Eagle River beaches

rare tracks, bear diggings, and nifty fungi

The day started well—the sun was shining (!) and the mountain peaks were well frosted with new snow. The first good find was a set of tracks in the sand that were probably made by a wandering wolverine. Certainly not made by an otter and –upon consideration and consultation of field guides—not made by a small black bear: the stride was short and the foot pads did not fit the bear pattern.

The sand flats offered little but bunches of gulls and a few shorebirds, so we forsook the sands and roamed around on the grassy berms above the tide line and through some small groves of spruces. This choice proved profitable.

As we strolled through the grass, we found it easy walking where some large creature had preceded us. We then encountered numerous shallow pits, where bears had dug up roots. The plant of choice, consistently, was seawatch angelica (Angelica lucida), a member of the carrot family. It has a stout taproot, like a parsnip or carrot, and this is what the bears were after. They gnawed off the root, leaving the wilting plant to wither beside the pit. We found dozens of these pits, each one where a seawatch plant had grown. Of course, we had to wonder what made this particular plant so desirable, and whether or not it could regenerate from the leftover scraps.

Angelica root. Photo by Bob Armstrong

Naturally, what goes in must come out, and so we also found many sizable bear scats, all filled with whitish vegetation fibers (and an occasional intact highbush cranberry). Now the plot thickens: in the open areas, these fiber-filled scats were attended by lots of small brown slugs. One scat was entertaining over thirty slugs, and more were slowly creeping toward the bonanza. Similar scats under the trees, however, attracted no slugs, suggesting that perhaps the slugs favor the variety of leafy plant foods in the open areas. Even so, these bear scats were clearly saving some living plants from the rasping ‘tongues’ of the slugs.

Although the understory of the wooded areas had only scattered plants, there were some nifty fungi. Pinkish-purple coral fungi sent up narrow, fleshy fingers, often in dense crowds. A lovely white jelly fungus grew under the spruces, apparently on the roots.

Emerging from the trees, we settled on the beach again, for a picnic lunch. Although ravens called in the distance, none came to the offerings of bread crusts and bits of meat. That was disappointing, because picnics at this spot are usually attended by ravens, which we love to watch as they cautiously hop toward odd food items. Instead, a friendly dog gobbled up our raven bait as it passed by. The ravens had also missed a dead capelin (with a parasite on the gills) stranded on the sand.

The humpback whales have headed to Hawaii, but we watched a river otter swim by. Its swimming motion seemed peculiar, and when it came up on the beach we saw it had a wound on its head and perhaps other injuries. But it walked long way down the beach and seemed to have little trouble walking.

This beach is a place where we commonly see otter tracks running up into the grass and back down to the water.

Beach rye near the high tide line was heavily infested with ergot, the famous fungus that featured in many a witch hunt of yore (more on this crazy fungus later).



they are surprisingly social

A week or two ago, I enjoyed watching a young otter, grooming and snacking, on the banks of my home pond. The next morning, when I peered out my windows, it was clear that the otter had come back, leaving a furrow in the snow, across the frozen pond, under my front-entry deck, and around the house. A few days later, it was back, scouting around the house and garden and checking out the pond, leaving a new furrow in the snow. Perhaps it has a regular (but temporary) route it follows, revisiting places where foraging has been successful in the past.

I’m guessing that this individual is a member of the family we often saw in the Dredge Lake area last fall. There were four big offspring with their mother. The young ones often stay with their mother into the winter and then disperse to live on their own. Dispersal distances are sometimes quite long, averaging almost forty miles for females in one Alaskan population (and slightly less for males).

Photo by Jos Bakker

Young otters continue to grow for several years, although they are said to be sexually mature when two years old. But males may not be “accomplished breeders” until they are five to seven years old, according to the literature. Mating usually occurs in spring in Alaska, but otters, like other members of the weasel family, have delayed implantation of the embryo. This means that the early embryo floats around in the female’s uterus for many months in a state of arrested development. Eventually, the embryo attaches to the uterus; active development begins and takes about two months.

The otters I’ve seen here in Southeast have been solitary or clearly a family group of mother and offspring. So I was very surprised to read that otters can be highly social. Males sometimes form long-term groups that forage together, perhaps breaking up in the breeding season when males go looking for mates, but then re-gathering for the rest of the year, and even staying together for several years. Nonbreeding females may join such groups. Occasionally a weaned offspring delays dispersal, staying home and helping the mother with the next litter.

As I skied around in the Dredge Lake area recently, I saw a long, brown shape poking around under the edge of the ice near a patch of open water. The otter emerged and foraged in the shallows until it noticed me, standing stock still on the trail. Then it bolted upstream. A bit later, I found a nice otter trail over the ice of one of the ponds, going out to a small area of running water and coming back toward the river. Hungry otters often cruise widely in their search for edibles. Almost any kind of meat is fair game for otters; although their mainstay is fish, they also eat mollusks, crabs, worms, frogs, and even occasional birds and small mammals.

Although their official common name is ‘river otter’, some folks call them ‘land otters’, perhaps to distinguish them from sea otters. Both common names are a bit misleading, because the versatile ‘river otters’ forage not only in rivers and streams but also on land and in the ocean. We often see them on rocky beaches when we are kayaking. I once watched an otter diving repeatedly down to a submerged bar between two islands; this was a banquet in salt water, apparently, because the otter brought up something edible on almost every dive.