Kowabunga! Desert Nomads

Observing nature, especially in a desert environment, requires cautious peering under scrub oak and cholla. It’s always wise to gently part the razor sharp leaves of plants like beargrass and banana yucca with a long stick. Everything seems well armed with spines, thorns or prickles. But look you must, because you never know what you might find cooling off in the shade of a big leafed buffalo gourd or making a noon meal of a prickly pear fruit in the shadows of fan-shaped pads. 

But when exploring it’s wise to always, always remember you might be surprised by a snake. So imagine our relief and delight when on a stretch of dusty trail we encountered our very first desert box turtle!

A true nomad of the southwest.

It’s hard to believe that 5 years ago we were living in North Carolina, in the small village of Oriental, along the intracoastal waterway. It was usually hot and humid and very wet; the perfect environmental for aquatic turtles. We frequently saw sliders and snappers journeying about their home territory in search of a mate. This intrepid nature of theirs unfortunately took them across the many roadways that crisscrossed the piney forests. Our self-assigned mission was to rescue as many wandering turtles as possible, preventing them from becoming roadkill. In 8 years we rescued turtles by the 100s, sometimes stopping traffic, “airlifting” them in their direction of travel to see them safely across deadly roads. 

Desert Box Turtle “airlifted” for inspection

Today.  New Mexico. Hot and dry ….. an unlikely environment to encounter a turtle? Even though there are 10 species of turtles living mostly in and surrounding perennial rivers that flow through the state, our turtle encounters in the last 5 years have totaled Zero ……. until this year.

A shy Desert Box Turtle

A few months ago we were shocked to see a large (almost 1 foot long) red-eared slider crossing a busy road! We rushed through a u-turn just in time to save her from a too close encounter with oncoming traffic. Sliders are aquatic turtles and knowing there was no free flowing water anywhere close, we gifted her to some good friends who have an ideal pond and where she would not be displacing any other turtles (red-eared sliders are not native to NM, except in the Pecos River drainage, many miles east). Her name is Bilbo (since she was found wandering far and wide) and seems happy in her new home.

Work in Progress (WIP) on desert box turtle sketch

Then earlier this month we were completing a hike just east of Albuquerque when Roy almost stepped on a good-sized (5”) box turtle, who seemed more interested in noshing on a prickly pear “tuna” (a big juicy red fruit) than a hiking human! What a surprise for us both, and a mystery too. What was his species of box turtle? Was she a pet store escapee? Maybe she’s in her home territory moving slowly and with determination under cover of desert vegetation? 

WIP … loving the details of the turtle’s beautiful, but scuffed carapace

After close examination and a bunch of photos (for identification purposes) we decided she surely must be one of the native turtles, and then moved her away from the trail where she resumed plodding through dryland grasses and shrubs.

Naturally curious about this species, I learned she’s a Desert Box Turtle, a true native of the desert southwest, and one of two subspecies of the Western Box Turtle.  Awesome! Digging deeper for information turned up quite a bit of fun facts about this turtle, ranging from identification markings, r where they can be found, their habitat and habits, diet, breeding and predators. 

Page 1 complete after painting in a head shot of the turtle

Now that we know a bit about box turtles and that they can be found in New Mexico, we will definitely keep looking. Maybe someday (sooner than 5 years from now!) we will encounter another.

WIP on Desert Box Turtle plastron (ventral or underside of the shell)
Page 2 complete

Do you have turtles roaming your neighborhood? I’d love to know!


  1. Jean Mackay says:

    You put tons of work into these pages Barb! Box turtles have so much detail, which you have observed and drawn beautifully. I really like all the additional elements you included, too.


    1. Thanks so much Jean! Drawing all the detail may seem tedious to some, but I love the challenge of noticing all the little things. Some day I’ll figure out how to leave more white space on my pages, but this approach really helps me learn and remember best. And with this little box turtle, I couldn’t resist expanding into a second page.


  2. How wonderful to discover a box turtle and to “airlift” rescue all those turtles from traffic years ago! I do find it interesting that the box turtle lifespan is less in captivity! Lovely drawing of the shell pattern and I wonder what caused the scuffs on its shell?


    1. Thanks so much for the comments, Karen. Thoroughly enjoyed drawing this box turtle. Really brought back memories. I was also surprised about the lifespan differences in captivity vs in the wild. And we had no idea what caused the scuffs on both the carapace and plastron. Maybe she got sandwiched between something, chomped on when she was younger? If only we could talk turtle!


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