Sleet, Snow and Snapper!

April 16th, 2014

Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

Temperatures on the SouthCoast dropped more than 30 degrees, and morning broke with fierce north winds pelting the ground with sleet and snow.  Not particularly favorable conditions for finding cold-blooded reptiles.  Fortunately, though, massive snappers retain enough heat to weather these cold snaps while maintaining minimal activity levels.  Most aquatic turtles burrow back into the ooze, cover themselves with an extra layer of mud and resume a restful slumber until the situation improves.

Snapping Turtle Netted on Chilly SouthCoast Morning

With those conditions in mind, the Turtle Journal team drove to a local wetlands this morning where we hoped to find a snapper on the move.  As luck would have it, we spotted a young 12-to-15 pounder cruising the shallows just under the surface.  We deftly snaked a net through a tangle of brambles and snared the unsuspecting snapper.  As you can intuit from the photograph above, this snapper was simply “delighted” to meet the Turtle Journal researchers this morning and he offered a mouthful of commentary.

Snapper Chomps Down on Net Rim

As we attempted to release him from the net, the snapper expressed his displeasure by chomping down his jaws with vise grip force and refused to let go.  If you have any doubt about the power of a snapper’s jaws, disabuse such thoughts.

Snapping Turtle Plastron (Bottom Shell)

Snapping turtles are ferocious critters.  They have long necks and use them liberally to snap at anything and anybody who poses a threat.  If you examine a snapper’s bottom, you will note that the plastron (bottom shell) is quite inadequate to protect all of the turtle’s tender spots.  So, it is unsurprising that snappers employ a fierce and aggressive attitude to ensure their survival.  And they are very, very practiced at showy aggression.  In reality, though, they would prefer to avoid an actual confrontation unless cornered.  Should you approach one while snorkeling, the snapper will usually swim away and disappear into the murk.  But I would caution you against pressing a snapper to action.  You may find the outcome very unpleasant.

Nothing Sweeter Than a Snapper’s Smile

Once we freed the snapper from the net, he immediately lunged towards us and flashed a broad, throaty grin.  As any herpetologist knows, a snapper’s smile will melt your heart or rip off your face.  It’s all the same to the snapper who personifies tough love.

Snapping Turtle Carapace (Top Shell)

Having registered his objections to our scientific examination, the snapper determinedly trod back towards the safety of its wetlands.

Snapping Turtle’s Impressive Nails

A log blocked his pathway.  The snapper used his large, powerful claws to grip the obstacle and propel himself over the log and back into the pond.

Snapping Turtle’s Impressive “Prehistoric” Tail

As the snapper thrust himself into the murky wetlands, he displayed his rather impressive “dinosaur” tail.  If we had any doubt that turtles have been on Earth for a long, long time … approaching 300,000,000 years, snappers reteach that valuable lesson with each encounter.

Amazing First Terrapin Capture in Windy Sippican Harbor

April 15th, 2014

8-Year-Old Female Diamondback Terrapin #35

Capturing the first diamondback terrapin (Malaclemys terrapin) of the season in the Great White North demanded daring, skill and an abundance of luck.  Yet, in the field of research, fortune favors the prepared mind.  Kayaking in 45 mph gusts is foolhardy.  Kayaking in 45 mph gusts with a 10 foot net to catch the wind is crazy scary.  Hoping to see, let alone net, an elusive terrapin in the churned murky chocolate waters of Sippican Harbor defines lunacy.  But fortune smiled on the Turtle Journal team Monday, April 14th, and Terrapin #35 — a young 8-year-old female — became the first capture of the 2014 research season.

30 MPH Southwest Winds with 45 MPH Gusts

We had seen a male and female pair of terrapins cavorting in the Sippican Harbor mating aggregation at noon on Saturday.  On Sunday, Turtle Journal returned with kayaks in a 20-knot southerly breeze to try for the first capture of the year, but conditions proved impossible for turtles and turtlers.  With winds increasing to 30 mph on Monday with 45 mph gusts out of the southwest, we knew that conditions had only gotten worse.  Still, the forecast for Tuesday called for rain, followed by temperatures dipping into the 40s for Wednesday and Thursday.  Despite the odds, things would not improve any time soon.  We packed up the kayaks and off we went to Marion’s town landing.

Sue Wieber Nourse Paddles Sippican Harbor

Conditions were actually worse than we imagined.  Kayaks were tossed by the gusts, and when wind hit the nets at the “right” angle, they became airfoils that lifted our boats like kites.  To call the experience exciting understates the adrenaline rush.  The fresh southwest breeze blowing up the harbor churned the estuary into the color of Navy mess coffee with a couple of hits of espresso for good measure.  Maneuverability: nil.  Visibility: zero.  Control:  none.

Don Lewis Kayaks Head of Harbor Shallows

We know these waters very well.  They comprise the major brumation site and mating aggregation within Sippican Harbor.  The bottom of Head of Harbor is composed of a thick, oozy layer of quick mud.  One gust blew so hard it drove Don Lewis and his kayak into the shallows and grounded the boat in the ooze.  To extricate himself, Don dug his oar into the black slimy mud and painstakingly edged the kayak to open water.  As he placed his left side of the paddle in the ooze, he heard a clink.  Don thought, “There’s no rock here.”  He gently tapped the bottom and discovered that the “rock” had moved about a foot.  Don substituted net for oar and scraped.  He raised the net with about 30 pounds of congealed muck.  Using the net as a sieve, Don carefully sifted the mud like a 49er gold miner, and sure enough, he hit pay dirt:  a very surprised Terrapin #35.

Don Lewis Examines Female Diamondback Terrapin #35

Suppressing shock and surprised, we paddled the mile back to the landing and examined our treasure.  Diamondback Terrapin #35 is a young, mature 8-year-old female.  She was first captured by the Turtle Journal Sue Wieber Nourse on April 29th, 2013.

8-Year-Old Female Diamondback Terrapin #35

She weighed 2 1/3 pounds and her shell measured 7.2 inches long.  In the last year she had grown a 1/3 of an inch in length, and Terrapin #35 looked extremely healthy after a long winter’s slumber.

Sue Wieber Nourse Release Diamondback Terrapin #35

After collecting scientific data and examining her carefully, we immediately released her back into Sippican Harbor to join her invisible cohorts within the Head of Harbor mating aggregation.  Terrapin #35 is a young mature female and we hope this year to discover her nesting location.  As with most diamondback terrapin populations, the paucity of safe upland nesting locations along the developed Sippican coastline forms the greatest threat to their survival.

FIRST ACTIVE TERRAPINS OF 2014

April 12th, 2014

First Active Male Diamondback Terrapin of 2014

Paddling in Sippican Harbor off Buzzards Bay at noon today, April 12th, the Turtle Journal team spotted a pair of diamondback terrapins actively engaged in “courtship” within Marion’s major mating aggregation.  While a net was not readily accessible for a capture, the camera caught the male paddling for safety.  Despite this long, hard winter in the Great White North, terrapin activity has begun only a few days later than last year.  Today’s temperature rose to the mid-60s with a 10-15 mph breeze out of the north-northwest.  The turtles were observed within thirty minutes of dead low tide.

Spotted Turtle Mating Aggregation Near SouthCoast Rookery

April 9th, 2014

Don Lewis Examines Male Spotted Turtle at SouthCoast Rookery

Close by the SouthCoast rookery with its assortment of great blue heron and osprey treetop aeries, the Turtle Journal team monitors a spotted turtle mating aggregation that occupies a small portion of an NSTAR power-line right-of-way.  Over the past couple of years NSTAR has brought in heavy machinery in, so far, failed attempts to fill in these wetlands and probable vernal pools.  Last year the ground was torn up by tracked vehicles that gouged through the swampy terrain.

Male Spotted Turtle #222 (Clemmys guttata)

On Monday, April 7th, the Turtle Journal team observed Spotted Turtle #222 basking in this mating aggregation.  A mature male, #222 weighed 138 grams (4.9 ounces) and his shell measured 9.72 centimeters (3.8 inches).  He is a recapture at this site from the time before NSTAR tried to fill in these wetlands.  So, at least for the nonce, it appears that this mating aggregation continues despite human efforts to degrade the natural habitat.

Vive La Difference!

(Telling He from She)

Male Spotted Turtle #222 Plastron (Bottom Shell)

Female Spotted Turtle #105 Plastron (Bottom Shell)

Telling the difference between males and females proves an extremely useful research skill.  Spotted turtles exhibit gender dichromatism.  Females, such as #105 immediately above, have brightly colored chins; males, like #222, have drably colored chins.  Females have thin, dainty tails and males have thick, showy tails.  Females also have flat, washboard abs, and males have an indentation in their abdominal plastron (bottom shell) scutes.  Although some might suggest that the following distinction is subjective, females are exquisitely beautiful and males are merely strikingly handsome.  Now you, too, can celebrate “la difference.”

Ospreys Engaged in Nest Building at SouthCoast Rookery

April 8th, 2014

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) Streaks through SouthCoast Rookery

The SouthCoast rookery accommodates both osprey (Pandion haliaetus) and great blue heron (Ardea hernias) pairs on adjacent treetop nests abutting a large fresh water pond.  Both species are large birds with enormous wing spans, both share a diet of fish harvested from the pond and nearby Sippican harbor, and both are seemingly dedicated parents that favor these coastal aeries.  While heron nests outnumber osprey nests at least four to one in this rookery, ospreys are clearly the more aggressive species.  Each spring we watch as ospreys evict the earlier arriving herons from the prime nest in the rookery.  As ospreys take flight and swoop near heron nests, treetops explode in raucous “kronks.”

Osprey Pair Reinforcing Nest in SouthCoast Rookery

On Monday, April 7th, the weather broke for the better and sunshine dominated the SouthCoast.  Both great blue heron and osprey pairs in the rookery began to gather branches and twigs to strengthen and reinforce their nests.  (ASIDE:  The Turtle Journal team observed during the weekend storms that ospreys maintained their presence on the treetop nest, while great blue herons took shelter lower to the ground, leaving the nests unoccupied.)

Osprey Brings Branch to Reinforce Nest

We have described herons as graceful during these nest building flights.  For ospreys, though, the adjective that best describes their flight is powerful.

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) Pair Engaged in Nest Building

Ospreys screech calls to each other as one approaches the nest.

Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) Soars over SouthCoast Rookery

Osprey and heron pairs occupy the rookery during the nesting season from late March to early June.  After chicks fledge and are nudged from the nest, these magnificent birds head about a mile south to Sippican Harbor and Buzzards Bay.  As the Turtle Journal paddles through the harbor researching terrapins, we coast past great blue herons hunting the marsh channels and cruise under soaring ospreys fishing from high above.  We feel fortunate to witness the full cycle for both these exquisite animals: courting, nesting, rearing, fledging and foraging … before they depart the Great White North for parts south in the fall.