Pick a side: Warm-blooded vs cold-blooded

We all know that at one point dinosaurs ruled the world, and then, somehow, us mammals took over. But modern mammal vs reptile encounters can go in either direction. You may well think I am obsessed by otters, but I was truly not thinking about them down in South Carolina. Instead, I was keeping my eyes out for alligators:

There was a small one in my friend’s pond, and I had just got it into focus when what should swim round the corner into the shot but… an otter:

After a brief moment’s reflection, it wisely dived, and that was that.

I started to Google “Do alligators eat otters?”, and what I found astonished me. Story after story showing the reverse: an otter killing and eating a sizable alligator.


Down in the Pantanal, the BBC filmed a family of giant otters winning a fight with a caiman.

Of course, alligators can and do eat otters, but it isn’t considered newsworthy so it barely shows up in a Google search. But “otter eats alligator” turns up dozens of stories!

And then I returned home to Maine, and there was my very own warm-blooded otter, with a large cold-blooded fish, and not an alligator in sight.

So it seems that the mammals still win…

PS The ice is melting, and as soon as some open water appeared so did the waterfowl. There is still plenty of ice, as you can see, but I spotted Canada Geese, Green-winged Teal, Hooded Mergansers, Common Mergansers, Common Goldeneyes, Wood Ducks, and American Black Ducks.

Fighting back

I have spent the last three weeks on an island in South Carolina called Wadmalaw, a very soothing place in the Low Country delta landscape (where Carolina Gold rice was once the principal crop). At low tide the mudflats are the hunting ground of the majestic Great White Egret:

These highly successful three-foot-tall birds are widely distributed, but they mainly breed in warmer climes. This one non-breeding one is in the Cotswolds, by a fresh water stream:

Back in Wadmalaw, they stride along the water’s edge:

pouncing on small fish and crustaceans:

But even shellfish can fight back. This next egret was roosting on the edge of a former rice impoundment ( a small pond dug to serve as a fresh-water reservoir for the rice fields). Look at the raised foot: its toe has been trapped by a mussel:

The poor bird seemed unable to dislodge it:

The ornamental toe-ring did not seem to seriously impede the bird. It did some stretches and downward dogs (downward egrets?):

This is actually a part of its courtship display, called “crouching” and indeed it is in breeding plumage. You can see the long scapular aigrettes (extending beyond the tail):

Also signifying breeding readiness is the greenish skin around the eye, and between the eye and the beak (the lores), and the orange bill.

Eventually this male flew off, mussel dangling below, and joined a second egret deep in the trees on the opposite side of the pond, perhaps its mate. Let’s hope she likes mussels.

PS This bird is probably a male, although females also assume breeding plumage, and do a little displaying once the pair bond is formed. A beautifully detailed description of Great White Egret courtship displays can be found here:

Mock, D. W. (1978b). Pair-formation displays of the Great Egret. Condor 80:159-172.

PPS Here is a short video of a slightly different portion of its mating dance,

Otter III: on the hunt

[After this blog I’ll be in South Carolina for 3 weeks, so the blog will take a break. Maybe I will find a story down there to bring you on my return.]

I thought I was done with otters, but no. Three weeks after my previous encounters, I saw him again. My first glimpse was a small movement of a tiny dark sliver of its head behind a snowbank, near the same air hole it had used before. Pure luck that I was looking in that direction. The top of the head is more or less in the centre of the photo below:

When I moved to higher ground to see over the snowbank, lo and behold it had caught a fish.

My friendly local expert, Ed Poliquin, says it was probably a perch or a sucker. The otter munched:


Looked straight at me in a toothy sort of way:

cast a baleful place at me over his shoulder

and went back in the water.

P.S. I keep calling him ”him”, since he is not able to tell me his preferred pronouns, but it is entirely possible that he is a she. This is the time of year when these otters start to give birth, and she did look rather fat in the one photo I got of her rolling on her back… If that were the case, she would soon disappear for a while, and then reappear in a couple of months with from one to five babies.. You will be the first to know.

P.P.S. A week or so before this, I saw fish jumping out of the water in a tiny patch that wasn’t iced in, and then suddenly something big broke the surface, the water boiled, and the fish went berserk

I have no idea what it was, but I suspect it was an otter hunting under the ice. I waited to see if something might emerge with a fish in its mouth, but no such luck.

Or of course it might have been the Loch Sabattus monster… or a great white shark.