I had never seen a wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta) before. Which is not all that surprising, even given my time spent in the woods. In Virginia, the wood turtle is a threatened species. It has been assigned the Virginia Wildlife Action Plan rating of Tier 1 — Critical Conservation Need, which means it faces “an extremely high risk of extinction or extirpation. Populations of these species are at critically low levels, facing immediate threat(s), or occur within an extremely limited range. Intense and immediate management action is needed.”
My friend, naturalist Brian Balik has seen a few over the years, and knew of their decline in Virginia. So when he recently happened across two wood turtles in the same location in Northern Virginia, at first he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “Spotting a threatened wood turtle ranks as a top experience in my life as a naturalist,” Brian said. “It’s something I am definitely not taking for granted, especially living in an area where there are very few of them.”
He took some photos of that first wood turtle and kept hiking, only to find another less than 100 yards away. So knowing there were at least two in the area, we set out a couple weeks later to hopefully re-find them so I could get some photographs. I was less confident than Balik, as I have a history of not being able to find things, but lo and behold, after hiking a few miles adjacent to a creek bed, Brian called out. “Turtle!” I couldn’t believe he had found one again! It was an extremely special sighting.
Just how rare is the wood turtle in Virginia? I contacted J.D. Kleopfer, a Herpetologist for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, who was excited about the find. “Not too many woodies left in that part of the world,” he said. “So any observations are critical.”
The turtle measured around eight inches long, was gentle and even a little curious. We spent a little time observing and photographing this affable little creature who cooperated for quite a while before deciding to wander off in search of lunch, privacy or both. But we were happy with the encounter and the photos we captured, so we left her and continued exploring, spotting some toads, a beautiful skink and even a yellow jacket nest along the way. (Balik is also better at finding yellow jackets than I am.)
I shared my photos with Ellery Ruther, Lead Field Technician of Virginia Working Landscapes for the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, who graciously provided some information about the turtle we encountered. “At first glance, I thought this animal was a small female,” she said. “But after counting the annuli (rings on the shell) to estimate age, it looks like the turtle is a juvenile around 8 years old. Wood turtles don’t reach maturity until around 10-15 years of age.” They can live up to 60 years.
We did not closely examine our sample turtle (nor would I have known what to look for), but Ruther explains that the best way to tell sex would be to look at the bottom of the shell. “Males have concavity, and females are flat,” Ruther said. “Otherwise, females generally have smaller heads, smaller front claws, and smaller tails than males do.”
As with many threatened species, urban and agricultural development have been among the biggest contributors to wood turtle decline. “Wood turtles are semi-aquatic, so they rely on both terrestrial and aquatic environments, can occupy relatively large home ranges, and often move between watersheds,” Ruther said. “All of which makes them very sensitive to development.” In addition, these factors lead to increased predator encounters, mortality crossing roads and, perhaps most disturbingly, accessibility for poachers.
Kory Steele, President of the Virginia Herpetological Society, warns the public about removing animals from the wild. Once he was brought a wood turtle that was picked up on the road by someone vacationing in their range and brought home. He discovered it was a gravid female. “One of the important individuals in that population had been removed,” Steele said. “It emphasizes that turtles should NOT be picked out of the wild for pets.”
And it’s not just rare and threatened turtles that are put at risk by poaching. “Box turtles in particular are taking a big hit because of removal for pets,” Steele said. “Most box turtles at rescues are unwanted pets that were originally wild.”
If you happen to come across a rare or threatened specimen like Virginia’s wood turtle, Balik recommends taking a few photos and reporting the sighting to VDGIF. “Or if you are in a park land, report the sighting to park staff,” he said. “Keep in mind exactly where you are, nearby water bodies, road intersections, date, time and a photo.”
So please just enjoy Virginia’s precious wildlife where you find it. As the old maxim goes, “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints.”
For a list of Virginia’s special legal status species click here.
To learn about all the turtles native to Virginia, visit the Virginia Herpetological Society web site here.
To check out Brian Balik’s blog, A Case of Wildlife Fever, click here.
For the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, click here.
Fly fishing for brook trout in the Shenandoah National Park is unlike any other type of fishing I have ever attempted. Throwing small flies at small fish in small water with a small rod can be frustrating. Casting is a challenge when the pool you’re fishing is so small you don’t have enough fly line out to adequately load the rod. And whipping a leader with a dry fly at the end of it back and forth trying to propel it forward is like pushing a rope. I’ve had a good day fishing SNP before, although really just the one. But I love the park, and wanted to figure out how to fish this water. I needed professional help.
As luck would have it, I am friends with a lot of great professional fly fishing guides, among them Kiki Galvin of Ms. Guided Flyfishing. Kiki enjoys great success fishing the waters of SNP, so I asked her for help. I also ran into my friend Tom Sadler who guides with Mossy Creek Fly Fishing. Tom is extremely familiar with the streams I like to fish inside the park, and he echoed a lot of the things Kiki had shared. My good friend Harold Harsh of Spring Creek Outfitters advised me on fly selection too. But fly fishing instruction is a lot like any other type of learning — at some point you have to actually do it, and do it with some success, before it registers.
For instance, Tom and I sat together at an outdoor writers event, at a round table that seats eight. He told me he throws flies in pools the size of that table. Now, people can tell you this till they’re blue in the face, but trust me: Until you start pulling fish out of table-sized pools, you simply can’t believe those pools are worth fishing. And once things start clicking, all of a sudden you look at a mile long stretch of the Rapidan, or the Upper Rose, or Cedar Run, and you realize there are literally hundreds of pools and pockets that can and do hold fish.
I spent the weekend at Rose River Farm. The luxury rental cabins there are just minutes away from all three of the rivers I mentioned above. It is the perfect ‘home base’ to hit several streams in a weekend or even a single day. So, armed with new knowledge of reading water, fly selection and fishing techniques, I hit the park with high hopes. Kiki told me to throw a dry fly even if I don’t see them rising. It was early morning, the water was still cold, I saw no rises. I tied on a dry fly — a size 16 parachute adams — but still didn’t fully trust any of this, so I tied a pheasant tail nymph dropper below the adams. I assumed if there were any takers that morning, they would hit the nymph. But on my third cast, in a pool I swore I could see every inch of and seemed to hold no fish, out of nowhere a brilliant flash of gold and orange swirled on that adams. A gentle tug on my Scott 3-weight and the hook was set in the corner of his mouth. After briefly exchanging pleasantries he returned my fly and I slipped the fish back into the cool, clear water, where he promptly disappeared. How such a flamboyantly colored fish can be so well camouflaged, I do not know.
And that’s how it went. Brook trout kept coming after my fly. Standing alongside a pool, high sticking and reaching to the far side of the current, keeping the fly line and even the leader out of the water to reduce drag, they ate that adams. Standing at the bottom of the pool and fishing up to tiny pockets alongside the water rushing in at the head of the pool, with a “drift” lasting only a second or two before the fly gets sucked under, they ate that adams. Fishing nymph droppers in bigger, deeper pools where I still didn’t trust that the little tykes would come all the way up from the bottom, they came all the way up to eat that adams.
I mentioned I’ve had a good day before fishing the park. But this was different. I will have bad days again, that is certain. But as I hiked along these waters, tossing flies in pockets of water I would have walked right by a week ago, my trust in what I was doing grew with each catch. The formula for success with fly fishing is a moving target. The flies will change with the seasons, maybe terrestrials in the summer, stone flies in the winter. They may change day to day, or hour to hour. Maybe smaller flies, maybe larger, maybe 6X tippet instead of 5, maybe evening instead of morning. As I continued to catch fish, tending to find them in similar environments within the pool, I could readily recognize those conditions in the next pool, and the next. Every pool is unique, with different dynamics in the current, depth, shape and size. But I began fishing with something I had never fished with before on these mountain streams: Confidence. And that’s what made this weekend’s success more meaningful than a single, right place right time banner day at a single pool.
That’s not to say I have it all figured out and that these fish are easy. They are equal parts finicky and aggressive. They are lightning fast and don’t like to sit still when they’re caught. They are slippery as hell and can spin around in a net so fast they’ll make a bird’s nest out of your leader in the time it takes you to wet your hands to handle them. And once the hook is free, they don’t much care for sticking around to have their picture taken. They will make you drive on roads so bad your fitbit will register a thousand steps just from having your hand on the steering wheel. They will make you hike for miles through thorns in waders and boots. They will make you buy a new fly rod just for them. But then one day you will find yourself in the woods. You will push through the curtain of trees and the muffled, distant sound of rushing water that has accompanied you on your hike will become suddenly crisp and loud. You will step into the water and know that you are sharing that space with one of the most beautiful creatures on earth. As your fly dances in the current, you will stare at it with all your might. And when that thing of beauty darts up from the bottom, breaks the surface and takes that fly — that fly you brought so far to place exactly there exactly then — thoughts of effort and past frustrations and the ones that got away will all be washed downstream.
Fishermen who spend time in and around the Potomac River tributaries don’t all have the same opinion about the Northern Snakehead, but rest assured, they all have an opinion. And there’s a good chance it will be a strong one. Some fall in the “they’re destroying the fishery and must be eradicated at all costs” camp, others in the “they must be protected as a sportfish before it’s too late” camp. And some, believe it or not, actually fall somewhere in between.
There are four agencies who regulate the fishery and have a great interest in gathering data on the Snakehead population: U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, DC Fisheries and Wildlife, and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF). These agencies are working together to gather data about Snakehead in the Potomac tributaries, and part of that collective effort includes doing shock surveys, tagging, logging and releasing fish back into the system. Fisheries biologists at VDGIF, led by Snakehead expert John Odenkirk, generously invited myself and David Coffman, editor of VDGIF’s Outdoor Report, to come along for one such tagging survey.
Fisheries biologist Mike Isel skillfully piloted the boat into some tight spots!
Mike also operated the generator and controlled the flow of electricity to the probes that dragged through the water. Once the generator, which supplies the juice, was turned on, Mike operated a foot pedal which distributes electricity into the water.
Jarrett Talley, Fisheries Technician, manned a net on one side of the boat, while Odenkirk worked the other side. In this photo you can see the probes in the water.
It was quite interesting to watch different species of fish react differently to the electricity. Snakehead have an air bladder that, upon shocking, expels air. So they tend to sink, giving the netters just one shot at them most of the time. Here Odenkirk quickly gets the net under a snakehead.
The fish are then brought into the boat and placed in a live well. Tags are applied later to all the fish collected before they are released. For a short video showing John Odenkirk netting a Snakehead, click here.
The snakehead are often netted with samples of the vegetation and food sources they like best. The Banded Killifish, shown here, Odenkirk says are very commonly found in the places Snakehead are captured. Is it just me, or is this Snakehead eyeing that one in Odenkirk’s hand?
Once the shocking and netting is done, the fish are removed from the live well one at a time (roughly in order of their level of cooperation) and placed on a board for measurement.
This sample is about 72 centimeters, or just over 28 inches.
Out of the ten Snakehead fish netted in this survey, two of them were ‘recaptures,’ fish that already contained a tag.
All the others received tags. Here Odenkirk tags a beauty, and the tag number is logged. Previously tagged fish are logged by tag number as well, then released with the others.
The high visibility tags contain instructions for any angler who catches a tagged Snakehead. You are requested to kill the fish, then report the location to the phone number printed on the tag.
Mike Isel logs the new tags, along with date, location and length of each fish.
Odenkirk tosses a tagged fish back into Little Hunting Creek.
The bright orange tag is visible even in murky water conditions. There are probably a few Snakehead targeted by everyone from Herons to bowhunters who would prefer that the tag were a drab olive.
Isel hits the throttle as we exit Little Hunting Creek. Next to him David Coffman, and Jarrett Talley stands up front.
I can’t thank the VDGIF’s great team on Snakehead control duty enough for letting me ‘tag along’ today. Dammit, I was going to avoid that pun, but it’s late. Forgive me.
This is the first in the Dispatches from the Potomac Outdoor Leader Series. From time to time, Dispatches will ask a few questions of someone who is having an impact on the state of our natural resources and the activities we love that surround them. Virginia’s newly appointed Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Ward is a native of Hampton, VA, a graduate of the UVA and William and Mary Law School, and a former two-term mayor of Hampton, VA. (Click here for her complete bio.) Excerpts from our email interview with Sec. Ward are below.
Secretary Ward, congratulations on your appointment, and thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions for Dispatches from the Potomac. Like you, I am a Virginia native. One of the things I love most about my home state is how widely different it can be. From the Blue Ridge mountains to the Chesapeake Bay, from urban DC suburbs to rugged coal country in the southwest, Virginia has it all. What are some of the unique challenges in focusing on so many diverse issues, from water quality in suburbia to air quality in coal country and everything in between?
I like to view Virginia’s diversity as its greatest strength. There are unique challenges in focusing on a wide range of issues but those challenges serve to make us smarter and stronger.
Growing up on the water, the outdoors and activities like fishing and crabbing were a big part of your life. How important is it that more young people get involved in things like hunting and fishing?
I spent day after day crabbing off of my family’s pier on Sunset Creek in Hampton. I am still pretty good with a crab net. My Dad took us croaker fishing all the time. I remember coming home crispy fried from the sun (he never even thought about sunscreen) with bloodworm remnants on my clothes, exhausted but happy from those trips.
I think it is vitally important that we teach our children to appreciate the outdoors and to get involved in hunting and fishing. We need to ensure we are training the future environmental stewards of Virginia.
The House bill lifting the ban on Sunday hunting has passed and cleared through the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee, and now seems to have at least a reasonable chance to pass on the Senate floor. Do you care to comment on the issue?
The Governor has expressed support for Sunday hunting.
This spring, Buchanan County will receive 50 more elk as part of that county’s elk restoration program. If that effort continues to be successful and eventually results in a self-sustaining herd, do you anticipate neighboring counties joining in to bring elk back to Virginia on a larger scale?
As a former local elected official, I believe that we need to leave as many individual decisions up to local governments as possible. If the counties neighboring Buchanan County would like to participate in an elk restoration program, I hope that we would be able to facilitate them being able to do that.
Another Virginia species recovery effort is the Bobwhite Quail. The decline of quail-friendly habitat due to development and farming, among other factors, is starting to be counteracted by landowners taking advantage of programs available such as CP-33, which helps defray the cost for farmers to provide habitat buffers for Bobwhite on cropland. Why are quail and other wildlife who thrive in early successional habitat important to Virginia, and apart from encouraging landowners to sign up, what else is being done by the state to increase that habitat?
We need to continue to work to educate the public about the importance of early successional habitat for Bobwhite Quail and other species. I believe DGIF is doing a great job in this regard but we can’t do it alone – we need landowners and the public to understand that a perfectly mowed field is not necessarily a good thing and that the habitat is important and vital for a variety of species.
Even though I did not grow up in rural Virginia, I remember the call of the Bobwhite as a child — before perfect lawns and mulched landscapes.
Is there anything in particular I haven’t mentioned that you are especially excited about working on as Secretary of Natural Resources?
I have a lifelong passion for the natural and historic resources of Virginia and to serve the Commonwealth as Secretary is a great honor and privilege.
If you have a suggestion for our Outdoor Leader Series, please leave them in the form of a comment on this post.