Archive for category Field Notes
I can’t count the number of times I’ve turned the car around – or cajoled my wife or any other unfortunate driver I happen to be with at the time to do the same – after having caught a ‘glimpse’ at sixty-five miles an hour of what could only have been a western pond turtle on the side of the road. To my chagrin, my so-called turtles have always ended up being a boot or rock or junkyard scrap. I’m still unclear if if that makes me an alarmist or a wishful thinker, seeing turtles in peril where there is neither.
Once, driving home several years ago, I happened to come up behind a car that had stopped in my rural neighborhood to pick up a wayward western pond turtle. Too late, I realized what it was the front passenger had retrieved from the road. I was tailing them, working up a pitch to negotiate the turtle’s safe return, when the car lurched to a stop, all four doors flew open, and the passengers leapt from the car. Hysterical, one of them was all too eager to tell me that, moments after retrieving their prize, the put-upon turtle had proceeded to pee all over the car while scrabbling and scratching to be released. Surprised, the young women had dropped the turtle at her feet, where the hardened prisoner made a break under the front seats for the driver’s-side, sending the passengers into a panic. They were all too glad to return their hostage, a hardy three-legged western pond turtle I dubbed “tripod” before I released it at a BLM property in a pond a short distance away.
But this Friday, traveling along Highway 84 in San Mateo County, for the first time in years I had the misfortune of being right. The turtle in this case – a mature female – lay along the roadside shoulder in an advanced state of decay. Her plastron, crushed no doubt beneath the tires of a passing car, had been flipped upward as though on a piano hinge. I can only imagine that she had first been flipped onto her back by the front tire before the rear tire pinned the anterior of her plastron and carapace against the hardtop, caving the shell like a walnut in a nutcracker.
Too often, roadways parallel waterways, acting as a barrier obstructing daily and seasonal movement and dispersal between overwintering sites, nesting grounds, and the turtle’s natal waters. There’s no telling where this unfortunate turtle was heading. To or from the nearby creek? In search of a mate or a spot to nest? I checked the shell cavity for eggs. She was running on empty.
Fortunately, not every scenario is so grim. Two weeks ago, two colleagues turned up at work on a Monday morning with photos of a mature female western pond turtle they had come across while cycling along a roadway in Marin County. Because the turtle had been found straddling the centerline, there was no telling in which direction she had been headed, so the Samaritans had relocated the turtle across the road to safety toward the nearby creek.
In this case, they did the right thing, moving the turtle out harm’s way. But scenarios like these raise a good question: what should you do if you find a western pond turtle in the road?
To help answer that question, several years ago I developed a full-color, tri-fold brochure describing our local western pond turtle, what to do if you find one, and guidance to private landowners and public land managers alike on the best ways to protect and conserve western pond turtles through proactive land stewardship. I’ve excerpted the relevant text below:
Western pond turtles leave the safety of the water more often than you might think. Turtles come to land to nest; escape drying creeks and ponds or winter floods; hibernate; find mates; and to seek out new ponds and streams.
If you come across a healthy western pond turtle on dry land that is in no immediate danger, do not disturb it. Already skittish by nature, they are especially so on land, leading females to abandon nesting attempts. Make a point of leaving (and leave!) by walking away with heavy footsteps and loud voices. If you sneak off, the turtle may wait you out – leaving it vulnerable to predators or the elements. If you find a live turtle crossing a road, safely move it to the far side in the direction it was heading.
If you come across a western pond turtle that appears ill or has sustained recent injuries (e.g., from a pet, vehicle, or fishing tackle), carefully transport it in a covered container to a local wildlife rehabilitation center immediately. Note where you first discovered the turtle so it can be returned to the closest watershed.
And it’s free! So download the .pdf, print, and distribute.
Earlier this week – huddling groggy behind the sliding glass door waiting for the dog to conduct his business – I caught the flutter of feathers descending from across the fence into the silver maple out back. No sooner had I slid the door ajar to lean into the mute morning grey then the culprit – the neighborhood Cooper’s hawk – startled from her perch and again took flight, exchanging the naked limb for one in the skeletal tree in our next door neighbor’s yard.
Over the past few years, my family has come to know this Cooper’s hawk from our occasional run-ins with her here and there. My first encounter occurred one afternoon throwing a tennis ball for the dog in the front yard. Surprised by the sudden approach of wings, I looked up from my play with the flagging dog in time to catch one of my neighbor’s domestic pigeons careening toward and then around me like a child seeking shelter behind his parent’s legs. No sooner had the pigeon swung past then my gaze was transfixed by a second bird – the Cooper’s hawk – fast approaching me at eye level with unparalleled purpose. Today, all I can recollect of that instant is the feeling of looking down the barrel of a gun before she too was gone. She must have pulled up and out of that dive abreast of me like a top gun pilot to avoid the living room window and the towering sycamore in her flight path beyond. By the time I had gathered my wits about me, she was disappearing behind the roof tops with a little less purpose, her quarry having escaped with me as accomplice.
Our sightings of her continued: atop telephone poles shortly after sunrise, or herding pigeons during their afternoon recess. Last year, my wife called me at work to say that the Cooper’s hawk had made an appearance again on the front lawn. Called to the door by the dog’s incessant barking, it took my wife a moment to realize that it wasn’t the mailman or a passerby that had caught his attention, but the Cooper’s hawk on the front lawn with a pigeon pinned to the turf. Flustered no doubt by the barking dog, followed by the appearance of my wife at the front window, she fumbled in her attempts to launch herself into the air with her prize, until at last she let loose the frightened pigeon in a blizzard of breast feathers and gave up the chase. Two hours later, downy feathers still danced lazily on the lawn when I arrived home.
The fall we moved into this house, however many years ago that was, I stepped out from behind that same sliding glass door one morning as the dog – at that time still a pup – was pushing leaves with his nose under the pretense of conducting his business. That morning, I caught another raptor in the back yard. This time, our visitor was a western screech owl. Remembering my wife’s camera on the dining room table, I somehow reached back into the house, fumbled the camera on, and slipped into the back yard in time to snap three photos before the owl had had enough of my insolence and slipped off into the inky morning. Several weeks later, eying the silver maple a little more closely late one afternoon, I happened to remark to my wife that a certain cavity looked like the ideal spot for nesting birds. Retrieving my binoculars from my field bag a few minutes later, we were both surprised when none other than the screech owl appeared peering back at us from within the hollow.
The screech owl became an autumn staple, making the dead branch her evening roost over several weeks that year and the next. But after the rotting branch succumbed to a winter storm, despite the nest box lined with wood chips I built and hung in the maple that summer, the owl hasn’t been seen since.
Although the Cooper’s hawk’s appearances are fleeting and the owl has moved on, I still have the lesser goldfinches, house finches, dark-eyed juncos, oak titmice, and chickadees that parade around the feeders to keep me company. California towhees scratch in the leaf litter below the feeder. The black phoebe returns each year to perch on the handlebars of my son’s tricycle or, now, the lawn chair beneath the maple. And the Anna’s hummingbirds that nest in the neighbors-across-the-back-fence’s yard still return throughout the year to trapline the salvias and flowering maple that line our side of the fence.
Which goes to show it isn’t always good fences that make good neighbors. On a cold winter morning, while all of us wait for spring, such friends make fine neighbors indeed.