A River Otter Experience

There is nothing cuter than a River Otter. However, they are excellent predators – speeding under the water just like a torpedo. A fish doesn’t stand a chance. Otters are one of the larger members of the Weasel family – 28” from nose to tail tip. Weasels are mustelines. All mustelines give off a protective odor (i.e. skunks).

Otters are very active and many of their actions appear to be play. Sliding down river banks seems to be a favorite activity. They are semi-aquatic and move well on land (up to 18 mph), as well as in the water. Their long tail and webbed feet are a great aid in their under water navigation. Thick, dense fur keeps them well insulated from the cold and those prominent whiskers are sensitive to surrounding situations.

Fish is their main food source but they will also consume frogs, crustaceans, insects, and occasionally water fowl and small mammals. They den on land and the female evicts the male before birthing. He will return when the young are half grown and help in their care. Their lifespan is usually 10 to 15 years.

On two successive and very chilly mornings, at South Davis Lake, Oregon, we pursued a family of three. It was September and the mornings were cold in the woods. My fingers were so cold that it was difficult to work the camera. However, the cold was overlooked because we were experiencing a rare (for us) event. Following that family group up and down the stream, as they sped after trout, kept us at rapt attention – from just before sunrise to about 11:00 AM each day. Those mornings provided golden opportunities to observe and photograph these lovable creatures.

Magic Sap Trees

by Dave Hanks

Sapsuckers are aptly named. They excavate tree cavities for nesting, and other birds use the holes after the original owners are done with them. They also drill series of small holes in a tree’s bark, which then becomes a source of sweetness for all to utilize. Cassia County has large populations of sapsuckers – Red-Naped ones. This woodpecker is especially evident at the City of Rocks. Its red chin differentiates it from other woodpeckers.

On a trip to New Mexico one winter, we camped in an out of-the-way place called Water Canyon. It was reputed to have wild turkeys, and my wife wanted to observe them. It was wintry, but that situation was disregarded. Snow limited where we could park our truck, but there was a spot just off the road by a forest service restroom. There was considerable bird activity around that restroom. We soon discovered the reason. An Arizona Black Walnut tree with brown, withered leaves that hadn’t been totally shed stood next to that outhouse. It was oozing sap and, as if by magic, a wide variety of birds were visiting that tree.

A Red-Naped Sapsucker would arrive at 20 minute intervals and work on two or three branches. There were dark areas on the bark and, with binoculars, I discovered that each spot was covered with tiny holes. Obviously, sapsuckers are not the only ones that love sap. White-Breasted Nuthatches were all over the tree. Ruby-Crowned Kinglets preferred a spot where a freshly broken limb made a large stain on the dangling branch. Other species invading that tree were: Common Bushtit, Mountain Chickadee, Bridled Titmouse, Juniper Titmouse, Stellar’s Jay, and Scrub Jay.

We didn’t find any Wild Turkeys, but it was great to get such a close-up glimpse and an expanded knowledge of sap holes. The time spent at the base of that “Magic Sap Tree” and all the many birds in it, made that short side-trip most rewarding!

His red chin identifies him as a sapsucker

How many rocks could a Rock-Chuck chuck?

Rock Chuck or Wood Chuck, both are marmots. The correct name however, for our local marmot, is the Yellow-Bellied Marmot. The marmot is the only mammal to have a USA holiday named for it (Ground Hog Day).

This large (14” to 20”) rodent loves rocky terrain where they can lay in the sun and also escape predators when alarmed. One individual always stands guard and gives an alarm call. The call will vary according to the type of predator (hawk vs. coyote, etc). It may be a “chuck”, whistle, or a trill. Rock habitats must be close to greenery, as the animal lives entirely on green vegetation of all types.

Yellow-Bellied Marmots spend 80% of their lives in burrows – this includes nighttime, as well as hibernation which lasts from August through February. They are meticulous about keeping their den and bedding clean. Their hearty appetite allows them to put on a good layer of fat for their 7 month hibernation. Sleeping late, then eating vigorously, and finally resting on a rock in the sun conserves the energy that turns into a layer of fat.

The males are “harem-polygymous” and litter sizes average a bit over 4 pups. Males leave the colony, but females tend to stay with their mothers and become reproducers at 2 years of age.

This “bear-like” rodent has a golden to rufus coat, brown head, and a yellowish-red belly. Wood Chucks are found in the east, but Yellow-Bellies are a western, intermountain species.

They are most interesting to observe, whether sunning on a large rock or scurrying across a road or trail into the closest cover.

(A big one sunning – a favorite pastime)

Western Tanagers & an “invisible” experience

I have seen western movies where an Indian felt safe, amid a battle, because he claimed to be invisible. This is a situation that I’ve often wished for and strangely enough it has seemed to have happened a few times during my pursuit of wildlife photos. There is no other way to explain it. After pursuing bird after bird, only to have them “spook” and fly away, sometimes a lucky situation will arise.

One time in late July, when camping at Lake Cleveland, we found a shallow pond at one side of the campground. It was the result of snow-melt and was receding quite rapidly each day. In a “devil-may-care” mood, I stuck a stick upright in the mud of that pond. I then proceeded to place my chair a scant 20 feet from the stick. It was as if I wasn’t there. Sixteen different species alighted, either on that stick, or at my feet, before moving in to drink. Hairy Woodpeckers, Pine Grosbeak, and others; but the most noticeable were Western Tanagers. If you would have told me that this would happen, I’d have said that you were crazy.

The tanager is one of my favorites and his red head makes for a breath-taking sight. The bird needs a good supply of carotene in its diet to enhance the red coloration. Slightly smaller than a Robin, it has a black back and tail and a bright yellow body and yellow wing bars. The female is colored like the male – minus the red head.

This bird prefers the coniferous forests of the western United States during the summer months, but winters in central Mexico and further south. In the early spring this species always pays a visit to our yard, where it is much attached to the sugar water we put out for the Orioles

Cooper’s Hawk – A Bird Eating Bird

Hawks are very difficult to approach. This one was by a forest-service water trough in North Heglar Canyon. He seemed cooperative, and so I crawled on my belly and got very close to take this picture. He’s a young hawk and perhaps that is the reason I was able to get quite close. He was frequenting the area in hopes of catching other birds that were coming in to drink.

Cooper’s Hawk & its smaller look-alike, the Sharp-Shinned Hawk, are both predators that feed on other birds. “Sharpies” feast on the smaller species while Cooper’s will take birds the size of doves. Their falcon-type, streamlined bodies make swift pursuit possible. Exceptionally maneuverable through trees, they really “zoom” after their prey. We have an extensive bird feeding set-up in our yard, and these two hawks hang around in our trees. They make surprise attacks, scattering birds in all directions, as they swiftly appear out of nowhere. The reason why bird feeders need to be situated close to cover, is so a quick dive into a protected area is possible.

These two species are classified as Accipiters. These are medium-sized hawks with slender bodies, long tails, and short wings. These attributes give them great maneuverability in the tree habitats in which they reside. Cooper’s is 14” to 20” long. “Sharpies” are 10” to 14” long. Another difference is that the Cooper’s Hawk has a rounded end to its tail while Sharp-Shinned tail is squared.

Although we hate disturbance at our bird feeders, the appearance of one of these predators is always exciting. They are only doing what they are programmed to do. They are not nearly as great a menace as are the many stray house cats that we are plagued with – or the dogs that feel free to frequent our yard.

Badgers are unexcelled excavators

We have a Badger in our yard! I don’t know how it got here. I
don’t know why! But looking down, while crossing our corral fence, there it was,
face to face with me. It had burrowed a nice big hole under the concrete of the
cattle manger. It couldn’t have selected a more protected spot to dig a den.

The claws on a Badger are formidable. There are five on each foot and they
are very impressive. It’s no wonder that they are such master burrowers. They
have a flattened shaped body of 2 to 3 feet long. The short tail doesn’t get in
the way of digging, or get encrusted from the dirt that the Badger is constantly
working in. Badgers are nocturnal and are rarely seen in daylight. They may not
even emerge from the den in bright moonlight. Their burrows are recognizable by
their square-shaped openings.

They will run from an encounter; but, if cornered, can be extremely
aggressive. Their teeth are as formidable as their claws. Skunks, weasels,
otters, wolverines, and badgers are classified as mustelids – species that give
off scent. They are carnivores that prefer soft foods like baby rabbits, mice,
voles, snails, beetles, and even fungi and wind-fallen fruits.

One to five young are born in the burrow. This is usually in March. They
don’t emerge until 6 to 8 weeks old and stay with their parents until October.
Badger tracks differ from dogs in that 5 toe prints show instead of 4. They are
very capable of defending themselves and have little to fear.

I was lucky to get this one’s photo as it was excavating a burrow under our
manger.

Grizzlies have an amazing digestive system

Grizzlies are always hungry. It’s no wonder, because of a five month hibernation fast, they must go into the den at least 150 pounds over the weight from which they emerge. This large, aggressive omnivore (meat and vegetation eater) is in reality a very poor predator. Meat is preferred, but not often an option. As a result, the animal consumes a wide variety of food stuffs.

Their favorite food is ground squirrels, which they vigorously dig for. Other meat sources may include fish, newborn mammals, and carrion from winter kill. However, 70% of their diet is grass. It needs to be moist and at least 4 inches long because they graze with a sideways motion of the head. It’s interesting to watch them grazing on a hillside like cattle. Other foods are insects, buds, berries, nuts, and roots.

That hump between the shoulders is a massive muscle for digging, which they are masters at. They require a massive 24,000 calories a day, and their digestive tract is 80 feet long (10 feet for each foot of body length – humans have 4 feet for every foot of height). This great length of gut enables the digestion of a truly great variety of food stuffs. The bear is most aggressive when guarding a carcass, or when a sow is guarding her cubs. The bear is also very fast. Grizzlies can cover 50 yards in 3 seconds. My wife and I watched one ambling along, when suddenly the bear became alert and was off. It was amazing how fast that beast covered the ground and was gone!

Once, in a Canadian campground, I was sitting and reading to my wife. Our backs were toward the woods. A man came up the trail, on his way to the restroom. He asked if we had enjoyed our visitor. Evidently, a Grizzly had come out of the woods and sat behind us, unbeknown to us. It then, when seeing the man approaching, had returned into the trees.

 

The Great Horned Owl – Fighter or Lover?

It’s mesmerizing to fall asleep, or awaken, to a soft hooting in
the early evening, or in the wee morning hours. Such is a common occurrence at
our house. These love calls begin in late fall and result in the laying of four
eggs in late winter. Incubation is started at once and results in separate
hatching times for each egg. This situation is known as a “stairstep” family and
whether all, or part, of the young are raised depends on the food supply. The
biggest baby is always fed first and it will survive even if the others don’t.
When the young fledge, they are ½ again larger than the adults. This allows for
an adjustment period when they are learning to fend for themselves.

The GREAT HORNED OWL is not only “tender” with its own but is very formidable
with others. They can take prey as large as a skunk and I have seen young cats
(in our yard) that have been torn in half. A smack on your head with their
talons could be very injurious.

They are identified by size (22”), a white throat, and ear-like feather
projections. They are quite adaptable and wide spread across North America and
are important rodent controllers. Mice and voles make up the lion’s share of
their diet. Other bird species will often “mob” them during daylight hours. Our
yard and lower tree plots are to their liking and we get to witness the raising
and fledging of young each year.

 

Our Neighborhood Kingfisher

I hear his “rattling” as he flies over our trees on his way to breakfast. Our neighbor has a large pond that is stocked with goldfish. The bird perches on a zip-line cable that is stretched over the pond. He watches below, plunges down and spears a fish, and then flies to a small bridge that leads to an island within the pond. He then smacks the head of the fish against the metal railing to kill it before ingesting it. Having observed this behavior, I set up my portable blind beside the bridge. I get in it each morning, before sunup, for most of a week. The “rattling” alerts me to his presence and I get ready for him to land on the bridge. This gives me the opportunity to get some good Kingfisher photos.

The BELTED KINGFISHER is a species in which the female is the more colorful. She has a rusty red belly stripe. They are 13” long and have a noticeable crest that looks to need “combing”.

They nest in burrows, dug in banks, close to fish inhabited waters. A short tail creates less drag as they exit the water after a dive. I became a Kingfisher lover from the time I first noticed one winging and “rattling” its way above Rock Creek, in southern Twin Falls County.

 

Mysterious Interloper

by Dave Hanks

In 2003 and 2004 I was called upon to identify a mysterious bird seen in the tall trees in the south-west section of Burley. I say mysterious because the species involved managed to stay hidden most of the time, or at least when I was called to observe it. After much searching and discussion of behavior, an unlikely visitor was identified. Unlikely because this bird is closely associated with marshes, where it nests. Because the river is within easy flying distance is the only reason that seems logical for this large wading species to be where it was sighted.

The AMERICAN BITTERN is 28 inches long with a voice that sounds like water gurgling. When alarmed it will stand in the sedges with neck stretched skyward, looking much like the reeds that surround it.

Immature Night Herons are also streaked and could possibly be confused with the bittern.

It is a hard species to approach and to get photographs requires a bit of luck.