Otters are natural entertainers

Several young otters made themselves at home on the dock in Mount Desert this past week according to the photos I received from friends on Facebook. This is not the first time I have received friendly otter reports from the towns of Northeast Harbor and Seal Harbor. A summer or two ago, I heard about young otters appearing at a picnic on a dock where a barbecue was going on. The playful mammals appeared and provided live entertainment for the guests.

Otters are playful mammals, and they are fun to watch. They are secretive creatures, and it is difficult to predict where you might see them, but there are always exceptions. They are regularly seen in local ponds and along the shore in search of fish, frogs, salamanders, earthworms, small snakes and even some plants. They move along gracefully and easily in their sleek, brown muscular bodies using their short, powerful legs.

The ones seen recently in Mount Desert seemed to be right at home on the dock as they explored and took quick naps as their photos were taken by the local police. Otters seem to enjoy wrestling, tumbling and chasing each other in sort of a ‘follow the leader’ game wherever they decide to go and explore. They are quite inquisitive. Males and females look alike, although males are slightly larger than females. A litter of otters has from one to five kits, and the newborn are born blind and helpless. Young ones travel with their parents until they are about one year old.

Normally, river otters, the only otters living here, live along rivers, swamps and lakes. Their dens are well hidden beneath fallen trees, maybe in hollow logs, in rocky ledges or in some thickets near water. I also heard of them denning under some of the local summer houses on the island. Sometimes they will use an abandoned beaver lodge, woodchuck burrow or old muskrat lodge, if it is available. When they den along a stream, they have an underwater exit beneath the ice for winter use. They are active all year but mostly at night.

Otters seem to be intelligent, gregarious mammals, a little bit shy sometimes, and they are very loyal to each other. Naturally, they are excellent swimmers and are right at home in the water. They usually swim by paddling with their hind feet, but when pressed to do so, they can wiggle and writhe their bodies and tails to propel themselves. They swim at about seven miles per hour, and otters have been caught in nets at depths of 60 feet! Otters love to travel, and they are capable of loping or cantering along at 18 miles per hour if necessary. They are apt to travel many miles over land in the winter to find good spots for water and fish. You just never know when you might see them, especially around water. Enjoy any otter sighting!

A funny story came to me recently concerning turkeys. A friend of mine told me she looked our across the field in front of her house one day and saw a flocks of turkeys headed her way. As she watched, they kept getting closer and closer and were almost up to her porch steps when her cat signaled frantically to be let in. She quickly opened the door, the cat dashed in, and the turkeys stopped advancing. Many a cat has chased birds, but this time, the tables were turned. It was a funny sight!

Birds are harder to see this time of year, but a friend reported to me that she enjoyed watching two brown creepers one day. Brown creepers get their name from the way they feed, which is creeping up tree trunks as they look for and find tiny insects or their eggs and larvae to eat. Their bills are like tiny tweezers, and they make excellent tools for extracting their food from hard-to-get places. Creepers especially probe for spiders and other insects. Their method of eating seems terribly monotonous to us for they repeat this spiraling up tree trunks over and over again every day for their food.

Nuthatches probe for food on tree trunks as well, but they usually move head-first down the trunk. This earns them the nick-name ‘upside down bird.’

Island residents had an interesting encounter with a hawk this week. They were just about to get into their car when a hawk came speeding by, almost bumping into them, and then landed just a few feet away. As is often the case, the cell phone with its camera capabilities was not readily handy, and no photo was taken to help in the bird’s identification. The hawk, probably a young bird, had made an unsuccessful attempt to catch a smaller bird and had missed and almost crash landed.

I couldn’t really identify the bird for many clues were missing. It could have been one of the falcons, most likely either a peregrine or less likely a merlin. I don’t know the length of the tail, so that makes it hard to know if it might have been a cooper’s hawk or a sharp-shinned hawk. These two birds have longer tails and other distinctive markings that help in identification. Regardless of the species, however, it was an exciting event.

The hawks that feed occasionally on feeder birds are actually doing a service in their own special way. A bird like the sharp-shinned hawk uses the element of surprise to catch its songbird at your feeder. The songbird could have been just caught off guard, or it could have been one weakened by injury or disease and just easier to catch. Since feeders are really unnatural places for birds to feed, they occasionally are the cause of infectious diseases, so hawks are performing a helpful service by culling any sick or weakened birds from the flock. Don’t begrudge them their meal. Hawks are their natural enemies.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.
Ruth Grierson

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