A Few Moments with a Dancing Otter

By Elizabeth Fread

The first time I ever saw the river otter, I was pretty sure it was a muskrat or maybe a beaver. I was watching the bank side for birds to photograph, when I heard a faint splash.

I looked out into the water and saw a smooth body that was brown and thin. At first I thought maybe it was a snake, but then it came up again revealing a small head with whiskers on the side. I watched it slowly make its way along the bank, and he was literally gliding in the water, twisting and twirling all the time.

I looked over to Mr. and Mrs. Boswell, who were following in the car, and said, “that’s an otter, and went chasing after it.” It was one of the most exciting moments I experienced since we began shooting photos for our website. In a situation like this you can be glad you know your camera equipment. There isn’t time to think about settings, you barely have time to focus and shoot. With my heart pounding, I just knew I had a chance of getting some of our best shots. I was not disappointed.

After swimming and diving his way along the waterway, he, maybe it was a she, turned away from me and climbed up on the bank on the opposite side from me, but still not more than 25 feet away.

Otters, being curious creatures, are interested in almost anything, so as soon as I started making some clucking noises, he quickly turned his head my way and looked right at me. Then he decided to put on an act. It looked like he was performing a little dance, but really all he was doing was shaking off some water, turning around and around. Then he just plopped right down on the bank, enjoying the warm sun.

After a little while he slid off the bank into the water continuing back the way he had come. A few weeks later we photographed another otter, or maybe it was the same one. But the thrill of those few minutes with my dancing otter is something I will never forget. I hope you enjoy looking at the photos as much as I did taking them.

Otter Facts:

* The range of the river otter is throughout Virginia. This species is semi-aquatic or almost entirely aquatic and they are most abundant in food-rich coastal areas and the lower parts of streams and rivers.

* The breeding season is about 3 months in the late winter and early spring. A litter of 1-6 kits is born from March to April in natal dens (overhanging banks, tree knots and abandoned stream bank burrows). This species does not dig its own burrow. The male avoids the area of birth but rejoins the family while the young learn to swim.

* The family group stays together for 6 months-1 year. They are active at any hour and season. They feed mostly from dawn-midmorning, and in the evening. The life span for the otter in the wild is usually 8-9 years.

* River otters can live no more than a few hundred meters from the water. Clean and unpolluted waterways isolated from human contact is preferred by the river otter. Their aquatic habitat consists of log jams and submerged trees. They occasionally use duck blinds and abandoned boat houses.

* Otters have a total length from 3 to 4.2 feet, and a weight of 10-25 pounds. The males are larger than the females.

* The river otter is recognizable from other creatures as river otters have a streamlined body. They also have short legs and webbed toes. Another characteristic is that the river otter has small eyes and ears.

* River otters can swim at around seven miles per hour and dive to 35 feet. When the otter dives flaps of skin close-off the otter’s nose as well as ears. This allows it to stay underwater for two minutes or longer before it must come up for air.

* One of the biggest things about the otter is that it has a long tapering tail which is thick at the base and thin at the tip and helps the otter navigate through the water rapidly. The tail measures 40 to 50 inches long. Males are larger than females in most cases and have a mass which averages 5-10 kilograms. The weight of an adult otter ranges from 11 to 33 pounds.

Woodland Trail, a Walk Through a Maritime Forest

By Wilma Young

Welcome to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Today you will be walking the Woodland Trail. We can’t know in advance all the things you will encounter on the trail, but we can give you an idea of the possibilities and probabilities.

Before you begin your walk, just as your car turns off the Beach Road onto the Woodland Trail, there’s a landmark on your right. Just a few slabs of concrete in a tangle of greenbrier vines. This is all that’s left of an old life saving station- probably a portion of the cistern. In the previous century there were four of these stations on Assateague Island. Two of them were here on the Virginia’s end of the island.

Imagine now that it’s the eighteenth century. You would have been near the shore line, hearing the surf; instead of which, you are hearing the sounds of the pine forest, nearly a mile from the beach. Barrier islands grow and change rapidly. They are always in transition.

The Assateague Beach Life Saving Station was established in 1875. It wouldn’t have been manned in summer weather, but between August and June, a keeper and six or eight men were on duty twenty-four hours a day. These surf-men got room, board and twenty dollars a month in pay. You won’t, be surprised to learn that they trapped Muskrats to supplement their incomes. They not only endangered their lives rescuing crew men and saving the ships, they also did beach patrol, returning lost property they found, giving assistance to hunters and fishermen who had gotten lost on the island and providing them with food and lodging. In times of storm and high tides, they evacuated families who lived on the islands.

As you walk through the forest, you may encounter a Delmarva Peninsula Fox Squirrel. You will recognize him by his unusual size. He’s the largest of the tree squirrels, weighing up to three pounds and tail included, may be up to thirty inches long. His coat varies in color from light grey with silver chest and belly, to nearly black. Smaller species of squirrel seem to dash recklessly through the tree tops, traveling on tiny branches and launching themselves through the air, catching a nearby limb as if they were trapeze artists. The Delmarva’s are more cautious in the tree tops, running on larger limbs more suited to supporting their weight. They spend a great deal of time on the ground.  Now and then a grey squirrel may share habitat with the Delmarva’s. We try to discourage this by transporting them to more suitable areas as it is the Delmarva’s who are endangered.

img_1355

A loblolly Pine tree snapped by the winds from Hurricane Sandy. There was heavy tree damage along Woodland Trail from the massive storm that hit the East Coast October 28 29 and 30, 2012. Photo by Zackrey Hoverson.

Once, the Delmarva’s were common on the Delmarva Peninsula, ranging into New Jersey and Pennsylvania. They depended on the Loblolly Pine for shelter as well as for the supply of seeds from the cones of the pine. Clear cutting of the forest denied them the advantages of food, shelter and space and moved them into the endangered category.

By the 1920′s, they were extinct in all states except Maryland. Between 1968 and 1971, thirty of these squirrels were moved here to Chincoteague Refuge where they were released near the lighthouse and here on the woodland trail. They seem to be prospering here as they have not only loblolly seeds to eat but also acorns, and buds and flowers of trees.

The Maritime Forest provides loblollies for the squirrels to make nests in and the occasional Hardwood Hollow Trees for dens. The refuge provides nesting boxes as well.

Odd name: Loblolly. One researcher writes that the early settlers were impressed with the ever presence of this versatile pine and named it for the common and ever-present breakfast food of England- their porridge known as Loblolly. Lob is of the Middle English origin and meant literally “thick” and Lolly was a dialect word for broth. Loblolly also means “a mud puddle” which doesn’t say much for the porridge- but perhaps we can justify it for the loblolly tree because this pine does like to have its roots in a damp environment.

As the Loblolly grows taller, the lower branches fall which gives the forest a relatively clear understory with not too many places for predators to hide.

The Great Horned Owl may silently sweep down in the dusk and pick off a young squirrel. Owls have special soft downy feathers at wings’ edge which eliminate the flapping noise most birds produce in flight. These owls haven’t large ears- just tufts of feathers on either side of the top of the head. Small creatures must be especially vigilant because the owls have eyes positioned on the front of their heads giving them better binocular vision than birds with eyes on the sides of their heads. The owl doesn’t have moonlight or starlight every night that he’s hungry, so he listens too for rodents rustling in the leaves. This is the owl whose haunting mournful call is often used on movie sound tracks.

The understory isn’t completely clear. Greenbrier is a thorny tangled vine with heart shaped leaves that gives the squirrel a hiding place on the ground and would trip the unwary human and would certainly impede other predators.

Trumpet Creepers and grape vines add to the tangle in some parts of the forest. Poison Ivy achieves spectacular growth in this environment with the stems reaching the thickness of your forearm and climbing to the tops of the pine trees. The fruit, twigs and berries provide excellent and abundant food supply for white tailed deer, sikas, possums, ponies and at least fifty species of birds.

If you see a small heart-shaped face peering at you from a thicket, it’s our Sika. You’ve heard about them if you’ve been on the refuge more than ten minutes. These are the small Asian elk with the distinctive white patch on their rumps – their trademark- the powder-puff behind. A few Sikas, probably less than twenty were released on the island in the 1920’s.  Present population estimate is somewhat less than a thousand.

When you reach the pony overlook you will be facing an area of marsh with groundsel and marsh elder, flea bane and seaside goldenrod in season.

In the distance is the red and white 142 foot horizontally striped lighthouse about a mile and a half away. This is surprising when you remember that when the original 45 foot lighthouse was built in 1833 it stood near open sea. Toms Hook, the curved sandy stretch of the island has developed since the mid 1800′s.

To both right and left are small stands of Loblollies on slightly raised land areas. Often there are ponies loafing under the trees.

Where did these shaggy ponies come from?  You may take your choice of fact or legend. The early islanders let their live stock graze on the Barrier islands. These may be the descendents of those horses who have adapted to the harsh environment. Or you may choose to accept the stories of horses shipwrecked in the 1700’s – which swam to the safety of the islands and established a colony here. If you have a romantic streak, you may blend fact and legend. In any case, enjoy these hardy little island dwellers.

After leaving the pony overlook, you’ll come into an area where pools of fresh water stand near the trail. Here the vines and small shrubs are thicker and here is where you’ll find a large amount of bird activity.

You may be thinking that if it’s damp there’s a chance of snakes and amphibians- and you’d be correct. But don’t panic. As far as we know there are no venomous reptiles in residence here. We do have Hognose Snakes. This fellow gets his name from an up-turned snout. If threatened, he puts on a brave front; hisses, puffs out his head, and if this fails to make you back off, he will lie on his back, tongue hanging out of his gaping mouth and play dead.

The Black Rat Snake grows quite long; possibly 5 feet and is an excellent tree climber – often living in tree cavities. He is not venomous either.

Here near the fresh water ponds and brackish marshes you may find southern leopard frogs. They come in green or brown.

The other amphibians you’re likely to encounter on the refuge are Fowler’s toads. They appear on sandy trails or around buildings. Their skin is dry, usually in shades of brown or grey with pale chests.

There’s a slight possibility of meeting a Red-Backed Salamander. They are only two and to five inches long. Not threatening creatures.

As this site is on the Atlantic flyway, we have a great many species of birds who visit us. We can’t begin to guess which ones you’ll encounter…it’s all up to season, weather and chance. Over Three hundred have been identified on this refuge, and twenty that have been seen only once or twice. Would you believe that the common house sparrow, The English Sparrow… falls into the Latter category, having been seen here only rarely. Oddly enough they are commonly seen on the next island to our west on Chincoteague Island.

Warblers are frequent visitors to our refuge, some of them like the Pine Warbler and Prairie Warbler nesting here. Yellow Rumped Warblers were formerly called Myrtle Warblers because of their preference for the berries of the wax Myrtle bushes. Those berries are wax like and few other birds are able to digest them.

Red Eyed and White Eyed Vireos both nest here. These little fellows hide in myrtle thickets which provide excellent camouflage. During breeding season they sing throughout the day.

Bald eagles may be seen soaring over the refuge. . They aren’t bald you know, they have white feathers on their heads.  Turkey Vultures, often seen wheeling in the neighborhood really is bald.

If you don’t see woodpeckers along this trail, you’ll probably hear them. They peck at trees to locate food and also do a good bit of hammering in lieu of song, to impress their mates and also establish territory. Downy, hairy and Red Bellied Woodpeckers are seen here as well as Pileated Woodpeckers. The northern flicker is common as well. The Red Woodpecker is an occasional visitor.

You may hear a great scuffling in the leaves, in which case, look for the Rufous-sided Towhee leaves; he is, as his name suggests, rusty reddish brown. He has named himself, shouting “see tow See” although some listeners say he is asking you to “drink your tea”.

You’ll not be surprised to see Starlings here. From a flock of one hundred birds released in Manhattan in 1890, they have spread across the continent.  Their consumption of insects may be the one favorable characteristic of this bird.

You see, we’re nowhere near covering the three hundred plus species you might encounter: Owls, Buntings, Cardinals, Chickadees, Juncos… the list goes on…but walk the trail with alert.

Wilma Young served as a senior volunteer at several national parks, coming to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge three times. 

Her last stay at the Chincoteague refuge was just before her 80th birthday in 1997-98. On this third stay she served as an environmental education teacher for the Chincoteague Natural History Association. As a volunteer in her first two summers, along with the various duties she was given, Wilma found time to write. She spent hours reading about Chincoteague history and conducting research in the libraries. Some of her articles later found their way onto the Refuge web site, some were published in our local newspapers and some were used as trail guides for other volunteers. Today, at the age of 90, Wilma is as intensely interested in protecting our planet as she ever was. She can talk non-stop about the ways we humans have found to cause harm to our environment. She is passionate about things most people never take the time to learn. Years ago she wrote a story for her granddaughter, explaining why she often wasn’t home. “Every living thing depends on other living things and although we know a lot of the connections, we don’t know them all.” In explaining her work with the Refuge to her granddaughter, Wilma wrote, “…I help report the numbers on the goose collars…I answer questions our visitors have about all the wild creatures…I notify the biologists of any reports of unusual sightings of sick animal or creatures caught in nets…sometimes I pick up trash on the beach…I wander the trails, answering more questions…and best of all I look up a lot of stuff then write about it to help people understand how much we all need each other.” It is hard to find the words to describe this caring, kind and concerned grandmother. But her precise and accurate writing speaks for itself. We are pleased to publish her work in Wild Pony Tales. – Robert Boswell, publisher.