Just as our favorite North Fork past times change with the seasons, so do the activities of its local wildlife.
March marks the homecoming of osprey from their wintering areas in South America. Our freshwater rivers and streams come alive in April with the schools of alewife that have returned from a treacherous journey from the sea to spawn. As we enter May, another group of animals becomes active and often needs a little helping hand from us from time to time.
Emerging from their underground burrows, our local turtles are waking from their long winter hibernation and will quickly seek out the warmth of the sun for a “recharge.”
Unlike mammals and birds, turtles are cold-blooded and their body temperature will match the surrounding environment. This is why turtles and other reptiles are often observed basking in the sun, especially during early morning hours when temperatures are still a bit chilly. As they absorb heat from the sun, their metabolism increases, giving them the energy to forage for food, escape predation and pursue a mate. As winter approaches, turtles and other reptiles must return to their burrows to hibernate in order to survive the long, cold season.
The pond turtles are the first turtles to become active on the North Fork. On the first warm, sunny spring days, painted turtles will haul themselves onto floating logs, mud banks, rocks, and other objects to warm themselves in the sun. After becoming energized, they return to the water where they feed on aquatic vegetation, insects, crayfish, snails, small fish, tadpoles, mussels and carrion.
Another pond turtle that is beginning to stir and is an unwelcome sight to the painted turtles is the red-eared slider. This larger, more aggressive turtle is an invasive species that originated from the Mississippi River Basin. It has been introduced far outside its range primarily through the pet industry. Unfortunately, its assertive nature has disrupted local ecosystems by pushing out native turtles from their homes.
Distinguishing between these two pond turtles is relatively easy. Painted turtles have a dark shell that is accented with bright red and yellow stripes along its edge, as well as on the skin of their neck and legs. Red-eared sliders have a greenish-brown shell, yellow stripes on their head and legs, and a red mark located behind their eyes (hence their name).
Lurking in ponds, lakes, rivers and even salt marshes is the common snapping turtle. Our largest freshwater turtle, they have average shell lengths of 8 to 19 inches long and weigh from 10 to 35 pounds. Unlike the previously mentioned turtles, snapping turtles do no haul out of the water to warm themselves, rather they sun themselves just below the water’s surface. Being that they stay submerged, a fair amount of growth in the way of algae will form on their shell. This natural camouflage helps conceal their location, allowing them to ambush unsuspecting prey such as fish, crayfish, frogs, other turtles and even waterfowl.
Named after the diamond-shaped pattern on their carapace (top shell), the diamondback terrapin is a turtle of the salt marsh. Growing up to 10 inches long and weighing up to a 1.5 pounds, the diamondback terrapin feeds on fish, snails, crabs, mollusks, worms and carrion. In 2015, there was a massive die-off of diamondback terrapins in the Peconic Estuary. Researchers determined that they perished from a harmful algal bloom of Alexandrium fundyense. This dinoflagellate produces a potent neurotoxin known as saxitoxin, which can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning. When contaminated shellfish are consumed, the affects can be fatal, which was the case for hundreds of turtles.
To locate our only fully terrestrial turtle, we must leave the water’s edge and head to the open fields and wood lots of the North Fork. Here is where we will find the eastern box turtle. Having a terrestrial lifestyle is not the only difference between the box turtle and the aquatic species I have mentioned. When threatened, box turtles can fully retreat into their shell and close the plastron (lower shell), protecting them from a would-be predator, a trait the aquatic species are unable to accomplish.
One thing that is shared among all these turtle species is the negative impact we have had on their day to day activities. As more of the North Fork becomes developed, these turtles must compete with us for suitable living space. Finding food, a mate or a place to lay their eggs becomes a more daunting task when one must cross a road or parking lot — especially when standing only a couple inches tall and moving at a turtle’s pace.
Almost every pond, lake, salt marsh and woodlot on the North Fork is home to one or more of the turtle species I have discussed. They are very skittish and will often disappear from sight long before we spot them, so it best to move slowly when looking for turtles. And remember, “Give Turtles a Break” while driving, you might just save their life.
What can you do to help?
• Watch for turtles trying to cross the road. If the situation is safe for you to help, move them to the side of the road they were heading to. Do not take them home or relocate them to a “safer” area, even if they are far from the water (they might be looking for a place to lay eggs). Turtles have a home range and here they know where to find food and shelter. Moving them will only cause them harm.
• Do not lift snapping turtles by their tail to move them. Although it seems like a safe method for handling them, you can severely damage their tail or vertebrae.
• Do not take wild turtles home as pets. Besides it being illegal, turtles have many health requirements that make keeping them difficult. They can also carry salmonella.
•Do not release pet turtles (or other animals) into the wild. Their introduction can have a devastating impact on the ecosystem.