By Jeff Tome, Public Engagement Specialist
People have all kinds of rituals to celebrate life that I think animals would just find weird. There are weddings, where large groups come together to celebrate a couple getting together. Animals have more personal rituals, experienced only by the pair, sometimes for a moment, sometimes for a lifetime. People have wedding showers and baby showers and anniversary parties to celebrate that the wedding showers paid off and they are still together umpteen years later. Animals simply live, from one day to the next, from one season to the next. I don’t even know if they have a concept of years.
One of the joys of coming to Audubon is that you can celebrate some of those moments with the animals. I went for a short hike when I came to work last spring on one of those cool, misty mornings where the fog settles on your skin like dew on the grass. A Snapping Turtle was laying her eggs right beside the trail, calmly watching me as her eggs fell into the hole she dug.
Within a week, broken eggshells surrounded the area where the turtle laid her eggs. Raccoons and other predators dig up most turtle nests. A week after that, another turtle, or perhaps the same one, was laying eggs in the same spot. I never noticed the second nest dug up.
It was a week for Snapping Turtles laying eggs. Volunteers and staff watched a turtle lay eggs in the garden by the aviary that houses Cricket, the American Kestrel. Predators dug up those eggs and ate them too.
There is something incredibly disappointing about seeing the little, eaten eggs on the ground. There is a part of me that cheers on the turtle and celebrates the potential in the new life that she is laying. The litter of eggshells is a loss of all that potential, of decades of potential turtlehood, or at least a moving of the potential from turtles to raccoons.
Volunteers and staff who had watched some of the nests get eaten took action. One turtle laid her eggs in a small gravel pile by the maintenance building. People sprang into action and built a little cage around the nest to keep the eggs safe. When another turtle laid eggs in another garden, this time by Soren, the Red-tailed Hawk, volunteers built another box around the nest. No raccoons were going to get those babies!
Snapping Turtles don’t check their nests or care for their young, but people do. Staff and volunteers regularly looked at the nests, waiting for hatch day. Months went by, full of horrible heat, odd cold and rain that poured upon the ground. Nothing happened all summer. The boxes sat there, with their little signs telling people why they were there.
Last week, the nests started to come alive. People watched a baby Snapping Turtle crawl out of the nest in the gravel pile. Someone removed the box protecting the nest and staff and volunteers watched as baby turtles dug themselves out and lurched into the swamp near the nest. It was awe-inspiring — and I missed it. Later that day, everyone came up to me and raved about the sight of the baby turtles emerging. I checked repeatedly, but the moment had passed.
It was a moment for celebration. As people, we celebrate these moments of new lives emerging with joy and excitement. Mama turtle never showed up. Turtles trust that they hid their nest as best as possible and don’t draw attention to the potato chip sized babies by coming back to see how they are doing.
These are the kinds of magical moments that keep people coming back to hike at Audubon Community Nature Center. You never know what you may see. One day a turtle may lay eggs; months later, the eggs may hatch while you watch. Both events are precious things to be a part of. If turtles were people, there would be parties and celebrations on both occasions. Turtles, like most wildlife, simply live.
People made those hatchings possible, but they made the hatching harder on the nest I watched on that misty morning. That nest was dug next to the paved, more accessible, trail. Volunteers that didn’t know about that nest covered it over with cold patch later that summer. Last weekend, visitors watched baby turtles pushing their way through the asphalt that laid over their nest. Staff came to their rescue. It was time for another celebration of life overcoming the odds to survive. Again, mama turtle was absent.
There are so many things happening outside on any given day that there is no way that anyone can see everything that is going on. Every moment is full of drama: birth, death, near escapes, and more. It all happens mostly out of our awareness, but those moments when you see a turtle laying eggs or hatching? Those moments create memories that last a lifetime.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.