The days have changed quickly, from the oppressive heat to a ceaseless rain and chill. Now the sky is clear again, and perfect fall weather has moved in. Today I took a walk in a sweater and jeans, and I noticed that I never got to that hot and sweaty point but I was not cold either. I also noticed that my outfit sounded like something Kristy would be wearing if my day were Chapter 2 of a Baby Sitters Club book.
During the last few very rainy days I spent some time looking for Marbled Salamanders, which should be breeding now. My search was limited, and while I found interesting things salamanders of any species were not one of them. Now the sun is back, and temperatures have been climbing. All the pretty migrant birds are active and brightly lit. And the turtles emerged to get in some delicious basking. I was walking on my lunch break near Sligo Creek Park, and in a pond next to the creek I spotted a Red Eared Slider.
These turtles are easy to identify because they have a bright red spot right behind each eye. They are also easy to find because they are a very successful invasive species, and are the turtle I see the most in the suburban zone I frequent. I was so unimpressed with it that I did not take a photo (well, the next day I did, see it?****), but if you want to be able to ID a turtle that is the one to Google. There were many more turtles basking throughout the pond. In my class our teacher told us that in the Pacific Northwest invasive Red Eared Sliders have been documented knocking other species of basking turtles into the water to steal their spots. Basking is important for turtles, because it helps them regulate their temperature and allows them to dry off, which wards off diseases. If a turtle cannot bask, it will suffer. I contemplated this on my lazy lunch break stroll, the perfect sun on my face, and I felt pretty willing to embrace it as possible justification of my own basking habits. But I also felt a cynical certainty that when I applied my binoculars to the other species of turtles in the pond, they would all be invasive Red Eared Sliders, and that all the other lovely species that might have lived in this little habitat would have been elbowed out with no place else to go.
I may not be as cynical as I imagine though- the more attention I pay to nature, the more amazed I am by the diversity that remains, and that I never realized has surrounded me my entire life. Every other turtle in the pond was a native species, and I have not spotted and identified a single one of them on my own before. At least one, but possibly two, may be turtle species I have not knowingly seen at all! If you want more nature in your life, never ever stop believing in the wonders of your own backyard.
The first turtle I ever got to know well, a Box Turtle, in fact lived in my own backyard of the house I grew up in. Regularly I saw this friend walking through the Mayapples. My recently departed Grandmother used to put out lettuce for the Box Turtle in her yard in St Mary’s County, and he rewarded her with daily visits.
Box Turtles are land-dwellers, so were not among the creatures I spotted today. I kept an eye out for one though, because a co-worker told me that, although I have generally given this species up for lost in the smaller fragments of woods that surround me, she saw one in the same area last week! Between the birds up above and the turtle that could pass by unnoticed down below, it was hard to know which direction to point my eyes.
Turtles that I saw included the Northern Red Bellied Cooter*** and the Eastern Painted Turtle. I also saw a dark turtle with an oddly shaped head and a very domed shell (carapace) swimming just under the surface of the water. I told myself that it must be a Snapping Turtle, but I wasn’t convinced. Looking online and in my beloved Amphibians and Reptiles of Delmarva, I determined that it was an Eastern Mud Turtle!
I guess you can barely see them here, but the Cooters have the coolest pattern on the underside of the marginal scutes of their carapace (the plates on the edge of their upper shell) and on their plastron (lower shell). It lives up to the Red Bellied name.
Here is one of the Eastern Painted Turtles. It was basking alongside its mini-me*, but they got into the water when I came near. Soon I spotted this guy climbing out again. The photo is also micro-sized. I took it through binoculars and zoomed in a little, but you still may or may not be able to see the pretty yellow striped pattern on the turtles face, with a bigger yellow spot behind its eye. Although not visible here or to me today, their plastron (remember what that is?) (their bottom shell) is yellow!!
I really want you to be able to see that yellow spot!
To my friend who does not read my blog, but who is married to someone who does- I hope that if you see this your love of turtles will outweigh your fear of birds!
*speaking of friends, the turtles I saw were all sharing logs with others of their species. I do not know if this is typical turtle kinship stuff or just a coincidence.
*** I returned to see the turtles the next day. About 15 were lined up on one log! Half of the stick was in the shade, and this half was heavily covered with Painted Turtles. The other half was in the sun. Interestingly it was covered with Red Eared Sliders. Yet another sign that these invasives are pushy little b-holes? Anyway the close-up view of the Red Eareds gave me a sinking feeling. The markings on their plastrons looked just like the markings on the turtles above, IDed by me as Red Bellied Cooters. Further research has led me to suspect that they are more likely to have been Sliders than Cooters, although I am once again humbled by my lack of knowledge enough to say that I am not entirely sure either way. I would like to tell you that I saw this cool native species, but I am inclined to assume the more likely, common, and invasive species, the Slider, is what I saw.
**** This is the turtle that stayed on the log after they all got scared of me and jumped into the water. What a brave invader. As you can see, this plastron looks quite similar to the “Cooter” plastron.