Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Playful River Otter

otters2-0100Before I moved here to WNC, seeing river otters was common for me as I spent a lot of time exploring a wetland called the Great Swamp adjacent to my house in eastern New York State. The best time of year to see them was winter, when they came onto the ice to travel, play and eat. I came upon them often, always thrilled when I could see them before they saw me. But they did always see me, and then usually moved off and disappeared. Sometimes they seemed curious about me, often standing on their hind feet to get a better look. In my experience, mink do this too. It was common during winter to see their slides as they moved along on top of the ice or even holes in the ice, made from beneath the water as they tried to break the ice to surface.

Otter holes in the ice

Otter holes in the ice

Now that I live in western North Carolina, I don’t see otters much, but that’s not because they don’t live here, it’s because I don’t have the easy access to a wetland. As I learned recently on a night kayaking trip on the French Broad, otters DO live here–I saw two before the daylight faded, their dark shapes moving seamlessly to the water and then silently disappearing.otters2-0071

Many people never get the chance to see a River Otter in the wild, as like many other animals, they are skittish, and often active at night. Interestingly, when they are not in populated areas where people are common, otters tend to be active during the day. I often came upon them playing long after sunrise.

Most people don’t have the luxury of having a wetland in their backyard and many don’t venture outside at night– certainly not to go for a spin in their kayak! In this, I am the exception to the rule as the world of the night fascinates me and I love experiencing it in this unique way. There is something magical about being surrounded by darkness and witnessing a wild animal doing what it does.

Here are some interesting facts about River Otters:

1. Though their name suggests otherwise, river otters are not just found in rivers. Instead, they can be found in many bodies of water, including canals, ponds, lakes, marshes, bays, estuaries and even open water along the coast. Unlike their seawater cousin–the sea otter–river otters are smaller and spend a considerable amount of their time on land though they are comfortable on land and in the water. They move around a lot, traveling on land to reach other wetlands in their territory.

Mammoser otter2-22. River otters weigh between 20-30 pounds and are members of the weasel family, meaning they are related to minks, skunks, fishers, ermine, wolverines and skunks. Most members of this family–there are 65 species of weasels in the world!– have scent glands near their butts that secrete strong-smelling secretions that are used to mark their territory and signal to members of the opposite sex.

3. Since they spend a lot of their time underwater, they require many adaptations. For instance, you know how some people when they swim use goggles and nose plugs? Well otters do this too, only in a different way. They have valves in their noses and ears that can close them while underwater. And their eyes? They don’t wear googles, but they have specially adapted lenses that allow them to accommodate underwater distortions. River otters have long, sleek bodies with small heads and ears, short legs, 5 webbed toes, and long, muscular tails that propel them through the water like torpedoes. And you may have never looked closely at an otter, but if you did, you would notice the long whiskers on their faces. Their whiskers help them find their way underwater, sense vibrations in the water and also help them locate breakfast (or lunch or dinner!)

Otter with a fish

Otter with a fish

4. River otters eat a lot of fish and have such a fast metabolism that food travels through their intestines very quickly–in just one hour! So that fish becomes scat in just one hour.  (You know scat is poop right? But let’s be scientific. If you have an urge to read about another animal’s scat–you can check out this post on bear scat– click HERE.) As carnivores otters eat a lot of other things too including crayfish, amphibians, reptiles, invertebrates like aquatic beetles, snails, slugs and worms, and small birds.

5. River otters can hold their breath for up to 8 minutes, which by our standards seems like a long time, but some other animals–like beavers for instance–can go even longer at 15 minutes! When an otter makes a deep dive, it can slow its heart rate, thus making its oxygen last that much longer.

6. River otters make their homes in the banks along rivers, sometimes at the root base of a fallen tree, a hollow log, in the mud or in an old beaver or muskrat lodge. River otters do not dig their own dens, but instead use abandoned homes from other animals. These dens usually have underwater entrances to keep them safe from predators and above-ground entrances too. The dens are lined with a variety of materials, from sticks to shredded vegetation and other soft materials in their habitats.

A beaver lodge might become an otter den

A beaver lodge might become an otter den

7. So if you’ve ever taken a polar plunge–accidently or purposely– you know that river water in January or February is ARCTIC! It is amazing to consider that otters do not hibernate during  the winter, but instead stay active. (Want to test your knowledge about how animals survive winter? Click HERE  for a short quiz) The cold temperatures do not bother them as they have very thick fur with two layers of hair that keeps them warm. In addition, they have a layer of fat beneath their fur for insulation. And their feet? They don’t wear boots like us, but they do have a patch of fur on the pad of each paw, behind their webbed toes. This fur helps they get a grip on slippery ice, rocks and snow and insulates them from the cold.

An otter stands to get a better look at me!

An otter stands to get a better look at me!

8. River otters make a lot of interesting sounds, as I learned each time I saw them. They often issue an explosive Hah, when they encounter danger, doing this a few times, then diving underwater and then reappearing in a different place to do it again. In addition they chirp, growl, grunt, snarl and even scream.

9. River otters, like many other members of the weasel family, have delayed implantation. This means that the fertilized egg inside the female does not immediately become attached to the uterine wall. Delayed implantation allows them to adjust their pregnancy to yearly food and weather cycles. (If you want to read an interesting article on this check out this post on the National Wildlife Federation website.)

10. River otter females give birth to 2-4 pups in March -May. The young, called puppies or pups, are blind but fully furred at birth. They weigh about 4.5 ounces and won’t open their eyes for about 35 days. The pups play at 4 weeks, swim at 7 and begin exploring away from their dens at 8-10 weeks. They stay with mom until the following spring.

Otter tracks on the ice

Otter tracks on the ice

11. Otters, like raccoons, have a tendency to go to the bathroom in the same place. Their scat is often reddish and full of fish scales or crayfish exoskeletons.

12. The lifespan of an otter in the wild is 10 years.

13. River otters are notoriously playful, as is evidenced by their tracks in the wintertime. They often slide on their bellies across the snow or across ice into an open spot of water.  When I see their slides, I can’t help but smile, imagining the otters plunging loudly into the icy water like children at the end of a water slide. “Woo hoo,” I imagine them saying “Let’s do that again!”

Otter slide ending in open water!

Otter slide ending in open water!

 

Weekly Puzzler Answer #40

puzzle-0024The tracks in the snow from last week’s puzzler were made by… drum roll please…..River OTTERS! I was lucky enough to live adjacent to a huge wetland in eastern New York state for a number of years, getting to explore the wild land in all seasons, including winter when the ice meant no area was off limits. It was very common for me to see otter tracks and even the otters themselves. If you’ve ever seen one you know they move with a graceful fluidity, both in the water and on land.

One of my favorite things to do was venture down to the river after dark during the winter, sometimes under the light of a full moon in order to watch the otters playing and hunting in pools of open water. I frequently heard them before I saw them, especially if they were working on a fish that they’d caught and brought to the top of the ice to devour. Like a beaver working on chopping down a tree, their loud chewing is unmistakable–certainly not done with their mouths closed as my mother reminded me again and again when I was a child. In winter, otter slides were everywhere, including from the ice into spots of open water. For them it is a more efficient way of traveling, not to mention a whole lot more fun! They take a few steps, then sl–iiiiii-ddddeee on their bellies, a few steps, then sl—iiiiiii-ddddd-eeee on their bellies! Mammoser otter2-2

The first time I ever saw one I was walking along the river in winter, before it had frozen over. I suddenly became aware of some animal making a kind-of barking sound and when I looked around to identify it, I was amazed to discover the otter as its source. The otter was in the water, his head above the surface, sort of bobbing about as he warned his friends about my presence. After that I recognized the sound and always felt thrilled when I saw the otter making it.

River otters possess some amazing adaptations that allow them to be perfectly suited to their aquatic environments. Do you know how long they can hold their breath, or where they make their homes? Do you know what they eat or how they can survive the frigid water during winter? The River Otter is this week’s Creature Feature, answering these questions and more.

Until then, happy weekend! Can you believe it’s almost January and a new year? Wow, time really does fly by.

 

Weekly Puzzler #41

 This week’s puzzler is a simple question: What is this a picture of? CLICK HERE for the answer.

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What is luck?

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Luck is what you have left over after you give 100%.   –Langston Coleman

The lucky fellow is the plucky fellow who has been burning the midnight oil and taking defeat after defeat with a smile.                        –James Hill

Good luck is a lazy man’s estimate of a hard worker’s success.  –Anon

A Gift for Mother Nature: 7 Small Changes that make a BIG Difference

angel-3At this time of year a lot of attention is focused on picking out and giving the “perfect” gift to our loved ones. Since many of us have a special fondness for the natural world and time spent outside, I thought I would do a post about some small changes that each one of us can make this holiday season that can make a BIG difference to Mother Nature.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, American’s generate 25% more trash each year between  Thanksgiving holiday and New Year’s. That extra waste amounts to 25 million tons of garbage, or about a million extra tons each week. This is an amazing number and one we can all affect in a small way if we make some small changes. Here are some to consider:

1. That wrapping paper that covers every gift and makes everything look festive? Consider opening gifts carefully so you can fold it up and use it again next year. Same for the bows and ribbons. This is not hard to do and there is no good reason not to use this stuff more than once.  If every family reused just two feet of holiday ribbon, the 38,000 miles of ribbon saved could tie a bow around the entire planet! If every American family wrapped just 3 presents in re-used materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields. (statistics from Use Less Stuff.com) And next year when you are buying the paper, consider choosing wrapping paper that’s made from recycled paper or wrapping gifts with newspapers, used paper bags or magazines. Each small change can make a big difference. Think how amazing it would be if everyone made just 3 or 4 changes. As a side note–I always thought the wrapping paper was recyclable and added it to my paper recycling. However, I learned that most of the shiny, laminated wrapping paper is unfortunately NOT recyclable! Which means if you add it to your bag of paper recycling, the entire bag of stuff might get thrown out! Thus, in this case, it is actually better to put it in the garbage… OR REUSE IT!tree-5204

2. If you are hosting a holiday party, avoid disposable products that add to the landfill. Styrofoam takes the prize for the LEAST environmentally friendly item since it is not going to decompose. In 50 years from now that styrofoam plate will look very similar to the way it looked when you threw it out. Opting to use real dishes and washable silverware makes a BIG difference. If everyone in your neighborhood avoided disposable products, think of the amount of trash that would be saved from the landfill. Many cities, including Asheville, where I live, have days during the year when they collect hard to recycle items, including styrofoam. If you live in Asheville, here’s the link:  Asheville Green Works.

3. Another idea if you are hosting a party: Send leftovers home with guests in zip lock bags and compost food waste. Putting a small container beside the garbage can with a label will save pounds of unnecessary waste added to the landfill. Food waste can be composted. If you don’t have a yard for compost or don’t want to have your own bin, check if your city has a municipal compost. Many do. Google yours and see if it does.

tree-10000744. If Uncle John sent you three boxes filled with packing peanuts, bag them up and donate them to a local business. Many packing and mailing businesses use these peanuts and are thrilled when people give them. This saves space in the landfill, gets them out of your house, and saves these small businesses some money. It is a win-win all around. No matter where you live, you can call 1-800-828-2214 to learn which businesses in your area accept packing peanuts.

5. So perhaps you did a lot of your shopping on-line. Well guess what? Now you are on the mailing lists of dozens of companies which means you will start to get catalogs in the mail. Did you know…if each household canceled 10 mail-order catalogues it would reduce trash by 3.5 pounds per year? If everybody did this, the stack of canceled catalogues would be 2,000 miles high! (statistics from Use Less Stuff.com) To stop receiving these catalogs here are a few things you can do: 1. If you are ordering by phone tell the operator during your order that you DO NOT want to be added to the mailing list. 2. When you receive a new catalog, call the 800 number immediately and asked to be removed from the list. 3. Put your name on the Do Not Mail list. This is easy and requires only a few minutes on-line. Fill out the quick form HERE. 4. For those catalogs you DO get and do want, please recycle them! Many locations accept junk mail or mixed paper.

6. And speaking of mailing lists–you know when you are checking out and the salesperson at the register asks for your phone number? And you give it without thinking? Well many do this in order to add you to their mailing list! If you don’t want to be added to the list, simply say you’d rather not give it.

7. If you have a live tree for Christmas, be sure it gets disposed of properly. If your yard permits, stand it up outside so the birds can hide in it and use it or add it to a brush pile. If these aren’t options, recycle it through your city. Many cities have programs in place that provide collection of trees for making mulch. Check with your city for the details. And here’s something I learned from a CNN website:

“Many people think they are helping the environment by not buying a real Christmas tree. Not true, said Berry. “There are 500,000 acres of farmland in North America dedicated to Christmas trees,” she said. “When you buy a real tree, you are buying it from one of these farms and not from a national forest.” Also, for every tree that’s cut down, the farmer will plant three to four new trees. “So you are not contributing to deforestation,” she said.

There are many more things you can do, but this is a good start. Let’s not forget Mother Nature this holiday–and always for that matter! Each of us has the power to make a difference. Make some changes! Spread the word. Mother Nature has no voice–let’s make sure we speak for her!

Have a wonderful holiday…do have any other great ideas for helping the environment? If so, I’d love to hear from you.

A great resource is called Earth 911. You can learn about all things related to the environment.

 

 

 

 

Weekly Puzzler Answer #39

puzzle-Last week’s puzzler was a picture of a skull. If you look closely at the teeth on this animal, you know it’s a meat-eater. Look at its sharp teeth! This is the skull from a coyote, an animal, common to many parts of the United States. It is a carnivore, feeding on mice, rabbits, weasels, birds, squirrels, chipmunks, woodchucks, etc. They will also eat insects, fruits, nuts and berries.

Perhaps you have heard the distinctive call of a coyote, echoing through the forest. When I hear them, it always brings a smile to my face. What thoughts go through your mind when you hear coyotes calling?

Check out next week’s puzzler HERE.

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Weekly Puzzler #40

puzzle-0024What animal made these tracks? Click HERE To learn the answer.