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 (www.wildlifedrawing.co.uk):

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.

Monthly mushroom marvels

Another flashback to warmer months. Next time I return to winter, and animals.

[Disclaimer: Occasionally below I comment on edibility, but you should NEVER eat a mushroom unless you really know what you are doing. I have never eaten any of those in this post, and never will!]

We associate mushrooms mainly with the fall, but from snow-melt onwards they start to pop up.  

In April, a stunning burnt-siena-colored secondary fungus (i.e. growing on a different one underneath). It is called Pycnoporus cinnabarinus, and it was used in dying, creating a golden-brown color. In the first picture you can see how it gradually creeps over the substrate mushroom. The second picture shows a close-up.

DSC00151fungus with springtails

In May, I found this huge 4″ brain-like Conifer False Morel, Gyromitra esculenta. Notice the word ‘False’: true morels are great delicacies, and I have never found one here. Parker Veitch, who confirmed the ID for me,  says: “I’ve never tried it. I’ve read that a chef was boiling some with the lid on the pot and when he took it off he inhaled the fumes (monomethylhydrazine – same stuff as in rocket fuel) and died. My mentor also told me that it’s rated the 6th best edible in Europe.” My mushroom book simply says it is “deadly”. I did NOT try it.


In June, minuscule 2mm sunny saffron-yellow jelly fungi, Dacrymyces capitatus, sprouted on a piece of dead wood:

In July, the Russulas start to appear. This Tacky Green Russula, Russula aeruginea, is a rather implausible green color, suggestive of chlorophyll, but fungi lack chlorophyll and do not photosynthesize. The Latin name refers to the green patina that copper acquires over time. Maybe there is a copper compound in these fungi, I not been able to discover the answer. It is supposedly edible, but somehow I find its green color extremely off-putting, and have never tried it.

By August, some of the more familiar autumnal mushrooms start to appear. This is a Shingled Hedgehog, also called a Scaly Tooth, Hydnum imbricatum, which David Arora accurately describes as looking like a “charred macaroon”.

September brings out some of the more dramatic tree fungi, This is a Comb Hericium, Hericium ramosum:

And in October, I found a Ravenel’s Stinkhorn, Phallus ravanelii, past its smelly best, but still unusual looking. It was about 6″ tall, with a white ring at the top.

and it grew out of a little cup at its base:

When I turned it inside out, the interior of the cap had a mesh just like tripe:

The spores are contained in a smelly green slime that coats the outside of the cap, and attracts flies. The spores then stick to the fly, which helpfully disseminates them. Eventually the slime washes off the outside of the cap, leaving the mushroom as you see it here.

Off to a dinner of nice safe supermarket shiitakes.

Woodpecker in action

[2021 is upon us and let us all hope it will be better than 2020. Thankyou for reading my blog, and I hope it brings a small sense of the vastness of nature into your circumscribed world.]

Have you ever watched a woodpecker feeding? This is a Hairy Woodpecker, checking for danger before starting his onslaught:

He braces himself, using his tail to help:

And then he starts to hammer away. This video was taken on a different occasion in the same corner of my woods, so it may be the same woodpecker:

He goes at it so hard that his head blurs on camera, and you actually see the wood chips on his white breast:

He is looking for beetles, ants or grubs, and once he has made a suitable hole he sticks his beak and his very long tongue deep into the (probably hollow) tree:

And if he has done a good job, he is rewarded with a juicy grub:

Down it goes:

Why doesn’t he get concussion, or at least a headache? Turns out there are several adaptations that help, detailed in an endnote below.* One of the cleverest ones is a highly specialized hyoid bone (in humans, it is a teensy little bone at the base of the tongue.) In woodpeckers, it is vastly elongated, and it splits in two, goes on each side of the spine, winds around the back of the head and in through the right nostril to form a sort of sling affair, acting as a safety belt. Here is a picture:

It has even been suggested that this would make a good model for a prototype crash helmet (May et al 1976). The biomechanics of how woodpeckers survive bashing away at up to 12,000 strikes a day at a speed of around 7 meters/sec have been studied in great detail:


* Wikipedia gives this summary of their adaptations: “To prevent brain damage  from the rapid and repeated powerful impacts, woodpeckers have a number of physical features which protect the brain. These include a relatively small and smooth brain, narrow subdural space, little cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) surrounding it to prevent it from moving back and forth inside the skull during pecking, the orientation of the brain within the skull (which maximises the contact area between the brain and the skull) and the short duration of contact. The skull consists of strong but compressible sponge-like bone which is most concentrated in the forehead and the back of the skull.”

Nemesis, aka a Sharp-shinned Hawk

[I’m sending this out before Christmas picks up steam, and then I will go dark till the New Year, unless something so special happens I cannot resist. I do hope you are able to enjoy your holidays, in whatever form they take in this strange year.]

In winter our bird-feeder is close to the house and visible from the kitchen, and from my desk . It attracts chickadees, tufted titmouses (titmice??), red squirrels, downy and hairy woodpeckers, cardinals, and lots of bluejays. The other morning there were eight at once, feeding on the ground beneath the feeder. By tea-time, there were seven.

A Sharp-shinned Hawk, Accipter striatus, swooped in and pinned one unwary bluejay to the ground on the opposite side of the trellis that supports the bird feeder. My first shot is taken through the window, and through the trellis, but the fierceness of this small hawk is clear. He is not much bigger than the bluejay (both measure 11 inches, but the hawk weighs 5oz to the bluejay’s 3oz), nevertheless it didn’t have a chance.

The hawk held it down, and started to pluck it, while it struggled in vain.

The hawk went for an area of soft dark feathers on the breast underneath the wing, and afterwards when I searched the crime scene there was not a single larger feather removed, only tiny dark downy ones:

Eventually I decided to risk opening the window to take better photos, and it flew off, but only a short distance, where it thoughtfully settled in full view and started to feed in earnest. This hawk is mantling, spreading and dropping its wings to hide its prey from other predators, such as larger hawks of coyotes.

It reminds me of an avenging angel fixing its stony gaze on its hapless victim:

When a hawk has just killed it does not feed elegantly; it rips out chunks of meat, feeding fast before predators come, taking the edge off its hunger, and storing extra chunks in its crop for later regurgitation and digestion:

I feared at times that the poor jay was still struggling, but it may just have been the hawk shaking its prey. At one point it lifted it and moved it, as if to get a better angle, which was very thoughtful of it from my point of view:

And then it paused, called,

and took off, the bluejay in one talon, and headed for the woods, there to finish its meal in privacy.

My husband now refers to our sunflower seed repository as “the hawk feeder”. I fear he will be back, but meanwhile the blue jays have returned this morning, undeterred.

PS The Sharp-shinned Hawk gets its name from its un-feathered scrawny lower legs.

Squirreling away

American Red Squirrels are pretty small, only 6.5-9″ long (excluding the tail) and Eastern White Pine cones are nearly as big, up to 6″. They contain a tiny seed at the base of each scale, and the squirrels love them. They prefer to dine on a lookout, like a tree stump, large rock, or in this case thirty feet up in a white pine. This video shows the tree, the large one in the center of the frame, and zooms in on the squirrel just as it irritatingly decides to descend. (When you play the two videos in this blog, they are not as dark as they look here.)

Luckily I had been watching it earlier, taking photos from ground level far below, and you can see what a humungous cone it had unearthed from the snow:

Starting at the bottom, it removed one scale at a time, and ate the one or two seeds at the base. It carefully worked its way up the cone, one scale at a time, holding on tightly to its trophy:

When it has finished, it will leave just the central spine behind, surrounded by a litter of scales:

Below is a video of the squirrel tucking in. By now he has worked his way half-way down the cone, and he reminds me of a Frenchman eating an artichoke:

American Red Squirrels, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, particularly like the cones of pine and spruce and they cache their food, sometimes underground, but not always. This squirrel had collected heaps of pine cones at the base of his special tree, and also beneath several others nearby.

I counted fifty at the base of this tree alone, and was rather impressed by the care with which they had been arranged, most of them neatly lined up, and largely pointing in the same direction, away from the tree. Perhaps it gives the squirrel the same satisfaction as reorganizing the sock drawer gives us on a grey day.

They also eat other nuts: this one had started in on a Red Oak acorn:

PS The scientific name Tamiasciurus comes from the Greek ταμίας “tamias”, meaning treasurer or steward, or one who collects. Apt.

Grand Designs of the Wasp World II

My last group of nests are built of paper, which the wasps create by chewing wood fibre into pulp. So in the Three Little Pig story they are the house of wood or sticks!

Hornets and paper wasps are eusocial* insects, and live in large colonies. In Assam, I found this hornet nest, probably Vespa analis judging by the beautifully scalloped pattern of the nest; the huge nest dwarfs the hornet in the middle, and must contain a sizable colony:

The next photo is the nest of Maine’s Bald-Faced Hornet, Dolichovespula maculata, not quite as big, but still a very respectably sized abode. They can reach two feet tall, and contain up to 700 workers:

They are intricate constructions. The outer case is layer upon layer of paper, like a mille-feuille pastry.

The outer layer conceals tiers of honeycomb chambers. This disembowelled one was in a lilac bush in my garden, and its inhabitants were responsible for a nasty sting which blew up one side of my face to unattractive proportions last summer.

The nests are built freshly every year, so taking one apart during the winter in the interest of science is OK, and also safe (post-frost) because only the fertilized queen survives the winter, and she hibernates elsewhere .

The Northern Paper Wasp, Polistes fuscatus, builds a smaller nest, and the cells are exposed, like this one under the eaves of our cottage. They are not very aggressive, and you can watch them at work, from a safe distance.

The queen lays a single egg in each cell. The developing larva is fed by the workers with such delicacies as masticated caterpillars. If you look carefully, you can see the light brown larvae in two of the cells near the bottom left of the photo below, and in the cells a little higher up there is a greenish sludge that I think is caterpillar puree.

When the larva is fully developed it spins a silken cream-colored lid for its cell, beneath which it pupates. You can see one in the centre of the photo above. Soon after, a new wasp emerges from the pupa, cuts off the lid, and crawls out into the world.

* Eusocial insects show an advanced level of social organization, in which a single female or caste produces the offspring and nonreproductive individuals cooperate in caring for the young.

Grand Designs of the Wasp World I

[Here is another post that I saved from a warmer month, to provide material to keep me going through this bleaker time of year.]

The three little pigs built their houses out of straw, sticks, or bricks. And so do wasps.

Imagine a wasp’s nest. Paper, hanging from a tree or some eaves, right? Well yes, but that is not the whole story.

These wasps build their nests of mud (bricks!):

Mud dauber wasp nest

And add to them year by year:

Mud dauber wasp nest

The stucco nests are made by the Black-and-Yellow Mud-dauber wasp, which collects little balls of mud from puddles, and carries it to its building site. The different sources of mud produce the multi-coloured effect. 

The Grass-carrying Wasp, Isodontia mexicana, builds its nest of grass (straw!):

Grass-carrying wasp, Isodontia mexicana

These solitary wasps wriggle into crevices, like this one between two shingles, where they lay their eggs:

Grass-carrying wasp, Isodontia mexicana

Then they carry grass in their mandibles and seal the hole up:

Grass-carrying wasp, Isodontia mexicana

In this last photo you can just see an empty papery whitish carcass of a tree cricket which they stash to feed their larvae.

Grass-carrying wasp, Isodontia mexicana

Next time, I’ll return to those familiar paper nests, made of masticated wood pulp (wood!), and take you into their innermost workings.

Beavers III. Preparing for lockdown: filling the freezer

[Thursday November 26th 2020 is American Thanksgiving, and I wanted this post to arrive in time for the day, which is why it is coming so fast on the heels of my last one.]

My lockdown preparations include filling the freezer, but obviously I didn’t have to design and manufacture my own freezer. Beavers basically do. In the summer, they eat fresh green plants, but these don’t store well. However, their digestive systems allow them to eat the nutritious cambium layer of woody plants and trees, which can be stored just fine; these two photos show an oak tree recently cut by a beaver, and the cut surfaces of the tree were oozing sap on an unexpectedly warm day:

So how do they store them? The pond will be frozen soon, and it won’t thaw till the spring unless global warming intervenes. The beavers prefer not to emerge to forage on land, where they are vulnerable, so they lay down a stash of small and smallish twigs and branches, in a sort of floating raft, which they gradually weight down with larger branches. When the ice forms, this larder will be accessible from under the ice, and should keep them going through the winter months. In this photo, you can see the growing food pantry stretching off to the right of the lodge:

and a slightly closer shot here:

If you look carefully, in the right foreground there are larger branches sticking up out of the water. Their bottom ends have been rammed into the muddy bottom to help hold the cache in place. A couple of days later I took another look. They had added some larger stuff on top, to help weight it down so that their favorite foods stay sunk beneath the ice.

All of this is done at night, so all year I have not seen them at work. On November 15th this one was swimming languidly around one lodge, admiring his work (the beaver is what looks like a floating log on the right!).

A good thing too, since overnight on November 18th the whole pond froze, and in places the ice was thick enough to bear my weight. And today, November 25th, it snowed a little, transforming the perfect cone of the lodge into a miniature Mt Fuji:

Winter is here, and it is time for Thanksgiving, and to remember how lucky those of us are who have food in our freezers, and are still well and alive in this wondrous world, in this time of Covid.

PS There are actually three lodges on my pond, all fairly near each other, and all seem to be under renovation, but only two have visible food stashes. I don’t know if this is one family that has decided they’d like separate bedrooms, or if they are unrelated but willing to tolerate neighbours. You can see all three in this photo, though one is far in the distance, between the other two:

PPS The dam needs regular maintenance too, but this one is in good shape, so they haven’t done much to it this year.

A beaver’s work is never done II

[The second part of the beaver’s labor of Hercules. One more part will follow, on their food preparations.]

Now that the beavers have got everything ready, the construction project can begin.

The lodge may be a new-build, or a renovation of a fixer-upper. This year, it was the latter. This one is out in the middle of the pond,

so I took my kayak out to get close enough for a good look.

There is no intricate weaving like a bird’s nest, but the beavers create a rough tepee, and a hole is left open at the top for air to escape.

Once the structure is in place, they add a layer of mud, plastered down carefully:

More branches and mud get added as they see fit. Sometimes they seem to get over-excited and build higher and higher, like this exuberant creation, the Sagrada Familia* of Western Maine:

If this was a new lodge, once they have created a giant heap they would excavate the inside from underwater, creating a chamber for the adults and, hopefully, their young, who will be born in mid-winter.

Because they are nocturnal, I rarely see them at work, but eight years ago I captured this shot of a beaver building his abode, on the same beaver pond:

Talk about D.I.Y. I think I’d rather get the builders in.

* Sagrada Familia is a cathedral in Barcelona designed by Gaudí, started in 1882, and scheduled to be finished in 2026! It is famous for its pseudo-Gothic over-the-top extravagance: