Critters in the Garden: Turtles

turtle, snapperA large garden invites a variety of wild guests, from crows to raccoons and butterflies, but my husband Phil and I were unprepared for one particular visitor.       

Early on a June morning in 2001, Phil went out for a tour of the garden behind our home in Milton, MA. After a few minutes, I heard him whisper to me from below the kitchen window, "Could you come out here for a minute? We have an interesting animal in the garden, and it’s still here."      

snapping turtle, garden
The snapping turtle in our garden laying eggs.
As I walked through the garden gate, I noticed a toppled tomato plant and a few other areas that appeared to have been rototilled with a smallish tiller. Quietly walking toward my husband, I suddenly stopped. "Oh my gosh! It's a turtle!"         

An impressive snapper some 18 inches long lay in our asparagus bed. Her rear end was partially immersed in the soil, though her eyes--and knuckle-sized neck--were all too evident. Having read somewhere that snappers can move quite quickly when disturbed, even when out of water, I wasn't particularly happy when Phil knelt three feet from the critter for a better look.         

After a while we left, but came back about a half hour later to find the turtle slowly moving her rear legs back and forth. Four tiny "golf balls" about an inch in diameter tumbled behind her! They were followed by a few more. The turtle eventually covered her eggs with soil, and began to leave. "That's all the mothering those babies will ever get," said Phil, who knows a little turtle biology.

snapping turtle, garden
Phil and Mama Snapper
Sure enough, Mama Snapper slowly lurched forward, pressing her snout into the fence close by. When said fence wouldn't move, she turned around and slowly walked to the back of the garden and through a hole in the fence that had obviously allowed her entrance. Soon she was back on the strip of grass between the garden and the stream behind it, and skidded down the bank into the water with a loud "plop."

Later that day Phil learned from an Internet search that the turtle's eggs would hatch in about 75 days. I called Mass Audubon headquarters in Lincoln, MA, and got even more information from Linda Cocca, their Natural History Information Coordinator at the time.

snapping turtle, garden
Mama snapper heading back to the stream.
Cocca told me that she gets about 100 turtle calls every spring. She went on to say that “our” turtle had probably visited in the past, too. That makes perfect sense, since a few years earlier we had discovered a “walnut shell with legs” about ten feet from the site of the 2001 nest. (See photos below of Phil with the baby snapper.)

In sum, Phil and I proudly tell friends who inquire about the garden that the crops we’ve grown include corn, tomatoes, cukes…and turtles.
snapper, snapping turtle, baby
A baby snapper and Phil.

Putting the baby snapper at the side of a stream.
Baby Snapper! (We moved it to a nearby stream.)

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