Sunday, May 17, 2009

Snappers


Mid-May. I'm walking along the Path near the plank bridge over Queset Brook and nearly step on -- a snapping turtle hatchling! What is this little creature doing here? Snapping turtles lay their eggs in the spring, April to June, and the eggs take three or four months to hatch. So where did this wee scrapper come from, and what is it doing away from the water? It looks too small to have remained in the nest all winter -- not much bigger than my thumb, with its egg tooth.

If you are an early morning walker in late spring or early summer, in the eastern half of the United States, and if your path, like mine, takes you by sandy soil near a lake or pond, and if the God of Reptiles is awake and minding his business, then you are almost certain to come upon a snapping turtle laying eggs.

And what a sight! This lumbering behemoth from the Age of Dinosaurs, this carapaced, nightmare-ugly, Mesozoic monster, this -- uh oh, silence, be still, don't startle. She is in the midst of her preparations, spread-eagled on the sandy slope, tail to the pond, using her hind legs to excavate a deep, flask-shaped nest.

She's a good-sized snapper, maybe a foot from stem to stern, a thing of leather and chitin. She sees me. She casts a wary eye in my direction, but goes on about her business.

She has almost buried herself. I scramble down the pond bank to obtain a rear-end view. And now she lays. Plop. Plop. Plop. Plop. Twenty leathery white eggs, the size of plump grapes, eased into the hole.

A dinosaurian gum-ball machine disgorging her contents.

Plop. Plop. Twenty-one, twenty-two. Then the careful burial. The push and pat of the back feet. The swish of the tail, like a broom, disguising. A last suspicious glance at me. Then, the shuffle and slide back into the pond.