Elusive Wood Turtles



“I’ve lived here my whole life and if there were orange-legged turtles crawling around on my farm I’d know about it”. We’ve heard iterations of that line several times now, and perhaps my favorite followup quote, uttered moments after finding two Wood Turtles near the farm’s river ford, went something like “I’ll be dipped in manure” (manure being a synonym for the farmer’s actual word choice). The truth is, Wood Turtles are very secretive animals, and many people fortunate to live in a place where the species is comparatively abundant, have no idea they share the landscape with these remarkable animals. So why don’t many people encounter one?

With bright orange legs, you'd think Wood Turtles would be easy to spot, but more often than not, nothing could be farther from the truth.

Disregarding the fact that Wood Turtles are rare just about everywhere they occur, their cryptic nature makes them easy to miss even within landscapes with relatively robust populations. Unlike Painted Turtles and sliders, which might sun themselves out on a log in the middle of the water, Wood Turtles find places to bask that obscure a would-be predator’s view of them. Tucked under some vegetation with their butt sticking out, or wedged into a slightly undercut bank are typical hideouts. You could walk within a few inches of such turtles and not know it, and the turtles will just freeze in place and let you pass by. Even when a Wood Turtle is doing something else, odds are it’s hiding at the same time.

The Wood Turtle basking in the center of this photo is easily overlooked due to the species' propensity to conceal themselves in vegetation while sunning themselves.

During the early spring, as snow melts and ice dissipates, the first sunny days with temperatures in at least the mid 40s are likely to draw the early risers out of their stream bottom winter refugia. During the next few weeks or so, the turtles stick close to the river, sneaking back into the water most nights to avoid predators and freezing temperatures. This is mud season, plain and simple, and mud season means elevated stream flows, muddy banks, cold temperatures, and frequent rains, which deters people from enjoying stream bank habitat recreationally. Once the weather warms and people start to venture outside to enjoy the nice weather, the turtles scatter and finding one becomes a proverbial ‘needle in a hay stack’ scenario.Simply put, the people and turtles aren’t often in the same spot at the same time. In the fall the turtles gather at the streams again, but dense ground vegetation makes locating the turtles twice as hard.

For that reason, Wood Turtle population surveys generally take place in the spring, but just knowing when, where, and how to look for Wood Turtles is only half the battle. It really takes practice. Having trained several people in the methodology I have a sense for how the learning curve goes. For the first week or so the technician in training expects to be bad at finding Wood Turtles, so isn’t bothered by the fact that everybody else is having much better luck than them. The next couple weeks are a bit more disheartening because at that point they know what they are looking for and think they have the right search image, but success is still very low. That is generally followed by a brief period of self-doubt in which they consider finding a new line of work, but then, as if overnight, they become a pro and start finding turtles left and right. The precise duration of each phase varies quite a bit, but most people go through the same general frustrating process.

Learning how to survey for Wood Turtles in the fall is pretty difficult, as our technician last fall found out for herself, so finding her first turtle was very rewarding.

So when a landowner says they don’t think they have Wood Turtles on their land, but the habitat feels right, I am not nearly as surprised as the landowner to later find out otherwise. One of my all-time favorite parts of field work is taking landowners down to their streams and helping them find their first Wood Turtle. The sense of awe and bewilderment on their faces is often apparent, and in many cases they immediately develop a sense of stewardship over the turtles and start asking questions about what they can do to help the species on their land. And that’s a really big deal. You can read all you want about habitat best management practices and how wildlife will benefit, but to come face to face with a charismatic Wood Turtle on your own land after decades of never seeing one – there is no better way to make conservation relevant.

Two families have the shared experience of finding a Wood Turtle on their properties for the first time. Since learning about the turtles, the primary landowner has been very enthusiastic about managing the property to help the species.

And the need for conservation is great. Wood Turtles have a special conservation status in eleven out of the thirteen states in which they occur, were recently petitioned for protection under the Endangered Species Act, are listed as threatened in Canada, and their populations have declined by approximately 50% in the past century. The reasons for this are many, but mostly revolve around the fact that the river valleys Wood Turtles depend upon as foraging habitat are also where human settlements, roads, and farms occur in greatest densities. So the more people we can get on board with the idea of managing their land to improve connectivity between uplands and rivers and providing a buffer around streams where turtles can roam without risk of being crushed, the better prospects the species will have at remaining a charismatic, cryptic, and at times, enigmatic part of the landscape.