What’s a herper to do? How about turtling? When it’s hot enough to melt the handle on your Stumpripper, turtles are exactly where you want to be, in the water!
I’ve got big turtling plans this summer. As usual they’re probably unrealistic given my time and financial/gasoline constraints, but on Sunday morning I headed out to the Maurice River to try out one of my ideas: the hunt for the spiny softshell turtles (Apalone spinifera).
Spiny softshells, much like the common map turtles (Graptemys geographica), are an invasive exotic species in our region but don’t come from very far away. They occur naturally in Western Pennsylvania and into New England, but the ones in the Delaware Valley are apparently descended from released animals. The Maurice River in Salem and Cumberland Counties in NJ is apparently ground zero, but they’ve been seen in the Heinz NWR and Kyle’s posted photos of Bucks County, PA softshells on Field Herp Forum.
The Maurice River is easy to access and pretty shallow (especially in this dry weather) near Vineland, north of Union Lake, so I decided to get up early on Sunday (July 20th) and check it out.
This was to be a hip wader trip and not a snorkeling trip. The shallow water made me comfortable that I could get grab turtles without going under, but more important was that none of my herping buddies could make the trip with me. As much as I trust myself as a swimmer, I’m not comfortable going swimming on my own in an unfamiliar river; there have been too many stories lately of people drowning in the Delaware, Neshaminy Creek, or other local waterways.
So a little before eight in the morning I was up to my thighs in the Maurice, net in hand and scanning the bottom through my polarized sunglasses. (Polarized sunglasses are cheap and wonderful. For ten bucks you can see through most of the surface glare and watch fish, crawdads, and of course turtles underwater that you otherwise couldn’t see.). Here's some evidence of someone else (raccoon) prowling the river:
The first turtle I saw was like a dark, round rock scampering over the gravel with its head thrust out in front. Stinkpots (Sternotherus oderatus) are a lot of fun to catch. They’re slow, they don’t swim well, and as long as you keep your fingers in back of the bridge of their shell, they’re pretty harmless. I saw eight that morning. I caught some with the net and some just by reaching down and picking them up. Three got away, but here are shots of some of the ones I nabbed.
I just love the white stripes on the black faces of the younger ones.
Dig the shell damage on these two.
The number one stinkpot imitator was another exotic invasive, the glass bottle. There are a LOT of glass bottles in the Maurice River. Out of the corner of your eye, they look just like a round stinkpot, and more than once I thought I had stepped on a turtle (round, hard, a few inches across?) but reached down to pull up yet another glass bottle.
A sand-filled and flattened two-liter plastic bottle also fooled me. There were just enough ripples on the surface to keep me from getting a clear picture of it, and it looked just like a large turtle with its head just peeking out. I had to net it to convince myself that it was indeed trash and not a softshell.
Softshell turtles are supposed to love to bask. When they’re not basking and not swimming, they’re supposed to burrow into the sand or mud, occasionally sticking their heads up at the end of their long necks and taking a breath through their snorkel-like noses, often without budging the rest of their bodies from under the sand. I used to see them swimming and basking pretty often when I lived in Atlanta, Georgia, so I know I’d recognize them if I could lay my eyes on any.
I didn’t see any basking, and as much as I scanned the sand for any indication of a hiding turtle, I saw none. I talked to some kayakers who passed me and to a fisherman (who reported a snapper so big he “couldn’t bear hug it if I wanted to.”), but neither reported seeing softshell turtles on that stretch of the river.
I can still have fun without softshell turtles. Stinkpots are always a good time, and I did see one more turtle species. I was standing near the shore, studying yet another patch of gravel under the water, when out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a small boulder with legs. I looked straight at it, and two beady little eyes in a head the size of my fist looked right back at me.
It was a common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), and it was a big one. It made a move for the deeper water behind me, but before I could think I had swung my net down to block it. Too often I think before acting, and I’m glad that for once my herping reflexes took over in time. Sand and mud swirled up from the bottom, obscuring my view of the dodging dark mass in the water, but I kept guessing right and blocking, corralling it until I was directly in front of it and able to scoop it into my net.
I took a breath and stared down at my still-immersed net, full of a 20+ pound scared and angry snapper digging at the webbing with its powerful claws. That’s about when I started thinking: (thought #1) How the hell am I going to get that thing out of the net?
This was no stinkpot, and even those little guys demanded enough respect for me to handle them cautiously from the back. Moreover there was no good way to photograph the turtle once I got it out. The riverbank in front of me was just a short patch of moss before a dense wall of bushes and vines. The turtle wouldn’t just sit there in the water to pose, and there was no one to take the dramatic shot of me hoisting the glorious beast out of the water before its release.
So, holding onto the net handle with my left hand, I took out my camera, strung its strap over my neck, and tossed my backpack to the bank. I took hold of the turtle’s tail with my right hand, let the handle fall, and started pulling the webbing away from its back feet with my left hand. I’ll note that I never lifted it more than halfway out of the water by its tail. You can seriously injure a snapper by lifting it by its tail, so if you do need to lift a snapper into the air, make sure to grab it by its hind feet, the back of its shell, or some combination. I figured that with at least half of its weight (including the all-important snapping mouth) still in the water, it was okay to steady it by its tail as I worked.
Of course if you like having ten fingers, keep them towards the back of the turtle. I had to remind myself of this once I had freed the back feet and I worked towards the head. I kept my grip on the tail with my right hand and grabbed the net handle again with my left. As I pulled the net away the turtle gradually let go, and after a few photos that did not turn out very well, I released it and felt it crawl over my feet, between them (that'll make me hold my breath every time), and then behind me into the deeper channel of the river.