Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Horton meets Yertle

By David Horst

Horton meets Yertle.
Learn more about Blanding's turtles
Llamas are curious animals, and the way turtles are put together makes them quite a curiosity.

The two converged in our pasture a couple of weeks ago and it made for good comedy.

The sand hill where we built our home turned out to be on the path to the turtle maternity ward. Early each summer, mother turtles make their way from a wetlands, over a farm field, across a road, up an escarpment and past our house to a sandy field where they lay their eggs. It's a journey of about half a mile, though I don't know what that translates to in turtle miles.

Along the way is the llama pasture, and sometimes the turtles take a shortcut through there. They have continuation of their species on their minds, so they don't care that they're entering the home of animals that have about 300 pounds on them. Actually, it's the llamas that get alarmed.

On this particular morning, we saw the llamas all facing one direction, staring at something beyond the fence. It turned out to be a turtle, a good 10 inches long. It was intent on crossing the pasture, so it ducked under the fence and plodded along through the sand. Encountering a 3-foot-tall mound of, well, future garden fertilizer, the turtle chose not to divert around it. It crawled up to the top, looked around and headed on for the opposite fenceline.

This was all too much for 2-year-old Horton to take. Curious about this little armored vehicle, he edged up close, took a sniff and then gave the turtle wide berth.

We name our llamas for Dr. Seuss characters, as in "Horton Hears a Who." I guess that would make his new friend Yertle the Turtle. She wasn't as rare a thing as a storybook turtle, but she was a member of a threatened species called a Blanding's turtle. Its high-domed shell and yellow underside of its neck are the key identifiers.

The Blanding's is suffering from lost habitat because of development and the use of rock and rip-rap to stabilize beachfronts, according to Dick Nikolai, wildlife specialist with the state Department of Natural Resources. Its breeding areas get more concentrated and the predation of eggs by foxes, raccoons, skunks and other mammals gets more severe. The hatchlings also have to worry about birds and cars on their way back to the water. The Blanding's is relatively common around here, he said, but threatened statewide, a status just this side of endangered.

They live primarily in shallow marshes near lakes, but also along slow streams like our Black Otter Creek. You would think rain would be good for turtles, but Nikolai said this has been a tough year for them. Rising water levels have flooded nests and reduced nesting areas.

The turtle is surely a strange looking animal, but something about it moves some people to stop in traffic to help them across the road.

I was at a meeting recently that the Northeast Wisconsin Land Trust held on Stroebe Island in the Town of Menasha about plans for preservation of the marsh there. One thing drew applause from the Stroebe Island residents during that presentation. It was a promise to try to get "turtle crossing" signs put back up on Stroebe Island Road.

I guess most of us just relate better with the tortoise than with the hare.

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