It’s Turtle Time!

In much of the country, as I’m sure many of you know, this is the time of year when mother turtles are on the move looking for nesting sites. This often involves crossing roads, so keep an eye out and if you see a turtle in the road, please stop and move it aside, if it’s safe for you to do so. Nothing makes me sadder than a dead smashed turtle.

Most of the turtles I’ve been seeing (and rescuing) here have been Painted Turtles, but this evening I found a Common Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina, digging a nest at the edge of the driveway. I was on the phone with a friend (hi Michelle!), and I ended up with my phone in one hand and my camera in the other, trying to get a good photo without disturbing the turtle too much.

Not the best spot for a nest, perhaps. However, if I’m very lucky, maybe I’ll get to see some baby snappers eventually!

Baby Turtle! Squee!

We had a group of middle and high school students on site today (I taught a lesson on identifying trees with dichotomous keys), and one of the kids found this little treasure.

This is a western painted turtle, Chrysemys picta bellii. (Other subspecies don’t have that gorgeous red and black pattern on the plastron, the lower shell.) It probably recently emerged from a nest laid in late summer or early fall last year; this far north, hatchlings overwinter in the nest and emerge in early spring.

After I took its portrait I released it on a wooded bank near the pond. I wish it well.

On the Beach at Midnight…

Do you know what you’re looking at in this photo?

It looks a little like tire tracks leading back toward the dunes, right? But these were actually made by an animal. (I know, I know, another post with photos of tracks in the sand!) And not a particularly small animal, either. Here’s my striped foot for scale. I think there are more photos of my feet on this blog than of my face.

If you guessed turtle, ding ding ding! You are correct. These are photos of sea turtle crawls, the distinctive tracks made by mother loggerhead sea turtles emerging from the ocean to lay their eggs.

Sometimes she decides she doesn’t like a particular spot and does what’s called a “false crawl,” returning to the waves still heavy with unlaid eggs, waiting to dig her nest somewhere else. Above you can see evidence of a U-turn. (The tide has come in and gone out again since the turtle was here, erasing the portion of the crawl closest to the water’s edge.)

Wednesday night, my second-to-last night on Jekyll Island, I had the immense privilege of watching one of these big mamas at work.

After hanging out a friend’s apartment for part of the evening, I came home to the 4-H center around eleven. I was sleepy, but I made myself head down the boardwalk for a nighttime walk on the beach, something I’d already done a couple times earlier in the week. Stumbling across a turtle seemed like a long shot, but since I’ve literally been living on a sea turtle nesting beach, I felt like I had to try… and Wednesday I got lucky.

At the end of our boardwalk I turned left, heading north toward the section of beach most popular with the turtles, and I’d gone well under a quarter of a mile when a crawl similar to the ones above brought me up short. Even in the dark, I knew what it was. Turning, I followed it up to the edge of the dunes, and there she was on the crest of the dune ridge.

I had neglected to bring a red flashlight with me (white light disturbs them, but red is okay if used sparingly) but I could still see the outline of the massive turtle, easily four feet long, as she scooted further back into the vegetation. I didn’t follow her, wanting to disturb neither her nor the rest of the fragile dune ecosystem, but I sat in the sand and watched the summer triangle rising in the eastern sky while I listed to her rustle around in the beach grass – periods of silence interspersed with with the sound of her crashing through the stiff plants. While I was sitting there two other people walked past along the dark beach, probably also there hoping to find sea turtles but not recognizing the obvious crawl for what it was.

Finally the official night patrol from the Georgia Sea Turtle Center showed up, two women about my age equipped with red lights and clipboards and measuring tapes and such. We chatted and they confirmed my suspicion that it wasn’t normal for a nesting turtle to go that far back behind the dunes, that she wouldn’t even be able to dig a nest back there through the roots of the vegetation. Somehow she had gotten confused and, they said, would probably false crawl. Sure enough, once she found her way back out to the sand she made a beeline for the ocean without nesting; it was easy to get anthropomorphic and imagine that she was so frustrated and disgusted by her fruitless bashing around in the grass that she was just saying “oh, heck with it, I’ll try again tomorrow.” Her progress back toward the water wasn’t how I’d imagined it would be – rather than slow and steady movement, she would first crawl so fast we had to half-jog to keep up with her, then lapse into motionlessness to gather her energy for the next burst of effort. Finally we watched her disappear into the waves.

So, I didn’t actually get to see the nesting process. And, obviously, I don’t have any photos, what with it being night time and camera flashes being a big no-no. Still, I feel immensely lucky that I got to see this animal up close on the beach at all. Before I moved down here to the coast of Georgia I remember jokingly saying something about going to live with the manatees and the sea turtles. I wasn’t serious, because I imagined my chances of actually seeing either was pretty small.

In about an hour I’m leaving for the airport having seen both.

A Terrapin Tale

It seems that surest way to prevent there from being any terrapins on the causeway when I drive in to the mainland is to remember my camera. If I put my camera in my purse before I leave, there will not be any terrapins in the road. Which is a good thing, really, but still.

Terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin) are brackish water turtles that live in the salt marshes of the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico. At this time of the year, just like the sea turtles coming out of the ocean, mother terrapins emerge to lay their eggs in hammocks, tree-covered islands of high ground dotting the marsh. Unfortunately for them, the highest high ground to be found anywhere in the marsh behind Jekyll Island is the causeway connecting us to the mainland, so their instinct to crawl to the highest elevation they can find leads them out into dangerous traffic. (My boss recounts a story of a terrapin actually found a good part of the way to the top of the Sidney Lanier Bridge that spans the Brunswick River near the end of the causeway. It’s amusing to imagine what might have been going through that turtle’s mind: “Wow, I’m going to have the highest nest ever!”)

Whenever I do happen to spot a terrapin in the road, if it’s possible to pull over safely I do and move it off the pavement to the edge of the bushes and trees lining the causeway’s margins. I’m not the only one, either; in addition to the official “terrapin patrol” operated out of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center, which also rehabilitates any injured ones they find, I’ve seen other good Samaritans pulling over and braving traffic to rescue the little ladies. Luckily the road on causeway is only two lanes wide, so you can do this without really taking your life in your hands.

Like I said, I haven’t been able to get any photos of the females, but to give you an idea of what cuties they are here’s a video clip I originally posted in January of our three captive males. They really have a lot of personality!

I Heart Tortoises

A couple weeks ago I posted a photo of the gopher tortoise burrow I found at Moody Forest.  Though I didn’t see any actual tortoises in the wild there, at least I get to hang out with captive tortoises every day at work: we have two, named BB and Amelia.  BB is a little guy, but Amelia is a big, beautiful adult gopher tortoise, and she’s kind of our mascot.

Gopher tortoises are listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN red list, but only its western population has any federal protection, listed as “threatened” by the Fish & Wildlife Service.  Their threats include habitat loss and being hit by cars.  What’s really cool about them, and what makes them a keystone species, are the burrows they dig, which provide shelter to numerous other animal species.

Tortoises, of course, have a reputation for being slow – we all heard the story of the tortoise and the hare when we were kids.  Amelia, however, is very active.  I once witnessed her chasing and harassing my boss’s dog, and today when I was photographing her she tried to nip at my bare toes and moved around so much that most of my attempts at close-ups turned out like this:

Birdchick, one of my blogging idols, occasionally posts what she calls “cleansing” photos of cute birds as a way to de-stress.  Well, after a long week at work, this is my Saturday cleansing tortoise.

Moody Forest

I wasn’t working this morning so I decided to head to Moody Forest, a Nature Conservancy preserve a couple hours’ drive inland, for a hike.  I’d heard it was an excellent place for seeing Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, one of a couple remaining birds I absolutely must add to my life list before I depart this area of the country.  It did not disappoint.

Moody Forest is not a place one could stumble on accidentally; you have to want to go there.  What I mean is, there are no signs for it along the way, and the last few miles are over narrow back roads of hard-packed red dirt.  I suppose the isolation and obscurity helps protect it.  Moody Forest is one of the most important remaining fragments of longleaf pine woodland in Georgia.

Longleaf pine was once the dominant tree in much of the southeastern U.S., and it was (and is) important for threatened species such as the Red-cockaded Woodpecker and the Gopher Tortoise.  Most of this ecosystem, however, is now gone, replaced by faster-growing pine species more valuable for timber, like slash and loblolly.

The trail first passed through an open, sandy area that was, according to the interpretive pamphlet I picked up at the trail head, a good place to see the tortoises.  I didn’t spot any (it may still be too early for reptiles to be out and about, although with the streak of warm weather we’ve had lately you never know) but I did see what I strongly suspect was a tortoise burrow.

Finally I arrived in the fragment of longleaf pine/wiregrass woodland: prime habitat for the federally endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker.  It only took a few minutes of lurking around, peering up into the trees, before I managed to find them, identified by their rasping call and distinctive white cheeks.  Score!  The pines also held Hairy, Downy, Red-bellied, and Pileated Woodpeckers, as well as Brown-headed Nuthatches, which sound like squeaky toys.  (I had forgotten temporarily about the existence of Brown-headed Nuthatches and had a surreal moment of SWEET LORD WHAT ARE PYGMY NUTHATCHES DOING IN GEORGIA before I recalled the Pygmy’s eastern cousin.)

Longleaf pines live up to their name – their needles, which come in bunches of three, are more than twice as long as my hand and form characteristic round tufts at the ends of branches.  Their cones are also massive.

This coming weekend I’m going camping at Manatee Springs State Park in Florida with a coworker (and, yes, hoping to see manatees), and then that will only leave Okefenokee as far as places on my must-see-before-I-leave-the-Southeast list.  Hope everyone has a great week, even if it isn’t as warm and sunny as mine…!

My Friends the Terrapins

I’m baaaack, and I come bearing a new video clip.  Somehow even though we didn’t have students here the second half of this week (darn you, Atlanta blizzard!), I’ve still felt really busy lately, and when you add that to the cold weather that’s made me not want to budge from my cozy bed, nature blogging ground to halt.  But today I finally got out my camera and headed to our animal room to introduce you to some buddies of mine.

Part of my job includes animal care, specifically taking care of box turtles and diamondback terrapins.  Today when I went to give the terrapins their chopped up bits of shrimp, I wanted to take some photos of them, but because of their nonstop movement and the poor light in the lab I ended up taking a video clip instead.

Diamondback terrapins, Malaclemys terrapin, are aquatic turtles that live in the salt marshes of the east coast.  Here on Jekyll Island, the females experience high rates of mortality during the spring egg-laying season because they come crawling out of the marsh looking for high ground.  Guess where the highest ground in their habitat is?  The causeway connecting the island to the mainland.  Which is frequented by speeding cars.

Anyway, my three little friends have an incredible amount of personality.  When I walk up to their tank they come paddling over frantically, obviously associating me with food.  Then, when I actually try to feed them, they get so distracted by trying to nip my fingers that they ignore the actual shrimp and pellets.  Sometimes they flail their front feet so hard that the end up doing backflips.  It’s nuts.

Tomorrow I am off to Atlanta to visit the world’s largest aquarium.  Japanese spider crabs, manta rays, and whale sharks!  Expect photos.