Posts Tagged 'turtles'


uo-ohIs this going to end like Bambi Meets Godzilla? (Click on the image if you have a tiny screen for the full nailed-claw effect.)

Well, probably not, as this is the turtle’s back leg and the reptile may not even be aware of the Pondhawk’s presence. And while Pondhawks are certainly serious contenders in their weight class….


Trachemys scripta elegans A Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) in the freshwater gardens on Pier One. There were two last year. Did this one survive the damage done by Sandy or is it yet another illegal introduction? A species of the Southeast, RES fill our fresh waters because of the pet trade, irresponsible pet owners, and an unfortunate Buddhist ritual of releasing turtles for good luck and whatnot. Here’s more detail about that, and about getting a Chinatown temple not to dump turtles to sure death in the East River.

Lil’ Snapper

A baby Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) has the unfortunate characteristic of blending in quite well with a road. South Cross Road, in Bradford, Mass., to be exact. While in the area last week, I saw several Painted turtles and a few others I could not identify who didn’t make it across that road and other death strips. This little one, though, had a helper… your friendly blogger.Remember, if helping a turtle across a road, move it in the direction it is heading. Given several decades of staying off the roads and out of a Great Blue Heron’s gullet, this guy might become one of the giants.Snappers have small plastrons, or bottom shells, compared to our other turtles. What they lack in protective defense, then, they make up with strong jaws at the end of a long neck (note that species name serpentina, like a snake) as well as sharp claws.

And check out the tiny freshwater clam hitching a ride there at the shoulder. There’s never a malacologist around when I need one.

C. serpentina

Over the weekend, I saw three big Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) in Green-Wood Cemetery. This is the time of year they emerge from the murk of ponds and lakes to reproduce, the female often travelling long distances to find soft earth, dirt, or fine gravel in which to bury her clutch of eggs. Unlike in most turtle species, male Snappers are actually larger than the females.Growing to platter-sized, these animals can live nearly five decades in captivity, but the rigors of the wild reduce that to about 30 years. One problem is that the type of ground they dig their nests in is now often found on driveways and dirt roads, hazardous both because cars can crush the animals and destroy the nests through compaction. Also, they must cross paved roads to find these places. Here’s a video on how to help a Snapper cross the road (don’t pick it up by the tail). Snappers have spread into Europe through the pet trade. A 44-pounder was captured in a canal near Rome last year. As with the other turtles, mortality is very high; few of their young survive to adulthood, but some old vets live long and deep. Baby snappers, especially in their northern range, will hatch in September and October, but stay in the nest through the winter, only emerging the following spring, when they make their sometimes long, instinctive journey towards water. Other species follow the same strategy: remember the baby Painted Turtle I found one early spring on Nantucket?The Snapper’s common and species name serpentina both allude to their strong jaws and long necks. They have a surprisingly small plastron, or bottom shell, and can’t retreat into their shell like other turtle species, so their best defense is a strong offense. Their claws are also formidable, about an inch long in this case. They are turned up here because this animal has its feet pointing backwards. Snappers have a fearsome reputation, more hype than reality in my experience, but can be aggressive in response to interference. I mean, if you lose your finger because you poke one, don’t blame the turtle. So, as with all wild things, you shouldn’t approach too closely and you shouldn’t touch (unless you’re helping it off a road).The other two snappers, which looked just as big, were in the water. Note those little nostrils at the very tip of the face; they can stick just the tip of their snout above water to breath, and you probably wouldn’t notice them at all. The animals in the water seemed as curious about me as I was about them.

Turtles have been around for some 215 million years. They are older than their fellow reptiles the lizards, snakes, and crocodiles. A Snapper in particular, lifting its shell high, spiky tail dragging behind, has a dinosaurish look to it when it walks.

While wondering around the cemetery thinking about turtles, it dawned on me that the readiest source of earth there for a nest was a freshly dug grave.

Prospect Park has Snappers, too.

Life Aquatic

The fresh water ponds at Brooklyn Bridge Park were jumping with life in yesterday’s June-like weather. Bathing and drinking birds included Barn Swallows, recently returned north, Common Grackles, American Robins, Northern Mockingbirds, European Starlings, and House Sparrows, lots of House Sparrows. Water is very important for birds, and it’s been a very dry spring, so like an oasis in the desert, the water here pulls them in.

Look closer. There were tiny fish in the water:How did these fish get here, into a human-created pond that was first filled with water only two years ago? There are now a least three Red-eared sliders:But you know where they came from: the pet shop, via some irresponsible owners.

One of the first dragonflies to appear in this part of the world is the three-inch-long Green Darner. It is also one of the last we see in the fall. Some populations are migratory, traveling up and down the coast. Yes, a migratory insect. This female is laying her eggs on the underside of this floating reed remnant: A perfect example of how important natural “litter” like this is to an ecosystem.

The ponds and stream system at Pier One are small and intimate. Things are concentrated there, and make for a excellent spot to observe dragonflies.

Prospect Park

It’s warm enough for turtles to be basking on the Lake, Lullwater, and Pools. Not many, but a smattering were to be seen soaking in the sun along the water course.On a birch, this cocoon is more seasonally appropriate, weathering the not very weathery winter. While I’ve been seeing flies all month already, this was the first day I noticed clouds of hovering insects (some other kind of Diptera, I suspect).Mallard, Northern Shoveler, American Coot, and at least one turtle enjoy this downed tree. Recently, some of the freelance defenders of the park alerted the media to the plethora of snags in the water after a major cutting and pruning operation. But snags are important components of the habitat of, at minimum, bird, reptile, and fish life. A classic duck/shorebird pose: bill tucked away back under a wing and balancing on one leg. This is a female Mallard. At least one tree is getting that fuzzy look. This American Elm is just starting to bud. Its branches were too high for me to reach. The tree right next to it, a fellow elm, drooped to eye-level, but was not nearly as far advanced, perhaps because it doesn’t get as much sun:.

Don’t Dump Your Turtle

One of the search phrases that’s led people to this blog more than once is about “releasing pet turtles in Prospect Park.” People want to know if it’s OK to do so. The answer is: no, it isn’t, and you shouldn’t ~ which is what I hope they learned from the internet.

But, considering that I counted over seventy Red-eared Sliders in the Lullwater in November, the practice certainly continues. The Japanese Pond in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is another dumping zone for Brooklyn pet-owners.The Red-eared Slider is the common pet trade turtle, often sold in itty-bitty, evidently irresistible (and, if under 4″, plainly illegal) form. But of course, if the animal is lucky — although plenty of them die young — it grows bigger and bigger and bigger. A female can get to be the size of a large dinner plate, the males nearly that big. A native of the southeastern U.S., these sliders have become invasive in our region through releases from people who didn’t realize how big they could get, could no longer afford the increasing care costs (a very large tank is necessary for a plate-sized turtle), got bored with it, or otherwise outgrow it themselves (children are obviously cute-baited by the trade). Besides out-competing native species like the Painted Turtle, every release is a potential biological hazard, since it could introduce disease(s) to local turtle populations.

You are doing no good to the animal or the habitat by releasing it. Instead, search out adoption agencies like Turtle Rescue of Long Island. The mistake was the initial acquisition, so hopefully now, in making emends, you’ll be an evangelist for NOT BUYING TURTLES AS PETS. Let wild animals be.

I’ve seen them for sale on the sidewalk, and not only in Chinatowns. Brisk business was being gone right by Brooklyn Borough Hall not so long ago (no doubt the hucksters made a contribution to the Borough President’s “favorite charity,” wink, wink). Some years ago, I met some people who found a baby turtle in their table centerpiece at a wedding reception (every table had one, it was part of the design; the florist should have been flogged).

If you see something related to wildlife that you think is illegal, for instance the sale of any reptile or amphibian species native to New York State, or any turtles under 4″ being sold on the street, you can call the state’s hot line: 1-800-847-7332 to report it. I wish I’d known this when I saw those schmucks selling them on Court Street.

Possessing any one of the dozen species of native turtles in New York State is illegal.

Check out the NY Turtle and Tortoise Society for additional news, views, etc.

All my turtle posts are here: painted, snappers, diamondbacks, etc., in the wild, where they belong.

Diamondback Terrapin female, Jamaica Bay

Springtime in November

It was like spring in Prospect Park today. Late spring, even, except for the rich fall colors of the leaves and the lack of birdsong. How warm was it? There was a woman wearing a bikini in Nelly’s Lawn.

Among other sun-worshippers were the turtles, brought up out of the murk by the warmth.A few of the approximately 75 (!) turtles I counted basking in the Lullwater between the Terrace and the Lullwater Bridges. Most were Red-eared Sliders (a search noted by this blog recently was “Can I release my turtle in Prospect Park?” NO!), but there were at several Painted Turtles as well. And then there was this little guy:I thought at first it might be a musk turtle, first reported by City Birder Rob Jett in May, because of its smallness and high-domed shell, but I don’t think so after reviewing the situation. I’m sorry the picture isn’t very good, but binoculars focusing in on the critter didn’t help much either.

Continuing the unseasonal sightings: a host of Green Darners were buzzing around the little hillside meadow in front of the the Maryland Monument. Along the Lullwater, I found of few of these meadowhawks: “The red meadowhawks [genus Sympetrum] of North America present an intractable field problem,” notes the Stokes Beginner’s Guide to Dragonflies, so I think we’ll leave it at that.

Turtles in trees?

Come to think of it, I’ve now seen two turtle shells in crotches of trees in Prospect Park. One was just within hand’s reach, the other required a friend and a stick to bring it back down to earth. Considering the number of turtle shells I’ve seen in the park, two in the trees is a lot. Could this be a ritual (either group or individual)?One was very old, worn down to the fused bones of the shell, which in living turtles are covered by keratin scutes and flowing with blood.The scutes will often last a very long time. The other, above, still had a bit of the leather of the neck and feet but was hollowed out inside. The digesters of life seem to have a hard time with turtle skin, since I’ve found them like this before. Prospect Park has, at minimum, the following species of turtle: red-eared slider, painted, snapping, musk. The majority are red-eared sliders. Recently, an enormous snapping turtle, looking for some nice sandy soil to lay her eggs, was bollixed by the fencing in the Lullwater — you can see a pic by “friending” Prospect Park on Facebook. All my turtle posts are here.

Diamondback Terrapins

Yesterday, I was walking along around the West Pond at Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge when I came across this diamondback terrapin just beginning to excavate her nest. I was alone, and she might have continued on her single-minded mission, but some other folks walked up and she took to the thickets. (They move faster than you might think.)

Diamondbacks were in the news recently because some 150 of them were crossing one of the runways at JFK, necessitating a few flight delays (the passengers probably didn’t know how privileged they were). They come ashore this time of year to lay their eggs. Jamaica Bay is prime habitat for this species, which is the only local turtle that lives in brackish water. It is not their fault that airports, nature centers, and roads have been built through the area they’ve been nesting in since the glaciers created Long Island. Mea culpa, Malaclemys terrapin terrapin!

This particular turtle is rather dark, and the species’ distinctive diamondback patterning (see below) is hard to see on her, but I soon ran into Russell L. Burke of Hofstra, who is in charge of a long-term terrapin study at JBWR. He identified her as one of his babies (so to speak: the red splotch is paint, put on to i.d. the turtle). The bumpy ridge on the carapace is another good field mark.

A couple of hours later, I ran in Burke again. He had this turtle in hand (the attached slipper shell along with the paint made her quite distinctive). She had just completed her nesting, which involves digging a hole, laying her eggs, and then thoroughly covering up the nest. I’m sorry I missed seeing it, but it was probably better there weren’t any paparazzi around to bother her.

Unfortunately, the covering up of the nest is not all that effective in stopping a very efficient predator: there are raccoons in JBWR: the refuge was once a series of little islands, and thus largely raccoon-free, but is now connected to the mainland of Queens, a suburban-like, raccoon-friendly kind of borough, by road and train bridges. And these raccoons destroy over 90% of terrapin nests. I knew turtle nesting mortality, in general, was very high, but this is pretty grim. Burke told me they’ve already found 800 predated nests this season and expect about 1,200 total. The link above details some of the strategies being tried to get this number down.

Some of the known nests are caged to prevent the raccoons from getting to them.Here’s a nest that was plundered:And a closer view of the destroyed eggs:Turtle eggs are soft and fairly round; these remains rather look like smashed ping-pong balls.

During my walk, I saw one turtle returning to the Bay, another coming out of the Bay, and a third in the pond itself. Then I saw this one on the path. This patterning is the classic “diamondback.” The facial patterning is also rather beautiful:Terrapins used to be enormously popular human food. Appropriately, yesterday was the Fourth of July, and early America was thick with turtle soups. (I’ve been enjoying Gore Vidal’s Narratives of Empire series lately, and Burr, Lincoln, 1876, and Empire, which cover the 19th century, all have scenes of the wealthy slurping down terrapin.) Populations took a serious hit from all that scarfing. Today, terrapins aren’t eaten by very many people, as far as I can tell, but there is a hunting season for them (in August, after breeding) in New York.

Timing is everything in natural history. This is the first time I’ve seen terrapins in many years of going to JBWR. I did once find an old bleached-out shell, and I’ve seen far too many plundered nests, but yesterday was the first time I’ve got near to some live ones.


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