Robert Miller: Turtles are on the (slow) move again
Signs of spring include: pussy willows, skunk cabbage, red-red bobbin’ robins.
“Yes,” said Sarah Breznen, director of education at the Woodcock Nature Center in Ridgefield and Wilton in an email. “Turtles are out at Woodcock.”
“I haven’t seen any here,” said Diane Swanson, executive director of the Pratt Nature Center in New Milford. “But I’ve seen painted turtles out at Conn’s Pond, just down the road.”
And not just painted turtles — the one that clamber onto rocks and logs in threes and fours and sixes to sun themselves on spring days. Breznen said a visitor to the Woodcock center spotted an eastern box turtle — a terrestrial species — along a trail there.
And not just entirely benign turtles. Ann Taylor, executive director at New Pond Farm in Redding, said a staff member there had to steer a snapping turtle — our largest inland turtle and the one that can do some damage to digits — in a proper direction.
Billy Michael of Bethel — monitor of amphibians and town budgets — said he’s seen painted turtles, but no snappers yet.
“The Mother’s Day weekend is generally their start,” he said.
These long-lived, solitary reptiles, which slow and steady win the race, have ancient forebearers that swam and plodded around earth in the Triassic period, about 200 million years or so. Before there were dinosaurs, there were turtles.
Now through June you may see them out, slowly crossing roads. We know why they do this. Unlike the mystery of the chicken, they’re female turtles, looking for higher, drier ground where they can dig a nest and lay eggs.
With cabin-fevered people now hiking around, the chance for turtle observation is at hand.
“It’s a good time,” said Theodora Pinou, professor of biologic and environmental sciences at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury. “People are outside more than they’ve ever been before, and they’ll see things they’ve never seen.”
Pinou is a herpetologist — a specialist in the study of reptiles. She advises people, delighted in watching turtles, not to treat them as playthings. Instead, she said, people should snap a cellphone picture and send it to iNaturalist, a citizen science project that is mapping and sharing information about the world’s biodiversity.
“That way, you’re contributing by telling other people that you actually saw the particular species,” Pinou said.
Along with four sea turtle species that swim in the Atlantic Ocean off our coast, there are eight inland turtle species in Connecticut. If they make it to adulthood, they can live long and prosper.
“Fifty years could be an understatement,” said Michael Ravesi, a wildlife biologist at the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
But living that long is no easy thing.
Ravesi said that some turtles in the state are doing well. Painted turtles and snapping turtles seem to be sustaining their numbers.
At the other end of the scale, the bog turtle is listed by the DEEP as endangered. It’s found only in the limestone bedrock woods and wetlands between the Housatonic River and the New York border. It faces extinction in the state because of habitat loss.
The DEEP now lists four other inland turtles as species of special concern — the spotted turtle, the wood turtle, the eastern box turtle and the northern diamondback terrapin, which lives in the brackish estuaries along the state’s coastline.
“Box turtles and spotted turtles are widespread,” Ravesi said, “but we don’t know how robust their populations are.”
The greatest threat to turtles is habitat loss or the erosion of the quality of that habitat, Ravesi said.
Add diseases. There is also a thriving trade in turtles — people collect them to keep them as pets, or sell them illegally to foreign traders. They also collect and sell turtle eggs.
Ravesi said there’s also a non-native invasive turtle species — the red-eared slider — that’s now breeding in the state. It’s a species that originates in the southern U.S. or northern Mexico. But people, tiring of them as pets, have released them into the wild.
There’s normal predation — snakes, raccoons, skunks and foxes all dig up and eat turtle eggs.
And cars hit turtles as they cross the road to get to their nesting ground. Slow and steady is no help on the blacktop.
“They’ve been on this planet for millions of years,” Ravesi said. “They evolved armor that can protect them against alligators and in Connecticut, from predators like coyotes. But they have no defense against cars.”
Contact Robert Miller at email@example.com