Seeking more than a peek at turtles

Wild Ways

Here I am, the gentlest person when it comes to wildlife. I would never hurt anything. I just like to watch animals. Even turtles. Most of the time when I see them, they are not doing anything much interesting, just soaking up the rays or swimming in the water, but I enjoy them, regardless.

My only problem is, the turtles in our own backyard retention pond are afraid of me! Every time I walk into the backyard, any turtles that might be resting on the opposite pond bank quickly plop back into the water and disappear. It’s only a fairly recent twist, however, that they have a bank in the afternoon sun to relax on. This past year, we cut down overgrown bankside vegetation and made a clearing for them, and for the great egret, great blue heron and wood stork that live here as well. It has been a great addition to our wildlife viewing. The birds have gotten used to me now. But, alas, not the turtles. All I can do is give them time.

Even the most suspicious turtles eventually get used to people. On a recent walk on the Greenway, I saw lots and lots of turtles resting on the bank, some across a canal from me where they would be relatively safe from humans, but some right next to me, near the path. These turtles were so inured to the comings and goings of dog walkers, bicyclists, hikers and joggers that nothing seems to bother them. I’ve noticed the same thing in state parks where people are a part of the environment. The turtles learn that, here, they are safe from harassment and, over time, they just adapt.

I guess our own turtles will adapt eventually as well. After these few months with the sunny bank exposed, I am now noticing that not all the turtles immediately jump back into the water when they see me across the pond in my yard. Maybe these few brave ones will eventually be a model for the rest of them.

There is one time in their life cycle that our backyard pond turtles are not afraid of me.

When a female is heavy with eggs and is searching for a good place to deposit them, she comes across the pond to our yard. Even if I get close to her, she continues to walk in a deliberate pace toward “turtle beach,” our side yard which Bucko maintains vegetation-free as his work yard. It turns out that this is the only sunny bare patch anywhere near the pond. And the turtles have found it. Every spring, we see mature turtles walking right past our bedroom window and over to their nesting area. Sometimes the crows see this, too, and rush in to dig up the eggs. But sometimes there is success, and little baby turtles are once again in the pond.

Eighteen or so years ago, when our development was just being constructed and the pond existed but few houses had been built, new homeowners Holly and Mike Herkenhoff found a baby turtle crossing the road and rescued it. They brought it home and made it a pet – “Simmie” – who turned out to be a female. At first, they kept her indoors, where she sometimes had the roam of the house. Eventually, she grew big enough to move outside into their fenced yard with a swimming pool they sometimes shared with her.

Mike and Holly still have Simmie. A few years ago, she disappeared for a month and was eventually found buried in mulch and severely dehydrated. They brought her to a turtle vet and nursed her back to health in a “hospital-type pool” in their home, giving her shots of antibiotics every few days, something none of them enjoyed. But Simmie recovered and is alive and well at this writing.

I’m thinking of Simmie now when I write about shy turtles. You’ve got to see this turtle to see how used to people they can actually get. Around New Year’s, after we had a cold snap, Holly sent me an updated photo of Simmie. To protect her from the cold, they brought her inside the house again. She knew her old territory and revisited the favorite spots from her youth, but was too big now to fit under the bookcase as in days of old. But Simmie was at home regardless. Their photo of Simmie enjoying the warmth of an indoor fire is a classic!

Now, if only I can get my turtles to at least let me watch them from across the pond!

Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. 



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