My trusty companion (my husband, Mark) and I pulled up to the primitive campground in our reliable blue Jeep. I jumped out of the passenger side before Mark even turned off the ignition, my feet landing on coarse tan sand overlain with pine needles. Finally, I groaned. The trip from Durham had seemed endless. As each moment of our two and a half hour drive ticked by, I had painfully envisioned the herps and warblers we were missing at the park.
Fate was mocking me that day. As I deeply inhaled the briny air, calming my frazzled nerves, and turned to survey the tall longleaf and loblolly pines sprayed with Spanish moss, movement caught my eye. A dullish-brown object resembling an upside-down dinner plate seemed to scuttle away from me. Turtle! Mark, a turtle! I yelled. I rushed ahead, catching up with a big female yellow-bellied slider who was leaving a strange trail of half-moon imprints in the sandy debris as her webbed feet propelled her along the forest floor. This sizeable female, with the faded yellow mask that distinguishes her species from North Carolina’s nineteen other aquatic turtles, was moving away from Goose Creek, a former refuge for pirates like Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet, which runs into North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound .
Mark put it all together before I did. She’s going off to nest, he opined with the confidence of a lifelong naturalist. And he was probably right: yellow-bellied sliders nest in May and early June in the Carolinas, and usually find a mesic spot away from water in which to lay eight to twelve creamy oblong eggs. Tiny, carnivorous sliders will hatch after about two months, as long as the eggs evade the detection of pilfering raccoons, and eventually those juvenile turtles mature into the omnivorous, sun-loving adults of floating logs that we all know and love.
I snapped some photos of our mama-to-be, and then looked at Mark meaningfully, We have to start walking, I said sternly, terrified that we might miss one of Goose Lake State Park’s natural wonders. We had a lot of ground to cover: Goose Lake State Park houses six hiking trails, ranging from the 0.4 mile Live Oak Trail that goes past an old cemetery and skirts Pamlico Sound to the 1.9 mile Goose Creek Trail that descends through Cypress swamp. The six trails are interconnected, and I wanted to explore them all.
Our first goal was to investigate Flatty Creek, a small and mysterious stream that feed the Pamlico River and terminates in a sedge and sawgrass marsh perfect for nesting herons, egrets and rails. First we walked through pine woods that seemed to get swampier and swampier with every step. As we got closer to the creek, we heard the buzzy trill of the northern parula, a tiny gray warbler with a yellow breast known to loiter around wet woods, gleaning insects from the foliage. We stepped onto a little footbridge and spied a good-sized red-bellied water snake. My husband looked back at me with a satisfied smile, before continuing. A minute later, we came across another footbridge. I peered into the brown-black water, intrigued by bright orange-yellow flecks in the shallow pool. Mark, I hissed sotto voce. He hadn’t heard me. He was walking away. Quickly, barely thinking, I dropped to my knees and lunged forward, plunging my hand into the warm tea-colored swamp. My wet hand emerged triumphant. I had captured a spotted turtle.
Mark! Mark! I hollered, turtle in hand. He hurried back to me, perplexed that I was still at the bridge until he saw my yellow-spotted prize. Oh wow, he said, his voice hushed with reverence, a spotted turtle. For both of us, this spotted turtle was a first, a species to be added to our “life list” of herps. Moreover, spotted turtles are not particularly common. Limited to the Great Lakes and the coast of the eastern United States, these denizens of wet meadows and swamps are listed as threatened by the World Conservation Union, and remain defenseless against land development and habitat drainage. After a few minutes, we carefully returned the teeny, four inch turtle to its muddy home and continued to explore the park.
Our exploration led us to scenic flat marsh vistas, took us past cypress swamps and beneath the secret homes of warblers and wrens nestled in the tall pines. We imagined ourselves running into bobcats and bears, Goose Creek natives still found in the area today. Late in the afternoon, after hours of birding and tree identification, one more surprise was waiting for us. On the trail back to the primitive camp, nestled in pine needles, we found an eastern box turtle. Bright eyed and vividly colored with yellow stripes crisscrossing its brown carapace, the familiar eastern box turtle brought a whimsical smile to our faces and left us with warm memories of “turtle times” at Goose Creek State Park.