Wildside: Close encounter with a baby turtle makes hunting trip worth it
I was sitting on a rock, dressed in camouflage, the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. I was trying one last desperate attempt at turkey hunting, in a spot where you wouldn’t normally hunt turkeys—a gravel landing of sorts next to a leatherleaf bog in the Oneida County Forest.
I had seen a jake in the area earlier in the afternoon, and was now there as the sun began to drop below the tree line. The ticks were having no difficulty penetrating my full body mesh suit, and the mosquitoes were relentless. It was hot, very hot, and I was not having fun. As dedicated of a hunter as I am, I have a rule that states if I am not having fun, I am not continuing hunting. I was ready to pack it up and head back to the truck when I heard a noise. It was a crunching, leaf rustling noise. I had to look closely to determine its source. No, it was not a turkey, it was the kind of noise I usually hear from a mouse, a chipmunk, or maybe a small snake. I was pleasantly surprised when I finally saw a very small turtle, maybe the size of a silver dollar.
Through the years, I have worked and fished this time of year, I have seen painted turtles, wood turtles and snapping turtles laying eggs. In all my years outdoors, though, I have never actually seen a hatchling turtle emerge from the nest. This time of year, turtles are probably starting to look for suitable nesting sites. I say probably because there are many factors that affect nesting, everything from age of the turtle to availability of nesting areas and the temperature. Some turtles may even nest more than once a year, although once in spring is probably most common. A female turtle will excavate a shallow depression in looser material, sand or gravel, and deposit her eggs in it. She will push material back over it and leave, her work done. The eggs and hatchling turtles will be completely on their own.
Unfortunately, even under ideal circumstances, turtle nests don’t do very well. Only five percent of eggs laid survive to hatch and of those only one percent may survive to reproductive age. So, take the snapping turtle for example. An average clutch size might be 30 eggs. So, out of three snapping turtle nests, maybe five eggs will hatch out baby snappers. Of those, maybe one or two will live to the age of seven or eight years, which is likely the minimum age for a female snapper to lay eggs.
Those aren’t very good odds. Painted turtles may lay 10 eggs or less, making it far more difficult to overcome such low survival rates. Now perhaps you see some of why five of Wisconsin’s 11 turtle species are experiencing significant population declines. Nests laid in road shoulders are subject to more disturbance and predation, further worsening the odds.
This little turtle wasn’t hatched this spring, or even this year. The incubation of turtle eggs varies, depending on weather conditions. If the nest is laid late enough in the summer, or if the summer has too many cool days, the hatchling turtles will hang out in the nest all winter and emerge the following spring. This means these eggs were laid almost a year ago, survived predation, and at least one turtle hatched and stayed underground all fall, winter, and spring to emerge right in front of me and scramble to the water. The winter we had, with early and thick snow cover, probably helped hatchling turtle survival; they hibernate in the ground by surviving subfreezing temperatures (they let themselves partially freeze). Survival will still be difficult; the hatchlings are food for fish, snapping turtles, herons, raccoons, mink, muskrats and other predators. This little glimpse of turtle life made the hunting trip truly worthwhile.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call 715-365-8999.