The hardest part of conserving and studying snapping turtle nests is, by far, finding a nest. Snapping turtles lay eggs on dry land, away from flood planes. Often this is about 100-500 meters away from the female's usual habitat, but sometimes it can be up to a mile away. Quite often we see these turtle nests in odd places such as front lawns, man-made mulch hiking trails, gravel on the shoulder of roads, and even loose gravel driveways. Between lawn mowers, foot traffic, and car tires, these turtles are not stacking the odds of survival in their favor. I personally have raised snapping turtlehatchlings that I have found trying to cross 3 or 4 roads to get to a water source that would seem to be a 2 day marathon for the little guy.
Locating a snapping turtle nest
Knowing when: Snapping turtles dig their nest and lay eggs in May and June. If you are stalking for a nest, you should start in early May. (We'll explain in a bit) If you are scouting for a nest, you can do this through July and August.
Scouting for a nest: This is the hardest and most unsuccessful method of finding a nest. This involves pacing the perimeter of a section of a pond or lake, starting at about 40 yards out and incrementally moving farther away from the water. Doing a thorough sweep of a section of land, be on the lookout for a circle, about 10 inches in diameter, of loose, tilled up dirt. This can be on high ground in grassy spots, leafy spots, mulch, sometimes slightly recessed. See how this can be difficult? It can be anywhere up to a mile away from water.
Stalking for a nest: This is time consuming, but can be relaxing and highly effective. Right as the snapping turtles are getting ready to begin nesting, simply sit back in your lawn chair and your binoculars and observe turtle behavior at a pond or lake. Spending your evenings observing turtles leaving the water to go on land, you can stay a good distance away and watch the turtle dig the nest. If you can, stick around and see if she begins laying the eggs because sometimes they just dig nests to test out the spot. If it is a backyard pond, ideally you can even get some cameras pointing out the back porch for some of the time you can't be there observing.
Once you know the nesting location, do not dig up the nest unless you are highly skilled at taking care of turtle eggs. The embryos attach to the top side of the egg shell and rolling them over will kill them. Not to mention having to incubate the eggs even if you do successfully transport them. The safest way to capture the hatchlings is to make a fine mesh box that you can set over the nest without disturbing it. Starting in mid August, begin checking the mesh cage once or twice a day, everyday. If a few hatchlings emerge, remove them and place the mesh box back over the nest until you are certain that all viable eggs have hatched.