Northland Nature: Turtles basking on the mighty logI remember when the tree was still standing — a large stately white pine of at least fifty feet in height. On this hillside, overlooking the lake, it had lived a long and strong life, with plenty of moisture and sunlight.
I remember when the tree was still standing — a large stately white pine of at least fifty feet in height. On this hillside, overlooking the lake, it had lived a long and strong life, with plenty of moisture and sunlight.
I never saw it until after its long life was over, but still the tree stood tall even in death. Its thick branches were perching sites of several big birds that visited the lake. I got great views of eagles, osprey, cormorants and herons as they rested here, above this wetland site.
Then came the day that I knew had to happen. Dealing with an aged and decaying trunk, the tree came crashing down. In many places, a fallen tree may mean much fewer or nearly no wildlife views on it, but not so with this late great white pine.
As fate would have it, the tree splashed into a bay of the nearby lake, and not the other way, into the woods. Now a massive log projected and floated out from the previously-empty shoreline. A new chapter of nature watching was just beginning.
During the next few years, this log of forty feet extending into the lake was discovered by a large and varied group of local critters. Over this time, I noticed the presence of otters, beavers, muskrats and raccoons as they searched the wetlands for a meal. Also coming by to check it out was a family of foxes, and once I watched a curious bobcat as it watched me.
Birds also made use of the log — not the same ones that landed on the tree when it was standing, but equally as interesting. I saw ducks, mergansers, geese, sandpipers and kingfishers alight as they were feeding here. Swallows, phoebes, blackbirds, warblers, catbirds and thrushes all came by to snatch insects from near the water. One year, a kingbird built a nest on branches that stuck up from the prostrate main trunk.
This elevated site also held a plethora of spider webs each summer, and dragonflies climbed onto the log to begin adulthood out of water and warmed in the summer sun.
It may have been crowded here, but the greatest use on this water-logged log was that of the turtles. The painted turtle (so called because of a bright coloring on its underside, or plastron) is very common in many north country lakes; this one was no exception. Despite the ice cover of at least five months, they do well here.
The chilly times are spent under water in a highly slowed-down phase. They pass the winter carrying on on limited respiration and in a near-dormant stage. With the spring ice-out, they return to life that we know of them.
And a very necessary part of this life is to climb up on an exposed surface, usually logs, to bask in the sunlight. This apparent inactivity and resting in the sun is very important to the turtles.
While out in the sunny sites, they make needed vitamins, and the dry heat helps to rid their bodies of parasites; and, of course, it raises their body temperatures.
Basking locations along lakes and rivers are quickly discovered and made use of by the local turtle population. The ice went out on the lake late this year, May 11, but by May 14, I noted the first of the basking turtles on the log. May and June could be the best time of year for basking turtles. The water is still cold, and sitting in the sun feels good.
And word quickly spread. When I came to the lake on May 24, the log was so filled that I could hardly see any of the wood. Using binoculars and staying far enough back to keep from scaring them, I made a count: 74 painted turtles were crammed onto the log. This was much more than the usual twenty to thirty, but still below the most that I had ever seen here, 80 turtles (which was also in May).
They waited for months to climb out of the cold water, and the clear day with 70 degrees on May 24 gave them the conditions that they wanted.
During June, many of these turtles will travel from their water world to lay eggs on land. The springtime basking that I came upon continues into much of the summer, but I don’t expect to see this many very often.
The tree that provided lots of resting sites for birds while it was standing continues this role for other critters, now that it has fallen and has gone from the woods to the water.
Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods” and “Webwood.” Contact him c/o email@example.com.