Aquatic mammals making my day! Part 2

0 beaver PA299293© Maria de Bruyn res

In 2019, I came across a few areas on walks where beavers were active and local residents were enjoying their presence. The animals weren’t shy and would come out in the mornings and evenings to eat and work on their lodges and dams, so I was able to observe them fairly often.

1 beaver PA299182 © Maria de Bruyn. res

In the intervening years, people have taken varied actions to deal with these mammals at the sites I visit, and my sightings have decreased. So, I was very pleased this past fall when I came across a beaver who had put aside his (or her) shyness and was coming out to swim often during daytime hours at one pond.

2 beaver PA299216 © Maria de Bruyn res

One day, this amiable animal decided to have a prolonged grooming session and gave me some good looks at its anatomy. S/he had what is considered a typical beaver tail: large and flat. Later I learned that beaver tails differ from animal to animal, with tail shapes (short, long, narrow, broad) being determined by individual and family traits.

4 beaver PA299318 © Maria de Bruyn res

Their large tails not only assist them in swimming and balancing on land — they also serve as a storage unit for fat that can be accessed during winter periods with less food available. Those tails can increase their body fat supply for cold weather by as much as 60%!

3 beaver PA299429© Maria de Bruyn res

The beaver has long digging claws on its front paws.

5 beaver PA299401© Maria de Bruyn res

6 beaver PA299228© Maria de Bruyn res

Their hind feet have two specialized toes which were described by Vernon Bailey in 1923 after he had studied young beavers in his home. He called these inner toes the combing claw and the louse-catching claw. The innermost toe he termed a coarse combing tool and the second toe a fine-toothed comb.

7 beaver PA299393© Maria de Bruyn res

The second toe, which has a double toenail, is now called a preening toe or grooming claw.

8 beaver PA299356 © Maria de Bruyn res

These toes are useful tools, as their comb-like action during grooming helps prevent the beavers’ soft fur from matting. (Unfortunately, the beaver only used his/her front paws while I watched; I’d like to see those back claws in action!)

9 beaver PA299390© Maria de Bruyn res

Beavers may spend almost 20% of their time on preening and grooming as this activity helps them remove burrs and parasites and aids in keeping their fur’s insulation and waterproof characteristics intact.

10 beaver PA299258© Maria de Bruyn res

An oil from abdominal glands is used to help waterproof their fur, too. Scents from these glands are further used to mark territory. And, oddly, castoreum (one of their castor gland secretions) smells and tastes like vanilla and has been used in human food preparation. Fortunately, it is difficult to obtain (the beaver must be anesthetized and “milked”) and scarcely used – about 292 lbs. (132 kg) yearly around the world.

14 beaver PA299403 © Maria de Bruyn res

The beaver’s well-developed whiskers are useful in dark water and narrow burrows because they help the animal detect objects.

12 beaver PA299407 © Maria de Bruyn res

Like birds and otters, beavers have a nictitating membrane to protect their eyes underwater. They can also keep water out of their ears and nostrils by closing anatomical valves.

15 beaver PA299232© Maria de Bruyn res

The beautiful beavers have been designated a keystone species because of their important role in creating environments suitable for other animals and plants. The habitats they create remove pollutants from ground and surface water. Their dams act as water filtration systems and help lessen compounds such as nitrogen and phosphorus so that we can obtain cleaner drinking water. In addition, some research has shown that the plants and algae in beaver ponds may help remove toxic metals from water, including lead, arsenic, copper, mercury, cadmium and selenium.

16 beaver PA299248© Maria de Bruyn res

There are ongoing efforts by some people in our area to get rid of beavers but fortunately an increasing number of advocates are looking for ways to coexist with beavers in urban and semi-urban areas. Researchers from local universities are aiding in the effort and hopefully this will lead to co-existence successes!

17 beaver PA299410 © Maria de Bruyn res

And some closing words…. When I was a child, I loved a small statue of three monkeys that sat on a shelf in our home: “speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil.” I liked the message and the fact that it was advised by an animal. Unfortunately, over the past decades, the statuette did not survive intact, but I’ve kept it nonetheless.

18 speak no see no hear no evil IMG_0373© Maria de Bruyn res

Here below we have a new version, brought to you courtesy of my friendly beaver. 😊

19 speak no evil beaver PA299368 © Maria de Bruyn res

Speak no evil!

20 see no evil beaver PA299342© Maria de Bruyn res

See no evil!

21 hear no evil beaver PA299367© Maria de Bruyn res

Hear no evil!

22 beaver PA299247 © Maria de Bruyn res

And have a wonderful upcoming day, week, month and year!

Next up – back to birds of the woodpecker family!

Aquatic mammals making my day! Part 1

1 river otter P1154270© Maria de Bruyn res

While I love all wildlife, many of my blogs feature birds because my chances of seeing them are greater than seeing other animals. Mammals are a favorite of mine, however, and aquatic mammals are always a pleasure to see since spotting them is not always easy. That is certainly the case for the cute river otters (Lontra canadensis) like the one above.

4 otter PC251157© Maria de Bruyn

These river and pond residents are among the most elusive mammalian water residents for me.  At one pond that I visit regularly, they appear to have adopted an abandoned beaver lodge as their home. There, it is usually movement caught out of the corner of my eye that alerts me to their presence.

2 otter PC251094 © Maria de Bruyn res

Sometimes a view of the rump and tail is all I get as they barely lift their heads out of the water. It’s interesting to know, however, that their tail comprises up to 40% of their body length, helps speed them up to 8 mph (13 Km/h) in the water, and helps them dive up to 36 feet (11 m).

3 otter PA309843© Maria de Bruyn res

5 otter PA309953© Maria de Bruyn resThe otters don’t always appreciate spectators. Sometimes, they emerge from the water briefly and give me a view shrouded by vegetation before they dive back down. That’s frustrating when you’re trying to get a nice photo, but at least I’ve never scared them enough for them to sound their alarm scream, which apparently can be heard up to 1.5 m/2.4 km away!

8 beaver lodge IMG_0294© Maria de Bruyn resThe other day at another pond, I was lucky enough to see a pair close to shore. They were foraging and when they finally disappeared, they appeared to have entered a beaver lodge located next to a walking path (seen here). The beavers may have abandoned this lodge as they have at least two others in this park.

6 river otter P1154288 © Maria de Bruyn res

Researchers have not yet agreed on when otters enter their breeding season; it could be winter, late spring or summertime according to different studies. In any case, it seemed to me like this might be a mated pair.

7 river otter P1154340© Maria de Bruyn res

As they swam around, the couple would occasionally come together.

9 river otter P1154298 © Maria de Bruyn res

10 river otter P1154319 © Maria de Bruyn res

They didn’t stop to frolic, however, even though otters are known for their playfulness. They did blow some bubbles and I’ve learned that they can close their nostrils during dives to keep water out of their noses. Seeing them was a real treat! And their presence should indicate good fortune for the Sandy Creek Park since river otters are considered an indicator species that signal good water quality.

11 river otter P1154272 © Maria de Bruyn

In September, I wrote about seeing muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) and North American beavers at a third reserve. Since then, I’ve had the good fortune to see both species there several times. The muskrats have especially graced me with their presence.

12 muskrat PC173212© Maria de Bruyn res

14 Brumley pond IMG_0308© Maria de Bruyn resThat’s lucky because last year our county had its 12th driest December month on record over the past 128 years. This was quite evident at the pond, which appeared to have shrunk by at least 30-40% during the autumn and early winter drought (my estimate). I’ve been surprised to see these animals still living there.

Because muskrats don’t tolerate dry heat well, they’ve been designated an indicator species for the effects of long-term climactic drying. Recent research has shown that their numbers and response to this phenomenon should be taken into account in scientific and environmental policy-making.

13 muskrat PC312704 © Maria de Bruyn res

To deal with dry heat, these mammals regulate blood flow to their feet and tail through a mechanism called regional heterothermia. This enables them to keep these appendages cooler than their body’s core. Another interesting anatomical feature is the muskrats’ specialized nostrils, which they can use to trap and recycle air after removing more oxygen before exhalation.

16 muskrat PC048728 © Maria de Bruyn res

At this particular pond, I’ve discovered that if I wait patiently for at least 20 minutes or so without other people walking by, it’s likely that one of the resident muskrats will surface to go for a swim and/or to forage for weedy food. (They can stay submerged for up to 15-17 minutes, so patience is warranted.) It’s often the appearance of small bubbles that alerts me to their presence and location.

18 muskrat PC048731© Maria de Bruyn res

Sometimes they emerge with their tails held high as if waving a signal flag – “I’m here!”

17 muskrat PC048698© Maria de Bruyn res

The muskrats dive down and come up with a mouth full of vegetation which they chew while swimming or sitting near the shore. They can also eat underwater since they’re able to chew with their mouth closed because they can close their lips behind their incisors.

20 muskrat PC048695© Maria de Bruyn res

Muskrats prefer to live in areas with at least 4-6 ft (1.2-1.8 m) of water where they build tunnels that lead from the pond or marsh bottom into burrows dug into banks. I now know approximately where their burrow is located as I’ve seen them emerge and submerge in a particular spot.

19 muskrat PC048688© Maria de Bruyn res

Our area just had a snowfall of 2.3 inches (5.8 cm) which will be melting in the coming days. Hopefully, the next time I visit this pond it will be fuller, and the muskrat residents will have a more spacious swimming and eating area. And then they will have good reason to wave their tails in celebration!  (Apologies for the less than stellar photos as I’ve had to use a short lens lately. Hope to have my long lens back soon. The photos in part 2 of this aquatic mammal series are better!)

21 muskrat PC312678© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Late-morning hawk watching – Part 2

Cooper's hawk PA063998 © Maria de Bruyn res

A few weeks after watching a red-shouldered hawk hunting at a pond’s edge (previous blog), I had the good fortune to spot another raptor busy at a water source.

Our area had had a dry spell and the creek in a nearby city park was fairly low. Various birds were calling loudly on both sides of the creek, and I hoped to photograph some of them. The birds kept out of sight in the foliage, however.

When I finally peered down at the creek, the reason for the avian chorus became obvious. A beautiful Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) was wading in the shallow water.

S/he kept looking up and around as the other birds vocalized non-stop; they were warning one another of the predator’s presence, with the blue jays being especially raucous.

At first, I thought the hawk wanted to bathe but was hesitating because of the warning racket being broadcast by the other birds.

At one point, the raptor sat down, but it didn’t splash in the water.

S/he then stood up and ruffled the feathers that had been in the water.

All the while, the Cooper’s hawk peered up and around.

Then the bird began peering down at the water. I didn’t see any creatures there, but the raptor did.

Finally, the predator stopped watching the other birds, dipping its beak into the water while protecting its eyes with its nictitating membranes.

A few times, the hawk came up with a small fish or other water creature but I couldn’t really tell what the prey was since it was swallowed rather rapidly.

After about 20 minutes, the raptor seemed satisfied – or it was tired of the cacophony accompanying its hunting foray – and s/he flew up into a nearby tree. Later, I spotted the bird standing in the creek further downstream; perhaps a bath was going to take place after all. I didn’t stay any longer, however, as chores were calling to me. So I left grateful for the chance to spend time with this gorgeous creature on a late sunny morning. 😊

Late-morning hawk-watching – Part 1

North Carolina is known among birders as a destination for “hawk watches,” i.e., gatherings of people to see groups of hawks that are migrating south (for winter) or north (for summer). The Blue Ridge and Smoky mountains offer wind currents that birds can use to speed their journeys and many raptor fans travel to Grandfather Mountain’s Linville Peak to see the spectacle in autumn. Some also go to the hawk watch at Pilot Mountain State Park. The birds on view at the two sites include bald and golden eagles, peregrine falcons, kestrels, merlins, broad-winged hawks, Northern harriers, sharp-shinned and red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) like the one below.

red-tailed hawk P9199890 © Maria de Bruyn res

As October progresses and migration is winding down, however, we continue to see resident raptors roaming in our area.

The red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) are looking for easy meals. Their favored foods, in addition to smaller birds and mammals, include amphibians. My yard contains a couple small ponds, which have become favored habitats for local bullfrogs and green frogs (Lithobates clamitans).

green frogs IMG_0021© Maria de Bruyn res

This year, the green frogs predominated; the largest ones especially drew my attention with their loud croaking. In between vocalizations, they looked like they were wrestling. Together they contributed to a bounty of frog eggs.

frog eggs IMG_0040© Maria de Bruyn res

red-shouldered hawk P6271585© Maria de Bruyn res

Their amorous calling also attracted one of the neighborhood red-shouldered hawks, whom I spotted sitting on a tree branch overhanging the smaller pond. S/he was patient in watching and a couple days later I noticed a lack of croaking and then found a hawk feather in the water.

 

 

belted kingfisher PA147080© Maria de BruynSome weeks later, I saw a belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) fly by quickly with a frog dangling from its beak at a city park, but the bird was too far away for a good photo. I had had better photographic luck on another morning when I happened upon a red-shouldered hawk pursuing frogs at nature reserve pond.

At first, I didn’t realize what the bird was doing. I saw the raptor intently peering down at the muddy pond’s edge and walking back and forth along the water.

red-shouldered hawk P8317401© Maria de Bruyn

red-shouldered hawk P8317412© Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

 

red-shouldered hawk P8317413 © Maria de Bruyn res

 

 

 

 

 

Then, suddenly, I saw the hawk plunging its claws into the ground, apparently trying to dig something up.

red-shouldered hawk P8317244© Maria de Bruyn res

It used its wings for balance as it clawed at the wet sand.

red-shouldered hawk P8317253© Maria de Bruyn res

red-shouldered hawk P8317252© Maria de Bruyn res

I felt sorry for the frogs that were caught. Their final life moments must have been spent in terror and pain as they were dismembered.

red-shouldered hawk P8317470© Maria de Bruyn res

red-shouldered hawk P8317604 © Maria de Bruyn

It seems to me that the great blue heron’s propensity to swallow its food whole must ultimately be a quicker death for the prey.

red-shouldered hawk P8317589© Maria de Bruyn res

red-shouldered hawk P8317535 res

The hawks must also eat, however, and this is the poor frogs’ fate in many cases.

red-shouldered hawk P8317506© Maria de Bruyn res

And I must admit that it was interesting – if also rather uncomfortable – for me to see how the hawk was hunting.

red-shouldered hawk P8317511 © Maria de Bruyn res

Next up – another local raptor keeps me watching in fascination.

A surprise at the pond

1 Bynum IMG_0631© Maria de Bruyn res

A combination of abundant vegetation and some type of water — a creek, river, wetland, pond or lake — is one of my favorite types of natural area to visit for wildlife watching and photography. Water attracts wildlife and increases the chance of seeing something unexpected. 

This was the case recently at a local nature reserve. A few days earlier, I’d seen many goldfinches and warblers at one of the ponds, but this day it was very quiet. I descended a small slope to stand on a mudflat and was suddenly surprised by a large splash to my left.

2 Brumley pond IMG_0643 © Maria de Bruyn res

When I looked, I saw a largish head forging across the water in front of me. My first thought was that it was a muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) as there is no beaver lodge in this enclosed pond.

3 American beaver P8132481© Maria de Bruyn res

Muskrats and beavers look very similar, but beavers (Castor canadensis) tend to be much larger. This was a hefty individual who seemed fairly relaxed as s/he swam along.

4 American beaver P8132423© Maria de Bruyn res

As I watched the mammal swim back and forth for a while, I tentatively concluded that it was a beaver, based on my previous sightings of this rodent species. Still, I wasn’t quite sure and kept hoping that the animal would raise its tail so that I would have a decisive clue to its identity.

Beavers have large flat tails, while muskrats have long, thin tails. Finally, as s/he swam by again, I got a glimpse of the tail for a couple seconds and it was large and flat! Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of that (see a previous blog for some photos showing the beaver’s tail).

 

5 American beaver P8132456© Maria de Bruyn res

As I watched and took photos, a couple walked by with their dog and stopped to watch as well. I moved down the path and heard the gentleman exclaim, “Oh, it’s a beaver!” I turned and he explained that he had thought the swimmer was a muskrat, but he had just seen the tail, too.

6 American beaver IMG_0256© Maria de Bruyn res

The aquatic mammal climbed up onto a log for a bit to groom and relax and, as the couple remarked, almost seemed to be posing for me. The beaver kept its back to me most of the time though. 

 

14 American beaver P8132476 © Maria de Bruyn res

I began to walk back down the path in hopes of getting a head-on view if the beaver decided to swim again. S/he did indeed slip back into the water to resume swimming back and forth. And then to my delight, a small head popped up going the other direction!

7 American beaver and muskrat P8132482 © Maria de Bruyn res

For some reason, I just assumed that it was a baby beaver, swimming around under the watchful eye of a parent. The newly arrived rodent seemed to be very intent on eating and dove down into the pond to bring up some tasty vegetation.8 Muskrat P8132671 © Maria de Bruyn res

It then swam over to the mudflat where I had been, and I ventured back there.

9 Muskrat P8132493© Maria de Bruyn res

Moving slowly and maintaining a good distance from the dining animal, I was able to get some good views as it enjoyed its meal.

10 Muskrat P8132618© Maria de Bruyn res

11 Muskrat P8132497 © Maria de Bruyn res

12 Muskrat P8132506 © Maria de Bruyn resWhile the beaver’s fur remained sleek on its head and back after being submerged a while, the little one’s fur stuck together in clumps all over its head and body. To me it looked a bit like a punk teenager — an analogy that undoubtedly came to mind because I was thinking of it as a baby or adolescent beaver.

This was one of the cutest wildlife spottings I had had in recent weeks, and I was thoroughly enjoying it. But I began doubting if this animal was indeed a beaver. I never saw its tail but at one point, I could see some orange teeth that reminded me of beaver incisors.

13 Muskrat teeth P8132647© Maria de Bruyn res

Of course, the diner didn’t care and just kept diving for more veggies to eat. The large beaver appeared to have left in the meantime.

15 Muskrat P8132510© Maria de Bruyn res

It was when I was reviewing identity characteristics of beavers vs muskrats while writing this blog that I ultimately came to a final conclusion about whom I had been watching. This was based on several websites that provided some good ID clues:

Beavers tend to weigh about 35-70 or even up to 100 lbs (15-30 or even 45 kg), Muskrats generally weigh only about 2-5 lbs (0.9-2.3 kg).

Beavers’ ears protrude from their heads as they swim around (first photo below), while muskrats’ ears lie flat (second photo below). Beavers also have larger noses.

16 American beaver P8132453© Maria de Bruyn res

17 Muskrat P8132673 © Maria de Bruyn res

Muskrats dive down to get vegetation from pond bottoms to eat, which my second visitor was very busy doing indeed. Beavers strip bark and leaves from trees and in my experience (having watched beavers eat close by a couple years ago), they can be quite noisy chewers.

18 Muskrat P8132574© Maria de Bruyn res

I’d enjoyed the idea of having seen a parent-and-child beaver duo but, in hindsight, I concluded that I’d been watching a beaver and a muskrat sharing pond space.

19 American beaver P8132475 © Maria de Bruyn res

This was also a very cool event since neither one had been shy. A lack of other human passersby (only the one couple strolled by in the space of almost an hour) may have made them feel comfortable. It was certainly a treat for me!

20 Muskrat P8132665© Maria de Bruyn res

Next up: fateful days for frogs….