Shelled Intruder

A gray, wet Tuesday morning, rain pelting down, backyard brook up a little and running muddy as the dogs crunch dry nuggets from rusty, cast-iron Wagner skillets on the concrete floor just inside the cook-shed stoop.

It’s looking more and more like this morning we’ll just walk the brook a short distance once they’re through eating, me taking special precautions, wearing my light green rubber Crocs with bald, slippery treads indeed underfoot. But then, as though ordered from the heavens, the rain lets up considerably and I figure, “Why not take a ride to the site of our daily rambles and give it a shot, see what develops?” At the very least, I surmise, we’ll get in a short walk, maybe even complete the whole loop if the foggy drizzle lingers long enough.

I load the animals into their Porta-Kennels and buckle down the capped bed of my Tacoma to drive perhaps a mile to our preferred site I’ve named Sunken Meadow. On the hayfield plain above, behind a greenhouse, I park, walk to the back of the vehicle, drop the tailgate, open the Porta-Kennel doors and watch as the dogs spring down enthusiastically and run off through knee-high red clover, heads up, noses on high alert in the damp, still, pungent air.

We make our way east to a slim treeline border capping a 20-foot escarpment overlooking the flood plain and hook a gentle right toward the locked aluminium gate barring the double-rutted lane down into another verdant flood plain, our Sunken Meadow. The quiet, enclosed little sanctuary is slowly transforming into its late summer mode with hints of purple and yellow along the edges, green apples littered about on the ground, a few premature fallen nuts here and there, likely windblown from oak, hickory and butternut trees standing proud sentry along the upper periphery.

At the base of the short ramp down into the Christmas-tree plot I notice Chubby, ears perked up alert, with palpable caution. There’s something on the ground eight or ten feet in front of him. As I approach, I recognize the object of Chub-Chub’s cautious curiosity as a small black-shelled turtle that’s smaller than a dessert plate and larger than a tea saucer. Standing over it and looking down as it retracts its head and neck into its shell, I’m wondering if it’s a Wood Turtle, a Painted Turtle or some other rarer species I’m not familiar with. Knowing it’s not large and definitely not a snapper, I have no fear of reaching reach down to turn it over for a look at its under-shell, which, if it’s a Wood Turtle, with be decorated with six or eight small black tabs the size of nickels along the outer rim. That, I learned that last year after snapping off a photo of a dead turtle killed by a tractor, incorrectly identifying it as a Painted Turtle and receiving several emails and a phone call from a friend to correct my misidentification. It was a Wood Turtle, not “endangered” but under “protected” status in the Bay State nonetheless.

As I reach down to briefly turn the critter over, I can detect a soft hiss emanating from the front compartment its head has retreated into. It’s not a Wood Turtle. The under-shell is a bland, faded orange with not a mark visible. There seemed to be some lines of color on its head and neck but, because it had unfortunately disappeared by the time I circled back to the site perhaps 20 minutes later, I had no opportunity to re-examine it more carefully. I remember no distinguishing colors or spots on its carapace, just a bland, domed, patterned shell, nothing flashy.

Clearly, the turtle was there to lay eggs in packed sandy soil. That was clear when I saw the half-dollar-sized hole under its tail end. I have passed several similar holes in recent weeks that look like something a rodent or snake would make. My guess now is that all of the holes have been made by turtles of various species, including Wood Turtles, though it seems a little late for egg-laying to me.

At work, I Googled “Massachusetts turtles” to see if I could from memory identify the critter I encountered by studying online photos, but I was unable to pin it down. The biggest problem was that I was unable to find a site showing the under shells of turtles displayed. That plus the fact that I hadn’t pestered the critter long enough to get a good read on any distinguishing characteristics or colors. So now, I have a mystery that’s bugging me a bit.

Hopefully, I’ll run into this critter again, or maybe there’s more than one down there laying eggs at this time, which, again, seems to me a little later than I’m used to seeing. That said, I do have vivid memories of discovering a nest of emerging snappers emerging from a sandbank overlooking a “crick” running along the back property line of my Uncle Bob’s suburban Twin Cities home outside Minneapolis in the early 1960s.

I think I’ll throw a camera in my pocket and stay alert in coming days for that same turtle or another like it, just in case.

Maybe it’s one of the state’s rare turtles biologists want reported when spotted.

That’s what I like about walking the wilds. There’s always opportunity to learn something new in a place you know well. For me, it’s what makes the world go round and awakens me each day with a positive, enthusiastic outlook.

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