With camera in hand, I set out to explore familiar locations, places I visit regularly in search of wildlife. I was a little later than normal. It had been one of those “Five more minutes of sleep” mornings when the bed was comfortable and the cat was snuggled next to me, laying on my arm … you do not want to disturb the cat. At least that was my excuse for not getting up right away.
Eventually though I got rolling, out into a fresh, foggy morning as a deep orange sun broke over the horizon. I was met by a chorus of cooing mourning doves and a curious whitetail doe munching on birdseed under the feeder as I stepped outside. Beads of thick dew hung on the grass, flowers and leaves, catching the early sunlight and sparkling like tiny diamonds.
As I drove slowly near the Yellow River I became aware of one, two, three … “lots” of fresh dirt mounds near the side of the road. What in the world? It wasn’t long before I came across the reason for the mounds.
In this case, several turtles. Big, moss-covered snapping turtles were laying their eggs in the dirt along the road. In one stretch of about 50 yards I came across four of the old girls. Each of them was large, but a couple were in the “ancient” category — big, green, wet and covered in algae on top of their gnarled shells.
One was nearly as big around as a trash can cover. Her grizzled skin glistened in the early morning sun as she delivered a warning hiss. She was backed into a freshly-dug hole to lay her eggs, and she was not about to move. None of them were. They were mothers with tasks to perform, and they were not backing down until the next generation was deposited. They were admirable, really. And a snapping turtle stuck in place is great for photos … there is just something about that face and the texture of their shells that screams, “Snap a photo!”
This was the first time that I can recall coming across so many turtles laying eggs as one time. May and June are prime egg-laying times for Wisconsin turtles, peak nesting season. And apparently, there are a heck of a lot of snappers in that stretch of the Yellow River. Once the eggs are laid, the female turtle buries the eggs and leaves them to hatch on their own. After hatching, young turtles are completely independent and self-sufficient.
Unfortunately, this is also the time of the year that a lot of these aged turtle are hit by cars while crossing the roads. I always think this is just a shame. Some of these turtles can live to nearly 100 years old, but they get taken out by some guy in a 1997 Chevy who is in a hurry to get to morning coffee. Slow down, folks, take a little bit extra time and caution, especially in areas around water.
Why do turtles always have to cross the road? They apparently can’t understand it is a lot safer to lay their eggs on the side of the road they are already on. Plus, once they hatch, the little goofballs have to navigate back across the road again to get to the water. Just a few minutes old, and already put in a life-and-death situation … talk about childhood stress!
I finished snapping several photos and drove past the snappers slowly, wishing them well in their quest to get to get their eggs laid and return safely to the water. It was with great joy that I returned later and did not see any flattened. They made it. One would think that after all this time, nature would have allowed the turtles to evolve into sprinters to get across roads safely, but unfortunately they remain famously slow.
It was a nice feeling to see all of the mounds covered over, knowing that there were eggs waiting to hatch. I know the survival rate is pretty low. Eggs are preyed on by crows, mink, skunks, foxes and raccoons. And once they hatch, the uphill battle continues. Most of the same predators will attack them, as well as great blue herons, bitterns, hawks, owls, fishers, bullfrogs, otters, muskies, northern pike and snakes.
No wonder they are ill-tempered and grouchy by the time they mature. Life is no picnic for the snapping turtle.
Still, as the morning progressed, it was knowing that their mothers had successfully returned to the river. And even though it was going to be very tough, at least some of the eggs would likely hatch and the baby turtles that emerged would at least have a chance at survival. Nature is harsh and unforgiving, but a few of them might just make it.
Again, let’s slow down the next time you see a turtle crossing the road, okay? Some of these really big turtles are old warriors that have lived a long, long time. They deserve a better fate than getting whacked by a car. We can spare a few seconds out of our day to make sure they get to the other side of the road safely.