Celebrating the River Otter

Snow Geese and Sutter Buttes, Sacramento Valley, CA

Tule marsh with snow geese. Sacramento NWR.

Every winter we drive up to the Sacramento Valley to watch the bird migration. This year we not only had the spectacle of millions of geese and ducks, we were also treated to a half hour with three feisty river otters.

 

 

The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge offers a self-guided auto tour that loops through 10,819 acres (43.78 sq. km.) of wetlands. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that about three million ducks and close to one million geese are spending this winter here.

 

Every winter I write a post or two on what we found in the Sacramento Valley. There are a few links below.

Snow Geese

 

Across the United States, the North American River Otter has had a difficult history with declining populations due primarily to hunting, water pollution and habitat destruction. Reintroduction programs have been successful, but the otters still have a tenuous existence.

 

In some states it is now legal again to hunt river otters, though not in California. Range map below.

 

Over the course of our winter wildlife viewing in these wetlands (25+ years), we have had a total of about ten minutes observing river otters. They simply haven’t been around much, despite the wetlands being a perfect habitat.

Sacramento NWR, snowy Mount Shasta in background

 

Last year we had the joy of watching one otter in a flooded field. Five Minutes with a River Otter.

River Otter walking (last year)

This year we had a bonanza with three otters.

 

Fortunately we took the auto tour very slowly, or we probably would not have spotted the otter activity.

 

It is a six-mile drive and we spent five hours on it.

 

After years of practice, including numerous African game drives, we have perfected our auto tour experiences. I am the safari driver, while Athena has the entire back seat for photographing. She has both windows open and several lenses available.

 

Our winters in the Sacramento Valley are always cold, and often rainy…but we are never miserable. We always bring along a hearty lunch and a thermos of hot tea. For elevenses, we warm our home-baked scones on the dashboard heater vent.

 

It is prohibited to get out of the vehicle except in the 3 or 4 designated spots. Using the vehicle as a moving blind, visitors are able to see birds and mammals up close without disturbing them.

Sacramento NWR bird watch sign

When we first noticed a flock of coots flustered and riled in a deep ditch of water, we stopped to see what the excitement was about. We couldn’t see anything, so I slowly drove forward.

 

About five minutes later and along the same water-filled ditch, we saw more movement, still unidentifiable.

 

Here’s what it looked like without optics. There is an otter in this photo: in the center–a dark brown mass in the watery green weeds. It is just below the tall golden reeds and slightly right and back of a horizontal white weed.

Otter in ditch, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

 

Tricky spotting.

 

We both had our binoculars up, scanning, scanning. Hmm…something was going on.

 

Then an otter head popped out.

Otter with fish. Lines on the back and neck demonstrate how water courses off the otter’s fur.

 

And another.

Otter pair with fish

 

Athena’s camera was rapidly firing, and we were silently thrilled as the two active otters were joined by a third.

 

Each otter would vanish under the cold, dark water, then come up with a wriggling, silvery fish in its mouth. It was a frenzy. Continued for a half hour.

 

Eventually the three otters got full bellies, swam to the end of the ditch, scampered out of the water and disappeared.

Otters coming onto land.

 

The rains had been abundant, and fish were too. Oh how I love the blissful days in nature.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Selfie of Jet (L) and Athena (R)

Related posts:

Winter Ducks and More

Snow Geese are Heading Home

Wildlife Auto Tours

Snow Geese

LontraCanadensisMap.svg

No. American River Otter Range Map. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

The Raven

Raven, Point Lobos, California

This all-black bird has either fascinated or intimidated humans for centuries. I am one of the fascinated fans. Corvus corax  have a versatile and wide-ranging diet; a full repertoire of vocalizations; and a rare ability to problem-solve.

 

A member of the Corvid family, the most intelligent birds on the planet, ravens have captivated humans for centuries. Hundreds of scientific studies and thousands of observations continue to prove how advanced a raven’s thinking is.

 

Corvids include crows, jays, magpies, rooks, jackdaws, and more.  Common Raven Wikipedia.

 

At the Golden Gate Bridge, SF skyline in background

 

They reside in our planet’s northern hemisphere; see range maps at end.

 

This photograph offers a good size comparison between a bald eagle (left) and a raven (right). It was very rainy day and we were all drenched and a little cranky.

Bald eagle (juvenile) on left, raven on right. Sacramento NWR, CA

 

It can be difficult to distinguish the difference between a raven and a crow. They look very much alike, differences are subtle.

 

Here are a few of the differences that help me with identification:

  • The raven is the larger of the two birds;
  • Adult ravens usually travel in pairs, whereas crows are often seen in large flocks;
  • The call of a raven is a deeper croak than the crow;
  • Ravens like large expanses of open land, while crows are more often seen in densely populated areas;
  •  A raven’s tail, which you can see well in the photograph below, has varying lengths and tapers into a rounded wedge shape; whereas a crow’s tail has feathers all the same length, the end is straight across.

Raven in flight

More info for distinguishing the two here.

 

Raven

 

We have a raven pair on our property who often come to roost at the end of the day. After the sun has set, I hear them call to each other. Caw, caw, caw says one. Then I hear the other one reply: caw, caw, caw. They can go on like this for several minutes. I think they’re discussing which tree to spend the night in.

 

Here they were captured by our camera trap. They are keen to collect our offering of mice, caught in traps from our storage space. Look closely in the right raven’s mouth. They take the mice and fly off with their cache; circle this stump from above on their daily hunting route.

 

Even the Tower of London has a long history with ravens.

 

Not everyone, including Edgar Allan Poe, find ravens to be a delight. But even Mr. Poe, in his poem, found them to be mysterious.

 

Common Raven, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

 

Big and raucous, and sporting the all-black color of the underworld, ravens have an intimidating effect on some cultures.

 

If you happen to see a raven blinking in a moment when their extra protective eyelid, the nictitating membrane, is revealed, they can look eerie.

Raven revealing nictitating membrane in eye

 

But observe them long enough and you hear dozens of creative vocalizations that you never knew were possible. You see barrel rolls and aerobatic displays that can only be interpreted as one thing: fun.

 

You see enough of the fun and games of ravens…and you’re hooked for life.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

 

 

Range Map for Common Raven

North America Range Map for Common Raven, courtesy allaboutbirds.org

Corvus corax map.jpg

World Map, Common Raven Range, courtesy Wikipedia

Jubilee and Munin, two of the London Tower’s ravens in 2016. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

The Okefenokee Swamp

Alligator, Okefenokee Swamp

Here’s a place I have heard about my whole life. Catchy name. I got to visit it this past November, and it is as unusual and quirky as it’s name…and far more exotic and beautiful than I had ever imagined.

 

The Okefenokee Swamp is a peat-filled wetland that straddles the U.S. Georgia-Florida border. A vast and shallow bog, it covers nearly a half-million acres (177,000 ha). In ancient times it was part of the ocean floor.

Cresser Prairie, Okefenokee Swamp

There are hiking trails, a self-guided auto tour, an observation tower, camping, and more. But being on the water is decidedly the best way to experience the Okefenokee.  You can rent boats, take your own out, or pay for a boat tour.

 

We took the guided 90-minute boat tour, and it was excellent.

 

Alligators peered out from beneath the water’s surface.

Alligator

 

 

Pond cypress trees

Pond-cypress trees and Suwannee Channel

 

It is the largest blackwater swamp in North America. The water is characteristically slow-moving, filtering through vegetation and decay, resulting in tannins that make the water appear black.

 

Blackwater generally has less nutrients and more acid, hosting flora and fauna different than you see around fast-moving water.

 

The cypress trees (Taxodium ascendens) (pictured above), rooted in water, have a curious bulbous base that assists in stabilizing the tree.

 

Trees living in water:  not something we see very often.

 

Surrounding the cypress trees are woody projections, tapered stumps, called “cypress knees.” These are part of the cypress root system thought to provide the tree with stability as well as oxygen.

Cypress Knees in front center

The guide steered the boat down the long man-made Suwannee Canal, as we suspiciously eyed the alligators, kept our limbs and digits well inside the boat. Monarchs fluttered along the shoreline, turkey vultures soared overhead, woodpeckers and blue jays dipped among the trees while catbirds shouted their mewing calls.

i

Forest trees, thickly draped with Spanish moss, arched overhead.

Moss-draped forest

I studied the faces of canoeists as they glided by, admired their calm as they paddled through the black, alligator-studded water.

Canoeists in Okefenokee Swamp

After we left the main channel, we headed into the Chesser prairie. There are many wetland prairies, or open landscapes, in the Okefenokee and they’re all named.

 

Wading birds like ibis, egrets, and herons dotted the landscape.

 

In addition to the abundant water lilies (Nymphaea odorata), clumps of pitcher plants (Sarraceniaceae) could be seen in a few places. A cobra-shaped carnivorous plant, it eats and digests insects.

 

Its sweet nectar entices the insect in while the waxy inner surface traps the insect, who then drowns in the inner chamber.

Pitcher Plant

The history of the Okefenokee is an interesting one, home to Native Americans and white settlers in earlier centuries. Toward the beginning of the 20th century, opportunists embarked on draining the swamp and harvesting the cypress trees for profit.

 

Fortunately for us, by 1937 the area became protected.

 

In some parts of the Okefenokee there are small islands, called batteries, that you can see floating by.  About the size of a desktop or larger, they are made of decaying organic matter called peat that originates on the swamp floor and floats to the surface.

 

“Okefenokee” is a Native American word of Seminole origin that means “The Land of the Trembling Earth.” It is believed that the long-ago Native American residents probably walked on those floating batteries, and experienced trembling.

 

Trees and flowers that live in the water. Plants that eat insects. Mammals that eat humans. And black water wherever you look.

 

The Okefenokee Swamp is marvelously unique.

Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge Wikipedia

Visiting the Okefenokee

Informative overview

 

 

Welcoming 2020

Giant Eagle Owl, aka Verreaux’s Owl, Botswana, Africa

As we step forward into a fresh new year, and decade, here are some wise words from a few of my wild friends.

 

Greet each day with a smile.

Crocodile, Kakadu Nat’l. Park, Australia

 

Enjoy the search for life’s nectar.

Scaly-breasted Hummingbird, Belize

 

Wear your true colors …

Yellow Tangs, Big Island, Hawaii

but on crabby days, lay low.

Sally Lightfoot Crab, Galapagos Islands

 

Eat good foods …

House Finch, Gold Dusk Gecko Eating Papaya, Hawaii

and drink plenty of water.

Young African Elephant Drinking Water, Botswana, Africa

 

Share the resources.

Bighorn Sheep and Moose at pond, Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado

 

Wildlife, who have to physically work for every bite, like to remind us humans of the importance of movement. They tell us to …

Exercise …

Sable, Botswana, Africa

and stretch.

Leopard, Tanzania, Africa

 

I’ve watched plenty of wildlife simply having fun, especially ravens.

Common Raven, Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California

Wildlife remind us to:

Hang out with our mates …

Grey-headed Flying Fox colony, Sydney, Australia

and cherish our loved ones.

Baird’s Tapir, juvenile and mother, Belize

 

Try to get along with everyone …

Hippo with heron, Zambia, Luangwa Valley, Africa

but when it’s not possible, take leave.

Humpback Whale, Kenai, Alaska

And because we are granted many days in each new year, there are bound to be some bad days too. The wisdom there is:

When life gives you dung, be a dung beetle.

Dung Beetle, Serengeti, Kenya, Africa

 

It’s good to be industrious …

Leafcutter Ant with leaf spear, Belize

but don’t forget to take time to perch …

Keel-billed Toucan, Belize

and relax.

Guatemalan Black Howler Monkey, Belize

 

Never stop singing …

Dickcissel, Texas

and just keep hopping.

Grey Kangaroos, Australia

 

Wishing you the best in 2020, my friends. Thanks for sharing the sparks of 2019 with me.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

All photos by Athena Alexander.

Blue Monkey, Mt. Kenya, Kenya, Africa

 

Hiking the Columbia Gorge

Columbia River and Freight Train

I had the privilege of hiking two different trails while visiting the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia Gorge recently. The trails were on opposite sides of the Columbia River, in two different states.

 

Bridge of the Gods over the Columbia River

On the north shore of the river is the state of Washington, the south side is Oregon.

 

With the helpful emails and posts of fellow blogger and PNW hiker John Carr, both hikes were awesome, and the book he suggested, Northwest Oregon by William L. Sullivan, was great. His website, johncarroutdoors.com, is dedicated primarily to PNW hikes.

 

The first day, Athena and I hiked the Falls Creek Falls trail in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington, named after the first Chief of the United States Forest  Service. This trail was enchanting due to dynamic Falls Creek that was present every step of the way. Sometimes the waters expressed a calm chattering, other times, passionately raging.

 

Two exquisite footbridges aided us as we traversed the trail.

 

Suspension Footbridge, Falls Creek Falls Trail

After marveling at the footbridge engineering and enjoying  many unfamiliar plants along the way, we hiked further and discovered the old-growth trees.

 

We were awed by towering moss-covered rock walls and magnificent old-growth Douglas fir trees.

Rock Wall, Falls Creek Falls Trail

 

Athena demonstrating the size of the old-growth Douglas Fir tree

I always enjoy hiking on familiar trails, observing each new season with appreciation, and warmly greeting the trees, plants, and wildlife as the old friends they are.

 

But it’s also really fun to be in a completely new forest, especially when it is a winner. Each turn of the path yields a new surprise…mystery and adventure.

 

As we continued along the trail, the sound of the water gradually increased until it was so loud we could no longer hear each other speak…and then, through the trees, we were astounded to see the crashing waters high above us.

Falls Creek Falls, Washington

The guidebook’s author described the waterfall perfectly: “The 3-tiered cascade starts with a hidden 50-foot falls, spreads across a 70-foot fan, and finally thunders 80 feet into a rock punchbowl.”

Falls Creek Falls

We had lunch at the waterfall, and headed back, completely satisfied and happy for the magic we had experienced.

 

The other hike occurred a day later in Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon. The High Prairie Trail on Lookout Mountain.

 

As we ascended, we came upon a few meadows, like this one. Although is was late August, there were still wildflowers.

Meadow, Mount Hood National Forest

 

As we continued, we were rewarded with breathtaking views of the Cascade Mountains and the Columbia River Plateau.

Mount Hood and Columbia River Plateau

That day it was 90 degrees F. (32 C.), so we stopped a few times in the ascent, finding rocks to sit on and marveling at the quiet magnificence.

 

More surprises prevailed as the close-up views of Mount Hood just kept getting better and better.

 

Mount Hood, Oregon

There is no place in the world like the Pacific Northwest with its endless waterfalls, gorgeous trails, and sweeping mountain vistas.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

 

Columbia River Gorge

Post Card from Space

NASA space suit, Kennedy Space Center

I’m not really in space, but after a day immersed in a NASA facility, I can say it won’t be long before humans will be sending digital post cards to their Earthling loved ones from space.

 

This week I visited the Kennedy Space Center on the Atlantic coast of Florida near Cape Canaveral. I am looking forward to sharing with you the marvels of the center, as well as the man-made miracles of space travel.

 

For now, I’m visiting with family, enjoying boat rides, beach walks and bird walks, laughter and good times.

 

I had forgotten the Atlantic coast’s long, distinctive flat stretches of white sand beaches and warm water. I’m more accustomed to the lovely Pacific beaches with craggy coastlines and water so cold it numbs your feet.

 

We have seen alligators and a manatee, plenty of marsh wading birds. The sharp call of a blue  jay, a familiar sound I grew up with but never hear in California, greets me every morning.

 

Sending best wishes for sweet moments this weekend….

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photo by Athena Alexander.

 

Wine Country Autumn

Wine grapes

In Northern California it is early autumn and it is unfolding beautifully. We are experiencing cool nights in the 40s F. (4 C.), occasionally in the 30s (-1 C.). Days are warm when the sun shines…and it almost always does. About 75 F. (23 C.).

 

One of the biggest events right now is the grape harvest. Wine grapes are harvested at different times, depending on many things; but many are picked in the early fall before the rainy season arrives.

 

Large trucks labor up and down the small highways bearing big open boxes of grapes. Most of us have spent our share of time patiently sitting behind these slow-moving trucks on impassable roads. I use that time to look at the sun glistening on each purple jewel.

Bewick’s Wren on grape vine, California

The wine harvest attracts many visitors to the area, lured by the slick marketing of vineyards with their festive “stomps”, release parties, and energized tours. I drove through Napa County yesterday and counted six hot air balloons languidly suspended overhead, another popular tourist draw in autumn.

 

Every weekend there are animated harvest celebrations going on with gourmet food, live music, and free-flowing wine.

 

Other harvesting that goes on here, to a far lesser extent, are apples and pumpkins. I also see persimmons and figs on trees.

 

Persimmons on tree, California

Local Farmer’s markets have tables piled high with colorful peppers of all kinds, table grapes, heirloom tomatoes, and plums. The waning summer harvests are still yielding green beans, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, eggplants. Squash are coming out now, too.

 

Squash

 

We have had two short rains recently, so the autumn dry grass is not quite as intimidating as in past years. The anniversary of the raging 2017 wildfires is next week, and we are frequently reminded that we’ve now entered “Fire Season.” We hope for rain and work on ways to protect our families and homes.

 

Wildlife is shifting at this time of year, with the bird migration underway. A few species are coming in to settle here for the winter, and more will arrive as the temperatures up north cool.

 

I await the arrival of the sandhill cranes, due in about a month, if we get rain.

 

Sandhill cranes with red-winged blackbirds

 

Other birds like hawks and warblers are passing through from the northern parts of the continent as they travel to their summer homes in Mexico, Central and South America.

 

I’ve seen numerous flocks of swifts and waxwings in the past few days.

Healdsburg chimney and Vaux’s swifts

 

Cedar Waxwing

 

Due to the hot days, the reptiles can still be seen during the day when it’s warm. I saw a snake track on my morning walk yesterday, and was reminded of the thick rattlesnake I almost stepped on recently on the same path.

 

Lizards skitter as always in the heat, but now there are many little ones, smaller than my pinkie.

 

Chipmunks, squirrels, and jays are busy burying acorns, and woodpeckers are boisterous and frequent in the oaks. Several acorns fell out of the blue oaks above me this morning, acorn woodpeckers are on the move.

 

Tall grass is blonde and beautiful. The soil is so dry it is powder. Deciduous trees are starting to lose their leaves.

 

Other than the scent of dry vegetation, the distinct and common smell of vinegar is in the air. As the grapes are being picked and processed, the smell of freshly crushed grapes and fermentation are pungent. You can smell it everywhere in the valleys.

 

Both the big wineries and the small boutique wineries are bustling. Residents who grow and make their own wine have purple-stained fingers. This is a small grape press of a neighbor’s.

 

Grape Press with sides removed

 

I breathe in the smell of “the crush” with great reverence, and fervently hope we will be spared the wildfires this year.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.