The Old Reptile Took a Walk

Turtles are not common in Eliza Howell Park, especially out of the river, so I was surprised a few days ago to see a large Common Snapping Turtle walking in the woods, headed away from the river. It was clearly a mature adult and my first thought was that it was seeking a place to lay eggs, since they place their eggs in sand or ground to incubate and hatch.

But I quickly had second thoughts: this is too early in the spring for egg laying and it was walking the woods where the ground is entirely covered with dead leaves and not suitable for turtles to place eggs. So I decided to wait to see where it would go and what it would do.

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I first approached for a closer look. It was one of the larger snapping turtle I have seen. The carapace (upper shell) was perhaps 13-15 inches long and the legs appeared enormous. I’m sure it is decades old, probably the oldest animal in the park (if you exclude some of us humans).

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It stopped walking when I was got close and, though its head and tail are too big to draw entirely under its shell, it closed down to the best of its ability.

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I quickly walked away to let it continue and observed the rest through my binoculars. When I first saw it, it was about 50 yards from the river. Over the next hour and 10 minutes, it traveled through lots of leaves, over some fallen logs, though a stump hole, and around trees, but in pretty much of a straight line. Since there is a large vernal pool in the woods in the direction it was headed, I guessed that to be the destination.

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Eventually, it did reach the vernal pool, a total distance from the river of about 200 yards. I think its journey ended when it reached the pool, but I don’t know for sure.

It is in the middle of this picture, apparently just resting in the water.

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I am curious about the nature of this trip at this time of the year. Was the snapping turtle returning to its spring “home” after spending the winter in permanent water (the vernal pool dries up late in the summer and snappers spend the winter in water) or was it possibly moving to a new location? I don’t know.

I have seen snapping turtles in Eliza Howell Park on a few other occasions, but I will now be on the lookout for another encounter with this specific big old reptile.

Vernal Pools: Getting My Feet Wet

“Getting my feet wet,” as an idiom, means just starting something new or gaining initial experience. This is a good expression to describe me this year as I am beginning to learn about life in vernal pools in Eliza Howell Park.

In this case, “getting my feet wet” can also be taken literally – or could be if it were not for rubber boots.

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Vernal (spring) pools are shallow temporary pools that typically fill with water in early spring and dry up by summer or fall. Several species of animals rely upon vernal pools for survival, such as wood frogs, spotted salamanders, and fairy shrimp. Because vernal pools dry up, fish do not survive there and frog and salamander eggs will not be eaten by fish.

There are 3 or 4 different spring watery spots in EHP that might be considered vernal pools. For my beginning study, I am focusing my attention on one. This is the largest one, in the heart of the wooded area.

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The approximate location of the pool, with no claim to be accurate in size, is marked in red on the map here.

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The pool in late March is some 80-90 yards long and averages about 20-25 yards wide, with water several inches to a foot deep in most of it. It is deep enough to attract Wood Ducks and Mallards at this time of the year. This particular pool, if I recall correctly from other years, does not usually dry up until at least the end of August.

Here is another view, taken while standing in the pool.

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Vernal pools are important habitats for amphibians and for invertebrates and I am hoping to learn something of the life in this pool in EHP. Fortunately, I know where to look for expert tutoring and advice. Yu Man Lee is Wildlife Ecologist and Herpetologist for Michigan Natural Features Inventory (a program of MSU Extension). She, accompanied by her husband Jon, came to Eliza Howell Park earlier in March to check out the vernal pools here.

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My new venture will involve a lot of looking down in the water, looking for/at “critters” and eggs and plants. The bottom of the pool is now covered with last year’s fallen leaves, deposited after the water died up in 2017.

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It is possible that I may want to post an update on what I am finding in this vernal pool in 2018. On the other hand, since I am just getting my feet wet, I may very well have too little to report.