WAREHAM — Plants are apparently not the only thing growing in Wareham Community Gardens. An empty plot made the perfect hatching ground for three baby turtles. Two Eastern box turtles and one painted turtle made their appearance on Tuesday.
"The painted turtle was a surprise," said turtle researcher and rescuer Don Lewis, also known as "the Turtle Guy."
Lewis was called to the gardens in June after Wareham resident Bob Brady told Lewis an Eastern box turtle nest had been found in someone's garden plot. Lewis, his wife and research partner Sue Wieber Nourse and Brady moved the nest to an empty plot and covered it with a predator excluder cage to keep it safe.
When Lewis checked on the nest Tuesday, he found a second nest there — and the painted turtle hatchling inside. Apparently, a mother turtle had made her nest there before the rescuers had moved the Eastern box nest to the spot.
"Obviously, this 'Turtle Guy' has begun to think like a turtle," Lewis said.
The Eastern box turtle is a species of special concern in Massachusetts, which is the lowest of three tiers of protected species in the state. A land turtle, it lives in woodlands and back yards. They grow to be 6 inches long and have a dome-shaped, orange and yellow shell.
Painted turtles are aquatic, and fresh water turtles are more prolific than Eastern box turtles. The painted turtles will grow to 8 or 9 inches long and have shallower shells.
Under better conditions, many more turtle babies would have hatched from the nests. But the weather and small predators, such as insects, meant that only a few survived.
"It's been a cool and chilly spring and summer, which has not been good for turtle productivity," Lewis said. "Normally, there would be three to five box turtles in a nest and normally about five to eight painted turtles."
The hatchlings were slightly dehydrated, Lewis said, so he bathed them in some fresh water on Tuesday "to give them a head start." In a day or two, they will be released back at their natal site.
"The one sure thing that I have discovered in my afterlife — retirement — is that turtles build community and tiny baby turtles bind people together in magical ways," Lewis said. "If a community garden is good, then a community turtle garden is even better."