Loving aquatic turtles in nature

I’ve always loved turtles. Since I was about 10 years old, I spent many summer days on foot or on my bike exploring streams and farm ponds near my home in southeastern Pennsylvania. Some days I’d get home for lunch, some days not.

I loved getting wet on hot summer days; catching aquatic turtles was fun and challenging. My mom made nets from cheese cloth and fit them over a clothes hanger frame. Then I’d attached the hoop to a broom handle. I caught a lot of turtles with that simple net.

Today you can buy dip nets for just a few dollars. It’s really all you need for a fun summer afternoon with the kids. But it’s purely catch and release. Net a turtle, study it, photograph it, then let it go, and watch as it goes about its business. It’s a great way to instill a conservation ethic in kids. Also, be aware that many states require a fishing license to catch turtles.

I’ve also found that many anglers can’t resist a little turtle watching when fish aren’t biting. Aquatic turtles are hard to ignore when 20 or more bask on a nearby emergent log.

There are just a few turtle species you might encounter on an aquatic turtle outing. Geography and habitat will determine which species’ paths you’ll cross.

To increase your chances for success, wear shorts and old sneakers, and be willing to get wet. Be quick with the net. Aquatic turtles are surprisingly nimble. Here are a few common species you might encounter on a hot August day.

I’ll begin with two species it’s best to avoid handling. Snapping turtles prefer still or slowly moving water with muddy bottoms and lots of emergent vegetation along the edges. Farm ponds are ideal.

Snappers are almost exclusively aquatic, coming ashore only to nest in late spring. A snapper’s weight can exceed 40 pounds and shells sometimes measure more than 17 inches. (In my memory, they seem much bigger than that.) The rear edge of the shell is serrated, and the top edge of the long tail is also saw-toothed.

Snappers are most often seen floating on the surface with only their nostrils and little beady eyes visible. They have powerful jaws and consume just about any plant or animal material they choose. A big snapper can dispatch a brood of ducklings in a matter of days. It’s best that kids not try to catch snappers on their own because small fingers won’t stand up to a snapper bite.

Eastern spiny softshell turtles, like snappers, leave the water only to lay eggs, and they enjoy basking in the sun. They prefer sandy bottoms in lakes and larger rivers and streams. They often lie buried in the sand in shallow water with their neck extended so only their eyes and nostrils break the surface of the water.

The softshell’s carapace, or upper shell, is soft and flexible. Its powerful jaws make it a voracious predator of frogs, fish, crayfish, snails, and clams.

Painted turtles have always been my favorite aquatic species. This is the one I chased as a kid. I think I liked it because of the bright red markings on the edge of the carapace and the red and yellow markings on the neck, head, legs, and tail. A conspicuous yellow spot behind the eye can be seen at a distance with binoculars. It is a beautiful turtle and likely to be seen basking with many others, including other species, on a large emergent log on a hot summer day. Look for painted turtles basking in ponds, lakes, marshes, and slow-flowing creeks and streams.

Finally, anyone who has ever seen hatchling turtles in a pet shop knows the red-eared slider. It’s difficult to know their true natural distribution because so many pets have been released in so many places. The broad red stripe behind the ear is distinctive, so watch for this turtle in any slow-moving waterway.

Grab a field guide and some old sneakers, beat the heat, and study some aquatic turtles as summer winds down. Nothing beats a wet and wild day in the field.

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Send questions and comments to Dr. Shalaway at sshalaway@aol.com or 229 Cider Mill Drive, Apt. 102, Hendersonville, NC 27892.

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