The common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) belongs to an ancient lineage of turtles. If you could take a time machine back 80 million years ago you would recognize their ancient ancestors as nearly identical to the modern form. Snapping turtles have filled the same ecological niche since they first diverged from other turtles millions of years ago. They are the garbage disposals of freshwater lakes, rivers, and wetlands. They are opportunistic feeders, eating anything plant or animal, dead or alive. I have watched them pluck mallard ducklings from the surface of the water and had them rob a full stringer of fish. They are good at what they do. It is this opportunistic nature that has allowed their continued success over the last 100 million years or so. They survived the meteor impact that took out the dinosaurs and most other complex life. The slow metabolism and opportunistic feeding habits of snapping turtles surely allowed them to survive the apocalypse at the end of the cretaceous.
Snapping turtles get their name from their aggressive nature when on land. Unlike most turtles, snapping turtles cannot retreat into their shell for protection. The bottom of their shell, the plastron, is little more than a skid-plate offering no refuge for limbs, tail or head. To overcome this lack of protection the snapping turtle has an enlarged head and very powerful bite. Alligator snapping turtles have been measured with over 1500lbs per square inch in bite force. That is more than enough pressure to sever digits or inflict severe lacerations.
Instead of hiding in their shells they simply sit and wait for the fight to come to them. A threatened turtle on land will position itself head toward the threat, raising the rear of its shell of the ground. Get too close and SNAP!
Watching a snapping turtle walk it is easy to image them strolling across a beach covered in dinosaur footprints. There is something primeval about their gait and swagger that airs a confidence that even bipedal apes can appreciate.
Despite their legendary bite and temperament, snapping turtles are quite docile when handled. After a couple of snaps and wiggles, a turtle in hand simply hangs on for the ride. I have helped dozens of snapping turtle (and other species) cross the road. The safest way to pick up a snapping turtle is to grab the carapace (top half of the shell) just behind the hind legs. Get a firm grip and expect some claws to try to scratch you off. This grip will be out of range of the bite despite the turtles best efforts.
Snapping turtles have changed very little from the time of the dinosaurs. There have not been any significant environmental pressures to affect change and they keep on doing what they’re doing. They serve an important role in the freshwater ecosystems of the Eastern United States. Provided compassionate and educated humans can help them across the road and give them a place to live I’m sure they will continue to thrive for millions of years to come.
Deer. To a “country” person they are the competition; eating crops, flowers and anything else that might be tasty. To a “city” person they are novel animal to be admired with wonder and curiosity. Where I live, on the edge of suburbia, we have members of both camps. We have the gardeners who support the multi-million dollar industry of deer repellents and the hunters who see a nice cut of venison. I have seen people who live just houses away oggle at the deer as if they are some sort of rarity when they are in their yards nearly every day.
This seeming lack of awareness of the natural world is a by-product of our increasing need for convenience and the false sense of the world that comes with it. When the world is hyper-organized down to the minute and instant gratification controls our brains we lose the ability to stop and listen, to be aware of the world around. Many times I have watched as three or four deer stand within 25 feet of a person walking on the road, completely oblivious to the deer. They are too preoccupied with their phone, music or simply putting one foot in front of the other. Undoubtedly, this same person is the one who is amazed when they see DEER in the neighborhood. Awareness requires the ability to break the cycle of convenience and realize that the world is the way it is, not for our convenience, but for itself.
I am privileged to live in a house with about 4 acres of land surrounded by suburban sprawl. My property is an oasis for the local wildlife. Our land has become an ideal location for the local deer herd to raise their fawns. We have two resident does, one with twins and one with a single fawn. We get to watch these fawns as they grow from wobbly legged infants to fool-hardy adolescents to sub-adults getting kicked out of the home range by their moms. We regularly watch as they run laps around our yard, chasing each other as they practice the manuvers to evade predators.
When playing the does seem just as apathetic as moms at the park on their cell phones. They are there but don’t really seem to care what the kids are up to as long as there isn’t any screaming or crying.
Together these fawns grow up in a very different world than some of their relatives. They live in an artificial world where a car is their primary predator, where food is abundant and the snow doesnt stay deep in the winter. These deer are well fed and tolerant of humans and their habits.
There is a never ending battle with the deer to grow any kind of flower or vegetable. This summer has been the first time in three years we actually have hostas on our property. The previous two year the deer have mowed them down to the ground. They have broken our fence around the vegetable garden and decimated a crop of tomatoes, swash and broccoli. Even with all these negative I must realize that they, like me, are just trying to survive. I have the luxury of growing food more for recreation than neccesity while the deer, on the other hand, have winter to prepare for.
The more I watch the deer the more I am reminded of just how good we humans have it. How priviledge we are to take the very basic needs of life for granted. We can complain about trivial things and never have to think about more than “what we want for dinner”. By taking the very needs of life for granted we have lost our awareness of their importance. We don’t think about where our water or food comes from as long as it comes. We don’t question the strength of the wi-fi or the temperature on the thermostat as long as it’s there. Our conviences have numbed us to the reality of the natural world. I envy the deer and other animals for they must take nothing for granted and must have gratitude for every sunrise they get to see.
With spring comes rebirth and revitalization. Spring is also a time of death. All the new life requires energy. For many animals that energy comes from the young and vulnerable. Every year I welcome spring by watching the chickadees and other birds begin building their nests. I have several nest boxes around my property that have yielded dozens of broods of wrens, chickadees, and bluebirds. See my post documenting a brood of chickadees here.
This year the chickadees built their nest of hair, lichens and moss in a nest box I inherited from my grandparents. I watched as they diligently shuttled all the nest materials into the box. We would periodically lift the top of the box to check on the progress of the nest. Sometimes the female would allow the minor disturbance and would not leave her incubation of 7 tiny eggs.
All was going well until I noticed some clumps of lichen and hair outside the nest box. My heart sank and I knew this was not good. Opening the box I found the nest in disarray. The eggs had been moved but were still intact. The female was no were to be found.
The hole to enter the nest box had evidence of recent scratching and nest material being removed.
Directly below the nest box I found the evidence I was hoping not to find. Evidence of predation, the right wing of a chickadee. The feathers were mangled and disheveled hallmarks of a bird predated by a salivating mammal, most likely a raccoon. Smaller body feather littered the grass around the wing.
All hope for the survival of the eggs had been lost. Seven little chickadees that will never see the sun or herald in the spring with their phee-bee call. Their mother plucked from the nest as she warmed them on a cold spring night to meet her fate in the belly of a raccoon.
When explaining this to my 5-year-old daughter it was difficult for her to process. I could tell she wanted to be angry at the raccoon and mourned the loss of “our” chickadees. But without the sacrifice of the chickadees, the raccoon could not feed their own young. The raccoon knows not of right and wrong only of survival and the next opportunity for food.
Out of curiosity, I removed one of the eggs from the failed nest.
I carefully removed the eggshell to reveal the fully formed chickadee embryo inside, probably just days from hatching. The tiny feet curled up into the fetal position
The somber emotion of this picture defines the dichotomy of spring. It is a time of rebirth through death. This cycle is essential for the survival of all species. Without death, there cannot be life.
It has been a very long time since I last posted. Raising children, moving jobs and houses is demanding in its own right. Last summer, in a moment of humility, I realized I there were plants on my property that I couldn’t name or even identify. In this moment I gave myself a challenge to photograph and document every flowering plant on my modest 4 acres. This challenge will give me an opportunity to better understand and connect with the land and improve my understanding of the plants in the place I call home.
SO here we go. I’m going to post as the flowers pop and try to keep up!
March 22, 2016
Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum)
The Silver Maple is a very common tree in southern Minnesota. It is native to the floodplains and basins of the great rivers where it thrives in the sandy moist soil. It’s rapid growth rate made it an ideal tree for yards and developments and today we see them in many more places than their native habitat.
The photo below is the the female flowers of the Silver Maple tree. The long red protrusions are the stigma of the flower each awaiting a single grain of pollen. Once the stigma absorbs a pollen grain from a male flower it will develop into a seed. Come summer each of these seeds will come whirling down as a samara or as my daughter calls them “helicopters”
The male flowers illustrated below have long pollen covered stamen that allow any passing breeze to release the pollen in the hopes of connecting with a stigma of another Silver Maple.
In many species of plants the flowers will start off in one sex and then morph to the other to prevent self fertilization. This adaptation maximizes the chances of cross pollination between individuals and thus adding genetic variation to the population.
Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides)
My property has many many aspen trees. These soft wooded trees can reproduce in several ways. They have the traditional sexual reproduction using flowers, called catkins, pollinated by the wind but they can also clone themselves. Cloning occurs when the roots from an adult tree spread to a neighboring area and sprout as a tree. In the mountains of Colorado there are vast forests of aspen trees comprised of only a few individual actual trees, making them one of the largest single living organisms all connected through a maze of roots.
My students often find these “caterpillars” on the ground in the spring. What they have actually found is the reproductive organs of the aspen, a catkin. These unique looking flowers are often one of the first signs of spring. Their fuzzy appearance helps catch the slightest breeze sending a load of pollen to the sky.
Note the yellow pollen on my hand in the picture below.
Snow Drop (Galanthus sp.)
This is the first non-tree flower of the year. As the common name suggests the Snow Drop can often be in full bloom even with snow still on the ground. The day after I took the picture below we had several inches of snow. These and other flowers are an important early season pollen resource for bees and other pollinators. The Snow Drop lays dormant for nearly 10 months a year as a bulb. The bulb stores all the energy the plant needs to push through the soil, produce leaves, and flower. After a short month or so above ground the plant will once again retreat below ground to wait for the following spring.
That’s all for now. I’m anxiously waiting for the boxelder, cottonwood, and a tree that I’m not sure of to pop! I also have tulips, daffodils and iris poking through the soil, not to mention the ground ivy or creeping Charlie that will be flowering soon too!!