Snapping Turtle Hatchling by Todd Henson

The first look down on the little Snapping Turtle hatchling.

Snapping Turtles in Virginia dig a nest and lay their eggs in the May to June time frame. Hatchlings emerge from these nests in late August. This year my father and I were very fortunate to stumble upon a lone hatchling at a local park.

We were on our way out of the park, walking along a paved section of trail when we both saw something small on the pavement. It looked like a tiny turtle. I started leaning forward and questioned if it was real. I’d been fooled in the past by little toy animals left on the trail. But this ones eyes occasionally blinked, so we quickly realized it wasn’t a toy.

I only had my wide angle zoom lens (16-35 mm) with me so I bent down very close to the turtle to create a photo from above. Then I got down on my hands and knees to get closer to the turtle’s perspective, which was difficult considering how small it was. At first I placed the lens right in front of the hatchling. All this time it just sat there, only blinking. But after I set the lens in its face it began quickly moving forward, right towards me and the camera. Maybe it saw itself in the lens? Maybe it was just the movement or close proximity that spurred it on.

Good morning, little hatchling. As I lay down in front of the Snapping Turtle it began moving quickly towards me.

I moved beside it then and began creating some profile shots. It was a fairly cloudless day, so the sun was creating strong shadows, as you can see in the first couple photographs. I asked my father to try standing in front of the sun, casting a little shade on the hatchling. This helped eliminate the extreme contrast of sun and shadow, as can be seen in the next couple photos. And who knows, perhaps it also gave this tiny turtle a little respite from the blazing sun.

A profile look at the baby Snapping Turtle as it quickly moved along the pavement. We shaded it from the sun for a bit.

We encountered the Snapping Turtle on pavement, but it was very close to the edge of the wetlands. So my father and I stayed with the turtle, letting it move on its own, but walking beside it until it left the pavement and moved past a small fence line closer to the water. There were a number of folks walking the trail, some with pets, some jogging, others with baby strollers. We didn’t want anyone to inadvertently crush the baby turtle. Hatchlings odds of survival are fairly low, but hopefully we increased its chances just a bit that day.

I created my favorite photograph of the Snapping Turtle hatchling after it left the pavement and rested in a more natural environment.

After escorting the hatchling off the trail we started looking around for other hatchlings. We didn’t see any, but very close by we did find the remains of one or more nests with scattered egg fragments. It appeared at least one of these nests had been dug up by something, perhaps a fox, coyote, or raccoon. There was an interesting smell right at the nest site, but I’ve no clue if that was turtle, predator, or something else entirely.

A look at a Snapping Turtle nest with shell fragments scattered around. It appears something may have dug up the nest.

Another look at the Snapping Turtle nest area, where a hole has been dug in the upper right, likely by a predator. Egg shell fragments are scattered about in front of the hole.

The nests were located in a very small stretch of land between the pavement (newly laid) and a black fabric fence to separate the construction area from the woods beyond. A thin layer of straw had been laid on the ground to encourage grass to grow. The nests appear to have hatched after this. I’m curious when the nests were dug, whether construction had yet begun or had it already completed?

A wider view of what might be multiple Snapping Turtle nests. You can see holes and shells at the bottom, around the middle, and again near the top.

This photo shows the interesting location of the Snapping Turtle nests. The paved trails is on the left. On the right is a fabric construction tarp separating the trail construction area from the woods beyond. Straw has been laid on the ground to encourage grass to grow. The nests in this photo extend from the middle towards the upper right of the image.

Finding this little Snapping Turtle hatchling brought back memories of growing up in Massachusetts near a river where each year we’d find lots of baby turtles crossing the road between the housing area and the hill leading down to the river. I very much enjoyed getting to see this sight again, even if it was just a single hatchling. Who knows, perhaps we’ll see more next year. I’ll certainly keep my eyes open for them.

To learn more about Snapping Turtles, especially in Virginia, head over to the Virginia Herpetological Society. They have lots of great info on all sorts of reptiles and amphibians in Virginia.

Photography Prints by Todd Henson

Look Up: Mud Daubers by Todd Henson

A mud dauber working on her nest.

In a previous post we took a look at one of the creatures you may find nesting on the ceiling of those open shelters you’ll find in many parks, namely paper wasps. Today we’ll look at another species of wasp you may see in these locations: mud daubers.

Whereas paper wasps build nests of a paper-like material they create from plant fibers, mud daubers use mud. There are many different species of mud dauber and each builds a different style nest. I believe the mud dauber in these photos is a black and yellow mud dauber. Unlike paper wasps, these mud daubers are solitary creatures, they don’t build colonies. That’s why you only see a single wasp around this nest.

Mud daubers are solitary parasitic wasps.

After she finishes building the nest, which contains a number of hidden cells, the wasp will begin capturing spiders and paralyze them with her sting. She’ll put several of these paralyzed creatures in each cell within the nest and then lay an egg in the cell. When she’s finished she seals the nest and leaves her eggs behind. The eggs are then on their own, hatching into larvae, which spin a cocoon and enter the pupal stage before finally emerging as adult mud daubers.

After completing her nest the mud dauber will leave her eggs to develop on their own.

Mud daubers tend to be less aggressive than many wasps, but it’s still safer not to antagonize them. Give them space and be happy to observe from a safe distance.

Look Up: Paper Wasps by Todd Henson

Paper wasps are very busy creatures.

After hiking for a couple hours through a park it’s often nice to stop and take break, resting in one of the open wooden shelters found in many parks. When you do, if you look up, you just might see one or more paper wasp nests. Perhaps you’ll even see a nest currently occupied with busy wasps going about raising their next generation.

A paper wasp nest in a corner of the ceiling.

A closer look at paper wasps on their nest.

Another paper wasp nest in the same shelter.

If you look closely at some of the photos (click on them for a larger view) you may see young larvae in the open cells. The queen lays eggs in open cells, which mature into larvae. These larvae will eventually spin a cocoon in the cell, also visible in some of the photos. They will enter the pupal stage in the cocoon, after which they’ll emerge as adult wasps. It’s a fascinating life cycle.

A paper wasp nest with several workers.

Notice the larvae in the open cells. Those in the closed cells have entered the pupal stage.

Be careful if you do find active nests. Though I’ve never had any problems with wasps, they can be very protective of their nests, attacking if they feel threatened. Best to leave them be, and maybe not stand quite as tall as you normally would if the shelter has a low ceiling. Sometimes I’ll just sit in a corner and watch (and photograph) the wasps as they go about their day. Very interesting and social creatures.

A small paper wasp nest, perhaps not as old as the others. All of these nests will be abandoned after their one and only use.

Next time you rest in an open shelter, look up. What do you see?