It was a clear, cold, early January day. A water turtle, commonly known as a slider, paddled across a smallish pond in the sandhills of South Carolina. It was a day like so many other days in the turtle’s long life. There was a brief warm period after a two-week cold snap. It was unseasonably warm on this day. Feathery clouds floated high in the early morning sky. There was a very faint breeze, just enough to tickle the leaves on a nearby pin oak which had stubbornly held onto its leaves and would not release them until spring. The sun could not be seen for the day was young and not yet full bright. All of the sliders in the pond became more active on this day as if by some silent signal or command of nature.
Sliders are the racers of the turtle world in the southeast. They can move quickly on land when they need to, especially when they are chasing something to eat, or when a predator is chasing them. This slider was a pretty one, older than any of the other turtles in her pond. At twenty-five, she had outlived most of her kind by at least five years. Because of her age she was a large, over a foot long. While there was some algae growing on her shell, this old one was quite striking. Most yellow-bellied sliders have a prominent patch of yellow on the sides of their heads. This old female had a yellow mark that stretched from the corner of her eye all the way down her neck making her different from all the other sliders in the pond.
A dead fish was floating on the surface of the pond near the northeast shore. This silver fish was actually on of the lucky ones. It was not eaten by a predator. Like the slider, it had lived a relatively long life among the cattails and rushes at the pond’s edges. It died of a fungus common to older fish. It was floating side up, its body curled into an inverted ‘u’ shape with its head and tail bowed severely into the darkly stained water.
The turtle had only recently become active in the brief warming trend, gratefully coming out of semi- hibernation to satisfy her considerable winter hunger. Mating season would be at least six weeks away and she needed to stock up on high-energy foods to last another month of cold weather. She didn’t think about these things, these were highly developed instincts. Her keen senses were tuned to finding food right now, preferably animal food.
After cruising along for some time under the water, grazing on algae, leaves, roots and stems of aquatic plants, she came up for air. Her first breath brought her the scent of high protein food. Something dead. Probably a fish. A small silvery lump was showing near the brush sticking up at the edge of the pond. She dove deep, wanting to surface near her intended meal.
Forty meters away, a gray fox smelled the same dead fish floating on the surface of the pond. He was hungry and not too proud to scavenge. He wasn’t fond of getting wet in weather this cold, but the energy he would gain from eating the fish would more than make up for the energy it would take to become warm again after wading into the pond. He would eat something found dead although he would much rather kill his meat. He preferred rabbits, mice or rats to scavenging. He would even eat berries and other fruit before eating something dead. This being winter, many of the smaller animals were hibernating or near hibernation. Fruit was long gone. Food was scarce in this woodland habitat. He would take what he could get.
This gray fox was an adult male. At twelve pounds he was a big fox. His tail was tipped with black and a black stripe ran up his back and neck giving him the appearance of having a close-cropped black mane. His face and sides had a tawny, almost orange cast. His last litter had left the den eight weeks earlier and now it was time to take care of himself.
He moved cautiously in the direction of the scent. He stared down the hill at the glistening pond. The sky with its golden-edged, striated cirrus clouds was reflected in the perfectly still surface of the pond. He could see the dead fish floating in the rushes near the water’s edge. Instinct told him to wait a few moments before heading down to the water.
The slider was approaching the dead fish from underneath. Through her clear eyelids she spotted it, a little fuzzy from decomposition. She approached cautiously, keenly aware of her surroundings. There weren’t many predators in the pond area large enough to attack a large slider but her instincts had helped her escape birds of prey when she was younger and much smaller. She had also had a run in with a coyote as a young turtle leaving her with a crack at the back left edge of her shell. She didn’t remember these occurrences, but every encounter with predators left her more cautious. It was precisely because of these cautionary instincts that she lived to be as old as she was. As she poked her head above the water it created concentric ripples which spread across the shining surface.
The movement caught the clear golden eyes of the fox, standing motionless on the hillside. His interest increased, thinking there might be more to his meal than a single, small dead fish.
The slider came up from behind the fish. The strong odor of decay capturing its attention. She glanced all around before beginning her meal. As she looked up the hillside to where the fox stood, she did not notice the form of the predator. The fox stood absolutely still. Its tail fur swaying gently in the faint breeze blended in with the gentle movement of the grasses behind. She surveyed the pond next, more concerned about competition for this food than predators. The fish was not very big and she did not want to share the meal with other turtles.
The fox crouched lower to the pine straw-strewn ground, bending its legs and slowly lowering its belly. He straightened his bushy tail behind him to create a smaller view of himself in case the old turtle should spot his movement. The fox crept with incredible stealth toward the still water making sure that his steps made no sound. Each paw felt the ground for potentially crunchy leaves. It was almost as if each paw had a mind of its own. The gray fox made no appreciable sound as he crept toward his prey.
The slider faced the still water of the pond, its tail toward the rise of the sandy bank. The fox’s eyes were fixed on her, his mind in total clear focus. For him nothing else in the universe existed except for this moment, this place, this prey.
When it was about a meter from the pond the fox leapt. His jump made a small crunching sound as one paw crushed a golden oak leaf by the water’s edge. The slider had time to register the danger. In the space of less than a second, the turtle abandoned the dead fish and pushed off the bottom of the pond with its strong-clawed feet toward the deeper water at the center of the pond. It was a moment too late for the old slider. The fox was on the turtle in a flash. Teeth bared, tail puffed out, ears laid back against its head, muscular hind legs bunched and braced, it was a blur of gray-orange fury.
The sun broke through the clouds and beamed through the atmosphere in beautiful curtains of misty light. One of these beams found the fox at the shore of the pond tearing and pulling the meat from the old turtle’s shell. The fox, wary of other predators and scavengers, kept looking around ready to defend his hard won meal. Vultures circled above effortlessly, waiting for the last few scraps of the fox’s kill. Their flight feathers fanned like black fingers silhouetted against the radiant blue morning light.