PHANTOM of the MARSH!

BLOG_CSMag_ClapperRail_2015JunAThey do like the mud! The coastal saltwater marsh of North Carolina’s easternmost counties is home to one of the most secretive birds you may ever have the lifetime privilege to glimpse. Hearing a raspy chock–chock–chock, a short series of clacking or grunting sounds, might even be an easier discovery than seeing the “thin as a rail,” Clapper Rail. Their rattling call is one of the most common sounds in the marshes, although seeing this wetlands bird who likes to hide in dense cover isn’t easy. One of six rail species found in North Carolina, the gray and brown Clapper Rail, also known as the Marsh Hen, uses its lean body to easily slip through marsh grass while hunting and or escaping predators.BLOG_Clapper-Rail1 They would rather run through the thick mud than fly. Clapper Rails are considered weak flyers because flight has only been observed in low bursts of short distances, where landing shortly after taking off is common. Recently, four youngster Clapper Rails were admitted to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter after a gentleman rescued them from the Beaufort Channel. The Good Samaritan and his wife were spending the afternoon on their skiff and happened upon the four being aggressively tossed about by waves mercilessly created by the large boats in the area. He pulled his skiff between the large boats’ busy passage and the four chicks to buffer the challenging waves and waited for nearly 45 minutes, thinking one of the rails’ parents would show up to lead them out of their precarious situation. When that didn’t happen, their rescuer became concerned that because the babies were so tiny, the large boats could unintentionally run them over. He decided to bring them onboard and transport them to our shelter in Newport to ensure their safety. He mentioned they were quite fatigued and might not have lasted much longer. They are definitely too young to be on their own, so his compassionate decision probably saved their lives and afforded them that second chance. Chicken like in appearance, the Clapper Rail has long, unwebbed toes, a lengthy downward curved bill and an upward turned tail with white under tail feathers. They are the largest of the rail species when fully grown, 13 to 16 inches in length with a compact body and long, strong legs. BLOG_clapper%20rail%202Although both are slender, the males are slightly larger than the delicately built females and a wee bit more colorful. Clapper Rails in North Carolina sport a fairly pale, olive brown or gray brown appearance with a subdued rust colored chest. Aquatic life is the Clapper Rail’s diet of choice. They forage for food by walking through wetland vegetation. Most hunting is done at low tide, where they scavenge for crustaceans such as crabs or crayfish, mollusks, snails, aquatic insects and their larvae, small fish or small amphibians such as frogs. They simply pick up food items when spotted or probe in the mud for food with their long bills. They are also known to snatch a snake or two and may occasionally feed on plant matter, mostly seeds, but approximately 80% of their diet is animal-based. Clapper Rails are monogamous and pairing is established and reestablished each year. During courtship displays, the male approaches the female, points his bill down and swings his head from side to side. Another impressive move is to stand erect, neck stretched with bill open. A male has also been known to feed the female. Nesting pairs enhance their bond by blending their clattering until they sound like one bird. Biologists refer to this “as one” initiative as a “duet.” The nesting season occurs from April to June. Nests, built by both the male and female, are cup shaped clumps of vegetation and are often found where ditches or creeks foster the growth of tall and short grasses, as well as, near the upper reaches of high tide or on a bank near water. Common nesting materials are hollow stems of plants and coarse marsh grasses. Occasionally a canopy will be woven over the nest, and often a ramp of plant material leading from the lower ground up to the nest situated in the wetland reeds will be constructed. Generally, nine to 12 eggs are laid, and rails may produce more than one clutch per year. Incubation averages 20 days and is performed by both sexes, as well as raising the young. BLOG_CSMagClapperRail&Babies_2015Jun_The chicks are semi-precocial and able to feed independently shortly after leaving the nest. Young rails are able to fly in nine to 10 weeks and acquire their adult plumage by October of their first year. A group of Clapper Rails are collectively known as an “applause, audience or commercial.” When a Clapper Rail sighting is made it usually occurs when the rail is focused on stalking for prey along the muddy edge of the marsh while twitching its short tail in anticipation of the grab.BLOG_CSMag_ClapperRail_2015JunB_ It may also be seen swimming across a tidal creek. Best viewing opportunities occur at dawn and dusk as the birds leave the thick marsh grass and feed on open mud flats. Their unique behavior, elegant appearance and characteristic shyness make them extremely sought-after sightings, but if you are that eager birder, always put the well being of the bird first. Remember, Clapper Rails would rather never be seen at all. Intentionally startling or flushing birds to get a good view exposes them to predators and may force them to leave nests or young unattended or abandon them altogether. So, never do anything that could hinder the survival of this mysterious phantom of the marsh. If you are lucky enough to see a Clapper Rail in the open, it may be under a bit of stress, so avoid adding to that by giving it a wide berth, and do not allow unleashed pets to approach it. Stay low and stay quiet. The long-term population trend of the Clapper Rail is most severely affected by water pollution, flooding of nests during Spring high tides and the destruction of coastal marsh habitat. Due to the rail’s secretive nature, the difficulty of working in marsh environments and a lack of funding for rail research, basic information regarding life history and yearly population status is limited. Clapper rail populations can best be maintained by preserving their wetland habitat and with strong support for effective protection laws. Our little Clapper Rails are putting away an abundant share of large meal worms as well as, silver sides and growing bigger and stronger every day. When they are ready, they will be returned to the marsh they call home.

Hope everyone is having a HAPPY summer wherever you find yourself to be!!!

Linda S. Bergman-Althouse, author of SAVE THEM ALL

“Son of the Sun!”

Blog_2015Jun_EasternBluebird-27527-2EEastern Bluebirds have been enjoyed and respected throughout history as legends within many cultures. Native Americans believe Bluebirds are the symbol of Spring. The Cherokee believed they predicted or even controlled the weather. Navajo and Pueblo tribes associated bluebirds with the sun and refer to them as “Son of the Sun,” but no matter what anyone calls them, bird enthusiasts enjoy watching these brilliant, royal blue song birds flit through the sky up to 17 miles per hour doing their Spring things. At the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter, we recently admitted a nest of Eastern Bluebirds after a home owner found the nest on the ground with four newborns in it. No one knows the back story, but that happens quite often when rescued Spring babies are brought through our door at 100 Wildlife Way in Newport. The very clean, tiny bluebirds were immediately examined and found injury free. They were immediately placed in a nursery incubator, hydrated and fed a diet of mealworms. Two thirds of a bluebird’s diet consists of caterpillars, beetles, crickets, grasshoppers and spiders in the wild, so mealworms substitute nicely in place of what Mom or Dad would have brought home for them. On rare occasions Eastern Bluebirds have been recorded eating salamanders, shrews, snakes, lizards and tree frogs. In fall and winter, bluebirds eat large amounts of fruit including mistletoe, sumac, blueberries, black cherry, tupelo, currants, wild holly, dogwood berries, hackberries, honeysuckle, bay, pokeweed and juniper berries. Male Eastern Bluebirds are vivid, deep blue above and rusty or brick-red on their throat and breast. Blog_2015Jun_bluebird_LT_2733EThe blue in birds always depends on light sources, and males often look plain gray-brown from a distance. Duller but elegant in color females are bluish-gray above and tail with a subdued orange-brown breast. The Eastern Bluebird is a small thrush with a big, rounded head, large eyes, plump body and very alert posture. The flight wings are long, but their tail feathers and legs are fairly short. The black bill is short and straight. You will see Eastern Bluebirds perched very erect on telephone wires, posts and low branches in open country where they scan the ground for prey. They feed by swooping down to the ground onto insects which they can spy from 60 feet or more away. Blog_2015Jun_A_LT_2775_EThey can also snatch an insect in mid air. Bluebirds commonly use nest boxes humans provide (4 to 6 inches square with a 1.75 inch entrance hole) as well as old woodpecker holes that are several feet above the ground. Eastern Bluebirds live in meadows and openings surrounded by trees that offer suitable nest cavities. With the proliferation of nest boxes and bluebird trails, bluebirds are now a common sight along roads, field edges, golf courses and other open areas. If bluebirds remain in a region for the winter, they usually group and seek cover in heavy thickets, orchards or other areas in which adequate food, water and cover resources are available. Mating occurs in the spring and summer. As a courtship display, the male may sing and flutter his wings in front of the female with tail partly spread, and while perched close together, pairs may preen each other’s feathers. The male may even feed his chosen female and bring her nesting materials. Eastern Bluebirds are usually monogamous and the pair will return to the same nesting area each year. A mature female typically raises two broods each season with the first brood staying close by to continue learning bluebird ways, help raise the new youngsters and to occasionally beg for supplemental feedings. Blog_ 2015Jun_Bluebird eatingEEastern bluebirds are very social birds, and at times they gather in flocks of a hundred or more, but they are territorial during breeding season and will defend their feeding and nesting area by attacking (grabbing at the other bird’s feet, pulling at feathers with their beak and hitting them with their wings) to drive them away. Construction of a nest is done primarily by the female and takes around 10 days to complete. The nests are small, cup-like structures lined with grass, feathers, pine needles, stems and hair. The female incubates the 3 to 7 light blue or, rarely, white eggs, which hatch after 13 to 16 days. Although the male is quite the vocalist, he will refrain from singing during incubation to prevent predators from finding the nest location. Bluebirds are born naked except for sparse tufts of dingy gray down, their eyes are closed and they are a bobbing mess of clumsy, so the young cannot care for themselves after hatching. The female broods the chicks for up to seven days. Both parents are very neat housekeepers who remove the infants’ fecal sacs and continually refresh the nest with new nesting materials. Fledglings are grayish in color, with speckled breasts. The blue color becomes more prominent and the speckles on their breasts disappear as they mature. Fledglings then leave the nest 15 to 20 days after hatching. Both parents cooperate in raising the young, which they feed a diet consisting almost entirely of insects. Bluebirds may begin breeding the summer after they are hatched. Bluebird numbers declined significantly during the 60’s due to loss of habitat and predation but have bounced back due the initiatives of human intervention to include the mounting of Bluebird boxes and the creation of birding trails. The global breeding population number has now been placed at 22 million, with 86 percent of bluebirds spending part of the year in the United States. Eastern Bluebirds don’t visit feeders often, if at all, but they are a great prospect for nest boxes if you have the space to put one up in your yard, and if your yard isn’t too hemmed in by trees or houses. And remember, they do eat insects, so a few bluebirds in your area will help keep those pesky critters at bay. Maybe that’s one of the reasons Bluebirds are also a symbol of happiness! Blog_2015Jun_bluebirdEConsider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure it’s up well before breeding season and attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Natural predators of eggs and nestlings include flying squirrels, black bears, fire ants, raccoons, snakes and chipmunks. Adult bluebirds have to be on the lookout for owls, falcons, domestic cats and most varieties of hawk. An Eastern Bluebird’s longevity is 6 to 10 years if they beat the odds of predation, extremely cold weather or starvation. The oldest recorded Eastern Bluebird was 10 years and 5 months. So, binoculars up, everyone! We don’t want to miss that streak of vibrant blue happiness jetting through the sky and across the sun!

Happy Summer, Everyone!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse, author of  “Save Them All

“Baby BOOM!!

Blog_SquirrelLitterTis’ the season, but not for Christmas carols, twinkling lights or sugar cookies! This season is what wildlife rehabilitators affectionately refer to as “Baby Season,” while we display frozen smiles and ready ourselves for months of nonstop feeding, cleaning and loss of sleep. We wish all wildlife babies could be raised by their Mommas, but circumstances such as severe weather, felled trees, precarious nest locations and predators prevent that from happening. So, the next best chance at survival for these little orphans or displaced babies is tapping a wildlife rehabilitator’s expert knowledge of care for a variety of wild species, as well as their compassion and stamina to ensure all little furries and feathers will eventually live their life wild as intended. That is exactly the focus when wild infants are brought to our care at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport! We know when the Bradford Pear, Cherry, Dogwood trees and Azaleas begin to floral in explosions of color, wild babies are a blooming too. Our first baby arrivals this year were infant squirrels, who lost their home after a tree was cut down. Squirrels are fairly cooperative babies to raise, although they quickly grow into frantic little teenagers whose next developmental stage will be acclimating to the outside in an enclosure designed for that purpose. That’s like graduation from middle school for these crazy little furry folks! Neonate opossums came onboard shortly after our fast and furious tree climbers. BlogMay2015_Opossum_BabiesToo bad Mom couldn’t raise them, but luckily, a timely Good Samaritan happened upon the scene to rescue five tiny possums who survived a car accident that killed their mother and siblings. Opossums show up in much larger litters than squirrels; 5 – 12 rather than 3 or 4, and baby possies won’t suckle formula from a syringe. They have to be tubed to get the nourishment they need, which means a skilled wildlife rehabilitator must thread a tiny, flexible tube down the baby’s esophagus and into its tummy to deliver the formula. When you have 30 or more infant possums that are too young to lap from a dish, that task tends to be quite time consuming, and they don’t eat just once a day, actually, every 3 to 4 hours! When the temperatures warmed up enough for folks to start working in their yards and dogs and cats began discovering nesting areas, infant Eastern cottontails arrived. Bunnies, although cute as furry buttons, are not the easiest or most cooperative babies to care for because they become highly stressed during captivity. Blog_Baby CottontailsXFortunately, cottontails develop and mature faster than squirrels and opossums, and although still small, are ready for independence four to five weeks from birth. Last week, our first baby bird nestlings, which happened to be three Carolina Wrens, were carried through the admit door for safety because the rescuer’s cat had located their nest. BlogMay2015_They are hardy and putting away a massive number of mealworms that are hand fed to each wren every 30 minutes. (The babies in this image are Mockingbirds, who were more cooperative about getting their picture taken!) We receive many calls from nature loving folks who discover wild babies in precarious situations to include believing the babies are abandoned and want to know what to do. So, if you are the next person who makes a wild baby discovery, this is our guidance: If Mom is truly not around to care for and protect the infant(s) and chances are the infant(s) will die if left in the elements, without food and protection, as well as, exposed to predators, wild or otherwise, an intervention is necessary. After noting exactly where you found the animal(s) place the babies in a breathable cardboard box with a lid or in a paper bag and move them to a dark, warm and quiet area of your home. The area where you found them is important because some babies might not be truly orphaned, so the opportunity to return them to their mother may still exist, as is the case with many cottontails. Don’t keep the little wild ones in your home any longer than necessary due to state and federal laws regarding wildlife. Do not re-handle or allow children or pets to come in contact with the young wildlife you have rescued. Next step is to get them to a wildlife rehabilitator by checking online to find one in or close to your area. All babies need to stay warm, and wildlife babies are no different. If you are unable to get them to the rehabilitator right away and they are not fully feathered or furred, a heating pad on the lowest setting, placed under the box will prevent hypothermia. If you don’t have a heating pad, a plastic bottle or zip-lock plastic bag filled with warm water can be placed in a corner of the box. The babies will naturally move toward the warmth as needed. Ensure the bottle cap is tight and the zip-lock bag is sealed. Do not feed the babies. Feeding anything to a dehydrated or cold animal will probably kill it. Also the wrong formula can cause death. Every animal species has their own unique diet and an unlicensed member of the public is not expected to have that knowledge, so no one should feel badly about not knowing how to care for the possum or bunny they found. Also keep in mind that it is illegal to keep a wild animal at your home if you do not possess the appropriate Federal or State permit to do so. Wild animals are not toys or pets and should be treated with the befitting respect they deserve. When transporting the babies to the wildlife center or an individual wildlife rehabilitator do not check on them as you drive or hold them on your lap. Wildlife is unpredictable, even babies, so your attempts to check them or hold them could become a dangerous situation while driving. A trained and licensed wildlife rehabilitator will have the means and know-how to provide the best chance of survival and ultimately, a wild life for the animals you were so caring and compassionate enough to save. You can feel very good about getting them where they need to be to ensure they receive their much appreciated and precious second chance.

Happy Spring Baby Season!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse, author of

Save Them All

 

“The Ravishing Ruddy Duck”

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERADucks, ducks and more ducks!! We treat many a duck at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC; Mallards, Muskovies, Wood Ducks, Scoters, Scaups, Buffleheads, Megansers and even a rare Canvasback, but the Ruddy Duck, originally from Canada, is a distinct chubby little thing that doesn’t come through our door very often. However, about a month ago, during our major cold snap, a short, wintering brown, male Ruddy with characteristic white cheek patches arrived. He had been observed sitting in a Swansboro resident’s yard without moving for two days. The concerned wildlife enthusiast managed to approach the stubby winged duck, pick him up without much trouble and place him in a box for transport to our shelter. Upon arrival, the Ruddy’s examination proved emaciation was an issue, but no injury or illness was found. Migratory Ruddy Ducks dive to feed on pondweeds, algae and wild celery, as well as the seeds of sedges, smartweeds and grasses. They also eat aquatic insects and their larvae, shellfish and crustaceans. During breeding season they adjust their diet and feed mainly on invertebrates, primarily larvae and pupae while sieving bottom debris during dives. With icy precipitation and freezing temperatures occurring during his rescue, our theory is the little diving duck found it difficult to find food during the unusual cold spell he, as well as we were experiencing and was basically starving. At that point, our shelter become exactly what he needed; protection from the adverse conditions and a “bed & breakfast” where he would be assured enough good food and the opportunity to gain back the bulk the small compact duck had lost. Because it was winter, our Ruddy was not the colorful male with a gleaming chestnut body, sky-blue bill, black capped head and gray-blue feet most people see during Spring and Summer in the prairie regions breeding areas of North America. East coast bays, ponds and marshes in the south will winter 25 per cent of migrating Ruddy Ducks, but males will appear an inconspicuous dull, buff-brown with a darker brown head cap. Blog_RuddyDuck_OWLS2EFemales are always grayish brown with beige rather than white cheek patches, although in winter they appear darker. The average length of a Ruddy Duck is 15 inches and when healthy, weighs about 1- 2 lbs, with males weighing more than females. Their wings are rounded rather than angular and span 21 – 24 inches. During breeding season, which begins in April, the cartoonishly colorful and bold male ruddy will court females by beating their blue bill against their neck hard enough to create a tapping noise and a swirl of bubbles in the water. They are relatively silent ducks until breeding season, but only the male will vocalize with a “chuck-uck-uck-uck-ur-r-r,” which sounds almost like a belch, while displaying for females. They also make popping sounds with their feet while running across the water during flaunting flights. The only vocalizations known for females are hisses when threatened and a nasally noise made to call her brood. Their domed nest, made out of grasses by the female, will be hidden from predators in dense vegetation adjacent to lakes, marshes and ponds, but some nests are made from old nests of other ducks or constructed on muskrat houses or on floating logs. Ruddies will often take up residence in the vicinity of other diving ducks such as Buffleheads and Goldeneyes and are known to interbreed, which causes concern and frustration for some conservationists, especially in other countries like the United Kingdom and Spain. On the average, female Ruddies will not reproduce until they are 2 years old and will lay 4 to 8 eggs (one a day), that are said to be almost 2 inches each in length, which is very large for their size. Incubation is 25-26 days and after hatching, the lone female will feed and protect the young. The youngsters will fledge in 50-55 days. Ruddy ducks spend the majority of their lives in water and are hardly ever seen on land. Their legs are set back further than most ducks, therefore, an upright stance is difficult, but they are great swimmers and divers, and use their stiff tail, that stands straight up, similar to a cute Carolina Wren, as a rudder to maneuver when they swim and dive. Ruddy Duck, Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Huntington Beach, CaliforniaWhen taking off from a lake or pond, Ruddy Ducks are very awkward due to their unusual wing design and must use their legs and wings to “run” across the surface of the water (like a runway) and once in flight, the ruddy duck will beat its wings very fast. Some people say it looks like a huge hummingbird. When threatened by predators, of which they have many, such as raccoons, minks, crows, red-tailed and Swainson’s hawks, great horned owls, foxes, ringed-billed gulls, night herons and humans, they will sink slowly beneath the water or dive with great speed for protection rather than fly. After nesting season, Ruddies will form tight flocks on open water in great numbers for preservation from injury or harm, although habitat destruction, droughts and drainage in their breeding range and exposure to oil spills have recently decreased Ruddy Duck numbers. Their average lifespan in the wild is 2 years with 13 years the record holder. Ruddy Ducks living in zoo environments typically enjoy the longevity of 8 years. Our Ruddy Duck seemed to find pleasure in his stay at our shelter and became chubby once again. Krill, greens and beaucoup meal worms (which were his favorite meals) vanished in his presence, and he was offered as much as he could put away! Once his weight was back to normal and our southern weather turned warm again, he was released in an area where Ruddy Ducks frequent. 2012 Waterfowl Stamp ArtworkBy now, we’re sure he’s on his way north to meet up with a mature Ruddy Duck gal willing to bear his children, and probably at this very moment, like the colors of a rainbow, our little Ruddy is morphing into his strikingly handsome and vibrant summer self!

Happy Spring Everyone!!!  Wildlife babies are already blooming!!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse,  author of “Save Them All

“Otters Just Wanna Have Fun!”

Blog2015Mar_American River Otter2Full of fun, grace and beauty one might describe North American River Otters who have, over the years, been restored throughout North Carolina to their former population glory. It’s a sheer pity that these gorgeous creatures nearly became extinct in the early 1900’s due to exploitation and greed surrounding the fur trade. Otters in swampy, marshes found in our coastal regions had a better chance at survival though, because food was plenty and the wetlands areas were inaccessible to hunters and trappers. Although secretive animals, sightings are reported by outdoor enthusiasts who say given the opportunity to observe otters in the wild they became awestruck and captivated by their behaviors. Most enjoyable to watch is the spirited otters’ expression of fun as they revel in sliding down mud hills into the river or skidding across snow like they are riding a skimmer board. And boy do they like to play and frolic! Reported as some of the most playful wild animals, young otters love to wrestle and chase each other, and both activities are good training for survival skills; agility, endurance and the raw power they need as an adult otter. At the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, we have only experienced one admit of a river otter in many years. He was a youngster found alone and unable to fend for himself. It was important to maintain his wild side while being raised at the shelter, so important that a staff member posted a sign for everyone to see: “Do Not Speak to the Otter.” He was adorable but also wild and meant to stay wild; therefore, we were very careful in preventing our little otter from habituating with humans. He had many vocalizations, and we came to know when he was hungry and when he needed attention. Otters are very social animals, so the goal was to pack on some weight, ensure expert swimming accomplishments, teach him to hunt and ready him to colonize with other otters. The North American River Otter is a carnivore mammal that belongs to the Mustelidae family, along with weasels and minks. They look very similar to a weasel, only much, much larger, weighing up to 30 lbs and measuring nearly 4 feet in length. Otters have characteristic elongated and streamlined bodies with stout and sturdy legs. Their waterproof fur is a sleek, dense dark brown with a light tan underbelly, and their face is adorned with a cute oval and blunt snout. River Otters have a thick neck, a long furry and thick tail, extensive whiskers used for detecting vibrations indicating the proximity of prey, and their eyes and ears are found high on their head to aid in surface swimming. Blog2015Mar_River Otter3They can go deep in the water as well, a depth of 60 feet has been recorded, and they can stay under for up to eight minutes. Otters have that nictitating membrane that covers and protects their eyes while swimming under-water. Their feet have five toes with nonretractable claws and webbing between each toe which helps them maneuver in a variety of marine and fresh-water habitats ranging from slow moving coastal streams to rapidly running mountain streams. On land, frisky otters can leap and run almost as effectively as they swim and have been clocked as fast as 18 mph. Generally nocturnal, otters are semi-aquatic predators who feed on fish, crayfish, crabs, rodents, birds, eggs and amphibians such as frogs. Although they need to be near water, which provides most of their food source, they spend two-thirds of their time on land. They live in dens with many tunnel openings along the river bank or they may take up residence in a convenient log jam, thick cover vegetation or any natural cavity they find. Although the fun-loving otter is not known as a fighter, it will charge or scratch those who invade their feces marked territory. They communicate with each other by whistling, growling, chuckling or screaming. Their scent glands near the base of their tail also produce a form of communication by allowing them to mark scent a musky odor, fencing off their home range. Otters live in bands of 5 to 10 adults with spring breeding season pups. Otters become sexually mature within two years, although many males do not mate until they are 5 to 7 years of age, but when they do, they are promiscuous and will breed with a number of females during breeding season. Pups are born in the spring after “delayed implantation” which means the female may have been impregnated almost a year before. Three to six, fully furred pups are born weighing 4 to 6 ounces and will nurse from Mom for only three months but usually remain with her for almost a year. Blog2015Mar_River OtterThe male is not considered part of the family and does not help with pup rearing. It might be that “cheating” thing! All Otters must be wary of predators such as bobcats, coyotes or fox, domestic dogs, black bear, large raptors such as eagles, alligators and man (intentional or unintentional). Although, they mainly escape predation through their agility in the water, they aren’t quite as quick and maneuverable on land. North American River Otters are, themselves, important predators who help maintain a healthy, aquatic ecosystem by eating “trash” fish that compete with more economically desirable game fish, and the presence of otters generally does not affect humans in any adverse way. An otter’s life expectancy in the wild is 8 to 9 years, although in captivity, a record high of 21 years is reported. When our young otter of years ago was ready for the move from our rehabilitative intensive care in the shelter facility to the great outdoors, we moved him into the reinforced pelican enclosure (in the absence of pelicans at the time), which accommodated him with a grand pool and ground cover. His otter skills developed rapidly, and although his weight was up, he fished on his own and displayed Olympic swimmer moves, he seemed lonely and sad, so we urgently made arrangements to transport him to a rehabilitator’s home in Merrimon, NC along the river where otter presence was known. We set up his makeshift den close to the house where our volunteer, Heather, could keep an eye on his comings and goings and provide supplement food. Routinely, she watched him go to the river to eat and play, then return to his otter apartment daily, but within a few weeks, she started to see him less and less. Blog2015Mar_342174_640Our theory is; he eventually found others of his own kind down the water way, and because he was so darned cute, we’re almost certain our otter has had a positive impact in helping to repopulate the North American River Otters in our coastal region. You go boy, and hope you’re still having fun!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All”

Happy Spring Everyone!!!!!!!

“Snowbirds”

Blog_Junco_Jan2015XAlthough we don’t get much snow in eastern North Carolina, it doesn’t stop diminutive Dark-eyed Juncos, commonly referred to as “Snowbirds,” from wintering with us. One might say, their presence is the first sign that winter has arrived in the south. They are the sparrow size birds, dark gray with white bellies and white outer tail feathers that flash in flight and who have stout, pale pinkish bills that suddenly appear at our feeding stations at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC and in our back yards at home. Another theory for their “Snowbird” nickname is their coloring, which has been described as “leaden skies above and snow below.” They have also been observed burrowing through snow in search of covered over seeds. So the name “Snowbirds” is understandable, but why they are called Juncos, no one can figure out! The word Junco is derived from juncus, which is Latin for the “rush” plant, an emergent reed found in wetlands, but Juncos are not found in that habitat. The coloration of the Junco does vary throughout the country, but no matter the brown in California or black, two-tones in Alaska, they all fashion a white belly, and females tend to be lighter shades of whatever color, gray or slate in our case, than the males. Except for a few groups of permanents in our Appalachian Mountains during the warmer months, Juncos are found in the forests and mountains of Canada, but before the uber cold hits, they flood the lower continent of North America to wait out the harsh weather and frigid temperatures. Blog_Junco_Jan2015XX_edited-2Even though they head south to avoid the cold, they still bulk up for winter by growing 30% more feathering by weight in the winter than in the summer. Females migrate south before the males do and fly at very low altitudes at night making them susceptible to a number of obstacles, such as towers, along the way. Although official bird counters record the Junco population as multi-millions (3 to 4) in North America (second only to the American Robin), they come in numbers of 10 to 30 to each feeding territory and a dominance hierarchy or strict pecking order is immediately set up. Each little Junco knows its place in the power structure of the flock, however, some bold youngster males may challenge the status of adult males with aggressive displays of lunges and tail flicking. Some males choose to stay farther north during the winter to avoid competition and gain that advantage of arriving first for breeding season after return migration. One study showed that in Michigan only 20% of the Juncos observed were female, but in Alabama, 80% were female. They are the most common bird found near feeders in all of North America every winter and tend to return to the same area each year. Chances are we have many of the same birds at our feeder this winter that we had in previous years. Feeding stations do attract them, but you won’t see Juncos perched at a feeder for they are birds of the ground, spending over 65% of their time foraging the spillage. Backyard WIldlifeSo, with Juncos present, nothing goes to waste. They dine on a variety of seeds to include sunflower, niger thistle, cracked corn, millet, suet (peanut butter seems to be their favorite!), weed greens such as chickweed, ragweed, crab grass, timothy hay and occasionally fruit. One quarter of their diet is made up of insects, which offer the protein they need. Juncos, as well as other sparrows, engage in a foraging method called “riding.” That’s when they land on a weed’s or grass stem’s seed cluster and bear their weight to “ride” it to the ground where they pick off the seeds while standing on it. They may have learned that behavior by watching the surfers in our area! Visiting Juncos will usually stay within a 10 acre area as they winter. At night they will roost in evergreens, tall grasses or brush piles and frequent that location repeatedly, sharing their space with others from their flock, but it has been observed that no matter the chill, they don’t huddle together as other birds do. Their song is a trill similar to the chipping sparrow, but the Junco throws in some tick sounds and high pitched, bell-like tinkling chirps, making their voice more musical some say. For those who study bird language, Juncos are purported to be excellent subjects. When our little winter guests return to their breeding areas up north, they will nest in hidden bowls or depressions in the ground or in low hanging branches or shrubs. The small nests are cup-shaped and made of grass, twigs, bark, other plant materials and hair. The female Junco lays 3 to 5 blotchy eggs in a variety of ground color shades such as brown, gray or muted purple. Mom, solely, will incubate the eggs and that period usually lasts a day or two less than two weeks. Dad is delivering food to Mom and eventually the little ones. Strongly territorial, the male Junco also helps his mate defend against nest predators such as chipmunks and deer mice. Both parents feed the young and attend to nest-keeping which includes removing the nestlings’ fecal sacs. Usually the Juncos diet is three parts seed to one part insects, but during the nesting period, the parents increase their intake of insects 50-60% to maintain the stamina it takes to raise and protect their youngins. The fledglings will leave the nest in 9-12 days. The highest longevities recorded for Juncos range between 7 and 11 years, which is impressive for any bird, but to get there they must remain alert, fast, injury free and nutritionally sound! John James Audubon wrote in 1831 that “there is not an individual in the union who does not know the little Snowbird.” Blog_LT_0562X_edited-1We are enjoying our wee Snowbirds! Are you enjoying yours?

Stay Warm Everybody! (And please bring your pets inside.) We’re experiencing some really frigid temps all across the country!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All

“Your Place Ermine?”

FB_BLOG_weasel_19Jan2015Cute as buttons is the best way to describe the smallest North American carnivores, the Least and Short-tailed Weasels. Weasels belong to the animal family biologists call Mustelidae, which translates to “mouse stealers” and includes 64 species worldwide. So you will find skunks, minks, badgers, the powerful wolverine, martens, black footed ferrets and the largest of the lot, the sea otter in this group. Short-tailed Weasels, also called Ermine, look very similar to the Long-tailed Weasel, except for the variation in size. Short-tailed Weasels are only half the body length of a Long-tailed and, of course, the tail is much shorter, although their tails share the same characteristic black tip. Weasels don’t like to be seen, so in our rehabilitation world at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, we understand they want to hide and are extremely effective escape artists. That means securing their enclosures beyond their problem solving skills is a must. Our last Short-tailed Weasel admit came in as an infant found abandoned in a North Carolina “Hill” town, Snow or Pink, don’t recall off hand. What a cutie–patootie! Although not old enough to be on her own, she was a capable little weasel who was ready for solid food. Although weasels are mammals, they nurse for only a very short time before needing meat in their diet. Short-tailed Weasels sport brown fur on top, white fur on their belly and white feet. With their long, slender bodies, long necks, short legs and rather flattish head, they are designed exclusively as hunters and mouse harvesting machines! Short-tailed Weasels weigh about 7 ounces fully grown with bodies 7 to 13 inches long. Males grow larger than females. They are slinky with no expression of shoulders or hips. FB_BLOG_IMG_0203_19Jan2015When you see them in action, they exude graceful agility as they move about doing all that they do; play, swim, climb, run, hunt, court and raise their kits. They have keenly developed senses of sight, hearing and smell, keeping them acutely aware and attentive to their surroundings. Short-tailed Weasels are found in a variety of habitats but primarily near wet sites such as swamps, marshes and especially where brushy thickets reach a waterline. Other habitats include woodlands, brushy areas, stream banks and the borders of forests and fields. They usually nest in hollow trees or stumps, rotting logs, underground burrows, stone walls and mole runs. Dens are also found in abandoned burrows made by other mammals, rock crevices or in spaces among tree roots; one individual weasel may use multiple dens. They are known to tolerate close proximity to humans, but like most predators, they rely on skills of stealth and surprise for their very survival and will almost always see us before we see them. For relatively small creatures, Short-tailed Weasels are courageous and fierce predators, and although they feed primarily on mice and rats, they are known to take on other prey that can be ten times larger than themselves, such as rabbits. Their fierceness led to them being referred to as a “Stoat,” which is of Belgic or Dutch origin, meaning pushy and bold. As strict carnivores, Short-tailed Weasels eat no plant food of any kind. They have high metabolic rates and require 40 percent of their body weight in food daily and up to 70 percent for lactating females. Short-tailed Weasels live alone except to mate. Though it can be more than 9 months between the time they mate and the female births 4 to 12 closed eyed and ears sealed young, weasels are not truly pregnant until March, and their litter is born about 6 weeks later in late April or early May. This reproductive process is called delayed implantation and many wild mammals have this same adaptation. It allows the animals to mate in the fall when they are more active rather than trying to find each other in late winter. Within 2 months of life, kits have been taught to kill their own prey. The crazy, physical games played among siblings help develop strategies and tactics they will need to catch prey. They must be alert, fast and able to turn on a dime to hunt effectively. FB_BLOG_weasel_19Jan2015XDespite their small size and short legs, Ermine develop endurance and stamina during play that allow them to outrun prey that becomes fatigued. Although they are most active at night, they can be out any time of day. Short-tailed Weasels communicate among themselves through body language and with visual, sound and scent cues. Adults will trill, whine, hiss and squeal, while kits utter chirping noises. They also communicate by using scent glands that can produce a pungent musky odor. Females emit this attractive scent when they are ready to mate. Some folks associate weasels with being trouble makers, because they are capable of making quite a ruckus in a chicken coop if humans render their chickens accessible at night, but please remember all the good they do in the way of controlling our mouse and rat populations. All weasels have an important role to play in maintaining a healthy ecosystem.FB_BLOG_IMG_0208_19Jan2015 The longevity of a Short-tailed Weasel is not long at all. Only a small percentage of kits make it to their first birthday. Predators abound for this cute little racer. They need to outrun and hide from owls, large snakes, coyotes, foxes, falcons, hawks and humans. If they do survive that first year, they may live for several years. In captivity the record life span has been registered at 8 years. Short-tailed Weasels are so secretive that we don’t know a lot about them, and there is certainly more to be learned. It was a thrill for the volunteers and staff at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC to raise our tiny stoat and learn as much as we could from everything she had to teach us. Hopefully, she is still out in the wild living her little weasel life and staying out of trouble!

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!!!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All