THROUGH THE WOODS: Snapping turtle

NEAR OLD POND IN CHATHAM, right in the middle of a dirt road, was a magnificent common snapping turtle, Chelydra serpentina serpentina. At first it appeared injured and just lay there sort of sprawled out. Apparently it was just sunning itself and did not want to move. Out came the camera and the curious turtle was very cooperative and posed in several positions. Eventually a car came along and the turtle decided this was not a good place to be. It rose up on its claw covered toes and with surprising speed moved off the road and disappeared into the grassy ditch.

Snapping turtle. Photo by Nancy Jane kern

This brought back memories of my first encounter with a “snapper” during an afternoon of bullhead fishing with maternal grandfather, “Gramp.” He often took me fishing and spent many hours teaching all of us kids the proper ways of doing it. This day was going well and we had lots of fish for supper. All of a sudden the worm-baited hook and the fishing line bobber slowly went down and line was pulled deep and away. The hook was set with a flip of the rod, and the fight was on. This was some strong and huge fish. Normally we were lucky if we got a fish larger than a pound in weight.

Eventually it was pulled up on shore and to our surprise there was a big turtle, not a fish. Previous experience had been with smaller, harmless painted turtles so this one caused no alarm. Walking up to it was a big mistake, as a foot-long neck shot out of the shell and a piece was bitten out of my little black boot. A jump backward saved a worse fate.

Gramp picked the turtle up by the line and put it in the back of the pickup truck and we took it home. Uncle had been fishing at Queechy Lake and returned home at the same time with a batch of yellow perch. He knew what the turtle was and somehow worked the hook out of the turtle’s mouth with a long piece of wood. The turtle was left in the truck bed. Uncle cleaned his perch and wanted to show me the features and behavior of the turtle so he took a perch skin and held it out some distance from the turtle’s head. The neck shot out again and the turtle snapped the skin right out of his hand, narrowly missing his fingers. It ate some more and was eventually released near one of our farm ponds.

What an experience that taught great respect for this powerful reptile. This turtle can easily amputate a human finger with its beak and powerful jaws. Canada geese are always watching for them. In addition to eating fish, worms, frogs, and small mammals, the snapping turtle will pull birds under water and eat them too. A pair of geese will herd their goslings between them through the water and will put their heads down in the water to ensure safe passage.

Unless you have had special training, these turtles should be left alone and observed from a distance. A feisty small hatchling managed to nip a finger, and adults can even reach back over their shell and snap if held by the tail. They are fast and powerful. They can live 40 to 50 years or more, and weigh 50 pounds.

The DEC has studied them for contaminants like PCBs because of their diet and long life to accumulate them. You can get quite close to females while they are digging nest holes to lay their leathery shelled eggs. It is possible to sit quietly nearby and watch the whole process. Days later the eggs may have been dug up by raccoons or other animals and eaten. These intriguing, dinosaur-like reptiles inspired a birthday gift to a great-nephew of a Peterson “Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians” by Roger Conant. It was received with enthusiasm, and at age nine it was time for him to learn how to avoid getting a hole in his boot while fishing.

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