What Eggs-axctly Are These Turtles Doing?!
By Ashley Goldbeck, Lead Naturalist
Lately, you may have come across a turtle species that appears to be lost. What are they doing hanging out in parking lots, along busy roads and outside of their normal aquatic habitats? Have they lost their minds?! Fortunately, the answer is no! It is simply egg laying season, which can be quite dangerous for turtles indeed. Over the next few weeks, be observant while driving along river, lake and wetland habitats including on park roads as turtle nesting season has begun! If you’re traveling at an appropriate speed, there is usually plenty of time to slow down, stop, or drive around turtles on roadways and parking lots. There might even be safe opportunities for you to help them cross these dangerous areas.
If you wish to see adult turtles, nesting sites or hatchlings at Willow River State Park, head out on these trails which often result in frequent sightings:
The Hidden Ponds Trail (located directly behind the Nature Center), the purple Trout Brook Trail, the green Little Falls Trail, the blue Willow Falls Trail, the gray Nelson Farm Trail, and the Mound Trail (located roughly 1 mile in an external parking lot NE of the main park entrance). These trails can be found on the park map below. The Mound Trail external parking lot has been circled for ease of navigation.
Turtles are often spotted basking along many of these trails due to their wetland and river habitats adjacent to the trail. You can also spot several turtles at the Willow Falls or even right outside of the Nature Center! If you come across any turtle species or nests within the park we ask that you please be respectful and keep your distance! This could have a significant impact on their safety and the safety of their future generations to come. Enjoy, and always remember to share your adventure and turtle sightings with us!
Below: Snapping Turtle Laying Eggs Along Trout Brook Trail
Information Worth Knowing and Sharing Before Hitting The Trail:
The expedition many turtles must make over land often results in unfortunate deaths on roadways. Because many turtles seek ideal nesting areas as far as a mile or more away from their aquatic habitat, this often means they have to cross fragmented land filled with highways and roads to reach their nesting ground.
Snapping turtles, Painted turtles and Blanding’s turtles are the most common to seek nesting grounds in late spring and early summer (May-June). As soil temperatures warm, the animals leave the rivers, lakes and streams to travel across land and find ideal nesting areas. Often, this location is where they themselves were born years before. Most turtles seek out loose soils or sand in which to nest. This may mean just a short trip up a stream bank or a hike of a mile or more to get to their chosen location.
All land-nesting turtles create a nest using their hind legs as shovels to dig a hole 8-12 inches deep in the sand or soil. Even while digging, the female turtle may begin to deposit her eggs into the nest hole. Once her eggs are laid, she uses her legs in a sweeping motion to cover the hole back up. Lastly, she’ll pack down the soil to secure the eggs beneath.
Besides the obvious dangers of crossing roadways, turtles face other dangers during the nesting season. Hungry mammals and birds, will not hesitate to snatch a turtle meal. The eggs too are in danger, and, unfortunately, many turtle nests never see a successful hatch. Some predators will even stalk nesting turtles, snatching eggs as they are being deposited into the nesting hole. Common nest predators include Fox, turkeys, raccoons, Sandhill cranes, skunks, and more. Even domestic cats and dogs will help themselves to a nest of turtle eggs.
In early summer, you may spot exposed turtle nests with empty golf ball-sized eggs littered around the nesting hole. Unfortunately, this means the nest has been raided as most turtle hatchlings wont emerge for a couple months after being laid (August-September). In some cases, if fall comes early or temperatures drop too quickly in the late summer season, hatchlings may not emerge until the following spring. This is called overwintering, where they’ll stay inside the egg throughout the winter season, surviving on the yolk inside of their own egg shell to stay nourished until the following spring.
Once conditions are favorable, the tiny hatchlings will emerge, complete with identical shell structure, coloring and scaling of the correlating adult species. As they hatch they must dig their way up through the soil, and instinctively move to the nearest water source. How a tiny hatchling turtle knows to navigate across woodlands, prairies, roadways and other land obstacles to reach water remains a mystery. Some scientists say they follow the light of the moon, while others believe they have their own personal GPS systems built into their brains. Either way, the life cycle of our fellow turtles is a perilous and intriguing journey indeed!
Below: Snapping Turtle Hatchling
Make it A Family Adventure!
How many turtle species do we have in Wisconsin? (Answer: 11) Have them name some of their favorite species.
What do turtles eat? (Answer: Aquatic vegetation, insects, fish, minnows, frogs, crayfish, etc.)
Do all Wisconsin turtles live in the water? (Answer: No, some lives in prairies (Ornate box turtle) and forests (Wood turtle).
How long can a turtle live? (Answer: 100-200 years if conditions remain favorable for them)
Do turtles have teeth? (Answer: No. They have beaks which are extremely sharp and used to clamp down on their prey while they use their front claws to shred apart their food, which they then swallow whole)
Can turtles leave their shells? (Answer: No. Turtles are born with their shells permanently attached to their spine. When they are young their shells are soft so they can grow along with the turtle. They harden as the turtle ages and reaches maturity, when growth is no longer accelerated.