What Is That … Yellow Sign?

2
Waddells

Every time we travel to our cottage we pass a couple of yellow road signs with a stylized turtle and the words May-Sept/Mai-Sept.

For the longest time we assumed such signs simply marked where turtles have been noted to cross the road, as the signs are usually near low points of the road and adjacent to ponds or White Lake itself, and that this activity occurs from May to September.  We have learned though that these signs encompass a range of turtle-related activity which users of the road need to be aware of and to which special attention should be paid.

Due, we suppose, to the late start to summer this year we did not see any turtle-road activity until  the beginning of June although in past years we have observed snapping turtles along the side of the road in late May.  Upon close inspection you can see that the pictured female snapping turtle has excavated a hole, using her hind limbs in the granular materials at the side of the road and is laying eggs in the hole.  This year and last, we saw dozens of female snappers engaged in the activity. They then cover the eggs with the excavated material to protect them.  This egg-laying typically occurs around dawn over a two to three week period.

Within a couple of days of noticing snapping turtles starting to lay their eggs we begin to see signs of digging along the side of the road but in these cases the associated footprints are of foxes and raccoons.  It would appear these predators have sniffed out the turtle nests and excavated them to get at the fresh turtle eggs, as evidenced by the leathery turtle shells discarded around the nests. Fortunately for the snapping turtles not all of the nests are discovered and destroyed.

We often come across a snapping turtle in the process of crossing the road in early June, likely looking for a preferred nest site.  We have also observed Blandings turtles on the road at this time of year.  In the case of the snapping turtles, we have tried to nudge them from behind to encourage them to cross the road safely before any cars come along, but the snappers really do not seem to appreciate our kind offers of help; adult snapping turtles have a rather intimidating growl and snapping mouths. In the case of the smaller, and less-inclined-to-bite, Blandings turtles we simply pick them up by the sides of their shells and carry them to the shoulder of the road towards which they were headed when we  found them. We go to these efforts to help reduce the number of adult turtles being killed by cars while crossing the road since the snapping turtle is a species of special concern and the Blandings turtle is a threatened species.  The next picture is of a Blandings turtle.

Despite the warning of the yellow signs and what they imply, we seldom spot turtles on the road in July or August.  But in September, during our early morning walks, we again observe holes along the sides of the road.  In instances where the holes were just the size of a two dollar coin we always checked for recently hatched baby snapping turtles crossing the road.  The tiny babies are light-weight and do not resist our picking them up between our thumb and index finger. This past September we ‘helped’ nearly two dozen baby snappers to cross the road safely and in one instance came across seven babies at the same time. We have never before seen this mini-exodus.

We also encountered some larger holes in the autumn where predators, presumably having heard the recently hatched baby turtles digging their way out of their nests, decided to dine on the babies.  In these cases we would look around for any surviving baby turtles that were in the process of crossing the road and where we found one or two we ‘helped’ them too to complete their crossing safely.

The other and most common turtle we have around our cottage on White Lake is the painted turtle.  We frequently see them sunning themselves on logs in the lake but only rarely have we seen them crossing the road.  Notice the difference in the colouring of the neck when compared with the neck of the Blandings turtle.  Also, notice the slightly flatter dome of the painted turtle’s carapace.

So there is a lot more going on around and between these yellow signs than just an occasional turtle crossing the road.  Unfortunately turtles don’t seem to be very good at following road signs and can sometimes be found beyond the areas identified by these signs.  Accordingly, pedestrians, cyclists and motorists should be particularly attentive to what could be on the road when travelling in the vicinity of these yellow signs between the months of May and September.

Should you be interested in additional information about these turtle we would recommend Ross K MacCulloch’s ROM Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Ontario.