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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.