South Jersey’s Turtle Time
“Ernie’s back,” I said to no one in particular the other day, as a familiar dome shape was observed along one side of the flower garden.
“Ernie” is a box turtle that I first discovered almost to the same April 30 date 10 years ago after re-locating to southern Ocean County. There he was, in a slow, deliberate crawl, in a patch where a row of hosta had jutted through the matted mulch a couple of weeks earlier.
In no particular hurry, as is common with the species, he eventually made his way to where he wanted to go, and when I returned 20 or so minutes later, he was gone.
He stuck around throughout the summer, and the last I saw his patterned yellow and black shield was around the Labor Day weekend.
During our second encounter in early May, I picked him up (I assumed it was him) one afternoon as he was crossing the street and put him in a safe place heading in the same direction. The turtle withdrew totally in his shell (carapace), and it was a perfect lock job.
No way in. A quick turn over and, remembering some basic reptile stuff from a biology class, noticed the bottom shell (plastron) had a concave configuration, verifying that Ernie not an Ernestine.
Box turtles are sure signs that spring has finally arrived. A slow grower that can live 30-plus years (much like others in the turtle clan), they have a home area and do not travel far.
It’s a land turtle but will sometimes hang lounge in a shady puddle during a heat wave. On the small side, topping at around seven or so inches, it’s a compact package. Unless falling prey to the likes of a fox, coyote, the box turtle will return to its chosen home area after emerging from its four-to-five month hibernation. It will eat bugs, worms, caterpillars,slugs, mushrooms and various vegetation, especially weeds. As such, a boxie is good to have around when you’re growing things.
To be sure, a box turtle showing in your garden or on the lawn is a curiosity, and certainly warrants a bit of investigation, especially if you’ve never seen one before. However, leave it to its own devices and direction, save for seeing one in the middle of the road trying to make its way to the other side. In this instance, with safety in mind, and only with safety in mind, you might want to pull over, pick it up and place it off the road in the same direction it was heading. Box turtle road kills are tragically common this time of year.
Conversely, snapping turtles are best left alone, unless one wants to experience life with a missing finger or two. More mobile pace-wise than a boxie, it can be seen crossing roads May into June as females search for nesting areas and males are looking to relocate...or find a mate. There’s no mistaking the dinosaur-like profile of a snapper, and, like the white shark, crocodiles and alligators, hasn’t changed much, if at all, since the Pleistocene. They can get big, they are bad ass, they’ll bite and sever, and they want to be left alone.
What’s so scary about a snapping turtle is its ability to shoot out its neck and reach behind, front, and to either side to deliver a truly debilitating bite. I’ve observed a digit hanging by a few threads of skin and bone after being crushed in the maw of a big snapper, and it wasn’t pretty. A trip to the hospital and emergency surgery re-attached the finger, and it was a foregone conclusion that trying to extricate a snagged $15 bass plug, no matter how judiciously, from the leathery front leg of a snapping turtle, will never again take place.
This a long-lived and husky reptile, with 50-plus years the norm, and weights exceeding 70-lbs. not uncommon.
Snappers, although apex predators, serve both sides of the food chain. They eat fish, ducklings, snakes, other turtles, frogs and muskrats, among other sustenance. On the other end, their eggs and newborns are coveted by skunks, raccoons and great blue herons, with river otters also preying on yearlings and young adults.
Snapper meat is delicious, with the neck and back straps being “white” and the legs and tail being “dark.” They can be taken by spear, trap, and hook and line. Snappers can only be harvested from freshwater venues. Believe me, cleaning a snapper is almost beyond tedious (the process can be viewed on You Tube) if it were not for the lip smackin’ eats it affords. Fried, grilled, on a shish kabob, in a soup, chowder or gumbo, snapper meat is about as yummy as it gets. The season closes May 14, re-opening July 1 and running through October 31. The limit is one at a 12-inch minimum.