Nature Notes: Life in the Slow Lane

Slav Soroka guarded a female snapping turtle as she laid her eggs at the side of Northwest Road in East Hampton last Thursday. Larry Penny

     Last week marked the beginning of the turtles-crossing-streets-to-lay-eggs month.                            
     In Monday’s Newsday, Roy Still of Patchogue alerted us about the need to look out for turtles on the road. To my knowledge this is the first time that Newsday has taken an interest in turtles and their safety. Chris Chapin, a local naturalist, told me Friday that he had already counted two run-over box turtles. He continued sadly, “they were probably older than me.” Johnson Nordlinger, assistant to the East Hampton Town supervisor was nearby and she chimed in, “I saw one dead on the road coming from Montauk this morning.”
    Most of the turtles crossing roads to lay their eggs are box turtles, some of which live to be more than 100 years old. Perhaps, living outside of the fast lane is conducive to great longevity, but once in the fast lane, if you are a turtle, your life is at stake. Bunny rabbits, which run a thousand times faster, only live to be 9 or 10 years old. As Aesop told us millenniums ago, even though rabbits are quick, the slow-moving turtle often wins the race.
    They had dirt trails and chariots in Aesop’s day, not paved highways and motorized vehicles. Turtles were not likely to become roadkills. Think about it, the box turtle with its carapace on top and hinged plastron below in front can close up tight, almost hermetically so, it doesn’t have any natural enemies like the rabbit. Its only enemy is the motorized vehicle.
    This June got off to a bang. I’ve been keeping track of roadkill turtles for years, and last Thursday I counted two on the way home from work, an adult female box turtle on Ferry Road in North Haven and an adult female painted turtle on Noyac Road. The latter was puzzling, as the freshwater closest to the scene of the accident was about 200 yards away. Why was she traveling so far away from her home pond?
    On the way to work the same day I was traveling slowly along Northwest Road in East Hampton’s Northwest, when I passed a young man standing at the edge of the pavement looking perplexed. I pulled over, and walked back to take a look. There was Slav Soroka of Elizabeth’s Cleaning Service standing inches away from a foot-long snapping turtle. He was standing guard while trying to figure out who to call.
    “The Riverhead Foundation?” he asked. The turtle was partly on the pavement with her posterior hanging over the edge of the dirt shoulder. Her eyes were watery. We decided to move her into the Springy Banks woods at the shoulder’s inner edge. When we picked her up and looked in the hole she had dug, there were three of four eggs, which we covered up with soil. They had a very slim chance of making it. One tire passing over the top of them, just an inch off the pavement, would certainly do them in.
    On Memorial Day weekend Ronn Pirrelli counted two box turtles and two snapping turtles in the Noyac area. One snapping turtle was so close to the pavement he had to gingerly steer it onto the shoulder using his shod foot as a guide. The other snapping turtle happened to be laying eggs right next to a monument in the Oakland Cemetery across Jermain Avenue from Otter Pond. The eyes of that female turtle were also watering, Ronn observed. Apparently, for turtles, laying eggs can be as trying as giving birth is for human females. Life doesn’t come easily.
    On the South Fork we have six native turtle species, maybe seven, that are now leaving the water to lay eggs in a burrow on land — the snapping turtle, box turtle, painted turtle, spotted turtle, musk turtle, and diamondback terrapin, the only one that lives exclusively in salt water.
    The seventh is the red-bellied turtle, which is not supposed to be here, but definitely is according to Chris Chapin, who found them here and there in the Sag Harbor area as a teenager, and Jean Held, who photographed a female laying eggs in the old Bridgehampton-to-Sag Harbor railroad right of way next to Long Pond several years ago.
    Turtles have a long evolutionary history, much longer than ours, and should be respected for the wonderful creatures that they are. They are quite obvious when crossing streets and a driver paying attention to the road should be able to avoid hitting them.