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.

The ultimate otter

[After my otter excitement last week, I promised that I’d detour away from Maine and retrieve some photos I took in my pre-blog days. Here they are.]

The Giant Otter, Pteronura brasiliensis, is native to the Amazon, Orinoco and La Plata river systems in South America. I took these photos in 2013 in the Pantanal in Brazil, the largest wetland in the world, sadly badly scarred by wildfires in the last few years.

Giant Otters are very large animals, the males weighing up to 70lbs and measuring 6 feet long, excluding tail., which can add another 2 feet.

The Pantanal is perfect habitat for them, even in the dry season. We saw them on the Cuiabá River, from our small boat, just visible in the photo. They live in family groups of a monogamous pair and the young from several breeding seasons. This group had seven members, including two small pups.

Like the North American River Otter, they love to slide. This one is descending a sand bank into the river:

Fish are abundant, and otters are fierce hunters:

with impressive teeth and jaws:

It was late afternoon, and the babies were being given their evening bath, not without protest. .

This one wasn’t too keen, but the ruthlessly efficient adults teamed up and pushed it underwater to do a thorough job:

Grooming distributes oil through their pelt, rendering it waterproof.

They have a rather endearing behavior called periscoping, in which they stick their head above the water to check for danger, just like the grey whales do in San Ignacio Lagoon (but on a smaller scale!). Watch for a little head swimming in from behind the fallen tree on the right hand side:

These spectacular animals are now endangered as their habitat steadily shrinks, and gets polluted and over-fished.  I have also seen them on the Napo River (a tributary of the Amazon) in Ecuador, where they are Critically Endangered. The IUCN Red List website points out that “Rivers are roads into the forest, this is where people settle, where gold mining takes place, where there is competition for fish or overfishing, where “green” energy can be harvested, where climate change will have strong impacts, where contamination can be spread rapidly, and so on. This vital link to rivers and wetlands renders the Giant Otter much more susceptible than most other comparable large predators of the Amazon, such as the Jaguar. “

To end with, a poem for all you otter-dreamers out there..

Otters II: My wildest dreams come true

Last time was mostly clues and hints. This time, pay dirt. I saw a dark shape on the far far side of my beaver pond next to a small patch of open water. Thrilled, I realized it was an otter, but then it slipped silently back into the water and under the ice. Luckily I am patient, and I waited. About 15 minutes later it popped up in a different unseen breathing hole at the base of a beaver lodge, and came all the way out.

It had a good roll in the snow, which helps to clean and dry its waterproof fur:

and I even got a short video:

Then it started to climb up the beaver lodge, behind an inconveniently placed tree,

I moved, and to my utter delight I watched it slide down the far side of the beaver lodge, just having fun. Look hard and you can just see it, near the top of the lodge behind the branches.

It went back in the water, and I thought the show was over, but 10 minutes later it returned, and had a good scratch,

and then settled down for a nap, for all the world like a dog.

The next day, on my daily walk, I assumed the otter would have moved on, but before I even reached the pond he was there, and this time closer, so I got some more photos. I like this one because you get a sense of his strength and size and sleekness, though his long tail is submerged and invisible. .

Sometime dreams do come true.

He stayed around for one more day, in the far distance, then left, but I have since seen slide marks and scat, so he is still around somewhere.

Before I started this blog, I went to the Pantanal in Brazil and had wonderful giant otter encounters, so I think next time I might dig out more of my photos from that trip and show you them in action.

PS I found some terrific clear otter tracks after my last post, so I have updated it. If you want to take a look, click January 2021 in the sidebar.

PPS You might think an otter’s feet (which lack fur) would freeze when they are diving under the ice, and sleeping on top of it for that matter. What stops this happening is counter-current circulation, explained here. It is also found in sea mammals like dolphins, and the feet of birds (like the owl from my last post).

Figure 2

Figure 2 A countercurrent heat exchange system. (a) Schematic representation. (b) Blood supply to the flipper of the dolphin, with a schematic cross-section of an artery and the surrounding veins to the left. Arterial blood is shown in red, venous blood in blue. Pink arrows denote heat flow; yellow arrows show direction of blood flow

In Figure 2a, the outgoing (i.e. arterial) blood is shown to the left, on its way to the skin surface. But en route, such vessels run very close to a network of veins that are bringing cool, venous blood back into the body (shown to the right in Figure 2a). Given the closeness of the (warm) outgoing and (cooler) incoming bloods, heat (which would otherwise be lost through the skin) is taken up by the cooler returning blood and carried back inside the animal. The red arrows in Figure 2a show the direction of heat flow; there is comparatively little heat loss from the skin. If you think about it, the system depends on outgoing and incoming blood flowing in opposite directions, which is why it is called a countercurrent heat exchanger.


I dream of otters: first glimpses

[This is Act I, the preamble of a two-act otter play. Act II is the denouement, next week.]

As a child, I read Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water, and fantasized about having my very own wild otter. Since I had never even seen an otter outside the zoo, this was not on the cards. But given half a chance, childhood passions have a way of resurfacing.

Here in Maine we have river otters, Lutra canadensis, which are 3-4 feet long, including the tail, and weigh 30 pounds. They are fairly secretive, but I see signs of them regularly along the edges of my beaver ponds, plus just once I captured a shot on my game camera. I often see scat, full of fish scales. Here are some crayfish remains from an old meal:

Until this year I had never seen them swimming around, but suddenly I had sightings:

or the back of one’s head and foot as it dived:

Now everything is frozen, and they are hunting under the ice. They may breathe in the air pocket left if the water level drops after the ice has frozen, but they also make air holes, which they revisit to keep open. Here is one on my pond this morning:

They remind me of the air-holes that seals keep clear in the Arctic. Luckily there are no polar bears in Maine keeping these air holes under surveillance.

I have stopped watching for the actual otters now winter has come, but then I saw this strange track on the snow-covered ice:

Here is my hat for scale:

The tracks followed the shoreline for perhaps 1/4 mile, and then petered out at a spot where the ice turned to open water near the dam. An otter had been heading for that open water to fish, and he had been sliding along on his belly, a favored form of locomotion in the winter. Apparently they hold their arms in, and kick themselves along with their hind legs. Here is a wonderful video of one in action (not taken by me!):

They don’t always slide: here are some more familiar tracks, on the surface of the same frozen pond, leading to a copiously used latrine (photo omitted!):

I always knew that otters would slide down river banks, but I hadn’t realized that they also go tobogganing on the flat. I would give a lot to see one actually doing it.

I have read that otters are more diurnal in the winter time, so maybe there was hope of seeing them if I returned every day? Next time, my phantom otters materialize.

PS The day after I posted this I found otter tracks on a frozen stream about a mile away, and they are lovely clear examples in thin snow on black ice of how an otter travels, so I’m adding them to this post. Here the otter is doing a bit of sliding (foreground) , and a bit of walking (background):

Here he is just walking, and dragging his tail behind:

And here is a close-up of his footprints, showing the five toes, though sadly the webbing isn’t really visible:

With thanks to Leigh for confirming this ID.

Barred Owls Redux

[I promised you mammals this time, but then I met this owl… so the mammals have to wait a week.]

On August 12 2018 I posted about Barred Owls, Strix Varia, after I found a dead one on the road. This is a happier post, with photos of a splendid and very much alive example. It was perched on the phone lines above the road, and then flew into a nearby tree and settled in. Here it is, in all its glory:

Fully grown females can weight 2 lbs. They are mainly night hunters, so this one was just trying to catch up on sleep, next to a fairly busy road. But it kept a sharp eye on the ground below, and you can see that curved beak, and the stiff whiskers that are thought to help them sense the world around them, just like a cat’s whiskers do.

The heart-shaped concave facial disc of shorter feathers helps collect and direct sound towards the owl’s ears. For more details, see the end -note.

Although the beak may look ferocious, the real weapons are the feet:

The four toes ratchet closed, clamping firmly onto a branch and allowing it to fall asleep securely, but those same talons also grip the prey like scimitars, giving little hope of escape.

Winters here are cold, and Barred Owls do not migrate down south. Sensibly, their feathers form a personal down duvet that leaves little exposed beyond the very tips of the toes. The head and neck are covered in a luxurious cowl, fully visible here when its head is turned away:

Owls can’t move their eyes, so to look around they have to move their whole head. This owl has rotated its head nearly 180 degrees, and in fact it can go even further, 270 degrees.

On the same day I saw this owl, I had signed up for a wildlife drawing class to draw… OWLS! It was clearly a sign. Here is my screenshot of a Bengal Eagle Owl, taken during the class (

and here is my drawing:

I left my real owl in peace:

Note: Wikipedia says: The concavity of the facial disc forms a circular paraboloid that collects sound waves and directs those waves towards the owl’s ears. The feathers making up this disc can be adjusted by the bird to alter the focal length of this sound collector, enabling the bird to focus at different distances and allowing it to locate prey by sound alone under snow, grass, and plant cover.