Saturday, January 14, 2012

Scott and I were planning a big sweep of the Southeast to find eleven map turtle (Graptemys) species, including all the broad-headed species and all the sawbacks. But that didn't seem like a reason I couldn't make other trips down South to look for map turtles. Call it scouting.

In June I noticed how many credit card points and hotel points I had, and in an hour of playing around online I had booked a flight, rental car, and hotel rooms for nearly nothing, all in the cause of herping.

One challenge of this kind of herping is that there are few large airports central to the Gulf-area map turtle distributions. Atlanta is too far northeast, Memphis too far northwest, New Orleans at the southwest corner of where I wanted to be. I chose Montgomery, AL, and decided to start out the trip heading west into Mississippi.

The first sign that this was a bad initial decision was the parade of towering thunderheads and curtains of rain I drove through on my way out of Alabama. It was an awesome sight to behold at dusk: cliffs of roiling dark clouds back-lit in pink and purple by the setting sun, but the rain, probably good for terrestrial herping, was bad news for snorkeling. However the rivers looked the day before, they'd look a lot bigger and muddier after that rain.

...which is exactly what I found the next morning on a tributary of the Pascagoula (thus looking for gibbonsi and flavimaculata). I paddled the Raftemys upstream, heartened early by this river cooter (Pseudemys concinnus) working through a riffle.

Note a pretty turtle, but it was a turtle.

I saw some other turtles (map turtles?) slip off of far-off snags as I went, and I finally pulled the Raftemys over at a nice sandbank opposite a steeper cut bank on a bend in the river for a snorkeling attempt. The sand showed more evidence of turtles:

I strapped on the mask, got the mouthpiece in, and slipped into the water.

I couldn't see anything. I couldn't see my hand more than six inches in front of my face. I could only see brown. What was that brown?

Well, I thought about that question while I was immersed in it. A good deal of it was soil from the surrounding uplands. I had seen a lot of that soil exposed in overgrazed cattle pasture on my way to the put-in from the hotel, and soil wasn't all I saw those fields that could be washed into the water with me. I got out, thinking of all the interesting livestock pathogens I had steeped in.

I did drive around and visit other rivers I had looked at online from satellite images; all of them were similarly muddy. Scouting indeed.

That evening I drove back into Alabama, stopping for dinner at my herping restaurant of choice:

Small towns in the South do Dairy Queen right.

The next morning I tried two tributaries of the Escambia River, which in Alabama is called the Conecuh. The first spot was a little on the murky side (in retrospect, not bad at all now that I've done a lot more of this kind of snorkeling) so I tried another tributary. I saw little farmland or pasture around this particular river on satellite images, and it showed in the water. The USGS Water Data website later showed that the river flow had jumped before I got in it, but the water was still nearly crystal clear.

I did not take the Raftemys. The current was swift but the river was shallow, so it looked like miserable paddling but plausible picking my way along the banks. The river flows through a very deeply incised ravine, with green forested hillsides rising above to either side. This makes for beautiful scenery - the rest of the world disappears (there are a lot of reasons to hate the automobile, but another one is the way we so quickly pass above creeks and rivers on bridges; the landscape's most beautiful features might as well not be there), but it also makes for a shady river. The sun needs to be at a steep angle to warm the branches that turtles like to bask on, so I didn't see any until I hit an east-west bend.

There I saw what I had been looking for, a decent-sized turtle with a peaked shell slide off a snag by the bank. I found a secure spot to leave what I wouldn't be bringing into the water, changed out of my shoes, put on the flippers, and slid in myself.

I immediately found the heaven I had been looking for. The bottom dropped away to a channel about eight or ten feet deep, and I could see all the way down. Small fish hovered around me, and below me turtles looked back up from beneath a tangle of submerged branches.

These were the wrong kind of turtle, more river cooters, clean ones with rich shell patterns and long claws. Not that there's anything wrong with them (indeed Scott and I would later discover how beautiful these cooters are), but I was looking for the plain carapace and leaf-edge outline of a large female Escambia River map turtle (G. ernsti), which I finally found beneath one of those submerged logs.

Look at that head!

I played around some more in that channel, drifting downstream with my head upstream, my legs working to keep me steady in position, and diving down here and there to get my head down and investigate features on the bottom.

Good thing I did, since I soon spotted the smaller leaf-outline shell of a male Escambia River map turtle tucked alongside a submerged branch. Here's the little beauty.

Could you believe that both this guy and the enormous female are adults? The two sexes of the larger map turtle species lead separate lives. They often prefer different stretches of water (the females deeper pools) and they eat different food: the females crush mussels and clams while the males crunch insects and worms.

After this I drove back to Montgomery, where in a major failure of planning I didn't have a pre-determined set of spots to explore enough around the rivers there before my afternoon flight home (to be fair, I didn't feel quite like getting on a plane while I was still drying off).