“Wintering Scoters”

a_blog_malescoterflightThere are so many species of duck that belong to the Anatidae family of birds; Dabbling Ducks, Stiff-Tailed Ducks, Sea Ducks, Whistling Ducks, Diving Ducks, that it’s hard to know them all, especially the identity of ducks we don’t see in our area very often. Some ducks live and breed far removed from the U.S. as far as the north of England or Scotland and only pass this way during winter migration. The coast of North Carolina has been a good choice for wintering Scoters for many years. They gather in tightly packed, large flocks that take off together when they choose to move either in a straight line or in a V formation. A group of Scoters is called a ‘Mooter’ or a ‘Scooter.’ Avid bird watchers have also discovered that freshwater rivers and lakes are not off limits to wintering Scoters. Recently, a wildlife enthusiast in Emerald Isle noticed a rather stocky brown duck who seemed to be having trouble getting lift off to fly. After it appeared flight wasn’t going to happen, he managed to scoop up the duck and transport her to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport for a check-up. The little, diving sea duck turned out to be a Common Scoter, which are also called Black Scoters, depending upon gender. The scientific name of the Common Scoter is ‘Nigra,’ which means black. Our juvenile Scoter patient had pale cheeks, a milk chocolate body with a whitish belly and a dark brownish-black, wide bill which we assessed as female. An adult male has glossy black plumage with a shiny black bill adorned with a colorful yellow or orange bulbous knob at the base. Both have dark brown eyes. Their legs are brown to black and their webbed feet, are also black. Generally speaking, this is a dark, cold water duck (but not so cold it doesn’t head south for the winter!). Her examination revealed no injuries, but she was underweight. Since there was a covered swimming pool in the area where she was found, our theory is she landed on the cover thinking it was a body of water, and did not have the water source required to maneuver her usual run across the water for take-off. a_blog_femalescoter3She basically grounded herself. A sea-duck’s legs, such as a Scoter’s, are situated a little farther back than those of a Mallard, Muscovy or Pekin, so they don’t walk upright on land very well. It’s not known how long she’d been sitting there with no food or water, but we do know she hadn’t eaten in some time because she was very, very hungry. A Scoter is a coastal duck that usually breeds in the sub-artic and has not been studied extensively in North America. Only a few nests in our country have ever been found. The common Scoter is a highly sociable species and is often seen in large groups, especially during the winter. For this reason, we knew rehabilitation timing would be an issue. She needs to pack on weight quickly so we can return her to her own kind before she succumbs to severe depression or the stress of captivity. A Scoter is a bulky little duck who weighs on average 2 to 2 ½ pounds with the male typically heavier in weight, wingspan is 28 inches and their height, bill to tail, is 18 to 20 inches. They have a long, pointy tail they hold straight up while sitting on water. This duck species dives for food, so it was a little tricky getting her to eat fish, shrimp, worms and insects in a hospital setting, but her rumbling tummy won out. It won’t be long now! In the wild, she will add crustaceans, mussels, fish eggs and duck weed to her diet. Scoters swallow mullosks whole and crush the shells in its gizzard. An interesting factoid regarding this diving duck is that they literally spread their wings under water and fly through the water to catch their prey! The Common Scoter is a fairly quiet bird, so we don’t hear much from her, but when we do catch a rare vocalization, it’s a harsh, raspy quack and just one. During courtship the male Scoter gets a little noisier with some high, shrill whistles and is known to be the most vocal of all waterfowl year’round. In their native territories, (Europe and Asia) male and female Scoters build a nest during April or May which is nothing more than a hefty scrape on the ground near water, lined with a grass/down mix and hidden by vegetation. a_blog_scoterf7The female will lay 6 to 8 off-white to pinkish buff eggs which hatch in about 30 days. The ducklings are born eyes-open, dark brown and able to swim and feed themselves soon after hatching, although they are not able to fly until around 45 days old. The youngsters then head out on their own, and the parents return to their flock to molt, which will render them unable to fly during the time they are losing and growing in new feathers. The Common Scoter is found all over the world, depending upon the time of year, but in their native countries, numbers of Scoters have fallen by 47% over the past two decades and although the reason is not pinpointed, the huge decline in population has been attributed to a number of factors such as oil spills, offshore wind farms, disturbance by boat traffic, hunting, climate change, pollution, development, natural predation, commercial exploitation and possibly, lower breeding success. England has placed the Common Scoter on their “Red List” which means they recognize urgent conservation action is needed for this stocky, diminutive, community oriented duck. We hope our “plumping” Common Scoter continues to thrive and is able to return to her flock. We aren’t sure what country she’s from, but we think we’ve heard a wee bit of an English accent in her quack!!

best always,

Linda Bergman-Althouse

Author of “Save Them All

Thank the Beavers!!

FB_beaverpond_edited-1Yes, there might be a few complaints about the presence of beavers in some areas, but it’s time to take a look at the beaver in a positive light that focuses on the benefits and inspirational values of these industrious and social, primarily nocturnal, semi-aquatic mammals. This is a species of wildlife that is a “few and far between” admit to the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter in Newport, NC, but when it happens, it’s quite the event for the staffers and volunteers who work there. Despite some people’s displeasure regarding beaver behaviors, we wildlife rehabilitators stand tall, on each side of the beaver, in support of this magnificent animal capable of engineering landscape like very few animals can. Because the beaver is second only to humans in their ability to manipulate their environment, Native Americans called them “Little People,” conveying great respect for their abilities. The beaver is the largest rodent (mammals that gnaw) in North America, weighing between 35 and 50 pounds as adults. However, beavers weighing up to 90 lbs have been reported. Beavers are 2-3 feet in length, with an additional 10-18 inches for the tail. When they reach 2 1/2 years of age, they select mates for life, and males and females are similar in size. Beavers live in large family groups called colonies made up of monogamous parents, newborns called kits and the yearlings from the previous spring. Beavers have short front legs and webbed hind feet with a double claw on the second toe that they use to comb their fur. The beaver’s fluffy fur, made waterproof by coating it with castoreum, an oily secretion from its scent glands, is chestnut brown to blackish. Two noticeable features are its large, bright orange incisor teeth that never stop growing which are used for cutting bark and chiseling trees and its very large, uniquely flat, hairless tail.FB_Blog_BeaverTail_edited-1 The beaver uses its flat, stiff tail as a rudder for swimming, slapping the water to communicate warnings, storing fat and also as a third leg for support when standing upright. Beavers are slow and merely waddle on land, but agile and quick in the water. Some of the physical features and capabilities of the beaver are unparalleled and downright amazing! Did you know they have a set of transparent eyelids allowing them to see under water? Beavers also close their ears and nose while submerged. They can hold their breath under water for up to 15 minutes, and their lips seal behind their incisors, allowing them to gnaw wood underwater. Astounding! They live in freshwater lakes, ponds, rivers and streams, usually near woodlands, although beavers do not eat fish. They are strict herbivores and their favorite foods include leaves and green bark (cambium) from aspen, twigs, roots, aquatic plants such as water lily tubers, clover, grasses, apples, alfalfa and fast-growing trees. Beaver pruning stimulates trees and bushes to grow healthier and larger in the spring. When they take down a tree they don’t waste a thing.FB_Blog_beaver-02 They eat the bark and buds before cutting up branches and sections of the trunk which are carried away for use in the construction of dams or lodges. Lodges built with tree limbs, sticks, twigs, mud and sometimes rocks help slow the flow of floodwaters, control erosion and sedimentation, provides or enlarges habitat for wood ducks and other wetland wildlife, increases fish and aquatic plant populations, creates an ecosystem that breaks down pesticides thereby producing cleaner water downstream and dramatically influences the maintenance of wetlands during extreme drought, recharging ground water resources. Now wouldn’t you agree that’s quite a bit to say “Thank You” for? Although beavers mark their territory with “scent mounds,” piles of mud and sticks that the beaver coats in musk oil, they will occasionally share their home with another species such as a family of muskrats. Their lodges typically contain two dens, one for drying off after entering the lodge under water and a dryer den where the family will live and socialize. The damming that results from the construction of their lodge serves a number of purposes for the beaver; water becomes deep enough for the beaver to swim in, they are able to stockpile food under water, and beaver lodges are designed with multiple, deep entrances and exits for protection from predators. Coyotes, black bear, eagles and humans are common predators of beavers. Beavers do not hibernate, remaining active all winter long. Most beaver mates will not reproduce until they are 3 years of age and typically birth one litter of offspring between March and May after a gestation period of 4 months. Two to six, eyes open, kits are born weighing about one pound each and able to swim the day they are born, but to stay safe they stick to the water inside the lodge. FB_Blog_BeaverKit_edited-1They are weaned from mother’s milk within 6-8 weeks, but beaver young stay with their parents for at least 2 years before venturing out on their own, after stern encouragement from their parents, to find a mate and build their own domelike home. A beaver’s longevity can be 20 years, but most live only half that. Okay, so they take a few trees here and there, they aren’t wasteful! They fell a particular tree for a particular reason; a larger mature tree will be felled to form the basis of a dam. A young, second growth tree will be felled for food. Beavers will also fell broad-leaved trees to encourage new growth, creating a closer food source. And okay, they may reroute a stream or two, but let’s say thanks to the beavers for all the good things they do and the amazing, adorable creatures they are. I’m guessing most people will agree that the beaver is quite cute, especially baby beavers! However, never approach a beaver, even if it appears docile, friendly or cute. They will become frightened and start hissing or blowing. That means the beaver is not happy. A beaver is a wild animal and capable of great harm to you (remember, they chew trees), so respect for these incredible little architects and environmental partners is due. This month, when we reflect on all we are thankful for, let’s thank the beavers!

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!!!

Linda Bergman-Althouse

author of “Save Them All

Wayward Pelican Returns!

Ralph, the wayward North Carolina Brown Pelican, arrived March 9, 2011 by donated use of a Chevy van, at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter, Newport, NC from Nova Scotia, Canada. The theory, and most likely fact, is this young plunge diver was blown off course last year during Hurricane Earl and found himself lost and alone in a maritime province of Canada. It all started, for our shelter, about two months ago when we received a call from Hope Swinimer, animal rescuer who works at ‘Hope for Wildlife’ located in Seaforth, Nova Scotia. She asked if she could return a pelican to North Carolina. It was an unusual request but well received. The story started for Ralph much earlier than that. In September 2010, a brown pelican was spotted sitting on the roof of a strip club called Ralph’s Place in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Knowing pelicans are not found that far north usually, a call was made to Hope by a concerned observer. Hope didn’t know if it would, in fact, be a pelican since she had only seen one other pelican in the flesh in that area and that was many years ago. In addition, misidentifications are known to happen when animals are unfamiliar, but like all wildlife rehabilitators, she packed up rescue equipment large enough to accommodate a pelican. The bird took flight when Swinimer approached and led her on a chase that ended when he knocked himself out by flying into a plate glass window. She scooped him up, and pelican rehabilitation began. He was loopy, underweight and definitely lost. Ralph became his name based upon his landing spot, and Hope became his vigilant caretaker, providing vitamin-spiked herring meals and monitoring his behaviors and weight gain. He waddled around the Canadian rescue barn, flapping his wings and appearing quite content. When he bounced back from emaciation and regained good health, Hope began the process of getting him repatriated to the U.S. Southeast but ran into bureaucratic red tape which extended his stay through the fall and winter. Once the paperwork came through, it was time for a three day road trip for volunteer driver Garry Sowerby, Hope and Ralph. The Canadian rescue and over-the road team and their celebrity passenger, Ralph, were welcomed with arms-wide- open, southern hospitality by the North Carolina OWLS rescue crew and the media.

It was a grand ‘coming-together’ for wildlife rehabilitators of the ‘Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter,’ USA and ‘Hope for Wildlife’ from Canada. Hope and Ralph had bonded over the last six months, which was quite obvious when Ralph, who surprisingly turned out to be a girl, was introduced to her new enclosure. While OWLS volunteer David sprayed water into her food bowl, she ran to Hope and leaned against her leg. “I am going to miss him,” Swinimer said. “He is beautiful, in my eyes. He almost looks prehistoric in some ways.” Check out Ralph(ia)’s video debut at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/video/ralph-the-pelicans-new-home/article1937014/

Ralph(ia), is settling in well at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter, but it will take time to relearn pelican behaviors since she is young and has not been in another pelican’s presence for the past six months. She is currently being hand-fed fish and encouraged by the presence of fish in her food bowl to begin eating on her own. Since she bonded with a human during her stay in Nova Scotia, human contact is being limited at this point to enable a timely reintroduction to other pelicans which will promote healthy identification behaviors with her own species. Six other pelicans are currently enjoying a rehab stay at the shelter and Ralph(ia) will soon join them, learn pelican social order, get physically fit and eventually return to her old sky and turf of North Carolina.

Linda Bergman-Althouse,
Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter Volunteer
President, Wildlife Rehabilitators
of North Carolina
Author of “Save Them All”