Monday
Jun092014

Snapping Turtle Tradition 

We love traditions: Thanksgiving dinner, or that annual trip to the beach, or the first trip to the ice cream stand in summer. For me, the annual events that I look forward to are Christmas Bird Count, the salamander big night, and the week in early June when snapping turtles lay their eggs. All of my traditions involve preparation and excited anticipation.

I prepared for snapping turtle week by buying a fishing net. As I left Gander Mountain someone called to me: “butterflies?”—those would be some butterflies!

“Nope, Snapping turtles,” I called back, cheerful.

He rolled his eyes.

my finest rescue techniqueBecause snappers travel to lay their eggs, they cross roads and railroad tracks—and often are crushed. Already I had clumsily shoved a turtle across a road, the turtle snapping, four or five of us offering suggestions, stopping or slowing cars, and from time to time screaming in surprise when the turtle lunged with a snap.  The net was the solution to all of my turtle rescuing problems.

Last year, I stumbled on the maternity ward of snappers along the train tracks that slice the North Tivoli Bay from the main artery of the Hudson River. There, in the black gravel laid as foundation for the tracks the snapping turtles can easily dig, then the sun warms the eggs beautifully. On June 6 of last year, I saw dozens of turtles digging, and rescued one caught between the rails. The next day, dozens of turtles lay crushed, mangled by the trains barreling north and south. This year, I was going to save as many turtles as possible.

Snapper laying eggsAt seven in the morning, Christina, Kate and I tromped out Cruger Island Road under a gorgeous blue sky. Red-winged black birds showed off their velvet red epaulets, Willow Flycatchers called out fitz-bew, and the world seemed perfect.  When we arrived at the tracks, we spotted a turtle right away. Scooping up a turtle in a fishing net isn’t as easy as I imagined. Added to that, the turtle wasn’t happy with being displaced from there, between the rail lines. It hissed, and snapped at the net, while I looked cautiously over my shoulder for a train in the distance. With encouraging calls from Kate and Christina, I loaded the turtle and wobbled over to the edge. Untangling a turtle from a net is even more difficult, its long claws caught in the webbing. After a bit of work, I released it with a tumble into the cattails. There it looked at us in disgust before we walked off.

Further up the track it was a regular egg laying fest. Over twenty nests had been dug and raided—no doubt by raccoons. Shreds of the eggs littered the disturbed holes, the white so white against the black soil. But over a dozen lady snappers were still in holes, quietly laying their round, white eggs. Three had gathered near to each other, hind ends burrowed deep in the soil. When we returned half an hour later, one was gone—and her nest already empty. How quickly the thief works! 

And yet--though the raccoon was hard at work, we saw no turtles crushed by the steel wheels of the train. This, a small relief. 

We stopped for tea and sticky buns brought by Kate from the Tivoli Bakery—for any tradition to be a success, good food is essential—and watched barn swallows wing in and out under the underpass.

 

Kate & Christina with netted turtleAnother stray turtle on the tracks pulled us south for a second rescue by Christina and Kate. Here’s hoping these two we pulled from the tracks continue on their path and that some of those eggs escape the hunger of the raccoon. In August I’ll walk out, looking for baby snapping turtles.

Does saving two snapping turtles make a difference? Maybe, but maybe not. It is comforting but naïve to think that every little bit helps—because in the face of our environmental problems this doesn’t even register. What matters, though, is that saving these turtles is what I can do, it’s what I do. It’s one of my traditions. 

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