The otter dynasty

Last winter, I showed you photos of an otter on my pond, and commented on March 1 that she seemed a little fat. She then disappeared from view at just the time of year when pregnant females retreat to their dens and prepare to give birth.

Twice this summer I have glimpsed what looked like a pair of otters, one much smaller than the other. And now I have proof.

They typically give birth between February and April, and the young stay with the mother for up to ten months, or through the early part of the first winter. They have 2-4 young, and in the past I have seen an adult with two young ones, but not more. This time I just saw the one youngster, and it must be somewhere between 8 and 11 months, so it could be getting close to setting out on its own. Right now, though, it is still nuzzling affectionately up to its mother:

After a few moments the mother decided to go fishing:

And somewhat reluctantly the youngster followed her:


The next day I saw just the mother, but the youngster was chirping in the distance, and the mother was clearly quite agitated, as this video shows.

The next day, a single otter again, but I think it was the young one because I glimpsed that white patch on its side. It looks rather as if the young one is making long independent forays on its own, like any teenager, and sooner or later it just won’t come back, and she will be an empty-nester. Or maybe she has to shove it out into the big bad world…

But then, today, Christmas Day, a wonderful sight. Normally I would be inside cooking and eating, but my family couldn’t reach us because of Covid contacts, or ice on the roads (some of them will come tomorrow instead), so I went out in the snow. And there were three otters, far away, blurred by snow, but definitely three of them.

So I am sharing my Christmas gift with you, and I hope that everyone had a wonderful holiday, delayed or on time, with family or friends if at all possible.

The secret egrets

[This post was written but never posted after a trip to Florida in 2019, and recently updated to include Maine.]

Florida has three white egrets, the Snowy Egret, the Great Egret and the Cattle Egret. The Cattle Egret follows behind cattle for the insects stirred up by their passing, and in Florida they have learnt to follow the suburban lawnmowers instead!

This Great Egret flew through the swamp, thoughtfully doing a heron fly-past for my benefit:

Egret and heron

The smaller Snowy Egret is an exquisite little bird, equally at home in the swamp

Snowy egret

or by the seashore

Snowy egret

This one is actually running after its prey in the surf, instead of just standing still and waiting for its victim to come into range.

Those flowing plumes on the back of the head are the source of the name “egret”, after the French “aigrette”, for an ornament made of feathers.

These became so popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries that vast numbers of birds, especially in Florida, were shot to supply the fashion world. Eventually, the trade was brought to a halt in America by a successful campaign spearheaded by women:

PS: The Snowy Egret, Egretta thula, might remind you of the Little Egret, Egretta garzetta, of Europe and Africa, but they are different species, and the Great White Egret, Ardea alba egretta, is not even in the same genus, but more closely related to the herons.

PPS: Even the more pedestrian Cattle Egret, Bubulcus ibis, can be exciting out of context. In April I saw one in a flooded field in Maine, well north and inland of where it was supposed to be. It was in breeding plumage (the reddish areas), and the last breeding egrets seen in Maine were on the coast in 1995. It has never been reported in Oxford County on eBird until this sighting.

It was hunting in a flooded field, where it caught a small snake or huge worm:

Not to worry, though, their population is secure: even if Maine is a stretch, they famously expanded their range at explosive speed throughout North America during the 20th century, so they are a success story in the world of birds. Their populations reached saturation in many places, and then declined again, but they are classified as of Least Concern.

Cranes: beloved in both Maine and Bhutan

[In 2018 I did a blog that was partly about these cranes, but I had no decent photos. So this is a closer look.]

Sandhill cranes, Antigone canadensis, are majestic birds, up to 4ft 6in tall with a wingspan of over 7 feet, that gather in vast flocks in parts of the USA, and sometimes wander calmly around golf courses and subdivisions. But around us in Maine, they are novel and exotic creatures, still skittish near humans, having only established themselves as a breeding flock in the neighborhood fairly recently.

They seem to be attracted by an area of rich flat farmland with fields of turf grass, corn (maize) and occasionally sunflowers, where they forage in the daytime. When I wrote this in early November these fields had recently been harvested, perfect for gleaning.

The young are called colts, maybe because of those long spindly legs? They lack the red foreheads of the adults.

At dusk, they fly a mile or so north to a fen at the edge of the lake where they spend the night. This flock numbered about 30 birds.

They make rather charming sounds, surprisingly like small chickens, as they fly in. I failed to capture this, but you can hear it on this video:

The best view of their evening passegiatta is from the lake, but if they see you they abort their landing and divert to an alternative roosting area.

We tried hiding under camouflage nets, but they still saw us. Last year, though, they landed in the gloaming, and settled in:

My friend Heinrich Wurm, who invites me out on his boat from time to time, took this wonderful photo:

Soon now they leave for New Mexico, where they spend the winter in their tens of thousands in the poetically named Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

Back at the farm, a lone ultralight aircraft floats above the farmlands, searching in vain for the departed cranes:

PS It is not only Maine that loves their cranes. The world has 15 species of crane. The Black-necked Crane, Grus nigricollis, winters in the Phobjikha valley in Bhutan, arriving in early November 2010:

They are sacred to the Bhutanese, so their arrival is celebrated at the Gangtey monastery with the wonderful Crane Festival. These children are doing the Crane Dance:

Here they are in close-up:

watched by the monks (and the whole village).

and nowadays by a goodish number of tourists. The cranes need all the love they can get: there are only around 10,000 left.

Two thousand miles of beavers: 2

Back at the ranch (well, my pond in Maine, to be more precise), the beaver has been building its lodge. It still seems to be alone, which worries me. But it’s working hard, if somewhat ineffectually. In this case it cut through a clump of three sizable trees, and failed to fell any of them. (The lodge can be seen in the distance).

Back at the lodge..

The lodge is built up with layers of fresh mud, and fresh branches. He works entirely at night, I’ve never managed to catch him in the act. But every day there are small changes, more mud, new branches, or both. These photos are taken over a seven week period from September 16th to November 8th:

While the beaver was doing this, Bruce was cutting a new trail further up the pond’s shore, and we had marked the route with pieces of orange tape tied to trees. On November 8th we discovered that the beaver had been at work at the end of the new trail:

And the next day, November 9th, when I photographed the lodge on a frosty morning, there was an orange flag at the top:

I think it had been tied to that tree, and after he cut it down he limbed it and dragged one branch out to his lodge, complete with tape. At least he didn’t swallow it, which could have been disastrous. I have carefully picked up every scrap of remaining tape.

PS Peter Ellison sent me this wonderful photo from southern New Hampshire of an East Coast beaver aspiring to be Andy Goldsworthy, this time by extending an old stone wall into a sinuous dam:

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