Tuesday, May 04, 2010

I've been telling Scott and Simon for years that I ought to dump a few snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina) into the Centennial Lakes in Fairmont Park West, off Belmont Ave. On earlier trips Jen and I had seen a ton of bullfrogs (Rana caterbeiana), but more relevant to the snappers, we also had also seen lots of snails. I figured any muddy, smelly, trash-choked urban pond full of fat snails needs a snapping turtle, the perfect monster to drag itself through the mud and scare the local kids. It might even gobble up a few of the goslings too.

A couple weekends ago, Jen and I started at Lowes to get some gardening supplies. Then we flipped concrete chunks on Jefferson behind the Lowes (found one brown snake - Storeria dekayi - it got away), and then we hit the lakes. The lakes are a remnant of the great Centennial exhibition of 1876, when Philadelphia celebrated our nation's 100th birthday in grand style in the new Fairmont Park. Learn more about plans (as yet unfunded) to restore this potentially gorgeous stretch of Fairmont Park West to its former glory here.

The bullfrogs fled before us, as usual, splashing in just before we could get good looks at them, let alone photograph them (I'm really bad at spotting frogs before they move.). The herd of Canada geese ambled out of our way too, grumbling as they went.

Then I spotted a turtle. This one was basking on a rock in the middle, certainly not a snapper, and most likely a released red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans). Without binoculars I couldn't be certain, so I decided to take a photograph I could then blow up on the computer and examine more closely.

The plastron (belly) looked yellow to us, consistent with it being a slider, but I wanted a good look at its head to be sure. For the best angle for the photo, catching the head without shooting into the sun, I needed to get to the island in the middle of the lake. The water level was low enough on the west side of the lake for me to walk out (this is part of a restoration project), so we walked west along the sidewalk on the north side, working to where the exposed mud had hardened enough for me to cross without sinking in.

On our way along that north edge of the water, Jen pointed at the murky shallows a couple feet in and shouted that she saw a small turtle. I saw it too, though not quite well enough to ID it. I stepped in and grabbed, stirring up some of that mud and further obscuring the turtle, and just got a handle on the back of its 4-inch shell. Then it whipped its head, on the end of a surprisingly long neck, back at my hand in a snapper-style strike. I reflexively let go for a second (a cowardly failure I am loathe to admit). As the turtle ran into deeper water, I made the quick decision not to jump headlong into the foul storm water runoff and the mud - mostly goose poop plus whatever settles out of storm water runoff after having been rinsed off the streets of West Philly - and watched the little snapper get away.

Scott and Simon have both shot down my snapper-stocking idea repeatedly (I won't let it rest) - tinkering excessively with the herpetological order of the universe, they say. I suppose it's possible that there are snappers breeding in there already, but I doubt that adults would leave so many snails in there and no other signs of large snappers - namely tracks through the exposed mud. Someone else must have released the little one.

Feeling elated at the snapper discovery, but also a bit of a failure for not catching it AND scooped by whatever irresponsible pet owner who had released the turtle and unwittingly beat me to the punch, I continued to the island for my photo.

I passed a goose pair incubating eggs.

I got closer to the perfect vantage point but noticed two more geese that didn't look like they planned on getting out of my way.

I still had a few yards to go, but they weren't budging, just hissing obstinately and waving their heads up and down.

Here's the best shot I could get. I can just make out the red stripe on the head; it's a slider.

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