A Rarity Revealed

This summer while out kayaking, and I won’t say where, I noticed a turtle ahead of me on a log. The 100-400mm lens is usually on the camera when I’m paddling these days and so I was ready. When I looked in the viewfinder I was a little surprised. It didn’t look like the usual turtles I see on the water – painted and snapping primarily. This turtle looked different. I had beached the kayak on some sand and got the binoculars so I could see a little closer. Hm. Kind orangey-yellow. Bumpy carapace. Square face. A Blandings? Nah. The shell is wrong. Blanding’s shells are smoother and they are lighter yellow. A map turtle? Nope. Not that either. The face and shell are both wrong. Map turtles are so named because their yellow stripes are reminiscent of topographical markings on maps.

It took me a while at home to ID this gorgeous creature –

It’s a Wood Turtle. Aren’t they prehistoric looking? Check out that head! Those scaly legs.

My first time ever seeing one much less photographing one. Lucky me!

Also lucky is that it was very patient and just kept eyeballing me like this instead of slipping back into the water. My fall kayak technique around turtles is very stealthy and slow. The air and water temperatures are lower than in high summer and I feel bad when I spook them off their sunning spots.

The DNR has this to say about them –

Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta), a Threatened Species in Wisconsin, prefers rivers and streams with adjacent riparian wetlands and upland deciduous forests. This species often forages in open wet meadows or in shrub-carr habitats dominated by speckled alder. They overwinter in streams and rivers in deep holes or undercut banks where there is enough water flow to prevent freezing. This semi-terrestrial species typically remains within 300m (984 ft) of rivers and streams. This species becomes active in spring as soon as the ice is gone and air temperatures reach around 50 deg. F, which can occur as early as mid-March. They may remain active into late October but have been seen breeding under the ice. Wood turtles can breed at any time of year, but breeding primarily occurs during the spring or fall. Nesting usually begins in late May in southern WI and early June in northern WI and continues through June. This species nests in open or semi-open canopy areas containing gravel or sandy soils, typically within 61m (200 ft) of the water. Hatching occurs in 55-75 days (mid-July through mid-September) depending on air temperatures. This species does not overwinter in nests, unlike some other Wisconsin turtle species.


Although they are classed as Threatened in Wisconsin, things have improved since the 1970s when they were considered Endangered. At least here. Their status throughout their range which is basically northeast North America breaks down like this –

Status RankState/Province
S4 – Apparently SecureMaine, Maryland
S3S4 – Vulnerable/Apparently SecurePennsylvania
S3 – VulnerableConnecticut, Massachusetts, New Brunswick, New
Hampshire, New York, Nova Scotia, Vermont, West
Virginia, Wisconsin
S2S3 – Imperiled/VulnerableMichigan
S2 – ImperiledMinnesota, New Jersey, Ontario, Québec, Rhode
Island, Virginia
S1 – Critically ImperiledIowa, Ohio*
SH – Possibly ExtirpatedDistrict of Columbia

Table 1. Wood turtle subnational conservation status ranks (NatureServe 2015).

*Uncertainty remains as to whether the few documented wood turtle specimens from northeastern Ohio represent a native population. Existing populations have yet to be recorded in Ohio.

Of course habitat destruction is a big problem, run off from farms and other agricultural activities and of course being hit by cars. Mostly it’s the females seeking nesting sites that get killed this way. Come on, people, help a turtle out! I’ve also heard they are targets for poaching to be sold as pets. Eeek. This is especially dangerous for the populations they are taken from.

In further reading I learned that if only two breeding adults out of 100 are removed from a home territory per year, the entire local population will go extinct in 76 years. Removing three speeds up the extinction to only 50 years. This is because of the threats I mentioned, but also natural predation and that even though they live long (recaptured turtles have been documented at 48 and 58 years old), they also take a long time to mature (14-18 years!). Like humans in that way. So don’t get a turtle as a pet, ok? Thanks.

I wish I had more pictures, but this is all I got. I did see one other wood turtle on my outing, but it was in the shade and I only paddled by and admired it. The DNR has a turtle sighting report form and I’ve submitted this exciting encounter. Maybe when I visit this place again I will get to see more. I’ll certainly make a point to look out for them!

7 thoughts on “A Rarity Revealed

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  1. Very cool capture of an uncommon turtle and with a great reflection, too. You’re brave to take a 400mm lens in your kayak. I can’t handle bigger than 200 myself. Good photography. Best, Babsje

    1. Thanks much. I shoot micro four-thirds, so my 100-400 isn’t as big as a horse’s leg so it’s not that big of a deal. I love the extra reach and it was made by Panasonic in partnership with Leica so it’s a tremendous piece of glass. I’m glad I had it for this shot!

  2. That’s exciting that you saw one and got a photo. I recognized it right away. They are a vulnerable species here in NH and I haven’t seen one for ages. I have a shell from one that I found in the woods years ago. It was from a 13-year old — so it may have been lost before it ever got to breed. This fact sheet says they can live between 46 and 100 years, and that a female might travel up to 800 feet to find a proper nesting site. https://www.mass.gov/files/documents/2016/08/tm/glyptemys-insculpta.pdf

    1. Thanks, Pat. I was over the moon to be in its presence and with the long lens and decent light. I’ll keep my eye out for them again. They certainly do seem to live a long time, which I think complicates their status given the threats against them. They seem to have tiny territories though which probably makes monitoring them easier.

  3. Pingback: Rarity Redux –

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