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On The Trail

On the trail: Mystery solved

I guess you can teach old dogs new tricks. I again learned that lesson the hard way.

The latest caper began with a lazy, unfortunate fact-checking mistake in a cutline I wrote three weeks ago. Or perhaps it wasn’t laziness at all, but rather just an innocent, misguided assumption about an old, far-too-familiar topic. The problem is that above the misidentification was a gruesome photo for all to see in living, gory color, the type of shot that pulls you in.

As a result, I now know the difference between painted and wood turtles, shelled creatures native to our valley that look similar from above. However, when you flip a wood turtle over and examine the yellowish under-shell, you’ll discover unmistakable, black, D-shaped tabs spaced evenly around the outer rim.

The first hint that I had erred in identifying the mangled female turtle that had been crushed by a tractor mowing a Christmas-tree farm came from an old buddy I call “Killer,” not because he’s assaultive, but rather a dear bird-hunting pal who has consistently gotten the job done on many gun-toting adventures through various wet and tangled habitats. Plus, many years before getting to know him as a friend, I had seen him in action at a few smoky poker tables and, in those settings, he is indeed a ruthless assassin who ain’t bashful about it. If you don’t believe me, play with him sometime, or ask the real poker players from the old days at the Fireside or Carney’s or K-Street or you name it, where the fellas played for real money in back rooms, and dire consequences could destroy a man’s finances, quite unlike the benign $25 buy-in tourneys of the current pokerheroes.com era. But why ruffle feathers? Back to that unfortunate turtle that never got to bury her eggs at that favorite haunt of mine dubbed Sunken Meadow, which, incidentally, judging from the green, 1.5-liter, rooster-labeled wine bottle and fresh campfire ashes my dogs and I discovered on a rainy Monday morning, was the site of a little weekend mischief with which I am from distant memories quite familiar. Distant, yes, but I confess without shame or hesitation that they weren’t rare, some were better than others, and I have no regrets or guilt for sins of youth.

Anyway, my buddy wasn’t trying to bust my chops when he called to correct me the day that unfortunate turtle’s photo hit the street. He was, as a friend, just trying to set me straight.

“Has anyone called you yet about that turtle?” he asked in baritone. “It’s no painted turtle. That’s a wood turtle. I can tell from the bottom shell. Google it. You’ll see.”

When I searched “Massachusetts turtles,” I found two sites that showed photos of the various species native to our state but, because they showed the reptiles standing head-on with a side shot of their head and neck extended, I was unable to make the call and said so in last week’s column, describing the photos I had viewed as “inconclusive.” Given that conclusion resulting from what I admit was cursory “research,” I wrote that I’d trust my mother’s teachings and still thought I had seen a dead painted turtle. Well, all I can say now is that it wasn’t my mother’s fault at all. No, I’m sure the turtles she identified to me as a boy were indeed the more common painted turtles you’re apt to find along sluggish brooks and muddy ponds. It was me, and me alone, who misidentified what I had found dead and seen alive many times in my travels through Sunken Meadow. Yes, I am familiar with turtles — snappers, too — but had never studied them enough to know all species.

Well, the little mystery was finally solved by another reader and veritable turtle expert who wanted to put my little public dilemma to rest. A Greenfield woman by the name of Patricia Serrentino emailed me with a National Heritage attachment showing several shots of wood turtles. The final line of her email signature was the title “Wildlife Ecologist,” which was more than enough to authenticate her ruling for me.

On consecutive mornings, Tuesday and Wednesday, I passed two more wood turtles in that same field I circle daily, it now filled with the most pleasant sweet wild-rose aroma. I picked up both critters, one a little bigger than the other, turned them over and was immediately able to identify them by the black Ds along the outer rim of their lower shell. I also informed the hired hand still mowing to their locations. That way, he could keep his eyes open. Wood turtles are not endangered but are classified as a “species of special concern.” I know the man will avoid hitting them if he can.

Now I, soon to be 61, will forevermore know the difference between painted and wood turtles. Credit my buddy “Killer,” the poker assassin, woodsman and old trapper who’s always done it his way but is no fool. A straight shooter, the man’s a precious dying breed. Precisely why I call him friend.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gary@oldtavernfarm.com.

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