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Stopping For A Turtle On A Summer Day

Stopping For A Turtle On A Summer Day

It was an afternoon in early July. The only thing between us and our favorite dinner haunt was a short drive, mostly on back roads. At the same time, we still had turtle season on our minds.

Although nesting season was winding down, turtles continue to be on the move in Connecticut in July. Even the most aquatic species take to overland routes at times in the summer. With the advent of paved roads and speeding automobiles — not such a new thing to us — came a threat turtles have faced only in the thinnest slice of time in their existence.

But astute and concerned drivers, given safe options for avoidance and rescue, can often prevent a casualty. Such was our good fortune, or rather a turtle’s, on that July day several years ago. We saw the little spotted turtle in the road and pulled over. It was not a young one but rather an older female. (One difference between males and females is that the female’s bottom shell, or plastron, is flat or convex while the male’s tends to be concave.) Adult spotted turtles are diminutive creatures, only a handful of inches long even in old age. Although we didn’t know it at the time, this find was to pay double dividends.

Several turtle species native to Connecticut — including the spotted turtle — have color patterns unique to each individual. In the case of spotted turtles, distinguishing patterns both above on the carapace and below on the plastron serve to clinch identification. It turns out our little friend in the road that day was the same turtle we’d photographed three years earlier a quarter of a mile away at a nesting site.

She had survived another few years and we were privileged to witness two snapshots of her life — one as she was laying eggs during our first encounter, and another as we « rescued » her from the road. We hope it was a rescue. It’s always hard to know a turtle’s intention when you find one in the road. We assume that the direction the turtle is facing is its intended travel route. But we have no way of knowing whether the turtle might have walked into the road in one direction, made a turn — possibly to get more sun or to get out of the sun — and stopped to rest. We do the best we can.

Smartphones make it so easy to get a good identifying photograph tagged with a GPS location. Our records now include photographs and map locations for about half a dozen spotted turtles and wood turtles in our part of Eastern Connecticut. So far our spotted turtle friend is the only repeat find, but we’re hoping for others.

The spotted turtle and wood turtle are both on the Connecticut Department of Energy And Environmental Protection’s list of « Species of Special Concern. » The « special concern » category is the least critical, below « threatened » and « endangered, » but still a designation that indicates a problem for a plant or animal species.

Our turtle encounters are almost always a matter of chance, as when a turtle happens to be in the road while we’re passing through. One exception is a communal nesting site that we know of and sometimes visit, though we don’t get there every year. I call it communal because on some visits to the site, we’ve seen several turtles at a time nesting, with many other fresh nests nearby. It’s a sandy and gravelly area ideal for excavation and egg laying.

Turtles have an ancient lineage in the animal kingdom. And some individuals can have life spans on par with those of humans. As a group, they tend to hold a warmer and more favorable place in the hearts and minds of humans than do other reptiles. When I look down at a turtle and see it cock its head and appear to look me right in the eye, I have to wonder about our notions of the primitive reptilian brain.

So as our local turtles cycle through another season, we’re keeping our own eyes peeled and wondering if we might come across an old friend.

D. Glenn Miller lives in Pomfret.