Turtle time

When you sit and watch a Snapping Turtle for three hours and wonder whether she’s laying eggs, whether she’s finished laying eggs, whether she cares about your being there watching her, and when, oh, when will she move off so you can cover the nest and protect it from the raccoon mother with two kits waiting at the end of the gravel shoulder.

When you sit and watch a turtle for three hours you kind of lose track of where your sentence is going.

The setting sun catches the edge of three indentations on her shell, indicating she’s a young turtle. The indentations aren’t readily noticeable because the shell is covered with green moss that grows there while she spends most of her life under water. This time on land is a vulnerable time in the life-cycle of a turtle.

All around us are eggshells, the debris of other turtles' nests that the raccoon mother has dug up to provide her offspring with the delicious high-protein diet that’s recommended for any rapidly growing youngster. We hear movement at the end of the walkway, and know that a raccoon is there, watching and waiting. The raccoon is doing what comes naturally. I am here for the turtle because the balance has turned against her - seven of our eight native turtles are on the Ontario species at risk list, their status ranging from ‘special concern’ through ‘threatened’ to ‘endangered.’ The Snapping Turtle is of special concern.

Does the turtle know what happened to the nests of others that laid those eggs, now destroyed and scattered around us? Do she distinguish between the raccoon and us, we who are only here to help?

I lean in to take a picture and she stares back at me, inscrutable, her tail curled into the hole. How do I register on her reptilian brain? Am I annoying her? I imagine I am, but she stays put. I keep my distance. In time, we see her legs and body moving, almost imperceptibly, working to fill in the hole and level off the ground. Sometimes the ground is left packed so firmly, you cannot tell by looking where the nest is – so this is why you sit and watch, to be sure to get the wire cage on the right spot.

Night falls, fireflies flash their come-hither messages from the wetland around us and mosquitoes intensify their attacks but there’s still enough light to see her. Finally, very slowly, she moves off. We pounce on the vacated space and hammer the tent pegs into position. She’s just a couple of feet away. We are not afraid – a snapper’s powerful jaw can take a finger off in a single bite, they say, but they will only act in self-defence. They will not lunge at you. If you find one on the road and need to move it to safety, pick it up from behind, with your forearm under the carapace, it will not be able to reach back to bite.

This is my second year protecting turtle nests – the cages and pegs come from the Orillia-based organization Kids for Turtles. Their work is much needed: turtles face a variety of threats, including loss of habitat, road mortality and hunting, with nest predation a major concern. Snapping Turtle females don’t reach breeding age until around 15 to 20 years of age. Two years ago, in this location, I counted 40 predated nests. Each one will have contained 20 eggs or more - all very thoroughly turned over, every last one cracked and cleaned out. That’s what compelled me to start doing turtle nest protection.

It’s tricky, placing that cage exactly right, so I return the next morning to check that no eggs have been dug out from the side. The night was warm and dry, now it’s raining – and the turtles are out! Three busy at the side of a gravel country road, another five at work on the gravel shoulder, one right up against last night’s cage  which fortunately shows no sign of disturbance.

I change my plans for the morning and by noon have five more nests protected. I did another one yesterday – so, a total of seven nests that I think will produce young turtles. Hatching is a function of temperature and can take one to three months, I'm told. I'm not likely to be around when they emerge and crawl off to find the nearest water. All I can do is hope for the best.
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