Northland Nature: Painted turtles bask in spring sun

May 3—Ice-out was very early this spring. This March 10 date of the ice departure was about two weeks earlier than the previous earliest ice-out. Though there was a return of some cold and snow later in the month, the weeks following the opening of the lake were filled with plenty of migrants.

It began with the large raptors and daily bald eagles were noted as they passed over. Red-tailed and rough-legged hawks were quick to follow. Soon, we began to see and hear the flight of the sandhill cranes. The abundant Canada geese and the wandering trumpeter swans took advantage of the open water. Both were quick and loud to announce their presence when they arrived.

As we entered April, the ice-free swamps, ponds and lakes also hosted a variety of other aquatic birds. Joining their cousins, at least for a while, were the smaller and further-flying tundra swans. They tend to fly in larger flocks than the trumpeters. Common and hooded mergansers were quick to come — common in larger bodies of water, hooded in ponds and swamps. Even grebes were here. And there were the ducks.

It seemed like regardless of the weather, a visit to a nearby pond or lake revealed several kinds of ducks. As April progressed, I noted the presence of mallards, wood ducks, ring-necked ducks, scaup, buffleheads, gadwalls, blue-winged teals, wigeons, redheads and pintails. The resident loon arrived and called from the close lake by April 10, a date that during a normal year, would still be ice-locked. Shorebirds (snipe) and kingfishers were also observed in these April days as well.

Not to be overlooked, beavers and muskrats that moved beneath the ice in winter or stayed in their sheltered lodges were out swimming about, as were the wandering otters. Other residents were also to be seen in the wetlands.

After the ice goes out, the water is still quite chilly, and though there are various herps that live here, too, they are usually not seen until later. But when I heard frogs calling by mid-month, I started to take a closer look.

On one pond, I noted an active painted turtle. I decided to visit a lake to find out if more were active here. I did not need to go far. As I approached the lake, I looked out at a log, a fallen white pine, in the bay and sure enough, it was filled with these reptiles. The painted turtles, recently active, were taking advantage of the spring sunlight after months under the ice and were basking in the sun.

Such sedentary action done by turtles is very important to them. The sunlight after the time in the cool waters, not only feels good and raises their body temperature, but also allows them to become more active. And it does more for them as they get the needed vitamins and rid their bodies of water-borne parasites. Yes, basking is important for the turtles in springtime. I see it every spring, but not in April.

I did not want to disturb them. They appear to be oblivious to their surroundings, but getting too close would make them drop back into the chilly wet world. With binoculars, I took a better look and count. Crowded on the log were 50 of these shelled reptiles! They were of various sizes and took every available space, but all were the same kind: painted turtles. Snapping turtles that also live here will bask less frequently.

Early ice-out means early and crowded basking.