We put the horses in their stalls in the barn, gave each his or her morning food supplement, then started to walk around the pasture as the horses ate. The sky was clear, the sunshine bright and warm. A robin sang from a tree at the edge of the pasture, a cardinal whistled and red-winged blackbirds, a yellow warbler and a common yellowthroat called from the nearby marsh. Then one of our dogs caught our attention pawing at a turtle, snapping at it, acting as if it was going to pick the turtle up.
I called the dog off as we walked over to look at the turtle. It had its head and legs drawn into its shell, as turtles do, and its rear was backed into a shallow hole. It had been laying eggs, we assumed, though we couldn’t see any eggs. I assumed, also, that it had come out of the marsh to lay its eggs. We left the turtle to its business, took the dogs, went back to the barn, let the horses out and returned to the house.
Our hard-shelled pasture visitor was a painted turtle, one of the few species of turtles I recognize. But it’s common, in many places the most common, most numerous turtle in North America. While it is easily identified, it is variable in size and markings, so variable that four subspecies are described in A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians by Roger Conant. Those subspecies are eastern, midland, southern and western. The southern is smallest, its carapace or upper shell only four to six inches long. The western is the largest, its carapace five to ten inches long. All four have red, orange or yellow markings on the carapace.
This was the third painted turtle we’ve seen in our pasture this year. Each was found by one of our dogs. A dog was carrying one in its mouth when we first saw it, its head, legs and feet drawn into its shell which had protected it from injury.