As females search for land to lay their eggs, be on the lookout and do what you can to help reverse their population decline

It happened just last week. I was driving along, minding my own business, and happily enjoying the morning sunshine (which has been all too rare this spring) when there, right in front of my car, was a wild critter. 

Fortunately I swerved wide of her (or possibly him) and was starting to slow down when, there in front of me, was another similar critter. But I managed to miss it, too, and slowed to a stop on the Phelps Road shoulder. 

What were these two critters that caused me such distress? Turtles! Yes, they were turtles. Painted turtles, to be more precise. 

And I knew they were most likely females because of the season. You see, the females of this species leave their normal aquatic habitat every spring (usually May or June) to lay their eggs on dry land. Then it is back to their watery home for around 11 months or until it is time to make the egg-laying trip once again.

According to my trusty field guide, the painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) is probably the most widespread turtle in North America. They inhabit ponds and slow-moving fresh or slightly brackish waters, and can be found from southern Canada to virtually all of the U.S. as well as northern Mexico. There are four recognized subspecies: eastern, midland, southern, and western.

There are 11 species of “land” turtles native to New York, and the population of most of them is declining. Which brings up several questions. 

Why, if painted turtles are so aquatic most of their lives, are they classified as “land” turtles? The reason is that all of the species of turtles in this class spend various amounts of time out of the water, usually sunning themselves. Aquatic turtles, which include all of the marine species plus freshwater species such as the Eastern Spiny Softshell, are completely aquatic except for laying their eggs. 

Why are the populations of all of the land species of turtles in decline? Habitat loss and degradation are the most obvious reasons, but other causes include capture (often illegal or unpermitted taking) for the pet trade. And some species are hunted for food.

And there is the death toll of these critters on highways. Every May and/or June the females leave their water homes to seek out loamy soil in which they deposit their eggs. Some scientists agree that some females seek out the general area where they themselves hatched out of their momma’s eggs.

Regardless, if a female seeks out good soil for egg laying that happens to have a roadway in the way, she is in severe danger both going out and coming back to water. It is a well documented fact that thousands of turtles are killed every spring in that manner. The two females I spotted were lucky because I swerved, then stopped and picked up both of them and carried them to their aquatic destinations.

According to the DEC, “In New York, thousands of turtles are killed each year when they are struck by vehicles as they migrate to their nesting areas. It may take more than 10 years for a turtle to reach breeding age, and they lay just one small clutch of eggs each year, so the loss of a breeding female can have a significant effect on the local population.” And that, folks, is one major root of a very big problem.

So here is my pitch. If you see a turtle in the road, and if you can safely avoid it, please do so. If you can safely stop your vehicle off the road, and if traffic permits, move the turtle completely off the road in the direction it was headed in. And use extreme caution if the critter is a snapping turtle.

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Did you hear about the big fish that didn’t get away? Patrick Hildenbrand, of Germantown, Columbia County, caught an 8 lb. 4 oz. smallmouth bass while fishing in the St. Lawrence River on August 28 of last year during a fishing tournament in the Thousand Islands Region. 

Lots of witnesses and certified tournament scales made weighing that fish downright easy. And it was a good thing, too. You see, that fish ties the state record for a smallmouth bass caught from Lake Erie in 1995.

I have long known of the trophy fish living in the St. Lawrence River. A NYS Trooper, who was also a long-time member of that agency’s dive team, told me about some of the giant smallmouth bass, walleyes and muskies he personally observed in those waters. Giant hardly begins to describe the fish he told me about.

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One of the items on my personal bucket list is to take a low cost elk hunt to one of the western states such as Colorado, Montana or Idaho. So when I read about a hunter taking a really large bull on public land in Montana last fall I was both thrilled and amazed at the feat. 

It seems that Steve Felix, a Montana resident and an avid bowhunter, took a solo elk hunt during the archery season. On the third day of his trek he spotted a bull with a massive set of antlers. He carefully stalked the animal, finally getting within 50 yards for an almost broadside shot. His aim was good and the animal went down quickly.

So what did Mr. Felix end up with? The rack of antlers scored an incredible 430 inches. That puts it in fourth place in the all-time Boone and Crockett record book, which dates back to before 1900. It is the largest bull elk harvested anywhere since 1968, and the largest elk ever taken from the state of Montana.

The current B&C world record was taken with a rifle and scored 442-5/8. The second and third largest typical elk were taken before 1900. What about the Pope and Young (archery) records? Well, the now previous record for typical elk scores is 412-1/8 and was taken in 2005 from Arizona. Both B&C and P&Y use the same scoring methods.

Len Lisenbee is the Daily Messenger’s Outdoor Columnist. Contact him at lisenbee@frontiernet. net.