When Skip Holmes of Delmar rides his bike at this time of the year, he’s on high alert for obstacles.
In addition to the occasional rough pavement or fallen branch, the president of the Mohawk-Hudson Cycling Club has his eyes peeled for slow-moving reptiles during May and June.
It’s mating season for turtles, and often they can be spotted plodding across back roads, to and from nesting sites, with the unlucky ones crushed by cars along the way.
Holmes recalled a day three weeks ago when he was out riding with a friend in a marshy area near Delmar: “One good-sized turtle — like six, seven inches across — was just slowly meandering across and all these cars were coming, so we just stopped in the middle of the road, put the bikes up and carried this turtle across and got it out of the way,” he recalled.
The Capital Region is home to about eight native turtle species and one exotic one, according to John Ozard, a biologist in the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Wildlife Division.
The majority of the turtles taking to area roadways are snapping turtles and painted turtles, he said.
“Primarily they’re females that are either heading to nests or heading back from nesting and heading back to a water body,” he elaborated.
Turtles are attracted to the sandy soil of roadbeds because it’s easy to dig nests in and it’s also heated by the asphalt, said Margo Olson, executive director of the Wilton Wildlife Preserve and Park.
“I saw a snapping turtle nesting on the on-ramp to the Northway last week,” she noted.
Town of Wilton Highway Department employees recently installed “Turtle Crossing” signs along Ruggles Road, which borders the preserve. The effort was spearheaded by the preserve in hopes that it will diminish the number of run-ins between turtles and vehicles.
“Once turtles reach adulthood, there’s very few things that kill them. They’re not really susceptible to predators so much as when they’re tiny turtles. Really, their main threat is being killed on the road,” Olson said.
A number of the turtles crossing Ruggles Road aren’t run-of-the-mill snapping turtles or painted turtles, but rather a threatened species, the Blanding’s turtle, which can be identified by its bright yellow neck. The area is also home to another lesser-seen variety, the spotted turtle, which has a dark shell with little yellow spots.
Every species of turtle is protected and thus can’t be collected or moved to a new location without a scientific collector's permit, noted Ozard.
No permit is required to simply move them out of the road, but it must be done with care, said Dave Larrow of Moreau, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
Turtles can bite, he cautioned.
“I’ve heard [snapping turtles will] take a finger off. I’ve never seen one take it off, but I don’t want to test it,” he said.
When picking up a turtle to move it from the road, Larrow recommended putting the fingers of one hand in the space between the top of the turtle’s head and its shell. The fingers on the other hand should be placed in the space between the tail and the shell.
“We always say that if you’re going to take them out of the road, take them out of the road in the direction they were going to begin with, because if you turn them around and take them back where they came from, they’re only going to go back across the road,” he advised.
Turtles can also be prodded gently with a shovel to hurry them out of harm’s way.
Larrow has received five calls so far this season about turtles, most injured, but some not.
“Yesterday I got one out of a man’s front yard. He just didn’t want it there. There was no convincing that man that it was fine where it was,” he said, noting that it was a decent-sized snapping turtle.
“I don’t call them big unless their 30, 40 pounds,” he said.
Since they can bite and also can carry diseases, turtles can be a cause of concern if there are young kids or pets nearby.
“You do need to be really careful with handling any wildlife species, but turtles in particular can have salmonella, so you do need to wash your hands when you’ve been handling turtles,” Ozard said.
But having turtles for neighbors is more beneficial than not..
“If your turtles were missing, I’d be pretty worried about what’s going on in the ecosystem,” he said, noting that there is tremendous concern because turtle populations worldwide are diminishing.
“Particularly, they’re used in Asian markets for food and many, many turtles from throughout the world have been shipped overseas for food,” he said. “Many people believe we are on the brink of major extinctions. There have already been numerous extinctions in places like Vietnam and Cambodia,” he said.
Good Samaritans who wish to help keep the local turtle population robust should not relocate those found on roads to anywhere beyond the roadside, and not just because regulations prohibit it.
“If they have specific habitat requirements, the pond you have at home may not be the right place for it,” explained Olson.
According to Ozard, transplanted turtles could also spread reptile diseases to new areas.
If a turtle is found injured, call a wildlife rehabilitator, Larrow advised.