Turtles as stepping stones

Northern mockingbird IMG_3689©Maria de Bruyn resOne day when I was at a beautiful nature park in the neighboring city of Durham, I was – of course – looking for wildlife. For a while I watched a Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) pecking along the path in a quest for insects. It wasn’t until I got to the pond, however, that a scene unfolded which kept me occupied for a while.


great blue heron IMG_4099©Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_3905©Maria de Bruyn resThe resident great blue heron (Ardea herodias) had stationed him (or her) self at the end of a log on which several pond slider turtles (Trachemys scripta) were basking. He seemed to be staring in their direction, so I wondered if he was considering eating one. After seeing a video of a heron swallowing a groundhog whole, I knew that they can consume quite large meals. After a time, though, it seemed that the bird wasn’t interested in the turtles but in the fish swimming in front of them. After patiently waiting for a time, the heron stabbed and had success!

painted turtle IMG_3815© Maria de Bruyn resThe heron decided to move to a new spot, down near the other end of the log. The sun was bright and the pond was filled with many dozens of turtles enjoying the warmth. Whereas red-eared sliders and painted turtles at Mason Farm Biological Reserve will often plop into the water in haste when they sense people nearby, these turtles didn’t seem to care if they were watched from the pond’s edge. But I did think they would move as the heron neared them.

great blue heron IMG_3987©Maria de Bruyn resgreat blue heron IMG_4142©Maria de Bruyn res


How wrong I was! The turtles saw him coming but they just let the huge bird use their backs as stepping stones!


great blue heron IMG_4160©Maria de Bruyn res   great blue heron IMG_4166©Maria de Bruyn res

great blue heron IMG_4302©Maria de Bruyn res

The bird’s claws completely encircled some turtles as it moved along, occasionally balancing on one leg.

great blue heron IMG_4224©Maria de Bruyn res  painted turtle IMG_4217©Maria de Bruyn 2

I noticed a few turtles with scutes bent up into the air. (Scutes are sections of the carapace.) I began to wonder if this was the result of the heron’s claws snagging on their shells as the bird proceeded.

IMG_3808© Maria de Bruyn 2great blue heron IMG_4297©Maria de Bruyn

If that was true, though, why didn’t the turtles skedaddle out of there when the heron came near? I only saw one turtle plunge into the pond.

great blue heron IMG_4304©Maria de Bruyn respainted turtle IMG_3815© Maria de BruynAt home, I did an Internet search and found out that turtles shed their scutes from time to time and that was apparently what I was seeing. So I learned that turtles shed! Turtles’ shells are extensions of their rib cage and attached to their spine; terrestrial turtles don’t shed but aquatic turtles do shed scutes, which are made of keratin (like the material of horns or fingernails).

5-MdB great blue heron IMG_4339

The heron kept moving along as he wasn’t having much success in the different spots he chose. He did get a couple fish but smaller than his first catch. Eventually, I found that I wasn’t quite as patient as the heron so I finally left after a very entertaining hour of observation. I do so love watching the natural world!

4 thoughts on “Turtles as stepping stones

  1. I really enjoy reading this story. I can’t imagine that a big heron walking on the back of turtles! Your pictures are very cool. They captures the actions very well. Thank you for sharing.


  2. Thanks, Malai! It was interesting watching the heron balance on those turtles and the turtles apparently not finding it a problem, even when the heron’s claws completely encircled their shells. There’s always something new to discover in nature. 🙂


  3. Wonderful photos Maria, capturing an extraordinary and heart-warming glimpse of nature. It made me smile. I greatly admire and appreciate your ability to take such exquisite photos.


    • Thank you, Phyllis! I’m very glad that you enjoyed the blog and photos. I’m a bit behind on getting my new blog out but hope to have it done by the end of the week – it will be on the different creatures enjoying persimmons in my yard – and then back to the heron again before going on for other topics. Hope you read some of the other blogs. Have a nice day and thank you for commenting – I really appreciate it!


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