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Water Hemlock and Poison Hemlock

Water Hemlock

Botanists consider water hemlock the most poisonous plant in North America. Just a bite of the root will kill a human.

Both water and poison hemlock grow in Alaska, and both are deadly poisonous. Both species inhabit wet areas such as marshes, streams, and moist meadows. Water hemlock grows to a height of two to six feet, and poison hemlock reaches three to eight feet in height. Water hemlock has alternate, compound, oval leaflets with saw-toothed margins. The leaves of poison hemlock are lance-shaped with saw-toothed edges. Both species have small, lacy, white flowers arranged in umbrella-like clusters. The stems of the plants are hollow. The roots are tuberous and chambered and contain a yellow, oily, foul-smelling liquid.

Water Hemlock

The yellow, oily substance found in the roots is circutoxin, and it is present in all parts of the plant. When ingested, circutoxin depresses the respiratory system. Symptoms begin to appear within 15 minutes to an hour after ingestion and include salivation followed by diarrhea, severe stomach distress, and convulsions. Without treatment, death occurs within eight hours of ingestion, and even if a person survives hemlock poisoning, she may suffer permanent damage to her central nervous system.

Hemlock poisonings in children are often caused when kids use the hollow stem of the plant to make whistles or use the stems as pea shooters. Adults are sometimes poisoned when they mistake the roots of hemlock as wild parsnip or add the leaves of the deadly plant to a pot herb mixture. Poisoning has also occurred when campers have mistaken the leaves of water hemlock as some sort of wild marijuana and have smoked them. Livestock can be poisoned by hemlock when grazing the plants or drinking water near where the plants grow. A poisoned animal may die in as little as fifteen minutes.

Poison Hemlock

In Maine, on October 5th, 1992, a 23-year old man and his 39-year old brother were foraging for wild ginseng, when the younger man collected several plants growing in a swampy area and took three bites from the root of one of the plants. His older brother took one bite of the same root. Within 30 minutes, the younger man began to vomit and suffer convulsions. It took 30 minutes for the brothers to walk out of the woods and call for help. Emergency personnel arrived within 15 minutes, and by that time, the younger brother was unresponsive and cyanotic with profuse salivation and intermittent seizures. He was rushed to the hospital, but despite medical intervention, he died three hours after ingesting the root. The older brother appeared normal when he reached the emergency room, but he began to have seizures and suffer delirium two hours after eating the root. He was eventually stabilized and survived the poisoning.

The suicide of Socrates in 399 BC is the most famous case of hemlock poisoning. Socrates was accused and found guilty of “refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state” and for “corrupting the youth.” He was sentenced to death and ordered to drink a cup of poison hemlock. Socrates was his own executioner. According to the story, Socrates cheerfully drank the poison, and surrounded by his students; he paced the room while he lectured to them. When he could no longer stand, he sat and soon died.

Nature is beautiful but sometimes deadly. Most of us don’t walk around the woods picking and nibbling on plant roots, but it is surprising to learn some plants are not even safe to touch. Here on Kodiak, I try not to touch cow parsnip or nettles because the first will cause a burn on my skin and the second will cause instant pain followed by hours of tingling, but I remind myself I could die from touching monkshood or hemlock. The toxicity of monkshood and hemlock make them wonderful weapons for a mystery writer.

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Bald Eagle Body and Feathers

Female bald eagles are slightly larger than males. Males range in body length from 30 to 34 inches (76.2 to 86.4 cm), while females measure 35 to 37 inches (89 to 94 cm). The wingspan of a male stretches from 72 to 85 inches (182.9 to 215.9 cm), while a female’s wingspan ranges from 79 to 90 inches (200.7 to 228.6 cm). Bald eagles weigh between 8 and 14 lbs. (3.6 to 6.4 kgs.).

The skeleton of a bald eagle weighs 0.5 lbs (250 to 350 grams), which is only 5 to 6% of the total weight of the bird. The bones are extremely light, because they are hollow, and the feathers weigh twice as much as the bones.

The bald eagle’s average body temperature is 106°F (41°C). They don’t sweat, so they cool themselves in other ways, such as panting, holding their wings away from their bodies, and perching in the shade. In cold weather, an eagle’s skin is protected by feathers which are lined with down. Their feet consist mainly of tendon and are cold-resistant, and little blood flows to the bill, which is mostly nonliving material.

The beak, talons, and feathers of an eagle are made of keratin, the same material as in our fingernails and hair. Because of this, the beak and talons continuously grow and are worn down through usage. An eagle’s beak can be used as a weapon and is sharp enough to slice skin, but is also delicate enough to groom a mate’s feathers and feed a chick. The talons are important for defense and hunting.

An eagle’s call is a high-pitched, whining scream that is broken into a series of notes. They don’t have vocal cords, so sound is produced in a bony chamber called the syrinx, located where the trachea divides before the lungs. Scientists have differentiated four different calls. Eagles are most vocal when they are threatened, annoyed, or mating.

When eagles first fledge, they are mostly brown, except under the wings, which are mostly white. As immature eagles grow, their body coloration changes and they molt and replace feathers each summer. As juveniles mature, their feathers become a mottled brown and white. By three-and-one-half years, the head and tail are nearly all white, and by four-and-one-half, immature eagles are nearly indistinguishable from adults.

Bald eagles have 7000 feathers. Feathers protect them from both heat and cold and offer a barrier to snow and rain. They have several layers of feathers that tightly overlap and provide a solid covering. It is because of this coat of feathers that eagles can spend winters in extremely cold climates. Depending on the ambient temperature, an eagle can rotate its feathers to reduce or increase their insulating effect. They puff up their feathers for a variety of reasons, including preening, to insulate themselves from cold temperatures, to make themselves appear larger when threatened, and when they are sick.

Feathers are of course also necessary for flight and for gliding and soaring. Like the bones, the feathers are hollow and lightweight, but they are structurally very strong. The primaries, the large feathers along the tips of the wings, provide lift and are the main controls for flight. An eagle twists these feathers to brake, turn, and maneuver. The tail feathers are also important for flying, maneuvering, and landing and for stabilizing an eagle when it dives toward prey.

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Black Oystercatcher as an Indicator Species

Last week, I wrote about the biology and habits of the black oystercatcher, and I mentioned until recently, this species has not received much attention from biologists. In the past few years, though, researchers have realized the overall health and dynamics of oystercatcher populations can tell us a great deal about the health of the organisms that live within the intertidal zone. The black oystercatcher has been called a keystone species, but I think it would be more accurate to call it an indicator species. A keystone species is a species whose presence and role within an ecosystem has a disproportionate effect on other organisms within the system, while an indicator species is a species whose presence, absence, or relative well-being in a given environment is a sign of the overall health of its ecosystem. The well-being of black oystercatchers is thought to be an indicator of the overall health of the intertidal community along the North Pacific shoreline. Tlingit shamans identified with black oystercatchers and believed that just as shamans inhabit both the human and spirit world, oystercatchers live in the border world between land and water. As a tribute to these special birds, shamans often depicted oystercatchers on their rattles.

As the Tlingits noted, black oystercatchers live in a narrow band of habitat and are dependent on the intertidal area to breed, nest and feed, making them vulnerable to both natural and human disturbances. Monitoring black oystercatcher population trends and movements can better help us understand the health of this intertidal zone. In 2004, the International Black Oystercatcher Working Group was formed. This group includes federal and state agencies from Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California and British Columbia. The group’s focus is to learn more about black oystercatchers. In addition to understanding world and local population sizes, researchers hope to learn more about the life cycle of the black oystercatcher. They want to pinpoint natural and manmade threats to oystercatchers and to employ methods to minimize these threats. Understanding black oystercatchers will not only help safeguard these birds but could be key in protecting the intertidal community of organisms and the wide variety of animals that depend on this community for food.

Predation is the major cause of mortality for black oystercatcher eggs and chicks. In Alaska, predators include eagles, ravens, crows, Glaucous-winged gulls, foxes, bears, river otters, wolverines, marten, and mink. Because they live so low in the tidal zone, black oystercatchers are susceptible to flooding, especially in Alaska, where most nests are on low, sloping beaches. Flooding may be caused by natural causes such as extreme high tides, storm surges, or tsunamis or by manmade causes such as boat wakes. Since black oystercatcher nests are on the ground, they are also susceptible to disturbance by humans walking along the beach and stepping on the nests or disturbing the nesting birds.

Black oystercatchers are vulnerable to shoreline contamination, especially from oil spills. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska had a major impact on oystercatchers. Twenty percent of the oystercatchers in the area of the spill were killed immediately, and those that were not immediately killed had to either eat oil-contaminated prey or starve. Now, biologists know the short-term impacts of the oil spill on oystercatchers were only part of the story. Current research shows oystercatchers are still suffering from the physiological effects of feeding on oil-contaminated prey.

We need to learn a great deal more about the biology and habits of the black oystercatcher. Once we understand them, they can help us gauge the health of the intertidal zone from California to British Columbia and Alaska.

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Puffin Biology

Tufted Puffin
Tufted Puffin

Last week, I posted about the two species of puffins we see in Alaska. These are the horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata) and the tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata).  This week I’ll describe puffin nesting behavior and other facts about these interesting birds.

 On Kodiak, puffins arrive at their breeding colonies in May. Breeding colonies are usually on cliffs along the shoreline or on small islands. The steep nesting areas not only help protect puffins from predators but provide a good take-off perch for these heavy birds with small wings. Horned and tufted puffins may nest in the same colony, and they sometimes also share nesting grounds with other alcids, and with glaucous gulls, glaucous-winged gulls, kittiwakes, and cormorants.

Puffins are monogamous and form pair bonds that last many years. Courtship takes place soon after they arrive at their breeding grounds. Mates sit on the water, and the male lifts his bill straight up while opening and closing his mouth and jerking his head. The female hunches over close to the water while keeping her head and neck close to her body. Then, the two birds face each other, waggle their heads and repeatedly touch bills while opening and closing their mouths.

Horned Puffin
Horned Puffin

Puffins nest underground. They have sharp claws on the toes of their webbed feet that they use to scratch out deep burrows, measuring three to four feet (1 m), into the steep hillside. At rocky sites with little soil, puffins nest in rock crevices or on cliff faces. Puffins may line their nests with grass, twigs, feathers, or even manmade materials. Mates often use the same nest year after year and may lengthen the nest each season. A female lays only a single whitish-colored egg, and the male and female take turns incubating the egg for 42 to 47 days. The parents put all their energy into this one offspring, and because of this, the success rate is high for a puffin chick to survive until it fledges. In a study, biologists determined 65% of the tufted chicks and 60% of the horned chicks in the study group survived until they left the nest.]

The chick hatches in July or early August. At birth, it is covered with down and its eyes are open. Parents take turns booding the chick until it can maintain a body temperature of 103.1⁰ F (39.5⁰ C); this usually takes six days. The chick remains in the burrow for the next 45 to 55 days, while the parents take turns watching and feeding it. The parents feed the nestling by catching small fish in their bills and dropping them on the ground in the nest or near the entrance of the burrow. When it is weaned, the chick leaves the nest between dusk and dawn to avoid predators. It cannot fly well at this point, so it either walks or flutters to the ocean where it remains. The parents do not accompany the chick, but they also leave the nest around this time. Young puffins head to the open ocean and remain there through their first summer. When they are two-years-old, they visit the colony during the summer. They are old enough to breed when they are three, but they are not certain to breed until they are four-years-old.

Not much is known about the lifespan of Pacific puffins, but they are believed to live 15 to 20 years in the wild. Tufted puffins have been known to live 25 years in captivity, while an Atlantic puffin survived 39 years in captivity.

Tufted Puffin
Tufted Puffin

With its heavy body, short wings, and webbed feet, a puffin is built more for swimming than for flying. A tufted puffin is the size of a crow but weighs twice as much and has short stubby wings. It must beat its wings 400 times per minute just to stay aloft. Not only is it difficult for a puffin to take off from the water and gain altitude, but it lacks maneuverability in the air, and crash landings and mid-air collisions between puffins are not uncommon. When a puffin takes off from the water, it usually remains close to the surface for a ways and may even hit the water with its wings and bounce off the waves to gain altitude. When flying, a puffin uses its feet to change direction. A puffin is much more graceful in the water, and when swimming, it uses its wings for propulsion and its feet for steering. On land, puffins walk in an upright position, using their claws to cling to slippery rocks and rough terrain.

Fights between puffins are common and occur when one puffin perceives another is invading its territory. The resident puffin threatens the intruder with an open bill that exposes its brightly colored mouth lining. It also shakes its head, jerks its head upward and back, and rocks its body from side to side.

Puffins feed in small flocks and can dive as deep as 262.4 ft. (80 m) to catch their prey. They feed on lipid-rich fish such as sand lance, capelin, and herring, and they also eat euphausiids (krill). When catching fish to take back to the nest, a puffin can carry a large number of fish crosswise in its bill with the heads and tails dangling from the sides of its mouth. It can hold several fish in its mouth and continue to catch more fish without losing any of them due to spines on its tongue and on the roof of its mouth that act as hooks to hold onto the prey.

Horned Puffin
Horned Puffin

Surveys in Prince William Sound suggest the horned puffin population in that area declined 79% from 1972 to 1998. Biologists believe this decline in numbers is due to major changes in the food base as a result of global warming.  This fall, the bodies of 217 dead tufted puffins have been recovered on St. Paul Islands in the Pribilofs, and biologists have determined that the puffins starved to death. Their deaths, like the earlier deaths of horned puffins in Prince William Sound, were blamed on a shortage of food linked to higher-than-normal ocean temperatures in the Bering Sea.  Biologists believe thousands of tufted puffins may die in this region this winter.

Puffins need a predator-free nesting area and an abundance of food. They are subject to predation by foxes, river otters, rats, eagles and other birds of prey. Ravens may attack nesting chicks. When traveling from the winter feeding area to their nesting grounds, puffins fly in large groups in a pattern that resembles a wheel, making it difficult for an eagle to attack an individual bird. Puffins are susceptible to oil pollution. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, 162 dead horned puffins and 570 dead tufted puffins were retrieved from the oiled waters, but biologists believe several thousand puffins were killed by the spill. Puffins are also often caught as bycatch by gillnet and driftnet fisheries.





Horned and Tufted Puffins in Alaska


Tufted Puffin
Tufted Puffin

Two species of puffins live in Alaskan waters. The horned puffin (Fratercula corniculata) and the tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata) belong to the family Alcidae, which also includes guillemots, murres, murrelets, auklets, and auks.

There is no sexual dimorphism between male and female puffins; both sexes are the same color and size. They have stout bodies, short wings, and orange, webbed feet which are located far back on their bodies. From a distance in the spring and summer, the most obvious difference between the two species is that horned puffins have white breasts, while tufted puffins have black breasts and bodies. A horned puffin has a black back and neck and is white on the sides of the head and the breast. Its bright-yellow, oversized beak has a red tip. Its common name is derived from the small, fleshy, dark horn above each eye that is present in the spring and summer. Horned puffins resemble Atlantic (or common) puffins, to which they are closely related, but horned puffins are larger than Atlantic puffins, have slightly different-colored beaks, and have horns, which are lacking in Atlantic puffins. In addition to its black body, a tufted puffin has a white face and a red and yellow bill. Its common name is derived from the long tufts of yellow feathers that curl back from behind the eye on each side of the head. Both adult horned and tufted puffins are about 14 inches (36 cm) long, but tufted puffins are heavier, weighing 1.7 lbs. (771 g), while horned puffins weigh approximately 1.4 lbs. (635 g).

Horned Puffin
Horned Puffin

At the end of the summer, after adults leave their nests, their plumage fades. The white face patches become smoky-brown in front and silver-gray in back, and the body of the horned puffin fades to blackish-gray above and brownish-gray below, while the body of the tufted puffin fades to a dusky gray. The bills of both species fade and the outer plate sheds, leaving them with a much smaller, duller bill. Their feet fade to a fleshy color, and horned puffins shed their horns, while tufted puffins shed their tufts. In the winter, when puffins are on their wintering grounds offshore in the North Pacific, they undergo a complete molt and are flightless for a period.

Puffins are well-suited to life in the ocean. Their feathers are waterproof, and their short, stiff wings are built more for swimming than for flying. They have strong bones to help them withstand the increased pressure of underwater dives; they can store oxygen in their body tissues, and they use anaerobic respiration to allow them to make long dives.

Tufted puffins nest on the coast and offshore islands from lower California to Alaska and from Japan to the shores of northeastern Asia. In Alaska, tufted puffins nest from Southeast Alaska to the Chukchi Sea coast. Horned puffins range from British Columbia to Alaska and southwest to the Sea of Okhotsk and the Kuril Islands. Their range in Alaska is similar to that of tufted puffins, but horned puffins are more abundant than tufted puffins in the northern part of their ranges.

Puffins are not easy to count because they nest in rock crevices or burrows where they can’t be seen. Also, a few puffin pairs often nest on rookeries dominated by other species, so an observer would have to watch each bird rookery for a long time to know if there were any puffins on the rookery. Population statistics are rough estimates and should not be considered exact counts. The world estimate for horned puffins is 1,088,500 individuals with greater than 85% nesting in North America. It is estimated that there are 608 breeding colonies in Alaska with a population of 921,000 individuals. The world population estimate for tufted puffins is 2,970,000 individuals with greater than 80% nesting in North America. It is estimated that there are 693 breeding colonies for tufted puffins in Alaska with a population of 2,280,000 individuals.

In next week’s post, I will describe puffin mating and nesting behaviors as well as detail  more about their biology.  As our days here on Kodiak steadily shorten, and we brace for what seems like one winter storm after the next, I enjoy writing about and looking at photos of puffins because they, more than any other bird, make me think of warm summer days.

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Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)

Bald Eagle

The bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is only found in North America. Its range stretches from northern Mexico to Canada and Alaska and covers all the continental United States. Due to a variety of factors, including the use of the pesticide DDT, bald eagles nearly became extinct in the contiguous United States by the 1950s. The 1940 Bald Eagle Protection Act prohibited commercial trapping and killing of bald and golden eagles, and more significantly, DDT was banned in 1972 when it was proven the pesticide interfered with the eagle’s calcium metabolism, causing either sterility or unhealthy eggs with brittle shells. In 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, and the bald eagle was listed as an endangered species. In 1995, when eagle populations in the continental U.S. began to rebound, the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list and transferred to the threatened species list. On June 28, 2007, bald eagles were removed from the List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife.dsc_0005-2

While Alaska’s eagles were never threatened by the use of DDT, Alaska has its own nefarious history with bald eagles. In 1917, commercial salmon fishermen convinced the Alaska Territorial Legislature that eagles killed large numbers of salmon and were competing with the fishermen’s livelihoods. This claim was later shown to be false, but the legislature enacted a bounty system on eagles that paid two dollars to anyone who turned in a pair of eagle legs. This bounty system lasted for thirty-six years and led to the killing of a confirmed 120,195 eagles, plus countless others that were never turned in for a bounty. The bounty system ended in 1953, and when Alaska became a state in 1959, its bald eagles were officially protected under the Federal Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940. Alaska’s eagle population is now considered healthy, and one-half of the world’s 70,000 bald eagles live in Alaska. Twenty-five-hundred bald eagles reside on the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge.


The genus Haliaeetus, the sea eagles (in Latin, hali means salt and aeetus means eagle), includes eight of the sixty species of eagles. The sea eagles live along sea coasts, lakes, and river shores. The species Haliaeetus leucocephalus (leuco means white and cephalus means head) consists of two subspecies. The southern bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus leucocephalus, is found from Baja California and Texas to South Carolina and Florida, south of 40 degrees north latitude. The northern bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus alascanus occurs north of 40 degrees north latitude. Northern bald eagles are larger than their southern cousins

Eagles are well-insulated by their feathers and are good at regulating their body temperature. Unlike many birds, they do not need to migrate to warmer areas each winter, but in many parts of the country they do migrate, sometimes long distances, in response to varying food supplies. Due to its abundant year-round food supply, Kodiak has a non-migratory eagle population. Furthermore, hundreds of eagles from the Alaskan mainland migrate to Kodiak for the winter months. Effluent from canneries and fish processing plants in the town of Kodiak provides a consistent source of food for these birds in the winter months, and hundreds of eagles can be seen in town perched in trees, on cannery rooftops, on the edges of dumpsters, and even on pickup trucks. In Uyak Bay and other remote bays on Kodiak, eagles stay near their nests all winter, feeding on fish and winter-killed deer among other things.

Since the ban on DDT and related pesticides in 1972, bald eagle populations around the country have rebounded to some degree. The bald eagle population in Alaska is healthy and stable and has never been listed as endangered or threatened by the Federal Government. Eagles in Alaska never suffered the scourge of DDT poisoning, and even now in most areas, they live in a relatively contaminant-free environment.dsc_0099-2

The Bald Eagle Protection Act imposes a fine of $10,000 and two years imprisonment for anyone who harms a bald or golden eagle. It is illegal to even have an eagle feather in your possession without a proper permit. Nevertheless, humans are still responsible for many bald eagle deaths. On Kodiak, Refuge biologists have recovered eagles that have starved to death, been killed by airplanes and cars, caught in traps, and oiled by fish slime or fossil fuels. The Exxon Valdez oil spill killed hundreds of eagles in Alaska. In January 2008, fifty eagles swooped down on a dump truck filled with fish guts outside a Kodiak seafood processing plant. Twenty of the eagles were drowned or crushed, and the rest were so slimed they had to be cleaned. Bait left unattended on a fishing boat can cause a frenzy when eagles land and start fighting over their find. If their feathers become oiled by fish slime, they become less-waterproof, and then if the eagle falls into the water, it is more susceptible to hypothermia.kodiak_alaska_microgrid_508

In 2009, the Kodiak Electric Association (KEA) erected three wind turbines on Pillar Mountain near the town of Kodiak and added an additional three turbines in 2012. Many people worried the turbines would be a danger to eagles since turbines elsewhere in the U.S. kill an estimated 573,000 birds a year. KEA funded a study to address the concerns, and researchers determined that eagles went out of their way to avoid crossing the ridge among the turbines. No eagles were killed during the study, and according to avian biologist, Robin Corcoran, she has never received a report of a dead eagle near the turbines.

Eagles do die from electrocution on Kodiak. Many of the power poles near town are fitted with devices designed to protect eagles, but in January 2011, an eagle was electrocuted when she landed on the lowest of three cross bars on a power pole. That particular crossbar did not have a protective device because utility authorities believed there was not enough room for an eagle to land on it. The dead eagle had been banded years earlier by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, so biologists knew she was 25 years old, the second-oldest bald eagle documented in Alaska, and one of the oldest-documented eagles in the country.

While these manmade disasters are tragic, they are uncommon and do not appear to be a threat to Alaska’s bald eagle population. A greater and less-obvious threat is the destruction of eagle-nesting habitat by logging and commercial and residential development. Eagles tend to nest in large, old trees that are not easily or quickly replaced once they are removed.

Once an eagle attains its adult plumage, it is impossible to determine its age unless it has been leg-banded by biologists. For this reason, we have limited data on the life span of bald eagles. Biologists believe 50-70% of all juvenile bald eagles die in their first year, and as many as 90% die before they are fully mature. Eagles in captivity may live 40 to 50 years. The oldest documented eagle resided in Stephentown, New York and lived to be 48-years old. On average, eagles live 15 to 20 years in the wild, and the oldest documented wild eagle was a 32-year-old bird from Maine. Alaska’s oldest eagle was a 28-year-old from the Chilkat Valley.

Eagles are fascinating birds and have been studied a great deal. Later this winter, I will dedicate more posts to eagle biology. Please leave a comment if you have a question or anything you would like to share about eagles.

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Kodiak River Otter ( Lontra canadensis kodiacensis)

The Kodiak river otter (Lontra canadensis kodiacensis) is a sub species of the North American river otter and is found only on the Kodiak Archipelago. North American river otters range throughout much of Canada and the United States.

River otters are stocky, with short legs, webbed hind feet, a thick neck, a flattened head, small ears, and a muscular body. A strong tail that is more than one-third as long as the head and body helps propel them through the water when they swim. Adult river otters weigh 15 to 35 lbs. (6.8-15kg) and are 40 to 60 inches (102-152 cm) long. Females are usually about 25% smaller than males. An otter’s fur is black-brown in color on the legs and back fading to a slightly lighter shade on the belly. The chin and throat are gray. The fur consists of a dense undercoat and longer guard hairs. Several sets of strong whiskers sprout from beneath the nose.

A river otter is well adapted for living both on land and in the water. Its thick fur helps keep it warm when swimming in cold water, and its webbed hind feet, narrow body, and flattened head allow for streamlined movement through the water. An otter swims by paddling or vertically flexing its hindquarters and strong tail. It can swim 6 mph (9.7 km/hr) and even faster over short distances by “porpoising.” An otter can dive at least as deep as 60 ft. (18 m) and stay underwater for as long as eight minutes. On land, an otter can run up to 15 mph (24 km/hr).

River otters have well-developed senses of smell and hearing. Their vision on land is not good, but they may see better under water. An otter uses its whiskers to detect prey in murky or dark water, aid in navigation, and to avoid obstructions.

River otters can live in any water habitat, including ponds, marshes, lakes, rivers, estuaries and coastal areas. They can tolerate both cold and warm environments and can live at any elevation as long as the habitat provides an adequate food source. On Kodiak, river otters live in timbered habitat next to the coast. They often travel long distances overland between bodies of water and use the same trails year after year. While more common at sea level, river otters on Kodiak are sometimes found high in the mountains.

River otters reach sexual maturity at age two, and females produce one litter per year. In Alaska, otters breed in the spring, and breeding can take place in or out of the water. A female may give birth to as many as six pups, but two or three are more common. Due to delayed implantation of the fertilized egg in the uterine wall, pups may be born from late January to June after a gestation of nine to thirteen months.

Pups are born in a den, and at birth, they are toothless and blind. They open their eyes when they are seven weeks old, and at two months of age, they begin to leave the den and start to swim and eat solid food. Pups do not innately know how to swim but must be taught by their mother who sometimes has to force and even drag them into the water. Pups are weaned when they are five months old, but they stay with their mother until just before her next litter is born.

DSC_0304 (2)

River otters are usually found in groups. Often these groups are related individuals, such as a mother and her pups, with or without an adult male. The female is normally the dominate member of such a group and will drive other animals away from the area around her den. Other groups may consist of siblings who have left their mother, a male and female otter, or a group of bachelor males. While otters live together in social units, they do not hunt together or share their catch with other members of their group. River otters may live for more than twenty years, but a lifespan of eight to nine years is more common.

In Alaska, river otters hunt on land and in fresh and salt water. They are opportunistic feeders and eat mussels, clams, sea urchins, snails, crabs, shrimp, octopi, fish, insects, birds, small mammals, and even plants. Otters normally eat their aquatic organisms on shore, and it is not unusual for us to find the remains of a river otter’s breakfast on our dock. If an otter catches a fish or other organism that is too big to eat in one meal, it eats what it can and abandons the rest of the food. River otters have a high metabolism and must eat often.

River otters spend half of their time sleeping. Both adults and pups are playful and like to slide on snow and mud. They wrestle, chase their tails, dunk each other in the water, and play with rocks and sticks. This playful behavior strengthens social bonds and aids pups in learning how to hunt.

River otters communicate with each other in a variety of ways. They use several vocalizations, including whistles, yelps, growls, and screams. When they are alarmed or upset, they emit a loud “hah” sound, and when two or more otters are together, they may mumble to each other as if in conversation. They chirp like a bird to express anxiety, and this sound is often heard when members of a group become separated from each other.[3] Otters also communicate by body posturing and by touch. They use the scent produced by the glands at the base of their tail to mark their territories or to create scent trails to communicate where they have been.




Black Bear Cub

Black Bear Cub

This week I’m hopping across the country to post about a rescued black bear cub in Pennsylvania. One of the many perks of owning a lodge is that I have the opportunity to meet interesting people from around the world, and many of our guests become our friends. A few years ago, Tony and Karin Ross from Pennsylvania joined us for a summer trip, and they have returned to our lodge every year since then. We’ve gotten to know the Rosses well, and we stay in touch throughout the year. Both Tony and Karin work with animals, and Tony is the Northcentral Regional Wildlife Management Supervisor with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Luckily for all of us, one of Tony’s hobbies is wildlife photography, and as you can see from the photos in this post, he is very good at it.

This spring, Karin e-mailed and said, “Nothing beats your husband bringing home a bear ub!” She went on to tell me that the Pennsylvania Regional Game Commission office received a phone call from a man who said a small cub was sitting at the bottom of a steep rock outcrop next to a stream near his cabin. The cub appeared to be alone, either separated or abandoned by his mother, and the little guy was crying. Tony and his crew drove out to the area where the man had seen the cub, and the man told them that the cub recently had crossed the fast-flowing creek and ran into the forest. A few moments later, one of Tony’s associates noticed something moving in the woods, and when Tony walked into the forest, the cub ran towards him. The cub stopped six-feet from Tony, sat on a log, and looked up at him. Tony tried to kneel down beside the cub to catch it, but the cub warily moved under some bushes.

Since Tony had three people with him, they slowly circled the cub and caught him with a net. They then took the cub back to their office, dried him off, and put him in a pet carrier with a warm blanket. That night, Tony took the 7-lb. cub home, and he and Karin fed him with a syringe filled with sweetened condensed milk mixed with water. The cub consumed four 12-cc syringes over the next 12 hours.

After catching the cub, Tony and his crew set a trap to try to catch the cub’s mother, but they were unsuccessful, so Tony did the next best thing. He released the cub to a black bear sow who had three cubs of her own. I was fascinated that a black bear sow with three cubs would adopt another cub, and how did the biologists introduce the cub to its new family? I’m used to brown bears, and a brown bear mother with three cubs has her paws full. That’s a large family for a brown bear, and it is unlikely she would willingly feed a fourth cub that wasn’t her own. Tony told me that it is fairly common for a black bear mother to have four cubs; some black bear sows have six cubs. He said they have a list of potential foster mothers for these types of situations. The foster mothers are radio-collared females that already have cubs of their own. When biologists need to place a cub, they locate one of their radio-collared sows, and if they feel she can handle another cub, they follow her until she trees her cubs. They then run to the tree, roll the foster cub in the dirt, and send it up the same tree where its foster siblings are. All the while they are doing this, they have to keep track of the mother to make sure she keeps her distance. Once the foster cub is up the tree, the biologists quickly leave the area and hope for the best.Little Tony with ear tags with new sibling no ear tags

Before a foster cub is released, he is ear tagged, and you can see the ear tag on the foster cub in the photo. Tony said the release of this cub went according to plan, and he said he and his colleagues were happy to see the foster cub climb on and over his new siblings, picking up their odor and making it more likely his new mother would accept him.

Tony told me that each year the Pennsylvania Game Commission places orphaned cubs with foster moms. Sometimes a cub’s mother is hit and killed by a vehicle, and sometimes, cubs are just abandoned by their mothers for some reason. Worst of all, people occasionally take cute little cubs from the field and try to keep them, but when they become a handful (and that doesn’t take long), people contact the game commission for help. Tony and his colleagues do their best to place each orphaned cub with a foster mother, and while they don’t have the resources to follow each cub, they know that many of these tagged cubs have grown into adults, so the placements were obviously successful.

I was fascinated by Tony and Karin’s encounter with the black bear cub, and I was reminded how much black bears differ from brown bears. Tony and his fellow biologists with the Pennsylvania Game Commission work hard to ensure every orphaned cub is placed with a new mother and has a chance to survive until adulthood. Brown bear sows sometimes adopt cubs, but I believe it is a rare occurrence.

I find it interesting that any wild animal would adopt a baby that isn’t its own. Please leave a comment if you have information or stories about wild animals adopting “foster children.” Also, don’t hesitate to ask Tony a question; I’ll be sure he gets it.


For more information on the Pennsylvania Game Commission, their biologists, and their research projects, go to I checked out this website, and it is full of information. Spend some time reading about the ongoing research projects of the game commission; I found it extremely interesting.





Hiking in New Zealand

Mt. Cook
Mt. Cook

Mike and I spent the last month traveling and hiking  in New Zealand, and it was quite an adventure. New Zealand is a gorgeous, vibrant country where even the land seems to be alive. With the Pacific tectonic plate colliding with the Australian plate, earthquakes are common in many areas of the country. We felt two good jolts while we were staying in Christchurch on the South Island. Five years ago, Christchurch suffered extensive damage from a 6.3 earthquake, and residents are still struggling to rebuild their downtown area.


In addition to earthquakes, New Zealand has active volcanoes, geysers, and hot springs. On the South Island, we saw glaciers and vivid blue and green glacial lakes with colors so pure; it was difficult to believe they were natural. We crossed many rivers in our travels, stared straight up at towering cliffs, and in some places, we were surrounded by waterfalls too numerous to count. In pouring rain, our bus pulled into a small area that was circled by steep mountains, and as water rushed down the cliffs and swirled around us, our guide told us that this area was called “the toilet bowl,” an accurate description, at least during a rain squall. Not all the terrain in New Zealand is dramatic. Much of both islands consists of beautiful, rolling hills and pastures full of sheep, cattle, and even deer, which are farmed for their meat.

IMG_0224Two weeks of our trip was a hiking tour with Active Adventures New Zealand, with the emphasis on “active!” Our first big hike began by climbing 1800 large steps carved into the side of a mountain. By the time I got down, my legs were shaking, and I began to wonder if I’d make it through the next two weeks.

Our guides on the trip were Gary and Holly. Since guiding is also my job, I am always intrigued to watch other guides at work, and I was very impressed with Gary and Holly. Not only did they guide us on our many, long hikes, but they cooked most of our meals, and Gary drove our small bus with a trailer in tow over narrow, winding roads and one-way bridges. Sometimes, when it was raining, the windows became so fogged that I don’t know how he could see where he was going. While Gary drove, both he and Holly regaled us with Maori legends about how various lakes, rivers, and glaciers were formed. Most of these tales involved, at least, one or two beautiful princesses. We learned such things as how the Fox Glacier was formed, why there are sand flies in Milford Sound, how the kiwi birds lost their wings, how Maui slowed the sun, and much, much more (click on any of the above to learn the details of each legend). On top of all of this, Gary and Holly went out of their way to make sure each of their 14 charges had everything he or she needed or wanted.

We traveled with 12 other adventurers on our trip. Phil and Sue were from Canada, and the rest of us were from the U.S. One thing we soon learned about our guide, Gary, was that he is a master of the Kiwi understatement, and it didn’t take us long to translate his words:IMG_0414

A wee hike meant, at least, 4 to 6 hours.

A wee bit of climbing meant, at least, a 45⁰ angle

A wee bit of undulating terrain meant a steep climb followed by a steep descent followed by another steep climb and another steep descent and on and on.

A wee bit technical – Uh oh, that meant serious rock climbing would be involved.

A wee hill meant a snow-capped mountain.

Our two-week adventure culminated in a three-day option of either a multi-day hiking trip, kayaking for three days, or biking for three days. Six of us chose the hike while the rest of the group opted to go kayaking. Of the six hikers, Debbie chose to do one day of hiking, while the rest of us (obviously not the brightest of the bunch) went hiking for the full three days on the Angelus Circuit. Since we could not stop to resupply, we had to carry everything we needed for three days on our backs in large packs, including our personal gear, a sleeping bag, hiking poles, water, a bowl, cup, spoon, and a portion of the food.

Debbie, Mike me, Tara, Mike and, Denny.

The first day we hiked 3 ½ hours along beautiful Lake Rotoiti. We stayed at Lakehead Hut that night. The huts are interesting places with bunks for 28 people, and they are available to anyone who makes a reservation. You share kitchen facilities with the other campers, and yes, you sleep next to strangers. The outhouses at Lakehead Hut were a bit dicey since they were full of with sand flies and bees. This on top of the issues that normally accompany outhouses made a trip to the bathroom a bit stressful and to be avoided if at all possible. The hike to Lakehead Hut was fairly easy, but we knew the following day would be anything but easy, and I was simply hoping I could make it up the mountain! For our dinner the first night, Holly made us a wonderful pasta and vegetable meal, accompanied by wine that our fellow hiker, Mike Hofmann thoughtfully packed with him. After dinner, we enjoyed a Tim Tam Slam, an interactive dessert demonstrated by Holly. It involved sucking hot cocoa through a Tim Tam (a chocolate-frosted, chocolate cookie) and then sucking the cookie into your mouth before it disintegrated. The process left us all sticky and giggling while the other hikers in the hut watched us warily.

Tara, Mike, Mike, Denny, Gary and Holly
Tara, Mike, Mike, Denny, Gary and Holly

The weather was perfect on day two, but the hike was a brutal ascent to 4800 ft. We began the day by hiking across two “wee” rivers up a steep “wee” bit of elevated path through the trees, and then we knew we were really in trouble when Gary told us, “I won’t lie to you. The rest of the trek is steep and difficult.” There was no “wee” in his description, and I half expected him to pull climbing ropes and pitons from his pack. It was a tough climb. I think I stopped at every single trail marker and sucked in air. As I craned my neck back and looked upward there, seemed no end to the trail, and the few times I thought I could see the last marker; the trail turned, and the markers continued upward. Gary told us it would take 8 to 9 hours to get to the top, and I was proud that I made it up there in just over 7 hours. Mike and Denny, two of the guys in our group, made it in 6 hours. We all agreed that the hike had been tough, but the view from the top was worth our effort. As we crested over the top near Angelus Hut, we were treated to the breathtaking (what little breath I had left) view of sapphire-blue Lake Angelus, its windswept waves sparkling in the sun. That is a sight I will remember for the rest of my life!


Angelus Hut next to the lake was also a treat. It was very clean with large picture windows looking out on the lake. Its volunteer caretaker, Mary, saw to it that the windows were spotless so that the hikers could enjoy the view. The outhouses were also spotless and mostly bug-free. The only downside to Angelus Hut was that hikers appeared from every direction, and the hut was full – all 28 beds. The hut was noisy most of the night with doors banging and people shuffling in and out.   That evening for dinner, Holly and Gary served chicken curry with a dessert of deconstructed cheesecake. It was delicious, and the mood was light. After all, Mike, Denny, Tara, Mike and I had completed the toughest day of the hike – at least, we thought it was the toughest day.

IMG_1203After a fitful night’s sleep, we awoke at 6:00, ready to tackle the last section of our hike. This morning we would hike another 45 minutes up and along the ridgeline for 4 hours before dropping down below the tree line for the final hour of hiking down to the car park. Gary did mention something about large rocks and small loose rocks, but I admit I wasn’t listening very closely. I just wanted to get back to our bus, and I thought it sounded like an easy day once we got to the ridgeline. I couldn’t have been more wrong! The hike to the ridgeline was no problem, but once we got up there, we were buffeted by winds that were gusting to 50 mph. The ridge was fairly narrow, and we had big packs on our back. When the wind gusted, I staggered, hunkering down to hold my position. I admit I was terrified I would be blown off the mountain, and those large rocks Gary had briefly mentioned turned out to be more of a problem than I had anticipated. We had to hop from one to the next in the driving wind. Thankfully, Gary stayed with me all the way, because it was not easy. He was also there to help me through the “loose rock” section, and then when a huge gust knocked me over and nearly sent me tumbling down the mountain, Mike held my hand for the rest of the hike along the ridge. Not only was it windy, but clouds were settling on the mountain, and was starting to rain. As our visibility decreased and the wind increased, I could sense the strain in Gary’s demeanor. He told us to keep moving as fast as we could, and Mike said, “You want us off this ridgeline, and I couldn’t agree more.” IMG_0439

Tara and I needed no encouragement. We wanted off the mountain worse than anyone. Finally, we began to descend, and the minute we dropped below the tree line, the world changed. We were out of the clouds, the rain stopped, the wind calmed, and below us, we could see Lake Rotoiti, gleaming like a jewel. The lake was home that day to speed boat races, and we could hear the roaring engines from high on the mountain. As the participants and spectators enjoyed a beautiful, Saturday afternoon in the sun, we marveled that they had no idea what the weather conditions were like on the mountain that towered above them. We stepped out of a world filled with wind, rain, fog, and peril and into a beautiful weekend afternoon at the beach.

Once we reached the carpark, Holly greeted each of us with a beer, and I told her I loved her. Then, we were off to meet the rest of our group for a wine tasting at a nearby winery, and this action perfectly captured the essence of our tour. We had three days of rugged hiking and staying in bare-bones huts, followed by a civilized wine tasting. I did, note, though, that we hikers looked a bit less civilized at the winery than did our fellow kayakers.IMG_0213

That night at our farewell dinner, Denny, one of my fellow travelers, made an eloquent toast to our guides. He said, “We will soon fade from your memories, but you will never fade from ours.” So true!

If New Zealand isn’t on your travel wish-list, it should be. It is a clean, beautiful country with some of the friendliest people I’ve ever encountered. I can’t say enough good things about it!

We are now on our way back to Alaska, and I can’t wait to get home. If you haven’t already done so, sign up for my Mystery Newsletter. Due to my vacation, there will be no March Newsletter, but I am already working on my April Newsletter.

If any of my fellow hikers is reading this, thanks again for being a part of my very memorable New Zealand adventure!


Sea Otters Part 3

DSC_0077 (2)

A sea otter has a loose pouch of skin under each foreleg where it can store food as it’s collected.  When the otter returns to the surface, it can rest on its back and leisurely retrieve one piece of food after another from its pouch. In addition to food, the sea otter also stores a rock in one of its pouches.  The otter may use the rock under water to pry loose mussels or other attached bivalves or to dislodge sea urchins wedged in crevices.  When floating on the surface, the otter places the rock on its chest and pounds crabs, snails, clams, and other prey against the rock to break through the tough shells.  Sea otters are one of the few animals other than humans known to use tools.


Mating can occur at any time of the year for sea otters, and while the young may be born in any season, most pups in Alaska are born in the spring.  As with bears, when a sea otter becomes pregnant, the implantation and development of the embryo often stops, and the embryo may not implant for several months.  Scientists believe the purpose of delayed implantation in sea otters is to allow for the birth of pups when environmental conditions and food supplies are most favorable. Sea otters are pregnant for four months, but because the length of the delayed implantation varies so greatly, the gestation period may last from four to twelve months.

Sea otter mothers are normally very attentive, affectionate, and protective of their pups.  A pup spends most of its time riding on its mother’s belly, and even pups six-months of age or older and nearly as large as their mother will climb on her stomach as she appears to struggle to keep her head above water.


In addition to cradling her pup on her chest to keep him warm, a mother meticulously grooms her pup’s fur until the pup is three to four months old and able to groom himself.  At this age, the pup is also able to swim on his back and dive with ease.   The mother teaches the pup how to catch and eat prey, and by the time the pup is six months old, he can capture and break open his own prey.  Sea otter pups remain with their mothers anywhere from three to twelve months.

Sea otters often float together in large groups called rafts.  Except for territorial males who rest with female groups, most rafts are comprised of individuals of the same sex, and mothers with pups often rest together in nursery groups. Rafts usually consist of between ten and more than one-hundred otters, but in Alaska, rafts with 2000 individuals have been reported.


Sea otters are considered a “Keystone” species, meaning that they effect the ecosystem to a much greater degree than their numbers would suggest. Sea otters protect kelp forests by eating herbivores such as sea urchins that graze on the kelp.  In turn, the kelp forests provide food and cover for many other species of animals, and kelp forests play an important role in capturing carbon and reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.