A snapping turtle at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth. Photo by Ariana van den Akker

For the second spring in a row, I have found a baby turtle in my yard. Why would they be hatching in late March or early April? I see turtles laying eggs in the yard, usually in June. They come from a small pond and brook-fed wet area behind my house. The Saco River is across the street, but not within sight and about a quarter-mile away. This guy, I believe a snapper, appeared to be headed in the direction of the river. Thanks for any explanation you have.

— F. Dumas, Saco

You know that feeling when it is cold and you don’t want to get out of bed? It is even worse (or better, depending on your perspective) when you are cold-blooded and can’t get out of bed. This may be how some newly hatched (or unhatched) turtles felt last fall. We typically think of turtles laying eggs in late spring and then those eggs hatch in the fall; at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth we’ve been tracking these dates for a while. Like clockwork, the local snapping turtle mom lays her eggs during the first week of June, and then we’re rounding up (or keeping cars away from) baby snappers in the second week of September. However, sometimes turtles, like the one Mr. Dumas is seeing, will wait until spring to emerge.

A snapping turtle hatchling. Photo by Ariana van den Akker

To survive the winter, any adult turtles – or young that have hatched in the fall – need to go underwater and into mud that won’t freeze, where they will brumate. Brumation is essentially the cold-blooded animal equivalent to hibernation. Their body temperature drops with the ambient temperature, and that lowers their metabolism which makes the long winter’s rest require very little energy and oxygen. As mentioned, some turtles will overwinter in their nests (where the eggs were originally laid) and then will emerge in the spring when the temperatures finally warm up enough for them to come out of their brumation. Some studies have shown that overwintering hatchlings have more body fat, and that they can form glucose in their blood to act as antifreeze. Some baby painted turtles can survive having more than 50% of their body’s water freeze, which is a nice adaptation to help make it through Maine’s winter.

This is a timely question to encourage readers to keep an eye out for turtles crossing the roads this spring as they are moving to find a home for the summer. Turtles are very slow moving, so crossing roads is especially dangerous, and unfortunately for the turtles, we’ve built a lot of roads in Maine. I’d strongly encourage readers to check out Maine Audubon’s recently completed Maine Turtle Roadkill Survey, a three-year, community-science project that had volunteers survey 200 routes across the state looking for signs of wildlife crossing. At least 1,120 instances of dead or alive animals trying to cross the roads were documented, with 286 of these being various turtle species, including several on the state threatened and endangered list.

This work will lead to better modeling for areas used by turtles, and help improve our work to connect habitats with proper road-stream crossings. Learn more at: maineaudubon.org/projects/road-watch/

A FEW TIPS FOR A NEW BIRDER

Hello, Doug. I would like to say how much I enjoy and look forward to your column every (other) Sunday. I’ve hung my first bird feeders in the tree outside my window and have had success with black oil sunflower seeds. I wondered if you had any recommendations for other bird seed and also for a good Maine bird book. Thanks.

— Matt Hogan, Portland

Great to hear you’ve got your first feeders up. We’ve been hearing from a lot of people who have gotten into birding and bird feeding over the past year and it is a nice reminder of how important having a connection to nature can be for our mental and physical health. Here are some tips on books and seeds for new birders in Maine:

Birds of Maine Field Guide by Stan Tekiela is a good option for beginners.

There is a great pocket-sized book called Birds of Maine Field Guide by Stan Tekiela that is the perfect first field guide for anyone. Tekiela is an excellent photographer and has put together these small guides to birds in at least 46 regions, plus dozens of others on mammals, reptiles, trees, etc. However, with that breadth comes a lack of depth, and the book is limited to only 119 species, organized by color. These are nice features for beginners – better to start with the 119 very common species than the confusion of 400-plus that can be seen in Maine. But if you spot that 120th at your feeder, you are out of luck. Organizing by color also sounds helpful, but it can be a misguided approach to identifying birds. It is better to look at size and shape, especially the bill, to figure out which family a bird is in and narrow it down to the species from there, rather than to look at all the yellow birds and try to identify a bird that way. I suspect many people outgrow Tekiela’s guide quickly, so also ordering a more complete field guide like The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America, or National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America, is a wise choice.

Thinking of bird feeding always reminds me of the proverb: variety is the spice of life. You can spice up your offerings by targeting certain species that you’d like to attract. Safflower is a large seed and good for species like northern cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and indigo bunting. Thistle, though pricey, is the best for finches and especially popular in winter when pine siskins and common redpolls are visiting. Hummingbird feeders are very specialized; putting out orange halves is a good way to attract orioles.

Speaking of spicing up your bird seed, think twice about some of the hot-pepper-laced squirrel-deterrent options that are out there. Birds don’t have capsaicin receptors so the heat doesn’t bother them, but squirrels do and will learn the hard way. While I know many people don’t care for squirrels, especially when they are eating their expensive bird seed, using negative reinforcement doesn’t seem like a good way to go about keeping squirrels away. Proper baffles and feeder placement will do the trick and you don’t have to harm any wildlife.

Have you got a nature question of your own? Email questions to [email protected] and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about virtual and backyard birding, online classes, and other programs about Maine wildlife and habitat.

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