Our Turtle Friends

One of our most visible groups of wildlife found at the Blue Heron Nature Preserve are freshwater turtles.  On cool, sunny days, large numbers of turtles can be seen warming themselves in the sun on logs.  In late spring, visitors might also stumble upon a female turtle as she slowly makes her way across the land in search of a place to lay her eggs. 

In the southeastern US, turtles are particularly important members of freshwater ecosystems, and there are more species here than almost anywhere else in the world!  Turtles form a living link between the water the land, spending time in both places.  Land predators depend on turtle eggs and hatchlings as a source of food, and adult turtles in turn feed on all kinds of plants and animals. 
But the number of turtles in Georgia is declining rapidly, almost entirely due to the human impacts such as habitat loss and pollution.  One of the biggest threats to turtles are roads, which often form dangerous obstacles to turtles trying to get from the water to their favorite nesting spots.  Everyone can help to make their neighborhoods safer for turtles by not disturbing nesting turtles, leaving turtles that you find in the wild, and keeping your neighborhood free from trash. 


At Blue Heron, we are trying to learn more about our turtles so we can better protect them.  We are conducting a survey of the turtles at the Preserve by marking each turtle with a unique tag or notch and recording its species, gender and size.  The survey helps us to figure out what routes our turtles take to nest and how we can provide them safe passage between their water homes and their land nests.  In the future, this will help us to create better habitat for our turtle residents.

Musk Turtle (Sternotherousodoratus)
This small but feisty turtle gets its name from the strong odor it produces when it feels threatened. 

Painted Turtle (Chrysemyspicta)
This strikingly-colored turtle gets its name from the beautiful red, orange and yellow stripes on its neck and patterns on its shell.

Common Snapping Turtle (Chelydraserpentina)
The second-largest freshwater turtle in the US, the snapping turtle gets its name from its long neck and powerful bite. 

Slider Turtle (Trachemysscripta)
This turtle is one of the easiest to spot at the Blue Heron Nature Preserve because of its love of basking in the sun; but if you make too much noise, you will find that this turtle gets its name from the way it quickly slides into the water.

Mud Turtle (Kinosternonsubrubrum)
As their name suggests, mud turtles are brown in color to match their preferred habitats of waters with a muddy bottom.


Tracking Turtles at Blue Heron

By Maura Dudley

Here at Blue Heron Nature Preserve, we are continually amazed by the number and diversity of animals who call our piece of nature in urban Atlanta their home.  While most of these critters are hidden and/or nocturnal, our most prominent animal ambassador for the Preserve are the multitude of turtles that line the logs of our ponds, swim along the shores of our creeks, wander the wetlands in Emma Lane, or lay their eggs here. 

(Yellow-bellied Pond Slider)

Because of their importance to the ecosystem, and to us, we have started to track the turtles at Blue Heron.  Our survey began this spring somewhat informally and opportunistically during the nesting season, when turtles are more on the move.  Here we‘ve seen a momma yellow-bellied slider laying her eggs, and a snapping turtle crossing our bridge to move from Nancy Creek into our biggest pond.  We even found a musk turtle wandering down the new Mill Pond Trail! 

This year, we hope to go beyond our accidental encounters with turtles by conducting a more formal survey at the Preserve.  With help from our partners at the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, we now have the equipment to humanely trap, measure, mark and immediately release turtles within our largest pond.  We plan to use this equipment to survey the turtles at Blue Heron, to learn more about what species we have and how they are moving into, out of and within the property.  By better understanding our turtle population, we can make Blue Heron a better and safer home for these fascinating and beautiful animals.


Yellow-Bellied Pond Slider

Upon approaching the pond, you may find the most common turtle in our region sliding off a log. It has a brown/black upper shell (carapace), yellow lower shell (plastron), and olive skin with yellow patches down the neck and legs. Although carnivorous as hatchings, they eat mainly plants as they age. They mate, hibernate, and usually sleep under water, but lay eggs on land.


Northern Watersnake

This Northern watersnake found at the Preserve has the misfortune to resemble cottonmouths. Although the range of cottonmouths extends nearly as far north as Atlanta, it does not - despite common misperception - quite reach our city.

Heads of Northern watersnakes are less triangular, more rounded on top, with circular pupils. Their cream colored bellies are marked with reddish-brown spots in the shape of crescent moons Cottonmouths have flat, sharply triangular heads, elliptical pupils that appear as vertical slits, and heat sensing pits between the mouth and eyes. In contrast to Northern watersnakes, the eyes of cottonmouths are not visible when viewed from directly overhead and the smooth, shiny scales atop their heads do not extend as far rearward. The white oral cavity for which the cottonmouth is named is also diagnostic, but perhaps not a field mark you wish to confirm.


Garter Snake

This harmless snake - the most widespread in North America - bears 3 light stripes down a dark body and black vertical slashes on its face. Most live alongside water, feasting upon frogs, leaches, minnows, salamanders, and lizards. Others reside in meadows, dining upon earthworms, slugs, mice, and shrews. They have been found near the building and in the wetlands.


Green Anole

(photo by Anne Stern)

Unrelated to true chameleons, they can, in response to their surroundings and moods, change colors within a range from bright green to dull brown. Prey of these diurnal, semi-arborial lizards includes live insects, crickets, spiders and moths. In an effort to escape a human’s grasp, they may either bite - though rarely inflicting injury - or release segments of their tails. Look for them near the deck.

This Anole was photographed in a terrarium, but he is only a guest! He has a girlfriend who lives in the terrarium and enjoys meals with her, courtesy of Kerry Butler. He comes and goes as he pleases, thru a hole in a window screen. The female seems content to stay in the terrarium, which has a warm light and running water.