Eastern box turtles are declining

For the last few decades, box turtle numbers have been declining. Althought they’re not endangered, their populations have been plummeting throughout their range and they can’t continue at this pace.

An Eastern box turtle may have just one to three surviving babies in their entire lifetime. Individual turtles have a small range, just a few acres in size, so if just a few are picked up and taken home as pets, the local population may not recover for several decades.

Box turtles don’t do well in captivity except with expert care, so bringing one home won’t likely go very well. Captive turtles succumb prematurely to infection and malnutrition-related disease, often within just a few months of captive life.

So, please, the next time you see a box turtle in the wild, leave it alone, other than to help it cross the road (in the direction it’s going). Keep our native wildlife safe!


Protected Travel Corridors are Important to Wildlife

On my walks around the farm, I often notice places where the ground is soft and spongy. The softness of the turf is caused by underground mole burrows running between the mole’s den and their hunting grounds. Most of the runway system is made up of shallow tunnels one to five inches below the ground surface. This maze provides protective cover and a travel corridor for not only the moles, but also other species such as voles, white-footed mice, and house mice that move through the runways, helping themselves to grains, seeds, and tubers along the way.

Other wildlife species living on our farm also have a relatively small range. Box turtles, for instance, generally live within an area of less than 200 meters in diameter as they move around to find a mate, lay their eggs, and find food. We came across this Eastern box turtle several times last summer within an area about half the size of a football field. I knew it was the same turtle by the pattern on the carapace as each one is different.
Easternbox turtle
Similarly, rabbits live out their lives on just a few acres, moving between shrubs, briars, and fencerows to avoid detection by predators. A fox, on the other hand, claims a territory of from one to five square miles, traveling through wooded areas and hedgerows that provide protective cover.

Larger mammals such as the Eastern coyote travel longer distances as they go about searching for food and finding a mate. The size of their home range depends on the food and cover resources available and the number of other coyotes in an area, but it generally averages between 8 and 12 square miles. Black bears, which are fairly common in the Blue Ridge, have even larger territories. Females have a home range of up to 50 square miles, while males who often roam large distances to find a female can have a home range of up to 290 square miles. Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Black bear cub. Photo by beautifulfreepictures.com

Black bear cub. Photo by beautifulfreepictures.com

I’m lucky to live in a state that is proactive in wildlife conservation. The Rockbridge Area Conservation Council, a non-profit organization, is developing a new conservation project seeking enhanced awareness of and protection for a critical wildlife corridor in western Virginia. The project will determine where corridors exist within the Buffalo Creek watershed that provide cover and forage for large mammals as they move between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountain ranges. These linkages will provide safe passage for them to move through the watershed and under Interstate 81.

Landowners within the boundaries of the corridor that volunteer to participate will be considered by the Virginia Outdoor Foundation for purchase or donation of a perpetual conservation easement. In return for a donated easement, landowners receive a tax deduction for some or all of the value of the easement, reduce their property taxes, and sell some or all of the tax credit for cash.

Protected wildlife corridors are important to the survival of our largest mammals, often forced to travel great distances in order to find food and survive in a human-dominated world. These natural linkages will help keep motorists and wildlife alike safe.

close encounters

Seems I don’t have to go far to find something interesting outside; all I have to do is go out the front door. This morning, Callie found this little beauty exploring the edge of the woodpile.

The pollinators have a wide choice of wildflowers in our yard. This bumble bee favors red clover.

An Eastern box turtle turned up in the front yard and the pattern on its carapace looked very similar to the female Bill and I saw a couple of weeks earlier in our front field. If it was indeed the same one, she had traveled roughly the length of a football field.

Sometimes wildlife turns up just outside our door. It was time for dinner. We hadn’t fired up the grill in a while and we were planning to cook out. But when Bill opened up the grill…oh, my! Two mice had built a cozy nest inside (the nest was at the very front of the grill). I don’t know who was more surprised – Bill or the mice!

We gave them a reprieve and cooked our hamburgers on the stove that night, but the grandchildren will be coming for a visit soon and we’re looking forward to a cookout. So the next morning, we removed the nest. The two little meeces jumped from the grill to the porch floor and scampered away. They were very cute, but not cute enough to live in our grill all summer!

our daily amble

Nearly every morning, my husband and I head out with the dogs for a walk somewhere on the farm. We look for new birds to add to our Farm Bird List, a new insect or wildflower in bloom, or anything else that captures our attention.

A couple mornings ago we were excited to see a pair of cedar waxwings gobbling down wild blackberries. This was our first sighting of this species on the farm. Waxwings frequent the edges of wooded areas, especially those that provide access to berry sources. They are attracted to the sound of running water, and love to bathe in and drink from shallow creeks. We have the winning combination of woodland edges, berry-producing trees and shrubs, and a small creek. I didn’t have my camera with me (dang it!) so I didn’t get a picture, but chalk up another bird for our farm bird list!

Callie is always nose to the ground, and I noticed her sniffing something in the grass – if there’s any little critter hiding in the brush, Callie will find it.

I walked over and, sure enough, she had discovered an Eastern box turtle hunkered down in the grass. In general, male box turtles have very orange or red eyes and a slightly concave plastron, while females have brown or light orange eyes and a plastron that is almost completely flat, so this one appears to be a female.

Meanwhile, Autumn was more interested in what was going on over by our neighbor’s barn. There’s a cat we see from time to time hunting in the fields, so possibly it was the cat that had garnered her attention. Normally, she’d be up for a good feline chase, but this time, she decided to pass on the opportunity.

From there, we walked the lower portion of the front field where it was quite a bit wetter and couldn’t believe how tall the grass had grown. (That’s Bill almost waist-high in the grass!)

Patches of grass were flattened in a couple of places where deer had been spending the night. They browse the woods and fields during the day and bed down at night in the tall grass. Despite the popularity of deer hunting, we’re seeing lots of deer and lots of hoof prints at the creek bed and in places where it’s muddy.

Like everywhere else, nature is in constant flux here on our farm and we never fail to see something new no matter how many times we check out the same places. John Muir was right when he said, “To see something new in nature, take the same path you took yesterday.”

eastern box turtle

I went on a walk yesterday with two of my grandsons in a patch of woods near a small creek – perfect habitat for turtles! We were admiring the wildflowers when we noticed a turtle half-hidden under leaf litter. I gently lifted the turtle from the leaves so the boys could get a close look at this handsome Eastern box turtle. He tucked his head and legs inside his shell, but after a few minutes, he relaxed and let me snap his picture.

Eastern box turtle. Photo by Jo Ann Abell

Box turtles remain in the same two- to three-acre area as long as they have food, water, and other turtles to mate with. In winter, they hibernate under leaf litter or grass clumps. Populations are declining due to the use of pesticides, loss of habitat, and people removing them from the wild for pets (where they often suffer malnutrition and death).

We found this little guy about 5 o’clock in the evening. The temps are going down into the low 40s tonight, so he is probably digging in under the leaves to stay warm. We put him back where we found him so he could burrow in for the night.

Cool Fact: Box turtles reach sexual maturity at 5-7 years and have been known to live 100 years!