Spotted turtles (Clemmys guttata) make me happy. I'm not sure how anyone could be anything but happy looking at this face,
or this one (a little more scared, but still keeping an eye on things)
or even this one (not coming out until the monster goes away!)?
...but for me I think I'm feeling more than just the visceral pleasure of holding and regarding a beautiful and endearing little creature that doesn't bite or poop on you (although neither of those really turn me off when it comes to herping). Spotted turtles are some of the first reptiles of the spring, but more than the brown snakes (Storeria dekayi), garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis), or maybe painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) that also come out early and stay out all year, spotted turtles are reptiles of the spring. They come out of hibernation as soon as the sun is shining and the temps keep above freezing at night, and then they tend to disappear from sight in the heat of the summer, when their beloved vernal pools and other temporary wetlands dry up (or when thick vegetation shields them from view).
If you've been following this blog for a little while, you might know that I enjoy scouting new sites for rare or hard-to-find species. I like studying maps and satellite images for the right terrain, and then I love stepping out of the car and hiking to the real deal so I can see, feel, and smell it all myself. This "ground proofing" as I've heard it called (I like "casing the joint"), is a good winter activity, and once I've determined that a site really does hold potential, I can barely contain myself until the seasonal and weather conditions are right for the target species.
For spotted turtles I'm waiting for early spring (like right now!) and sunny weather. It can be as low as 40 degrees, but if the sun is strong, it's worth looking. Spotted turtles are morning people, so go earlier than later, and when you get to the pool or marsh, check the the north or northwest bank (where the sun is hitting) or shore for turtles either hanging out at the surface of the water or hauled out on branches or the bank itself. It's best to approach from the south for the best view and to place yourself between the turtle and the water (or in the water where the turtle will run once spooked).
Here's how a spotted turtle looks in the water, like a tiny constellation of stars sliding over the dark leaf litter:
Here is a turtle basking on a downed tree in a vernal pool:
Here's Simon taking a picture of one. You can see another in the leaves towards the top left of the picture, in between the second and third from the right of the shadows cast by the small tree trunks in that corner:
I'll take a quick tangent to quickly show the differences between male and female spotties.
First, note the bellies (plastrons). Males have a concave plastron, while the females' are pretty much flat. Note also the size of the tails - males have longer, thicker tails.
Most of these photos are from spot we already knew somewhere in the Delaware Valley (the kind of spot whose secrecy we'll defend to the death). Starting with a known population was a good way to check that turtles would be out at all, so that I'd have a better sense of the quality of the new sites we'd visit next. At the old site we also met some other regulars, including this basking black racer (Coluber constrictor)...
...and this feisty, difficult-to-pose ribbon snake (Thamnophis sauritus) that I nearly stepped on in the middle of the trail; I stopped my foot a few inches above it as some subconscious part of my brain realized it wasn't a stick, so that I was executing an awkward hop to clear the snake before I really knew why. It flattened its head and body to look big and tough, and at first I thought it was a close relative, a garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), but the location of its side stripes on the 3rd and 4th scale rows up from the belly on each side, as opposed to 2nd and 3rd for a garter, and some other pattern details convinced us that we were looking at a ribbon [for some reason the photo keeps uploading sideways - sorry].
At the first of the two new sites I initially had trouble finding the water. I think it might have been drier than I'd been expecting, but pretty much as soon as we found the pool and waded in, I spotted three spotted turtles soaking up the sun on the north bank of the pool. One charged into the water before we could grab it for photos, but here's one of the other two (the male chin example from above is the second) and a shot of the pool:
I was ecstatic - clapping, shouting, gorilla-style chest thumping, elated. Simon was giggly too. If simply finding spotted turtles isn't cool enough by itself, finding spotted turtles at a location you've researched and scouted is about as cool as herping gets, ever. Basically I told Simon to park and then hike with me somewhat blindly into the woods to an anonymous pool I'd never herped before, and as soon as we got there we found three of the coolest turtles on the planet.
We had time for one more spot on the way home, so we stopped and I led us down a poorly-maintained trail in the general direction of some coordinates by way of my GPS unit. Eventually we had to strike off the trail, which in this landscape meant hacking, scrambling, and contorting our way through a dense growth of spiny hollies, small face-jabbing oak trees, downed trees, and thorny hanging greenbriar vines. We ended up in a marsh all right, but it didn't look right for spotted turtles. The stagnant water was shallow over deep sphagnum moss. Each step sank us up to our knees in the muck, and we had to climb over downed tree trunks and limbo our way around dense stands of saplings and greenbriar. Pretty soon we realized we were getting close to brackish water and it wasn't looking any better, so we gave up (which meant slogging out the way we'd come in).
On the way back we happened to cross through a section of woods that I had flagged on the map as vaguely strange but promising - no obvious pools, but the forest had a rougher look to it. I think that "roughness" I had noted was the effect of flooded understory, either with water or the blackened leaf litter that dries out later in summer showing through the canopy, since on the ground we were looking at some really pretty flooded forest.
And we weren't alone either! A big male (for a spotty - 4.5 inches long) was basking on the mossy bank of a tiny tree island (he's the one all closed up near the start of the post). How cool is that?!
(here's a shot of such an island, sans turtle)
After the thrill and the photos it was a tough hike out. We couldn't find the trail again, so we just headed back in the direction of the road we'd parked on, knowing that we'd hit it eventually. It was the same thick, brambly mess, and I think I took about as much of the forest out in my hair and stuck in my skin as I left behind, but I didn't care - I was too damn happy, and if I didn't have to work to earn a living I'd be back out there every day of the week.
I need to close by saying the turtles are being reported to the proper state herp tracking efforts, and that we put all of them right back how we found them once we were done with the photos. However tempting it might be to take one, spotted turtles are at risk from people taking them home for pets, even just for "personal use." If you really want one, you can find captive-bred hatchlings, although possession of those still might be illegal (as in PA) or require state permitting (as in NJ, as of the last time I checked). Please avoid buying adults listed as captive-bred - that's usually a fraud to cover for illegal trade in wild-caught adults, whatever the guy tells you. Last thing - never reveal the locations of your spotted turtle sites to anyone you don't know well and trust. You never know who is a poacher, but more important it's often hard to tell if even an innocent fellow herper will have the discretion to keep his or her mouth shut around other possible poachers. I avoid even mentioning what state I found in them, let alone the county or specific locale.