Harpers Creek turtle rescue courtesy of Bob & Marti

Marti and Bob Burgess reported in Thursday that they helped this gent:


across Zion Hill Road in the vicinity of the “waterwheel” adjacent to Harpers Creek. We know for certain that it’s a “gent” because Marti and Bob thought to capture this shot:


of the plastron. You can see that deep “concavity,” or dish, in the lower end of the plastron. And with images of both carapace and plastron we can be certain that it’s a new one to the census! Thanks, Bob & Marti!

Another “tripod”? Thoughts on local population density

Well, we have seen more evidence that the turtles are beginning to move after the dog days of August. We were walking along the creek when we happened to glance back and…


…this guy had crept into the trail behind us. It never ceases to amaze how these guys can manage to “hide in plain view.”

He’s just a handsome guy, turtle-wise.


At a glance, the males typically have much more colorful heads and legs than females. The males usually have bright red eyes. When you look underneath…


…you’ll see a very distinct “dish,” or concavity, in the plastrons of males. This guy was a healthy 557.7 grams, by the way.

Even though he kept his hind shell closed firmly, you couldn’t help but notice that he has a void between his plastron and carapace on the left rear side.IMG_8469

We didn’t try to force the shell open, but a little gentle probing indicates that he’s a “tripod,” or is missing one of its legs. It’s not the first tripod we’ve seen in the neighborhood.

This is a good time to recap some of our observations about the neighborhood box turtle population. We arrived in the summer of 2013 and found only one turtle for months. We saw some elsewhere but not here. We never saw one on our own property until October, 2014, when “Salvador” popped out when we were surveying storm damage. Since then, we’ve found four adults – including Salvador – and one juvenile. Those have popped up in a space of less than seven acres. We haven’t systematically surveyed the lot but our observations indicate that a) the box turtles have bred here recently, b) we have breeding age/size turtles, and c) the density of at least five turtles in around seven acres could be pretty good relative to the 1-3 acre home ranges seen elsewhere. The future (and the turtles) will tell us more.

“Doll’s Eyes” – a striking late-summer berry

We were wrapping up another loop around the nature trail when we spotted “Doll’s Eyes,” a berry that was peering (excusing the pun!) from the forest understory. 
It’s Actaea pachypoda, also known as White Baneberry. The common name of “Doll’s Eyes” is derived from the resemblance of its shiny white berries to the glass eyes that were once used in dolls.

IMG_8537 I wish that I had an image of a more intact berry cluster but these are the only ones that we’ve found this summer. Nevertheless, they’re likely to appear in any shady area along Mountaintown Creek.

Learh Lane

A few weeks ago we encountered this turtle:


We took this pic after moving it across the road in its direction of travel. It had been about to cross Zion Hill Road just south of Learh Lane. It exemplifies why it’s sometimes difficult to differentiate males from females. First off, this one had “buttoned up” – pulled in its head and legs and closed its shell fully. This eliminates eye color, skin color, and the length & curl of the rear nails as clues. Next, the rim of the rear carapace didn’t have much of a “shelf” or “skirt”. That absence might indicate a male but…


…the lack of a strong concavity on the plastron indicates its a female. Without those clues, you’re really just speculating about its sex. We can’t so it gets recorded as “N/K” – not known. Nevertheless, it gets measured, marked, and released. Maybe it will stop by Jan and Rick’s…?

The wee one remains in the neighborhood

Remember the juvenile box turtle we found a couple of weeks ago? Well, I happened to check underneath the deck last week and – surprise! – it was there again.


This may be a coincidence, but it reflects what has been observed in several studies. The hatchlings often stay very close to the nest site until they grow enough that predators are less of a threat.

We did the usual measurements – not much growing to be done in a week. You can’t help but appreciate those little toenails.


They probably acted like tiny climbing hooks to hoist itself out of the nest. If it’s a female, these claws will straighten as she grows so she can sweep out a nest hole each summer. If it’s a male, they will become even more recurved to give it a “toehold” during mating.

Saturday morning mystery!

Does anyone remember how the local television channels would show some sort of movie – often a mystery – after the cartoons ended on Saturday morning? For Georgians, it was usually shown weekly under the marquee “WSB Saturday afternoon at the movies.” Well, we have our Saturday morning mystery most weeks. We head down to the nature trail to see what sort of mystery we could find. This week wasn’t disappointing.

We’re walking through where many of the white pines were knocked down by the storm last August. We’d cut these and shifted them to the trails edge. They’d stayed there, heavy and immobile and bark covered, for months. This Saturday, though…


…what had been a bark covered log was now stripped and lying in the middle of the trail. Whoa…. This thing weighed a ton. It’s in the middle of the trail. Who did this? We’re puzzling over that one log when we look down the trail…


…only to find another and another and another. Indeed, something had worked its way down the trail to systematically strip one white pine log after another of its bark. Bark chunks were flipped over to exposed the inner bark. This went on for around 100 yards – an enormous amount of work.


We puzzled over this for a few minutes until we realized that several logs had sets of three and four claw marks on them.

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What did it? Not entirely sure. Our guess: black bear. We’d seen one in the back yard on Thursday. The claw marks were about the right size, and the bear we’d seen was large enough to roll the logs. We also saw where a lot of invertebrates had been living underneath the bark as the trees rotted on the ground. A black bear would make a snack of the grubs and so forth under the bark, as well as the salamanders that would seek out those same inverts. Are we sure about this Saturday morning mystery? Nah, but it’s cheap entertainment!

All creatures great and small…

IMG_8386Sunday was another big work day for us, but we took a couple of breaks for what were the smallest box turtle as well as the largest male boxy that we’ve seen in Mountaintown. It was also an object lesson in that “box turtles are found where they’re found.”

It was already warm by nine a.m. when I retrieved our extension ladder from where it hangs underneath our deck. Box turtles were really the last things on my mind as I stepped around to lift the ladder off its rack. I just happened to look down…


…where I found this tot near one of the posts under the deck. It probably would have hatched last autumn but overwintered in its natal nest until emerging this spring. At less than two inches, it doesn’t get the special ID marks. Nevertheless, it gets photographed, weighed, and measured before it is sent on its way. Good luck, little one….

By 1 p.m., it was pushing 90 degrees – the kind of temps at which most box turtles are headed for a cool refugium. I’d just dropped off a load of things at the shed when I glanced over at the bank and see…


…this big guy trying to hunker down in a few leaves on what was a sun-scorched bank not 75 yards from the little one.

To describe him as a “big guy” is something of an understatement. At 546 grams, he is the largest male that I’ve caught in the watershed. It’s also a whopping 27 times larger than this morning’s find.

And “big” isn’t the all of it. He’s also fairly old. We don’t see many that have been around so long that their “annular rings” are all but worn off.


By the way, describing that stack of scales as “annular rings” is something of a redundancy and, for some, a misnomer. They’re described as “annular” since they’re like rings. Indeed they do look something like tree rings. However, the “annular” doesn’t mean that they add one ring each year. We count the rings but we can’t rely on them as an infallible gauge of age.  Box turtles may add an additional ring or two in years when resources are good, and may almost skip a ring in years when things are lean.

I’m going to make a guess about why it had stopped to shelter under some dry leaves rather than climbing further up and over the bank to rest in the dark shade of the hemlocks and a fallen oak. For when we gave it an exam, we found that…


…it was missing some toes. Further examination revealed that

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its left leg was functional. However, the turtle couldn’t withdraw the leg into the shell. That’s a distinct problem for a box turtle. They count on being able to completely enclose themselves in order to be safe from predators. If a limb is exposed, then it’s subject to being chewed upon by a predator. That’s particularly true of a forelimb. If the turtle can’t withdraw a forelimb to shut the front of the shell, then the head and other leg are exposed. And they’re particularly vulnerable during brumation, or the reptilian winter resting period. They burrow down and become immobile to the point that they can’t fight or flee from predators. So, what happened? Was there some injury or infection that immobilized the leg? And once the leg couldn’t be withdrawn, did some mouse chew off the toes? Or did the turtle incur the leg injury and the amputation in one instance?

Hmm…. We will never know. But this may answer why it chose to hunker down beneath some rather thin cover on a very hot bank. If I were to guess, it may have climbed as best it could with a partially-damaged limb before it just decided to take whatever shelter it could under an un-remitting August sun.

He got a few minutes in a shady garage while he got the “Mountaintown monitoring treatment” and his own special ID mark. Then, I gave him a quick ATV ride back to where I found him. I did take him an additional 10 feet along its route of travel. That let me put him under a nice pile of dried oak leaves in the shade of a big hemlock. He seemed to like it. Good luck to you, too. Hopefully some of the genes that saw you through so many years are also in that toddler.

Updated 08/10/2015 to fix some erroneous math.