The Wood Turtle Emergence

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Spring in Northern New England is off to an early start.  As water from melting snow replenishes woodland vernal pools and salamanders begin their migrations to breeding wetlands, the annual reptile and amphibian drought is drawing to an end.  This means there is one question at the forefront of my mind: “when will Wood Turtles come out?”

Each spring, at about the time river valley snow melts, Wood Turtles emerge to sun themselves along the streambanks.

Wood Turtles, which spend much of the spring and summer on land, overwinter in valley streams.  This far north they may spend almost six months hunkered down in shallow pools, wedged within log jams, or concealed beneath hollow riverbanks.  As the warmth of spring began its march north, pictures of the year’s first Wood Turtles slowly crept into my social media feeds.  First Pennsylvania, then Upstate New York and West Virginia, with subsequent posts coming from places closer and closer to my home base in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.

When Wood Turtles are in their streams, they find places to hide where they are very difficult to spot, including inside log jams.

Typically our local Wood Turtles emerge to sun themselves for the first time in very late April or early May, but sometimes as early as mid-March.  After a couple sunny days in the mid-40s, and with almost all of the river valley snow melted, I decided try my luck at one of our most reliable sites on April 4th.  Although I struck out, it may only be a matter of days before Wood Turtles line local streambanks once more. 

Although Wood Turtles sometimes bask out in the open on river banks, they are much more likely to sun themselves while hiding in vegetation to avoid being seen by predators. The turtle pictured here is in the center of the image.

The reason I, and other biologists, flock to streambanks to survey Wood Turtles every spring is because Wood Turtles are in trouble.  Threatened by habitat loss, cars, farm equipment, illegal collection, and more, their numbers are in steady decline.  Because we can’t fix their problems at every site, we need information about where the most critical habitat is located so conservation resources can be targeted to the places most important to this imperiled species.  To do that, we need data, but because Wood Turtles are so secretive, relying on people reporting chance encounters with the species isn’t enough.  As I write this, almost every northeastern state is gearing up for Wood Turtle surveys, and the timing of those surveys is crucial.

This turtle was already missing a foot when she was clipped by haying equipment and lost the edge of her shell. Her story is a great example of the difficulties Wood Turtles endure that threaten their populations.

Early to mid-spring is actually the easiest time spot Wood Turtles, even though they are very elusive both in water and on land.  While other species, like Painted and Map Turtles, sun themselves out in the open on rocks or logs sticking out of lakes and ponds where they can be spotted from hundreds of yards away, Wood Turtles take a different approach and hide amongst debris and dead vegetation where they are warmed by filtered sunlight and are very difficult to spot.

Pictured here during a training, several excited biologists catch a glimpse of their first Wood Turtle.

The Wood Turtle’s secretive nature is the driving force behind why the survey season for this species overlaps with spring floods and near-freezing water temperatures.  In the summer, once Wood Turtles spread out to forage hundreds, or even thousands of feet from streams, locating them is like looking for a needle in a haystack.  In other contexts, I sometimes use the phrase, “like looking for a turtle in a hay field.”  In the early spring, however, when Wood Turtles must return to streams at night to avoid dangerous freezing conditions, the search area is narrowed considerably.

The weather in early spring and late fall is hit or miss, and difficult to predict. To avoid getting stuck on land during dangerous overnight freezes, Wood Turtles return to water most nights at the tail ends of their active season.

Conditions look great this week, but it can be difficult to predict exactly when Wood Turtles will venture back onto land.  With sunny conditions forecasted several days in a row, and temperatures cresting at almost 60 degrees by mid-week, I think Wood Turtle activity could ramp up very quickly.  So, while it’s been 146 days since I’ve seen a reptile or amphibian, let alone a Wood Turtle, I know it’s only a matter of time before our field season kicks into high gear and we can get out of the office and back out there monitoring populations of this imperiled species.