A bale of basking turtles turns into entertainment

A bale of basking turtles turns into entertainment

A pair of roundish lumps on a deadhead caught my eye as I drove past a pond near Rockville the other day.

I’ve driven past 10 times a week for years and always dismissed it as unworthy of closer scrutiny. Certainly not as worthy as other lakelets on Stearns County Road 47, which often house trumpeter swans with fuzzy gray young, wood ducks, mallards, and other waterfowl. Nothing like that — i.e., nothing interesting — had ever showed up on this hidden pond.

Until the other day, when a lack of leaves allowed me to spot those lumps, and the rest of the downed tree. It held six World War I doughboy helmets with convenient protruding handles lined up neatly. A mallard guard protected the helmets in military order — three pairs of helmets facing west and one mallard facing south.

The next time I drove by, 21 saucepans with colored handles lay on that downed tree as though simmering on an unseen fire. They were in a way because they were actually western painted turtles, Chrysemy picta — orange-striped necks stretched out, yellow-striped heads raised to their great god of sun, worshiping to raise their internal body temperatures to 63-73 degrees. Kind of like the first cup of coffee. The bale of turtles (group name for turtles) all faced west, as though waiting for gates to open on a noteworthy performance: perhaps « The Search for the Turtle’s Navel, » by William Ackerman?

No more turtles could fit on the packed log, I was sure. Wrong! The next few days the number ratcheted up as high as 50. Like human VW- or phone booth-packing?

The turtles intrigued me. I’d never seen a bale of turtles before, so I skidded down the steep forested bank, snap crackle popping twigs and branches and toward the turtles. Within seconds they all fled, plop plop plop, except for one, who appeared to be fiddling with his hearing aids.

I sat back against a tree on the soft oak-leaf covered earth amidst wood ticks, buzzing mosquitoes and zipping flies. I stayed as still as a painted man on a painted landscape.

Soon nature forgot about me. Mallards swam close to shore, followed by a muskrat. Birds fluttered nearby. Like magic, turtles with glistening shells began reappearing on the log, clambering up wetly from both sides, finding their spots, like regular worshipers in church pews.

To my left, a skyscraper of dead tree at a 60-degree angle held six nearly vertical painted turtles desperately clutching the log. Obviously young males (« Hey sweetie, look what I can do! »), but also because males possess longer front claws, the better to caress their honey’s neck during mating rituals.

Painted turtles have no natural enemies. Ninety-nine of a hundred adults, who grow 7-14 inches long, survive year to year, to age 55. Eggs and hatchlings however, are delicacies for herons, weasels, raccoons, foxes, skunks, crows — and snapping turtles.

Segregation appeared active on the main log, as twice I’ve seen three snapping turtles sunning at the far end, 4 feet from the others.

Which made sense. What could you chat about with a turtle who might have supped on one of your eggs — or young — recently?

Day after day, I’ve noted varied behaviors by the bale: shells almost touching; or a front leg resting on the shell, as though to say, « Hey bub, a little more room here, huh? » Other days, the turtles lay helter-skelter, some half in the water, others piled three deep, a group sideways half atop a neighbor like poorly stacked pans.

Some days they dropped into the water at the sight of my car. Other times I walked down to the reeds with no reaction.

Turtle nirvana has provided me weeks of entertainment and speculation.

Nature never ceases to amaze me.

This is the opinion of Bill Vossler, author of 15 books including the e-book « Nature’s Way: Writings on the Wild. » He and his wife, Nikki, live among the trees and wild animals in rural Rockville. He can be reached at