- Associated Press - Saturday, June 6, 2015

TEANECK, N.J. (AP) - George Reskakis is proud of them, though he concedes they are not much to look at- scruffy piles of branches that dot Teaneck Creek Conservancy. In fact, Reskakis, who heads the conservancy’s Weed Warriors volunteer group, gets asked all the time why they leave the messy brush piles along the trails.

What the piles lack in looks they make up for in ecological value: They provide vital protective cover for the Eastern box turtle.

The flashy, multicolored turtle, once ubiquitous throughout New Jersey and known to generations of children who fed fistfuls of freshly plucked grass into their pet turtle’s aquarium tank, has been declining in numbers here and in other states, and New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection identifies it as a species of special concern.

Eastern box turtles live from Maine to Georgia and west to the Mississippi, and are designated a species of concern or special concern in a number of states, including Connecticut, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan and Ohio.

People spot box turtles more often at this time of year because nesting season begins in late May and early June.

Wildlife experts say homeowners can help by not disturbing the nests that female box turtles might dig in their flower gardens, mulch piles or lawns in the coming weeks. A box turtle will lay up to seven eggs in the nest, then leave. The eggs incubate on their own.

Brian Zarate, senior zoologist with the state’s Division of Fish and Wildlife, said box turtle habitat often intersects with the suburbs, contributing to the species’ decline. The main threats include habitat loss and fragmentation- the turtles can’t move safely between patches of habitat because of roads, railroad beds, parking lots and other dangerous obstacles.

Another threat has been the illegal collection of these turtles for commercial sale in the underground pet trade, Zarate said. And since they seem like docile creatures, suburbanites who come across them may decide innocently enough to take them home as pets. But that depletes the breeding numbers in an area.

“They are protected by law,” Zarate told The Record (http://bit.ly/1FTKRF0 ). “If you see a box turtle you’re not allowed to take it home with you as a pet.”

Ben Wurst, habitat program manager with Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, took an interest in the plight of the box turtle because he remembered encountering them in his back yard growing up.

“They’re one of the most beautiful turtles we have in New Jersey,” he said. The top of their boxy shell is vibrantly colored with mottled patterns of orange, yellow, olive and tan. Males have bright orange or red eyes.

Box turtles grow up to eight inches long, and can live into their 60s or older. They are not great swimmers, and live instead in woodland and open meadows- or suburban back yards.

They are true omnivores- they eat insects, worms, mushrooms, fruits and berries, especially from the sort of bushes and trees people rip out to create more formal gardens.

“One main reason for the decline would be habitat destruction- people removing their food sources,” Wurst said.

Since box turtles have small home ranges- about 250 square yards or less -cutting down a mulberry tree they depend on can be disastrous to a turtle- and to the breeding population of the area.

If removed from their territory, they can die trying to find their way back. Experts say that if you find a box turtle trying to cross a road, don’t take it home- just move it across the road in the direction it was headed.

Like other reptiles, box turtles are cold-blooded and hibernate by burrowing into the ground during the winter. They emerge in the spring, start mating around now, and lay eggs in June and July. The female will dig a hole about three inches deep in loose soil to deposit the eggs, which incubate for 87 to 89 days. The young will stay in their nest and go directly into hibernation, or emerge to explore for a few weeks.

At Teaneck Creek Conservancy, Reskakis, a Manhattan dentist and Teaneck resident, oversees the Weed Warriors volunteer group, which maintains the conservancy trails. They have created butterfly and bird gardens, and reintroduced some native species to the conservancy, including white oak, ash and red buds.

Now they have turned their attention to the box turtle.

During a recent walk along one of the trails, Reskakis pointed out several of the brush piles. “It’s a project of passion for me,” he said. “It’s great therapy and exercise.”

Members of the Bergen County Audubon Society, including Marie Longo, have planted blackberry shrubs at the conservancy as a food source for the turtles.

Box turtle eggs and recently hatched turtles are often eaten by raccoons, foxes, skunks, snakes, crows, coyotes and dogs.

So when trail walkers ask Reskakis why he has left the brush piles, he has a quick, simple reply: “Brush is habitat. It’s a place for box turtles to hang out- and hide from predators.”

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Information from: The Record (Woodland Park, N.J.), http://www.northjersey.com

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