The adventures of painted turtles in area ponds - East Idaho News
Living the Wild Life

The adventures of painted turtles in area ponds

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As I entered Market Lake Wildlife Management Area last Wednesday, I noticed six or seven black-billed magpies attacking something on the road near the windbreak parking area. When I got there, I found that they had caught a Western painted turtle crossing the road, and somehow, they had turned it onto its back. Its head, legs and tail had been tucked into its shell for protection. I could not see any damage to it, so I turned it over and moved back to my truck.

After several minutes, I saw its head come out of the shell followed by the legs and tail. Then it speed-walked to the edge of the canal and tumbled down the embankment to the water. I watched as it moved through the algae, made a mud bed and settled on the bottom of the canal.

Turtle 2 | Bill Schiess
After being helped to turn over, the turtle heads for the safety of water as fast as a turtle can move.| Courtesy Bill Schiess

I started to look around and found a “bale” of about 31 painted turtles on the south side of the canal with just their heads poking out of the water. On the north side, I noticed several single turtles sunning themselves on the mud banks. I pulled as close to the canal edge as I could to watch and photograph them, if they gave me a chance.

It only took about 10 minutes before they came to the top of the water, would swim around or work their way to the bank, climb out and start sunning in the bright sunlight. Several of them would swim or float near the surface and then dive back down, disappearing into the aquatic vegetation on the bottom, but mostly they wanted to get out into the sun to warm up.

Turtle 3 | Courtesy Bill Schiess
A large female turtle enjoys basking in the sun to warm its body temperature.| Courtesy Bill Schiess

These Western painted turtles are the only native turtle of Idaho and being “cold blooded” cannot generate body heat themselves, so they need an outside source of heat. The sun is their main source of heat; hence, they are the ultimate sunbathers out of necessity.

They are social and I watched as one by one, five gathered in a small area to sun themselves. These appeared to be mostly young ones while the larger ones remained in the water.

Turtles 5 | Courtesy Bill Schiess
A “bale” of turtles, gather together to enjoy the bright sun. These were possibly immature turtles as the male become mature in two or three years while females don’t mature until they are six years old. | Courtesy Bill Schiess

The painted turtles get their name from the red, yellow and green markings on their bottom shells (the plastron) while their upper shell (the carapacs) is a dark green with some being almost black. Their head, feet and tails are also colorful.

The genders look about the same except males are much smaller than the females, with the males growing to be about six inches long while the females are up to 10 inches in length. Their sex is determined by the temperature of the nest while they are developing in the eggs – the higher the temperature, the more likely that they will become females.

In Idaho, the breeding time is in late May and June. On Wednesday, I witnessed several large females being pursued by the smaller males. Their breeding takes place at the bottom of the shallow pond or slow-moving canals. Once the soft-shelled eggs are ready to be laid, the female will travel on land and will deposit from four to 20 eggs in a shallow nest. She will pick a south-facing bank up to 200 yards from water where the eggs can be warm enough to hatch.

Turtles 6 | Courtesy Bill Schiess
A very large female suns herself on a rock with five males wait for her to return to the water to pursue her. | Courtesy Bill Schiess

The female may lay up to five clutches of eggs each summer and each clutch may have several fathers. The eggs usually hatch in the fall with the young turtles staying in the nest cavity during the winter and emerging in the following spring. It is estimated that only one out of 100 eggs laid will produce a mature turtle. Fox, coyotes, mink, weasels, great-blue herons and other predatory birds dig up the nests or intercept the baby soft-shelled turtles after they hatch.

Just like many other species of wildlife in the spring, these turtles were interesting to watch and study. From the males chasing the females — in slow motion, of course — or the young three to four inchers trying to hitch a ride on an older turtle, viewing them in their natural habitat was entertaining.

If you will slow down and watch the habits of wildlife, you might even find out something about yourself – I did. Have a great week; it sounds like it will be a good week to get a sunburn!!!

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Once she returns to the water, a male flirts with her until she accepts him as a partner for a short time. | Courtesy Bill Schiess

Living the Wild Life is brought to you by The Healing Sanctuary.