Wood Turtle at Bear Mountain
Samsung Galaxy S8
Nikkor 16-80 mm f2.8
Nikkor 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6
No posed pictures; entirely organic captures (except held box turtle)
Author’s note: This is a mix of a wildlife ecology/conservation/photography blog entry. It has been years since I blogged regularly—perhaps not since I was a visiting student in South Africa in 2013. This post is aspirational, in that I hope to write again a few times per year to annotate some exceptional New York moments. My hope is that the pictures still drive the narrative, but that the accompanying text helps to provide context.
Rustling in the leaf litter. This has been the summer of snakes for me so far, so I figured I would add another to the list—though it was hard to imagine topping the bizarre cadre of copperhead, water, and garter snake denning together at my parent’s house in Pennsylvania. Instead, as I paused and surveyed the landscape, wary of rattlers and copperheads, I spotted the carapace of a turtle!
It was immediately enthralling. As a kid, box turtles were quite common in our upland Pennsylvania deciduous woods; beyond park walks, they would traipse over our backyard in rural Berks County. I even have wispy memories of stepping outside a now long-gone sandbox to examine the turtles that the dog or my parents had discovered. Times have already changed, though. Next year will see me hit my own third decade, and in the last 20 years after my childhood box turtle populations have declined precipitously: habitat fragmentation and the international pet trade seemingly being a couple reasons.  So, on this occasion in 2019 in Bear Mountain State Park, a box turtle seemed an exciting enough prospect on its own. I still had not encountered one since becoming more serious about wildlife photography.
But as I studied the turtle a bit closer, my heart started to race. It became clear that it had neither the yellow-speckled, high-arching shell typical of a box turtle nor the iconic snapping turtle head. I tried to temper myself and coolly shoot off cell phone shots for ID—fortunately, my mom had just read an article in her local Reading newspaper about an especially threatened species: the wood turtle.
The wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) shares its genus only with its critically endangered cousin the bog turtle, and is one of two primarily terrestrial turtles in our area of eastern North America, the other being the previously mentioned box turtle. Endemic to North America, the turtle is listed as endangered and is a New York State species of special concern. Even though terrestrial, wood turtles are almost always found in locations near to streams and waterways with sandy riverbeds and abundant riparian vegetation. In boreal spring and summer, the turtle is found in woodland with open canopies, although they still enter water multiple times per week.
This habitat description totally fits the sighting; I was in the Hudson Valley on this sunny, unseasonably cool day in late summer. It was much by chance that I saw this rare specimen, perhaps only the second recorded sighting in this part of Bear Mountain State Park. Driving back to northern Manhattan island from visiting a friend on the Connecticut coast, I was going to do a longer hike, but opted instead to do a shorter walk over to the Trailside Zoo at Bear Mountain. (The zoo is a wonderful spot which specializes in native New York state wildlife that have been injured or otherwise need rehabilitation.) This particular stroll starts at Fort Montgomery and then crosses the Popolopen Creek over a suspension footbridge before winding around open deciduous woodland and the Popolopen outlet (into the Hudson River). Eventually, one reaches the Zoo at the iconic Bear Mountain Bridge oe’r the Hudson. However, on this afternoon, I did not even make it all the way there, encountering the turtle at a woodland location perhaps ~50 feet above sea level nearby the Popolopen outlet. The wood turtle was to be my companion for the next hour, as I tracked it on a miraculous journey.
When I saw the turtle, it was attempting to squeeze under a low-clearance branch on a vector perpendicular to the steepest elevation gradient. I approached daintily, still in this early stage of my encounter not totally sure of the ID or much about its ecology. For a while it stayed put, sizing me up—and I switched lenses to a telephoto 70-300 mm. (In hindsight, this may not have been the smartest decision, but I didn’t feel the scene befitted a wide-angle, and I still am saving for my next autofocus macro lens.) With me ducking in and out to try to get cell phone shots for ID, the turtle turned right around and headed in the opposite direction. This was alarming to me on a couple of different fronts. Firstly, and most selfishly, the turtle was headed to a place where essentially the photo chase would be over. There was no easy vantage point toward his direction of movement, and the vegetation was much thicker on the other side of a shallow ravine I would have had to circumnavigate. Second, I was concerned that my presence could have altered its route to wherever it was headed, and that this alternate route (seemingly downhill) was more treacherous—or worse yet, implausible, costing this potentially rare species crucial energy. It was at this moment that I thought, I must admit, due to both of these reasons that I might try to move the turtle back where it was originally headed. As I got closer and touched its shell, the wood turtle head re-emerged and it hissed vehemently at me. I thought, “fair enough,” and decided to let the turtle figure it out on its own, not knowing enough about their behavior to know the degree to which I was stressing it out. I backed way off, and this is where the encounter gets really magical—which perhaps has broader lessons for letting ‘nature’ be.
I was amazed next, that the turtle, at this point without prompting, actually did turn around and wandered back the way I had originally witnessed it heading. Now with my telephoto, my strategy was to be downslope of it, and as such, still be at eye-level to achieve more engaging shots. As it turned out, though, the light was so dim at 300mm that many of my images are quite grainy, given the high ISO needed to freeze the turtle when walking (thankfully noise-reduction software saved the day). As time wore on, the turtle seemed very used to my presence, especially when I held still, crouching, a good ways off. The turtle moved on a slalom route to and fro, moving down the hillslope, pausing multiple times for a ‘snack.’ I saw it stomp and unearth multiple worms to crunch with its bill to provide it with energy for its next journey—a behavior apparently unique to this species from my reading this week (see pictures of this behavior below).
Ever-descending—the turtle and me—I ended up in a wetland adjacent to the Popolopen outlet* into the Hudson River. My feet sank into the wet sandy gravel, and the turtle crawled along, making a course right for me. Very quickly my telephoto lens could not focus, and it passed right by my shoes continuing its journey. I snapped a few cell phone photos here, still amazed at my luck, and at this point finally sure of the ID. My heart both rose and sank, though, at the turtle’s next move. Now just one terrace above the water, it turned into a denser thicket bordering a steep gully filled with invasive weeds, tires, and plastic debris (ostensibly anthropogenic river flood deposits). Looking at the Bear Mountain bridge towering above, as well as this trash, one is reminded of the storied human influence on this region. From indigenous peoples’ harvest of the Hudson’s bounty to Revolutionary War games, the Hudson has long been a managed landscape. I daydreamt of being able to photograph the turtle in a way that showed the bridge in the background to juxtapose the long threat of human encroachment with the conservation potential for coexistence. But, I also feared that in the brush now, it would be lost to me.
I tracked the turtle for another 10 minutes as it wandered through the thicket, and much to my excitement, it seemed destined for the sand and gravel beach near the outlet. My fantasies of a wide-angle shot now suddenly entered the realm of the possible, and I frantically threw on my 16-80 mm zoom lens. The backdrop I had hoped for, including the bridge, proved elusive, but the other direction was also picturesque—if a bit complex. In the background were fallen-over tree (former sentinels of the riparian forest’s edge), moss-encrusted driftwood on the beach, basking Canada Geese, and Turkey Vultures riding cumulus clouds.
Much in line with my wildest dreams, the turtle emerged on the beach, and I finally had clear shots. First, there was the background of the thicket, with boulders and wood strewn about in the foreground. This was nice, but the shots didn’t capture the holistic nature of the scene—at best, only the emergence of the beach yet crucially not the grand finale.
The turtle continued underneath the largest of the fell trees, and one that actually posed a challenge for me to hop quickly over with my gear. Fortunately and quasi-safely (had to clean the camera a bit after all this), I ended up on the other side, about to see the culmination of this hour-long relationship. Pausing a few times, the wood turtle strode gallantly over the beach, approaching the water’s edge (and I snapped away). Lingering for 5-10 seconds, in which time felt like it stopped and spun around me, it then glided off into the water, poking its head up once more for me to try in vain to get the bridge in the background.
And a wider angle:
Standing there, I was transfixed, and suddenly became very emotional. For someone who came to wildlife photography from the land of wildlife observation (initially over the moon just to get ID shots of birds and other animals), this was as intimate a moment as I could reasonably ever expect to have here in the Hudson Valley. I had just spent over 60 exhilarating minutes with a species of global, national, and state concern, who faces an uncertain, but increasingly grim future (considering climate change’s impact on reptilian egg hatch rate). Along the way, it displayed many unique behavioral traits, strode over tough terrain I would have imagined impossible for a turtle of its build, afforded me exceptionally close views and pictures, and posed itself against a compelling backdrop. The turtle’s disappearance into the water was for me also very spiritual, and metaphorical. When will I next see this species? Will it go extinct in my lifetime? Without concerted change to collective economic decisions, almost certainly it will face extinction or extirpation from much of its range within a few hundred years. If you excuse my hyperbole, it was the end of a beautiful moment one is unsure one will ever resurrect, and I found myself overcome by that—like the elves leaving Middle Earth (I said you have to forgive me). And to be able to capture a moment that represented all of these feelings, the moments just before it entered the river, with all of its allegorical significance, was a dream come true, and one of the most moving natural experiences of my life.
The time-lapse nature of this photo study was my first spur to action to record this account. Moreover, I wanted to write this blog to provide context for my luck in bearing witness to this individual’s trek down to the waterway and the behavior of a species that unfortunately many of us will never get to see in the wild. My rather immodest hope is that it inspires you to be aware of the conservation challenge our local turtles represent. Accordingly, I will copy and paste some organizations doing good work on this front below, as well as tips for encountering turtles on roadways.
Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (PARC): this organization comes hand-picked from my NJ herp friend and colleague Neha Savant. Neha is a Land Science Specialist at The Nature Conservancy, and Co-Chair of the PARC Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Task Team. In her words, PARC is ‘a diverse network of people dedicated to amphibian and reptile conservation including state biologists, academics, consultants, NGOs, vets, and [others]. They put out some awesome products that help landowners manage their land to increase reptile and amphibian habitats. They also work on reducing animal trafficking and [additional endeavors].’
Check them out here:
The Turtle Rescue League, though based in southern New England, offers tips for encountering turtles on roadways. I quote at length here, with apologies to them:
“- First, determine if the turtle is injured, if so it may need to be taken to a VET, or to a wildlife center. [You will need local intel here, but usually if you google wildlife rehab and call the first one that comes up, they can provide information.]
- When picking up a small turtle, grasp it on either side of its shell behind the front legs. The turtle will still be able to kick at you, but many will choose to stay safely tucked in, during the short time you are moving them.
- Keep the turtle low to the ground when moving them. Even small turtles have surprising strength. If a turtle pushes free of your grip, you do not want it to fall and injure itself.
- If the turtle is large (with a long tail), it may be a snapping turtle, they can be a bit aggressive and you might not want to attempt picking it up, but you can still help it across the road.
- If you are helping a large snapper, simply push it from behind with a Blunt object, don't use anything sharp or pokey, you don't want to hurt the turtle. Although snappers can seem dangerous, they are just protecting the babies they are carrying, like any wild animal, you need to exercise caution.
- Make sure to put the turtle in the direction it was heading, NEVER TURN THEM AROUND! The turtle is on a mission, and if you turn it around, it will simply go back across the road when you drive away.
- Once you have the turtle across the road, you can sit and watch to make sure it is heading off and not turning back around.
- Although you may be tempted to relocate a turtle, don't. Many turtles have "Home Ranges", a territory they call home, and when relocated, they will search out ways back. Besides risking many additional road crossings, some turtles, if they cannot find their way back will stop eating and just wander listlessly.”
For more information and case-specific advice, check them out at:
*Presumably this waterway is still rather fresh, as it is a terrestrial stream source into the Hudson, but the Hudson itself is brackish much further north than one might imagine. Indeed, the “Hudson estuary” might be a more accurate depiction of the waterway’s biogeochemistry. In spring, the salt mixing front is typically near the Tappan Zee bridge at Nyack/Tarrytown, whereas dry spells and latest summer can push that zone north all the way to Poughkeepsie/Newburgh.
 In the northeast U.S., these are primarily our venomous snakes: timber rattlesnake and eastern copperhead.
 Ernst, Carl; Lovich, Jeffrey (2009). Turtles of the United States and Canada. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 250–262. ISBN 978-0-8018-9121-2