With its combination of shallow bays, marshes, and island ponds, our region is a prime area for appreciating turtles. Those chilly nights we can have in the middle of summer coax turtles up on logs in the morning where they are easy to see…, if you slow down. I’ve never made a pet of one, as I did in the suburbs, because here they are constant companions from April through September.
We have four turtles to enjoy and the smallest, the painted turtle, is the one you most often see stretched out in the sun. Actually painted turtles are pretty active. If you linger along the shallow edge of river marshes or quietly approach any pond, on a sunny day, you often see them climbing up on a log and that’s not easy for a turtle (or a human.)
Turtles are cold blooded and they need the sunlight to warm themselves up for their main task in life, swimming underwater and finding things to eat. But all animals are show offs, and I suspect the painted turtle is rather proud to stretch its striped neck out for every other turtle to see.
However that neck stripe is not why they are called painted. If you bump into one on land, squat down politely, keep hands off so it doesn’t withdraw into its shell, and ogle the red paint job on its body.
I disdain giving human attributes to the lower animals, except turtles. Painted turtles strike me as dreamers. Once up on the log a turtle can look a little like the Starship Enterprise kicking out its thrusters. Tell me it’s not dreaming of warp speed.
Along the river shore the painted turtle is sometimes joined by the larger map turtle and in the beaver ponds the larger still Blanding’s turtle hogs more of the sun.
How a painted turtle stretches out, by Bob Arnebeck
The bottom shell of a Blanding’s can provide almost 10 inches of solid base and its neck can stretch out another four inches. And what a neck and chin: solid yellow bottom in one bold stripe. The Blanding’s is the first turtle out after the snow and ice melts which, to me, makes the yellow neck of the Blanding’s one of the first flowers of spring.
Painted turtles of one variety or another range in most of the US and southern Canada. The range of the Blanding’s seems to be shrinking around the Great Lakes. The turtle experts of the New York Department of Environmental were quite exercised when I put up a web site about Blanding’s turtles. They envisioned turtle-nappers using the information in it to ferret out these “threatened” animals. They demanded that I not tell anyone where the turtles are.
A map turtle dives into water with style, by Bob Arnebeck
Well, in the Thousand Islands region Blanding’s turtles are more or less everywhere you’d expect to find a turtle that emerges out of hibernation in mud covered with ice and water. In due time many will cross a road near you looking for or leaving nesting sites. Blanding’s are relatively sagacious pedestrians and don’t, like the painted turtles, nestle down into the warmth of the asphalt nor, like the snapping turtles, dig nests in the shoulders of the road.
I have discovered, and I’ll keep the secret, a small vernal pool, where I’ve seen Blanding’s turtles emerge the last 15 years. And I know a pond where they court in late April and May.
Snapper under water and painted turtle hitching a ride, by Bob Arnebeck
And I’ve seen them do it, though it took me a few minutes to figure out why a turtle kept swimming toward me winking and with almost a smile on its face…. Another turtle was underneath.
One curious thing about Blanding’s turtles is that you rarely see young small ones, which is a pity because with yellow chin and bright yellow spots on their head and shell, they are quite beautiful.
While I have seen Blanding’s turtles just coming out of the river, that was a rare sighting. The map turtle, especially this year, kept popping up along the shores of South Bay as I paddled along in my kayak. Evidently it got its name because its shell looks like a map. OK, but seeing it at eyelevel from a kayak, the shell of a map turtle looks like something that has been hastily thrown on the back just to conform to Coast Guard regulations.
And if you have binoculars or are lucky enough to get close, you can’t help but notice its bulging neck and thighs.
Sometime in July map turtles head for the hills, or so the shore of any of our islands must seem to them. Twice I’ve almost stumbled over them, both times without my camera, as they looked for nesting sites along the main road through Thousand Island Park. I was tipsy the second time and the shell still didn’t look like a map. I got a video of one diving off a log. Other turtles just plop into the water. Map turtles dive in like commandos.
Not that they are to be feared. The snapping turtle has that reputation. Usually when they come out of the river and ponds, they are looking for a place to lay eggs. But they can lurk in wet low ground, and unlike the painted and Blanding’s turtles, snapping turtles are colored to blend in.
You wouldn’t want to pick one up. They are not cuddly. They seem to burst out of their shell in a way that says “feed me,“ and they do fight. So far I’ve only seen them fight other snapping turtles. Their fights can get so out of hand with constant thrashing in the water, affording fleeting glimpses of sophisticated Greco-Roman wrestling holds, that once I saw a beaver swimming around a fight slapping its tail trying to restore order.
But they seem gentle enough with other turtles. I‘ve seen painted turtles hitch a ride on top of a snapper‘s shell and the big guy hardly seemed to notice the mite one-twentieth its size.
And when foraging on the surface of the water, they have a light touch. With just their nose up, they can deftly nudge a lily pad or branch sending any possible morsel resting there up and into the water and into the turtle’s mouth. When stretched out, their tiny nostrils don’t seem to have anything to do with the huge floating rock just behind.
Blanding's turtles mating in a pond, by Bob Arnebeck
The experts and other turtle lovers can’t resist picking turtles up and pondering the patterns on their bottom shell, but I think we should shy away from that. Who wants to be lifted upside down? The acme of turtle watching is to be quiet enough on shore or slow enough in the water to see the turtles in their real world, underwater, where they spend most of their time surviving on the slightest breaths of air. Why all the huffing and puffing? Why did we evolve?
By Bob Arnebeck, Wellesley Island
Bob Arnebeck is a writer who lives year-round at Thousand Island Park. He moved to the islands with his family in 1994 from Washington, DC, where he was a free lance journalist and historian. In 1991 his “Through a Fiery Trail: Building Washington 1790-1800, published by Madison Books and Proust's Last Beer: A History of Curious Demises. Links to his web pages and blogs about his experiences with animals in the Thousand Islands can be found at http://bobarnebeck.com/ and his first article for TI Life was Winter with the Otters (November, 2012).