Saturday, May 28, 2011

Turtle Frenzy Surveillance

Detroit Harbor, Washington Island -

It is springtime.   It is near sunset, and we've had one of those precious few days in mid-May with the sun bright overhead, unblemished by clouds.  The air temperature warmed to 60 degrees by the early afternoon, and what breeze there was settled to a whisper toward twilight.

We walked in silence so as to not scare the wildlife, my wife and I, to the docks of the bayou, a small estuary of Detroit Harbor that is filled with a variety of bird, reptile, and other animal life.   We carried a pair of binoculars to better observe these creatures:  a large muskrat chomping on the roots of rushes along the bank;  eagles, both soaring and perching on trees on Suzie's Island;  a great blue heron stalking the reeds for supper; an egret; a swimming water snake (makes my wife shudder) breaking the calm surface with its wriggling; carp rolling about; and fornicating snapping turtles.

It is the mating turtles we've really come to see!

Picture snappers the size of your largest inverted kitchen turkey pan - or maybe the microwave (some appear to be 30 inches across the shell).  Two turkey pans bumping and grinding, changing partners, chasing away suitors or competition.  It has to be an enjoyable moment for them, the turtles, doing what they are meant to do in the springtime.  I am not easily relating to the subtleties of mating in smelly muck and ooze, but I have an idea of how the strength of procreation may overwhelm a pea-sized brain.  For these several weeks, this is all they seem to care to do, with activity levels peaking when it is sunny and warm and calm.

This is the estuary primeval, the Bayou as we call it.  And it is these snapping turtles we've come to appreciate, huge snappers recently emerged from the muck and ooze of this backwater, at first carrying scads of mud and moss on their backs.  For at least the past five months, if not six, they've lain dormant, hibernating beneath the mud, immobile until water temperature warmed enough to stir them.   And then, instead of searching out food for their first activity, they expend energy mating.

If you've seen photos of the Sydney, Australia, Opera House, imagine how it would look down-scaled and brownish-green in color, with perhaps a turtle head or tail stretching outward.  This is the sort of repeated scene we observe in the bayou during the first several warm weeks of spring.  Mating boulders, is how it appears from a distance.  Moving rocks, shell on shell.

Action is everywhere, in the shallows of the muddy bottom and in the warmth of sunny humps of grass.  This activity piques our human curiosity.  We humans have rituals of our own, but turtle mating is far removed from the familiar white sheets covering man-made, cushioned platforms.  How do they know, these creatures submerged in mud, when it is time to emerge, which other turtles are accepting, when enough is enough?  Normally slow-moving creatures, they now roil the waters in their passion, showing quickness and bursts of energy either in pursuit of or escape from one another.  The disturbance of the peace at times resembles carp rolling in the shallows, their backs above water, another activity that will also take place here but at a slightly later time when the water is even warmer.

Finally, after a few weeks have gone by, on another sunny day when I am watching from shore, first one turtle, then two, swim from the estuary, large dark shadows just beneath the surface, heads the size of my shoe occasionally breaking the surface for air and a look-see.  Maybe these turtles are out to find food, but more than likely they are females dispersing to find a place on shore to lay their eggs, where they dig deep pockets in gravel or sand, preferably a "nest" that will benefit from the warmth of sunshine.  Often times, chosen locations are in the middle of graveled drives or roads, where the females (and I would presume their hatched offspring) may be in peril from the tires of passing vehicles.

How to observe this better!

We have a pretty fair pair of binoculars, and we often have them with us when we take our "nature" walk, but then we've had to share the one pair.  So, in advance of Father's Day (always helps to have an excuse) I ordered another, more powerful pair, easy to focus and waterproof.  There are several internet sites that recommend brands and types with user ratings specific to certain activities.    Although I didn't find binoculars specifically manufactured for the purpose of turtle peeping, I thought I would double-up with birding recommendations, and so the type and pair I selected, for $159, are really for birding.  They arrived one day after my order was placed, with free shipping!

From our kitchen table we can now see effortlessly across the harbor.   Watching bird and turtle activity will be much improved with this pair of field glasses.  I attached the neck strap (it also comes with a harness strap to keep them from swinging when running away from snakes or aggressive turtles.)   They are from a company based in Omaha, Nebraska, a state known for its sensible, down-home folks who are not usually known for kidding around.  (Think of Warren Buffett, financial tycoon with a dry sense of humor and stoic bridge player.)

Here are the unabbreviated Warnings listed on page one of the five-page pamphlet:
(reprinted here verbatim) 

   *  Viewing the sun can cause permanent eye damage.  Never look at the sun through your binoculars.
   *  Never use your binoculars while walking amongst obstacles (i.e., rocky fields, wooded areas,  
        children's playrooms).
   *   Inappropriate use due to a lack of common sense may result in product damage or personal injury.
   *   Objects in binoculars may be farther away than they appear.
   *   Not intended for human consumption.
   *   Running with scissors is dangerous.  Never run with scissors while using binoculars.

Perhaps the binocular company was concerned about persons with severe sight impairment using their product, mistaking the eye caps for Oreo cookies, etc., etc., or maybe this is just good Nebraska humor to test if we've read the fine print.   (We have!)

Positives for this product include:  they seem to work very well, and their magnification should provide many pleasurable hours of viewing turtle intimacy;  and, my new pair comes with an almost unheard of 25-year warranty.   If they perform as well as I think they will, I might suggest they consider Turtle Observation as a new marketing niche.

 -  Dick Purinton

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