There’s something primeval about encountering a turtle, whether terrestrial or aquatic. If you’ve ever heard the hissing breaths of surfacing giant sea turtles at the famous turtle farm on Grand Cayman and felt as if you were in the presence of dinosaurs, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Adventure tourists flock from all over the world to places like Costa Rica, Mexico and the Caribbean islands to snorkel amongst the sea turtles or to lurk nearby their buried nests by moonlight, watching for the hatchlings to emerge and struggle heroically down the beach to the sea before predators can pick them off.
But you don’t have to travel to exotic distant shores to commune with these ancient and mysterious reptilians. Many smaller species still trundle their quiet, persistent, unassuming way through our own back yards, if you know how and where to look. This Saturday, the Wallkill Valley Land Trust (WVLT) will conduct a guided expedition to find and document box turtles on the 65-acre Smith Property in Gardiner, where the Smith family, with the aid of biologist Joe Bridges, have been monitoring the creatures’ movements and habits since 2005. The general public is invited; you’re just asked to preregister.
With their high-domed carapaces and distinctive orange-on-black rosette patterns, Eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina) are among the most charming of their kind. They’re not aggressive like snapping turtles, and can be picked up even by a child with no greater peril than that the animal might express its alarm by urinating on you. Indeed, WVLT’s annual Turtle Day is a kid-friendly event, with young folks successfully spotting turtles in years past. Your kids may even get to see a pair mating, this time of year.
The Smiths also train Australian cattledogs to track the creatures by their scent during seasons when the grass is too high to spot them, and have placed electronic transmitters on several turtles in order to monitor their movements via telemetry. The data gathered at the site over the years add to the body of scientific knowledge about this species – for example, reinforcing herpetologists’ observations that female box turtles will return to the same site year after year to lay their eggs, trekking as far as two-thirds of a mile each way.
Each box turtle’s shell pattern is as distinctive as a fingerprint, so when you find one, your hosts will photograph it and compare it with past sightings to identify the particular animal. Many individuals are seen multiple times in subsequent years, ranging far and wide. A few with notable “personalities” have been given names, but mostly the Smiths’ turtles are known by their numbers. Last year’s count totaled 70 adult turtles and seven hatchlings.
Sound intriguing? Preregister and get directions by calling (845) 255-2761 or e-mailing your name, telephone number and mailing address to email@example.com. The Turtle Day expedition runs from 10 a.m. to 12 noon on Saturday, May 10, rain or shine (turtles like rain). Come prepared for choppy terrain and ticks; flip-flops would not qualify as appropriate footgear even if the weather is perfect. You can learn lots more about the project at www.boxturtlesny.com.