Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Common Snapping Turtles

     Here in Nebraska, one thing is for sure... The lake water is always murky. In fact, if you can see further than a foot deep, you must be swimming in a Colorado lake that just happened to fill up in Nebraska! Murky water, and fairly poor water quality makes Nebraska not the world's best fishing destination, but we still keep ourselves entertained here. At any lake, in the summer time, the locals are usually found wake boarding, skiing, sail boating, or playing plethora of odd beach games that usually involve beer bottles and PVC piping. But for the fellow bushmen and herpetologists like myself, we usually just enjoy the wildlife and catching some of the interesting few as we hike or paddle through these lakes.

The classic murky Nebraska water way

As a busy college student, I was quite happy with my plan to block out a whole Sunday afternoon for a kayaking trip around one of my favorite lakes. In mid May, I figured the water would be a tad bit too cool for our snakes to be out for a swim, but I soon found our turtle species were just warming up for the season! As I hiked my 9.5 foot Swifty kayak to the water's edge, memories of some of last year's best adventures flew through my mind. This being our maiden voyage for the year, I had to dust off the seat before sitting down for a summer full of many new awesome adventures!
This big brute was floating near a log jam I climbed on
but he saw me before I could get the camera set up to film!
As I paddled along the grasses, I spotted a suspicious looking branch nub sticking out of the water. And then it was gone! I raced forward, and knowing the depth of this common lagoon, I bailed from my kayak to chase the snapping turtle before it found deep water! And granted, the Nebraska mud makes our water murky, it also makes it easy to see where my snapping turtle was swimming off to, as he left an obvious trail of kicking up mud clouds in the water. Then, as I neared the turtle, one chance glance of his tail, and I grabbed him! What a beast! I heaved the healthy snapping turtle up and supported his body weight with my other hand on his plastron, which is the belly halve of the turtle shell. Here is the video for today's adventures!-->>>
Turtles are tons of fun for me! They fascinate the heck out of me! A snapping turtle can be totally docile and calm in the water, yet once raised out of water the aggressive nature kicks in and those jaws get to snapping. And what a reach on that neck! I noticed, on another outing, when a snapping turtle is just bee-bopping along in the water, they stretch their necks clear out 7-10 inches away from the body! But that same neck can curl around the sides and top of their shell (not the bottom, thankfully), and this creates a danger zone that your fingers do not want to be caught in! Another testimony to the snapping turtle's docile nature is when you accidentally step on them! And bare foot is the only way to go for me! 
Painted turtles like to climb up onto logs to sun themselves
but snapping turtles generally do not, as their heavy bodies
make any movement out of water a real chore!
For instance, I was out filming frog mating calls one night in a swamp, and I knew this body of water did contain snapping turtles. But when looking for frogs, I just walk through the shallow water with my head lamp beam focused along the water's edge. I'd rather be able to intercept a frog headed for deep water, as well not have to walk through thick brush while searching for my query. And as many of you know, you can't see much outside of the beam of your head lamp either. So in one step, instead of feeling the mud and silt squish through my toes, I felt the rough points of the marginal scutes (the side part of the turtle's shell) on the shell and the moist leathery skin of either the leg, tail, or head. Naturally, I retracted my foot, and watched a nice sized snapping turtle swim earnestly away from me. And of course, I proceeded to reach down and grab his tail. I had to give my new acquaintance a proper greeting and tell him not to eat too many of the frogs before their lay eggs. Then, I let him go.
Even though I'm out researching frogs, I never past up a
chance to catch some cool wildlife in the process!
It used to scare the pants off me when people would warn me about swimming in a farm pond because, "Them snapping turtles will take your toes clean off!" Well, after realizing I do not even know of any person loosing a toe to a snapping turtle from an under water bite, and after accidentally setting on turtles with my bare feet, my scared pants just turned into swimming trunks and I feel there's nothing to be scared of anymore :)
I put this to the test today. Towards to tail end of my kayaking expedition, I spotted a snapping turtle head sticking out of the water next to a stump. So I padded straight for the spot and the turtle head disappeared under water. As I drifted up to the stump, I stuck my hand into the water where the turtle was (that was stupid, I should have stuck my paddle down first...) my arm was only 8 inches into the water when BOOM!!! I felt the turtle's shell (haha what? Did you think I got my hand bit off?!) I kept my hand lightly on top of the shell to feel if he started to move. I really wanted to film this catch, but the only possible place I could put the camera was wedged up in that stump. So with the other hand, I whipped out my camera, set it to record, and wedged it in the stump. I then felt carefully along the marginal scutes to find the back end. I knew the turtle would bolt once I grabbed the tail, so I lunged down for a handful of turtle tail and held on! The turtle jerked under a good sized branch, with my arm on the opposing side. He wasn't stupid, because while my hand was stuck on one side of the branch, he was cranking and pumping with his legs against the other side, and very, very strong too! I look up at my camera, and the recording light isn't on! F--(bad word)~!!!! I could barely reached the camera with my other hand as this turtle torqued my wrist against the underwater branch, and my camera says "memory full." Oh, mother of pearl!!! This is worse than having to go pee really, really bad in a store with no bathroom, on an empty stomach! As I deleted the slack out of my memory roll, I was making all sorts of funny faces trying to hold onto this turtle who seemed determined to dislocate my wrist. Okay! that better be enough! Record! Stretch! Wedge! Compose myself! Switch hands!! Ahhhhhh, much better! And out of the water I hoist a nice, strapping adolescent snapping turtle from the water! He wasn't yet old enough to start accumulating a coat of moss on his shell, and had beautiful cream colored skin. What a feisty little guy! Very strong, and very snappy. But you know how teenagers are, they think they're invincible ;)
Snapping turtles are a fascinating animal. They eat just about anything they can fit in their mouth. They're totally comfortable in the water, but total fire balls when taking out of their element! If you know what you're doing, you can catch quite a few turtles and have one heck of an adventure doing it. So with two turtles caught and released, after great footage and pictures. I paddled back through the marsh to my truck, and headed home covered in mud and a good time!