SNAPPING turtle. There's a name that aptly describes the mean temper and the frightful bite of the aggressive amphibian.
It's the turtle that lives by itself in the tank in our nature center, the one that the naturalists don't pull out to exhibit to curious visitors. It's the one that eats meat, unlike many of its its herbivore relatives. The one whose menacing, outstretched head has no need to retract in fear.
Snappers rarely leave their lairs in lakes and streams, fully knowing where the food supply is.
So it was very curious to see a large snapping turtle resting in our front yard on a recent morning. Languid in the grass, the turtle appeared unable to move and uninterested in the thick carpet of wild strawberries that dotted the turf, an irresistible treat for its Chelonian brethren.
Still, we approached the animal warily, concerned about a sudden, renewed vitality that could provoke a hostile response, or frighten the reptile that was clearly out of its primary habitat.
More than 18 inches from fleshy tail to hooked beak, the snapper was no small fry. None of us ventured to touch the terrapin's shell.
Snapping turtles are common, all too common in the view of many humans. There was even a bill in last year's legislature to catch more snappers by hook and line. They are the ugliest of creatures, and much like their ancestors that lived with the dinosaurs.
Since young ducklings, bird eggs and fish make up their diet, the snapper's reputation is even more negative among humans.
But that was not in our minds as we wondered about Myrtle the Turtle in our yard. (All turtles that my kids find are called Myrtle, regardless of species or gender.) There was still no movement, the creature as immobile as a rock.
We took a few snapshots of the visitor, the neighbor's children came over to see what was happening.
By evening, our amphibian guest had moved perhaps 25 feet but was as lethargic as ever. Touching its shell no longer seemed daring to the 6-year-old.
Was the animal sick?
But we knew this was not normal behavior for a snapping turtle. Was the animal sick, or disoriented, or seeking a final resting place?
When morning dawned, the turtle had moved another 20 feet into the garden by our front porch. It rested beneath the partial shade of the azalea bushes. It didn't move when we came close.
Then one child decided to call the nature center and ask for advice. The "ranger" on the phone had a surprising answer: The turtle was probably looking for a place to lay her eggs, away from the stream bank. Surely that task would be enough to exhaust any expectant mother.
Sure enough, the next morning she was gone. A circle of disturbed soil was there in the garden, obviously having been dug up and then pushed into a small mound.
We wouldn't dig up the mound to find out if it held a clutch of turtle eggs. The wonder, the expectation that our garden would blossom with turtles was sufficient to deter us.
That it was a snapping turtle made no difference. It was a firsthand experience with nature, an act of observation and eventual understanding that presumably enhanced the children's knowledge of the natural world.
"Sometimes it seems as if animals are gentically programmed to puzzle human beings," wrote physician-essayist Lewis Thomas.
RTC It was not the first set of eggs seen at our house this spring.
Nest in our garage
Earlier this spring, we watched as a Carolina wren built her nest on the shelf in our garage and laid her eggs. Five ellipsoids of dull white with brown spots in a nest of grasses that nearly stood on its side, cradled in an old box.
Daily we stood on the stool to peek into the nest, waiting until the wren was outside.
Four of the eggs soon hatched, yielding bare nestlings with demanding appetites and insistent chirps.
The garage door had to stay open most of time to allow for feeding. The dog was moved to another spot away from the shelving. The kids were more careful in approaching the brood, so as not to upset the mother.
Their wish was to see the fledglings fly out of the nest. But that did not happen. The young wrens flew away undetected by us, at once absent from the nest, never to return. An adult wren still sings in a nearby tree, but we aren't sure it is the one who made her home with us.
Inside the abandoned nest lay the fifth egg. Would it ever hatch, young minds asked. No, not all eggs hatch and not all hatchlings fly free. That is nature's answer.
It is not a simple or sentimental reply. Like the young birds that flew away when we weren't looking, like the snapping turtle that laid her eggs (or didn't lay eggs) in the cover of night.
Our appreciation of nature comes in small packages, in animals as cheery as the wren or as antagonistic as the snapping turtle. We learn from the contact, even if we usually reinvent the biological wheel.
But the great satisfaction is always the surprise that nature provides for the child in us, regardless of age.
Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.
Pub Date: 6/28/98