June 11, 2006
They are hidden in water and mud for much of their lives, but this time of year, they make an appearance to cross the roads, fall into swimming pools and if they must, snap their way out of danger.
They are snapping turtles.
"This is the time of the year when people have to watch out," said Meredith Sampson, an Old Greenwich wildlife rehabilitator and environmental educator who often responds to calls of snapping turtles in distress. "As people are driving, you see a lump in the road, it could be a turtle. People should be aware this is the time of year when wildlife are real active."
Snapping turtles -- so named because of how fast they can turn their neck and defend themselves using their bite -- are not only the largest freshwater turtle species in Connecticut, they also are among the most common.
In Greenwich, snapping turtles can be found in Binney Park, Bruce Park, Audubon Greenwich property and other nature preserves that feature ponds and other water bodies. Unlike painted turtles, which often climb onto rocks and even on top of one another, to bask in the sun, snapping turtles don't bask and they like to always be in water. They make an exception this time of year when the turtles must leave the water to nest. The females go off to lay and bury their eggs in loose sand, gravel and similar material.
By the end of this month, most of the snapping turtles will return home to more familiar surroundings of marshes, swamps, ponds, lakes, streams and rivers. But until they do, they can be like foreigners stuck in unfamiliar surroundings and in need of help from a good Samaritan.
The other day, Sampson received a call from a woman who needed help with a turtle.
"There was a snapping turtle that fell into someone's swimming pool and couldn't get out," Sampson said, adding that she told the woman to use a pool net to coax the turtle to the pool's shallow end and then to lift the animal out using a shovel.
More common is to find snapping turtles in the middle of the road. There, they run the risk of being killed by vehicles. In those instances, good Samaritans should try to move the turtle to the side of the road and leave them facing the same direction as they were originally headed.
Sometimes, though, it can be tricky to approach a snapping turtle, known for its cantankerous nature and the speed at which it can extend its neck and snap its powerful jaw. The snapping turtle can deliver a nasty bite.
"I've had them in my front seat, hissing and snapping at me," said Elyse Sgandurra, an Old Greenwich resident who loves turtles in general.
Though she has been curtailing some of her turtle activities in recent years, she spent a large part of her life coming to their rescue. If the turtle was large and heavy, she would scoop it up using a shovel. But if they were small enough, Sgandurra would throw a blanket over the distressed turtle, pick it up from the back and put it on the front passenger seat of her car. She would then drive the turtle to the nearest water body.
For the uninitiated, that technique could be too daring.
"I had one about two years ago that popped his head out of that blanket and he was lunging at me as I was driving, really tenaciously" Sgandurra said. "I just stopped the car and rearranged him. I put up a barricade."
While snapping turtles are known for their bite, they are not aggressive by nature and should generally be left alone, said Ted Gilman, an environmental educator at Audubon Greenwich.
"They're fairly shy, they don't want to tangle with us," he said. "But once they come out of the water, then they are sort of out of their element. They can't quickly swim away. É If somebody comes up close to them, they're going to turn and defend themselves."
Unlike species that are endangered or have dwindled to alarmingly low levels because of changes to their environment, snapping turtles are proven survivors and can tolerate high levels of pollution, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.
Though they are plentiful, or perhaps because that is the case, no one seems to know the size of the population and few scientists are studying them, according to environmental officials and advocates.
"We're not keeping track of them, they're so plentiful," said Julie Victoria, a North Franklin-based DEP wildlife biologist. "There's a lot we don't know."
That leaves plenty of work for amateur scientists such as Chuck Landrey, a 46-year-old Old Saybrook resident who operates a Web Site, www.turtleatlas.com, to collect turtle sightings from people across New England. He said snapping turtles spend so little time out of the water that it is difficult to gauge the population by sightings.
"They are just an invisible species, except when they are nesting," Landrey said. "All of the females are heading out to lay and that's about the only time that you tend to see snapping turtles on land. They are so incredibly adaptive to aquatic life."
Even in the water, snapping turtles are an imposing presence.
Conservation Director Denise Savageau grew up fishing by a lake where snapping turtles would bite the bait from the end of her pole before she had a chance to catch any fish. Though frustrated by it, she wasn't about to fight back, especially after she saw how far snapping turtles could stretch their necks and bite.
"We would cut the line and let them be -- you didn't mess with turtles," she said. "I have a healthy respect for them. I don't get close."
This year, when Savageau searched for Canada geese eggs as part of the town's effort to "oil" the eggs and reduce the number of goslings that are hatched, she saw several snapping turtles nearby.
"They're usually the king of the ponds," Savageau said of the snapping turtles who prey on goslings and their parents.
"A lot of times, if you see a one-legged duck, that could be a result of a snapping turtle," she said. "They're out and about."
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