The other day I was walking in the woods when I saw a large, dark shadow on the ground in the high, green grass. As it turned out, it wasn't a shadow. Instead, it was a snapping turtle about the size of an overinflated football.
It was not a common sight. Snappers usually lie quietly in mud at the bottom of streams, lakes, and rivers, keeping to themselves – although on hot, bright days sometimes they will slowly crawl out of the water and onto rocks to bask in the sun. If disturbed, they will raise themselves up on their long legs and scoot back into the water, returning to the muck below.
Snappers have a fearsome reputation. If irritated, they can lash out with their powerful jaws. In fact, they "snap" so aggressively that their entire bodies lurch forward. And although they move slowly on land, in the water they can rise up from the mud with tremendous bursts of speed as they go after fish, frogs, or even ducklings.
But the snapping turtle I was looking at seemed frozen in place, almost sleepy with its eyes half-closed. It was very squat and fat and looked a lot like Jabba the Hutt from "Star Wars." As I walked past it, the animal didn't even shift its eyes in my direction.
I didn't think much about my encounter with the snapper until, a few minutes later, I saw another one. It was even bigger than the first. But this one was in a precarious situation: Its lower shell (called the plastron) was resting on the steel rail of the train tracks, where it was teeter-tottering, its legs kicking out in midair.
Hmm. I had to do something because the poor animal was clearly stuck. As I reached out to take it by the middle of its shell, however, it craned its neck around and snapped. I immediately jumped back. Well, that wasn't going to work. So I tried grabbing it by the hind part of its shell, near its tail. The snapper scratched at me with its hind claws.
This was a real problem. I had to get that turtle off the track. Finally, I recalled something I had once read in a book: "The best way to pick up a snapping turtle is by its tail." And so I reached out, carefully grabbed the tail and moved the turtle off the track and into the nearby brush. It didn't like this at all, kicking and snapping as it moved, but my hand was well out of reach of those terrible jaws, and, in the end, both the turtle and I were safe. (I was later told that picking up a turtle by the tail was wrong, that I was supposed to pick it up by the back of the shell after all, if possible. But in this case, it worked.)
But now a question came to mind. I rarely saw snapping turtles out of the water. Why would I suddenly see two? My answer came a little farther down the path, when I saw yet another snapper.
This one was in a sandy area, perched over a hole she had dug with her powerful legs. And then, as I watched, she deposited several white eggs, covered the hole with sand, and then slowly ambled away.
Now I knew why all these snappers were out and about: It was their breeding season. It's hard to know where a female snapping turtle will lay her eggs. Usually it's along the bank of the water where they live, but I once read in a book that they may venture far from home to lay. One turtle even dug a pit in the middle of a dirt road and put her eggs there.
The common snapping turtle is found in all parts of the United States. Its breeding season will vary depending on when spring and summer arrive in a particular area.
The important thing is not to disturb a mother turtle when she is about her work of laying eggs. But she seems to have no objection to being quietly watched from a distance.
After the babies hatch, they head directly for the nearest water. Scientists have noted that even when hatchlings are turned in the opposite direction, they always redirect themselves – and flop off toward the water and its wonderful dark mud.
I often think of snappers when I am out on the river in my canoe. The river water is dark and deep and rolling. Once, several years ago, on a very hot and sunny July day, I spotted a giant snapper on a rock. It was as big as a bathroom sink.
As I drifted closer in my canoe, it turned its head toward me, hissed, and opened its jaws. The message: Don't come any closer.
I didn't, but I had the pleasure of watching the turtle scrape along the rock and splash into the river.
I never saw it again, but I expect that it is still down there, in the mud, minding its own business, which I am happy to let it do.