Sometimes feared but with an endearing side – Sweet Tooth and Swayback

Today, I’d like to entertain you with a tale of two wild creatures that I’ve come to know a bit. I always enjoy learning about animals, even more so when I get to know something about their lives first-hand. Before getting to a description of Sweet Tooth and Swayback (two snapping turtles), I’ll share some interesting life facts about this reptilian species.

While box turtles often garner remarks of “how sweet,” “how cute,” and “let’s help it cross the road,” the appearance of a snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) can arouse fear and dislike. Many people don’t consider them “beautiful,” and they have a reputation for being dangerous because they can cause injuries.

That is such a shame because this species doesn’t always live up to its “combative disposition when out of the water with its powerful beak-like jaws, and highly mobile head and neck” (according to Wikipedia). It’s true that they don’t want to be picked up and will react very differently from the docile box turtle, who generally pulls in its head and legs and just waits for you to leave it alone.

Unlike the box turtle, the snapper cannot withdraw its head and limbs into its shell, so its main defense is to use powerful jaws to snap and bite when feeling threatened. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) notes that: “they are normally inoffensive underwater and pose little if any danger to swimmers or waders.”

Snapping turtles spend most of their time in the water and tend not to bask like other turtles. Instead, they swim near the surface and enjoy the sun’s rays from there.

They mate in the spring; this pair was engaged in a fairly sedate encounter at an urban park.

The NCWRC notes that it’s not uncommon for the pair to snap “savagely” at one another during mating (another instance of negative language to characterize them; they could have said “vigorously”!). This pair opened their jaws to one another but were not biting.

Females can conserve sperm for several seasons so that there is some on hand when needed. So this female may have wanted to use that as she pushed the male away.

This pair of turtles, whom I saw at an Orange County pond, did seem to be having a tussle, but they also might have been contesting territory or engaging in some other behavior.

The females come out of the water to lay their eggs (about 25); you may only see their tracks in the mud and never know where they buried the clutch. The eggs have a great chance of ending up as food for other animals, such as skunks, minks, raccoons, foxes, crows, and eastern kingsnakes.

Newborn and juvenile snappers often fall prey to large fish, mammals, birds (e.g., bitterns, hawks, owls), American bullfrogs, and alligators. This great blue heron (Ardea herodias) had a small turtle for a snack and spent quite a long time trying to crush it before swallowing it. (This was not a snapper but shows how the birds eat young turtles.)

Perhaps the high newborn mortality rate accounts for the fact that a female may lay a second clutch as well (laying 11-83 eggs in total in a breeding season). An interesting fact about the hatching snappers is that the little ones make a noise before they dig themselves out of the earth. To us, these sounds mimic clicks, creaks or what sounds like someone rubbing their finger over a fine-toothed comb.

The snapping turtles’ diet comprises quite a lot of vegetation, carrion and small animals. The latter are swallowed whole or bitten into pieces — young ducklings in a pond with snappers need to stay alert to avoid being caught. The snappers who survive to adulthood may reach a considerable age if they live in an undisturbed area, e.g., up to some 40 years.

And now we finally get back to Sweet Tooth and Swayback in particular. I’ve had the good fortune to become familiar with this pair at a local pond alongside a public road where I’ve photographed wildlife for many years. It has been designated as a “hot spot” for local and other birders on eBird. As my friend Lucretia has said: “birders and nature lovers have always enjoyed the beauty of the pond and surrounding meadows and fields and the wildlife that lives there. It is a special place.” Unfortunately, it’s now uncertain what will be happening to Sweet Tooth’s and Swayback’s longtime home.

I had seen these turtles swimming around in the pond frequently and admired their size. I’m guessing they might be a few decades old.

Last fall when a persimmon tree at the edge of the pond began dropping its ripe fruit, I was surprised to see one of the turtles up on the surrounding lawn on a rainy day— s/he saw me and quickly trundled off to the water’s edge.

On subsequent visits, I approached carefully and not too closely. By moving only a few steps to get in position for some photos and then standing still (although I did talk to the turtle, I admit), the animal decided to stay put. The temptation to eat some of the ripe persimmons was just too great and helped him/her overcome any fears.

I was very surprised as I had no idea that snapping turtles are fond of this fruit. On subsequent visits to the pond, however, I learned that it must be a real delicacy for them. This turtle seemed to recognize me after a few visits and didn’t hurry away. When Lucretia visited, Sweet Tooth (a name we decided to use for him/her) also stayed put.

Sweet Tooth is a bit of a messy eater, but then s/he doesn’t have teeth or any way to get the dripping persimmon flesh off her/his chin.

One day, I was surprised to see that Sweet Tooth had been joined by a companion, whom I called Swayback. I don’t know if this turtle had been injured at some point to cause the dent in its carapace.

Swayback didn’t seem quite as enamored with the persimmons as Sweet Tooth but did seem to enjoy eating some fruit from time to time.

Recently, the property on which the pond is located was sold. I’ve been told by people who pass by daily that the pond may be dredged and deepened so that it can be used for irrigation. Much of the surrounding vegetation, which made it a delightful spot with many hiding and perching places for migrating and resident birds was bulldozed.

I and others are worried about what could happen to the pond’s inhabitants. We hope that Sweet Tooth, Swayback and any other wildlife who call the pond home can be rescued, rehabbed if necessary, and eventually returned to their longtime home. Keep your fingers crossed along with me that we might enjoy seeing this pair of snappers relishing persimmon treats in the future!

One last note: if you want to rescue a snapper from a busy road, only pick it up at the back of its carapace above the hind legs. If you have your hands any further forward, the turtle can use its long and flexible neck to reach you for a bite. You can also move it with a square shovel (be prepared for a heavy load) or by having it on a tarp or blanket to carry it along.

Sunning snappers, cavorting cooters and spirited sliders – unexpected behavioral encounters

All wildlife fascinates me. It’s always a delight when some animal exhibits behavior in my presence that I haven’t seen before. Turtles have not been the most likely candidates in this regard for me, however. That changed this year in two cases (see further below). Mostly I see them basking on logs in bogs, ponds and lakes, like these yellow-bellied sliders (Trachemys scripta), either alone or in the company of other creatures.

Painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) also like to sun and can be seen in the same environments.

Seeing turtles cross a walking path as they search for a place to dig a nest for their eggs is not unusual.

I’ve come across a red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) also on the march, apparently having just completed a nesting site.

There are seven species of cooters (Pseudemys) in the southeastern USA and it can be difficult even for experienced naturalists to distinguish them. They are all large turtles at full growth, with a carapace measuring some 13 inches or more.

 

The turtle that many more people see, including in their yards, is the lovely Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina). During nesting season they are often on the move and several people I know will stop and “rescue” them as they cross busy roads.

The other day, I stopped traffic on a busy neighborhood road when I spotted a box turtle crossing. Drivers of cars going both ways kindly came to a halt as I carried the turtle to the side of the road where it was headed. It was about the 5th time this summer and fall that I had stopped for a box turtle and I always hope that the reptile will go on to have a long and healthy life.

This summer I also rescued a box turtle that I found resting on water weeds in my pond. I had always thought that these terrestrial turtles would drown, so I got the reptile out. There is a small log sticking up out of the pond, which is how I think the turtle got in, but I wasn’t sure it could climb up again.

I did find out later from my friend Lucretia that box turtles are able to swim, despite not having webbed toes like aquatic species.

The box turtles vary a lot in coloring, but the turtle below has to be the most strikingly colorful one I have come across so far. It made me think of a young person who went a bit wild with the make-up.

The slider turtles can also have some beautiful coloring.

One bit of behavior that I don’t expect from snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) is the basking behavior exhibited by many other species. Nevertheless, in June I found one apparently enjoying a sojourn in the sun in a pond kept filled by the local beavers.

Usually, I see snappers with their heads tucked in, but they certainly do earn their scientific name of serpentina (snake-like) as their necks are very long!

And that brings me to the really unexpected behavior that I recently saw while watching turtles. One day, about 20 turtles were swimming and gliding around a pond, close to the surface. Two in particular were not only swimming, however, but also seemed to be playing. After asking for help in identifying them in a reptile-oriented Facebook group, it was suggested they were either sliders or cooters. Both were very large.

They were not near one another but in their own space, showing similar behavior. They would surface, swim along with their bodies stretched out to the limit and then bring up their hind or front legs and slap the surface of the water repeatedly. Then after doing this several times, they would suddenly rise up a bit and splash their whole bodies down into the water, making an even larger spray of water.

A fellow photographer suggested they might be mating or defending territory, but I think they were actually playing.

Some readers might think that makes me very anthropomorphic, but scientists are studying the concept of play in reptiles and one researcher, Gordon Burkhardt, has said that rejection of the idea of reptiles playing has to do with how play is defined.

He has proposed a definition that would make it entirely possible to think of reptiles playing:

“play is repeated, seemingly nonfunctional behavior differing from more adaptive versions structurally, contextually, or developmentally, and initiated when the animal is in a relaxed, unstimulating, or low stress setting.”

It should be noted, too, that websites dedicated to people who own reptiles as pets include articles on how they can stimulate play – and thereby well-being and health – among their animal companions.

I’ll be keeping a more watchful eye on turtles from now on; who knows what other interesting behaviors might be observed? And it would be just nice to think that a turtle whose remains we find in the woods could have had an enjoyable and not just “mechanical” (pre-programmed) life.

As Brian Doyle wrote in Martin Marten:

“The fact is that the more stories we share about living beings, the more attentive we are to living beings, and perhaps the less willing we are to slaughter them and allow them to be slaughtered. That could be.”

 

 

 

Avian generations in the making – part 3A: raising and feeding babies

So here in North America, it’s approaching winter and it may seem a bit weird to have another blog at this time on birds raising their young. But I wanted to complete the series even though it has been delayed because of my volunteer activities and commitments the past month. Also, it is now late spring in the Southern hemisphere so for some people this is seasonal and there are other birds around them that are getting ready for babies, though different species than these American robins (Turdus migratorius). Because this part kept growing longer as I worked on it, I’ve divided it into two parts – this one on raising the babies until fledging and the next one on fledging and post-fledgling care. I hope all of you who read this will enjoy it no matter where you live.

It’s fascinating to me to watch the birds during their reproductive cycle; I always learn something new. Once parent birds have completed a nest to their liking, the female lays her eggs and proceeds to brood them, with some species sitting on the eggs almost full time right away and others taking breaks.

           

Carolina wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)              Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

An acquaintance recently told me about a friend of hers who commented that she had seen a very pregnant goose that was so fat, she was waddling. The acquaintance proceeded to give an avian reproduction lesson to her friend – a woman in her 80s – who apparently did not know all birds lay eggs! Even after babies hatch, the Canada goose (Branta canadensis) may still look well-fed!

Some bird species have young who are “precocial”, that is, they are covered with downy feathers and have open eyes when they hatch and are soon able to feed themselves. These species include turkeys and ducks, like these mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), and the young often leave the nest soon after birth (which makes them “nidifugous” – good Scrabble word!). The newborns may look fuzzy but it’s not long before they start to take after their parents’ looks.

Other birds, such as songbirds, are altricial (as are human beings) – they are naked and helpless at birth and require considerable care before they can walk, fly and feed themselves. If you have some in a nest that is easily observable (and you can take photos when parents are not there so you don’t distress them), it’s interesting to see how the babies develop.

               

Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) on 18 and 22 April           

Brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) on 13, 25 and 29 April

 

 

Eastern bluebirds (below)

     

As the mother incubates the eggs, her mate will often feed her so she doesn’t have to leave the nest. This young osprey (Pandion haliaetus) was assiduous in bringing his female life companion fish. Then as the babies hatch, in many species both the male and female parents get busy bringing the young frequent meals.  It’s estimated that Carolina chickadees, for example, will bring over 5000 insects to their brood before fledging!

Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)

     

House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)  and Red-headed woodpecker                (Melanerpes erythrocephalus)

              

Orchard oriole (Icterus spurius)                  Blue grosbeak (Passerina caerulea

  

Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

In some species, the previous year’s young will help their parents with the new brood. Brown-headed nuthatches and American crows are examples of this. A pair of Canada geese that I observed this past spring seemed to have a domestic goose helping them out.

The parents have other chores, too. They must keep the babies safe from predators – Both American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) will be chased away by songbirds, for example, because these birds will raid nests to eat eggs and babies. But the grackles must also protect their own young against the crows, pursuing them non-stop to drive them away.

 

For other birds, protecting the young can be more difficult. This mother wood duck (Aix sponsa) was raising her brood in a pond that was home to at least three large snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina). Ultimately, another birder and I thought she only had two ducklings survive.   

Keeping the nest reasonably clean is another chore. The babies make this task a little easier than you might think because they defecate into a mucous membrane that forms a sac. When you watch a nest box, especially when it gets closer to fledging time, you can periodically see the parents flying out of the box with a white blob in their mouth, which turns out to be a fecal sac. They either discard it elsewhere or sometimes eat it for some nutritional benefit.

        

Brown-headed nuthatches

This year, I was surprised to have caught a female blue grosbeak during the cleaning – it appeared that she was actually pulling the fecal sac from the baby! Later, I read that some species stimulate defecation by prodding the babies’ cloaca so they can get on with the chore. I also caught a photo in which a baby bluebird had just presented its rear end to the parent for removal of a sac. I could imagine that some human parents might think a fecal sac would be a cool avian adaptation for their babies to have – no more dirty diapers and expense for diapers either! (An idea for an SF short story?)

     

 

After all their efforts, the parents are usually ready for those babies to fledge – the subject of the upcoming last blog in the series.

 

 

* Not all the photos in this blog are of great quality, I know, but my intention was first to show behaviors and secondarily to have some nice shots in the blog.