On the evening of the summer solstice, we encountered a snapping turtle along the trail. We gave the turtle a wide berth as we passed and continued on our way, assuming the turtle would continue on her way too. Later, we received a phone call from our friend Jim K. who encountered the same turtle at dusk laying eggs in the middle of the trail. He and other friends in his company watched as she dug a hole in the sand with her left rear-leg and swept sand over the freshly-laid eggs with her right rear-leg. Jim marked the site with some driftwood so we wouldn’t inadvertently step on the nest when we returned home in the dark. Concerned about predators raiding the nest, we took the added precaution of constructing a makeshift and miniature stockade fence around the nest with sticks. This was merely a temporary measure. Placed as it was in the trail, the nest was at risk of getting trampled by people or dug up by dogs.
Fortunately, Jim K. was just the right person to have discovered the nest in the first place. He called again the next morning and knew just what to do. He happened to know a snapping turtle expert with whom he consulted on how best to protect the eggs while they incubated. Jim received precise instructions on how to properly relocate the nest to an out-of-the-way undisclosed location. Anna readied her camera while I gathered the necessary tools. Buckets, shovel, trowel, pencils, pepper shaker. Jim and his daughter Susannah soon arrived wearing t-shirts with screen-prints of snapping turtles, courtesy of their turtle expert friend. The Chelydra serpentina ova relocation team was ready for action!
We started by dismantling the makeshift stockade fence. After the area was cleared, Jim and Susannah pulled away sand from the over the nest using their hands. The mother snapper had firmly packed the sand, so the trowel was needed to carefully scrape away sand, proceeding slowly like archeologists at a dig, until the first egg was unearthed. Each egg was marked lightly with a pencil to indicate the top. It is important that the eggs are reburied in the same orientation in case the embryo has already attached to the eggshell. They also need to be put back in the ground at the same depth because the ambient temperature at which they incubate determines whether the embryo develops as a male or female. Cooler temperature range results in females, and a few degrees warmer results in males.
While Jim and Susannah gently transferred the eggs one by one from the nest to buckets, Jim’s wife Jean and I scouted for a new nest location, looking for someplace off the beaten path and a similar distance from the water. No sooner than we settled on a site and dug a hole, the rest of the team arrived with the cache of turtle eggs. Thirty total, each like a small ping-pong ball the diameter of a quarter. Transferred to the new hole and nesting together in the sand, we pushed the sand back over the hole. For the final touch, Jim sprinkled black pepper over the top of the new nest. This was intended to deter any predators such as raccoons that might come sniffing around looking for a meal. Now, we wait. If we did our job right, baby snapping turtles will hatch and emerge from the sand in sixty to ninety days.