Sunday, August 12, 2007

Lately I’ve been obsessed with alternative turtling methods. Alternative to what? That’s a good question, since I can’t say I have a standard turtling method. There’s not much ‘method’ for finding the box turtles (Terrapene carolina) and other turtles that occasionally find themselves on land, such as that mud turtle (Kinosternon subrubrum) I found earlier this summer. I walk around on land looking at the ground, and when I find them I either pick them up for a quick look and take my notes.

I guess the turtles that require new methods are the water turtles. Up until now all I’ve done is sit and watch them when they come to the surface. If they bask I get to see their entire bodies, that is until I spook them just as I’m getting close enough to see some detail, and they all fall into the water. If they don’t want to climb out of the water, I’m stuck just watching their heads at the surface, just far enough and long enough to figure out whether that’s a stick, a floating leaf, wayward duck feather, or… yep, a turtle head.

So what if you want a closer look? Researchers who need to get their hands on turtles use several methods that are all more involved than standing on the shore with a pair of binoculars.

A few decades ago they might have just shot the turtles. This was before X-ray machines and other study methods reduced the need to slice open the turtles to tell what was inside them, and if you can get your mind past the horror of gunning down basking turtles, then read the chapter in Whit Gibbon’s classic book Their Blood Runs Cold about him and fellow researchers floating down the Savannah River on inner tubes with shotguns to shoot basking cooters (Pseudemys species).

If you want to release the turtles alive, you’ve got other options. Trapping works for many species. In some traps you use bait such as sardines or hotdogs to lure in the turtles. Basking traps work like floating trap doors. The turtles climb on up to catch some rays and then drop into the middle. I’m not planning on building or buying any traps or applying for any licenses for trapping, so I’ve been researching other, lower-tech methods.

There are a couple great names for catching turtles by hand. “Muddling” involves, as the name implies, poking sticks into the mud to locate hiding turtles or just feeling around with your hands and feet. I love how simple and direct this is. If you know there are turtles that have buried themselves in the mud, you feel around until you hit them, and then you pull them right out.

“Noodling” refers to reaching around under boulders, fallen logs (a.k.a. ‘snags’), and overhanging banks and pulling out whatever you touch that feels promising. When you do this for catfish, you want the fish to bite down on your hand so you can get a good grip on it. With turtles you want just the opposite – to grab their tails or legs and pull them out from behind. Any noodler trying to pull out snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) by their mouths won’t end up with many fingers. Luckily snapping turtles, renown for their ferocity on land, tend not to bite when they’re under water, so you’re safe until you get them to the surface.

Don’t want to use your hands? Try a net. While most people know how skittish turtles are when basking, people who canoe or kayak might have noticed that they let you get closer once you’re in the water too. If you are really quiet and careful and have a long handle on your net, you can get close enough to scoop them out of the water. This is how Scott nabbed that painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) in Blackwater NWR, although he was standing in the water, not floating.

The most fun-looking method I’ve seen so far is snorkeling for turtles. For this to make sense, you have to understand how turtles rest underwater. I can’t say I know everything about turtle R&R, but a lot of the ones that don’t burrow into the mud either chill at the bottom of the stream, river, pond, or lake, or take shelter behind a snag or boulder. It’s apparently possible to just reach out and grab them if you can take them by surprise. Don’t believe me? Check out this post on to see how it can work.

This from last weekend (August 5th) to yesterday I went on three trips with turtling potential. I think I’ll break it into a few posts, since I might have less free time in the near future and writing up all this herping is a little daunting to me right now.

Trip one was technically not a ‘herping’ trip, but since I can’t help but herp anytime I’m outdoors (that line might look strange to new readers), I did get in some herping.

Think about how hot it has been over the past few weeks, and think about what you’d most like to be doing at 90 degrees and sunny. Does it involve water? The water we headed for on August 5th was the mighty Delaware River, in particular a stretch of river just north of Point Pleasant on the Pennsylvania side. There were four of us and we wanted to be together and bring food (no coolers on the tubes), so we rented a raft for the afternoon.

There are probably painted turtles and snappers in nearly every body of water in Pennsylvania, but the Delaware is the only local home to the map turtle (Graptemys geographica), a turtle that is more properly at home in the Susquehanna River system and other rivers to the west of us. How they were introduced to the Delaware (and apparently recently in the lower Schuylkill too) is a bit of mystery, but they've spread up to the Delaware Water Gap and down to around Trenton.

I’ve been wanting to see a map turtle, and I figured a rafting trip down the Delaware was a nice opportunity. Of course we were there on a Sunday afternoon, so hundreds of other heat refugees joined us on the water, thoroughly scaring almost all turtles off their basking spots and out of sight.

We saw a few basking – one painted turtle, one red-eared slider (the exotic Trachemys scripta elegans), and a third on a snag basking too far away to identify. I wanted to dive and investigate the area around the snag, but my raft mates wanted to keep moving downstream. They rightly understood that if they let me stop everywhere I wanted to, the four hour trip would take all day. Still, we saw few turtles after that, even with me swimming and searching much of the bottom of the Delaware along the way.

I did see a very large northern water snake (Nerodia s. sipedon) under a large slab of a rock sitting in about a foot of water. I saw its head sticking up, probably catching a breath of air, but then it saw me. The head snapped back under the slab, and although I heaved and pulled, I could not lift that rock.

What came out of that trip was not much in the way of herps, but a boost to the revolution in my understanding of aquatic habitat that’s come from swimming in those habitats. I got a hint of this last summer when I was diving with newts (Nopthalmus v. viridiscens) in Massachusetts, and again I was blown away by the reality of the world under the water. It’s not just a barrier across which turtles, snakes, and frogs can escape; it’s another world. Experienced snorkelers and scuba divers must already understand this, but for me it’s still a new and magical revelation.

There under the Delaware fish were all around me – not in thick schools, but continually darting by a foot away or hanging surprisingly close to me with seemingly no concern that I might eat them. Most were small and shiny, but there were catfish and smallmouth bass swimming around me too.

I think this is going to be a fixture of my herping in the future – bringing my mask and snorkel along when I’m out in the woods so that I can jump in and search on the other side of the surface.

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