A visit from pre-history

It wasn’t long after we bought our house that Kevin was sitting down by the pond, gazing into the middle distance and enjoying the proximity to the water. Our pondfront is very private, and lends itself to reverie. 

Suddenly, a head popped up, not fifteen feet from the shore. And then another. Two snorkelers came out of nowhere.

“Hallo!” one of them said in a heavy German accent. Kevin smiled and waved.

“We are observing snapping turtles,” he went on. “You have much better snapping turtles here than we have in Germany. Yours are much bigger.”

Kevin wished them luck, and they went on their way.

This was our first clue that we had a healthy, robust snapping turtle population. Since then, we’ve seen a number of them.

The ones we see in the pond are generally small, and we usually see only their noses sticking up out of the water. Once or twice, though, we’ve found big ones on land.

Yesterday, our friend Allison found one. She came all the way from Brooklyn to stay with us for a couple of days, and she spotted the creature as she was driving down our driveway. After she greeted us with her characteristic affection and enthusiasm, she said, “Did you see the turtle?”

We hadn’t seen it, and we went up to take a look.

If you believe the herpetologists, snapping turtles haven’t changed much in the last 215 million years. They pre-date the dinosaurs, and have survived every natural and man-made catastrophe that ever was. When you get a close look at one of them, that’s easy to believe.

They have a scaly, impenetrable look. Everything is hard and pointy, and you can see why they never needed the speed that most other species require to escape their predators. Short of the nutcracker from hell, nothing could get through the shell and the skin to get at the meat.

Except humans, of course. Snapping turtles are reputed to make a mean soup, and those of you who follow this space and understand the assiduity with which I pursue every possible source of food may be wondering why I didn’t catch the thing and dispatch it for dinner.

And I don’t have a good answer. Maybe it’s because reptiles, intact, are singularly unappetizing. Maybe it’s because this turtle might be older than I am, and it’s hard to kill something so venerable. Maybe it’s because I wouldn’t know where to begin. I just couldn’t do it.

Besides, we thought this might be the same turtle we saw up by our upper garden last year. Maybe this particular individual makes an annual pilgrimage through our property. That Kevin’s theory, at any rate.

“Maybe we should mark it so we’ll know if we see it again,” he said.

I nodded noncommittally. So did Allison. Then I took her over to the turkey pen to show her how big Drumstick had gotten. We spent a few minutes admiring him, and then went back to the turtle, who hadn’t moved.

He had, however, acquired a mark. A huge OSHA-orange spot on his back. We’d used the color to paint our lobster buoys, and Kevin thought it would be the right thing to use to make our turtle easily identifiable.

Allison and I looked at it, not quite knowing what to say.

“Do snapping turtles have any natural predators?” I asked, worried that a bright orange splotch would make the turtle easy to spot.

“Nah!” said Kevin, with a wave of his hand. “He’ll be fine.”

“Do you think you might have gone with something a little more understated,” Allison asked, tentatively.

“That turtle goes in the water, and burrows through the underbrush, and digs in the muck. We need something that we’ll still be able to see in the spring.” Kevin was adamant.

Okay, then. Check back in the spring.

13 people are having a conversation about “A visit from pre-history

  1. Possibly, just possibly, TWO orange spots that would have mimicked eyes would have been more helpful to the turtle- your turtle.

    However, snapping turtles really don’t need help, except in getting across the street intact. I saw my share of split turtles when I lived in Florida.

    There was a snapping turtle that lived in the ravine adjacent to the folks across the street there. I never saw him, but my neighbor used to bring him chicken parts just because he liked to watch the turtle snap it into pieces.

    Can’t say that I blame you for not wanting to try them for the reasons you mention. I just hope you realize that you’d change your mind in an instant if you were truly hungry. And turtle IS supposed to make a swell soup- so swell that in the upper crust side of my family, it was saved for New Year’s Eve dinner. When things didn’t go so well anymore, that was changed to oyster stew….good thing I can’t even stay up that late anymore- I don’t know what I’m missing.

  2. I’m tempted to try turtle until I remember that I’ve heard their hearts continue to beat for hours and hours after they’ve been removed from the rest of the turtle. And the meat will supposedly twitch and hop on a grill. Yikes! They must have some serious life energy. I think I’ll stick with fowl.

  3. Snapping turtles may be slow, but they are agile. I’ve seen one very large snapper throw his bulk into the air and reverse direction. Best not to get small body parts and/or children near them – they can move rapidly if threatened or harassed. Very vulnerable on the road, snappers are ofttimes deliberately run over, resulting in cracked shells and internal injury, and dooming the turtle to a slow and painful death. Best left alone by all to lead their solitary lives . . .

  4. Well, your turtle t is a nice sized one. Here in the south, they are sometimes called ‘cooters’ or a single beast is a ‘cooter’. Cooter pie is generally baked in the pie pan (shell) provided by the cooter. The soup is awesomely good (I’ve eaten gallons of it.), but the best way i know of to fix up turtle meat is ‘chicken fried’. Run the pieces of turtle meat through a buttermilk bath, coat with seasoned flour (don’t forget the seasoned salt), and apply to a hot skillet of bacon grease. Cook until golden brown and tender. Drain on paper towels. Then plate and cover with milk gravy. Sides that go well include green beans, okra, boiled cabbage, squash, baked beans, cole slaw, lettuce wedge with vinagrette, biscuits, ‘smack yo’ Mama (crackling) cornbread, corn flaps, hush puppies, and very cold beer. The meat is white, very firm, but not tough unless under/over cooked, and has a mild ‘fishy’ flavor. If you like bluefish or striper, you’d probably like turtle.

  5. martha in mobile says:

    We have a healthy population of box turtles in our neighborhood. Several of them know to come to our back door for a handout of dog food and fruit. Often in the morning as I go out to feed the chickens, I will have to stop and put out several plates of food. They have distinct markings and even personalities (at least in the degree to which they are timid). They come back each May after hibernation is over. It’s an honor to feed and observe them, though I wish they wouldn’t crap on the patio.

  6. I would not eat box turtles. I like them. I do not know of anyone who has eaten box turtles. They are neat animals to observe, though.

  7. Does your varmintcam ever catch turtles, or are they too slow to trigger the camera?

    I hear OSHA orange is the new black, so your turtle is fashion forward if nothing else.

  8. Paula — You’re damn right I’d change my mind if I were hungry. I might even change my mind even if I’m NOT hungry. It would be in the spirit of the thing. Still, it just looks so damn tough.

    Cindy — I did not know that, and I’m glad you gave me the heads-up so I’ll know what to expect if I change my mind. Eerie, eh?

    Margaret — Kevin warned me about the turtle’s agility, and told me not to get too close. It’s hard to imagine the thing moving quickly, but that many missing fingers can’t be wrong.

    Greg — I certainly do like bluefish and striper, and I have to say that “cooter” sounds more appetizing than “turtle.” And anything served with “smack yo Mama cornbread” has to be worth eating. I love that laundry list of sides!

    M in M — I’m going to venture to suggest that, if you don’t want turtles to crap on the patio, maybe you should reconsider feeding them out the back door. But can you really tell the individuals apart to discern behavior patterns? (If you have any trouble, Kevin still has some of that OSHA orange left …)

    Jen — I haven’t seen any turtles on the Varmintcam, but I suspect it’s because I just never had it pointed in the right direction. And I’m delighted to hear that OSHA orange is fashion forward! It makes me feel much better about my hunting attire.

    6512 — That’s what I thought!

    • martha in mobile says:

      Tamar — oh, yes! They are all different sizes with different patterns on their shells, different shades of brown, some have lighter spots on their faces. Some are more aggressive towards each other, some are not intimidated by the dog or us, some move very fast. They have names based on their shells: Three Ridge, Sunset, Crackle, Labyrinth, Pointillist, Bear Paw…

  9. Hi Tamar,

    If you do decide to make turtle soup, just for fun, check out the original Escoffier recipe. I’ll only say it starts out with a double butcher’s hook and a “heavy weight” and continues from there to pure mayhem.

    It’s not the recipe I’d use…

    That said, turtle soup is delish and I still mourn the demise of Joseph’s on Newbury Street in Boston where I regularly ate the best turtle soup I’ve ever had.

  10. Next time I see you remind me to tell you the story of the giant snapper that swam by as one afternoon at hathaways pond..and the ensuing conversation I had with Charlie the dog office/ animal control guy about turtle hunting season and turtle soup..it’s right up your “Barnstable is wacky” creek..

    Nice photo btw

  11. I remember my great-grandfather used to butcher turtles and eat them. I never had the guts to try it as a child. I have gorey (but morbidly fanscinating) memories of his basement during turtle season. Just keep you fingers away from ol’ Orange Spot.

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