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Larry Lyons: It’s show time for baby snapping turtles

Published 11:53am Thursday, September 3, 2009

My wife has a passion for turtles. She gets as excited at just seeing one as other gals do upon getting a bouquet of flowers. Whenever she comes across one trying to commit suicide by car she stops and moves it off the road, even gnarly, grumpy snapping turtles.

The creek flowing through our yard seems to have a lot of snapping turtles for every spring we see several wandering about the lawn in search of the just right nesting spot. I can’t say for sure that the population is thriving, though, because they can live over fifty years. Seeing adult snappers doesn’t necessarily equate to new generations coming along. In fact, from my observations raccoons, whose numbers have skyrocketed since fur coats became socially unacceptable, pillage virtually every nest. I think between raccoons and the perils encountered by the few surviving hatchlings in traveling up to a mile or more to reach the sanctuary of water snapper reproduction in most areas is near zero.

We try to do our part. Every year we see at least one snapper in the act of laying eggs. As soon as she’s completed her business we cover the nest with screen so the ‘coons can’t get at it. Here in this area it seems just about all snapping turtles lay their eggs the last few days of May and several days into June. The incubation period, or whatever you call it for reptile eggs, is typically eighty to ninety days. Once hatched, the younguns’ hang out another week or so under ground until their yolk sac is used up. Then they dig their way out and, with an awful lot of luck, somehow make their way to a river, pond or lake.

This spring we only caught one snapper in the act. I saw her wandering about the yard and, of course, knew what was up. Her trail was obvious in the morning’s dewy grass and out of curiosity I back tracked it to see where her urges had led her. While crossing some landscaping stones an egg had actually slipped out. She was overdue to pop and had to find a spot pronto. That’s easier said than done.  Our soil is super hard clay and I’ve seen a number of turtles give up trying to dig through it.  She was heading toward the recently tilled garden so I quickly took a section of fence down to give her access.

Turtles aren’t the epitome of intelligence. The dumb dame took one glance at the nice, soft dirt then crawled around to the side of the garden and began digging in the hard clay just outside the fence. Go figure. She managed to scrape out a nest and after an hour or so of hard labor tightly packed the dirt over the eggs and returned to the creek. Up went the ‘coon screen. I suspect it only takes a few days for the egg laying odors to dissipate and the ‘coons can no longer find the nest but I leave the guard on a couple of months.

That was on June 2nd so now it’s just about show time for the hatchlings if all went well. The wife is like a soon-to-be grandmother. She’s suffering terrible anxiety and a couple days ago got it in her head that they should have already emerged. She convinced herself that they were trapped by the now weather hardened clay so she started to dig up the nest. Luckily, she remembered three years ago when she had the same anxiety attack. Despite careful digging she had hit one of the fragile hatchlings, fatally injuring it. She stopped, filled the nest back in and sometime later all the youngsters made their way out just fine.

This time she overcame her fears and quit before reaching the eggs or hatchlings, whichever they may be now. My reminders that we’re still within the all’s well time frame does little to ease her anxiety. Every morning she hops out of bed and dashes out to see if the soil over the nest has been disturbed. That’s okay. There are worse things one could be passionate about.

Carpe diem.

Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications. He can be reached at larrylyons@verizon.net

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