Snapping a Snapping Turtle

Snapping turtles, Chelydra serpentina, are ugly brutes, and not to be messed with. I’ve never had good enough photos before to do a post about them, but now I have. One was crossing the road near my house this morning, and two nice people had stopped to help it cross, and prevent any cars from running it over. When it made it into the woods, I got my camera.

It was raining, so the shell looks shiny black, but when it is dry it is a dark brown, and this one was about 14 inches long. It has a long tail (above), and thick strong legs with huge claws (below):

and its body sort of oozes out from under the shell:

Unlike other turtles they can’t fully retract their heads and legs into their shell, so they display what Wikipedia calls “a combative disposition” when they feel threatened. They have been known to bite through a broomstick.

When the head is fully out, it is quite long, with a charmingly retroussé nose:

You can see if you look carefully that its upper lip has a sharp central beak , and it has little round nostrils:

They have remarkable eyes, with a sort of tortoiseshell iris, which seems appropriate.

They live in ponds, lakes and streams, and they can give a very nasty bite, so little children are warned not to dangle their toes in the water, just in case. They eat pretty much anything, about 1/3 plants and the rest fish, frogs, carrion, insects, crayfish, ducklings, you name it, including possibly children’s toes.

Like all turtles they sunbathe, to bring their body temperature up high enough for their metabolism to work properly. But they mainly sunbathe on the water’s surface, and quickly dive back down deep if they hear someone coming, so this is a rare look at one out of the water, not a great photo, and I’m not actually totally sure it is a Snapping Turtle rather than the much rarer endangered Blanding’s Turtle, but still:

Females do not breed for 15-20 years. They come up on land and find a nice sandy place to dig a suitable hole and lay 20-40 eggs, starting in April through to June, which may have been why this one was in the woods. I took this photo down in Massachusetts a few years ago; she has buried her eggs and is heading off, never to see her offspring again:

80% will be eaten by predators, such as raccoons and foxes, but for the lucky few, in the fall, after three to six months, the babies hatch:

Hard to believe that if this tiny creature lives for 100 years it can grow to 60 pounds (though most are between 10 and 35 pounds).

Bonanza: beaver and bald eagle in one glorious day

Every now and again the stars align.

The other morning, I had tied my long-suffering dog to a tree and crept quietly to the shoreline, stopping behind some small trees. Nothing. Then in the distance I saw a V-shaped wake: coming straight at me, so fast it created a bow wave all its own, was my beaver.

It curved gently to the left, slowed, and headed straight for the shoreline, without noticing me.

I realized it was going to get out of the water, and I switched to movie mode. To my delight, I realized I was watching it making a scent mound. Beavers scrape up leaves, grass, any vegetation either from the bottom of the pond, or on the shoreline (as here). Then they deposit castoreum scent from their castor sacs, and also secretions from their anal glands. This marks their territory, and tells other beavers if they are family, near neighbors, or unknown. Watch what this beaver does; it is very quick, and you may need to watch it twice. (There is also an elegant dive at the end.):

Beaver are vulnerable out of the water, which is why they don’t waste any time. Notice that the beaver first makes the mound, then lowers its bottom onto it. Dogs, on the other hand, first defecate, then cover it with soil.

And here is the grassy heap he/she leaves behind (both sexes do this, but males do it more!). The water is at top right, and the mound of dead grass is right by the water’s edge. I bent down and tried to smell the castoreum (after all, I’ll never get a fresher chance than this) , but no dice.

Then he (or she) returned to the water:

In the afternoon, I was back, palely loitering behind a scruffy tree, when a huge shape swooped down and across the pond. Bald eagle. It went up into a tall pine, and I think it had something it was eating, hard to tell from so far away. But then, to my delight, it flew down and landed on a perch thoughtfully provided by the morning’s chief actor, the beaver, or one of its relatives..

Beaver mounds are excellent vantage points, and this eagle settled down for a few minutes, still very far away, but in full view. It stretched and organized its wings:

then took a patrician pose, gazing out over the pond:

After a while something caught its eye. It took off:

and rocketed back low across the pond, as if locked onto a target:

I realized it was aiming for two terrified ducks, which rose in a panic (the goose in the background didn’t budge.)

The ducks had good reason to be scared. Bald eagles will stoop onto waterfowl, though their success rate is apparently low, so this rather feeble attempt may be typical! It never did dive on them, just flew away, taking its magic with it.

Flying 20,000 miles a year

[My last South Carolina post, I think.]

Talk about airmiles. The Red Knot, Calidris canutus rufa , a sandpiper, enjoys the reputation of undertaking one of the longest migrations in the natural world, a round-trip as long as 19,000 miles. They breed in the high Arctic, but they over-winter all along the coasts of the Americas, as far south as Patagonia. This map shows their range in the Americas:

They weight in at under 5oz, yet they can fly 5000 miles without touching the ground.

In South Carolina, there is a population that over-winters there, but it is also a stop-over point for birds who have come from much further south and are on their way to their Arctic honeymoon hotels. The numbers are huge:

These are on a low-lying unoccupied sandbar island, now protected from humans during migration and nesting season, called Deveaux Bank. All the photos are taken from a boat offshore, which was bobbing around, so they are a little quavery! It is serenely beautiful:

What, for the Red Knots, makes it “vaut le détour”, as the Guide Michelin would say, is the presence of vast numbers of prehistoric horseshoe crabs mating and laying small green eggs.

The eggs are a rich and very digestible food source to support these birds on their long migration, but the horseshoe crabs were over-fished, both because they make good bait for fishermen, and because scientists use their blue blood (yes, really, see below for more*) to test for bacterial contamination. Probably as a result, Red Knot numbers dropped sharply in the 2000’s, and in 2014 this subspecies was listed as threatened by the US Endangered Species Act.

Once they reach breeding season, their plumage acquires a reddish color, as you can see in the image below from the All About Birds website:

but at the moment they are grayish buff. In flight, the birds have a white line running the length of their wings , like the center bird in the photo below (The larger reddish bird with a long bill is a Marbled Godwit. )

Deveaux Bank is crammed with birds, including a colony of Brown Pelicans

On our return boat journey to Wadmalaw Island, we saw a Long-billed Curlew, apparently the first seen around here in some time, with an oystercatcher curled up beneath his feet:

Long-billed curlew

A magical day off the shore of this ever-changing sandbank island.

P.S. I am very grateful to Dana Beach, who took me to Deveaux, and who was instrumental through the Coastal Conservation League in getting it protected in 2015. Here is some more information:

Deveaux Bank

*For more about the scientific use of horseshoe crab blood, read this:

A classical woodpecker

The Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus, also known as a logcock, has a splendid Latin name, about which more later. To start, let’s find one.

In the woods, the first thing you notice is a pile of wood chips,

and when you look up, you see a strange rectangular hole, which looks as though it was made by a human with a fretsaw.

Then you might hear hammering, and there he is.

They are the largest woodpecker in North America, 16-19inches in length. You can tell this one is a male by his full red cap that extends all the way to his beak, and by his red ‘moustache’ (which is actually alongside his bill not above it), and he has a fine powerful bill:

He uses that bill to bash away noisily, which is usually how you find them. .

This one is excavating for food, and he has now found something and is probing deep in his hole, with his crest raised and his eyes half closed in ecstasy:

Look closely at the shape of that red crest and cap. Now stay with me here: look carefully at the seal of the US Senate, below, and the red shape in the top center.

Does it remind you of anything? Despite appearances, the US Senate did not put a woodpecker on their seal. Instead, for quite different reasons, both refer to the felt cap worn by freed slaves in late Republican Rome, or pileus in Latin. Here Odysseus is wearing a white one:

But by the Renaissance it is usually red, and signified eastern origins, here on the Kings from the East,

Then it was adopted by the French revolutionaries, who referred to it as the Bonnet Rouge, or the Phrygian cap.

The Senate chose it as a symbol of liberty, and the ornithologists chose it simply for the physical resemblance between the pileus and the woodpecker’s cap, and named this bird Dryocopus pileatus.

PS John J Audobon’s 1838 text on this bird is well worth reading:

In the pink: Roseate spoonbills

Roseate spoonbills, Platalea ajaja, are an ill-assorted mixture of delicate beauty and clumsy absurdity. Their elegant feathers shade from white through shell-pink to coral, but their comically oversized bills are spatula-shaped with rounded ends. They are a New World species, and I have seen them once before, in the Pantanal in Brazil. In the USA, they are limited to coastal areas in Florida and Texas

To my delight, there is one tiny (non-breeding) colony of them here in South Carolina, at the Donnelley Wildlife Management Area, and the conservationist Dana Beach explained how to find it, so off we went. We drove around in a circle for a while, failing to see anything, and just as we were on the verge of deciding to abort, there they were.

They are waders, nearly three feet tall, and mainly feed on crustaceans and fish.

The crustaceans are responsible for the pink coloration of their feathers (just as they are for flamingoes), which get pinker with age.

Lesser Yellowlegs and Roseate Spoonbill

They feed by scything their bills from side to side as they slowly move forward:

The bills are translucent:

We admired them for a while, then decided to picnic a little further down the pond. They moved too, and as we continued to watch we realized that they were behaving rather oddly. They were clustered together, poking at something in the water.

It was an alligator, and they poked and pecked at it for more than five minutes, and the alligator was astonishingly not goaded into retaliation.

Occasionally it did spook them a little:

But not enough to scare them off:

We have since asked around, and failed to find any reports of this behavior, except for one story in the Daily Mail!–alligator-fortunately-unwanted-attention-didnt-make-deadly-reptile-snap.html

Alligators are in fact useful to spoonbills, because they eat predators like raccoons who might otherwise threaten the spoonbills’ land-based nests, so I don’t know why the spoonbills harassed it (nor why it didn’t fight back). One possibility is that its skin was encrusted with tiny edible creatures that spoonbills enjoy, and that the alligator is happy to be rid of, just as tiny fish groom bigger fish.

After all that activity, the show ended with a grooming session:

PS All of these are juveniles, since they have a completely feathered head. After about 15 months it becomes pale yellowish green and nearly bald.

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.

A Mink at Home

In England, mink are an invasive foreign species, but here in Maine they are native and they stay active through the long hard winters. They are secretive, and mostly nocturnal,  but last winter I did see one running around one of my ponds. Unusually for me,  I had no camera.  Sod’s Law, as we say in England. On another day, though, I discovered where one of them lived.

American Mink, Neovison vison, live in dens usually near water, under rocks or tree roots.  I was walking towards a beaver wetland when I found this one.  I saw some scat, and I realized that I was looking at a midden (a place where an animal or a group of animals habitually defecates) in the lower left of the photo below, and then I realized that a few feet away was a large hole, in the center of the picture, just the right size for a 2-foot long mink,.


There was a well-worn trail connecting the two: clearly a fastidious animal who preferred to use the outhouse. Not unlike humans, really. *


If you look closely at the scat (optional!), it contains fish scales and fish skin, typical of mink, who can swim 100 feet underwater (including under the ice) when they hunt. They are carnivores, and will eat small mammals like muskrats and chipmunks, and also snakes and frogs.


Mink travel along streams and the edges of ponds, leaving tracks like these:


Every now and again, you can find a perfectly cylindrical vertical hole , usually going right down through the snow into the water,  where they have been hunting for something or other. Here are four of them!

This morning I found tracks leading down a hill, then a short slide into a bigger hole in the stream.

I find it reassuring to know that I have a healthy mink population, even if I never actually see them!

Since I don’t have my own photos of mink, here is a spectacular one to finish with:

I can’t resist ending with a mink story, even though it doesn’t cast my ancestors in a very good light.  My grandfather, after ostrich farming and then gold-prospecting in Kenya, returned to the UK in the 1930’s and took up mink farming. As a result my grandmother knew her furs. When she was in her 80’s, and not very well off, she would occasionally go to Harrods fur department and ask to see the mink coats. When they brought some out she would wave them away dismissively, and say that these were made of male pelts, and she only wanted to see the suppler female ones.  They were most impressed by her expertise.  Of course, she never bought anything.

*This perfectly reasonable abhorrence of defecating in one’s residence is one reason India still has difficulty stopping the practice of heading for the great outdoors. Even when the government builds latrines, many people won’t use them because defecating indoors is viewed as unclean.

Turkey takeoff

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you will know that turkeys have starred before, but always in the spring or summer. Since they do not migrate, even when the snow is thick on the ground they are still wandering the woods foraging. You see their tracks, like the ones on the left below, with more in the background:

The other day, out of the woods they came, for all the world like a band of greatcoated marauders from the Russian steppes:

In close-up they are even more military-looking:

Those photos were taken from the desk, through the window. They rounded the corner of the house, so I crept outside to try and get a better shot, but I only succeeded in scaring them:

They ran across the back yard towards the field, and took off: here you can see their tracks going from right to left, taking an abrupt turn to face downhill and line up their takeoffs, and ending sharply as they got airborne. (The big sloppy tracks are from my snowshoes!)

One of them left faint wing marks in the snow

They are pretty good flyers, so all I got was a picture of two rear ends and pale wing feathers.

Male turkeys are heavy, ungainly birds, up to 24lbs (11Kg), and their wings are not very large to carry such a weight , up to 4ft 9in (1.5m) or so, so it is always disconcerting to see them in flight.