Difference”. As I told her, I wish I could make the difference I would
like to make, that of getting people to move beyond stewardship and
even conservation to preservation.
This is something I address in all of my talks, and in my books. Be
that as it may, I am greatly pleased, and honored, to be a subject of
this theme. Our extended talk was a pleasure for me – I am fortunate
to have such an insightful and skilled interviewer/writer take me on
as a subject. This week I had another fine session, this with
photojournalist Ann Hermes, who came to take an “environmental
portrait” of me for the article, this by the key spotted turtle vernal
pool habitat that has been a center of my years of the turtle in the
Digs. Ann asked if I might have a turtle for the portrait, and as
spotted turtles are infinitely more photogenic than I, I was happy to
try to have one in hand for the occasion. The afternoon before our
appointment I went into this wetland, which, owing to the abundant
rains around a couple of hot and dry spells this spring into summer,
is nearly at the full flood level of thaw. Last year, spring and
summer were marked by drought, and this seasonal wetland was dried up
by the end of May. The spotted turtles were of course long gone. But I
knew there would be at least some here yet, and so made a wading
search. The degree-of-difficulty of seeing one, much less getting one
in hand – as often described in my writings – was very high. Water
depths of eighteen inches generally, and rampant emergent and
submersed vegetation made it very much “advantage turtle”. I had one
sighting of a male with his head up, and then another of turtle
movements briefly in emergent reed canarygrass; but these were turtles
quick to vanish before I could get near them. But then, once again,
the turtle gods were very good to me. I saw unmistakable jostlings in
a dense emergent patch of meadowsweet: the movements (slight, brief)
of a turtle, and very likely a spotted turtle. I approached, waited,
saw another slight movement, could not really get a bearing on a
precise location, but knew I had to make a stab at catching the turtle
who was in there somewhere. I lunged with both hands. They sank over a
foot in the shrubby submarine tangles and in the near-undecipherable
melange I felt my left hand come down on a turtle shell. I pinned the
turtle, struggled myself into a position in which I could manage to
get myself upright, still gripping the unlucky turtle. But I was very
lucky indeed, for I held not only a spotted turtle, but one I had
never seen before, a 9 or 10 year old who appeared to be a male just
beginning to take on the secondary sexual characteristics of his kind:
darkening (somewhat) face, slightly indented plastron, and cloacal
opening just beyond the outer edge of his carapace. He was a brilliant
specimen, head and shell richly adorned with large and very bright
yellow spots, and more spots on his legs and tail than I have ever
seen on a spotted turtle of any age… legs and tail sharply reminded
me of a spotted salamander.

I went on to make two more captures, one of a five or so year old
snapping turtle and then an adult female spotted turtle. She was
marked number 10; goes back a long way in my notebooks, perhaps 25
years. When did I last see her?

This has turned into quite an epistle. Of Star Island, I will say for
now that my appearance there as visiting faculty for Southern
University of NH, at a writer’s conference, was absolutely terrific in
every way. I am indebted to Diane Les Becquets, Head of the Master’s
Writing Program, Rick Carey, Merle Drown, other faculty and some 43
grad students for a deeply rewarding and inspiring occasion, about
which I will write next time.

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