Turtles make a Newport News garden come to life

You know it's spring in Wendy Croswell's garden when more than flowers begin to bloom.

It's truly gardening season when, and only when, six eastern box turtles — three males called Murtle, Flash and Fred and three females known as Ms. T, Tutu and Louie — wake from their winter sleep in her Newport News garden.

"About nine years ago, Murtle showed up — I just thought he was so cool," she said.

"I had seen one that had been run over in the street and thought how sad that we are taking over their habitat. Since my yard is a wildlife habitat — how prefect to host turtles. Ms.T followed a year or so later — she was almost run over by a golf cart. I think she had eggs because the next spring I kept digging up babies."

The turtles emerge covered in soil and bits of mud, looking a little sleepy and out of sorts. Croswell captures their every movement and mood with her cameras, a Canon Rebel or Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS24, posting daily antics on her Facebook page.

There are always tales of humor and wit, in Croswell's unique way, to go with each turtle entry.

"When out last year, as I do most mornings, scanning the garden and yard for turtle activity, I saw the strangest thing — Ms. T tipped up on her end," she said.

"I had to look twice because I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I then ran for the camera because I knew no one else would believe it either. Murtle was close by. She normally just closes up her shell when he's around, so I don't know. I have never found her in this position since."

It seems some of those positions amount to turtle love, as evidence by the dozens of baby turtles Croswell now feeds meal worms until they learn to forage on their own.

She makes no extra effort to keep the turtles in her yard because they seem to naturally want to hang out there. The yard is fenced but they can easily dig under if they want.

"They have it good," she said.

"I bought mealworms when Baby T was little, dug up worms and grubs, which are nasty. So funny how they fight over worms — seems like they would rather grab it outta the other one's mouth.

"They love fresh fruits and veggies but will eat table scraps, too. I have seen two of them at a pile of dog poop, eating. I don't kiss them!"

Each turtle in its own way shows off its own personality. The girls seem to hiss, more, according to Croswell.

"I found Murtle on Ms. T and thought he was beating her up, only to discover he was a male and trying to breed. I made him mad and he hissed at me," she said.

"Ms. T likes Flash more than Murtle. The boys tolerate each other — I don't try to feed them together."

Her garden is mostly a shady spot so the turtles love hanging out there among the coolness on hot summer days. Her favorite garden plants include sweet-smelling white ginger, peonies, lily-of-the-valley and hostas. Hummingbirds flock to her Black and Blue salvia and "peanut butter tree," which is often called the butterfly tree for its ability to attract dozens of black swallowtails. Scientifically called Clerodendrum trichotomum, the tree features leaves that smell like peanut butter when rubbed and fragrant flowers that attract hummingbirds and butterflies, followed by black-blue berries that songbirds like.

On occasion, Croswell has sought the advice of turtle experts at the Virginia Living Museum, where Travis Land is herpetology curator.

There can be a variety of turtles that you will see pass through yards throughout the year, but the eastern box turtle, or Terrapene Carolina Carolina, is the only one species that lives life permanently on land, Land said.

These turtles can be highly variable in color — from dark browns, to mixes of bright reds and yellows. However, every individual of this species will always have that iconic, highly-domed shell.

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