Nature Notes: Turtle Crossing!

As May comes to end, we’ve seen a dramatic transformation of our landscape. I was out of town from May 12th-20th and was shocked by the changes upon my return! It’s a jungle out there! Everything has leafed-out, the grass is green, and the flowers are blooming. The woods are filled with birdsongs and are wetlands are alive with the chorus of the frogs. It’s a busy time in the animal kingdom; animals are finding mates, laying eggs, giving birth, and/or raising young. Our turtle species are also occupied with this survival need at the moment.  Turtles lay their legs on land, so females must take on the dangerous journey of coming out of the safety of the water to dig a nest and deposit eggs into it. Males rarely travel far from the water, but a female may venture up to a mile away from water to find the perfect spot to lay her eggs. This journey usually requires her to face the hazards of cars on roads near our wetland habitats.

A study from a student at Clemson University found a frightening percentage of drivers actually swerve out of their way in order to run over turtles on the road, which is hard for me to even fathom! Why would anyone want to do this? The student, Nathan Weaver, put a very realistic rubber turtle in the road, hunkered down out of sight of the cars, and recorded their interactions. In one of his locations, one out of every 50 cars ran over the turtle and, shockingly, nearly 70% of the cars that hit the rubber turtle did so deliberately.

We’ll find turtles on the roads from now until about mid-summer, but mostly during the month of June. Up here in our neck of the woods, the two turtles that are seen mostly commonly are the beloved Painted Turtle and the more feared Common Snapping Turtle. Snapping Turtles are very large in size and can weigh up to 35 pounds. For some reason, (such as serious damage to your car), people seem to be able to avoid these behemoths, as I rarely see injured or dead Snapping Turtles on the road. Unfortunately, I do see a lot of injured/dead painted turtles on the road, so please be on the lookout for turtles while you are driving!

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Snapping Turtles are MN’s largest turtles. With powerful jaws and a long neck, they can quickly lunge out and strike at prey, or a threatening human hand!

Why don’t turtles just lay their eggs closer to the water to avoid crossing the road? As it turns out, a female’s decision about where to make her nest can have a huge impact on her offspring! The sex of young turtles is determined by the nest temperature during a particular phase of egg incubation. In Painted Turtles, temperatures above about 83 will typically produce females while temperatures lower than that will typically produce males. Therefore, if the turtle picks a place that has relatively thick vegetation cover providing shade, the soil temperature will be lower and more likely produce males. If she picks a spot that is relatively uncovered, the sun will raise the soil temperature, likely producing female offspring. Snapping Turtles apply the same principle, but backwards; lower nest temperatures typically hatch females, while warmer spots hatch males.

In May, it is not uncommon to find tiny Painted Turtles making their way towards the water. As these turtles do not start laying eggs until May and it takes between 50-80 days for the turtles to develop in their eggs, this is too early for these tiny turtles to be from this year’s clutch. Instead, they are turtles that hatched at the end of last summer or early last fall but did not emerge from the nest. Sometimes, the young hatchlings overwinter in the nest and emerge to travel back to the water early the next spring. Years with cold temperatures and little snow cover for insulation can be devastating to these overwintering hatchlings.

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This little guy was found in the first week of May, sure to be a hatchling from the previous summer’s nest!

Female Painted Turtles lay between 3 and 20 elliptical (oval) eggs in their underground nests. Female Snapping Turtles lay up to 100, but usually 25-50, spherical eggs in their nests. The difference in shape can be a useful identification clue if you find turtle eggs or eggshells. After laying the eggs, female turtles will not see or care for their young. Now, they are on their own. Unfortunately, most of the eggs will never hatch. Many of the nests will be dug up by a predator, such as a skunk, raccoon, or fox, within the first night or two. Of the eggs that do hatch, more turtles may be lost to freezing temperatures if they overwinter in the nest. When they make the journey back to water, even more will be lost to dehydration, predators, or cars on their pathway.

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What remains of a nest after being dug up by a predator.

So what can you do? If you see a Painted Turtle in the middle of the road,  “rushing” as quickly as it can to the other side, help a sister out! The best thing you can do for a turtle is to park in a safe spot on the roadside nearby, turn on your flashers, and alert oncoming traffic to the turtle in the road. Let her cross on her own. If you do move a turtle, make sure to put her on the side of the road in the direction she was heading, otherwise, she may try to cross the road again. Make sure to wash your hands if you handle a turtle. If you see a snapper in the road, it is better to leave her where she is, as they have a pretty fierce bite. Some people attempt to pick them up by their tails to steer clear of those snapping jaws, but please don’t do that! It can damage the turtle’s backbone and your well-intentioned rescue mission can end up causing more harm than good! Again, if there is a safe way to alert oncoming traffic to the turtle, it is best to let her cross on her own! If you find a turtle in or near your yard laying eggs, keep yourselves, children, and pets at least 20 feet away. Enjoy watching her from a distance in order to keep her stress level down! Lastly, the best way for you to help is to educate your family and friends about turtles, their awesomeness, and how to protect them, especially during nesting season!

Happy #WorldTurtleDay

We here at Happy Dancing Turtle have an affinity with the turtle. The majestic turtle is seen in our culture as both patient and wise. From children’s lessons that indoctrinate the values of “slow but steady wins the race” to famous anecdotes of our world consisting of turtles “all the way down“, the grand turtle permeates our modern mythology in many ways.

Take a look at modern turtle poetry. One of my wife’s favorite poems is a classic by Shel Silverstein. It’s called “The Bagpipe Who Didn’t Say No”. It’s a charming poem told in a bouncing rhyming pattern about a turtle who discovers a set of bagpipes on the shore of the sea. If you’ve never read it, take a quick moment to enjoy it.  It’s only just one way we see an aspect of the turtle in our culture.

 

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Shel Silverstein’s “The Bagpipe Who Didn’t Say No” is a classic.

Another way our culture views the grand turtle is through its use in cartoons. You have many iterations that highlight the eggheaded nature of the turtle. Just look at these two examples:

 

On the left, you see Toby from the classic Robin Hood. He’s good-natured, well-intentioned…nerdy, but a scaredy cat. You could call the turtle on the right a nerd, as well. Donatello from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles delivers a punch just like the rest of his brothers, but with the use of his brains.

But, what do these examples say about the turtle? They are continually being represented in our culture, which says to me that they are popular. They’re popular because they have desirable identifiable qualities, such as determination and intelligence. And, above all that, I see another quality in turtles that should be emulated far and wide: resiliency.

Turtles (or more specifically, tortoises) are well-known for their longevity. Only just last decade, the tortoise captured by Charles Darwin himself passed away at the ripe old age of 175 years. Lonesome George, a monument to conservation efforts, passed away at 100 years old. Both these stalwarts lived long, and what is the key to living a long time? You guessed it: Resiliency.

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This is Jonathan, an 182-year-old tortoise. You can see him at age 81 in the picture on the left.

Who would you say has a more resiliency, a turtle or a frog? Who would you peg to have the ability to bounce back from hardship, a turtle or a rabbit? Moreover, who would you say has the ability to endure difficulties, ups, and downs, and do it in a manner only described as “stoic”? You bet you’d say a turtle. I know I would.

So, let’s celebrate the turtle. Let’s hold it high among the best animals. Not that the mighty turtle would ask us for it, but let us pay tribute to it. Good job turtles! You’re an inspiration to not only our organization but to the world! Keep it up!

Indoor Gardening Ideas – Update

The indoor gutter system my wife put up last month is going well, but it wasn’t perfect. With a busy schedule (you wouldn’t believe how much time kids take!), watering every day was proving to be difficult and we wanted these plants to survive this time!

We added a reservoir system that automatically watered the plants with a minimal thought on our part. Using vacuum pressure, we only need to “water” our gutter system every other week now. Here’s how it looks!

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We added PVC pipe that was sealed off on both ends. A hole was drilled in both sides (on the top of the pipe) for access to the water in the pipe.

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Each potted plant hanging out in the gutter was given a hollow water bulb. Each bulb has a hose running to the reservoir just beneath the gutter level.

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Here, you can see the bulb and the hose a little more clearly.

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You can see our strawberry plant is doing very well with the suction watering system. For our smaller gutter, we used a plastic Tupperware dish to hold the water. It works just the same as the PVC pipe. As long as the water level is just below the soil level, the dry soil will “pull” the water through the hose when it needs it, reducing a lot of watering time.

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As long as the tip of the bulb stake is above the water line, you’ll have an almost hands-free watering system. We have to fill the reservoir only on a bi-weekly basis.

The plan is to transfer our cabbage, strawberries, broccoli, and flowers to our outdoor raised beds (I call them our white “coffins” and you can sort of see them in the first picture above). Once they’ve been moved, we’ll start up some herbs for the kitchen that can grow year round. Who doesn’t love the smell of fresh basil?

Get to Know the HDT Board – Erika Bailey-Johnson

At Back to Basics, our annual sustainability event, I get to do a lot of the picture taking and video recording. There’s usually so much going on during the day that I need to plan out where shots should be set up, which interviews need to be recorded, etc. During the lead up to the 2014 B2B, I found that during session 3 (right after the lunch break), there were way too many interesting session to properly cover.

However, as the event date rolled closer, our conundrum was solved on its own. One of the presenters pulled out unexpectedly, leaving us free to mic-up the presenters in the other workshop.

It was at this session where I first met Erika Bailey-Johnson. Stating that she wished to become closer to the Ojibwe culture, Bailey-Johnson introduced herself in fluent Ojibwe. What started as a passion for getting to know her local culture, Bailey-Johnson has been able to turn into a project that can influence young generations to think globally.

We are so fortunate here at HDT to have a leader who eats, breathes, works, and probably even dreams about living the resilient lifestyle.

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Erika Bailey-Johnson during a presentation.

As the Sustainability Director at Bemidji State University, Bailey-Johnson’s day job gives her the opportunity to engage her community at different levels. Overseeing sustainability projects at both the University and the city, Bailey-Johnson is able to weave sustainability practices into the everyday lives of both student and citizen.

Some of the projects include removing bottled water from campus stores, enabling student engagement of energy-reduction in their dorms, and even bringing bike sharing programs to the relatively small city of Bemidji.

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