In the middle of the pandemic and social distancing this summer, Tom, the two dogs, and I moved from Portland to farm property along Baker Creek in McMinnville. A move that increased my drive time in weekend travels to Whidbey Island, but on my McMinnville-to-Forest Grove commute, it is considerably shorter and within the embrace of the beautiful, Willamette Valley. Since our move, I have installed 6 trail cameras along the acreage. Most of which, consists of fallow fields of thistle, sedges, grasses, and hardwoods along native, riparian habitat of Baker Creek (albeit some invasive species that need extricating). I first caught this footage of a red lynx along the property back in September. But it was a ghost, slinking past the lens in the night fog, just a 3-second glimpse, revealing nothing but long, sturdy legs up to a slight waggle of the inked-tipped bobtail. In late October, I captured this footage of the lynx (bobcats are actually red lynx) hunting moles and screen captured one of the video frames to showcase its ruff and gorgeous face. Below is the video footage. The date is wrong, it reflects my failure to reset the date and time (filmed using a new CamPark camera). Enjoy! They are a delight to watch.
In the summer of 1995, I was involved in a summer internship with Beth Mathews, a Marine Biologist and just a stellar human being, through the University of Alaska Southeast. We were conducting harbor seal cow-pup counts in Glacier Bay, at John Hopkins Inlet. I fell in love with animal behavior many times during my life, but that was one of the first times I realized how much there was to learn from individual animals, not just whole taxonomic groups.
A harbor seal pup, pulled those Glacier Bay memories back to the fore of my memory this week. It is pupping season in the Pacific Northwest, the time of year when those sausage-shaped pups with bowling-ball faces haul out on beaches to await mom to return from feeding to nurse. The cow’s milk is about 80% fat, it is so rich that the pups are weaned after about a month to fend for themselves. Although Harbor seals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (you cannot approach a seal or seal pup), they are the most common marine mammal in the Salish Sea. Despite this, according to Gary Heinrick of the ORCA Network, about 50% of the pups die in a given year. This brings me to the topic of this post, I received several emails from folks around the island with photos of dead seal pups and inquiries about the local otters, were the otters okay?
The otters on the island are doing well, there is mortality every season for all animals, some due to human disturbance, some due to climate changes, pollution, predation, and others…well, they just get old. Gary Heinrick indicated that last week there were several Biggs Orca (transient orcas – mammal eaters) sightings near Coupeville. Spotters reported harbor seal predation during these sightings.
On Saturday an ocean-front neighbor from one of the high bank homes spotted a harbor seal pup in the intertidal zone and called me to see if it was okay. I walked down the beach, snapped a video with the zoom and sent it to the ORCA Network, who has a group of marine mammal stranding supporters. Here is that video.
The pup was not distressed, but did look a little emaciated. From 9:30 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon the pup sunned himself and then returned to the bay muling for the cow. The next morning, during my otter scans at 4:30, I heard the pup muling in the bay; but did not see it until about 5:30 when twilight broke. The pup was still alone. The pup shrugged its way up the beach to rest, then returned to about 60 meters from the beach and proceeded to play with a stick for about an hour. We cannot know if the little fella made it, but here are some photo shots of the observations.
July has been an exciting month for otter sightings, indeed for all wildlife on the Island. Patches was seen in Admiralty Bay with two new pups, likely spring births.
While a small female (unidentified) was found dead at Teronda West, just before the Fourth of July. Below is a photo taken within 24 hours post-mortem by Amanda Ford, a local resident and otter enthusiast, as well as a photo I took two days later when I was able to examine the carcass. The cause of death appeared to be from a wound to her throat, likely from a territorial conflict. Her body length from crown to tail was 49 inches, and her teeth had very little wear, likely only a year old. I salvaged the skull and the vertebral atlas (permit #Island19-282) and cleaned them using the State of Alaska’s Fish and Game salvage protocols (Note the dentary of the lower jaw are two separate bones and detach when the tissue is boiled off, thus requires glueing for an intact jaw). The skull will be a provided as an educational resource in my animal behavior course and in wildlife presentations.
Despite the discovery of the otter at Teronda West, I have received many reports across Whidbey from residents enjoying sightings of kinship groups as well as lone otters foraging in the intertidal areas. Below is a video of a kin group at Lake Pondilla, note the audible “chuckling.” River otters have a vocal repertoire of about 12 different vocalizations, the “chuckle” has been described as sounding like a grunt, snort, or purr.
Similarly, a raccoon sow and her three kits were also captured at Lake Pondilla via my infrared camera (permitted through Fort Ebey State Park, permit# 190801). You can hear the sow and her kits volley chitters back and forth as she attempts to coax them across a log. Bravo to mom for her extra vigilance – you will see her repeatedly monitoring the bank, that is because that area faces the hiking trail.
Along Admirals Lake in the Admirals Cove community, a beaver and coyote crossed paths within minutes of one another – note the coyote was fearful of the “evil red eye” of the infrared light on the camera (I need to get a different model – there are some that do not have such an overt light).
It has been a great month for wildlife.
Also, totally unrelated, but a great part of my week…thank you to Tony and Lindsay Blackner, who have been mentoring me in the fine art of beekeeping. Below is a photo of their hives and the “girls.”
Finally, a big “thank you” to Amanda Ford, Sarah Schmidt, Jann Ledbetter, Janet Johnston, and Jill Cooper for their sightings and reports this month!
I observed this bald eagle fishing in Admiralty Bay on June 24, 2020 from 11:20 am through 11:30-ish. That is how long it took for it to circle above the bay to identify the salmon in the water, plunge rather unceremoniously into the salt water, swim about 60 meters from the bay to the shoreline, preen its feathers, adjust her grip on the salmon, and take off to the nest by Admirals Lake. This is the third time I’ve observed eagles fishing in Admiralty Bay this season. I took over 100 photos of this observation event, but here are the highlights.
Mating Season on Whidbey is typically in April and May (give or take a month). These two amorous otters were observed by Jill Lipoti off Scatchet Head beach on the southernmost tip of Whidbey Island.
One of my trophy cameras situated near a den site on Lake Pondilla, Fort Ebey State Park also captured mating otters this May, though the footage is not nearly as good as Jill’s.
Though river otters typically mate in the water, courtship occurs throughout the day for several days. “Dinner and a movie,” may occur under residential decks. Be mindful, as limerence can sound more like fighting raccoons, with hissing, snarling and growling. Rest assured, this is part of the courtship process and if they found a love nest in your yard, they do not typically stay there for more than a day or two.
This exciting video of two coyotes (one on either side of the shrubbery) and a lone otter was captured by Kevin Shambaugh along Kennedy Lagoon in Coupeville. It is hard to know from such a brief video what is going on, it could be play, or what I think is perhaps more probable is den site guarding. Although the coyotes’ posture does not necessarily appear aggressive, coyotes mate in February to April with a gestation of approximately 60 days. Litters typically consist of 4 to 5 pups. Conversely, the otter may be a female trying to gain access to her own den site. It is difficult to know for certain; though the footage is wonderful. Thank you Kevin Shambaugh and Sue Sell for sharing!
If you have footage you would like to share of local wildlife, please email me with permissions to share your wonderful nature experiences, firstname.lastname@example.org
This video was taken by local Photographer Extraordinaire, Jann Ledbetter while out for a kayak in our beautiful sunny week.
With global quarantines, stay-at-home orders, and less industry, wildlife are taking back the suddenly vacant urban spaces across the globe. Here is great article in The Guardian about how this small respite in human activity has bolstered wildlife (Singapore’s Small clawed otters), water quality (Venice canals), residential deer, coyotes, raccoons, etc.
On Whidbey, the coyotes are just ending their breeding season, as such, they have starred in all the infrared camera activity. The otters typically stop or slow down their latrine activity during this time, from January through April.
A Christmas Surf Scoter
It is the new year and as if to provide one last “hoorah for 2019,” on December 25, a lone otter caught a Christmas Surf Scoter for breakfast in Admiralty Bay. The images below are not exceptional given the low light, but you can see the wing, part of the head, and the bright orange feet in the images. Note there is a drake surf scoter looking on, rather unperturbed during the hunting sequence.
River Otter Diet Data – Research Phase 1: Completed (December, 2019) and To Be Presented (February, 2020)
The last of the diet data was completed in December of 2019. The samples are drying for analysis through Pacific Identifications for a final interpretation of our Whidbey Island river otters’ seasonal foraging and diet preferences across the island. This data comes from latrines as far north as Strawberry Point to as far south as Clinton, as well as Lake Pondilla, Crockett Lake, Admiralty Bay, Admirals Lake, Bush Point, Mutiny Bay, Greenbank Farm, and Deer Lagoon. I will discuss the findings of phase 1 of this project, Density, Distribution, and Diet of Whidbey Island’s River Otters at the Sound Waters University Conference, Saturday, February 1, 2020 in Langley. Here is a link to that exceptional community of conservationists, scientists, and educators – Sound Water Stewards Conference. Among the 60 different classes and presentations during this conference, Sarah Schmidt will be presenting her work with Whidbey Island bats, Dr. Greg Jensen, will discuss his research of Salish Sea marine invertebrates, and Dr. John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research provides the keynote address, Changes in Large Whales of the Salish Sea and Recent Mortality and Threats. Register here.
Ever Grateful to You, Otter Spotter Supporters
Special thanks to Pam Stein, Jan and Karl Smith, Jill Cooper, Bob Wilbur, Cathy Miller, Rebecca Jaffe, Janet Johnston, and Jeanine Granstrom for their recent river otter reports, and support.
Have a Joyful, Successful and Healthy 2020!
Patches is back!
This is an image capture from an infrared video along a den site at Admiralty Beach on November 27, 2019 at 2:35 am. She is traveling to Admiralty Bay to feed in a romp of 3 other otters. Although she has not been “missing,” her last confirmed citing was in August of 2019.
Muzzle markings provide identifications…
Patches in May of 2019 (in estrus), notice the two distinct spots under each nostril in both photos.
Appreciation and Project Updates
A friend suggested a blog in place of a newsletter, as it is a more contemporary, paperless approach to sharing information and updates. It also allows you to control your updates and membership. So, welcome to the WIRS first blog post! This one will be longer given I have a lot to report, subsequent blogs will be much shorter. Also please let me know if you would like more information about something specific.
Appreciation: A quick shout-out to Jan and Karl Smith (Bush Point), Susan Carpenter (Bells Beach), Pam Stein (Strawberry Point), Barb Nichols, Bob Wilbur, and Kurt Blankenship (Admirals Cove), Janet Johnson (Goss Lake), Doug Clark (Clinton), and Sherri Hedman (Freeland) for their correspondence of otter presence, scat collections, and/or infrared video placement on their property. Also a big thank you as always to the folks at the Whidbey Camano Land Trust and Whidbey Environmental Action Network, I am so grateful for your support.
Research Update: The Whidbey Island River Otter Research project is in the second year of data collection. We have one month left to collect diet data. If you would like a quick introduction to the defined goals of the WIRS river otter research, please click the link here for a summary. Below is a graph-to-date of the prey diversity of the Whidbey river otter populations across the island.
Grant funding has also begun. A smaller grant was sent off this week for the genetic fingerprinting protocols – that is, through scat collection we hope to run genetic fingerprints (like you see on CSI) to identify individual otters across the Island. This is the most benign, nonintrusive approach to clarify population range and foraging distribution. A second larger grant proposal will (hopefully) be submitted by the end of spring for scat analysis of endocrine disrupting chemicals, including brominated flame retardants (see Seattle Times 2017 for information on Whidbey Island watershed contamination), stress hormones, and parasitology. We also hope to include students in summer research at WIRS.
Scat Collection and Otter Spotting Volunteers Needed!
If you have otters in your area, please report them to the WIRS Citizen Scientist Otter Reporting Website here (you can also find the Citizen Scientist Otter Reporting link on the Home page). For the truly industrious and committed, I have specimen collection kits prepared for those who have active latrines along their property. Please contact me if you would like one, I will deliver it to you! I am on Island from December through the end of January. Further, if you have “problem” river otters occupying your decks, boats, or boathouses, please do not hesitate to contact me, I am interested in finding a solution for you and the otters. I would also be happy to plant an infrared camera in locations of heavy otter traffic – I share all images with the property owner.
How about river otter greeting cards for the holidays? WIRS river otter cards (two different image options) are for sale at the Langley Whale Center. All proceeds for the sale of the WIRS cards go to benefit whale conservation.