A Change of Pace: Turtles!

Sometimes I have to walk away from the common challenges of wildlife photography, subjects like deer feeding in fading light, butterflies darting erratically across a meadow, tiny birds searching for berries in dense undergrowth, an eagle soaring in the clouds.

Turtles loafing in the warm afternoon sun on late summer days is a nice alternative, one where speed and light are inconsequential! Turtle searching led me to the Chenango Canal towpath trail and wetland complex.

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My first encounter was a painted turtle basking in the warm gravel at the edge of the road.  I managed to capture a few portraits before it crawled into the swamp.

 

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A hundred meters down the towpath trail, I saw what appeared to be a shiny flat rock in the grassy center strip. Something wasn’t right – too shiny – so I approached cautiously. Oh boy – a young snapping turtle! It was tiny by snapper standards, about the size of a hand with fingers extended. Speaking of fingers …..

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I wanted one more image, that of a big, mature snapper, but much of the shallow water along the near bank was obscured by the tall, dense growth of Touch-me-not (Jewelweed).

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Eventually I found a clear view of the canal in prime turtle habitat, but saw nothing but a large, slimy rock covered in algae and mud. Time to give up and head home……or not!?

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The rock had a neck and head! Snappers can live 30 to 40 years and weigh up to 35 pounds; I think this prehistoric monster is living proof!

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

 

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Pond Life

Small, warm-water ponds are a nice change of pace and delightful mid-summer escape.

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Adult merganser and snapping turtle at rest… young mergansers might be a meal for this snapper!

Last week I was invited to a private woodland pond to observe and photograph a family of beavers. There was plenty of time to spare in between beaver sightings and I soon became entranced with the cold blooded creatures hunting the shoreline and shallow waters. Most prominent were the bullfrogs. Dozens dove into the pond from the weedy bank as I scouted the water.  Soon after I had taken a seat and steadied the camera, they began to pop up to the surface, bulging eyes announcing their presence.

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Huge dragonflies were patrolling the waters with grace and beauty. This one stopped on a dime and hovered in front of me, seemingly to show off its amazing flying skills and pose for documentation.

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An adult beaver finally appeared on a far bank. It had been foraging in a thicket above the water line and would soon be heading back to the lodge with a freshly cut tree branch to feed its young.

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A conversation about beaver and the aquatic habitats that they create is incomplete without mention of the Red-spotted Newt. Two of the three stages of the complex life cycle of this salamander are dependent on clean, quiet waters like beaver ponds. The middle stage, an immature adult (“Red Eft”), is terrestrial. They inhabit the moist, shaded habitat of the forest floor and can be found wandering around at any time of the day or night.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

The Snappers are Laying!

Old abandoned railroad beds are a centerpiece of our outdoor recreation resources. “Rails-to-trails” projects provide wonderful opportunities for hiking, dog-walking, nature photography, cross-country skiing and other outdoor activities. These long green corridors also connect villages and spur cooperative, community-based conservation efforts.

This morning I had a call from the walker shown below to let me know that there were Snapping Turtles all over the place, digging nests and laying eggs. It was warm, overcast and rainy, a perfect day for turtle activity. In fact, I stopped along the way to remove a Painted Turtle from the middle of the road, reminding me of my post from 2013 entitled “Slow Down for Turtles”!

https://nicksnaturepics.wordpress.com/2013/06/13/slow-down-for-turtles/

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Abandoned railroad bed converted into a popular walking trail

Abandoned railroad beds attract turtles in late spring because they are often in close proximity to wetlands and provide ideal sites for egg-laying: high, dry and sunny, with coarse-textured substrate.

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Snapping Turtle on its nest, laying eggs

These egg-laying snappers, working along the edge of the railroad bed just a couple of feet from the main pathway, are totally committed to the task at hand. They’re more or less oblivious to mild disturbances, tolerating walkers (some with leashed dogs) and curious onlookers (like me) just a few feet away. They don’t leave until the seeds for another generation of Snapping Turtles are secure!

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

 

Slow Down for Turtles

What does a nature photographer do when faced with three weeks of rain, and sunshine as fleeting as a colorful sunset? To confound the issue, assume that this particular photographer is neither experienced with, or geared up for, capturing quality images under dark, rainy conditions…………..Look for turtles!

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I had been seeing turtles, dead and alive, on my travels in and around wetlands and decided to make the most of the opportunity. My featured species are the Painted Turtle (Chrysemys spp.) and Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina), both very common and widespread.

Prime turtle habitat generally consists of quiet, shallow surface waters with soft, muddy bottoms and an abundance of aquatic vegetation. These diverse wetland habitats are rich in aquatic life of all sorts and provide the key ingredients for turtle success: animal (and plant) life to eat; places to hide or bask in the sun; and a soft, subsurface medium to burrow into and hibernate for the winter.

The four photos that follow illustrate the aquatic life typically associated with turtle habitat.

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Yellow Pond Lily (also Bullhead Lily; Nuphar variegatum)

I had to slip into about 10 inches of muck and water to confirm the identity of this White Water Buttercup. Just as my boot entered the water, a huge Snapper slowly backed away into deeper water. Had I known it was there, I would have waited for it to poke its nose up in between the flowers!

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White Water Buttercup (Ranunculus trichophyllus). This small plant has clusters of feathery, threadlike leaves below the surface.

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Leaf of a Water Lily

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Bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana), usually found in the same habitats as Painted and Snapping Turtles

The Painted Turtle is  the most widely distributed turtle in North America, and probably the species that is most often seen by the viewing public. Flourishing in spite of human disturbance, and in some cases because of it, they are found in a wide variety of aquatic habitats. These include drainage ditches and farm ponds as well as natural wetlands and surface waters.

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Basking Painted Turtles

Generally, when a small turtle (4-10 inches long) is seen basking on a rock, stump or fallen tree in a shallow water body, it is a Painted Turtle. Close inspection reveals a striking mix of vivid red, yellow and dark markings that gave rise to the common name.

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Basking Painted Turtles

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Basking Painted Turtles; one just slipped back into the water, perhaps to feed after getting warmed up

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Basking Painted Turtles

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Painted Turtle; this was one of four turtles on a secondary road bisecting a marsh, three Painted Turtles and one Snapper. I believe they were searching for nest-building and egg-laying sites.

Snapping Turtles and Painted Turtles have much in common in terms of food and habitat preferences and reproductive behavior. However, Snapping Turtles are much larger (15-20 inches long and up to 35 pounds or more in weight), have economic importance as a source of food and, as stated in my Peterson field guide “Reptiles and Amphibians”, they are “Ugly in both appearance and disposition…..”.

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Snapper on her nest, laying eggs

One of my references says that Snappers, unlike other turtles, rarely bask in the sun. This snapper is climbing a downed tree in the middle of a small farm pond to bask!

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Snapper climbing a snag in a pond, looking for a place to bask in the sun (1 of 2)

After photographing the basking Snapper, I spotted this hen Merganser along the far shoreline. She speared a frog, gulped it down and headed toward the downed tree. I assumed she was going to drift in among the limbs and rest on the water, but to my delight she hopped up on to the snag. I don’t think she knew she wasn’t alone!

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Hen Merganser preening and resting, in the company of a basking Snapper

Snappers can be nasty when cornered and disturbed on land. They have to be – they’re too massive to withdraw into the protection of their shell. However, if they have access to water when disturbed, they will often float with just their eyes and nostrils showing. The dorsal position of the nostrils allows them to “snorkel” and evaluate the nature of the threat.

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Disturbed Snapper in a deep puddle on a poorly drained hiking trail

Both Painted Turtles and Snapping Turtles leave the comfort and security of water to build nests and lay eggs. This snapper has just emerged from its watery home to search for a nest site.

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Snapping Turtle searching for a nest site.

The preferred nest site is an open, sunny spot with coarse-textured soil. Old railroad beds bordering wetlands and, in the following sequence, the coarse surface of a canal towpath, are examples.

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Snapping Turtle preparing to lay eggs in its nest.

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Claws of a road-killed Snapping Turtle, well adapted for digging

At a glance the nest appears to be a shallow excavation, but a deeper hole lies within to receive the eggs. Several dozen eggs, somewhat like small ping pong balls, will be deposited in the hole, then covered. Incubation is 9 to 18 weeks, depending on the geographic location. In the cold North, hatchlings might remain in the nest until spring (amazing!).

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Snapping Turtle laying an egg in her nest

PRESERVE WETLANDS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Photos by NB Hunter. ©  All Rights Reserved.

A Canal Towpath/Trail Walk

Late this morning I decided to battle cabin fever (its been raining for days) and investigate a local wetland and historic, canal waterway. The canal and towpath date back to the middle of the 19th century. Thanks to an active, volunteer conservation group, they are now an important wildlife sanctuary and recreation resource.

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Chenango Canal and towpath/trail

Two “alien” or non-native plants are in full bloom now, both of which were growing at the edge of the canal.

Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis), a native of Europe and Asia, has escaped from gardens and become naturalized. It prefers moist soils, but isn’t too site-sensitive and groups of plants are blooming everywhere – roadsides, field edges, vacant lots, etc. This tall wildflower looks like Phlox, but unlike that common garden plant, has just four petals and an alternate leaf arrangement. I like its colorful floral display and the fact that the small, tubular flowers attract butterflies and other insects.

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Dame’s Rocket in a damp, uncultivated area next to active farmland

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Dame’s Rocket

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Crescent butterfly on Dame’s Rocket

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White Admiral butterfly on Dame’s Rocket

Yellow Iris (Iris pseudacorus), of European origin, is another species that has successfully escaped from cultivation. It is a wet site plant and extensive stands are locally common in marshes, on floodplains and along stream banks. In some areas Yellow Iris has received the status of “invasive”. The plants occur in large clumps, 2 to 3 feet tall, and are vigorous and sturdy. I often see large, expanding colonies along stream banks that seem immune to severe flooding and fluctuating water levels.

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Yellow Iris

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Yellow iris

I visited the canal hoping to see waterfowl, perhaps a family of Wood Ducks. A feather was the best I could do, but I had some great turtle sightings that offset the disappointment!

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Waterfowl feather lodged against a cattail stalk

Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) are active now. I saw a road-killed female on my way to the canal and thought of a recent warning in the local newspaper: “slow down for turtles when driving near wetlands”.

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Snapping Turtle swimming in the fertile, slow-moving water of the canal

Of the nearly 20 species of turtles native to New York State, the Snapping Turtle and smaller Eastern Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta picta) are the most common. Painted Turtles are often seen sunning on logs and rocks in the shallow, sluggish waters of swamps, marshes and ponds.

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Eastern Painted Turtle at rest

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

The Common Merganser

Several years ago, while fly fishing for wild brook and brown trout on a small mountain stream, I had my first close encounter with Common Mergansers. I was fishing a large flat pool, using my best Great Blue Heron imitation to advance as close as possible to rising trout. It was late evening, nearly dark, with fog rolling in over the water. I noticed something fairly large and white near an upstream bank, and assumed that some sort of debris had lodged against the exposed tree roots. That thought satisfied my curiosity, until the large white object began moving – across rather than downstream. I had no idea what this creature was until it hopped up onto a rock and started to preen. I soon learned that a pair of Common Mergansers had drifted downstream, probably headed for the quiet water and tree-lined banks of my pool to roost for the night.

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A pair of Common Mergansers (1 of 2)

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Since that first encounter I have spent a lot of time observing surface waters and their wildlife inhabitants. Common Mergansers are indeed common, much more so than I realized. Wooded streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes all seem to provide suitable habitat.

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Common Mergansers (left and third from left) on a stream in late winter

These large-bodied diving ducks are beautiful and fascinating birds. My first close encounter with the camera was even more thrilling than the previous experience. I set up in a riverbank blind in late winter, in an area where photos of bald eagles, coyotes, mergansers and other wildlife were all possible. Eventually, I saw a pair of ducks in the distance, working upstream in my direction.  I waited, motionless, with camera ready. They were perhaps a hundred feet downstream when I heard their approach, the sound of ducks diving for fish. There was a sheet of ice, thin and about 4 feet wide, along the shoreline directly in front of me. Before I realized what was happening, a large light-colored, torpedo-like form appeared under the ice. Moving quickly, it soon surfaced in the open water in mid-stream. Of course it was one of the mergansers, and he had caught me completely off guard. I was so mesmerized by the action that the camera around my neck never entered my mind – until he plopped to the surface. Then I got some lovely shots, photos that will never let me forget this memorable experience.

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Common Merganser, male (1 of 2)

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Common Merganser, female (1 of 2)

 

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The following photos were taken in late summer, while I was house-sitting for friends who have a small, spring-fed pond. I was sitting on the bank, using a shrub to break up my outline, watching a hen merganser dive, spear and gulp a bull frog near the far bank. As luck would have it, a Snapping Turtle, and then the hen merganser, chose a dead tree in the middle of the pond to rest in the sun.

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Merganser hen and Snapping Turtle (1 of 3)

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Increasing numbers of Common Mergansers and the expansion of their breeding range in the Northeast have led to concerns over the impact of these diving, fish-eating ducks on trout and other game fish. Research that monitors birds with tags and radio-transmitters should help us learn more about this thriving waterfowl species and how to manage it effectively.

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Common Merganser, female

All photos by NB Hunter