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.”




Youthful exuberance in Yellowstone

bison IMG_8457© Maria de Bruyn resOne of the frequent wildlife sightings during a visit to Yellowstone National Park are the bison, also known as American buffalo (Bison bison). Sometimes you see a single individual, sometimes a group of 3-5 animals and often larger groups or even huge herds. Females and their calves and males usually hang out in separate groups except when it is breeding season. The males can be distinguished by their somewhat longer horns, larger size (up to 2000 lbs) and heavier beards.  The babies are reddish-brown for their first 2.5 months of life, whereafter they begin to develop the dark brown coloring of their species.

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bison IMG_4583© Maria de BruynDuring my recent visit, I learned that you should not get out of your car near a buffalo – they may look placid but they will attack if they feel provoked and can run over 30 mph. From 1980-1999, triple the number of people were injured by bison as by bears in Yellowstone! In 2015, five people were gored by buffalo.Unfortunately, some people still will approach, as shown in this 1992 video showing some frightening consequences. You may then have to photograph them through (dirty) unopened car windows, which doesn’t make for excellent photos, but you can record what you see as memory reminders.

bison IMG_4562© Maria de Bruyn resIn the wintertime, the bison have thick shaggy coats and these are shed in the spring, so that you see individuals with bare patches of skin alternating with woolly areas.

A park ranger told me that they rub on trees to help remove their winter coats; there are whole areas of forest where many trees have bare spots devoid of bark as a result. The bison also “horn” trees, mostly in the autumn, rubbing their horns on cedars and pines by preference; the trees then emit a fragrance which is thought to be an insect deterrent.

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Another sign that buffalo are nearby are the bison wallows – these shallow depressions in the ground are used year after year, both during dry and rainy weather. The wallows have multiple functions, including offering dust and mud covering to protect against insects, a place for resting, grooming and play.

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When walking in meadows, along roads and on hillsides, you can often come across bison dung, popularly known as meadow muffins and buffalo chips. These large deposits used to be used as a fire source as they burn well and could be easily gathered.

Given the bison’s size and their habituation to people in the Park, human beings will find that they not infrequently have to share the road with these mammals. They will cross the road from one side to another and sometimes spend some time ambling down the road, so that you can have one pass within about a foot of your car window.

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During these “bison jams”, cars are supposed to stop and give them right of way – we are the intruders in their home after all. You then may see an individual through the car window who has been collared or tagged, presumably for research.


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The bison can have very expressive faces, even if at first sight it seems they always have the same expression. This mother demonstrated when she was nursing her calf.

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If you had asked me a month ago which adjectives I might associate with bison, my answer likely would have been something like: massive, placid when undisturbed, woolly, furry, huge, plodding. Playful would not have been on the list, but I discovered that American buffalo babies can be very exuberant and know how to have a good time!


A group of three spent quite some time chasing one another, jumping and leaping – one in particular seemed to be the instigator of the play session.

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bison I77A9171© Maria de Bruyn resAt one point, I was in a car where I could observe a group of bison fording a river very near to the road. It was shallow where they entered but grew deeper toward the middle and other side and it turned out there was a strong current. It posed a challenge to the pregnant bison and the babies were really having a tough go. We watched them struggle across, keeping their chins above water as they slowly progressed while being swept downstream from the adults.

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Luckily, all of the babies made it to the other side, including one who thought s/he was going after her/his mother when s/he got to the top of the riverbank. s/he trotted after a smaller bison, then was followed by a much larger female who began butting her/him – turned out the baby may have been confused after the strenuous river crossing because the smaller bison was not going to nurse. The mother kept after the baby until finally the young one turned and realized who mom really was!

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bison I77A1450© Maria de Bruyn resBefore Europeans came to the United States, these magnificent mammals ranged as far as the Atlantic seaboard, meaning they could have been in my neighborhood at one time! Now the wild bison are largely confined to some national parks after almost going extinct in the 19th century and the most genetically pure ones are in Yellowstone. So I’m lucky that I had the chance to observe them several times during my recent trip out West and I’d love to see them there again. 🙂

The exuberance of youth!

White-tailed deer IMG_3548© Maria de BruynSad and distressing events in the private and public spheres conspired to make the past 10 days rather depressing; it seemed every time I looked at the news, there was just more to grieve about. A nature walk always helps get my mind off that stuff and I often discover new things to boot.

Sometimes, though, I don’t even have to leave the house to get a little bit of cheer. Young white-tailed deer fawns (Odocoileus virginianus) can exhibit such exuberance when they feel they are in a safe place that you almost feel like joining them in dashing, darting and jumping in delight.

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This year, the local deer family did not produce many offsWhite-tailed deer IMG_3478©Maria de Bruynpring, undoubtedly adjusting to the urban environment. We have had very little rain this summer and their food supplies have dwindled way down. The ground-feeding birds do not always get to the seed first.

Four does, whom I am calling Mama, Plain Jane, White Spot and Grandma, visit my yard several times a day, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of one or two others. At first, they were accompanied by one fawn, whom I was calling Baby. Baby could be the offspring of Mama or White Spot; oddly, I have seen both of them nursing her. I believe Plain Jane is the mother of a second fawn that showed up later; the two babies sometimes come together now.

White-tailed deer IMG_0469©Maria de BruynGrass has dried up, shrubs have shriveled and even my normally flowering plants are having a hard time. The deer are very hungry; I saw one nibbling on a crepe myrtle tree – something I had never seen in the more than 14 years I have lived here. Most of the time, my bird feeders are up high but when I hung one lower, Grandma took advantage of my forgetfulness. I don’t mind if they eat some of the bird seed and I have left some grapevine leaves for them as well.

I keep my fingers crossed that Baby will make it since a neighbor a couple blocks away, informed me that a fawn fell prey to coyotes there. (Perhaps that one belonged to either Mama or White Spot and accounts for both of them caring for Baby??) A fox was strolling through my yard the other day so the predators are certainly around. When no perceived danger is near, Baby really demonstrates what the verb “gamboling” is all about.

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When they get going, these little fawns can reach high speeds – and fly a little bit!

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Sometimes, it looks a bit like they are demonstrating a deer yoga pose.White-tailed deer IMG_3596© Maria de Bruyn

Since I spray the plants I want to keep with deer repellant and I am ok with the family eating other plants, I have no problem with their frequent visits. In fact, I look forward to seeing them and having Baby lift my spirits!

Next blog: another wildlife spirit-lifter!

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