Have You Seen A Box Turtle Lately?
By Anne Allbright Smith
From Issue 7: Summer 2010
We, along with the expertise of biologist Joe Bridges, have been monitoring Eastern box turtles on our 65 acres since 2005. They are on New York State’s list “of special concern” and our goal is to learn their range(s), where they hibernate and to observe their behavior in general. For the past three years the Wallkill Valley Land Trust has hosted an annual Turtle Day in May, when residents are invited to come join in the turtle hunt. You can see photos from these events plus learn about the project at www.boxturtlesny.com.
The carapace design on the shell of an Eastern Box Turtle is as unique as a fingerprint so we can identify them easily (we do not mark the turtles or confine them in any way). In five years of monitoring we have found 42 turtles, 14 of which have visited us in more than one year. We have watched them emerge from hibernation in the spring, followed the females as they move to their nesting sites, and discovered many nests plundered by raccoons, coyotes, skunks, snakes, etc. We have photos of all of “our” turtles.
Transmitters on three of the turtles have made this an especially productive year. Each glued-on transmitter will last a year and we will remove it when we next find the turtle. (The ones with transmitters are all repeaters, so we do expect to see them again.) The main lesson of the transmitters has been that box turtles travel much farther than we had thought. When we lost the signal we blamed it on the transmitter, the receiver, the reception. Imagine our surprise when the DEC emailed us on June 16 to tell us that someone on River Park Drive had found one of our turtles. We had last seen “Alpha,” our #1 turtle from 2005, in the rear of our field on May 4. She had traveled 2/3 miles! Apparently she has since laid her eggs near a mailbox there. All that remains is the hole and some dried up eggshells, but the transmitter tells us that Alpha is still in the area. My trained tracking dogs and I have been tracking her on River Park Drive since hearing from the DEC. Where will she go next? We have asked some of the residents of River Park and Emmy Lane to be on the lookout since the transmitter can only tell us so much; even when we reach the location the signal is indicating the turtle could be hidden in tall grass, not to mention plenty of poisin ivy.
Eastern Box turtles can live as long as you and I if they aren’t run down by their only real enemies—cars or mowers. Unfortunately, they like to dig their nests in shale driveways. Our neighbor mows his field regularly but carefully leaves a margin of tall growth next to the shared driveway, keeps his blades higher than usual, and watches ahead for signs of turtles as he mows. We urge everyone to do the same. We lost a turtle last year to the brush hog so we’ll wait this year, and mow in late November when they are in hibernation.
We may have an unusual large box turtle population on our acreage, but suspect that there are also far more turtles about than anyone knows. Therefore, if you find a box turtle we invite you to take a photo of it and send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will add it to our web site!