Wildlife Lessons: Turtle Surprise



“Behold the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.”  ~James Bryant Conant



On a warm, late summer day, as the pond was fading to fall, I spied some movement that did not look like a frog….I thought what I saw in a flash just couldn’t be.  But then when I checked later, I saw this little head peeking out of the water….it is a turtle, I yelled as I ran into the house to tell my husband!



DSCN8650Oh my, what a wonderful new visitor to our pond.  But who was this handsome fella?  As I searched the Internet for eastern US turtles, there was no doubt this was a painted turtle (Chrysemys picta).  A very shy painted turtle I named Tommy.



These turtles are the most widespread native turtle in North America. They love slow-moving fresh waters with dense vegetation, so our pond was perfect for Tommy.  He was looking for a new home, and he seemed to find one here in our garden.



There are 4 different painted turtles, and I learned ours is most probably a midland painted turtle.  Midland painted turtles can be found from southern Ontario and Quebec, to the eastern states down to West Virginia, and over to the midwest states south to northwestern Alabama.  They are usually not found along the eastern seaboard where the eastern painted turtle reigns supreme.



adult turtleWe have never seen a turtle in our pond.  This large adult visited our front yard in 2011 as he made his way from the wild area pond to a pond or nest in the woods across the street.  Large turtles cannot get into our garden and pond area because of the fence.  But a smaller young turtle, like Tommy, could and did.



Painted turtles eat aquatic vegetation, algae, and small water creatures including insects and fish.  Our young turtle settled for vegetation and insects (we have no fish) in our pond as he hunted along the pond bottom and skimmed the surface too.



Painted turtles have many predators and are most vulnerable as eggs hunted by garter snakes, crows, chipmunks, gray squirrels, skunks, groundhogs, raccoons, and red fox.  The hatchlings are also easy prey for fish, bullfrogs, snapping turtles and snakes.



Of course the adults are more protected by their hard shells from many predators, but theyDSCN8190 can still fall prey to ospreys, crows, hawks, bald eagles, and raccoons.  Tommy is small and easy prey (he definitely hid a lot among the lily pads).  Painted turtles do defend themselves by kicking, scratching (look at those claws) and biting.  And they can right themselves when flipped upside down.



Painted turtles mate in spring and autumn. Females dig nests on land and lay eggs between late spring and mid-summer. Hatchlings do not leave the nest immediately. Instead it is thought in our area that they arrange themselves symmetrically in the nest (to keep warm) and overwinter to emerge the following spring.  And still with all their protection, hard freezes can kill many hatchlings.  Tommy was a lucky turtle.



During winter, the adult turtle hibernates, usually in the mud at the bottom of water like ponds. The painted turtle can survive extended periods of below freezing temperatures because their blood can stay cold, and their skin resists ice crystals in the ground.



DSCN8645The painted turtle is active only during warm days when it basks for hours on logs or rocks to regulate its temperature. We would see Tommy basking daily in the afternoon, on the pond edge amongst the dense vegetation.  Because it was late summer, the sun did not shine for long periods on the pond so the only warm time of day was afternoons.  It is interesting to note that at night, the turtle drops to the bottom of the body of water or perches on an underwater object and sleeps.



Our pond is constructed from a polyurethane liner, and we knew that it was too small to sustain a growing turtle. So Tommy would not be able to dig down far into the mud without digging through the liner which would empty the pond.  So we decided to move him to the wild wetlands down the road.  We trapped him in a live trap with shrimp and lettuce.  Then we found the perfect safe, secluded spot and released him.  He immediately went to the body of water there.  Lots of vegetation, cover and mud to make any turtle happy.  I was sad to see Tommy go, but we knew our pond was not the best home for him…..so good luck Tommy.  Thanks for visiting and bringing joy into our lives.  Live long and prosper!





Here are some interesting facts and folklore about Painted Turtles:

  • Four U.S.states (Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Vermont) have named the painted turtle their official reptile.  Ours, in NY, is the Snapping Turtle.
  • Adults in the wild can live for more than 55 years.  Good news I hope for Tommy.
  • Fossils of the painted turtle have been found showing they existed 15 million years ago.
  • Many Native American tribes regard the turtle as having strong feminine powers.
  • Algonquian tribes have tales that tell of the painted turtle playing the part of a trickster.



With this wildlife story, I am joining in the meme Wildlife Wednesday hosted by Tina@My Gardener Says that happens the first Wednesday of every month, and with Saturday’s Critters hosted by Eileen@Viewing nature with Eileen that happens every Saturday.  It is a great way to see what is happening in nature around the world every week.




I leave you with another thought about turtles.  Feel free to download the photo and share.

turtle pause

All original content is copyrighted and the sole property of Donna Donabella @ Living From Happiness, 2014-15.  Any reprints or use of content or photos is by permission only.

36 Replies to “Wildlife Lessons: Turtle Surprise”

  1. a charming tale Donna – so many great pics of Tommy before the evacuation, especially the coy shot where his eye match the yellowing lilypad. All creatures are led by their stomachs so assume he easily trapped?

  2. I do love a tale with a happy ending, and Tommy is obviously a wise turtle to have chosen your pond as his first stop in the quest to find new living quarters. What wonderful photos, good facts to know and such a tender story including your gentle relocation. Tommy’s need for a “real” pond is a good and gentle reminder that though our gardens may represent wild areas, both our proximity and the artifice of our arrangements mean our spaces are yet not quite the same as a truly wild setting. Great post!

  3. What a wonderful surprise visit! I used to keep a painted turtle as a pet as a little girl. I wish that I didn’t. I wish it free now. What a great compliment to your pond, too. It has all the right stuff except a muddy bottom. I wish Tommy well.

  4. I have to agree with TexasDeb–a happy, happy ending for Tommy! What a great story and how lucky you were to have Tommy visit for the summer. Perhaps another will show up next summer. I wonder, did you notice that your pond water was “dirtier” with the turtle this summer, as compared to other years. When we were researching our pond installation, one of the things we learned is that a smaller pond (which ours is) isn’t a good habitat because they tend to eat more and well, you know the rest.

    Thanks for participating in Wildlife Wednesday–great turtle tale!

    1. No we did not notice dirtier water Tina. We do have a filter and waterfall to keep it cleaner so perhaps that is why….I am glad we could find him better accommodations, and I would welcome more of them for the summer.

  5. Oh, Tommy!! What a perfectly wonderful visitor! Thank you, for all of the information…I love to learn more about the creatures we share this planet with! 🙂

  6. What a wonderful story. I love that you thought of his survival more than the pleasure his visits gave you (and would me). I hope that his family visits you. Often.

    1. Oh Soosie I didn’t even realize it, but it the first thing I think about…giving the critters who share our garden a safe, healthy spot to live…and if this is not a good home, to find them a better one….I hope more visit as well.

  7. You are such a good steward of your land, Donna, to care enough to provide habitat (and free moving services, with complimentary shrimp and lettuce salads). I’m glad you got to enjoy Tommy’s presence for the summer. And how nice to have slow-moving wildlife to photograph sometimes!

  8. Great story, Donna! It was so interesting reading about your Tommy Turtle! A great thing about gardens and ponds is observing the wildlife. Just an hour or so ago, I saw a young buck in the pasture behind our house. I don’t see the deer that often, although I know of their past presence from where they’ve eaten in the garden – no concerns about that now. 🙂

  9. Donna, I really enjoyed your turtle story from your first excitement to discovering his needs and to his relocation. This is a heart warming and lovely post.

  10. So enjoyable to find a new and welcome visitor in Tommy the Turtle. We put in a pond this year, and just got it finished before fall. We won’t have fish because I think that would just invite badness to visit out here in my rural garden. Love reading about your pond. I hope to learn more about ponds in coming years. I know very little. The pond was Bill’s baby.~~Dee

    1. So glad you enjoyed Tommy. We don’t have fish either for the same reason…plus it just isn’t natural for my wildlife garden. i should write more about our pond…you inspired me to do so Dee….plants, maintenance, etc.

  11. Oh he’s adorable, and I was reading this post wondering what his fate would be. I’m glad that there is a good spot for him to live out his days nearby. It’s kind of sad that he couldn’t live in your pond after all, the little guy is too cute for words.

    Maybe you never know…more visitors in the spring.


  12. I love turtles and enjoyed your painted-shell share, Donna…..got me to thinking
    about the turtle stories I’ve been told and some symbolism I enjoy.
    Always fancied myself turtling along and somehow arriving even tho’ I’m a slow go sometimes:)
    Thanks for being such a beautiful place in this worlds to stop and visit.
    Big grace to you,

  13. What a sweet story! I’m glad you found a good spot for Tommy to live long and prosper. I happened to swim near an Hawaiian sea turtle the other day. They’re a little bigger!

  14. Living for more than 55 years? Well, why not, I don’t know why we are so many times surprised that animals can live rather long lives… Thank you for presenting this visitor of yours, Donna, I’ve enjoyed the meeting. I think you did well when moving it to the bigger wild wetlands, it could have become trapped in your garden.

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