The text message conveyed both urgency and excitement: “Holy Huge Snapper, Batman!”
And with that I knew that one of my favorite times of year had arrived: turtle egg-laying season!
Lots of people probably know that turtles lay eggs. But I’d wager that most are more familiar with sea turtles’ reproductive habits than with those of the turtles they may have in – or near – their own backyards.
After all, the sea turtle life cycle is the sort of topic wildlife filmographers love to romanticize. They document how the turtles travel back to the same beaches where they hatched years before; how, using only their hind legs, they painstakingly dig holes, or nests, into which they deposit anywhere from as many as 100 eggs; and how, two to three months later, the baby sea turtles dig their way up through the sand and see the light of day (or night) for the first time. Finally, against overwhelming odds, and perils that include gulls, raccoons and marauding humans, they make their journey to the sea and begin a life that, if they’re lucky, will last 50 years.
While that’s all well and good, it’s also an event that takes place a thousand miles away. Not the sort of thing you can take in easily when you’re based here in Kane County.
But, lo and behold, our local turtles can be just as enchanting, and this is the time of year to observe them.
Although Kane County turtles can, and do, move around any time it’s warm out, seeking more spacious or less competitive environments, egg-laying season is when you’re most likely to catch a glimpse of one of our fine native species.
Sandy, sun-drenched beaches like the ones sea turtles prefer are in short supply in these parts, and the ones who are here have been flooding with increasing regularity. So our turtles often need to head farther afield in search of suitable nest sites.
Within the past few weeks, I’ve heard from people who’ve spotted female turtles digging nests along bike trails, in the wood chips of a playground and beneath the branches of a freshly mulched shrub. Then there was the Huge Snapper in the text message, which came courtesy of our nature programs coordinator Lauren Kulinski.
Lauren was at Leroy Oakes Forest Preserve in St. Charles, helping our camp instructors prepare for their weekly outing to Ferson Creek, when she was alerted to a big lump parked in the mowed grass near the picnic pavilion. The lump was a common snapping turtle – make that a huge common snapping turtle – and it was very near where one camps was assembling.
The Illinois Natural History Survey’s Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Illinois contains a great description for the common snapper, Chelydra serpentina, stating that they are “calm and retiring” in the water but “aggressive and menacing” on land.
This snapper – this huge snapper – was most definitely on land. And only a few yards away from a whole bunch of curious kids.
But the great thing about snapping turtles, and in fact most wildlife, is that if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.
Other than “snapping” a few pictures, that’s exactly what Lauren and the campers did. Everybody learned something, nobody got hurt and the snapper, eventually, went on its way.
If you happen to encounter a snapping turtle – or a spiny softshell turtle, a painted turtle, a red-eared slider or any other local species – in a place you don’t expect it, give it some respect; assume it knows what it’s doing and don’t interfere.
But if you can, try to spare a little time to watch the turtle go about its business. If you’re lucky and have found a female, you can witness a ritual that has been repeated time and again over the millennia. And if you return to that same spot in a few months, at just the right moment, you might be rewarded with a look at a dozen or more reasons why this current time of year is so important. Holy Tiny Turtle Hatchlings, Batman!
Just a reminder to everyone that if they find a turtle in the road and want to help, they should move it to the side of the road that it was headed toward – which may or may not be the closest one. They shouldn’t try to second-guess what the turtle was up to, or transport it to a pond or stream. Nor should they put themselves in any danger.
• Pam Otto is manager of nature programs and interpretive services for the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.