Spring and summer are great seasons to head to the wetlands and admire the birds. Migrant and resident birds are in their breeding colors, singing loudly and looking for love. You can spend hours walking marsh banks and wetland trails scanning the reeds and tall grasses for signs of life. Herons, loons, sandpipers and rails move in and out of the distant foliage and we shoulder long scopes and big lenses in hopes of bringing this marvel of nature closer.
But while you scan those distant skies, something small and wonderful could be just under your nose — or foot: the overlooked and sometimes shunned of our wetlands — the reptiles. Tucked into deep grass, exposed on floating logs, or winding through fallen foliage, these small creatures are a critical part of the ecosystem in our wetlands.
I will be the first to admit: snakes have always been a little creepy for me. Finding the "abandoned" skin of a large black mamba outside my tent on an African safari didn't exactly endear them any further. Not to mention the one-too-many tales of a runaway boa showing up in a city toilet. Truthfully, I believe a great deal of my discomfort is primarily because they surprise you with their quick and sudden movements. And let's face it, the word "slithering" is accurate, visceral and not at all appealing. I have yet to see a snake "off in the distance," rather, they are always suddenly slipping right past my boot-laces and causing my heart to race. However, since I began shooting wildlife and nature, all kinds of once-forbidden creatures have taken on a different light, including this suborder of ophidia. The truth is snakes are a wonderful subject for photos, that is, if you can move fast enough to capture them!
Mostly harmless, there is no logical reason to fear snakes — at least close to home. New Hampshire has only one venomous snake — the timber rattlesnake, which is mostly found in deciduous forests with rugged terrain. But you are far more likely to come across the harmless garter snake, red-belly, brown or ribbon snakes. Like all other creatures, snakes are critical to our eco-systems. Predatory carnivores, snakes offer natural pest control preying on rodents and insects — species that humans often consider a nuisance. In turn, snakes are preyed on and are an important source of food for several species of hawks as well as small mammals like weasels and foxes.
Where the snake is a slippery subject to snap, the painted turtle accommodates a nice relaxed photo session. One of the most common turtles, it is fairly widespread and abundant in New Hampshire, although it is seen less in the northern part of the state. The painted turtle prefers wetland areas and pond and stream systems that have good vegetation and where it can spend time both basking in open air and submerged in water. It is common to see groups of turtles in single file across a log or scattered on rocks in shallow water. Easily recognizable, their neck and limbs are brightly lined in yellow and red and their carapace is olive green with more of a flat shape. (Compared to the more dome-like shell of a snapper or land tortoise.)
The sun is very important to these turtles and during the months of June and July they actually lay their eggs in sandy areas where they will be warmed by the sun's rays. Typically they will lay about 5-8 eggs and they may have two clutches per year.
Turtles have webbing between their toes to enable them to swim. They can also have particularly long claws. Unlike their serpent cousins, their tongue cannot protrude from their mouths, but if you have a chance to observe them at close range you will notice they have a small, sharp beak for eating. Aquatic insect larvae are a major source of food for these reptiles, again helping to curb certain disagreeable populations. Turtles are at risk from raccoons, diminishing habitats and road traffic in areas being developed around their natural environments.
So the next time you are wandering the trails, stop, look and listen. That gently rustling grass or shallow pool of water may be worth a closer look.