Monday, November 26, 2012

River Otters at Sunset

      It was November 15th when we saw the first sunshine we had seen for many days.  Late October had brought in torrential wet storms from the Pineapple Express.   As a nature watcher, I’d been reduced to watching Anna’s hummingbirds beat their way to the feeders in strong winds.  It was entertaining, up to a point.  But when the sun finally came out, I was ready for something different.

    So when Glen called that morning after driving to work, and reported that he’d seen “wall to wall” ducks on the Deschutes estuary, I made a plan to go down to the water with my sister Nancy to see for myself.

     So much for my plans:  by the time I got there in late afternoon, the ducks had mostly flown the coop.   But rather than getting disappointed about plans gone awry, nature has taught me to look around and see what else is on offer.  And what showed up that day was river otters.

     It took me awhile to notice them.  By the time I got to the estuary it was late afternoon and the early winter sunset was beginning to paint the sky pink.  I scanned the water with the spotting scope, looking at the dark clots of winter ducks.   But when I turned to train the scope over near the dam itself, my scanning stopped with a sudden, surprised lurch as my eye was caught by otters, cavorting on the bank just beyond the concrete dam wall.

     These were the river otters that were known to be around Capitol Lake.  I remember a few years ago a sign was posted near 5th avenue about keeping an eye out for otters crossing the road;  the story was that an adult female and her young were living very near the dam and crossing the road regularly.  While the adult was no doubt skilled at avoiding cars, her pups were not.  Hence the sign.

     I’m guessing today’s otters were adolescents, born in the same brood early this year and getting near independence (Adult otters are solitary and territorial).  As I watched they rolled up and down the bank, nipping each other and chasing each other around.  The last of the sun was shining on the muddy bank and they seemed to be enjoying it as much as I did.  The tide had also reached its zenith and salt water came pouring over the dam into the estuary, creating a froth of bubbly fast moving current.  The young otters frisked and frolicked through this, as well.

     Then they caught sight of my sister, who had snuck up near the dam to get pictures.  It was comical, the way they all froze and stopped, staring at her and sniffing for possible danger.  I love the look in their eyes.

     When she ducked from sight, the otters returned to play, hanging out on the bank and slipping in and out of the water.  As the sun started to fade from the sky,  the play stopped and they grouped up, swimming purposefully, heading down south.  I had trouble tracking them while they were underwater, but realized I could follow them by the ducks;  it is not unknown for meat-eating otters to snatch a duck, and the ducks know this. As the otters got close, among the quiet rafts of ducks, there was a sudden otter-induced cackling and hooting and rapid skittering flight to a safer location.

     Finally the otters had progressed well across the water and I lost track of them.  The sun by now had slipped behind the hills to the west;  my hands were cold on the scope and I  began to shiver.  For me, it was a time to pack up  and head home to a warm house.  For the otters, it was the beginning of their “day” (they are more active from dusk to dawn);   off to check out a favorite feeding hole, to find crayfish and small fish and crabs and unwary ducks to maintain that high metabolic rate that keeps them warm on days like this.

     As I drove home, in the waning light of dusk, my head was still full of young otters, swimming and swirling,  moving as fluidly as the element of water they make their own.  I thought of them roving the estuary that cold winter night, hunting in the dark by smell and by whiskers, yet another piece of the rich life of the Deschutes estuary that is my own lifeblood, and theirs.

Janet Partlow
•  Otter photos by Nancy Partlow
•  YouTube link to a battle between a heron and an otter - a bit grisly:


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Winter Sanctuary for Yellow Jackets

     Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have had a prolonged Indian summer period which ended abruptly two weeks ago when the Pineapple Express starting funneling in huge tropical rainstorms from Hawaii.  Out in the world of nature, everything went from crackling dry, ready for a major forest fire to sodden:  the bright leaves ripped out of the trees and now stuck to the walkways, the mushrooms logs awaiting that rain now starting to sprout oyster and shitakes, the people (like me) slogging out to the car with wet socks and pant hems.  It has been a very abrupt finish to a halcyon summer that seemed as if it would never end...

     It’s been a precipitous turnaround for the insects, as well.  Lately I’ve been watching several fat Yellow Jacket queen wasps, hovering at the walls of our house, seeking out a place to find sanctuary from the coming winter.  Days are getting shorter, colder and wetter and soon they must find a safe place, or die.

     Here at our house, these queens often crawl in our mason bee tube colonies, tucking down into the dry spaces between the wooden tubes.  Once safely stowed away, they go dormant, reducing their metabolism and feeding off their stored fat.  Here is a picture from one of our mason bee houses; you can see two different queens deeply asleep and well protected between the tubes.

     They often find piles of woodland duff or conifer needles to overwinter in.  One memory from childhood is when I climbed up in our juniper trees and found a fat, cold, sleeping queen buried in a pile of needles in the crotch of the tree.  I was both terrified and fascinated to see how quiet she was, though as I prodded her she began to waken and within a few minutes was more than capable of defending herself.  I fled that tree forthwith. 

     Yellow jackets often overwinter in cold outbuildings.  I remember going into an unused cabin in mid-February:  we turned on the heat and the lights and within half an hour we had awoken a dozy queen; she was at the ceiling light, grumbling away with that low, steady, ominous buuuzzzzz that can still freak me out. 

     Yellow jacket is the common name for predatory wasps of the Vespula and Dolichovespula genera.  Most of us know these wasps as the uninvited guests at the summer picnic.  Most humans give little respect to these wasps, but in fact the Yellow Jackets play an important part in the natural world:  they are key predators of insects such as caterpillars, grubs, crickets and any other bugs too slow to get away.   Were it not for predators such as these, keeping populations in check , our world would soon be over run by insects. 

     Yellow jackets have select food preferences and they are voracious about these preferences.  The adults like sweet-tasting liquids, such as nectar in flowers.  They also like rotting fruit, and can be found swarming over fall fruit on the ground, especially juicy ones.  They like tree sap, which explains why our drippy Norway Spruce always has lots of yellow jackets around it in the summer.  All of these natural sweet items are mimicked in our sodas and fruit drinks, which is one big reason why Yellow Jackets visit the picnic table.
     The other reason is meat.  The young larvae growing in the hive require animal protein to grow.  This is why the adults hunt for burgers.  But they will also forage for dead insect carcasses, the yellow jacket version of road kill.

     The adults also happily settle for any other available protein.  Glen had a friend who brought home some salmon bone carcasses, which she planned to use in an art project.  She hung the carcasses out in the carport to dry; Glen watched over several weeks as the yellow jackets came and went, efficiently stripping off the fish to take home to the nest to feed their young.  He watched in fascination as some worker wasps carved off huge hunks of salmon, some of which were so large the wasp could barely fly.  Over time the yellow jackets completely cleaned the bones.  Their growing larvae were well-fed and Glen’s artist friend got some spanking clean bones out of the process.
     Yellow jackets have their predators as well.  A related black and white wasp commonly called a Bald-faced Hornet specializes in catching and eating bees and wasps.  I have seen this first hand.  
    One late summer day I was sitting outside near our plum tree.  It had produced masses of fruit that year , so a lot of it was on the ground, slowly fermenting in the sun.  There were yellow jackets all over these plums, sucking up a quick energy snack before foraging for the hive.  
     I was watching a yellow jacket crawling over the surface of a plum, looking for the best place to dig in, when a Bald-faced hornet appeared.  I expected to see a skirmish over the plum and was curious about who would win.  I was wrong: the Bald-faced hornet was hunting meat.  There was an epic battle where the two wasps duked it out, loud buzzing , frantic manueverings and stinging like crazy.  The Bald-faced hornet won.  I watched the yellow jacket die, and then the Bald-faced hornet efficiently began to carve it up and carry away pieces back to her hive.  It took a couple of trips.   That predatory Yellow Jacket was the building block for more Bald-faced hornet workers.  And so the cycle continues...

     Today the Pineapple Express has finally changed tracks.  The clouds are breaking open and sun is pouring through my window.  The temperature gauge reads 56 degrees, which is warm enough for wasps.  I expect to see more queens hovering at our wooden siding, looking for a safe place to make it through the cold days approaching.  Soon they will be completely gone for the season. 

     Come next March, when the temperatures rise once more into the low 50’s and the sun makes a serious appearance, these queens will shake off their sleep and find the nearest nectar to recharge their energy.  Here is a photo I took in late March, at a crocus flower bed in our nearby park.  This was a queen who had found a good winter sanctuary and made it through.  Here are the wasp queens, coming out of dormancy and back into the active hive life for the new year ahead. 

Janet Partlow
Resources:  hive photo by wise acres gardens.  All other photos by BBB naturalists.