Turtles slap each other's eyes as part of their mating rituals.
I had no idea until I saw this seemingly taunting behavior at George C. McGough Nature Park, a spot of wilderness in Largo that borders the bay by the Narrows. I'd heard that the park had many bales of turtles (that's what you call a group of turtles, either a bale or a nest), but I had no idea there were so many in a relatively small area.
The pond by the entrance has sliders, softshells and other species of aquatic turtles. Some are native while many are that they're descendants of former pets.
Visitors can feed the turtles if they bring change for turtle food and the turtles know this. The vibrations of my feet on the turtle dock brought these mossy-shelled reptiles over to me so fast I'll never think of turtles as slow again.
There's lots to see and explore at McGough like the ponds, cypress trees and the bay stands a strand of pines and palms that evoke images of Florida before Narvaez or LeMoyne came to town in the 16th century.
At points the tree cover is so thick that it feels like twilight rather than mid-day. Walls of spiky palms and canopies of towering pines buffer bridge noise and let breezes but not the sun waft along the paths. Some paths here are paved, while crushed shell or pine duff the lines of others. Everything sounds louder when you can’t hear the thrum of the city: lizards on leaves sound like squirrels, and squirrels sound like raccoons as they scamper from branch to branch. I am alone in the wilderness.
The park has an elevated boardwalk that winds through the palm forests and leads to picnic shelters as well as the bay. Waxy mangroves close in around the pier that stretches out into the bay, a thin red spit in a green shallow bay.
Gopher tortoises, hard-shelled land turtles the size of a small dog with a hearty appetite, also call this park home. These greenish-brown tortoises dig out burrows under trees or grasses and tunnel down 20 or 30 feet. Snakes and lizards share the burrow with the tortoise getting the big room at the end for the 60 or so years it is alive.
Along the path is evidence of the park’s battles with Brazilian pepper trees and air potatoes- piles of brush waiting for disposal. Volunteers cut the peppers down, then dig out the trunks and roots. They also collect air potatoes which are vines of potatoes that will twist around vegetation and strangle it in an effort to survive.
The path leads back, after a fashion, to the pond by the nature center. The turtles wait, slapping at each other’s eyes and watching an anhinga dive for fish.
Overcome with guilt, I head into the nature center and get a cup of turtle food. I step back out to the turtle pier and start tossing turtle food. In their frenzy they pile atop one another to get the food. The ones that don’t pile still slap at each other with their fat toes.
It’s like a middle school lunchroom food fight, except the end result is more turtles and, hopefully, a safe place for them in this wild city park.