Otter bliss

[As I send this, I am in Boston, where we had 23.7″ of snow yesterday, but no otters!].

Otters love to slide, and although they are said to do it in play, they also put it to practical use as a means of locomotion. This is all about sliding.

My videos are taken on my camera, hand-held and wobbly ( a style much admired by avant-garde directors). Nonetheless, from time to time I inflict them on my readers.

Here is a very short clip of a sliding otter, which I have slowed to half-speed. Although I have seen their tracks in the snow I’ve never watched them doing it before. It reminds me in its nonchalance of Nadal sliding to reach a ball on a clay court:

When an otter or two decides to really travel, they can use this slide technique to cover big distances. The other day we had two inches of fresh powdery snow on top of an icy crust on top of a ten-inch base layer. I decided it was too good to miss, so I went out skiing in the woods towards the beaver pond. And there, going across my ski trail, were two parallel otter slide tracks. You can see one in the foreground, heading from my ski trail (bottom right-hand corner) off to the left, and a second one just visible in the background,

It had only stopped snowing an hour or so earlier, so they were absolutely fresh. I needed my snow shoes, so I went home, and changed my equipment. On my return, I first followed the tracks north towards my beaver pond, which is frozen solid. My tiny beagle cleverly discovered the only patch of thin ice, and fell in. Disaster. Just as I was about to throw down my camera and get on my belly to rescue her, she managed to hoist herself out onto the ice. So we went straight home to dry her out.

I phoned a friend, and she and I set off again, on snowshoes, and without the dog. We returned to the beaver pond, and realized they had emerged from the water just where my dog had gone in (!), climbed over the beaver dam, and down to the stream bed. The dam is in the background of this shot at the top of the photo, with the pond invisible behind it:

The otters seemed to have been messing around on the ice, possibly grooming, or even eating a fish? Here is a close up of their prints:

They followed the stream for a short distance (look at the tracks at bottom right of the photo)::

Then they peeled off into the woods, heading who knows where? The tracks were roughly parallel, about 7″ wide, but sometimes they’d part to go on opposite sides of a tree, then rejoin each other:

I used my GPS app to record our walk, and we tracked them from the beaver dam southwards for 0.6Km, the yellow line on the map. Then we ran out of time, and they were still a long away from the nearest water, though they seemed to be heading for the small stream at the bottom of the map, about 0.4Km further on..

For most of the way the ground was more or less level, but sliding was their preferred technique. Occasionally they had to waddle to go up and over (or under) a fallen tree or small boulder, which looked like hard work, but otherwise they slid, putting their paws down for the odd shove. The longest single slide we saw was about 20 feet. Most were six feet or so between boosts. It was a magical close encounter, a window into their lives.

PS Thankyou, Leigh, for your company, your tracking expertise, and your own wonderful blog, Wonder my Way, https://wondermyway.com .

Lassoing lost loons

Not exactly, but it makes for a good headline…

Loons, aka Great Northern Divers, spend their summers on largish lakes like ours in Maine. There they breed, and solicitously proffer minute fish to their chicks:

Photo by Moira Yip

But the lakes freeze in the winter, and the ice is much too thick for them to break through to reach the fish.

Photo by Heinrich Wurm

So they migrate either south, or to the coast. But sometimes the inexperienced young, or the old and sick, leave it too late, and get stranded. They have heavy bones that help them to dive deep, so they can need as much as 1/4 mile of open water as a takeoff runway. This one tried, but never got airborne.

Photo by Heinrich Wurm

Five juveniles found themselves marooned in steadily shrinking pools on our lake last week. What to do? Call Paw Patrol? Bad idea. Rescuing the loons takes planning, expertise, and courage. Getting close will mean venturing onto thin ice, and well-intentioned people put their lives in jeopardy if they don’t understand the risks. Call the experts, don’t do this yourself.

The heroes of this hour were close to home. Heinrich Wurm was on the shore when he heard the loons calling out while hopeful bald eagles were circling overhead; Laura Robinson coaxed the troops into action and contacted Lee Attix our local loon expert and mentor.  The actual rescuers were Bill Hanson,  Lucas Savoy and Chris Persico of Biodiversity Research Institute; Diane Winn from Avian Haven of Freedom, Maine (very appropriate) made sure the birds were healthy before being released to the Atlantic.

They use a 300′ seine (or gill?) net, and dip nets, and they have rafts on the ice to transport the loons, and if necessary for the humans to hold onto. Here they are with the seine/gill net, which they can use to move the loon out of the water and onto thicker ice so they can get closer:

Photo by Laura Robinson

Then the dip net is brought out:

Photo by Laura Robinson

and maneuvered into position:

Photo by Laura Robinson

Finally, success:

Photo by Laura Robinson

The birds are then taken to the lab, where they are examined, weighed, measured, photographed, and banded. Notice the more subdued winter plumage, compared to their dapper black-and-white summer breeding plumage:

Photo by Laura Robinson

They were then triumphantly released on the coast, where they are supposed to be at this time of year!

PS I played no role in this expedition, and can take no credit whatsoever. The photographs in this piece were taken by Laura Robinson and Heinrich Wurm. The rescue team on the ice was made up of Bill Hanson, Chris Persico and Lucas Savoy, backed up by a big team of professionals and volunteers. Well done everyone.

Spotting otters

[In mid-winter here in Maine only a few birds and animals stay in town, and are neither nocturnal not hibernating. So I’ll be returning more than once to the active ones, and interspersing that with archived but never-posted blogs. Today, a break from warblers, and back to the otters.]

A whole summer can go by without a glimpse of an otter. They can stay underwater for up to 8 minutes and swim at 6mph. If they are on the surface, they swim low in the water, barely raising their heads to catch a breath, and they are dark brown shapes in a matching brownish pond.

If they emerge to eat a fish they are often concealed by the thick vegetation in the shallow water at the pond’s edge.

But in winter, the game changes. They are hunting under the ice, and so they can’t breathe on the move, but only by finding a hole and surfacing. They create the holes and keep them open, at least for a while, so they use the same holes all the time. My otters seem to base themselves at a hole for an hour or so, diving under the ice for 2-3 minutes to hunt, then returning to the hole to breathe. They usually come out for half a minute or so, having a little rest, and maybe a little light grooming. If they catch a fish they lie on the ice, crunching away, in full view, and strikingly dark against the snow. All I have to do is watch the holes, and if it happens to be a time and day when they are hunting nearby, I will see them. Even more helpfully, they seem to like the period between about 1pm and 3pm, so I usually go out looking for them right after lunch.

They have one hole relatively near the shore, so I got some closer shots one afternoon.

The one on the right has just emerged and is having a good shake:

This youngster is nuzzling its mother, below (the father plays no role in rearing the young):

At one stage I thought I had been spotted:

One “periscoped” to get a better look:

Then they settled down again:

By now, you are no doubt thinking that winter otter spotting is easy. To dispel that impression, let me point out that the pond is half an hour’s walk each way through sometimes thick snow. I am out every day at least once, sometimes twice, on snowshoes or spikes, for 90 minutes or so per trip, and I can go days or even weeks without seeing a single otter. Today the temperature was 2F, (-17C). No otters. But if it was too easy it might lose its wonder, so I am content.

PS: They can periscope quite far out to improve the view; this shot is taken from further away on another occasion:

Warblers II: A sweetness of Yellow Warblers

My previous two warblers, the Palm Warbler and the Yellow-rumped Warbler, both had partially yellow plumage, so like Malvolio I’ll stick with that hue. Today’s stars are the pedestrianly named Yellow Warblers, who make up for their unimaginative singular moniker by a trio of glorious collective nouns: a sweetness, a stream, or a trepidation. Second in line today, the Common Yellowthroat, also a warbler. They don’t seem to have their own collective noun.

The Yellow Warbler, Setophaga petechia, is widespread in North America, and breeds in Maine. It winters in Mexico and South America. This is a female; I have never seen a male:

You can see why a group of them is called a sweetness.

The Common Yellowthroat, Geothlypis trichas, also breeds here, and it doesn’t go as far south in the winter. The male is striking, with the eponymous yellow throat, a jet-black mask, and white eyebrows.

For a better look at his plumage, I resort to this sad photo of one that flew into my glass screen door, and never regained consciousness.

In the mid-West, the male is also called the Yellow Bandit, for obvious reasons. The female, as usual, is more sedately garbed:

They were nesting near my pond, where I found these two fledglings, in juvenile plumage:

The one on the right seems to think her brother might feed her, but no such luck.

PS In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night Malvolio wears yellow stockings under the false impression that it will delight Olivia, the object of his love. It doesn’t work.

A Reading of Palm Warblers

My first post of 2022, sent from my truck parked outside the library because our internet is down! Clouds and fog are misting the landscape, and rain is threatening . So I’ve decided to cheer myself up by digging out some posts from greener times of year that I never sent. Here goes.

A different times of year we have many species of warbler in Maine. Wood warblers are the more proper name for New World warblers and so far I have seen eleven species. I thought I would show you a few from time to time. Most of them have their own dedicated collective noun and for a group of Palm Warblers it is a ‘reading’. Why? Who knows, but it provided the title of my post!

During the fall migration, small flocks of mixed warblers pass through, heading south. I stood in the woods by the edge of the pond and saw small flitting movements in the lowish branches. It was a Palm Warbler female, dull and brown

but then I saw a male, much brighter and more cheerful.

Palm Warblers, Setophaga palmarum, breed further north in the boreal forests, and they winter in Florida and the Caribbean, hence their name.

The next flutter at the bottom of my field of view, rummaging in the leaf-mold, turned out to be a Yellow-rumped Warbler, Setophaga coronata, rather crudely nicknamed the Butter-butt.

Here is a first-year bird, on a branch:

The male has a yellow cap and strong black markings in breeding plumage, like this one in May:

They are pretty common in the spring as they head north, sometimes in largish flocks, and they do breed here, though mostly further north, and they winter in the southern US and Mexico.

Like all warblers, they are mainly insect-eaters. Bird of the World says that unlike other warblers they eat waxy berries in the fall, but these three were eating beggartick seeds also called tickseed, a Bidens species.

Birds of the World admits they eat the seeds of sunflower and goldenrod, but don’t mention beggartick or the closely related Coreopsis.

Have I made a new scientific discovery??

And a happier 2022 to all of you.

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