They wouldn’t kill a bug and they even feel bad when they see a leech out of water. So when they saw a mother laying eggs in a place that they didn’t feel was safe, you know they had to do something about it. Even if the mother is a big ugly one that, they acknowledge “could snap our fingers off in a second.”
Ellie Johandes, 14, spotted the alligator snapping turtle laying eggs at the side of the road near her home one morning while she was jogging on June 15. She rushed home and called her best friend, Olivia Martin, also age 14.
“We spend a lot of time in the summer catching turtles, so we were really excited,” Olivia said. She said the pair, along with Abby Johandes, age 12, are fast friends and like to rescue and catch turtles during their summer months. They often keep the turtles for a day or so before letting them go in a safe location.
This time they were aware that the turtle Ellie saw was not one that the girls should handle in any way. The mature alligator snapping turtle is a formidable specimen, and it is not recommended that non-professionals try to pick up or otherwise engage the creatures, which are known for a dangerous bite and fast attack.
This turtle had dug a hole just a foot away from the paved road at Bostwick Lake on Kent County property near a sewer lift station. The flat roadside patch is often used by neighbors who park cars there and the girls were worried about the eggs and hatchlings’ safety.
“Raccoons can get them, and when the baby turtles hatch out they may go to the swamp or may go toward the lake and cross the road,” said Olivia. Spending about an hour in hard work, the trio constructed a “turtle hatchery” consisting of wood stakes, chicken wire and a top of lanyard string. Their design should allow the small turtles to crawl out in any direction, but keep the nest safe from predators and automobiles. They printed out a sign, put it in a weatherproof holder explaining what the structure is.
Neighbor Mr. Frank across the street gave the girls permission to put their hatchery over the turtle nest on county property. He said he admires the young naturalists’ enthusiasm and care for all the world’s creatures.
All three girls hung around the nest the day of the laying and watched the turtle deposit a series of eggs into a shallow hole it dug with its strong back legs. They describe the eggs as round, creamy white and larger than marbles. They looked leathery. Keeping a respectful distance, they nonetheless had the attention of the turtle, which eyed them and kept a back leg over the eggs before covering the nest up and leaving back to a swamp.
The girls and Mr. Frank are planning to watch the nest until the little snappers hatch and make sure they don’t end up crushed under car wheels. Some research revealed they may have a ways to wait, as the eggs can take as many as 55 to 125 days to hatch—nine to eighteen weeks.
“We usually find a lot of baby turtles in the fall, so that makes sense,” one of the three commented. “They are very cute when they are small.”
Two of the three girls were in the same environmentally-themed Earth Keepers magnet at East Rockford Middle School where they participated in field trips designed to teach about the earth. One trip included an ice fishing event on Bostwick Lake, where the kids already spend a lot of their time. They also tested the waters of the Rogue River in downtown Rockford, inventorying insects, and snowshoed at Camp Roger. Both said the experience of Earth Keepers was a big deal for them and reinforced their love of nature.
The love of nature is a big component of the kids’ friendship. The three report often seeing turtles in the lake, and feel like they somewhat recognize some repeat sightings, such as a large soft shell that hangs out by their dock. They don’t mind coming in contact with the animals in or out of the water. “They are more scared of you than you are of them,” Abby said.
All three had stories of turtle rescues, either helping the animals out of the road (keep safety in mind if you plan to do this yourself), of treating and releasing injured turtles. They extend their love of the natural world to all creatures, and were excited during their interview with the Squire to point out a doe and spotted fawn in a field.
“I don’t even squish bugs,” said Ellie. Olivia agreed. “We have to protect the environment, there is a whole chain going on.” She said the three also pick up trash in the woods while exploring and can’t understand why people drop their garbage while out in nature. “It’s your environment, too. Why would you do that?”
Olivia said she advises people to get out doors and see nature for themselves. “You will appreciate nature more if you get to know it.” She said her dad takes her and her sister camping, and this helps them appreciate and learn about the creatures in the wild.
All three girls promised to keep Squire readers informed about the turtle nest and take pictures when the little snappers emerge. Mr. Frank said he would do his part, too, watching for the turtles and helping them get to water safely.
“I love the ambition these girls have. We don’t want anyone to disturb the eggs.”