Klamath Basin report II- the otter and the (dead) duck
There is a lot of wildlife in the Klamath Basin, and not all of it has feathers.
Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time, and this was certainly one of those instances. With the incredibly low temperatures that were present for the last few days, there was almost no open water around – it was all frozen. One canal had some exposed water around an outlet pipe, with ice starting to encroach but enough open water to attract a small flock of water fowl.
I was out of my jeep watching a small group of pintails, green-winged teals, mallards and grebes in the small bit of open water, suddenly they “gently” flushed – they didn’t fly, but they walked out of the water. I didn’t flush them, but I couldn’t figure out what did. I turned for a moment to grab something in my jeep, when I looked back I saw what appeared to be a mallard duck struggling to get out of the water and onto the ice. Then I realized that it was actually the duck’s rear end that was out of the water! As my mind struggled to put the vision before me together, the duck slipped under the surface of the water. A few seconds later, a huge river otter popped up out of the water onto the ice with the (now dead) duck in its mouth!
I watched it consume the duck for almost an hour, occasionally it would retreat under water (sometimes with its meal!) when other people drove by or came too close (which unfortunately some did come too close).
There were times that the otter appeared to nod off after so much eating, but he wasn’t about to stop – he just needed some dinner naps. I’ve been there.
Otters are such a joy to watch, their behavior is always fascinating. Such beautiful, fun creatures. I’m sure the ducks felt differently.
During the time I was watching the otter, a northern harrier floated down the canal in the air and made a successful strike on a small bird – just 10 feet from the otter! I’ll put the series of pictures from that in the next blog …
The show wasn’t over though. After that a prairie falcon came in and made an unsuccessful strike on a small duck in the canal behind me! This place was a hot spot!
The other water fowl seemed to realize the otter was satiated, as they came back into close proximity of the otter as it was eating and even afterwards while he was still in the area. After the otter finished, another harrier moved in to scavenge the duck as the sun set.
I imagine it wasn’t long after I left that the coyotes I heard howling nearby moved in for the rest of the scraps. Their tracks were all over the Basin area, and I saw four of them during my two days there, moving at a rapid pace through the preserves as they hunted.
A ranger that I told about the encounter had been at the same location earlier and saw a bobcat. It was likely no coincidence that this spot was so active – the open water attracted the water fowl, which in turn attracted the predators.
Such a fun day. I stayed out past sunset watching everything unfold, and the temperature dropped quickly. I was happy to get back to town that night for a warm bed. Unfortunately I had some camera malfunction issues, so my shots aren’t as good as I’d hoped (auto-focus issues) – I learned the hard way to test new equipment more thoroughly before being out in the field! That is minor though – WHAT A DAY!!! It’s not often that you see this kind of show!! Very grateful to have the opportunity to be up there and that there are people protecting it. Check out KS Wild, one of the many groups helping the cause.
winter migrants have arrived
juvenile ferruginous hawk, point reyes national seashore
juvenile ferruginous hawk, point reyes national seashore
great egret and three river otters / point reyes national seashore
adult female northern harrier / point reyes national seashore
After finding myself in Walnut Creek with some hours of free daylight last week, I opted to wander a bit around a city park when I found out that some river otters from the Sacramento River had been frequenting two of the ponds there. I typically would have sought more calm and quiet at nearby Mount Diablo, but I had to brave the people to investigate. What is absolutely fascinating about this is the fact that the river is probably six miles away! How did they get here? Otters can travel long distances over land, but much of the land between the river and the ponds is densely developed by humans. There is however an irrigation canal (which occasionally runs through some riparian zones, but is generally just a concrete canal) that connects the two areas, but it’s a long swim.
My efforts paid off almost immediately. It was as if my coming was announced – upon walking up to a break in the tule reeds at the edge of the pond, I saw a form break the surface of the water with a backdrop of the setting sun. It was an otter! We checked each other out for a minute or so, then we continued on our ways after our formal hello. Photographs were prohibited by the lighting, and just seemed inappropriate at the time – though I did take one through the tules after our greeting ended. Any interaction with an otter always leaves me with a big smile on my face – they seem to have fun in every moment.
I thought it was an odd comment when, in an effort to learn more about the otters, I struck up a conversation with a local woman who reported her friend had seen a beaver here. I’ve learned to expect the unexpected when it comes to mother nature, but a beaver in that pond would have been like a mountain lion in downtown Berkeley. Oh wait, that happened! Regardless, it seems highly improbable.
After circling around the pond looking for otters and otter sign, I was initially duped when I saw another head pop out of the water – it wasn’t an otter. Was it the mysterious city pond beaver?! No – but it was a very busy muskrat! It was doing laps across the pond, and at one point it popped up onto the surface of the water right in front of me, conveniently when my vantage point allowed for full use of the ideal lighting for a picture. Perhaps it was looking for some of the spotlight since the otters were getting so much attention – muskrat public relations. Being close enough to see its tail undulate behind it for locomotion is fun to watch – it is its main source of propulsion which is uses with some help from its semi-webbed rear feet. The tail evolved to be flattened in the vertical direction and covered with scales, which makes it ideal for this use.
So what would cause otters to move down this way into an urban environment? And stay? A search for new territories is likely. More and more otters are being spotted around the Bay Area, so their range is expanding. Just a few weeks ago it was reported that a river otter had taken up residence in the Sutro Baths in San Francisco! And since they stock the one pond here with fish, I imagine the otters are hesitant to leave with such an easy food source available. There is an island in the northern pond that is inaccessible by people, and though it’s not big, it is probably just enough space so they don’t feel threatened.
Despite there being at least three otters at times reported living there, I have a feeling there are a lot of “otter” and “beaver” sighting there that are actually muskrat – an easy mistake for the untrained eye. I’m just happy people are taking time to appreciate these amazing creatures and engage their own curiosity and wonder in a way that is respectful to the animals, land and other users of the shared space.