Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Kayaking for Turtles

Once again I'm stuck in my apartment in the frozen white north. It's early February and the over night low is 2 degrees Fahrenheit, with winds 25-30mph and a wind chill of -15 degrees Fahrenheit. The only way is make it through these harsh winters in Michigan is to think of what is to come in only a few short months. During the fall of 2010, I was able to spend a significant amount of time on a series of river systems in northern Michigan in hopes of documenting and photographing Wood Turtles in their natural habitat. One of the best ways to survey these areas is by canoe or kayak, it can be a great relaxing afternoon.

One of the best times of the year to kayak some of these rivers is in the fall, as many Wood Turtles that have wandered out into the woodlands over the course of the year begin to return to the rivers. The northern landscape also becomes a beautifully painted canvas as the the leaves begin to change colors. It can lead to some spectacular scenery along your route.

In mid September, I spent a day kayaking with Curtis Hart. Wet set into the river around 11:30 AM and were on our way. No more than one hundred yards into our trip, I spotted a Wood Turtle basking on a log jam. It quickly dropped into the water before I could manage any decent shots. Luckily, we spotted this duo basking together on a fallen tree a half hour or so later.

Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) & Northern Map Turtle (Graptemys geographica)

This pair let us get nice and close for some photos, so we spent a minute or two firing away with out telephotos and then bagged our cameras up and headed further downstream. One of the great things about kayaking for turtles is that a kayak sits very low in the water, and so it gives a nice low perspective at water level which helps make spotting turtles a lot easier.

One of the surprises on this afternoon was when we spotted two Blanding's Turtles along the river. Downstate, I'm accustomed to Blanding's Turtles being a denizen of marshy ponds, oxbows, woodland ponds, and other palustrine habitats. I've seen them pretty consistently along this river system, and it's just different seeing them in a riverine environment as opposed to their marshy retreats farther south in the lower peninsula.

Blanding's Turtle - Emydoidea blandingii

Along our way, we spotted many of the more common turtle species of northern rivers. In the open river, Nothern Map Turtles always seem to be the most numerous species and today was no different. We spotted upwards of fifty, sometimes they were even basking in groups of five or six on a single log. In some of the backwater areas, Painted Turtles were more common than in the open river. We took a bit of time to fire a few photos of them as well.

 Northern Map Turtles - Graptemys geographica

Midland Painted Turtles - Chrysemys picta marginata

As we continued our way downstream, we continued to spot several different turtle species and even saw a large Snapping Turtle basking.  As we rounded a corner in the river, Curtis called out that he had spotted a Wood Turtle, and sure enough up ahead was a large male basking on a boulder near the stream bank.

Wood Turtle - Glyptemys insculpta

We paddled onward and it wasn't more than five minutes later that Curtis spotted another Wood Turtle. This one was another large male that was basking on a fallen tree underneath some overhanging vegetation. We slowly approached and were able to set up along the bank no more than ten yards from him, he didn't budge and allowed us to get some fantastic in-situ photos of him basking on the tree.

Wood Turtle - Glyptemys insculpta

And then again, not more then twenty yards downstream, we spotted another Wood Turtle. This one was a healthy adult female that was just crawling out of the water onto log jam. I snapped some crappy photos from a distance before trying to pull up beside her.

As you can see from the above photo, when I pulled up besides the long jam and got my camera out, she made an exit. I only managed to get a shot of her as she was slipping back into the river. We ended up finding a total of seven Wood Turtles on the afternoon and enjoyed the nice, quiet trip down the river. I'm hoping spring comes fast so I can get out on the river again. Until then, keep warm!

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