By Holly Glenn
Special to the Rappahannock News
Although rarely seen at other times of the year, many folks know that in the spring we tend to see turtles, especially on or dangerously near roadways.
In fact, in mid-April I saw the first roadside turtle of 2019, earlier than usual. This is probably due to the early, warm spring we are experiencing this year. I watch our roads like a hawk during “turtle time,” hyper-aware of the risk a turtle may wander into traffic. Given the number of killed or injured turtles I see each year, however, it may be worth raising awareness of these reptiles and how we can help them, especially this time of year.
In Rappahannock County, we commonly see both aquatic and land-based turtles. The aquatic turtles most commonly seen are snapping turtles. The land-based turtles are usually Eastern Box turtles, and sometimes Red-Eared Sliders.
At this time of year, female turtles are on the move to locate suitable sites for laying their eggs. As a result, they often approach and try to cross roads, putting them in great danger of being hit by vehicles. One of the saddest consequences of a female turtle being killed is the lasting effect it can have on the future population of turtles in our area.
Turtles are slow to reach reproductive maturity. A box turtle may be 10-15 years old before it is mature enough to reproduce. So the turtles you do see along the side of the road may have been alive longer than some young drivers!
When a mature female turtle is killed, her unlaid eggs are destroyed. Not only does this eliminate that breeding female from the population, but it also eliminates any offspring she would have produced in future years, and the generations of turtles they would have created. If it takes 10-15 years for a female turtle to reach reproductive age, it is clear that replacing her reproductive abilities will take a decade or more. Slow-to-reproduce animals, such as turtles, are at greater risk of population decline, as a result.
It is relatively easy to help these creatures. First, do no harm: the easiest way to help them is simply to be aware of the roadways and roadsides, and avoid driving over something that looks like a rock. This time of year, it is probably far more likely to be a turtle than a rock. Since turtles move slowly, it should be relatively easy to avoid hitting them entirely.
Second, intervene. For land-based turtles, it is fine to move them off the road to a safe location so that they can continue their journey. What is essential to understand is that turtles can become disoriented easily. As a result, experts say that if you are going to “rescue” a turtle from a risky road situation, you should move it off the road in the direction it was heading. It will not help the turtle to simply turn it around and point it away from the road. If the turtle has nearly finished crossing the road, you can pick it up and move it the rest of the way off the road.
Note that most of our turtles are land-based, and they should not be put into water (such as might be in a drainage ditch alongside the road). If the turtle has only started to cross the road, you must move it all the way across to the other side. I have been known to move turtles all the way to the far side of Route 211 where it is a divided highway (crossing the median strip with the turtle and taking it to the far side of the opposing traffic lanes). You may have seen me out there one year or another!
I also intervene when turtles are right along the right-hand yellow line, along the shoulder. If they are walking parallel with the yellow line (walking along the road, as it were), I will move them off to the right, away from the pavement, but still pointed in the direction they were heading. If they look like they intend to cross the road, I help them finish that journey.
It should be noted, however, that we also have snapping turtles, and they are on the move at this time of year, as well. Snapping turtles can be dangerous, however, as they have very long necks, a strong “beak” for biting, and they are assertive, to say the least. I do rescue snappers, but I do so very carefully, usually using a long-handled shovel to scoop them up and carry them to a safe spot, or by encouraging them into a box or bag. Last year, a reusable grocery bag that I had in the car came in handy for just such a rescue — along Rt. 29 in Gainesville, no less! However, unless you are well-equipped, it is best to simply avoid hitting a snapper, and to not attempt a rescue.
If you find an injured turtle, often they can be rehabilitated, even if their shells are damaged. Both the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center (BRWC) in Berryville and the Virginia Wildlife Center in Waynesboro will accept injured turtles. A few years ago, we found an injured turtle, took her to BRWC, and about 6 months later were contacted by them to ask us to return her, now fully healed, to the location where we found her. Due to their highly territorial nature, turtles need to be returned to their own stomping grounds. We learned that while she was at BRWC, she laid 5 eggs, all of which successfully hatched, and the baby turtles were released into the wild.
Of course, not everyone is as obsessed with turtles as I am, but it is easy to give these creatures a “brake” this time of year.