Wild Ideas: Here comes another one just like the other one?   

Between rains, which most reptiles avoid, I’ve had two sightings of box turtles this year where I live — one as I was driving down the driveway, the other in the yard next to my house. While I couldn’t stop to check out the one in the driveway, I did take a good look at the one in the yard and wondered if I’d seen it before.

The turtle was digging for food under the sod, judging by the disturbed earth beneath its rear end and the dirt on its beak. Turtles have a varied diet, and it could have been going after the earthworms or grubs that are plentiful there.

I hated to disturb the turtle but wanted to check its gender, so I carefully lifted it up, looked at the plastron (bottom shell) without turning it over, since that can be very disconcerting for turtles. The plastron was concave, which indicated the turtle was a male. The depression is to accommodate the male’s mounting the female during mating. Both the plastron and the carapace (top shell) of a box turtle are made from fused bones.

This turtle was shy even before I picked it up, barely sticking his out his nose when I tried to photograph him. I decided to sit down and wait until he came out, but the brief lull in the rain that got me outside ended, and I headed inside.

Virginia’s native box turtle, which I’ve always loved and, as a kid, kept as a pet, was officially known as the eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina) then. But the recent advent of DNA testing led to its being reclassified in 2012 as a subspecies, Terrapene carolina carolina, by a committee of scientific organizations led by the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles. The turtle’s common name is now woodland box turtle.

I’ve been living in my current house, near Sperryville, for seven years, and I’ve seen box turtles every year, often wondering if I’m seeing the same individuals from year to year. But I’d never actively tried to tell them apart, as reflected in the photos I’ve taken of them, which are often from just one side or the front.

This woodland box turtle that showed up in Pam Owen’s yard appears to be the same one she photographed mating seven years ago. By Pam Ow

It was only after I’d photographed this turtle that I thought of comparing all the photos to see if I could sort out the individuals in them. In 2011, I had taken a shot of two box turtles mating on a hill, with the ambitious male having fallen over onto his back and the female looking oblivious to his situation. After taking the photos, I left the pair alone but checked on them every few minutes, knowing that a turtle on its back will die if it can’t right itself, but it wasn’t long until both had disappeared.

The color and pattern of markings of individual box turtles can vary in bold and subtle ways. The carapace is usually brown, sometimes black, with markings ranging from olive to yellow or orange. The plastron is often brown with a few faded markings but can be brightly colored as well. The body and head usually has some combination of the colors on the shells.

The markings on the one side of the carapace tend to be mirrored on the other side. Although I’d shot most of the turtles from only one side most years, and sometimes from the front, the patterns on the two turtles I’d photographed mating seemed to match photos from other years.

The mating male looks like the one I photographed this year, and shots of lone turtles I’d taken in 2014 and last year. It’s generally hard to tell plastrons apart, since most have distinctive markings, but his face looked similar in all the photos.

The markings on his mate’s top shell as well as her face were clear in the photos and seemed to match a female I had photographed last year trying to lay eggs in my driveway. Wanting to discourage her from mating in such an unsafe location, I photographed her for a while, which apparently was enough of a disturbance to get her to move on. Later, my landlady said she spotted a turtle laying eggs near her house, which is nearby, so probably the same turtle.

I found two other turtles among those I’d photographed only once: one young male in 2012 and one mature male with a striking yellow head in 2014. After photographing them, I never saw them again. Strangely, I’ve yet to find any baby box turtles here. But while adults are usually safe in their shells, babies and eggs can be gobbled up by skunks, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, opossums, chipmunks, snakes, crows, owls and many other predators.

Woodland box turtles stick close to where they hatched out, ranging over about three to 11 acres, with a population density of up to four individuals per acre. And some can live longer than 100 years. This bodes well for my seeing most of those I’ve photographed again, if they have survived. Next time I do see any box turtles, I’ll try photograph them from more angles and to add to my woodland box turtle photo gallery seen below.


© 2018 Pam Owen

Nature events nearby

Morningside Farm and Nursery Annual Plant Swap (Saturday, June 16, 2-6): The National Wildlife Federation has designated the month of June as National Pollinator Month, and the Pollinator Partnership has designated June 18-24 as National Pollinator Week. The best way to support pollinators is to plant native plants that that hose them, and the plant swap offers a good opportunity to do that. According to the Morningside’s’s website, “bring something from your garden to swap with everyone else. . . . The prettier and more unusual the better, but bring what you love.” All of the nursery’s plants are also 25 percent off that day. At 7855 Griffinsburg Rd, Boston; for more information contact the nursery at 540-547-3726 or morningsidefarmandnursery@gmail.com.

Clifton Institute events:

Both event listed below are at the Clifton Institute, 6712 Blantyre Road, Warrenton. For more information, contact executive director Bert Harris at 540-341-3651 or bharris@cliftoninstitute.org or go to cliftoninstitute.org/events. 

Breeding Bird Song Workshop (Saturday, June 16, 7-10): Harris, who is also an ornithologist, teaches tips and techniques for identifying bird species by their songs and calls, starting with a brief discussion and then taking the group out on a walk around the lovely, diverse habitat of the institute’s grounds to practice identifying birds in the wild.

Butterfly ID Workshop (June 23, 9-12): Entomologist Nate Erwin, former manager of the O. Orkin Insect Zoo and Butterfly Pavilion at the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of Natural History, will teach attendees about butterfly biology and identification and help them practice their new skills in the field. Attendees are encouraged to bring cameras and binoculars. Guests may bring a brown bag lunch to enjoy on the grounds after the program.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 338 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”