Whether it’s a clearing in the Maine woods or on a homeowner’s lawn, it’s all the same to a female turtle when it comes to ideal nesting locations.
There are seven species of turtles in the state and they are all looking for the same thing when it’s time to lay their eggs — an open spot with sandy soil or gravel. That can make it either a welcome sign of living with nature of a destructive nuisance on your property, depending on your love of turtles and tolerance for disruption.
“If you live anywhere near any kind of freshwater or wetlands there is a chance you could have a nest on your property,” said Derek Yorks, wildlife biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife reptile, amphibian and invertebrate group. “That’s a lot of spots where people live in Maine.”
Turtles are creatures of habit, according to Yorks, and will return year after year to nest and lay eggs in the same location. They will travel up to 1,000 feet from their home base to nest. Some of those nests are so small, you may not even see them. But there are signs they are there, especially nests of the state’s two most common species: snapping turtles and painted turtles.
“They are looking for open ground with exposed soil, sand or gravel or any disturbed area,” Yorks said. “A garden people maintain will look appealing and they love to come in where there is a project like building or landscaping.”
helping out maine’s wildlife
The most obvious sign of nesting turtle activity are the turtles themselves.
“You might see the turtles when they are crossing the roads or crossing your lawn,” Yorks said. “They typically start nesting at the end of May into June and it lasts until around the Fourth of July.”
A female freshwater turtle nests by using her back legs to dig holes into which she deposits her eggs. She then covers the eggs with dirt and heads back to the stream, pond or marsh she calls home. If you don’t see the actual turtles, you will see evidence they have been there.
A series of small holes are an indication of nesting painted turtles.
“You will see little holes in addition to the nest chamber,” Yorks said. “They will dig test pits looking for a good spot and if they find the ground is too compacted or there is a rock they don’t like they will move on.”
Painted turtles have shells that are 4-7 inches long and are small compared with the larger snapping turtles that can be up to 14 inches long.
“Snapping turtles are more obvious,” Yorks said. “They dig craters a foot or two in diameter [and] they are powerful diggers and these are substantial holes that can annoy people.”
The incubation period of turtle eggs is between 70 and 90 days. Baby turtles, called hatchlings, start to emerge from the nest in late August and early September.
Yorks encourages property owners to leave the nests alone and undisturbed.
“The nests are really small,” he said. “Even the nest footprint of a snapping turtle is only a square foot.”
If possible, use rocks, bricks or even stakes with flagging tape to mark off the nest area so people don’t dig it up or walk or drive over it. That’s all the space they need. You can garden or do other things next to it.
If you happen to accidentally uncover a nest and expose the ping-pong ball-shaped eggs, simply push the dirt back over them.
helping out maine’s wildlife
While the eggs can be relocated, Yorks advises against it. Any new nest would need to mirror the conditions of the old nest and placing the eggs incorrectly can kill the embryo growing inside.
The hatchlings are good at sneaking out once they emerge and it’s not common to see them, according to Yorks. They often hatch during a rainstorm.
“They may be ready to come out but they need that good deluge to trigger it,” he said.
There is no need to interfere in the hatching process, other than enjoying the phenomenon if you are lucky enough to see it.
“The hatchlings’ shells are about the size of a quarter,” Yorks said. “It’s hard to beat little hatchlings for the cute factor, especially in the reptile world.”