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Northland Nature: Baby snapping turtles leave the nest

Newly hatched snapping turtles walk toward the nearest water. Photo by Larry Weber

It was a pleasant morning in June. With the early sunrise, there were many songs from the local breeding birds.

The woods are shady and spring wildflowers that were so dominant a few weeks ago now are faded, leaving only the shade-tolerant clintonia, starflower and wild lily-of-the valley still in bloom.

But as I look at this floral display along the road, I see something else as well. Upon approach, I see that I have come across a large snapping turtle laying its eggs.

We tend to think of turtles as aquatic animals. Most of their life is spent under or near water, maybe coming up only to bask in sunlight. Each year, usually in June, turtles change their lives a bit and females climb up on land to lay eggs, normally in the darkness.

Sometimes, this ritual is acted out far from water. I have found them depositing eggs a quarter-mile or more from water. And this one is choosing a location similar to what I have seen before: along the road.

I see danger in such a nest site, but the snapper finds there are advantages here, too. Unlike the nearby woods and pavement, the roadside plot is easier to dig in. She does this with her hind legs.

Holes may be more than a foot deep. Here, she drops her clutch of eggs, usually about 30-40; I have seen as many as 75. With hind legs, she covers the eggs with the displaced soil.

The nest is buried, but not totally safe. Skunks, raccoons and dogs use their keen sense of smell to locate, open and feed. And, of course, there may be danger from passing cars.

But if was left undisturbed for about three months, the heat from the sun will help their development, and finally, one day in September, maybe close to the equinox, the young will emerge. They survived growing in the nest; now they need to survive the trip to water.

And this is what I witnessed recently as I came walking by and saw the little turtles on the move. Though some do not make it, others will, and next year, another nest will be here in June, with young emerging in September.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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