Nature: Otters and tide pools



There is nothing more fun loving than a family of otters. A column reader got to see and hear four of them swimming along by a local harbor near shore. She sent me a nice photo of them. Otters love the water and are often seen swimming about or even sitting on a dock drying off and preening themselves.

It is the river otter we see here in Maine. It is not the one you see cracking shells on its stomach while it floats on its back: that is the sea otter and we do not have them here. Our local otters like to swim in the island ponds and along the shore. Their sleek brown bodies are muscular and their legs short and powerful. Some otters are residents on local islands. When out foraging they are always looking for fish, frogs, salamanders, earthworms, small snakes and even some plants.

Even if you do not see otters you may come across one of their slides in either mud or snow. They slide on their bellies with their feet folded back out of the way down a steep muddy bank and into the water. This same action is repeated on the snow and ice in the winter. Since these mammals are from 3-4 feet long, not including the tail, and weighing up to 30 pounds you should be looking for a wide, packed-down area, on a steep bank leading into the water. Although I like to think that their mud and snow slides are a bit of fun for them, otters do use them for moving about more easily as well, especially in the snow. The otter’s hind feet have fully webbed toes with claws at the tip. Over all the foot is 4.3-5.9 inches long. It is bigger than its weasel cousin.

The big fire on MDI in 1947 that burned thousands of acres had a big influence on the otter population… the mature forests of spruce and fir were replaced by much more diverse woods that included aspen, birch and other deciduous species as well as conifers. With more food to their liking, beaver numbers increased, which in turn increased the number of ponds providing stable water levels year round. Those ponds provided a good year-round supply of food for otters in the form of fish and amphibians. Otters may use abandoned beaver lodges for denning and resting sites. They also may enlarge a muskrat’s house or a woodchuck burrow for a den. I know of a few otter homes under porches at summer homes along the shore.

Warblers are leaving us for their summer homes now but a friend on a hike recently sent me a perfectly beautiful portrait of a Northern Parula Warbler she encountered on a mountain trail in the park. This bird is one of those beautiful birds that come here from the tropics each year just to nest. It is very beautiful. The upper parts are bluish gray with a yellow throat and breast. Across the breast of the male is a band of black and rufous feathers. This small tropical beauty eats insects and spiders.

I was unable to get out and about as much as I would like this summer but one flower I did manage to see was the Indian Pipe. It is a bizarre plant and looks like small waxy, white pipes coming up out of the dark spots on a forest floor. If you visit them for a few days you’ll see the interesting changes the plant makes as it blooms, matures and then dies in a gooey black mess. This plant is a parasitic plant belonging to the wintergreen family.

The easiest gull to see up close here I think is the Ring Billed Gull (Larus delawarensis). My favorite place to watch them is at the Thompson’s Island picnic area. There you can see them just a few feet away from you. It is a photographer’s heaven. This gull does have a ring around the bill as the name implies. The much larger herring gull has a red spot on the bill.

Ring billed gulls are great insect eaters with a particular love for grasshoppers stirred up by plowing in local fields. The Ring billed gull can grab a grasshopper as easily as swallows in pursuit of insects. If the food is in water the ring billed gull floats down slowly or plunges downward and seizes the food without getting its plumage wet. These gulls rise neatly from the water and can swim well. When alarmed they utter a shrill note of protest “kree-kreeeeeeee!’. They are often noisy when feeding. You usually see them in large groups for they are gregarious with their own kind and other species. The parking areas outside the big malls are also good places to see these birds and also at the public park on the river in Ellsworth. This place is also good for watching eagles and cormorants.

Tide pools are always interesting to explore and you can count on something new at every low tide. The pool floors are paved with colors and strange forms. It can be difficult sometimes telling whether what you are seeing is a plant or animal. Worms are probably not everyone’s favorite topic but I am particularly fond of the Left Handed Tube Worm (Spirorbis borealis). Sometimes hundreds of them can be found on a strand of seaweed. Believe it or not there are actually four kinds of tube worms in the area, two left handed and two right handed! The handedness refers of course to the direction of the spiral of the tube that they construct for themselves to live in. Look in the shallow water for the two kinds living there.

Challenge yourself this week and try and find them. You can find out more about these unusual creatures living in the local tide pools if you look in my latest book called “Living on the Edge.” It’s available in local libraries.

Send any questions, observations or photos to teahousehousetrio@wildblue.net

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Columnist
Send any questions or observations to teahousetrio@wildblue.net or call 244-3742.