North American River Otter

North American River Otter

North American River Otter

September 27, 2018 – The North American river otter can weigh as much as 30 pounds and can grow to a length of almost four and half feet. Their sleek muscular body and webbed toes make them very efficient underwater swimmers, stirring the water up, and chasing prey, as they roll and make quick turns in their pursuit. The otter can hold its’ breath for as long as eight minutes and can cover some distance as it swims. Fish, frogs and crayfish are a big part of the otters diet, the otter is a carnivore, a predator with strong jaws and sharp teeth and will also take birds or other animals that are near the water. The river otter is a symbol or totem of many Native American groups, the Pottawatomie and the Seminole people see the river otter as one of their clan animals. The Ojibwa called the river otter Nigig, its’ skin, teeth and claws were used in their medicine bundles. The otter was hunted and trapped for its’ meat and skin, the skins were respectfully turned into pipe bags, pouches and quivers by the indigenous people of North America.

The otter eating a fish it just caught

The otter eating a fish it just caught

Once a common sight in Illinois, the river otter was all but wiped out by the mid 1800’s as human expansion continued and the settlers cleared and drained the wetlands. With no regulations and the wholesale trapping and shooting of these semi-aquatic creatures, any sightings were becoming quite rare. Most ponds, lakes and rivers were now void of this remarkable animal and they were now sadly missing from most of Illinois, with the exception of far southwestern Illinois in the area of the Cache river and along the Mississippi in the northwestern part of the state. Trapping was eventually closed for river otter in1929. By 1989 the otter was listed as endangered and the future for the North American river otter was not looking good here in Illinois. The population had shrunk to an all time low and there were only a few areas that held the total population of this species for the state, which was believed to be as low as 100. But there was hope as things were changing throughout Illinois, the health of our natural resources had improved and this presented an opportunity for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Conservation efforts on wetlands combined with the laws enacted over the past decade to improve water quality in the rivers and streams in Illinois were paying off and by the mid 90’s improved habitats existed where beaver were thriving and and beaver dams helped create wetlands with healthy aquatic systems and these positive changes to our natural areas was great news for the otter.

Large canines of the otter as it swims with its' mouth open

Large canines of the otter as it swims with its’ mouth open

Reintroduction efforts were in the works for the DNR from 1994 through 1997 with the release of captured river otters from Louisiana. The released otters were reintroduced in central and southeastern Illinois. Around that same time the Indiana DNR was reintroducing river otter to a few watersheds in the northern and southern parts of the state. Today we see the results of those efforts of reintroduction, which would not have been possible without the conservation laws of the 70’s. The American river otter has expanded north and west in Illinois and into northeastern Illinois most likely out of Indiana using ditches and creeks and the Kankakee and Iroquois rivers. Today in Illinois river otters can be found in every county with an overall population that may be greater than 20,000 and possibly as high as 30,000. Recent sightings of river otters in our general area have been reported in Newton county Indiana where Jed Hertz photographed a pair on August 30th at the Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle FWA. I also observed a single otter at the White Oak Slough of the LaSalle FWA along the Kankakee river. Jed recently encountered an otter east of Kankakee, in Kankakee county, on September 14th. I was able to photograph that particular individual over a number of days while observing its’ ability to hunt. The otter certainly seems to be an effective hunter catching large and small frogs along with a number of fish species. The small prey was consumed on the fly, but a large Bullfrog or fish required two to five minutes to consume before the hunt would continue.

The North American River Otter

The North American River Otter

 

Reference:

“Wildlife Directory: River Otter – Living with Wildlife – University of Illinois Extension, https://m.extension.illinois.edu/wildlife/directory_show.cfm?species=river_otter

“River Otter.” Education, Illinois DNR, www.dnr.illinois.gov/conservation/wildlife/Pages/River-Otter.aspx

“North American River Otter.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Sept. 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_river_otter

“The Ojibwe Native Americans.” The Ojibwe Native Americans – Traditions, http://ojibwenativeamericans.weebly.com/religion.html

webmaster@aaanativearts.com. “Potawatomi Bands and Clans:” Cherokee Houses, AAA Native Arts, https://www.aaanativearts.com/potawatomi/potawatomi_clans.htm

The Woodchuck

Woodchuck

Woodchuck eating acorn from a White oak.

August 7, 2018 – The end of the time of plenty is only a few months away for the Woodchuck, when deep in its’ dark and silent burrow, as those cold winds of the northern latitudes push the chill south, it will curl up in a soft grass lined bed and slip into a winter hibernation. During this time of inactivity the Woodchucks body temperature will drop along with its’ heart rate and breathing. The heart will only beat four times a minute and the Woodchuck will take one breath about every six minutes. The continuous foraging into late summer on insects, grasses, flowers, fruits and acorns will bulk up fat reserves of this stocky rodent for its’ amazing underground sleep in its’ special hibernation burrow. The Woodchucks hibernation burrow is usually constructed in a wooded area away from its’ summer burrow and is designed to get the large mammal safely through those cold and lean months of winter.

Egrets

Great Egret and the smaller Snowy Egret

Great Egret and the smaller Snowy Egret

August 7, 2018 – Standing just over three feet tall, the Great egret overshadows the smaller Snowy egret that only reaches a height of two feet. At White Oak Slough and the Black Oak Bayou at the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area, which is located along the Kankakee river in Newton County Indiana, there have been large numbers of Great egrets over the past few weeks hunting the shallows as well as using the trees to roost. The Snowy egret was an exciting find as the little bird would stay close with a group of Great egrets at the Black Oak Bayou. Snowy egrets have interesting techniques for hunting. I observed the little bird vibrating its’ leg as it moved through the water trying to scare up prey. It also has a behavior called bill-vibrating where it will rapidly open and close its’ submerged bill to confuse and force up frogs, fish, insects or crayfish. They also stomp their feet up and down as they move through the water as another one of their interesting hunting behaviors, to root out prey. Another exciting species of wading bird was noted at the bayou by Jed Hertz when he discovered two juvenile Little Blue Herons with a group of Great egrets on August 6th.

Juvenile Little Blue Herons

Juvenile Little Blue Herons

Turkey Vultures

Turkey vulture

Rain soaked Turkey vulture

July 16, 2018 – After a brief but heavy morning rain a small group of soaked Turkey vultures rotate on their perches to face the direction of the emerging sun. Their nearly six foot wingspan spread and slightly cupped helps dry those wet feathers and regulate body temperatures of the vultures before they can take to the thermals and glide above the summer landscape in search of carrion.

The Double-crested Cormorant

 Double-crested Cormorant

A Double-crested Cormorant, illuminated by the morning sun

July 10, 2018 – A Double-crested Cormorant, illuminated by the morning sun, was seen perched on a snag just above the slow but steady flow of the Kankakee river. The Double-crested Cormorant is a goose sized bird that is considered a medium-distance migrant having a winter range from Southern Illinois to the Gulf Coast and from Texas to the Atlantic. They are a seabird that occupy inland lakes and rivers that have a good food source of fish and other aquatic life throughout their range. During the nesting season some populations along the coast are localized and don’t migrate while others head north into the northern parts of United States and Canada with large numbers in the Great Lakes region. The Double-crested Cormorant is federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but large concentrations of the cormorants are having a negative impact on aquaculture. There are also concerns of the effects on other threatened or endangered species. The science continues on the Double-crested Cormorants helping to gain a better understanding of their interactions with fish, humans and other species of birds that will eventually lead to best management practices for all concerned.

Black Terns

Black Tern

Black Tern

June 10, 2018 – A small number of migrating Black terns have been reported recently at the Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area adjacent to the Kankakee river in Newton County Indiana. The Black terns could be seen flying low over the water as they hunt. With their silver wings spread wide they gracefully swooped from side to side, at times stopping to hover. The small terns would stretch their neck as they would look down towards the water to focus on the movement of a potential prey while their aerodynamic skills kept them suspended in one place. They would take insects off the water or out of the air or from a protruding limb of a submerged snag with remarkable precision.

Black Tern

Black Tern

They would glide with the sun to their back slowly working their way from east to west over the glimmering sparkles of the shallow waters of the bayou. Suddenly with a decision only they understood they would swiftly turn and fly quickly back toward the east and start over with their slow and methodical hunting technique which would repeat many times before they would find a small tree stump barely showing just above the water line to perch and rest a short time before the next hunt. The drainage of wetlands along with dangerous agricultural chemical runoff have had significant negative impacts on the nesting areas of the Black tern. Loss of migratory wetlands from drainage and pollution has added to a steep decline of the North American population of Black tern along with many other species. Overfishing of the Black terns coastal tropical winter range is also believed to have contributed to the somewhat sharp decline of this species.

Black Terns Hunting

Black Terns Hunting

Bonaparte’s gulls

Adult Bonaparte's gull in full breeding plumage

Adult Bonaparte’s gull in full breeding plumage

April 19, 2018 – Good size flocks of Bonaparte’s gulls have been reported in Kankakee county and throughout Northern Illinois in recent weeks as they are working their way north to the boreal forests of western and central Canada and the southern half of Alaska where they will nest in the conifers. The small gulls prefer trees separated from the dense growth that are at the edges of marshes and bogs. A flock of 50 of these small and elegant tern like gulls was spotted in a flooded area of an agricultural field busily feeding on insects and worms, certainly to bulk up for their long journey north. The winter plumage of these gulls is mostly white, with a light gray on the tops of their wings and black wingtips, plus a dark spot on the sides of the head behind the eye. During the nesting season the adult birds’ head transitions to a slaty black as they get that wonderful dark hood that stands out in a beautiful contrast to their white body. This flock was made up of adult birds in full breeding plumage with some that were at different stages of transition, plus a number first year birds.

Bonaparte's gull not in breeding plumage

Bonaparte’s gull not in breeding plumage

American White pelicans

American White pelicans J.C. Murphy lake at Willow Slough FWA

American White pelicans J.C. Murphy lake at Willow Slough FWA

April 14, 2018 – Numbers of American White pelicans have been reported in our area for the past month. East of Momence near the Illinois/Indiana state line in Newton county Indiana, small and large flocks have been observed at the Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area. The pelicans are using the local small lakes, cooling lakes, and the backwaters of the Kankakee river as staging areas where they can rest and feed while waiting for that moment when that strong hormonal drive pushes them to head further north for the nesting season. Fifty of the large white birds have been counted at Black Oak with similar counts for J.C. Murphy lake at Willow Slough FWA. A flock of these great birds have been using a small rocky island in the Kankakee River State Park with a number of 25 birds reported on April 7th. Even larger numbers exceeding 100 have been reported near Braidwood and north to the Des Plains river.

Pelicans swimming at Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area

Pelicans swimming at Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area

Traveling Tree Swallows

Tired Tree Swallows

Tired Tree Swallows

April 5, 2018 – Most had their heads cocked with their faces tucked deep into their feathers as they perched sleeping side-by-side on this cold April morning in a springtime where winter was refusing to yield. Their long extended wing feathers, their primaries, appeared like little brown scabbards hanging from the belts of tiny soldiers that were dressed in their finest blue jackets. The weather was right for the snow that was predicted for later in the day and they seemed reluctant to leave their bivouac even well after sunup. There were more then 150 of these tired travelers roosting in a small tree at the edge of some flooded timber in the backwaters of the Kankakee river. Tree Swallows are known as short-distance migrators even though some travel as far as Alaska for the breeding season and nest in most of Canada and much of the United States. The Swallows winter along the South Eastern coast of the United States, the Gulf of Mexico and south into Central America. Some Tree Swallows have arrived even earlier and have been in our area for at least a month and they have already paired up and staked out their territory. This flock appears to be a recent arrival and may have traveled many miles in the last few days. They may still have some distance to go before they reach their destination, hopefully a more temperate weather pattern will soon take hold for this sleepy flock of traveling Tree Swallows.

Tree Swallows sleeping

Tree Swallows sleeping

Horned Grebes

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe in winter plumage

March 28, 2018 – A pair of Horned Grebes glide silently across the placid waters of the Black Oak Bayou. One is still in its’ mostly achromatic winter plumage, while the other is transitioning towards the more impressive breeding colors of gold, black and chestnut. These small divers with their intriguing red eyes are on their northerly migration. The birds have been spending some time at a good food source of aquatic invertebrates and small fish at the Black Oak Bayou in the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area in Newton county Indiana. Soon the grebes will follow their instincts and continue the journey north into Canada towards the boreal lakes and marshes where their impressive courtship display will once again signify a bonding and the coming of a new generation of those red eyed divers.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe starting to show breeding colors