CLASSIC: Turtles Studies by David Carroll
In a clearing, he moves toward a screened nest above a small sand pit. “That’s just as she left it, at 2:07 A.M., June 29,” he says, kneeling and lifting the protective covering of dried ferns. “This is the first-ever Blanding’s turtle nest in this area,” he explains.
Blanding’s turtles, whose shells are marked with delicate yellow flecks, are increasingly rare. That June evening, David spotted one around 6:30. “She stuck her long neck out and threw a great arc of sand over her shell. I knew she was about to lay her eggs.” David moved behind a screen of pine trees and stood still to watch. “There was something bothering her. I couldn’t tell what it was.”
Dusk spreads. There was still enough light, however, for him to recognize the gray fox stalking the birthing mother. In the shadows he watched their delicate dance. After it was completely dark, he couldn’t see, but he could hear her digging. He stood for hours. When he was satisfied she’d successfully laid her eggs, he moved out from behind the pines and marked the nest. It was two o’clock in the morning. “My back has never been quite the same,” he says now, studying the nest for signs of life. There are none.
David moves on slowly, taking two steps and then stopping to look around him. He is looking for what he calls “tail drag,” light, whispery lines in the sand. There are tracks everywhere — rabbit, coon, deer, black bear — but not that. What else is there, everywhere in the Digs, is the whorly pattern of the soles of David’s sneakers. He points to a hole in the sand. Eggshells, dried and curled like thin white rubber, spill out. “Snapper,” he says.
Farther on there are deep, wide circles in the sand. Kids have been there with their dirt bikes. David sighs. “This is just within the past two days,” he says. There is pain on his face. “I get so tense out here sometimes.” Over the summer he encountered his first evidence of a spotted turtle killed by humans in the Digs.
“Early one morning, I found an adult female who had been killed by haying equipment. There is no way, of course, anyone could have seen the turtle in the deep, dense grass.” He didn’t say anything. “I would hate to make such a discovery of Ariadne or of 13 April, turtles I’ve had a long association with.”
It’s a long day, and it is hot for September. He comes to the last nest, covered and flagged in the hayfield. There is no sign of life. It doesn’t discourage him. There will be tomorrow. “One of the things I like about turtles is their sense of time. They’re not all hopped up about things. They live a long time if things work out for them. They’re the longest-lived species. They seem to have a sense of patience about them. Maybe that’s just something I read into them. But they are just so at home in the world. We’re always rushing around. We need food, we need water, we need air. Turtles can go six months without food, six months without air. It’s OK with them.”
The next day, just beyond the Route of a Thousand Spotted Turtles, he came across a hatchling spotted turtle, only the third hatchling spotted he’s found. “It was in about a quarter of an inch of water, jet black, tiny yellow spots, a little living jewel,” he reports with obvious relish. It could be — it just could be — Ariadne’s daughter. A little farther along, he found one of his covered nests full of half a dozen hatchlings. Wood turtles. He brought them home and measured them and recorded them and then took them back out and released them. “They’re out there somewhere,” he says.
In the spring, with the kind of charity and luck that follows David Carroll, he may encounter them in Buttonbush Swamp or Cranberry Hollows or Leatherleaf Islands, somewhere within the enduring grip of life in the Digs.