For the Love of Turtles

NCLH0781-turtle 1I love turtles. For as long as I can remember, I have always collected turtle figurines. I used to have one of those containers that was in a hexagonal shape but would roll out to about three feet long, full of small turtle figurines. The crazy thing is, I never bought any. They were always either gifted to me, or I found them in parking lots.

Working in parks gives me a unique opportunity to hang out with my shelled friends. They are the ultimate backpackers – everything they need, they carry on their backs. As an ultralight backpacker who is always looking for a better and more efficient way to backpack, I am jealous. Through my years in various park systems, I have come across countless turtle species, from Eastern box turtles with attitudes (Have you ever had one hiss at you? I have.), to a shy little three-legged mud turtle, to snapping turtles with MAJOR chips on their shoulders (Have you ever had a fully-grown snapper lunge at you and bite your hiking staff clean in half? I have.).

I am one of those crazy people who will brake for turtles, then pull over and help the turtle across the road.

When Water Mine Manager Eric Nielsen came to me with a blurry picture on his phone of a turtle he had found at the closed water park, I could tell the turtle was an aquatic type. He asked if I could help him get the turtle out, and my answer was a resounding yes! From the picture, I assumed that it was a little mud turtle. I walked down to the Water Mine with Eric, and he led me through the empty and dry lazy river channel to the tunnel. There sat the animal that spoke to my backpacker soul. The biggest turtle that I would move, to date. It was a very large Eastern painted turtle that had somehow climbed up from the lake into the Water Mine’s lazy river channel. I checked it over quickly for any cracks in the shell or other injuries. It seemed fine, other than a little scared.

I asked Eric to take a picture for posterity, and then I picked up the turtle.

DSWB4766-turtle 2Naturalist tip: When you pick up a turtle, do not pick it up by the top shell. The turtle’s spine is attached to the top shell (the carapace), and it hurts the turtle. Instead, think of how you eat a burger or a sandwich. You want to pick it up with both hands, thumbs on the carapace, and your fingers cradling its underbelly (the plastron). If it is a small turtle, you can carry it with one hand, but I prefer two hands, especially if it is an active turtle that will try to claw at your hands. Keep in mind that Virginia does not permit wildlife relocation between properties. This turtle was moved within the park.

I was able to discern that the turtle is female, due to the lack of a dip on her plastron. Male turtles have a concave plastron, for reproductive purposes, while females have a flat plastron to give her more space to store eggs.

Eric led me out, unlocking and opening gates while I carried our guest of honor out of the Water Mine and to a grassy area on the shore of Lake Fairfax. The painted turtle is back where she belongs, and I have an exciting story to share, along with picture. It is the little things that make my days. No two days in any park are ever the same.

Author Gina De Naples Sando, CIG, is Assistant Park Manager at Lake Fairfax Park.