The Big Turtle Year Update #13

Species #43: Striped mud turtle (Kinosternon baurii)
Location: Booker Creek Preserve (Tarpon Springs, Florida)
Date: 10 July 2017
Post by George L. Heinrich

Chloe holding species #43 for The Big Turtle Year, an adult female striped mud turtle (Kinosternon baurii) at Brooker Creek Preserve (Tarpon Springs, Florida). Photograph by Andrew Farren.

Chloe holding species #43 for The Big Turtle Year, an adult female striped mud turtle (Kinosternon baurii) at Brooker Creek Preserve (Tarpon Springs, Florida). Photograph by Andrew Farren.

I have taught a series of engaging herpetology and wildlife ecology camps at three nature preserves located in the Tampa Bay region of Florida for 16 consecutive summers. These popular hands-on, science-based camps are designed for children (ages 7-11) with a strong interest in nature. The goal is to provide an opportunity for them to explore Florida wildlife and wildlands, and instill a sense of environmental stewardship. This summer, our campers are searching for turtles as part of The Big Turtle Year. An adult female striped mud turtle (Kinosternon baurii) found by camper Chloe became species #43. Other turtles observed by the children and camp staff included a juvenile common musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus), hatchling Florida softshell turtle (Apalone ferox), and several gopher tortoises (Gopherus polyphemus).

George L. Heinrich talking to campers about striped mud turtles (Kinosternon baurii) at Brooker Creek Preserve (Tarpon Springs, Florida). Photograph by Andrew Farren.

George L. Heinrich talking to campers about striped mud turtles (Kinosternon baurii) at Brooker Creek Preserve (Tarpon Springs, Florida). Photograph by Andrew Farren.

Profile of an adult female striped mud turtle (Kinosternon baurii) at Brooker Creek Preserve (Tarpon Springs, Florida). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Profile of an adult female striped mud turtle (Kinosternon baurii) at Brooker Creek Preserve (Tarpon Springs, Florida). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

A second kinosternid species, a juvenile common musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus), was also found during the Herpetology Camp at Brooker Creek Preserve (Tarpon Springs, Florida). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

A second kinosternid species, a juvenile common musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus), was also found during the Herpetology Camp at Brooker Creek Preserve (Tarpon Springs, Florida). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

The Big Turtle Year Update #12

Species #36: Alabama map turtle (Graptemys pulchra)
Species #37: Flattened musk turtle (Sternotherus depressus)
Location: Bankhead National Forest (Winston County, Alabama)
Date: 9 June 2017

Species #38: Southern black-knobbed map turtle (Graptemys nigrinoda delticola)
Location: Mobile County, Alabama
Date: 10 June 2017

Species #39: Alabama red-bellied cooter (Pseudemys alabamensis)
Location: Five Rivers Delta Resource Center (Baldwin County, Alabama)
Date: 11 June 2017

Species #40: Pascagoula map turtle (Graptemys gibbonsi)
Species #41: Yellow-blotched map turtle (Graptemys flavimaculata)
Location: Chickasawhay River (Greene County, Mississippi)
Date: 12 June 2017

Species #42: Escambia map turtle (Graptemys ernsti)
Location: Sepulga River (Escambia County, Alabama)
Date: 13 June 2017
Post by Timothy J. Walsh

A sample of Apalachicola oysters at Deal's Famous Oyster House in Perry, Florida. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

A sample of Apalachicola oysters at Deal's Famous Oyster House in Perry, Florida. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

The Big Turtle Year has taken George L. Heinrich and me to some great parts of the United States and allowed us to view some truly fantastic species in the wild. Even better, we have met with many individuals who are truly passionate about turtles and the plight that many species face. George’s and my trip to Alabama and Mississippi certainly had both of these. I flew down from the Connecticut/New York area and met George in Tampa, Florida. The following morning we headed out for a long road trip in search of six species of freshwater turtles. During our first leg of the trip approaching the Florida panhandle, we made a much-needed stop for lunch. As tradition dictates, anytime we drive through Perry, we have to stop for a certain tasty shellfish at Deal's Famous Oyster House. As people enter the restaurant, a staff member behind the counter shouts their motto, "The finest people in the world walk through them doors!" I can certainly attest...they do have some of the finest raw oysters in the country. Afterward, we made a long haul to reach Montgomery, Alabama to stop for the night.

A stream in the Bankhead National Forest (Winston County, Alabama) where we searched for flattened musk turtles (Sternotherus depressus) and Alabama map turtles (Graptemys pulchra). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

A stream in the Bankhead National Forest (Winston County, Alabama) where we searched for flattened musk turtles (Sternotherus depressus) and Alabama map turtles (Graptemys pulchra). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

The next morning, George and I met up with Joe Jenkins at the Bankhead National Forest in Winston County, Alabama. Joe is a graduate student at Auburn University and for the last five years has been working intensively in this area with one of our target species, the federally threatened flattened musk turtle (Sternotherus depressus). Our goal for the next 24 hours was to find the Alabama map turtle (Graptemys pulchra) and flattened musk turtles. When I say Joe has worked intensively, I mean it; the habitat we entered was extremely rugged and rough to navigate. It is a good thing that the waterways the flattened musk turtle inhabit are so hard to reach, as it is a prime target for turtle poachers; this is a high-value species in the black market. As with many of the species which we have found during The Big Turtle Year, we will not provide any specific locality information for this imperiled turtle (or others located during this trip).

Underwater photo of a shy, adult male Alabama map turtle (Graptemys pulchra) in the Bankhead National Forest (Winston County, Alabama). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Underwater photo of a shy, adult male Alabama map turtle (Graptemys pulchra) in the Bankhead National Forest (Winston County, Alabama). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Around 11:00 am, Joe, George, and I drove for about a half-hour on dusty dirt roads and forest trails. To reach the first site that we visited, we navigated, by foot, about half-mile down a steep hillside to reach the stream below. The area was infested with poison ivy due to a recent burn. The hill was rocky, and numerous small seepage creeks ran down into the valley below. Once we reached the stream, we still had to hike another half mile to the point where George and I would assist Joe with a visual survey of a 500-meter section of his study area. As we waded through rock and boulder strewed water that was anywhere from ankle to chest high, we discussed the serenity, beauty, and isolation of this site. Not even 50 feet downstream, Joe spotted an adult male Alabama map turtle (Graptemys pulchra) underwater and captured it. Map turtles are known for their extreme sexual dimorphism, with males being significantly smaller than females. This five-inch long male turned out to be quite shy and wary, and not very photogenic. Later, Joe found a small juvenile which sported a prominent carapacial keel.

Profile view of the exaggerated keel of a juvenile Alabama map turtle (Graptemys pulchra) in the Bankhead National Forest (Winston County, Alabama). Photograph by George L. Heinrich).

Profile view of the exaggerated keel of a juvenile Alabama map turtle (Graptemys pulchra) in the Bankhead National Forest (Winston County, Alabama). Photograph by George L. Heinrich).

Further downstream we spotted a couple of northern cottonmouths (Agkistrodon p. piscivorus) and a northern watersnake (Nerodia s. sipedon) basking on log snags. Joe stated that they are both quite abundant in the area. As per all of my experience with cottonmouths, they just ignored us as we waded past. We reached the point for the survey and began methodically scanning the water for turtles. Without having a previous search image, it was difficult to spot a four-inch turtle among the rocky stream bottom. After becoming bleary-eyed from looking at the sun glaring off the water, we reached the end of the survey section and then started heading for a second site which required another climb up and down a steep hillside.

A five-year old flattened musk turtle (Sternotherus depressus) found in a shallow stream within the Bankhead National Forest (Winston County, Alabama). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

A five-year old flattened musk turtle (Sternotherus depressus) found in a shallow stream within the Bankhead National Forest (Winston County, Alabama). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

We waded through more rock-strewed, ankle to waist deep, water for about forty minutes when something finally caught my eye. I spotted a small, speckled stone that seemed quite out of place. I slowly bent down to get a better view and to confirm my suspicion. I then grabbed the “stone” and sure enough, it was a flattened musk turtle. In my excitement, I shouted “I’ve got a turtle” and at exactly the same time, George shouted “turtle!” We both found our target species at the same time. George had found what Joe deemed to be a two-year old turtle and mine was probably about five-years old. Of course, a battery of photos wa taken of the two specimens. This species has a much-depressed shell compared to that of other members of the genus Sternotherus; an adaptation which enables them to exploit the many rock crevices in which they take refuge. The flattened musk turtle is a small, highly-imperiled species that has lost a significant amount of its habitat due to the coal mining industry. Mining in the area has caused the siltification of many of the streams in the Black Warrior River system which kills off its primary food source, mollusks. It is estimated that only about 7% of this turtle’s historic range is now viable. To add insult to injury, an unidentified disease nearly halved the population back in 1985. Even as remote as these streams are located, Joe has found people attempting to poach turtles from his field sites.

Two-year old (left) and five-year old (right) flattened musk turtles found in the Bankhead National Forest (Winston County, Alabama). Notice the keel on the younger specimen. Interestingly, the species hatch with a prominent keel as with other members of the genus, but it becomes less prominent as the turtles age.

Two-year old (left) and five-year old (right) flattened musk turtles found in the Bankhead National Forest (Winston County, Alabama). Notice the keel on the younger specimen. Interestingly, the species hatch with a prominent keel as with other members of the genus, but it becomes less prominent as the turtles age.

An adult female Alabama map turtle (Graptemys pulchra) found during a night survey in Bankhead National Forest (Winston County, Alabama). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

An adult female Alabama map turtle (Graptemys pulchra) found during a night survey in Bankhead National Forest (Winston County, Alabama). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

On our way back to the vehicle, we came across a beautiful eastern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) along the trailside and another cottonmouth that I very nearly sat on! Our next site was another stream that we visited after dark at 9:00 pm. The three of us donned headlamps and spotlights and wandered through a section of stream searching for turtles. I spotted one flattened musk turtle which was walking along the bottom in chest deep water but was unable to capture it before it scrambled away in the shadows. By the time that we exited the stream at 11:30 pm we had captured and released two Alabama map turtles and one common map turtle (Graptemys geographica).

An eastern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) found along a streamside in the Bankhead National Forest (Winston County, Alabama). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

An eastern copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) found along a streamside in the Bankhead National Forest (Winston County, Alabama). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

The following day, we all drove down to Mobile, Alabama to meet up with Joe’s friend Tamara McConnell. Tamara is a schoolteacher and a great field herper, on top of being extremely friendly and hospitable. We met at a public boat ramp to search for southern black-knobbed map turtles (Graptemys nigrinoda delticola) from a winding boardwalk along the river’s edge. We did not have to walk very far before we spotted the first turtle about fifty feet down the trail. In total, we were able to view around sixteen map turtles of all age classes and sexes. After spending a couple of hours turtle watching we decided to head over to a park near Tamara’s house and ended up assisting a fisherman who had inadvertently hooked a Florida softshell turtle (Apalone ferox).

An adult female southern black-knobbed map turtle (Graptemys nigrinoda delticola) in Mobile County, Alabama. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

An adult female southern black-knobbed map turtle (Graptemys nigrinoda delticola) in Mobile County, Alabama. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

An adult male southern black-knobbed map turtle (Graptemys nigrinoda delticola) in Mobile County, Alabama. Notice the knobs on the carapace which are more prominent in males than females. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

An adult male southern black-knobbed map turtle (Graptemys nigrinoda delticola) in Mobile County, Alabama. Notice the knobs on the carapace which are more prominent in males than females. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

A quirky roadsign featuring the Alabama red-bellied cooter at the Five Rivers Delta Resource Center (Baldwin County, Alabama). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

A quirky roadsign featuring the Alabama red-bellied cooter at the Five Rivers Delta Resource Center (Baldwin County, Alabama). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

The following day, we visited another local park where Tamara had spotted basking Alabama red-bellied cooters (Pseudemys alabamensis) in the past. This federally endangered turtle is found in the backwaters of Mobile Bay and frequently can be seen in brackish tidal areas and marshes. We viewed a few turtles swimming, but from the distance they were at, we could only positively identify one as being an Alabama red-bellied cooter. These turtles have a distinctive cusp in the center of their upper jaw that distinguishes them from the other members of the genus Pseudemys. We spotted numerous other turtles, but even with binoculars, they were too far away to identify with certainty. The next day, we visited the Five Rivers Delta Resource Center, a complex of buildings and trails which provide for outdoor recreation and nature education. We explored the area and wandered through the nature center where they had a few juvenile Alabama red-bellied cooters on exhibit. One of the nature center employees told us about a cooter nest that was laid right outside the building. She walked us out to the nest location and we saw how they had placed a wire cage over it to protect it from predators.

Joe Jenkins with a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) at the Five Rivers Delta Resource Center (Baldwin County, Alabama). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Joe Jenkins with a great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) at the Five Rivers Delta Resource Center (Baldwin County, Alabama). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Afterward, we walked the rear decks of the buildings to search for basking turtles, but were unsuccessful and ended up in another nature display building where a second employee had a live great horned owl out for viewing. After a while, the other employee stormed in and said there was a cooter crossing the road not far away. We quickly hopped in vehicles and drove down to see it. Surprisingly, it was not a female out on a nesting foray, but a male out wandering. George and I were quite excited about having this opportunity to photograph a specimen that was so close.

An adult male Alabama red-bellied cooter (Pseudemys alabamensis) at the Five Rivers Delta Resource Center (Baldwin County, Alabama). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

An adult male Alabama red-bellied cooter (Pseudemys alabamensis) at the Five Rivers Delta Resource Center (Baldwin County, Alabama). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Tim Walsh searching for turtles from a bridge crossing on the Leaf River (Perry County, Mississippi). Numerous yellow-blotched map turtles (Graptemys flavimaculata) and Pascagoula map turtles (Graptemys gibbonsi) were seen on the log snag near the center of the photo. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Tim Walsh searching for turtles from a bridge crossing on the Leaf River (Perry County, Mississippi). Numerous yellow-blotched map turtles (Graptemys flavimaculata) and Pascagoula map turtles (Graptemys gibbonsi) were seen on the log snag near the center of the photo. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

The following day, George and I said goodbye to Joe and Tamara and headed to Mississippi to search for two more species, yellow-blotched map turtle (Graptemys flavimaculata) and Pascagoula map turtle (Graptemys gibbonsi). We had a few bridge locations provided by colleagues as these are often the best (but sometimes not the safest) spots to view map turtles. This type of turtle is often quite wary, quickly diving off their basking sites when people are hundreds of yards away. At one site in Greene County, we were lucky to spot at least five gibbonsi, one flavimaculata and three other unidentified species including one softshell turtle (Apalone sp.). We hit the motherload at the second site in Perry County, thirty-six Graptemys of both species and all age classes and sexes, in addition to five Pseudemys (probably concinna). Another site, also in Perry County, provided us with views of two more yellow-blotched map turtles. The next morning, as we were leaving the area, we stopped again at the Five Rivers Delta Resource Center and spotted two adult Alabama red-bellied cooters basking on a partially submerged log. We also found one adult female killed alongside a busy highway.

Adult female yellow-blotched map turtle (Graptemys flavimaculata) basking on the Leaf River (Perry County, Mississippi). Photo with mobile phone through a spotting scope by Timothy J. Walsh.

Adult female yellow-blotched map turtle (Graptemys flavimaculata) basking on the Leaf River (Perry County, Mississippi). Photo with mobile phone through a spotting scope by Timothy J. Walsh.

We headed toward Slocomb, Alabama where George was dropping me off to visit my mother before he headed on to Jacksonville, Florida for another project. We were hoping to add one more species to the trip, the Escambia map turtle (Graptemys ernsti). Once again, we were looking for good bridges crossing river habitat. A bridge near Brewton, Alabama provided a good view of two adult females basking on exposed limestone. This was a long, but rewarding trip and we added seven species to The Big Turtle Year. We look forward to finding many more species and sharing our stories with you.

Two adult female Escambia map turtles (Graptemys ernsti) basking on a limestone outcrop in the Sepulga River (Escambia County, Alabama). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Two adult female Escambia map turtles (Graptemys ernsti) basking on a limestone outcrop in the Sepulga River (Escambia County, Alabama). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

The Big Turtle Year Update #11

Species #33: Loggerhead sea turtle (Caretta caretta)
Species #34: Green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas)
Species #35: Leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)
Location: Jupiter Island (Martin County, Florida)
Date: 3 June 2017
Post by Charles H. Miller

It had rained most of the day and the night was humid and breezy. George L. Heinrich and I were on a crescent moonlit beach at Blowing Rocks Preserve (Martin County, Florida), waiting to meet up with Chris Johnson and Kelly Martin of Florida Leatherbacks Inc. (www.floridaleatherbacks.com). Martin County hosts the highest density leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) nesting beach in the state of Florida. This conservation NGO has been studying turtles on this beach since 2014, and since that time has documented 370 individual nesting leatherbacks, with more than 800 encounters. 

George and I had spent the previous three days searching for hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) during two snorkel trips out to the beautiful reefs of Dry Rocks, the Elbow, and Molasses Reef in the Florida Keys. After braving 3-4 foot seas, we, unfortunately, did not come up with our target species and George was left with his first “revisit” of The Big Turtle Year. Though our search for hawksbills was unsuccessful, we did marvel at many other amazing south Florida species, both natives and non-natives, including Florida Key deer (Odocoileus virginianus clavium), Florida tree snails (Liguus fasciatus), white-crowned pigeons (Patagioenas leucocephala), Florida red-bellied cooters (Pseudemys nelsoni), Florida softshell turtles (Apalone ferox), American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis), and American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus). We also saw numerous green iguanas (Iguana iguana) and northern curlytail lizards (Leiocephalus carinatus armouri), and searched for the infamous Burmese python (Python bivittatus) that has ravaged the Florida Everglades, but came up empty-handed.

Chris and Kelly assured us that both loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) and green sea turtles (Chelonia mydas) would not be a problem since they are common nesters along the 13 mile stretch of nesting beach that they patrol. However, they were admittedly concerned about the likelihood of finding a leatherback; it was late in their nesting season and they were having an off year. George and I hopped on to the rear racks of their 4-wheeler beach patrol vehicles and we rode off into the night. The beach was well lit by a small amount of moonlight and there was an incoming tide, and almost immediately we were treated to our first nesting loggerhead. The indecisive mother performed a false crawl, leaving the water only a short way before turning around and heading back to the ocean to find a more suitable piece of beach to nest. 

Loggerheads are named for their oversized heads, which they use to crush their prey: mollusks and crustaceans, and are the most common species of nesting sea turtle in Florida. Florida accounts for approximately 90 percent of the nesting activity of the Northwest Atlantic loggerhead aggregation, the largest remaining in the world.

A short time later, we were able to witness our first green sea turtle on her way back to the ocean after completing her nesting. Upon approaching her for a closer look, she really hit the gas and rapidly (for a sea turtle on land) made moves towards her ocean home. Green sea turtles, named for their green body fat, were one of the hardest hit sea turtles as a source of meat. Key West was once a major processing center for the green sea turtle meat trade, with as many as 15,000 turtles being shipped to England annually in the late 1800s. Even my own mother had eaten green sea turtle when she was younger and before they were protected from such trade. These turtles gain their green body fat coloration from their mainly vegetarian diet as adults, eating sea grasses and algae.  

Less than an hour into our beach ride with Chris and Kelly, we came across a huge turtle track at the end of which was a leatherback sea turtle that was finishing up her nesting process. Kelly informed me that her name was Cher and that this was her sixth documented nesting event of the season, and her first year of being documented in their study. Leatherbacks are the largest of the seven living species of sea turtles, reaching an average 6 feet in length and weighing from 500 to 1,500 pounds. The largest leatherback on record was nearly 10 feet long and weighed more than 2,000 pounds. Leatherbacks, named for their unique leathery skin covered shells, are the deepest diving of the sea turtles, capable of descending more than 3,000 feet, and documented traveling more than 3,000 miles from their nesting beach. They are found throughout the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, as far north as Alaska and Labrador. Researchers have found that leatherbacks are able to regulate their body temperature so that they can survive in cold waters. Their diet consists primarily of jellyfish.

We watched Cher complete her nesting ritual — potentially as old as the dinosaurs — as she flopped her long flippers around and tapped her massive shell from side to side to pat down the sand, creating a massive pit around her nest hole, as she took in deep laborious breaths, then, only when she was satisfied, she suddenly decided she was done, and she headed back to the ocean. Hopefully, in 2-3 years she will return again to this nesting beach and repeat the process, giving her offspring a chance to continue their species.

George L. Heinrich and Charles H. Miller watch a female leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) nesting at Jupiter Island (Martin County, Florida). Photograph by Chris Johnson.

George L. Heinrich and Charles H. Miller watch a female leatherback sea turtle (Dermochelys coriacea) nesting at Jupiter Island (Martin County, Florida). Photograph by Chris Johnson.

We were returning from the beach patrol and feeling really good about our night’s efforts when in the distance we saw what appeared to be a very large turtle track leading above the wrack line. Upon closer examination, we were extremely excited to find our second nesting leatherback of the night. This female was a good bit larger than Cher and her name was Albina. This was her first documented nesting of the season. She was still laying eggs when we approached her, so we got to watch a lot more of her nesting behavior than we did with the previous leatherback. She produced loud grunting sighs as she completed her nesting, performing the same flopping technique that Cher did to cover her nest, flailing her huge flippers around with such intensity, that she actually ripped eggs out of a nearby loggerhead nest.

All said, we witnessed 9 loggerheads, 4 greens, and 2 leatherbacks, species #s 33, 34, and 35 respectively for The Big Turtle Year. For me personally, this was a very memorable night since it was my first time seeing leatherback sea turtles after numerous trips to watch marine species nesting throughout the state of Florida. It was also great to get to spend time with my longtime friend, George L. Heinrich, before I move to Maryland in August. If all goes well for the nests that we got to see being laid, then in about two months those hundreds of baby turtles will face the juggernaut of predators as they dig their way out of their nests, scramble to the ocean home of their ancestors, and complete the cycle as navigators of the seas. Much of the early life of young sea turtles is unknown, but one day, if they survive the predators, man-made dangers, and challenges of the ocean environment, they may return to this same stretch of beach to lay their own eggs. Such an amazing cycle to get to witness.

The Big Turtle Year: Update #10

Species #31: Blanding’s turtle (Emydoidea blandingii)
Location: Southwestern Michigan
Date: 22 May 2017

Species #32: Ornate box turtle (Terrapene o. ornata)
Location: Thomson-Fulton Sand Prairie State Nature Preserve (Whiteside County, Illinois)
Date: 25 May 2017
Post by George L. Heinrich

I had been looking forward to revisiting the midwest region after last year’s amazing turtle trip. My friends, Bob Krause and Jim Barzyk, had taken me to see some beautiful turtle habitat in southwestern Michigan during that visit. Despite the morning temperatures starting out in the low 40s, we still found eastern box turtles (Terrapene c. carolina), and one specimen each of wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta), spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata), and Blanding’s turtle (Emydoidea blandingii). Here it was a full year later and with slightly warmer weather, so I was hoping for even more turtles. We had great success in the northeast region just a week earlier (see Update #9 by Tim Walsh), so the only species that we had to find in Michigan during the recent trip was a Blanding’s turtle. This species ranges from Nova Scotia to Nebraska, although several populations are disjunct. Considered imperiled (threats include habitat loss and road mortality), they can be found in marshes, bogs, lakes, and small streams.

James Krause holding an eastern box turtle (Terrapene c. carolina) in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

James Krause holding an eastern box turtle (Terrapene c. carolina) in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Wildlife artist James Krause (www.4thpointstudios.com), known for his stunning paintings of turtles, joined Bob, Jim, and me for the current trip and within minutes located an adult eastern massasauga (Sistrurus c. catenatus), a federally threatened rattlesnake that I had long wanted to see in the wild. That sighting was followed by a common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), an eastern box turtle, several spotted turtles, the shell of a painted turtle (Chrysemys picta), and finally two Blanding’s turtles (species #31) which we photographed extensively.

Species #31 for The Big Turtle Year, an adult Blanding’s turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Species #31 for The Big Turtle Year, an adult Blanding’s turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Profile of an adult Blanding’s turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Profile of an adult Blanding’s turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Plastron of an adult Blanding’s turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Plastron of an adult Blanding’s turtle (Emydoidea blandingii) in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Jim Barzyk searching for Blanding’s turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) and spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Jim Barzyk searching for Blanding’s turtles (Emydoidea blandingii) and spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Our goal for the second day was to find a wood turtle. Although we had found seven of them in New Jersey during the previous week, this was Michigan and I wanted to photograph them in this magnificent northern forest. Jim found the first one, so that pushed me to search harder. I found the second and final one of the day, an adult female sitting adjacent to a fallen tree trunk.

George L. Heinrich photographing an adult wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by Robert Krause.

George L. Heinrich photographing an adult wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by Robert Krause.

Profile of an adult wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Profile of an adult wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

George L. Heinrich holding an adult female wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by Robert Krause.

George L. Heinrich holding an adult female wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by Robert Krause.

Adult female wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Adult female wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Plastron of an adult female wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Plastron of an adult female wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Bob Krause searching wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) habitat in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Bob Krause searching wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) habitat in southwestern Michigan. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Three members of the Chicago Herpetological Society (Mike Dloogatch, Linda Manchen-Malawy, and Nancy Kloskowski) examining an ornate box turtle (Terrapene o. ornata), species #32 for The Big Turtle Year, at the Thomson-Fulton Sand Prairie State Nature Preserve in Whiteside County, Illinois. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Three members of the Chicago Herpetological Society (Mike Dloogatch, Linda Manchen-Malawy, and Nancy Kloskowski) examining an ornate box turtle (Terrapene o. ornata), species #32 for The Big Turtle Year, at the Thomson-Fulton Sand Prairie State Nature Preserve in Whiteside County, Illinois. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

We had one more goal for this trip, to find an ornate box turtle, and to do so we headed to a different habitat in western Illinois. Bob, James, and I met up with three members of the Chicago Herpetological Society (Mike Dloogatch, Linda Manchen-Malawy, and Nancy Kloskowski) at the Thomson-Fulton Sand Prairie State Nature Preserve in Whiteside County. The preserve which is recovering from past grazing is owned and managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. It was my first visit to prairie habitat and I was interested in the plant diversity, many species of which were new to me. Bob found the first ornate box turtle (Terrapene o. ornata), a beautiful adult female. I later found a smaller adult female box turtle and a bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi), much to my pleasure. James then found another adult female box turtle, bringing the total to three. After two weeks away from home, and several days in the field in both the northeast and midwest regions of the country, the species count for The Big Turtle Year had advanced from 24 to 32.

The Thomson-Fulton Sand Prairie State Nature Preserve (Whiteside County, Illinois) is owned and managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

The Thomson-Fulton Sand Prairie State Nature Preserve (Whiteside County, Illinois) is owned and managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Adult female ornate box turtle (Terrapene o. ornata) at the Thomson-Fulton Sand Prairie State Nature Preserve (Whiteside County, Illinois). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Adult female ornate box turtle (Terrapene o. ornata) at the Thomson-Fulton Sand Prairie State Nature Preserve (Whiteside County, Illinois). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Plastron of an adult female ornate box turtle (Terrapene o. ornata) at the Thomson-Fulton Sand Prairie State Nature Preserve (Whiteside County, Illinois). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Plastron of an adult female ornate box turtle (Terrapene o. ornata) at the Thomson-Fulton Sand Prairie State Nature Preserve (Whiteside County, Illinois). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

James Krause examining an adult bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi) at the Thomson-Fulton Sand Prairie State Nature Preserve (Whiteside County, Illinois). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

James Krause examining an adult bullsnake (Pituophis catenifer sayi) at the Thomson-Fulton Sand Prairie State Nature Preserve (Whiteside County, Illinois). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Thank you again to all of our project partners and sponsors, not only in these two regions but from across the United States. It’s time to shift gears and search for some marine species in south Florida.

The Big Turtle Year: Update #9

Species #25: Eastern box turtle (Terrapene c. carolina)
Location: Colliers Mills Wildlife Management Area (Ocean County, New Jersey)
Date: 14 May 2017

Species #26: Northern diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys t. terrapin)
Location: Great Bay Blvd. (Ocean County, New Jersey)
Date: 14 May 2017

Species #27: Bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii)
Species #28: Wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta)
Location: Sussex County, New Jersey
Date: 15 May 2017

Species #29: Common map turtle (Graptemys geographica)
Species #30: Northern red-bellied cooter (Pseudemys rubriventris)
Location: Raritan River and D&R Canal (Somerset County, New Jersey)
Date: 15 May 2017
Post by Timothy J. Walsh

Jim Angley with a male eastern box turtle (Terrapene c. carolina). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Jim Angley with a male eastern box turtle (Terrapene c. carolina). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

As part of The Big Turtle Year, George L. Heinrich and I met up with our partner and friend, Jim Angley, in New Jersey. While the Northeast United States may not have the diversity of species that the Southeast has, it more than makes up for it with some of the most enigmatic North American species. George flew in from Florida and I took the train from Connecticut and we hit the ground running by driving down to the New Jersey Pine Barrens. This large expanse of woodland encompasses approximately 1.1 million acres of nutrient-poor sandy soil. This habitat was saved from cultivation due to the fact that normal cash crops were not able to be grown there. The area was preserved in 1978 as the Pinelands National Reserve. Not only did Jim want to show us the beauty of the area, but it is also great habitat for one of our target species, the common box turtle (Terrapene carolina). We stopped at a site within Colliers Mills Wildlife Management Area where Jim has frequently seen numerous box turtles in the past. Within about fifteen minutes (and with gunshots ringing in the background) Jim found a beautiful male eastern box turtle (Terrapene c. carolina). This subspecies inhabits much of the woodlands east of the Mississippi River from north Florida to southern Maine. Although still fairly common through much of its range, this species has declined due to forest fragmentation and destruction, as well as collection for the pet trade. A large factor in their decline is the great number of roadways that now bisect their habitats. Box turtles have very small home ranges (~6.6 acres or roughly 5x the size of a football field). As more and more roads are built, box turtles increasingly have to navigate across them as they seek out food, water, and shelter. Sadly, many never make it across the road successfully, especially in high traffic areas. While exploring other nearby areas, we also observed a northern black racer (Coluber c. constrictor), a northern red salamander (Pseudotriton ruber), and a large 5+ foot northern pine snake (Pituophis m. melanoleucus).

A particularly attractive male eastern box turtle (Terrapene c. carolina). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

A particularly attractive male eastern box turtle (Terrapene c. carolina). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Deceased female northern diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys t. terrapin). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Deceased female northern diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys t. terrapin). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

That evening we drove down Great Bay Boulevard, which transects northern diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys t. terrapin) habitat. Diamondback terrapins are the only species of turtle that lives entirely in brackish water ecosystems. Seven subspecies range along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to southern Texas. Along its entire range, the species is threatened by coastline development, shoreline armoring, drowning in crap traps, collection for the pet and food trade, as well as adult females and hatchlings being killed on roadways. In many areas, nearly 100% of all nests are taken by predators such as raccoon and fox. The site that we visited is one where numerous females come to the roadside to nest, and unfortunately, high numbers are killed by cars as they navigate this dangerous area. In many terrapin habitats, the shoreline has been modified to the point where nesting is virtually impossible. Coastal armoring (bulkheads, seawalls, riprap, etc) can make historical nesting areas completely inaccessible to the female terrapins. Roadways which transect these aquatic habitats make for tempting nesting areas as they are above the high tide line and are usually in fairly sunny locations.

Hatchling northern diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys t. terrapin) under tidal debris. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Hatchling northern diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys t. terrapin) under tidal debris. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

This roadway has portions of temporary fencing to keep the turtles off of the road and safe. After braving the hordes of no-see-ums and their painful bites, we found two carapaces of deceased terrapins (probably car struck females) and two live hatchlings. Terrapin eggs in the Northeast hatch around September, yet, often the young do not exit the nest. Tiny hatchlings will sometimes overwinter in the nest cavity until the following spring when conditions are more appropriate. Both hatchlings were found at the edge of the roadway and were probably drawn out of their nest by heavy rain the previous night. Many hatchlings are killed on roadways either directly by cars or by insolation on the hot pavement before they can make their way to tidal debris. This is where they live for approximately their first year, much like a terrestrial box turtle, feeding on invertebrates and small mollusks.

Hatchling northern diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys t. terrapin) as found next to the roadway. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Hatchling northern diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys t. terrapin) as found next to the roadway. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Bog turtles (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) are a small species (maximum 4.5 inches) as seen here with this fully grown adult in hand. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Bog turtles (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) are a small species (maximum 4.5 inches) as seen here with this fully grown adult in hand. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

The following day we met up with Brian Zarate (Biologist, New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, Endangered and Nongame Species Program) and his colleague Kevin Pollack. Brian conducts field surveys for bog turtles (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) and wood turtles (Glyptemys insculpta). Both are threatened species in New Jersey and face a great deal of pressure from illegal collection for the pet trade throughout their range. As with other sensitive species that we have observed during The Big Turtle Year, we will only be stating what county we were in and not divulging the locality. We also take great precaution with these types of species and 'scrub' location data from any photos taken with mobile phones. In this day and age, poachers can obtain locality information from multiple sources such as digital photos, social media, popular writing, and scientific publications. One cannot be too careful to prevent sites from being discovered. In fact, we were lucky enough, even with our credentials to be taken to these sites to observe these fantastic species.

Male bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) in situ. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Male bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) in situ. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Female bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) showing the distinctive orange head patch. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Female bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) showing the distinctive orange head patch. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Brian Zarate and Kevin Pollack record data on a bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Brian Zarate and Kevin Pollack record data on a bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) habitat showing characteristic shallow streams and grass clumps. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) habitat showing characteristic shallow streams and grass clumps. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Two bog turtles (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) in habitat. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Two bog turtles (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) in habitat. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Purple pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) are common at many bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) sites. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Purple pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) are common at many bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) sites. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

At the first site visited (Sussex County) we were able to find eight bog turtles, including one deceased specimen. When we started searching, the air temperature was 56˚F and it was sunny out. This was great weather for finding basking turtles, however, bog turtles are cryptic baskers and search out the rays of the warm sun in hidden spots. Some were tucked into grass clumps with just a portion of their carapaces exposed. One that I found was fully exposed and had her entire shell positioned with the best angle toward the sun. Of the eight specimens we located, five were recaptures and three were previously undiscovered. Turtles which are caught are given a unique mark which identifies them with a number. This is done so that individual movements, weight, growth, and reproduction can be tracked through time. Each bog and wood turtle that we come across during our visit had its GPS coordinates, morphometric measurements, and weight recorded, along with being given a unique mark as above if a new specimen. I also found remnants of a few hatched nests.

Terrestrial wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) habitat. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Terrestrial wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) habitat. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Later that day, we traveled to another site in Sussex County to search for wood turtles. Wood turtles are medium-sized (up to about 9 inches) and live within a mosaic of habitats. It seasonally can be found in streams, woodlands, fields, and even higher elevation ridges. This time of year, the turtles are exiting the streams and are moving around on land. Within a few minutes of searching Jim spotted an individual diving from the bank into the stream. A few minutes later he would spot another. Soon after, we came across two females (unmarked, new specimens) basking in tall grass and briars. Later we found a large male (1,464 grams). It was great to see that a site which has been surveyed extensively still has previously undiscovered individuals being found. Wood turtles face numerous threats such as habitat destruction and fragmentation, road mortality, and collection for the pet trade. Being an animal that moves through large areas of diverse landscapes, it is constantly faced with these threats.

A particularly large and handsome male wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

A particularly large and handsome male wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Male wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Male wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

George L. Heinrich, Brian Zarate, and Jim Angley recording data on a wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

George L. Heinrich, Brian Zarate, and Jim Angley recording data on a wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Delaware and Raritan Canal (Sussex County, New Jersey). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Delaware and Raritan Canal (Sussex County, New Jersey). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

When we are traveling and searching for turtles, we try and make the most of our time in the field. Even after being out for many hours, the sun was still shining! Jim, George, and I headed to the Raritan River and Delaware and Raritan Canal. This canal is adjacent to the Raritan River and is used as a drinking water reservoir. It was excavated by hand using Chinese and Irish immigrants in the 1830s. Today, it is flanked with hiking and biking trails, fishing spots, and is a popular area for stillwater kayaking. It also contains two of our target species, the northern red-bellied cooter (Pseudemys rubriventris) and common map turtle (Graptemys geographica). This map turtle population was recently documented as a range extension by Jim (and colleague, Kurt Buhlmann). Please read about this study here. We observed more than a dozen of both species basking in both the river and canal. We also spotted two eastern painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) and one non-native red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans). Unfortunately, the lighting by this time was not great for photography and we were not able to obtain good photos.

Common map turtles (Graptemys geographica) and northern red-bellied cooters (Pseudemys rubriventris) basking together in the Delaware and Raritan Canal (Somerset County, New Jersey) on a separate trip. Photograph by James R. Angley. 

Common map turtles (Graptemys geographica) and northern red-bellied cooters (Pseudemys rubriventris) basking together in the Delaware and Raritan Canal (Somerset County, New Jersey) on a separate trip. Photograph by James R. Angley. 

The following day we met back up with Brian Zarate to visit additional bog and wood turtle sites. This time we were joined by Eric Goode, Maurice Rodrigues, James Liu (Turtle Conservancy), Robert Zappalorti (Herpetological Associates), and Craig Stanford (University of Southern California and Chairman, IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group). The first site that we visited was on private land. Habitat for the bog turtle (and wood turtle) is challenging to conserve and survey as it is made up of a mix of public and private ownership. State wildlife staff, such as Brian, have to carefully maintain good relationships with landowners in order to have access to these lands and it is great to see these individuals take an interest in protecting imperiled species.

Common garter snake (Thamnophis s. sirtalis) basking in the afternoon sun. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Common garter snake (Thamnophis s. sirtalis) basking in the afternoon sun. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

This site contains a large population of bog turtles, but is highly challenging to survey. Invasive Phragmites grass covers much of the site as well as cattail (Typha sp.). When searching this site, both plants tower overhead and make seeing anything on the ground nearly impossible. Members of the group were, however, able to find four wood turtles (all unmarked). Other species seen were meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus), garter snake (Thamnophis s. sirtalis), northern watersnake (Nerodia sipedon), and eastern milksnake (Lampropeltis t. triangulum). In addition to the Phragmites, another invasive plant, purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) are quite harmful to this type of habitat as they both can degrade wetlands due to their water absorption characteristics.

Bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) site covered in cattail (Typha sp.) Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Bog turtle (Glyptemys muhlenbergii) site covered in cattail (Typha sp.) Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

The second site that we visited was somewhat picturesque, with green fields and rolling hills in the surrounding landscape. Two bog turtle specimens were found, a recaptured male and an unmarked female. The third and final site was a wetland behind a shopping center, not exactly where you would think to look for a threatened species! Three bog turtles (two new and one recapture) were found. All in all, this was a fantastic trip and we were fortunate enough to be in the company of great turtle people. The highlight for me was certainly viewing bog turtles in the wild. I had previously worked with them in captivity, at the Tennessee Aquarium, and even bred them, but seeing them in their natural environment and learning about their conservation challenges was rewarding. The only thing that put a damper on the trip, and I hesitate to mention it, was the vast amount of ticks at the various sites! At times we were removing 15-20 from our clothing at once! The Northeast had a very mild winter which made the spring very bountiful with these parasitic arachnids. Luckily, the vast majority were dog ticks and not the Lyme disease-carrying deer ticks.

The following day, Jim, George, and I headed into New York City. We stopped in at the Osteology Prep Lab at the American Museum of Natural History and perused a few exhibit halls. We spent a lot of time in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall and John Burroughs Corridor learning about these two great naturalists. We also made a visit to Central Park to do some turtle watching. We walked to Belvedere Castle to get a good overview of Turtle Pond. This pond is habitat for at least eight species of turtles. The vast majority are non-native and are the result of released pets and their progeny. The most numerous species is the red-eared slider for which we observed well over 60 individuals. We also spotted one Mississippi map turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica kohnii), one painted turtle (Chrysemys picta), and one red-bellied turtle (either Pseudemys rubriventris or P. nelsoni).

A view of Turtle Pond (Central Park, NYC) from Belvedere Castle with the South Lawn and Mannhattan in the background. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

A view of Turtle Pond (Central Park, NYC) from Belvedere Castle with the South Lawn and Mannhattan in the background. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

This was a long but rewarding trip and we were excited to add six new species for The Big Turtle Year. Next, we traveled to Massachusetts to visit two sites associated with the northern red-bellied turtle.

The Big Turtle Year: Update #8

Species #24: Loggerhead musk turtle (Sternotherus m. minor)
Location: Rainbow River (Marion County, Florida)
Date: 13 May 2017
Post by George L. Heinrich

The weather forecast was poor, but my students and I decided to paddle on Rainbow River nevertheless. Rainbow is my favorite Florida waterway and home to nine species of turtles. For the past seven months, I have taught Turtle Science, a course for adults offered through Boyd Hill Nature Preserve (St. Petersburg, Florida), and this was the final day. Less than an hour after launching our kayaks and canoes the weather started deteriorating, but we continued upriver. Some of the students and I snorkeled at a few points along the way because I really needed to see a loggerhead musk turtle (Sternotherus m. minor) for The Big Turtle Year and it’s a common species on the Rainbow. We see dozens of these kinosternid turtles on an average day, but we saw minimal turtle activity that day. So, I was excited when I found a very large-headed, male loggerhead musk turtle hiding under a log with just a small section of exposed carapace. That single turtle moved our species count to 24. Only two more turtles were observed that day, another loggerhead musk turtle in a side creek and an unidentified cooter (Pseudemys sp.) swimming underwater. I look forward to the next visit being on a sunny day.

Adult male loggerhead musk turtle (Sternotherus m. minor) at Rainbow River (Marion County, Florida). Photograph by Andrew Farren.

Adult male loggerhead musk turtle (Sternotherus m. minor) at Rainbow River (Marion County, Florida). Photograph by Andrew Farren.

The Big Turtle Year: Update #7

Species #22: Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata)
Location: Riverside County, California
Date: 6 May 2017

Species #23: Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii)
Location: Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California)
Date: 7 May 2017
Post by George L. Heinrich

During my return flight from Los Angeles to Tampa, I found myself reminiscing about the three days that I had just spent searching for wild turtles in southern California. Although I was born in Bellflower in Los Angeles County, my parents relocated our family to Connecticut just before my first birthday. While growing up in southern New England, I had the opportunity to watch spotted turtles and wood turtles in the local woods, and to develop my love for wild chelonians and their associated habitats. I had returned to California twice for turtle conferences many years back, but this recent trip was the first opportunity to solely focus on exploring natural areas of the Golden State. It was a long way to travel for two species, but both were needed to advance the species count for The Big Turtle Year to 23.

The Big Turtle Year is a large and complex project with many moving parts. The strategy that Tim Walsh and I have used to organize this year-long conservation education initiative is to have turtle biologists and conservationists from throughout the country assist with logistics for their respective states and regions. I had asked our old friend, Michael Bargeron (California Turtle and Tortoise Society; www.turtlesociety.org), to be responsible for planning and to address logistical concerns in order to assure that we would see both the Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) and western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) in California. It was clear that Michael had put the required time into the task as everything ran as smooth as glass. Just like with Texas, we had picked the right person for the job.

Adult male red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) at Polliwog Park (Manhattan Beach, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Adult male red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) at Polliwog Park (Manhattan Beach, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Upon arrival in Los Angeles, Michael took me to visit Polliwog Park in Manhattan Beach where I had the opportunity see hundreds of non-native red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans). After the novelty of having a pet turtle diminishes, people often release them into local ponds where they may compete for resources with native species. Thanks to the pet trade, this invasive species can be seen well outside of its natural range and in many countries around the world. See The Big Turtle Year Update #5 written by Tim Walsh for more information on red-eared sliders.

Polliwog Park (Manhattan Beach, California), home to a large population of introduced red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Polliwog Park (Manhattan Beach, California), home to a large population of introduced red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Diane Brouhard climbing through cattails at a western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) site in Riverside County, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Diane Brouhard climbing through cattails at a western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) site in Riverside County, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Jonathon Reinig (Riverside County Regional Park and Open-Space District) searching for western pond turtles (Actinemys marmorata) in Riverside County, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Jonathon Reinig (Riverside County Regional Park and Open-Space District) searching for western pond turtles (Actinemys marmorata) in Riverside County, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

The next day, Diane Brouhard and Lydia Salinas (two more longtime friends and members of the California Turtle and Tortoise Society) joined Michael and me to search for western pond turtles with Jonathon Reinig of the Riverside County Regional Park and Open-Space District (www.wrc-rca.org). The District's work focuses on managing public-owned lands which support many state and federally listed species in this rapidly developing county located southeast of Los Angeles. We visited four sites, each quite different in appearance and known to support western pond turtles. Each location exhibited signs of human impacts, both past (agricultural land) and present (adjacent development). Although the first site was the wildest in appearance, it was not there that we found species #22, rather it was on public-owned land located near the entrance to a subdivision and adjacent to a major road. Our single sighting of a western pond turtle on that day was of an adult basking at the base of dead cattails.

This medium-sized emydid turtle occurs in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and barely enters Mexico (northern Baja California). It appears to be extirpated in Canada. Western pond turtles are the only remaining freshwater turtle species native to California. Formerly in the genus Clemmys, the western pond turtle is a listed species in all states within its U.S. range (Species of Special Concern in California and federally listed as a Species of Concern). Western pond turtle populations are in serious decline and in need of continued strategic conservation efforts. Anthropogenic threats, including habitat loss, agricultural activities, overgrazing, highway mortality, introduced predators, and illegal commercial exploitation for food have all impacted this Pacific Coast turtle. In addition, shell disease has become an issue in some parts of its range and of significant concern is the tremendous impact that lengthy droughts have had on this species.

Lydia Salinas exploring western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) habitat in Riverside County, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Lydia Salinas exploring western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) habitat in Riverside County, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Protected site where we located species #22: western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) in Riverside County, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Protected site where we located species #22: western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) in Riverside County, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) habitat in Riverside County, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) habitat in Riverside County, California. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Entrance to the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Entrance to the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Michael, Diane, and I traveled to Mojave, California late that evening so that we could take advantage of the cooler morning hours while searching for Mojave desert tortoises at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (www.tortoise-tracks.org) in nearby California City on the following day. This conservation land was established in 1979 and protects about 12 square miles of desert habitat, and has long been on my list of places to visit. One of four tortoise species that occur in the United States, it can be found north and west of the Colorado River in California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. The species also occurs in Mexico. It is a ‘protected’ species in all states within its U.S. range and is federally listed as Threatened.

Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) habitat at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) habitat at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

George L. Heinrich with species #23: Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by Michael Bargeron.

George L. Heinrich with species #23: Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by Michael Bargeron.

The temperature at 7:15 the next morning was a cool 43.7 degrees F, not ideal for finding reptiles. However, by 11:45 am the temperature had risen to 60 degrees F and we found our first tortoise right along the side of the trail. A couple of hours later we located a second tortoise sitting in the shade under a bush. Three species of lizards were active throughout our visit: desert horned lizard (Phrynosoma platyrhinos), western whiptail lizard (Aspidocelis tigris), and side-blotched lizard (Uta stansburiana). To learn more about desert tortoises, please visit the Desert Tortoise Council’s website at www.deserttortoise.org.

Desert horned lizard (Phrynosoma platyrhinos) at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Desert horned lizard (Phrynosoma platyrhinos) at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) at the Desert Tortoise Natural Area (California City, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Michael Bargeron and Rosi Dagit discussing western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) conservation in the Santa Monica Mountains (Los Angeles County, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Michael Bargeron and Rosi Dagit discussing western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) conservation in the Santa Monica Mountains (Los Angeles County, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Our third day in the field found Michael, Diane, Lydia, and I meeting up with Rosi Dagit, Senior Conservation Biologist with the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains (www.rcdsmm.org). Rosi is a fascinating biologist who studies penguins, southern steelhead trout, and western pond turtles. I first met Rosi while visiting her study site back in 2003 and I was looking forward to spending another day in the field with her. It was wonderful hiking on the same trails as during my earlier visit, enjoying a magnificent landscape, seeing endangered plants, and most of all further documenting species #22 (three western pond turtles basking in a pile of tree limbs over a pond in the distance). Later, back at her office, we had an opportunity to examine and photograph a couple of western pond turtles that were being rehabilitated after a predator attack, as well as several shells from predated turtles. Water issues are of concern for many U.S. species and the western pond turtle is no exception. The long drought in California has had a severe impact on these imperiled turtles; with dropping water levels they can become desiccated in the drying mud and also be exposed to predators. To learn more about this subject, please view Rosi’s article: click here.

Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains (Los Angeles County, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains (Los Angeles County, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains (Los Angeles County, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) habitat in the Santa Monica Mountains (Los Angeles County, California). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Despite cooler than normal temperatures for this time of year, we still found the two species for which I had traveled across the country. This was a great trip and provided a very welcome opportunity to reconnect with old friends. I will have wonderful memories of hiking in the Mojave Desert and the Santa Monica Mountains for many years to come.

Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) from the Santa Monica Mountains (Los Angeles County, California); currently being rehabilitated after a predator attack. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) from the Santa Monica Mountains (Los Angeles County, California); currently being rehabilitated after a predator attack. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) from the Santa Monica Mountains (Los Angeles County, California); currently being rehabilitated after a predator attack. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) from the Santa Monica Mountains (Los Angeles County, California); currently being rehabilitated after a predator attack. Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

The Big Turtle Year: Update #6

Species #10: Mississippi map turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica kohnii)
Location: Trinity River (Dallas County, Texas)
Date: 23 April 2017

Species #11: Sabine map turtle (Graptemys sabinensis)
Location: Sabine River/Highway 69 (Wood County, Texas)
Date: 23 April 2017

Species #12: Texas cooter (Pseudemys texana)
Species #13: Texas map turtle (Graptemys versa)
Species #14: Common musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus)
Location: County Line BBQ (Austin, Travis County, Texas)
Date: 23 April 2017

Species #15: Cagle’s map turtle (Graptemys caglei)
Location: Palmetto State Park (Gonzales County, Texas)
Date: 24 April 2017

Species #16: Pallid spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera pallida)
Location: Harris County, Texas
Date: 24 April 2017

Species #17: Alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)
Location: Harris County, Texas
Date: 25 April 2017

Species #18: Texas tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri)
Location: Hidalgo County, Texas
Date: 26 April 2017

Species #19: Rio Grande cooter (Pseudemys gorzugi)
Location: San Felipe Creek/Highway 90 East (Del Rio, Val Verde County, Texas)
Date: 26 April 2017

Species #20: Mexican plateau mud turtle (Kinosternon hirtipes murrayi)
Location: Presidio County, Texas
Date: 27 April 2017

Species #21: Big Bend slider (Trachemys gaigeae)
Location: Big Bend Ranch State Park (Brewster County, Texas)
Date: 28 April 2017
Post by George L. Heinrich

Children watching turtles, a popular activity at County Line BBQ (Austin, Travis County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Children watching turtles, a popular activity at County Line BBQ (Austin, Travis County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Texas is big! Rich in land and habitat diversity, the Lone Star State is home to 30 species of turtles (50.8% of the diversity in the United States) and has more endemic taxa of chelonians than any other state. I recently joined herpetologist Carl J. Franklin (University of Texas at Arlington) for seven days of fieldwork which allowed us to observe 12 species in the wild. We traveled 2,430 miles by truck while exploring several river systems, parks, and preserves throughout Texas, as well as the ecologically rich Lower Rio Grande Valley and Big Bend region.

Almost immediately after I landed at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, we were on our way east to search for turtles. By day’s end, we had located five species: Mississippi map turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica kohnii), Sabine map turtle (Graptemys sabinensis), Texas map turtle (Graptemys versa), Texas cooter (Pseudemys texana), and common musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus). A long day on the road ending in Austin (Travis County) had advanced The Big Turtle Year species count to 13. The Texas map turtle is a state endemic and occurs in the Colorado River system from the central part of the state to nearly the Gulf of Mexico. Another endemic is the Texas cooter which occurs in the Colorado, Brazos, Guadalupe, Neuces, and San Antonio watersheds. Tim Walsh and I study another species in that genus, the Suwannee cooter (Pseudemys concinna suwanniensis), in Florida, so this was a species that I really wanted to see in the wild.

Mississippi map turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica kohnii) basking on shoreline of the Trinity River (Dallas County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Mississippi map turtle (Graptemys pseudogeographica kohnii) basking on shoreline of the Trinity River (Dallas County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Texas cooter (Pseudemys texana) swimming at County Line BBQ (Austin, Travis County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Texas cooter (Pseudemys texana) swimming at County Line BBQ (Austin, Travis County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

George L. Heinrich with an adult male alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii; Harris County, Texas). Photograph by Jordan Gray.

George L. Heinrich with an adult male alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii; Harris County, Texas). Photograph by Jordan Gray.

On day two, we observed a Texas cooter basking on the shoreline of the San Marcos River in Palmetto State Park (Gonzales County). A stop at a second location within the park got us our first two endemic Cagle’s map turtles (Graptemys caglei), both basking on the same log. Later that day, Carl and I observed a Pallid spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera pallida) and a red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) at an undisclosed location in Harris County. Eric Munscher (Director of the Turtle Survival Alliance, North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group) joined us to set three hoop net traps baited with tilapia. This location is a new alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii) study site for that research group and they have captured all size classes during past trapping sessions. The three of us, along with Jordan Gray (Turtle Survival Alliance), checked the traps early the next morning and found two large alligator snapping turtles waiting to be processed and released; the largest one weighed 88.4 pounds! Of note, this cool species can grow significantly larger and has a fleshy appendage on their tongue that allows them to lure for fish and other live prey. I greatly appreciate Eric and Jordan making it possible for us to observe these amazing animals in wild Texas. Now that the alligator snapping turtle has been split into three species, I still have two more to find within their respective ranges in Florida. I’m looking forward to joining Dr. Jerry Johnston (Santa Fe College) for an upcoming night snorkel trip to search for the Suwannee alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys suwanniensis).

Basking pallid spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera pallida; Harris County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Basking pallid spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera pallida; Harris County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Adult male alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii; Harris County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Adult male alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii; Harris County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Eric Munscher, Carl J. Franklin, and Jordan Gray weighing an adult male alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii; Harris County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Eric Munscher, Carl J. Franklin, and Jordan Gray weighing an adult male alligator snapping turtle (Macrochelys temminckii; Harris County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

George L. Heinrich with a large juvenile Texas tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri; Hidalgo County, Texas). Photograph by Carl J. Franklin.

George L. Heinrich with a large juvenile Texas tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri; Hidalgo County, Texas). Photograph by Carl J. Franklin.

The next day found us in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (Hidalgo County) searching for a Texas tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri) with herpetologist Mayra Oyervides. Only a single, large juvenile specimen was located, but that was enough to get us species #18. This smallest of the six species of North American tortoises also occurs in Tamaulipas, Mexico. Fully protected by Texas law, it remains threatened by habitat loss, agricultural practices, road mortality, and entanglement in fences. The construction of any barriers, such as walls or fences, along the United States-Mexico border would be detrimental to the Texas tortoise, as well as many other species of turtles and wildlife.

Rio Grande cooter (Pseudemys gorzugi) habitat within golf course along San Felipe Creek (Del Rio, Val Verde County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Rio Grande cooter (Pseudemys gorzugi) habitat within golf course along San Felipe Creek (Del Rio, Val Verde County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

A visit to two locations on San Felipe Creek in Del Rio (Val Verde County) produced species #19, the Rio Grande cooter (Pseudemys gorzugi). This beautiful, rather small cooter occurs in lakes and small rivers in the Rio Grande River system, as well as waterways associated with the Pecos River. Unfortunately, populations of this species have been severely reduced.

Basking Rio Grande cooters (Pseudemys gorzugi) at San Felipe Creek (Del Rio, Val Verde County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Basking Rio Grande cooters (Pseudemys gorzugi) at San Felipe Creek (Del Rio, Val Verde County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Adult female red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) at San Felipe Creek (Del Rio, Val Verde County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Adult female red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) at San Felipe Creek (Del Rio, Val Verde County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Mexican plateau mud turtle (Kinosternon hirtipes murrayi) habitat (Presidio County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Mexican plateau mud turtle (Kinosternon hirtipes murrayi) habitat (Presidio County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

The small Mexican plateau mud turtle, also known at the rough-footed mud turtle (Kinosternon hirtipes murrayi), our species #20, is one of the rarest turtles in the United States. Most of this species range is in Mexico and only a small population is located just north of the border in west Texas. Of all the Texas species that we targeted, this was the one that I was most excited to see in the wild. Management practices by private landowners (~96% in Texas), water issues, and a very limited range are all significant threats to this species. Little is known about the Mexican plateau mud turtle in the United States and increased field studies and conservation efforts are urgently needed.

Basking Mexican plateau mud turtle (Kinosternon hirtipes murrayi; Presidio County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Basking Mexican plateau mud turtle (Kinosternon hirtipes murrayi; Presidio County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

A visit to the Big Bend region of west Texas also provided an opportunity to observe Big Bend sliders (Trachemys gaigeae) in the Rio Grande River. Formerly considered a subspecies of the common slider (Trachemys scripta), populations of this attractive turtle have been depleted by collectors. I was stunned by the beauty of the Rio Grande River, particularly in the Big Bend region.

Carl J. Franklin searching for Cagle’s map turtles (Graptemys caglei) at Palmetto State Park (Gonzales County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Carl J. Franklin searching for Cagle’s map turtles (Graptemys caglei) at Palmetto State Park (Gonzales County, Texas). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

I want to end this post by saying that Carl's knowledge of Texas turtles is immense and he clearly delivered for The Big Turtle Year. To learn more about Texas turtles, please visit Carl's website: www.texasturtles.org. We have invited Carl to write a guest blog about Texas turtles and hope to be able to post that along with some of his photos soon.

With the species count now standing at 21, The Big Turtle Year next travels to California to locate two species, the western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) and Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii). Stay tuned for more!

The Big Turtle Year: Update #5

Species #9: Spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata)
Location: Central Connecticut Valley (Middlesex County, Connecticut)
Date: 30 March 2017
Post by Timothy J. Walsh

Central Connecticut Valley wetland (Middlesex County, Connecticut). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Central Connecticut Valley wetland (Middlesex County, Connecticut). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

The state of Connecticut is certainly no hotspot for chelonian diversity, but it does contain a wonderful assembledge of northeastern species. Twelve turtle species can be found in the state, including Long Island Sound. A portion of my job with the Bruce Museum (Greenwich, Connecticut) is administering the Citizen Science project, Connecticut Turtle Atlas. This project encourages the public to help map turtle distribution throughout the state. The information gathered from these observations will be used to map distributions, identify important habitats, locate areas of nesting abundance, and detect roadways with high traffic-related mortality. To date, the project has 266 observations of 12 species by 42 people.

Barrie Robbins-Pianka and Tim Walsh with a male spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Barrie Robbins-Pianka and Tim Walsh with a male spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

One of the project's most prolific observers is Barrie Robbins-Pianka. Barrie is a nature enthusiast and conservationist. She has worked diligently over the last few years to try to end the harvest of common snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) in Connecticut. George L. Heinrich and I were able to meet up with Barrie to visit one of her favorite turtle sites. Due to one species in particular that inhabits the area, we will be intentionally vague in describing where we were. To further help protect this population, I have used special software to delete the location data from my cell phone pictures to prevent the localities from being found out. Poachers have been known to use scientific publications, cell phone photos, and popular articles to locate study sites, and many researchers have lost study animals to this threat. The black market trade in turtles for pets is a serious threat to many species in the United States.

George L. Heinrich with a male spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata). An ephemeral wetland can be seen in the background. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

George L. Heinrich with a male spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata). An ephemeral wetland can be seen in the background. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Four species can be found at this site, eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys p. picta), common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), common musk turtle (Sternotherus odoratus), and the imperiled spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata). I was excited to have the opportunity to see spotted turtles, as I have never seen this species in the wild. George was also full of anticipation as he has not viewed spotted turtles in Connecticut since growing up here in the early 1970s! We met with Barrie and hiked into a wide valley to a riverside wetland which is bisected by an abandoned railroad. Barrie frequently encounters all four species as they cross the tracks while moving from one water body to the other. Barrie did see a spotted turtle yesterday and marked the location with a stick. Unfortunately, when we found the spot the turtle was nowhere to be found. We walked the tracks for about a mile and viewed muskrats, various waterfowl, and over twenty eastern painted turtles. We were a bit disappointed as we did not find any spotted turtles, so we began our hike back to the vehicle. While walking, I noticed an area of disturbed leaves next to the trestle and I moved my foot through the pile. To my surprise, an adult male spotted turtle was resting underneath! The air temperature was a chilly 51° F, but the sun was shining brightly; the turtle may have been absorbing heat radiating off the metal rail. The three of us were quite pleased with the find and Barrie stated that this specimen was the same one that she found the day before. We photographed the turtle and placed it back in the leaf pile.

Abandoned railroad adjacent to river valley wetland (Middlesex County, Connecticut). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Abandoned railroad adjacent to river valley wetland (Middlesex County, Connecticut). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Male spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata) resting under leaf pile on abandoned railroad tracks. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Male spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata) resting under leaf pile on abandoned railroad tracks. Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

The Big Turtle Year: Update #4

Species #7: Eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys p. picta)
Species #8: Common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina)
Location: Binney Park (Old Greenwich, Connecticut) 
Date: 29 March 2017
Post by Timothy J. Walsh

Binney Park (Old Greenwich, Connecticut). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Binney Park (Old Greenwich, Connecticut). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

Today, George L. Heinrich and I visited Binney Park (Old Greenwich, Connecticut). This 32 acre urban park was established in 1927. The former tidal marsh was slated for development as a subdivision when a local girl, Helen Binney, convinced her father to purchase the land and preserve it. The land was preserved, but not in its natural state. Instead, it was turned into a cultivated and highly manicured park for the enjoyment of local residents. Helen Binney (Kitchel) went on to become an environmental champion and a Connecticut State Representative; one of her many fights was against roadside billboards and the negative affects they had on the scenery.

Although this type of modified park is a mere shadow of its wild self, these are sometimes the only natural areas people have access to, especially children. Binney Park has a nice-sized population of turtles consisting of three species. I am always pleased, while visiting, to hear a child exclaim "look mommy, turtles!" with great excitement. While I sometimes hear inaccurate information stated about the turtles, I am just happy that people get to enjoy the wonder of these amazing animals in a wild situation.

An adult male red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) basks in the spring sun at Binney Park (Old Greenwich, Connecticut). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

An adult male red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) basks in the spring sun at Binney Park (Old Greenwich, Connecticut). Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Like many urban parks containing water bodies, there is an abundance of non-native red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans). Featured heavily in the pet trade, this species is often released after outgrowing their novelty and tanks. They may cause damage to local turtle populations by competing for food, basking, and nesting resources. At this site, red-eared sliders outnumber native painted turtles nearly six to one. Binney Park is a great spot to view the large, prehistoric-looking common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and I have observed 13 individuals at one time. The snapping turtles are not shy and will often approach people on the shoreline. It is obvious that they occasionally receive 'snacks' from park visitors. 

An eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys p. picta) was quite creative in selecting a basking spot at Binney Park (Old Greenwich, Connecticut), seen here on top of a common snapping turtle's (Chelydra serpentina) carapace! Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

An eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys p. picta) was quite creative in selecting a basking spot at Binney Park (Old Greenwich, Connecticut), seen here on top of a common snapping turtle's (Chelydra serpentina) carapace! Photograph by George L. Heinrich.

Although it is technically spring, winter still has a good hold on the weather in the Northeast. It was 51° F and quite sunny. Most turtles in this region are just now emerging from hibernation and some are quite sluggish with swollen eyes. This is a difficult time for them to avoid predators and find food, but the most important thing for them right now is finding basking areas to absorb ample sunshine to kick-start their metabolism. In total, we were able to view four eastern painted turtles (Chrysemys p. picta), two common snapping turtles, and 23 red-eared sliders.

During a previous visit to Binney Park (Old Greenwich, Connecticut), a young boy was curious about an approaching snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.

During a previous visit to Binney Park (Old Greenwich, Connecticut), a young boy was curious about an approaching snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). Photograph by Timothy J. Walsh.