Thursday, May 02, 2013

Visitors from Other Kingdoms: Red-Eared Slider

As a "natural" gardener, one of the experiences I look forward to most is a serendipitous meeting with one of the many creatures that share the yard with us.  Last weekend, we had one such encounter.

It was Greg that saw her first.  He motioned for me to come quickly.  I asked if I should get the camera and, since he nodded yes, I grabbed it and came running.  There in the grass was a good-sized turtle, almost a foot long and at least 100 feet from the nearest water.  Since we've had rain several times this spring and most ponds and creeks have at least some water in them, I assumed this was a female, presumably away from water to lay eggs.

From her shape and size and color, I knew she was either a red-eared slider or a painted turtle, but since her head was mostly pulled back into her shell, I couldn't tell which.  Greg picked her up and let me take a quick peek at her lower shell (or plastron):  she was a red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta).

He only held her aloft for a few seconds, but she was NOT happy about the experience.  When he placed her back down, she pulled deeply back into her shell and did not reappear for about 30 minutes...

...all of which time I spent watching her.  From past experience, I knew that once she emerged and determined that she was safe, she would be gone in an amazingly short time.  At first I simply stood about 20 feet away, watching.  Then I decided that my standing silhouette might be concerning her, so I sat down on the ground.  After about half an hour, I decided to try to become even less conspicuous, so I lay down on my belly and watched and waited for her to make a move.

It wasn't long after I shifted to fully prone that she finally decided to stick her nose out again. 

Slowly it came out.  Then it came a little further.  A little further.  About 20 minutes after she first started to see if I was still out there, she had relaxed enough to have her head almost fully extended.  Almost immediately, she turned and looked directly at me.

I could swear that, at one point, she was looking down her nose at me, sniffing haughtily!  

She stared at me for several minutes, then looked around a bit.  Unfortunately, I made a small motion that startled her and caused her to retreat partway back inside her shell again.

It took just over an hour for my wandering red-eared slider to gain the courage to put her legs out and start moving.  Her first move was to turn away from me, and away from the direction she was originally traveling, to move obliquely away from me.

As she went, she passed a couple bright dandelions, which seemed to be worth a careful look-see, but she didn't stop to investigate further or to sample. 

She straightened back onto her original trajectory and determinedly headed towards the tall grass area.  Beyond it was the creek.

As she went through the bright patch of henbit that was just on the edge of the tallgrass, she stuck her head up high to look around one last time, then she disappeared into the taller standing grass stems.

I got up to take a final parting shot as she headed on her way.  From the time she started moving again until I quit photographing her was 4 minutes.  Perhaps not a speed record, but startlingly fast compared to the 60+ minutes she stayed essentially motionless until she felt safe enough to travel.

For those of you old enough to be a child before the big turtle/salmonella crisis of the early 1970's, this is one of the species whose young used to be sold by the millions to children as cheap, easy pets.  Many a turtle died while providing kids a first hand experience with nature.  My brothers and I had a couple of baby turtles over the years as we grew up:  a cheap, clear plastic dish with the fake island and palm tree in the middle of it, and the doomed little turtle, paddling around, trying to find some way out to its rightful place in the wild.

My heart clenches quite a bit over the fate of all those little turtles over the years, but in a way they were also serving as ambassadors, helping children connect firsthand with nature.  How do our children do that these days?  Or do they ever get a chance to truly connect with the natural world, in a firsthand way, at all?  Touching, holding, watching, feeding, even getting stung or bitten - these are all important ways for children to connect with animals, to connect with nature.  Watching TV isn't a good substitute at all - for all the fancy closeups in a good nature film, there is no sense of reality, no hands-on touching, no seat of the pants adventure or excitement.

I don't want baby turtles to sacrifice their lives to help our human children connect with nature any more...but I sure would like to see more families care for their gardens and their landscapes naturally, so that kids could, once again, have real world adventures in the real world of nature.  


Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

You got some amazing photos. I love her giving you 'the look' and peaking out of the henbit. You are also amazingly patient. I can't sit still that long! Ha! Never had a turtle as a pet but I remember keeping some frogs in a bucket once. They were amazing escape artists. Removed the very secure screen and left in the night putting the screen back in place and everything. My mom was amazed at them too. Hmmmm.
Thanks for sharing the turtle journey.

Jason said...

Very cool! I didn't know those little turtles on the islands with plastic palm trees were babies. How sad!

Melanie said...

Loved your photos and your commentaries!!