While we knew the house would bring us closer to nature – surrounded as it is on three sides with forest and wetlands – the sheer volume and frequency of these encounters went grossly underappreciated. By the end of the first year it wasn’t uncommon to hear a yelp, thud, muttering, and what would become our new catchphrase, “Too much nature!” when face to face with yet another animal. And that was just the ones that made it inside.
Outside, the property hosts deer, turkey, geese, weasels, coyotes, rabbits, groundhogs, skunks, fisher cats, and various birds of prey. Confident gangs of raccoons saunter by looking for their next easy mark. Bird nests of countless species and crafted with unimaginable feats of engineering are found in highly questionable locations. Frantic squirrels tear up the yard with their incessant digging while below, entire vole armies have taken to the roots, stuffing their faces as they travel and leaving behind a complex network of tunnels that are quickly adopted by mice and the snakes that hunt them both.
While familiar, not one of these creatures has captured our affection quite like the ladies who briefly visit each year, lumbering quietly but determinedly across the yard, barely noticeable but for undulating grass tips until the sun hits their shells at just the right angle. Our first spring brought our first turtle. While I’m not sure who spotted it, we quickly gathered in the yard to watch as it gently and rhythmically rocked back and forth in the grass. The mystery of its movements was solved when we got closer and discovered hind legs slowly, methodically, and purposely digging what we soon learned was a nest.
Google taught us that all female turtles – even those who typically live in water – travel to lay eggs on land between the spring and early summer. Our realtor taught us that location matters when choosing a home. These two pieces of knowledge converged in our yard as our first turtle became five turtles, 10 turtles, 20 turtles, each focused on digging a hole that would be meticulously filled back in before heading home. Provided we kept our distance, they appeared to take little notice of us and even less of each other.
There are 10 native turtle species found throughout Massachusetts (not including sea turtle or invasive species). Some like to stroll through forests and fields while others want to hang out in various types of wetlands and bogs. There are turtles that prefer the coast and its marshes and turtles that’d rather bask in a pond or stream. One turtle rarely leaves the water at all while another – not unlike people I know – has yet to find its way out of Plymouth. Our yard supports two species: the well represented painted turtle and the far less common spotted turtle.
Arriving as early as April, they nest on the lawn, in the garden, under the swing set, next to the driveway, and in the shrubs. As the weather turns warmer, their numbers increase until the yard is dotted with shells in all directions and in all stages of nesting. And while I try not to handle them too much, I’ve been forced to intervene when they’ve gotten stuck under fencing, tangled in landscaping material, lost on the porch, dawdled in the road, or simply chosen a location with disastrous pedestrian traffic. Time and time again, my reward as a Good Samaritan is a urine-soaked hand courtesy of a questionable prehistoric defense mechanism.
There’s a reason that turtles pre-date dinosaurs and other reptiles and are still here: by design, they’re in it for the long haul. The ribs of turtles evolved to form a hard shell around their bodies, ultimately protecting them from predators. Their organs don’t degrade with age. Female turtles will lay eggs annually for life. They can raise and lower their heart rates at will. Despite needing oxygen to breathe, turtles can put themselves into a hypoxic state, overwintering under frozen bodies of water for upwards of 100 days. They are skilled in the art of deception, known to create decoy nests to trick predators. In fact, once they’ve reach adulthood, there’s very little that can kill a turtle aside from automobiles and a loss of habitat – factors that have directly contributed to making two-thirds of the world’s species threatened and 60% of the state’s species require protection.
While it’s thrilling to have a front row seat to a 230 million year old reproductive process, the downside to being so emotionally involved with nature is… well, nature. And it is here that our cry of “too much nature” is at its most desperate. For female turtles that require crossing roads to lay eggs, there’s danger in both directions as evidenced by roadway carnage. Despite our best efforts to clear them from the road and alert drivers to their presence with signs each spring, we’ve heard the awful sound of a car’s tire crushing a turtle, its broken body later buried in the yard. Eggs and hatchlings are even more vulnerable, offered none of the adult turtle’s protections. Because, even if she’s able to nest, the numerous predators that live in our yard ensure most eggs won’t survive, digging them up almost immediately for food.
The reason we know we have so many turtle nests is not because we are constantly surveying them. It’s because we’re constantly tripping over raided nests, its white and leathery sacs scattered among piles of dirt and stone. By August, the yard that was once full of gleaming shells is now pocked with dozens of holes and countless empty sacs. Hatchlings, if they should get that far in life, are also under constant threat from predators both as they make their journey to water as well as while living in it.
So it came as a pleasant surprise late one fall to be reminded that, despite all odds, nature really does find a way. That way was in the mouth of our terrier, Tootsie, who spit out a tiny hatchling seeming to be barely alive. After creating a turtle-worthy ecosystem in a container and placing it atop the kitchen stove for the warmth of the exhaust hood’s lamps, we watched until it started to move, swim, and climb atop stones.
A few days later and before the first frost, we released it in the backyard. Walking past fallen trees and walls of buckthorn, and guided by the advice of a turtle conservation expert, we placed Tootsie Jr. near a pile of leaves at the water’s edge. And wishing her a long life, we watched as she took a few steps, began to swim, and instinctually dove toward the bottom and safety.