Box Turtle Feast

I have always been fascinated by animals. It took longer for my interest in plants to develop, though my dad and his sister were both very focused on flora. As a kid, they would convince me to join their nature walks with the promise we might see a turtle. Inevitably we only saw flowers, and as they exclaimed over them, I would search the nearby forest or pond for a hidden turtle. On all these childhood walks I never did see a single one.

But as if to make up for it, when I was older suddenly they appeared. The only time my aunt joined my father and I on a walk at our local Hillside Park, when I was a teenager, we saw a box turtle. He and I walked there almost daily through my childhood and into my teens, and in all the many walks before and since I have never seen another box turtle there.

When my aunt and uncle moved near me to Durham in North Carolina, on our first of hundreds of nature walks we saw the most turtles I have ever seen on a single log, at least 50 perched over the Eno River. It seemed suddenly all the childhood turtles I had never seen arrived simultaneously to reward my patience.

The summer here started very hot and dry, with many days of 90 degrees or more starting in June. Earlier this week, there was an incredible downpour falling at a rate of over 4” an hour, and my rain gauge showed almost 2 ½” from this brief but ferocious storm, sending the creek way out of its bank.

On top of an already rainy month, this has encouraged an incredible array of mushrooms. Right now, there are thousands in my woods, most of them popping up quickly. Only hours after my evening walk, when I walk the same trail in the morning, I am amazed at how many have emerged overnight.

I am thrilled to see box turtles almost daily, taking advantage of the many fantastic fungi. They have a generalist diet, feeding on both plants and animals. Various studies have found depending on location and time of year, mushrooms represent from around a third to three quarters of their diet. This turtle has a face smeared with mushroom and ignored me to continue feeding.

When I lived near Seattle, I had a good friend who was very enthused about collecting and eating mushrooms, and we would periodically collect them both near my home, and also in the Cascade Mountains. At a meeting of the local mycological society, I heard stories about one of their gatherings where several people had become quite ill from getting a bit too experimental with their choice of mushrooms. I politely declined some of the menu, and only ate ones I could positively identify.

It would be a mistake to copy the feeding habits of box turtles since their physiology is very different. They appear to be unbothered by assorted fungal toxins, freely eating mushroom species that would be very dangerous for people. The turtles are enjoying a mushroom banquet, in dozens of shapes, sizes and colors carpeting the forest floor. Some emerge singly, bigger than the turtles. Others come up in groups, forming an impressive and tasty display. The turtles are making the most of it. Based on tooth marks on the mushrooms they are sampling some of each. Many fungi only last a day or two, so in their own turtle pace they are eating frantically, taking advantage of this ephemeral feast. And after so many years never seeing any turtles, I am enjoying sharing my yard with them, watching them in their ponderous exuberance as they eat their way through the woods.