Turtle Crossing

It’s hard to believe that it’s already the middle of June, but signs of summer are everywhere! Mulberries are putting out their berries, early flowers are going to seed, and at every pond around River Bend, female turtles have been leaving the safety of the water to make the long trek through woods and fields in order to lay their eggs. Unfortunately, sometimes, these treks become even more dangerous because of the presence of humans. While it’s not unusual to find turtles walking far from the nearest source of water during laying season, as human activity increases it’s becoming far more common for turtles to walk further than average. Pollution, lack of food, habitat destruction, among other stresses, all contribute to driving turtles of all species to travel far to find nesting sites.

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A large snapping turtle crosses Rustad Road. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

At River Bend, the species most frequently encountered are painted turtles and snapping turtles. While at the nature center, you’re most likely to encounter a nesting turtle of either of these species as she moves from the water to the nesting site as this will often require her to cross roads and other paths. This can be extremely dangerous as not all drivers will see the turtles in time to stop, and turtles are not fast enough to get out of the way. This results in countless fatalities every year across the state, and may also be contributing to the decline of several species. Unlike deer, raccoon, or other animals frequently hit along roads, turtles do not rear their young or protect them in any way, and thus hatchlings have a very high mortality rate. Because of this, even the death of one adult individual can be catastrophic for the species as a whole.

That’s great, but how can I help?

The best way we can help turtles is by being aware. Many road collisions can be prevented if drivers maintain the posted speed limits and remain aware of their surroundings. Drivers should stop if safe to do so when a turtle is in front of their vehicle, but should avoid swerving violently or any other action that may prove dangerous to others in the area.

A turtle is walking across the road. What should I do?

As stated above, if driving a vehicle, stop if safe to do so, and if time and traffic allows, allow the turtle to complete its journey on its own. Alert other drivers of the crossing turtle as well. If you’re on foot, or if you do not believe the turtle will be able to safely cross on its own, the turtle may be carried across to safety, but several factors should be kept in mind:

  1. Follow the line of travel. Always carry a turtle in a straight line in the direction it was originally traveling. If you place a turtle on the wrong side, she will merely turn around and cross the road again. Place the turtle off the road, but no further. While it may be tempting to bring the turtle to the nearest body of water, it’s bet to let instinct take the turtle to where it needs to be, rather than interfering.
  2. Handling with care. Turtles should be lifted carefully by the sides of the shell (never by the tail or a foot!). The only exception is with snapping turtles and softshell turtles—both these species have a reputation for biting without excessive provocation, and their bites can be very strong. If you encounter one of these species, call River Bend staff for assistance. After handling any reptile, be sure to wash your hands with soap and water, all reptiles have the potential to carry salmonella.
  3. Document your find. Help scientists by recording crossing and mortality areas by participating in the Minnesota Turtle Crossing Tally & Count Project: http://www.herpmapper.org/content/pdf/mn-turtles-and-roads-project.pdf

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Parking lots can be a daunting cross for even the largest turtles. Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

I want to help a turtle across the road, but I don’t think it’s a painted turtle or a snapping turtle.

Minnesota is home to eight species of turtle, two of which are quite rare: the blanding’s turtle, and the wood turtle. These two species are terrestrial, and spent their lives out of the water. They are both listed as protected throughout Minnesota, and therefore it is illegal to handle or possess either without special permitting. If you do not recognize the species, call for River Bend staff assistance to have the turtle identified.

I think I found a turtle nest.

It’s not uncommon to find turtle nests, though they’re most often discovered after the hatchlings have already left, as their will be a sizeable hole in the ground with remnants of eggshells. If, however, you have found a nest (either having witnessed the female laying, or by other means) the most important thing to do is leave it alone. Do NOT attempt to relocate the eggs or stop the female from laying. If the nest is in a location that appears unsafe on River Bend property, contact River Bend staff for assistance. If the nest is on your property or elsewhere, the DNR may be contacted to help guide you through what to do.

I want to keep and observe the nest.

If on your own property, a turtle nest can be an exciting opportunity for observation. However, turtle nests are often subject to predation by mink, raccoons, and other scavengers, and these animals are often attracted by the scent of humans. Do not excessively visit the nest. Instead, place a motion sensitive camera or view from a distance. If you’re concerned about predation, wire fencing can be placed around and over the nesting site to keep other animals out, but be sure to check back frequently in order to let the baby turtles out when the time comes.

IMG_20170612_124123Some species have already hatched–such as this nest discovered earlier last week.
Photo credit: Stephanie Rathsack

Interested in learning more about the turtles of River Bend and Minnesota? Stop by our interpretive Center Saturday, July 8th for an Animal Ambassadors program and a chance to meet our turtles up close and personal. More information can be found on our website at http://www.rbnc.org/ .

Springing into warm weather!

Hello again, River Bend friends! As you have probably noticed, Spring has sprung and we are really enjoying all the changes that are happening here. Many snakes and frogs are waking from their winter naps – if you walk by Prairie Pond or Upper Pond, you can hear the frogs croaking!  There are so many new birds out and about, and they are all singing at the top of their lungs and hurrying to make nests in the forest, prairie, and pond alike. We have even seen Turkey Vultures, and though they neglect to sing, they are another sign that the warm weather is back.

Spring is a wonderful time to look up and take notes of the phenology of our area. Phenology is the study of the timing of natural events from year to year, and is really cool to discover – here at River Bend, we have a monthly Phenology board, where our visitors can come and write what they saw while out on the trails, and then this gets recorded and we can compare to several previous years. We also have a great book written by our founder, Orwin Rustad, which is a recording of 50 years of natural events!

phenology book

Orwin Rustad’s A Journal of Natural Events in Southeastern Minnesota, a fantastic phenology read.

To give you an example of phenology, I’ll tell you what his book says about the timing of Turkey Vulture spring arrivals: over 12 years of recording their comings and goings, the earliest they arrived was March 12th, and the latest was May 30th! Their average though is April 14th-17th, so they are a bit early this year.

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Turkey Vultures are a fun bird to spot during the spring and summer; they spend their time soaring high, looking like they are rocking back and forth in the wind on their  V-shaped wings.

One of the reasons phenology is important is that it helps us note changes through time. The reason I chose to look up the Turkey Vulture (other than the fact that they are amazing birds!) was that they were not very common birds in this area 50 and 60 years ago. Most of their sightings started in the 80’s and 90’s, perhaps indicating that Turkey Vultures were expanding their ranges in that time frame to include this area! If you are ever in the interpretive center and want to know more about the natural history of this area, check out this interesting book.

You can also take advantage of the gorgeous weather forecast and come for a hike and see the spring changes for yourself. Just today, school groups spotted Garter Snakes over by Honor Point, a Bald Eagle over the Strait River, and saw the turtles that have come out at Turtle Pond too! There are also tons of frogs and birds to see and listen to, so come to River Bend, explore, and then come contribute to our Phenology board.

phenology board

As you can see, River Bend visitors have already seen some amazing sights, and we’re only a week in to April! Come add your own observations!

After hearing the frogs start up around town or here at River Bend, are you curious to learn more? Then come to our awesome program on Saturday, April 15th: Fabulous Frogs! Hop on over to learn about what’s jumping around River Bend’s ponds – We’ll be learning about what makes Frogs so unique, creating our own frog chorus, as well as meeting our two froggy Animal Ambassadors! The program fee is just $5/person, $15/family ($3/member, $10/member family), and it runs from 10-1130, so come make a day of it here at River Bend – see the program and then go for your own hike!

Hope to see you soon!

~Katie

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Come learn all about Leopard Frogs and others at our Fabulous Frogs Program on Saturday April 15th from 10-11:30!

Wait, what month is it??

This week was a little bit disappointing…. IT WAS TOO WARM! With an average temperature of 29⁰ it was practically tropical outside. Just to give you a little comparison, last year the average temperature for the 2nd week of December was 10⁰. Regardless of the yucky warm weather I still saw some pretty amazing things and those things were owls!

Now if you’re familiar with River Bend’s programming you know that we have an OWLS (Older Wiser Livelier Seniors) program once a month and although I would also consider them full of wisdom I am talking about the feathered, silent, nocturnal type of creature.

One of our extremely amazing River Bend volunteers also happens to be an amazing birder and he took us out for an owl search and we had really good luck! We found a barred owl and a great horned owl! We accidentally scared both of them from their perches but it was still pretty awesome!

One of the coolest things about discovering where an owl perches is what the owls leave behind…their pellets!

These are two owl pellets found at River Bend. The one on the left came from a barred owl and the one on the right is a long-eared owl. Long-eared owls have a much darker, dense, and elongated pellet

So keep looking for that winter wildlife! You might find something surprising! And remember, there is no such thing as bad weather only bad clothing and bad attitudes! 🙂

Weight Gain

On Monday December 1st if you had exposed skin for more than 12 minutes outside you were susceptible to frostbite! Luckily, I had very minimal skin exposed and just got a little frosty!!

Seasonal staff member Emily’s frosty eyelashes after her bike ride at River Bend

What a wonderful and perfectly Minnesotan week! Our average temperature was 17 ° but the beginning of the week had a -20° wind-chill! Gotta love Minnesota!

I got to experience the balmy -20° weather for the first time in a long time and with that cold snap I was forced to adapt! The first adaptation I made was weight gain. This was the first week that I wore ALL of my winter clothing. Which means wool socks, heavy snow boots, snow pants, winter jacket, neck gator, mittens (with hand warmers), and my rabbit fur-“can’t hear a thing” hat. I was not prepared for the amount of mass I put on when I am fully geared up for the winter. By the time I had made it to the Interpretive Center, I was tired! This got me thinking about the creatures living at River Bend that aren’t able to take off their heavy winter coats until spring.

Most humans are pretty good about knowing when to put on their winter coats (with the exception of middle schoolers who would rather be cold than “uncool”) but what triggers an animal to start growing its winter coat?? The answer is sunlight. Animals living in cold winter climates have evolved to grow thicker coats as the amount of daylight decreases. Many people would think that they are developing a thinker coat as a result from the dropping temperatures but as Minnesotans are well aware, our weather is very unpredictable. The development of a winter coat is based on sunlight rather than temperature so that the animals will be ready for any winter weather that gets thrown at us!

So put on some layers, head outside, and get to know Minnesota in all its snowy, cold glory! And remember, there is no such thing as bad weather only bad clothing and bad attitudes! 🙂

Amber Brossard is the Education Coordinator for River Bend Nature Center, a member supported non-profit dedicated to helping people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us. Contact us at rbncinfo@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.

Five Questions and Answers About Snow

By Zach Hudson, Intern Naturalist

Freshly groomed ski trails

Freshly groomed ski trails

Winter is my favorite season of all, and my favorite part of winter is the snow. Snow can be quite interesting for a naturalist or anyone interested in nature. There are many things about snow that can help us understand how nature works in the winter, including when, where and how much of the white stuff we can expect to get. So without further ado here are five facts about the stuff that makes winter so great!

1. When does it snow first in Faribault?
River Bend founder Orwin Rustad kept a detailed journal for over 50 years recording the timing of a variety of events in the natural world, including the first measurable snowfall of each winter. According to his journals the earliest snow has fallen here was on September 30 all the way back in 1961. On average though, we can expect to see our first snowfall sometime in early November. Once that first snow falls Faribault receives about 40 inches of snow total over the course of the winter concentrated in the months of December and January.

2. What are some of the historic snowstorms that have hit Faribault?
In addition to recording the start of the snowy season each year Orwin Rustad also kept records of major storm events that occurred in Faribault and other locations in Minnesota. Many people remember the 1991 Halloween Blizzard but, this is far from the only significant blizzard to strike Faribault. Bishop Whipple has accounts from the 1800’s of riding his horse through a horrific snow to reach some of the mission outposts he visited. In addition Faribault saw a single storm that dropped 20 inches of snow in 1982, one of three large storms that year in Rustad’s journal.

3. Where are the snowiest places in the U.S.?
While Faribault and Minnesota in general do receive their fair share of snow we are far from the snowiest places in the USA. Valdez, Alaska averages over 300 inches per year which is about the equivalent of the height of a football goalpost. Excluding Alaska, cities near mountains or large bodies of water have a tendency to get pounded with the white stuff. My hometown of Lander, Wyoming gets over 100 inches of snow every year and Ironwood in Michigan’s upper peninsula receives an average of 180 inches of lake effect snow.

Hoar Frost

Hoar frost on tree branches in 2010.

4. How do snow crystals get their amazing structures?
The structure of individual snow crystals is quite fascinating, and arises from various properties of water. All snow crystals have six-fold symmetry or something close to it. The six-fold symmetry arises from the molecular nature of ice as it freezes. The uniqueness of snowflakes has to do with the varied paths they take to earth from the time they begin to form up in the clouds. Every snowflake starts its life as a simple hexagon and grows branches of various shapes as its external conditions change. No two snowflakes experience the exact same conditions as they fall resulting in unique structures for each flake. You can find more information including some amazing images at this website run by physicists at Cal Tech.

5. What is a true blizzard?
We often think of any major snowfall event as a blizzard, but is that really correct? The answer is no, a true blizzard combines heavy snowfall with strong winds. According to the National Weather Service for a storm to receive blizzard designation it must meet the following criteria: for a time period of at least 3 hours there must be wind to 35 mph or greater and considerable falling or blowing snow, such that visibility is reduced to a 1/4 mile or less. According to these requirements true blizzards are rare; however blizzard-like conditions can be relatively common for shorter time periods.

Zach Hudson is an intern naturalist for the River Bend Nature Center, a member supported non-profit dedicated to helping people discover, enjoy, understand and preserve the incredible natural world that surrounds us. Contact us at rbncinfo@rbnc.org or 507-332-7151.