A snapping turtle at the roadside.

One evening in late June, coming home from work, I pulled into the driveway just in time to see a foot-long mama turtle take a tentative step from our front yard onto the very busy street where we live. I thought she was a goner — traffic races by our house at all hours of the day and night. Cats and dogs have enough trouble crossing the road . . .

I wondered how I might save her – directing traffic around her perhaps, or picking her up with a shovel and escorting her to the other side of the road. I didn’t relish either task. I’d heard stories about snapping turtles who easily chomped the end off broomsticks and baseball bats; I didn’t know how to discern whether or not this one was a snapper. It was too late to call Animal Control, and I didn’t think the police would consider this a priority. By the time I got out of my car however, she had turned back. Relieved, I went into the house to phone my husband Chris, a photographer, who would surely want to document what was going on in our front yard.

I had seen turtles all over the place that week, so I knew it was egg laying season. Around here, pregnant mama turtles tend to favor the soft sand along roadsides, which is easy to dig. Sure enough, when I went back outside, the turtle had begun to dig a hole with her hind feet in the sand, right at the edge of the road. I didn’t want to disturb her – the rush hour traffic was distracting enough – so instead I took a seat on our front step, about 15 feet away.

Shortly after that my husband came home, a camera in each hand. The turtle worked at digging her hole for about a half hour; we kept our distance, but watched the entire time, rapt. Naturally, Chris snapped about a hundred pictures. At one point, he was lying on the grass of the road shoulder, parallel to the traffic, about ten feet away from the turtle. Vehicles were slowing down, kids were gawking from car windows, but whether it was to see the turtle laying her eggs or the crazy man with the cameras lying at the edge of the road, we’ll never know for sure.

Once the hole was big enough, the turtle backed into it, so that only the front half of her body was visible. Then, for the next thirty minutes or so, she rocked, heaved and labored to lay her eggs. We didn’t dare go close enough to see how many she’d lain, but according to my field guide, there were probably 20-40 ping-pong ball shaped eggs when she was done. Visibly fatigued, she then crawled out of the hole and began covering it up with loose sand.

After that I went into the house to make dinner, but every so often I’d peer out a window to see where the turtle had gone. First she made her way across our lawn, then she rested in a leafy section of one of our flower beds. Finally, she began to plod down the hill into our back yard, toward the brook, the wetlands on an adjacent property, or maybe even the North River, more than a mile away.

We’ve been watching the site where she laid her eggs, and so far it seems to be undisturbed. However we have seen turtle predators like skunks and raccoons prowling the yard at night. The eggs aren’t due to hatch until late August or early September, so we’ll keep watching with hope that the hatchlings will survive their incubation.

And when they do hatch, we’ll be ready to direct them down the hill toward the water, and away from the busy street that their mother was wise enough not to cross.

by Kezia Bacon Bernstein, Correspondent
July 2003

Kezia Bacon Bernstein’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.