Head-to-tail eating, otter style

[This post focusses on their diet and their digestion, and may not be for everyone! You may want to skip two of the later photos, but the second and final video should raise a smile, trust me.]

My otters like the sunshine, and they are late risers, waiting till the temperature rises to its peak in the afternoon to put in an appearance. I look for them daily, and two days ago we had an unseasonably warm day, 57F, and there they were at 2.30pm for the first time in several weeks.

Otters are carnivores, and they eat fish, crustaceans, and from time to time small reptiles, mammals or birds. This one caught a good sized fish, probably a sucker, which is the preferred prey because they are slow moving and take less energy to catch.

The two below have one each

They eat the entire fish, crunching it up with powerful jaws. It clearly takes some work:

as does the swallowing.

The video below shows one munching away while a second one comes and goes empty-mouthed. Once the meal was complete, the first one went off hunting again for its second course.

What goes in must come out, but they have a very effective digestion, so what is left is a black and tarry residue. (Skip the next 2 photos if you prefer, but don’t miss the final video.)

If you find old scat that has been rained on for a wile, the tar dissolves to reveal fish scales, and tiny fragments of crustacean carapaces.

Sometimes the scat includes insect parts, such as dragonflies, but they may have first been eaten by the fish, which were in turn eaten by the otter. The food pyramid in action.

I had my camera set on video and focussed on both otters, when one left the icehole and set off across the ice for no clear reason. It took me some time to work out why it was doing a jig in the middle of the pond.

If you can’t work it out on a first viewing, watch it again, on full screen if possible! And enjoy that little slide.

They need about 2-3lb of fish per day, and hunt for up to 50% of their day. During the thirty minutes that I watched them I saw these two catch five fish between them, so they seem to be doing OK, and have survived the winter so far. Then the temperature plummeted and the winds whipped up and I retreated, underdressed.

PS The research on their digestive system seems to have been done largely on captive animals with a very different diet. They are known to have a high metabolic rate and a fast digestive system. They do not stick around in highly polluted rivers, but as water quality improves they have been returning.

PPS Sadly, trapping of these stunning animals is still permitted in Maine. The season runs from Oct 31-Dec 31. Population figures are hard to find: in 1988 they were estimated at 18,000, and the annual “harvest” runs around 600 p.a.

Warblers III: A corsage of Magnolia Warblers

[Back to warblers, after a week in Boston away from my personal wildlife patch, where the most exciting thing I saw was a purple finch.]

For me, many of these warblers look so similar that even after hours with a bird book I’m not sure I’ve got it right. Luckily if I register them on eBird with a photo, I will be quickly corrected if I mess up. The ones below have been through the process!!

A group of Magnolia Warblers, Setophaga magnolia, is known as a corsage, suggesting a link to the plantations and debutantes of the American South, through which it migrates en route to its winter home in Central America. In fact, it is named after the tree in Mississippi in which the species was first identified in 1810. This is a female in its first winter, with a distinctive grey neckband.

It has a barred tail, which it often fans out like this (terrible photo, but you get the idea!):

The Pine Warbler, Setophaga pinus, is dingier, but with a gentle charm:

A group of these is called a cone, easy enough to remember! Maine is the northern edge of their breeding range. Unusually among the insectivorous warblers, their digestive system adapts to allow them to eat seeds in the fall and winter.

The less common Bay-breasted Warbler, Setophaga castanea , is rather dowdy in its non-breeding plumage. This photo, as you can see, was caught when it briefly settled on a twig; this is a non-breeding female or immature bird.

Today’s final warbler is the much more striking and easy to identify Chestnut-sided Warbler, Setophaga pensylvanica,

This male is desperate to attract a mate:

They are common around me, in an area where small young saplings are moving in. I found this nest in the winter-time, and fits the descriptions and photos of one of theirs:

Fly-by-night squirrels move in

Maine has two species of Flying Squirrel, Northern and Southern (oddly!). The Southern ones, Glaucomys volans, are smaller, chipmunk-sized, and have white bellies. They are the ones that live around my big hickory tree. They are strictly nocturnal, so I put out a game camera, and got this video:

They build big dreys more than a foot across, and if they can infiltrate they like warm dry attics, like mine. This winter I discovered a large spherical pink mass of insulation in an attic closet, clearly excavated from between my rafters, next to a rolled up camping mattress.

Unfortunately I didn’t think of photographing it before I gently prized it open, to reveal a cavity in the centre:

I carefully removed the top section and turned it over. The whole interior was beautifully lined with dried grass:

Apparently flying squirrels, unlike our other squirrel species, are fastidiously clean, and they never defecate in their nests.

Flying squirrels don’t actually fly, they glide, using flaps of skin that link their wrists to their ankles, and making them almost square in flight! This terrific set of images was made by Stan Tekiela and comes from the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer website. Click to access marapr2019_young_naturalists.pdf

In 2019 the BBC Autumnwatch team brought sophisticated infra-red night cameras to my back yard and filmed the flying squirrels.

Needless to say, they got much better video! The cameraman was Mark Yates and the voiceover is Chris Packham.

Many years ago we found a terrified little flying squirrel in broad daylight in the bathroom. It had got in somehow, and was trapped. We opened the window, closed the door, and left it to escape, which it did. I do so wish I had taken a photo; it remains the only one I have ever seen in daylight.

PS Squirrels in the house can do serious damage. To see what they can do, look at the photo below:

This hole in the floorboards of my shed was gnawed from underneath by a squirrel, mostly likely a red squirrel, while I was away and the shed was closed up, to get at some sunflower seeds inside. The grey thing in the top left is the toe of my boot, for scale. A good thing it wasn’t my kitchen door instead.

Counting cardinals

The flamboyant Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis, is out of place in generally discreet New England. The female has the good taste to keep her red plumage to a few decorative touches on underwing, tail and crest, and of course that beak:

But the male is full-on gaudy:

They live here all-year round, and in the winter they frequent bird-feeders and bring a touch of fire to the monotone landscape:

How they survive the winter temperatures is beyond me: the night after I took this picture it was -16F, or -27C.

They are middle-sized birds, smaller than a blue jay:

or a red squirrel:

Their beaks are designed for seed-eating:

They are estimated to number around 110 million, so they are not endangered. In fact their population is slightly increasing in the northern part of their range, including Maine, while slightly decreasing in the south. Climate change??

They are socially monogamous during the breeding season, and pairs may even winter over together, but this winter so far I have only a solitary male. You will be delighted to hear that both sexes sing, and mated pairs perform duets to strengthen their bond, including counter-singing where one echoes or repeats what the other has just sung. Not sure whether this would work well for me and my husband. Males also counter-sing when they encounter neighboring males, to announce their territorial claims. This recording is a male and female pair counter-singing. It is unusually long for cardinals.

(Macaulay Library ML 54675. Sylvia Halkin )

PS For a human counterpart of the male cardinal’s color and cocky demeanor I offer you this satirical painting of a different sort of cardinal by the 19th century French painter Vibert. It is aptly entitled “The Preening Peacock”. He, of course, does not have a mate to sing to.

I took the picture from this interesting blog about Vibert, hitherto unknown to me: http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/2013/03/viberts-cardinals.html

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