Saving Turtles: Protecting The Nests

A nesting snapping turtle via marshall.edu

Saving turtles came to me as an adult duty because as a child I collected them. From age 8 to 15, I was three seasons of the year in the woods and swamps of Sayville. My nickname was “turtle.” I had at one time 50 turtles. There were twelve aquariums. Many were caught in and around Meadowcroft. I have been trying to live down the guilt of that up to this very day. Don’t catch and keep wild animals, kids. This was my childhood — in Nature, and helping to ruin it.

There was one tiny pond near Lotus Lake where those snapping turtle hatchlings lucky enough not to be eaten seemed to end up every year, dozens of them in a murky, mucky bathtub-sized pond hidden just off from the lake shore. There were often predated nests, inevitably raccoons. This is why turtles lay a lot of eggs. In the long lifespan of a turtle, a few of its hatchlings will reach adulthood. Every turtle that you found was a little miracle.

Saving A Monster Turtle

Meadowcroft (aka The Roosevelt Estate) was that forbidden place where Nature could be found in some primordial state. When I was 14, I helped save the life of the largest snapping turtle I have ever seen. A friend discovered it laying on its back, seemingly lifeless. Someone had dragged it ashore and stabbed at it. The New York State record for snapping turtles at the time was 86 lbs. This had to be bigger.

We flipped this river monster over with an aluminum crabbing net, bending the pole into an “L.” With that, the monster began to stir. I tried to hold him on land, but his long sharp talons and powerful legs had him immediately break free. We watched him then swim away. I wished him another hundred years.

As boys, we’d hear stories of how the lawn used to be covered with nests of all kinds — painted, spotted, box, and of course snapping turtles. In my explorations, I saw all these turtles in the swamp and in the river. The caretaker would shoot rock salt, so you had to be careful. The mud was also extremely dangerous. One time I was suddenly up to my shoulders, with only a thin reed and an even thinner friend to pull me out. I got my share of ticks and leeches too along the way.

Saving Turtles — An Adult Obligation

I soon came to see that with all my turtle catching as a boy, I was part of the problem, part of the cause of the decline. My environmental work subsequently is in a large extent an effort to pay penance for this. I published a short story in college in 1980 where the decimation of the Diamondback Terrapin in Sayville on The Great South Bay figures prominently.

When I Co-Founded and became Executive Director of Save The Great South Bay, we had Terrapin Crossing signs put up along along Ocean Bay Parkway and among the salt marsh islands. I became a member of the Diamondback Terrapin Working Group out of Seatuck, and got to know the work of John Turner, who championed use of terrapin excluders in crab traps, and Prof. Russell Burke, who runs The Jamaica Bay Terrapin Study out of Hofstra University. In 2015, I also became a Board Member of CRESLI, or The Coastal Research Society of Long island, which studies marine mammals as well as sea turtles.

At The Long Island Conservancy, we are dedicated to habitat restoration for our local animals, and that emphatically includes turtles. Our Co-Founder, Frank Piccininni, has an advanced degree in herpetology.

Several months back, we approached Suffolk County to ask if we could put together a habitat restoration plan for Meadowcroft, which is today a county park. Working from the original planting plans, we would seek to restore the grounds as much as possible while removing the invasive plants that are now sadly rampant.

Saving Turtles at Meadowcroft

It was in that capacity that we met with officials at Meadowcroft to go over our planting options Monday August 15th late morning. It was there we were informed that the raccoons had gotten to all six nests on the lawn. On our previous several meetings, we noted the six nests, often with trepidation. In the bad old days, when the estate was all but abandoned, kids would do donuts at night on the lawn.

But then there were the raccoons. A band of raccoons had in fact a month previous devoured six hens across the river not 1500 feet away at a friend’s house. They got into the coop one night and that was it.

I had just lost a nest of rabbits to the crows the previous month as well. Nature is cruel, but fortunately rabbits are prolific. Four are in my yard now. Like most baby rabbits, most baby turtles become lunch.

It was nonetheless gut-wrenching seeing the scattered shells and carcasses, a tell tale sign of raccoon predation, something I have seen for over 50 years now.

A Lawn Mower Didn’t Dig This. Hatching Turtles Didn’t Dig This. This Is How Raccoons Dig Out a Nest
This is what a nest predated by a raccoon looks like

We decided then and there that from here on in, The Long Island Conservancy would work with Meadowcroft and Suffolk County Parks to identify nesting sites, then protect and watch over them, bringing them to the water upon hatching. For this we will need local volunteers so that when they hatch we can move them quickly.

Saving Turtles — Restoring The Food Web

These days, the hatchlings in all probability will only be snappers. The food that sustained the painted turtles and the spotted turtles — crustaceans and water insects — are largely gone. Snappers, which scavenge dead fish and water fowl, will always be the last to go. They are best suited to survive in these degraded habitats.

The Long Island Conservancy’s larger mission here is to restore enough native habitat that it improves water quality enough that we can restore a food web that could support the fish, insects, reptiles and amphibians that used to teem here.

Saving Turtles — A Slanderous Accusation Gets Amplified

Viewing all those dead turtles and ripped up shells would make anyone upset. I felt physically ill. The staff at Meadowcroft was devastated. What happened subsequently somehow made matters worse. A self-styled animal rights group also discovered the carcasses that morning.

They immediately blamed Suffolk County’s Parks Department for “slaughtering” the turtles with their mower. So did the mower dig up all six holes? Did the nests improbably hatch all at once? Why wasn’t there baby turtle puree all over the lawn? Did a county worker start hitting turtles with his mower in broad daylight, and remaining oblivious, proceed to mow down 100? If it happened to be disclosed that the last scheduled mowing was Wednesday and this happened the following Saturday night, would you postulate that some sort of time machine was involved? Or that it was humans, moving the goal post?

The “story” was picked up by all the local papers and TV outlets. I was out of town at the time, so this is what I came home to. There have been calls for mass firings of the municipal county workers at the parks department. An investigation was launched. It was proposed that the whole lawn be roped off during nesting season to keep the mowers off. Presumably, the raccoons will be free to tight rope and jump rope and limbo all they want going to and from the nests.

These public claims that park employees murdered these turtles are false and libelous. Sadly, we are seeing these kind of baseless attacks on people just trying to do their job more and more.

It may be wishful thinking, but let’s see if we can definitively put this matter to rest. Please forward this post to anyone with an advanced degree in biology for their opinion — Raccoons or Lawn mowers? Maybe mole people. We are trying to keep an open mind.

Lawn Mowers Generally Avoid Cast Iron Manhole Covers

It is estimated that as many as 80 to 90 percent of all turtle nests are destroyed by predators, weather conditions and accidental disturbances. Most of the damage is done by predators – skunks, raccoons, foxes, crows, among others. Most nests are discovered by smell, and most are raided at night.”

Naturally Curious With Mary Holland”

Please, the next time something comes up, ask a scientist. Remember when everyone was terrified of The Breach? Science held fast, and the hysterics and the politicians who chose to listen to them lost. Put experts around you. We have all been wrong, and it’s no fun. We must all learn to respond before we react. The claim that these turtles were murdered is unfounded and therefore slanderous.

Finally, if you find a turtle nest in Nassau or in Suffolk, Contact Us. We will work to make sure that nest is watched over.

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