On January 11, 2024, a blustery day in northwest NJ, I was walking along a trail and to my surprise, stumbled across (almost onto) a Wood turtle! What an unexpected discovery on a winter day. The weather had been unusually warm and very rainy, so this little creature was most likely: A) awoken by the warm weather thinking it was spring, or B) had been flooded out of its winter burrow by last week’s torrential rain events.

This was the first time I came across a Wood turtle in the wild. These remarkable creatures are designated as a “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” (SGCN) in the NJ Wildlife Action Plan and considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which made this sighting all the more thrilling! It had bright orange markings on its front legs, and a very sweet face with big eyes. Its carapace (shell) looked as though it were sculpted out of wood. The scutes (scale-like plates on the shell) of the carapace looked like small, irregular pyramids. By counting the rings on the scutes I could tell this little one was 6 years old.

Wood turtles are intrinsically connected to the watershed. The Raritan Headwaters region is their ideal home with its meandering cobble-bottomed streams, surrounded by fields and forests. Wood turtles live on both land and in water. They are predominantly found in upland forests and riparian wetlands, which make them extremely vulnerable to any type of habitat degradation.

While I was so excited to come across this beautiful and rare creature, the experience was tinged with a bit of sadness. My little Wood turtle should have been soundly resting in its winter torpor – not navigating a river-side trail dangerously alongside a new housing development and industrial zones. In other words, he was stumbling into an area of human disturbance, exposed to litter, road salt, and life-taking roads.

After quietly observing, I wished my new friend good luck in making it through another season, and another, and another. If nothing else, this unexpected encounter reaffirmed my belief that our conservation work in the watershed is essential to protecting critical wildlife habitats and beautiful, sensitive creatures like the Wood turtle!

Wood Turtle, Glyptemys insculpta – New Jersey Fish and Wildlife

Wood Turtle – U.S. Fish and Wildlife