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FIELD GUIDE

It’s time for turtles to leave their nests

Four hatchling snapping turtles in the author's baseball cap. The baby turtles were found in the Middlesex Fells Reservation in Stoneham.
Four hatchling snapping turtles in the author's baseball cap. The baby turtles were found in the Middlesex Fells Reservation in Stoneham.Don Lyman

While I was walking down a trail near a parking lot in the Middlesex Fells recently, I found a baby snapping turtle. Then I saw another and another and another — four hatchling turtles in all — each about the size of a quarter and covered in dry dirt from the subterranean nest from which they had crawled out.

I was surprised to see them there as the trail was on a dry, rocky hillside, not the flatter areas with softer soil where turtles typically dig their nests. The closest water was about half a mile away — an epic journey for these little snappers.

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Their odds of making it across a busy parking lot — much less to a faraway body of water — weren’t good. So I carefully collected the tiny turtles, placed them in my Red Sox cap, and carried them through the woods to a pond where I released them.

Although it varies by species, mid-August through September is generally peak turtle hatching time in Massachusetts, said Bryan Windmiller, director of conservation at Zoo New England. Windmiller works on conservation programs for several species of turtles in Massachusetts, including Blanding’s, wood, spotted, and snapping turtles.

Massachusetts has 10 native turtle species, and one invasive species: the red-eared slider. Windmiller said most turtles lay their eggs in May and June.

Some, like musk and spotted turtles, lay their eggs along the edges of wetlands, but others, including painted, snapping, and Blanding’s turtles, look for dry, open, sunny upland areas with sandy or loamy soil to dig their nests.

Fields, yards, and gardens are particularly attractive spots for turtle nests. Some turtles even like to nest next to sidewalks and pavement, probably because these artificial surfaces act as heat sinks that keep the eggs warmer and helps them to hatch faster, explained Windmiller.

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While most turtles tend to nest fairly close to the ponds or streams they live in, some — like Blanding’s and snapping turtles — will travel half a mile or more in search of the ideal nesting spot.

Windmiller hypothesizes that these long-distance nesters may be trying to avoid predators like skunks, foxes, and raccoons, which will dig up nests and eat the eggs if they find them. If turtle nests are clustered near each other close to the edge of a pond or stream, it’s probably easier for predators to locate them than if the nests are spread out over a larger area.

Once the little turtles hatch, they face a formidable gantlet of predators, including birds like blue jays, grackles, and herons, fish like bass and pickerel, as well as other animals, like bullfrogs and garter snakes. A wide variety of mammals also will eat baby turtles. Even chipmunks are big predators of hatchlings, Windmiller said.

“Hatchling turtles are small, bite size, and have soft shells,” said Windmiller. “So just about anything with a mouth will try to eat them.”

Ants are also a threat to baby turtles. Once they emerge from their eggs, some hatchlings stay underground for a while before they dig out of their nests, said Windmiller. Ants are attracted to yolk from the hatched eggs, and if the ants find the baby turtles, they may attack and kill them.

Interestingly, painted turtles regularly remain in their underground nests through the winter after they hatch, Michael Jones, state herpetologist for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, said in an e-mail. The hatchling painted turtles typically emerge from their nests the following April or May. Overwintering in the nest seems to be uncommon in other native turtles, Jones said.

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“After hatching in summer, but before emerging in the spring, painted turtles are nourished by the original contents of the yolk,” said Jones. “However, hatchling turtles of all species will begin feeding immediately upon emergence from the nest chamber.”

What hatchling turtles feed on varies by species, said Windmiller. Red-bellied turtle hatchlings are mainly herbivorous and feed on aquatic plants. Baby painted, Blanding’s, and snapping turtles are omnivorous and will eat a variety of food including aquatic insects, freshwater clams, and snails.

Hatchling snappers will even ambush small fish and tadpoles. Baby box turtles, which live on land, will eat wood slugs, mushrooms, and berries. Jones said several researchers have observed hatchling wood turtles feeding on small invertebrates on land.

“Other species probably start feeding when they reach water,” said Jones. “I have the sense that some of the initial feeding is opportunistic and a lower priority than finding cover and avoiding being eaten.”

The odds of hatchling turtles surviving are not good. For turtle species he’s studied, like Blanding’s turtles, Windmiller estimates only about 2 percent survive to adulthood.

If you come across turtle hatchlings, Windmiller said it’s OK to give them a lift to water, but be aware that some species, like box turtles, which live on land, may be looking for a different type of habitat. If you can safely move hatchling turtles off of roads or other areas where they might get run over or stepped on, that’s helpful, too. Moving hatchlings into areas with thick vegetation that they can hide in is probably the least harmful option, said Windmiller.

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Some people who find baby turtles may be tempted to keep them as pets, but it’s probably best to let them remain in the wild. Many species are protected by law, and taking hatchling turtles decreases wild turtle populations.

Plus, those cute little turtles grow quickly and can become difficult to care for when they’re adults, said Windmiller. If they survive, those tiny snapping turtle hatchlings I found could grow into formidable predators weighing 30 pounds or more.

Don Lyman is a biologist, freelance science journalist, and hospital pharmacist who lives north of Boston. Send your questions about nature and wildlife in the suburbs to donlymannature@gmail.com.

An adult snapping turtle photographed in Merrimack County, N.H.
An adult snapping turtle photographed in Merrimack County, N.H.Mike Jones / MassWildlife