The most popular of 2009

Yesterday I highlighted what my favourite posts of the last year were, choosing one per month (and leaving out many that were probably just as worthy as a result). As a related idea, last year I also summarized what the most popular posts of the year were, and I thought I’d also do that again this year. WordPress keeps tabs not only on how many visitors your site gets, but also which pages they’re visiting. By far and away the page that gets the most visits is my home page, with the blog stats returning 33,333 hits in the last 365 days, as of this evening. My “About Me” page also gets quite a few. But what about the others? What are people looking for?

Eastern Milk Snake

Well, most people are looking to find more about milk snakes. Although I don’t typically rank very high on the Google web searches, my photos can often be found on the first handful of pages of results for relevant search terms. I think this is how most people searching for milk snakes, or even just “snake”, arrive here. In a search for “eastern milk snake”, the above photo even makes the first page, and I suppose is different enough to catch people’s interest. A grand total of 7,861 people dropped by to check out the milk snake post.

Grapevine Beetle and ladybug

Compared to the milk snake, all of the rest of my posts have a rather paltry visit count. The next closest, if you can still even call it close, is my grapevine beetle post. The above photo comes up on the first page of image results for “grapevine beetle”, and probably accounts for much of the traffic. There aren’t very many images on that first page that offer a sense of scale, so perhaps that’s why this one is interesting. Over the last year, this post got 2,139 people visiting.

Poison Ivy

Ranked number three, with just 1,509 hits, is my post on poison ivy. Given just how many pages there are out there about the subject, it’s surprising that it gets even that much regular traffic. It doesn’t come up on the first few pages of Google results.

White Pine and fallen brethren

Coming in fourth is my post on White Pines, the Tree of Great Peace. It collected 1,298 page views over the last year. It’s likewise a commonly discussed subject, so visitors must be coming by way of more detailed searches.

House Centipede

I’m a little surprised that my fifth-ranked post, about house centipedes, isn’t higher on the list considering how creepy most people find them. On the other hand, so many people find them creepy, there’s lots of web content about them. It had 1,292 hits.

Blackfly larvae

Number six is about water bugs – a handful of species of invertebrates that I found in some pond water samples. Although the post mentions a number of species, I suspect many, if not most, of the 1,264 visitors were searching for info on blackfly larvae, the corresponding photo of which, above, comes up on the first page of Google image search results for the subject.

Isabella Moth (Wooly Bear Caterpillar) - Pyrrharctia isabella

The seventh post, I’m delighted to say, is about a few colourful moths. Yay moths! I would hazard a guess that the particular moth most of the visitors were interested in was the Isabella Tiger Moth, above, which is the adult form of our very familiar Woolly Bear caterpillar. The above photo is the very first image returned for the Google image search “Wooly bear caterpillar moth” (number two if you spell woolly with two L’s). It’s had 1,235 visitors over the last year.

Caribbean  Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber)

Some 1,185 people have come by to check out my post on flamingos. The post was titled “pink flamingos for the yard” and I’ve noticed a number of search terms on my stats pages indicating people looking for plastic lawn flamingos. These ones probably weren’t what they were looking for; they were captive birds kept by a neighbour down the road from my parents’ old house who bred them and sold them to zoological institutions.

Snapping Turtle eggs

I noticed that as soon as my post on snapping turtle eggs went up last June that it started getting a lot of hits. In just half a year it’s accumulated 1,149 page views. It’s a shame that the eggs I found had been depredated already, but hopefully the post at least offered some useful information.

Giant Water Bug

And rounding out my top ten, the only other one with more than a thousand hits (1,007 total), was my post on giant water bugs. This one got picked up on a web forum – for video game animation or something weird like that – which still brings me periodic hits. The popularity, I think, is partly due to the post’s title, “monster bug”. One of the photos comes up on the second page of Google image results for that term.

It’s interesting to note that only two of these ten posts are actually from 2009: the white pine and the snapping turtle. All the rest are from 2008.

Asclepius and the House of Herps

Garter Snake skin

Last week a new blog carnival was announced on the Nature Blog Network. Though there are carnivals dedicated to everything from birds to trees to deserts, reptiles and amphibians (collectively herpetiles, shortened to herps) had been overlooked. This new carnival, called House of Herps, was organized and brought to fruition through the efforts of Amber of Birder’s Lounge and Jason of Xenogere. The first carnival will be hosted at the official House of Herps homepage, but subsequent editions will be roaming, hosted at a different blog each month. The deadline for submissions for the first issue is December 15 (which is tomorrow as of when I’m typing this).

It hasn’t been warm enough for herps to be active about here since early November, so I have no recent herp encounters that I might share. Instead, I thumbed through my photo archives to see what I might be able to find. I recalled a few snakes in the summer that I took photos of but never got around to posting (there’s always lots of those). As I was looking for them, though, I stumbled across these photos, taken September 17, back when the trees were still mostly covered in green leaves, and snow was but some vague idea in the future.

They’re photos of a shed snakeskin. I found this skin threaded through the long grasses beside our front steps. You can actually tell the species of snake that shed the skin from the pattern of its scales, if the skin is sufficiently intact, but we have few enough snake species up here that just its size told me it was from a Garter Snake. Don’t ask me how you’d check the scales; I don’t find too many shed skins, so I’ve never bothered looking up how to identify the species.

Garter Snake skin

Snakes are somewhat unusual in the vertebrate world in that periodically they’ll shed their entire skin. How often they do so depends on a few factors, including age of the snake, the snake’s metabolism, the particular species of snake. Young snakes, in their first year or two of life, may moult as often as once a month, or perhaps as few times as every three months. Older snakes might moult once or twice a year.

Whether the moulting allows for the snake to continue growing, in the way that an insect shedding its exoskeleton allows it to grow, is still disputed. At the very least, though, the moult allows the snake to replace damaged scales, and also to shed itself of ectoparasites such as mites. Mammals and birds are constantly shedding damaged or dead skin cells (eg. dandruff), but reptiles must periodically moult their skin to refresh it. This regular “renewal” is thought to be the reason the snake appears on the well-known symbol of medicine (the Rod of Asclepius).

I like how in the above photo you can still see the grooves of the keel along each dorsal (back) scale.

Garter Snake skin

This is the head end, but the skin from the head is actually tucked inside the tube. A snake’s scales are made of a hard substance secreted from the epidermis: keratin, the same stuff that forms our fingernails. Just as our fingernails are firmly attached to the skin underneath, so too are the snake’s scales. When it comes time to moult, the snake forms a layer of specialized cells in between the scales and the epidermis. At the same time, it begins forming a new layer of scales underneath the old ones and the new specialized cells.

Once the new scales are ready to show off to the world, the specialized cells between the two layers of scales liquifies, essentially freeing the old skin from its bonds. The snake will rub its chin and nose against a rock or something else hard and abrasive to break the edge of the old scale layer. It then either finds a tight spot or something rough to rub up against, and uses that to grip the old skin as it wriggles out. Often the old skin will just peel back off the snake like rolling a tube sock off your foot, with the result that the shed skin is actually inside-out. Check out the second image again. The keels of the scales actually face into the tube, not out from.

Garter Snake skin

Keratin, when formed thinly enough and softened with moisture, is actually fairly pliable and transparent. Think of your fingernails (if you ever let them grow long enough :) after a shower or washing the dishes. While the skin and scales are attached to the snake’s body they are kept hydrated, so they offer a softer protection than, say, the armour of a pangolin. They’re easily punctured by teeth or talon, and mostly serve as protection to the snake from pokey things in its environment such as twigs or rocks.

See how each belly scale has a bit of a backward-facing lip on it? Those help provide grip to the snake as it’s sliding across the ground, since the rest of the scale is very smooth and designed to reduce friction.

Garter Snake skin

I carefully turned the snake’s head out so I could see it, but of course because the whole skin was inside out, the two jaws were reversed, with the lower jaw appearing to be above the upper one. Check out the pigment in the scales here. The eyes are actually covered by very thin, very transparent scales as well. Snakes have no eyelids, and so never blink; they rely on these thin scales to protect their eyes from damage. (For those movie trivia buffs, the snake at the zoo in the first Harry Potter movie blinks at Harry, something an actual snake is incapable of doing.)

As the outer skin is separated from the new inner skin, it will begin to dry out and lose its lustre, even before it’s actually shed, giving the snake a slightly unhealthy look. Just prior to a snake starting its moult, its eyes go cloudy blue-white, and its vision is very limited. During this period it will often stop eating and find itself a safe place to hole up until it can see again. Although the websites I checked didn’t specifically say so, I think the cloudiness is caused by the liquification of that middle layer of cells; once the outer skin has been severed and the liquified cells either reabsorbed or whatever it is that happens to them, the eyes will clear up again.

The whole process takes about two weeks. Now imagine doing that twice a year. Aren’t you glad you’ve got dandruff instead?

Tuesday Miscellany

milkweed pod

I missed Miscellany last week; I didn’t have very many photos, and the ones I had were part of series that I wanted to post more than one image from. With the passing of summer, nature is slowing down outside. There aren’t as many bugs about, the wildflowers are largely finished. Most of our summer birds have headed south, leaving just the winter feeder visitors behind. My walks through the woods are getting quieter, and I have to make more effort to notice interesting things; they aren’t as abundant or obvious as they were.

I love playing with milkweed seeds. I have a hard time passing by open pods when I’m out walking. I like the way the seeds all grow in such careful organization, smoothly layered upon each other like scales. I’ll often pull out puffs and cast them to the wind, just for the joy of it. Last week I pulled out a full, un-fluffed bunch of seeds from a recently-opened pod, such as the one shown here. I peeled off the seeds, slowly, enjoying the silkiness of the down. When I got to the end, I was left holding a fascinating structure. It was papery, with paper-thin divisions running along its length. the down of the seeds was tucked neatly into these creases, securing it until the wind became strong enough to tease it from the pod (or a person pulls them out and tosses them into the air). Presumably this is an adaptation to make sure that there is sufficient wind to carry the seed away from the mother plant when the seed falls off, and not just fall straight down.

If the structure has a formal name (undoubtedly it does), I don’t know what it is, as I wasn’t able to turn up the answer with a web search. I did, however, find out that they make excellent fire-starting material because they’re so papery. Of course, so do dried leaves, which also happen to be abundant at the same time of year…

milkweed bugs

I found this pair hanging out on a milkweed pod last week. The upper one I’ve already mentioned once this fall; it’s a Small Milkweed Bug, a species that feeds on the seeds of milkweed plants. The smaller one below is a nymph of the same species. In most true bugs (that is, the group of insects that have a piercing tube-like structure for mouthparts and wings that are solid for only half their lenth and membranous the rest, leading to the group’s name Hemiptera – hemi/half, pteron/winged) the nymphs resemble wingless adults in shape but are usually differently, and often more brightly, patterned than the adults. This is a later instar of the nymph; younger nymphs are nearly all red-orange.

Giant Water Bugs

Speaking of bugs, I have been inundated with Giant Water Bugs this evening. After a spell of cold, near- or below-freezing nights, we’ve had two in a row that have been fairly warm, up near or slightly above 10 C (50 F). Last night I didn’t realize it was so warm until well after midnight, but tonight I was prepared, and set out my moth trap for a try at late-season moths. I plugged it in just before dusk, and then forgot about it. After dinner, I put Raven on her tie-out when she asked to be let out, and went back into the house. A few minutes later she started barking in alarm. I stepped outside and could hear something rustling in the leaves at the front of the house – clearly what had gotten Raven worked up. I grabbed my shoes and went around to investigate, and it was immediately obvious what she was hearing. There were dozens of these guys, on the porch, in the garden, in the lawn, and yes, rustling around in the thick bed of leaves under the trees in front of the house. Where the heck are they all coming from? I did finally walk through the forest that borders our meadows on the west, where I’d also heard spring peepers calling a few weeks ago, but couldn’t see anything near the edge that was very wet, or even perhaps a springtime vernal pool. I’m hoping not too many of these things actually go into the trap.

Baby Northern Water Snake

Another sighting of puzzling origin is this guy. I’d stepped outside this afternoon to dump the compost while I could see what I was doing (I’d created a large pile last night when I prepared and froze a batch of carrots from our garden), and right beside the porch steps was this little snake. Only 6 or 7 inches (15-17 cm) long, it was in the rocky, mostly empty soil bed beside the walkway. I quickly put down the compost and hurried back inside for my camera. At the time I just assumed it was a young milk snake. I took a few photos, then picked him up and move him away from the house. Sitting down to blog this evening, I had another look at him. Eastern Milk Snakes usually have a pale Y-shaped mark at the back of their head and this one didn’t have that. I wasn’t sure if that was because it was a juvenile, or because it wasn’t a milk snake. Some poking around suggests the answer is the latter. I believe this is actually a young Northern Water Snake, Nerodia sipedon. Although adults tend to remain closely associated with water, juveniles seem to often stray across land, perhaps as they disperse looking for new water to colonize. The solid bands in the front half, turning into a checkered pattern in the back half of the body, seem to be characteristic of the species.

Hitched Arches caterpillar

I found this caterpillar clinging to the inside of the porch screen last week. I’m not quite sure how it got in, but it was a very chilly day, and it wasn’t up to going anywhere further. I took a few photos, and then put it outside where it could hopefully find a more appropriate place to hole up. I believe it’s the caterpillar of a Hitched Arches, Melanchra adjuncta, a species of moth. I’d encountered the adults at the lake house last August (2008), and then again in May (this year). I caught one again this summer, after moving to this house. The species is found across much of North America, and flies for much of the year, May through September. Presumably they overwinter as caterpillars or pupae, thus delaying their appearance in spring.

Old nest in grapevine

We’ve had a couple of hard frosts now, and even the frost-hardy plants have wilted away. The grapevines are nearly bare of leaves, exposing the clusters of dark blue Concord grapes, and the mass of woody stems twining and crawling and sprawling across the side of the shed. As I was standing looking at the vines, thinking I should collect up some of the remaining grapes and freeze them to make pie with this winter, I noticed a clump of twigs tucked into the back of the tangles. Looking closer, it turned out to be a nest. It was quite large, appropriate for something robin-sized. It had probably finished up and fledged its young before Dan and I moved in in July, assuming it was even from this year. Determining the identity of the builders of nests can be difficult, with the exception of a few distinctive species (such as robins, or swallows). I’m not sure what species this one belonged to, although if I had to hazard a guess I might say Brown Thrasher, which build chunky, twiggy nests, usually on the ground but also sometimes tucked into thick shrubs or vines.

Playing ball in the leaves

Nearly all of our leaves have fallen now, and they form a thick bed across the lawn under the trees. I was tempted to rake them up today, if only because it was such a nice warm afternoon and it would be a reason to be outside. I didn’t, however, instead tossing the ball with Raven and Dan. Here Dan’s commanding Raven to “Drop it!”, which she does, though generally only after a good bit of bounding about in circles playing keep-away. She tosses up sprays of leaves like she’s running through water. A few more weeks and we’ll be feeling less inclined to stand still and toss a ball around outside.

Giant otters at Cocha Salvador, Manu, Peru, by Sarah_and_Iain on Flickr

Day 5 on the Kolibri Expeditions’ Manu bloggers’ tour takes us to Cocha Blanco (roughly translated to “White Lake”), an old oxbow lake that is now home to waterlilies, sunken logs, fish – and a family of Giant Otters. The largest species of otter, and by extension the largest species of mustelid (weasel family), it lives up to its name with males reaching 5-6 feet (1.5-1.8 m) in length. In some areas, and historically, it was also known by the name of “River Wolf”, for its huge size and carnivorous habits. Like other otters, they’re highly social, living in family groups and vocalizing frequently. Unfortunately, it is now endangered, primarily to habitat loss, with nearly 80% of its original South American range now unsuitable. Because their occurrence tends to be so patchy, population estimates are hard to make, but are thought to be less than 5000 individuals. Suriname and the Guianas are the otter’s stronghold, with a scattering across the rest of northern South America. The promotion of responsible ecotourism can lead to habitat conservation efforts that will help this species and others. Back in January Julie Zickefoose did a great post (one of a few) about Giant Otters she saw in Guyana, which made me keen to experience these creatures.

I’m going to Peru with Kolibri Expeditions as part of their blogger promotional series. Want to come? I’d love to have you along! My departure leaves November 13, 2010 and returns the 21st, well before the US Thanksgiving. You can get more information about the trip, including itinerary and, of course, cost, at this page. Don’t forget that if you’re also a blogger you get $100 off. In addition to having a great time, meeting some great bloggers, and seeing some fabulous birds, you’ll also be supporting the local communities as they work toward developing a sustainable ecotourism industry for their area. It’s a win-win!

Tuesday Miscellany

Gray Treefrog

The month of July has been one thing after another, it seems, and I’m not just talking about nature observations. Between moving at the start of the month, internet downtime immediately following the move that stretched into a few weeks, unpacking and settling into the new home, housesitting for my parents a couple of times, and a trip back to Halton for a funeral, I’ve had lots of distractions that have kept my mind from blog. As a result, I have a pile of photos that I’ve taken but not posted that I thought I’d gather together and put into a miscellany post.

The first photo is from a couple of weeks ago. I’d taken Raven for a walk at the 100 acres that adjoin our main piece of property, to scout out the trails and get the lay of the land. As I was following the path through a field lined with milkweed, I spotted this little guy curled up in the leaf of one of the milkweed plants. It was a smaller Gray Treefrog than I usually see, and the facial markings were particularly well-defined. I wrote about treefrogs last spring when I found one calling from my parents’ water garden.

American Toad

Another amphibian, this one an American Toad. This guy turned up at one of our MAPS stations. I’d just taken off my rainpants (which I consider a vital piece of clothing in the early morning hours when everything is still covered in dew) and had sat back down on the rock when I was startled to discover a toad only a couple of inches from where I’d just flopped down. I’d missed squishing him by less than a hand’s breadth. You can read more on toads from a post I did last fall.

Eastern Milksnake

Another near miss, this Eastern Milksnake was sunning itself on a patch of moss when I very nearly stepped on it. It may even have been the same day. I haven’t seen too many milksnakes about; even though they’re common, they’re not frequently encountered, being less numerous I guess than the abundant garter snakes. I’ve done a post on milksnakes, too. It happens to be my number one top most visited post that I’ve written so far, no doubt because they are often kept as pets.

Elm Sawfly

I found this caterpillar in the grass at Rock Ridge a couple of visits ago. It stayed in the same spot for half the morning. It was a fairly chunky caterpillar, as these things go, and being brightly coloured I figured it would be easy to look up when I got home. I searched through all of my caterpillar references, and then did a Google image search for yellow caterpillars, and wasn’t able to find it. So I turned to my usual fallback, BugGuide.net. Within hours of posting the photo, it was identified for me as an Elm Sawfly – not a lepidoptera at all! Which would explain why it wasn’t in my caterpillar books. (It is actually in the Kaufman insect guide, but looks white there, not yellow, so I may not have noticed it). Sawflies are actually a type of stingless wasp that deposit their eggs in the twigs or leaves of plants. The “saw” in their name refers to the structure of the ovipositor, which resembles a saw.

Furcula caterpillar

This one really is a caterpillar. I believe that it’s a species of moth in the genus Furcula. However, when you look at caterpillar guides or online at BugGuide.net, all of the Furcula caterpillars are green with brownish saddle patches. None are completely brown. A Google image search turned up only one other brown Furcula caterpillar, which was taken by Bev of Burning Silo, who happened to have taken the photo just up the road (relatively speaking) from mine.

fly

I found this nifty fly resting on a dried flower head among the patch of sunflowers when I was searching for insects. It didn’t move when I plucked the deadhead and twisted it around for a better photo. I wondered if it might be dead or possibly parasitized, but when I put the stem back down and it brushed against a leaf the fly took off. It’s a Tachinid fly, possibly in the genus Cylindromyia. Tachinid flies are nearly all internal parasitoids of caterpillars and other insects. Whereas parasites will feed off their host but let them live, parasitoids nearly always kill their host in the end. You can really see well the “halteres”, the vestiges of the second set of wings, which look like round knobs behind the main wings here.

bird pox

In banding you often have the opportunity to see some strange things you may not have noticed or been able to observe while the bird was perched up in a tree. This is one of those things. This bird’s foot has been infected with a type of bird pox that gets under the scales of the foot and causes mutated growth of the cells. This one is an especially “hairy” looking one, many just grow thick and lumpy. These growths are especially tender and prone to bleeding if they get caught up in netting or the like, and you can just imagine how uncomfortable they must be for the poor birds. I let this guy go as soon as I’d removed him from the net, without taking him back for processing. Occasionally the pox can spread up their leg, and if it does it can become a nasty situation, causing the normally loose bracelet-like band to squeeze and constrict the leg. Some birds will never suffer that, but better safe than sorry.

Tree Swallow nestling

The new home has many bluebird boxes scattered out in the meadows behind the house. When I was walking through the meadows near one of these last week I could hear constant chittering coming from one of the boxes. As I drew nearer, I could see faces frequently popping up to the hole to peek out at the world. Clearly these were fledglings that would be departing the nest either later that day or the next. They had lots to say, and weren’t too concerned about me. however, when Raven came near to the box, panting loudly and conspicuously, they all shut up and sat tight. Too late, little birdies, you’ve already given away your location!

Eastern Bluebird nestlings

And finally, this box belonged to some actual bluebirds. Dan discovered the nest, tipped off by a couple of upset adults when he walked by the general vicinity of one of the boxes. Very young, only a few days old at most, these babies are most likely a second brood for the bluebirds. Baby birds grow fast to begin with, but second broods are especially fast, and these babies were probably out of the nest by a week and a half old, two at the most. The boxes that are currently in place are old, weathered, and some are starting to rot. Also, they all require a screwdriver to open. Dan and I will probably replace a few over the winter/spring with new ones that can just be flipped open to check and clean. They’re all currently above head height, too – hard to see what’s inside without a stepstool! I got this photo by holding the camera above my head and hoping for the best.

Scheduled post: Turtle crossing

Snapping Turtle

June seems to be when the turtles come out. In the last few weeks, Dan and I have moved probably dozens of turtles off of the road and out of harm’s way. Around here, the landscape is so rocky that sandy roadsides are incredibly appealing to turtles as potential nest sites. We’ve seen a good mix of species along the roads. The Snapping Turtles whose eggs I wrote about earlier are one of the more common species, although I’ve seen fewer adults than I have depredated nests.

Snapping Turtle

This individual was along the shoulder while I was doing my point count route. On my way back, after I’d finished the counts, she had moved out into the middle of the road, so I stopped the car and shooed her back into the ditch. She was moderate in size, her shell perhaps a foot long, although very old individuals can get nearly twice this big. Most turtles sort of drag themselves along, shell to ground, but as I nudged her with my toe, she lifted herself off the ground and hurried across the road in a peculiar, stilt-legged gait. Note the sharp “beak” in the first photo. Snapping Turtles are omnivorous, but favour protein, and will eat mostly anything they can catch including vertebrates such as fish and ducklings. They have powerful, crushing jaws, and can do some damage to well-intentioned fingers – hence why I moved her by prodding her with my toe.

Map Turtle

The other species we’ve seen a lot of is Map Turtles. These guys superficially resemble Painted Turtles from a distance, being about the same size and general shape, and with yellow markings along their necks and legs. However, when you get closer you can see that their shell has a ridge running down the backbone, and they lack any red in their patterning. Supposedly the name Map comes from the pattern of swirly-cues on their shell, which to some people resembles maps of watercourses or topography. They’re a locally common species occurring in a patchy range from Minnesota, east to Vermont, and south to Georgia. In Ontario and Canada it’s a Species of Special Concern due to recent declines caused primarily through habitat loss.

Map Turtle

I’m not sure why this one was so sandy, although there was a sand pit a short distance down the road and I wondered whether she’d been in there to lay her eggs, although they’re supposed to prefer sites within 50m of the water. They come out on warm evenings or humid mornings from late May through July, and lay 10-15 eggs in a shallow nest dug by the female. Interestingly, while the eggs of the Snapping Turtle are perfectly round and resemble ping-pong balls, those of the Map Turtle are elliptical, longer along one axis. Along their longest dimension they average about 1.25 inches, or 3.3 cm.

Nature’s artwork

Painted Turtle

Yesterday afternoon I’d put Raven out on her tie-out in the yard, and was sitting inside at my computer doing some work. Raven will occasionally bark at random things if she’s feeling bored – a stray flowerpot, a broom propped against the house, other things that I can’t see. She’s got a particular type of bark that goes with those objects, playful. But yesterday she started barking something different, very much alarmed and uncertain, something she almost never does. So I went out to investigate.

I noticed some movement in the long grass at the edge of the lawn, which I took at first to be a snake, so I returned inside to get my camera. When I approached closer, to take a photo, I realized it wasn’t a snake, after all, but rather a turtle. I reached in and pulled it out of the grass for a better look. It was a Painted Turtle, Chrysemys picta, and a good-sized one with a shell 15cm (6″) long.

Painted Turtle

I presume that she was wandering about looking for a sandy spot to lay her eggs, since this is about the time of year they would be doing so. If that were the case, then this would be a female turtle. The females don’t reach sexual maturity until at least 5 years of age, sometimes not until 7 or even older, while males are ready to mate at 2-3 years. That’s a long time to have to avoid predators and cars. Dan thought he saw another one in the side yard near where the soil was recently disturbed to have the septic tank pumped last week. That’d be a great spot for a turtle to lay eggs, so I’ll have to check for any signs of digging. The nests are only about 10-12cm (4-5″) deep, and the female lays only a relatively modest 4-15 eggs. However, she may build up to five nests in a season.

Painted Turtle

There are two ways to determine the sex of the turtle. One is by the placement of the cloaca on the underside of the tail. In females, the cloaca is close to the body, while in males it’s further down the tail. This confirms this individual as a female. Also, the shape of the shell above the tail is helpful: in females it’s relatively straight, while in males it’s notched above the tail. The reason for both of these differences has to do with how turtles mate. Sex in plated body armour is not easy, and takes a bit of careful manoeuvering. The male climbs onto the back of the female with his forefeet so that his tail is approximately aligned with the female’s, and then curves his tail underneath so their cloacas meet. The notch is so that when his shell is tipped backwards it’s not cutting into his tail.

Painted Turtle

Even the tail gets tucked away when the turtle pulls itself into its shell. Really, when they “retract” their body it isn’t all that different from you pulling your knees and arms to your chest to form a tight ball, except that the turtle has a wide, hard shell overhanging on each side. A turtle’s shell is actually modified bone; the back is modified ribs, broadened and flattened to form a continuous surface, and the the belly is modified sternum. The turtle’s backbone is fused to the interior of the shell, so unlike a hermit crab that can trade in its shell if it finds something it likes better, a turtle is very much connected to its shell for life. If you find an old shell, its owner long since gone, it’s interesting to examine the bone structure.

Painted Turtle

Look at those claws! Turtles have remarkably long, strong claws that are used for a number of purposes. Defense, certainly, if needed, but a turtle’s primary defense is its shell. The claws are more useful in helping to grip the ground to power forward when walking on land – a cumbersome endeavour – as well as in digging out the nest site. However, males have substantially longer claws than females. Wikipedia suggests he uses them in foreplay to “tickle the cheeks of the female rapidly up-and-down in a vibratory manner”. I don’t know if this is true or not, but… whatever gets you going.

From underneath you can really see the colours that give the Painted Turtle its name. There are four subspecies of Painted Turtle, all varying in the alignment of their shell scutes and the patterns on their faces. We have the Midland Painted Turtle (C. p. marginata) here. The Western Painted Turtle (C. p. bellii) is also found in Ontario, but only in the northwest, near the Manitoba border.

Painted Turtle

Turtles hibernate over the winter, burying themselves in up to 3 ft (90 cm) of mud under relatively shallow water. In this environment they are starved for oxygen, but have evolved the ability to survive for up to five months without oxygen at temperatures just above freezing. This is the longest known period of oxygen deprivation of any air-breathing vertebrate. Unsurprisingly, over the winter their metabolism slows to a near crawl, but unlike the Wood Frog, they don’t “die”.

One can often see Painted Turtles in the summer hauled out of the water on a submerged log or rock. They do this to sunbathe, to raise their body temperature since, as reptiles, they are unable to thermoregulate themselves. Their body temperature needs to be at least 65 F (18 C) in order for them to digest their food properly. Interestingly, Painted Turtles, as well as other semi-aquatic turtle species, will only eat underwater.

Raven and the turtle

Raven remained freaked out by the turtle even when I showed her it was harmless. Probably a good thing for any future turtles she may encounter, anyway. I picked the turtle up and took it down to the lake to release it, where it would be away from Raven (both for its sake and Raven’s). I set it gently in the water at the edge, where it remained momentarily, before abruptly extending its limbs and motoring away into the lake. For all their awkwardness on land, turtles are really at home in the water, moving swiftly and with ease. In the blink of an eye, it was gone, hopefully off to find itself a better nesting site than our driveway.

Painted Turtle

Today at Kingsford – Snapping Turtle eggs

Snapping Turtle eggs

The home inspection associated with the sale of the house was scheduled for yesterday morning, so I bundled Raven up and headed over to the nearby town to see if I could find any cardboard boxes to get started on packing. I also made a stop at the local ball diamond to let Raven run for a bit – something that this house lacks is open space for her to dash around. There’s a little side yard, but it’s just not enough space for Rocket Dog. We had a nice outing, Raven got lots of exercise, I got a few wine boxes from the liquor store, though the other stores’ recycling pickup had unfortunately been the day before, so I wasn’t able to get any large boxes.

On the return trip home I decided to go along a back route that I don’t normally take because it’s narrow and twisty and indirect. It’s significantly faster to go along the main route, but the back route is quite scenic. Since I wanted to give them lots of time to finish up the inspection before I returned home, I opted for the slower, scenic route. As I was coming along a section that ran alongside a lake, I spotted what appeared to be a mess of white reptile eggs at the side of the road. I quickly pulled over and stopped the car, grabbed my camera and asked Raven to stay patient for a couple of minutes, and went over to investigate.

Snapping Turtle eggs

There were a lot of them, and they were strewn across the sandy shoulder. As I got closer, I could see that there was a small hole in the ground that presumably they had once been inside of. And as I got closer still, the mound of dirt beside the hole suggested that these weren’t simply a natural hatching. Inside the hole there were still a couple of eggs, but it appeared that nearly all of them were now on the ground at the side of the road.

Snapping Turtle eggs

The eggs were large, nearly the size of a ping-pong ball, and about the same texture and hardness. Based simply on the size, I figured they had to be Snapping Turtle eggs. There are certainly snappers in the area around here, although I haven’t encountered too many. They don’t haul up on logs the way Painted and other small turtles do, so it’s easier to miss them. Snappers lay their eggs in sandy soil, usually in June although in some parts of their range they may lay eggs spring through fall. The eggs get covered up in the sand, and heat released from the ground as it’s baked by the sun over the summer helps to incubate the eggs. The young eventually hatch after about 100 days, in August or September. When they hatch, the babies are just 4.4 cm (1.75 inches) long. They crawl up through the soft sand, and then make their way to water.

Snapping Turtle eggs

That is, if they manage to survive undiscovered for the entire summer. Reptile eggs are a delicacy for foxes and raccoons, and many clutches will end up as somebody’s dinner. The difficulty the female turtle faces, when she lays her eggs, is in concealing the nest sufficiently that it doesn’t arouse suspicion before the next rain can wash away both visual and olfactory clues to its presence.

The rain didn’t come soon enough for this nest. Not a single egg was intact. Most of them were clean inside, but there were one or two that looked like they contained what might have been egg yolk. I suspect raccoon, which would be more likely to hold the eggshell and lick the interior clean of yolk. Also, the hole in the ground was way too small and tidy to be the work of a fox (consider what results when your dog digs up your garden, for instance), but for a raccoon with dexterous arms and hands it wouldn’t be any trouble to dig a small opening and then reach inside to pull out the treats.

A female snapper may make more than one nest, each containing anywhere from 20-40 eggs, so hopefully she has another clutch safely buried somewhere, but it’s entirely possible this was her only bunch and she’ll have to wait till next year to try again. Fortunately, wild snappers, once they’ve made it through those perilous first few years, may live up to 30 years or more – captive individuals have been recorded as old as 47 – so she should have many opportunities for a successful clutch.