It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Winter

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According to a calendar that hangs on our pantry door, winter begins on December 21. Here in the interior Adirondacks, that’s hogwash. Since mid-October, one snowfall after another has fluttered down upon us and, in most places, the ground has frozen to the consistency of concrete. Step into the woods and you lose your feet— unless, of course, you’re wearing snowshoes.

A few days ago, I made a trek on boreal footwear to a beaver pond two or three miles deep in the woods. My friend, neighbor, and partner in Curiously Adirondack video production Josh Clement was with me. When he and I meet to discuss business and make creative decisions, we often hold a meeting on the move. This time of year, that usually involves skis or snowshoes. Here’s Josh, on the shore of the pond the beavers created. A moment before, he saw one of the rodents grooming itself, but before he could pop a photo, it plunked into open water and disappeared.

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When you point a camera at someone, the favor (if one can call it that) is often returned. Below you’ll find a shot Josh took of me. One of the troublesome bindings on my LL Bean snowshoes had let loose yet again, and I was in the process of digging out the shoe and strapping it back on, all while trying not to tumble. If I look a bit tense, it’s because I was a bit tense. In the deep, wet snow, the going was challenging. Earlier, I’d taken a fall when one of my snowshoes plunged into a watery hole between sedge hummocks. Wind had blown the snow in that spot three and four feet deep, and righting myself hadn’t been easy.


Still, oh my, it was magnificent out there. The weather was mild, with no wind and the temperature just below freezing. A recent snow had come down on a warm night, and wet flakes had piled up thick and fleecy on the limbs of conifers. With so much fluffy powder everywhere, absorbing sound, there was hardly a peep to be heard until something like rolling thunder reached our ears from the direction of Moose Mountain. An avalanche! We heard one blast, then a second. It made us glad we were far from the nearest steep slope. Safety is critical in the back country at all times of year, but especially in winter.

I’ll close with five photos. The first shows a black-capped chickadee, the only bird we saw during our outing. The second and third show a beaver lodge, in winter and in June. The fourth and fifth show the pond the beavers built, again, in winter and in June. It’s a fabulous thing about the Adirondacks: you can come to the same spot month after month, and it’s never, ever quite the same. Which is why a forthcoming book of mine will feature this same pond, contemplated over the course of a year.

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Every One Is One Of A Kind

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The more time I spend among my fellow species, and among my own, too, for that matter, I marvel at the individual nature of us all. Yes, humans have more in common with each other than they do with chimps, and red maples share more with each other than they do with sugar maples. Yet look closely, and you’ll find variations not only between species but within them.

I illustrate the point with a red maple tree, neither large nor small, that grows beside a pond near our home in the Adirondacks. You see this tree in the photo above and in the two immediately below. Every year, this tree glows a juicier, more vibrant shade of red than the other red maples in the neighborhood. Why? At heart it’s a matter of biochemistry, biochemistry that varies from one tree to the next thanks in large part to the gene-scrambling sexual reproduction of maple trees. Male red maples broadcast pollen into the air (see an earlier post here about distinguishing the genders of red maples). Some of it, with luck, lands on female red maple flowers. Genes mix, and voila! Diversity is born, a diversity that helps the trees survive and flourish in ever-changing times.

Whether I look at this especially handsome red maple from a distance, up close, or reflected in the pond, I’m inclined to think it’s the most glamorous I know. We’re pleased to have it as a neighbor.

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Three Frogs Green

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So you're nosing around near water in the North American Northeast, and you see a frog that's green. Is it a green frog? That depends on what you mean. Green frog could mean nothing more or less than a frog whose color is green. Or it could mean a species of frog, the green frog, Lithobates clamitans, which may not be the only green frog in the neighborhood.

Let's consider the green frog, Lithobates clamitans, first. See the photo of one below. 

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As you can see, it has some dark speckling on the torso and a crease running down the side of its back. (It has another crease on the far side of the back that doesn't show in this photo.) These are good indications this is a green frog. To clinch the i.d., note the dark bars crossing the hind legs. Green frogs have these. The other two green-colored frogs we'll be talking about, the bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeiana) and the mink frog (Lithobates septentrionalis) do not. When a male green frog speaks, it utters a sound something like the plucking of a banjo string. The frog in the first photo is a green frog, too. Look carefully, and you'll see the creases running down its back.

Now let's consider the bullfrog. This biggest of our northeastern frogs is known to eat, at least on occasion, not only insects but birds, rodents, snakes, and other frogs. Let's take a look at one.

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Note that the bullfrog is mostly all green, with some dark spotting on the legs but no crossways barring on the hind legs. The creases we saw on the green frog are missing. A dramatic thing about the particular bullfrog in the photo immediately above is its ear, the disk-like circle behind its eye. The fact that the ear is much larger than the eye tells us this bullfrog is a male. The green frog shown in the second photo above has an ear not quite the size of the eye. This makes it a female.

In breeding season, a male bullfrog speaks in a deep bass voice, saying, Jug-o-rum, Jug-o-rum, Jug-o-rum

Now let's meet the mink frog, a frog of the Far North that ranges south into the cold lakes of the interior Adirondacks. It is named after the member of the weasel family named mink. Mink stink. So do mink frogs if you get really close. It's hard to describe the odor other than to say it's unpleasant and will probably make your nose wrinkle. Sniff one sometime. Let me know what you think. The frog below is a mink frog.

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As you can see, the mink frog looks something like a green frog. I don't know that I've ever seen a green frog perched on top of a lily pad. As you can see, this mink frog is in just such a place. Most of the Adirondack mink frogs I see are on top of lily pads when I find them. Some mink frogs have a fold of skin running down each side of the back, as green frogs do. Most of the mink frogs I see in the Adirondacks lack these folds. Or, like the individual in the photo above, they have only a hint of them. A clincher for the frog above is that it lacks horizontal bars on the hind legs. It has irregular dark blotches all over its back and all over its legs. A mink frog. This individual, with an ear slightly smaller than the eye, is a female. Males, when they call to a court females and announce their presence to rival males, suggest the beginning of a knock-knock joke. Knock-knock, the mink frog may say. Knock-knock-knock.

Of our three green-colored frogs, I find the mink frog the most handsome. Here's another one to admire.

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One of my favorite photos of a mink frog shows an individual far out on a pond, perched on a lily pad, with a glow of sunset adding a touch of pink to blue water. I'm inclined to title it "Monet, with mink frog."

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You never know where and when you'll find frogs, but when you do (and we often do on guided trips during late spring, summer, and early fall in the Adirondacks), they're fun and fascinating to meet. The latest molecular evidence suggests frogs, as a group, may have been around for 265 million years. Impressive!



Loon Family Time

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Summer is loon time in the Adirondacks. These signature diving birds of clear northern lakes return to us in spring, having spent the winter dining on East Coast seafood. When the ice goes out, the loons come in. In short order they're hooting and yodeling and renewing bonds with old mates or forging new ones with paramours.

I vowed to get to know loons better this year, and to expand my archive of photos of them. Approaching near-tame birds on a lake where they're accustomed to seeing people and boats, I managed to win their trust and spend several happy hours among them. My loon companions were a family of three: a male, a female, and a chick not many days out of the egg. 

Interactions within the loom family seemed tender. The parents interacted gently, with one sometimes feeding the other. Males and females are all but identical, with the males being slightly larger. The chick, not much bigger than a tennis ball and similarly fuzzy, seemed to enjoy snuggling up to each parent equally.

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Fatigue seemed to come over the baby loon now and again. Sensitive to the situation, one of the parents (it seemed each time to be the smaller female) would edge up to the little one, lift a wing, and invite it to crawl up and underneath. Sometimes the chick would stay there, out of sight. Other times it would wriggle on top and either take a rumble seat in the back or smuggle up to the big bird's neck.

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Loons feed on aquatic life: fish, crustaceans such as crayfish, insects, and more. I watched the parent loons feed each other and feed (or attempt to feed) their chick small slender fish, crayfish, and water striders they plucked from the surface of the cove.

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While watching parent loons tend a chick or two is a thrill, a great part of the appeal of loons is their almost-too-good-to-be-true beauty. I've admired loons on Adirondack lakes for forty years. Still, each time I get a good look at one I'm astounded anew by its handsome shape, the intricacy of the black-and-white checking (the black turning to metallic green or purple in the right light), and the blazing red eyes. On top of all that, loons speak expressively. There can be few experiences more thrilling than standing on the shore of a wild northern lake at night and hearing the haunting wail of a loon rising and falling from a point unknown, somewhere far out in the darkness.

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Marsh Mellow


My morning routine in recent weeks had consisted of hauling myself out of bed, pouring cups of coffee for the two senior members of the household, and helping get the kids ready for school. That, and listening to the news on the radio. 

With all that goes on to upset a lover of peace and nature these days, I counted myself lucky when a mother hooded merganser turned up near our house in a small pond, surrounded by marsh. She had a contingent of hatchlings keeping close to her, and if Mama Merganser had her way, you could tell nothing could keep them apart. This sweet scene, on offer every morning, offered an irresistible alternative to the news. So I began launching my days out in the marsh.

The following images were all captured there. In the gathering of them, I found my spirits rising, my blood pressure subsiding, and a welcome serenity---I began to think of it as marsh mellow---seeping into my soul. I should add that serenity was only achieved with the help of lemon eucalyptus insect repellent, and lots of it.

 A mother wood duck and ducklings, much more secretive than the mergansers.

A mother wood duck and ducklings, much more secretive than the mergansers.

 A beautiful sedge in bloom. Can any  Carex  expert out there help me with identification?

A beautiful sedge in bloom. Can any Carex expert out there help me with identification?

 A fiddlehead of royal fern, unfolding at the edge of marsh and pond.

A fiddlehead of royal fern, unfolding at the edge of marsh and pond.

 A mother tree swallow, guarding her brood in a nest in a tree hollow. The trunk stands beside the marsh. 

A mother tree swallow, guarding her brood in a nest in a tree hollow. The trunk stands beside the marsh. 

 A prowler! Early one morning, I surprised this eastern chipmunk, six feet up in the expired red maple in which tree swallows were nesting. Chipmunks are nest predators. Happily for the birds, the chipmunk fled, and the swallows remain on duty.   

A prowler! Early one morning, I surprised this eastern chipmunk, six feet up in the expired red maple in which tree swallows were nesting. Chipmunks are nest predators. Happily for the birds, the chipmunk fled, and the swallows remain on duty.


 A few days after Father's Day, Papa Tree Swallow arrives at the nest with a mouth crammed full of mayflies.

A few days after Father's Day, Papa Tree Swallow arrives at the nest with a mouth crammed full of mayflies.

 As I was photographing the hooded merganser family, a head popped up like a Jack-in-the-box. A whitetail doe was studying me. 

As I was photographing the hooded merganser family, a head popped up like a Jack-in-the-box. A whitetail doe was studying me. 

 The doe crept closer and closer, curious and apparently puzzled about my identity. Then, I suspect, she caught my scent. No, not my scent---the scent of my insect repellent. With a snort and a few bounds, she was gone.

The doe crept closer and closer, curious and apparently puzzled about my identity. Then, I suspect, she caught my scent. No, not my scent---the scent of my insect repellent. With a snort and a few bounds, she was gone.

 Yellow water-lilies in bloom, their stems rising out of the pond's mucky bottom.

Yellow water-lilies in bloom, their stems rising out of the pond's mucky bottom.

 Cedar waxwings kept busy in and around nearby shrubs and trees, snatching insects from the air before shooting off to gather wild strawberries for dessert. 

Cedar waxwings kept busy in and around nearby shrubs and trees, snatching insects from the air before shooting off to gather wild strawberries for dessert. 

 A wild blue flag, an iris, blooming at the edge of the marsh.

A wild blue flag, an iris, blooming at the edge of the marsh.

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Mama Hooded Merganser and her brood providing another morning of psychotherapy.

Spring "Ephemerals" Leave Lasting Impressions

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The wildflowers of our brief, blink-or-you-miss-it Adirondack spring have to work fast. They need energy to open blossoms made and tucked in cold storage the preceding year, and they need to produce nectar, pollen, and ovaries ready for seed-making. It's a race to get leaves up, flowers out, and pollen delivered before deep shade comes over the forest and slows things down. Because our spring flowers appear so briefly, they're sometimes called "ephemerals." You won't forget them. Here are images of ephemerals I photographed in our neck of the woods this spring. Can you identify the ones in the image above? You'll find a different photo of the same plant identified below. 

  Bloodroot,  Sanguinaria canadensis

Bloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis

  Red trillium,    Trillium erectum ,  also known as "stinking Benjamin" and "wet dog"

Red trillium, Trillium erectum, also known as "stinking Benjamin" and "wet dog"

  Foam-flower,  Tiarella cordifolia

Foam-flower, Tiarella cordifolia

  Carolina spring beauty,  Claytonia caroliniana

Carolina spring beauty, Claytonia caroliniana

  Painted trillium,  Trillium undulatum

Painted trillium, Trillium undulatum

  Dutchman's breeches,  Dicentra cucullaria  

Dutchman's breeches, Dicentra cucullaria 

  Clintonia,  Clintonia borealis  , also known as bluebead lily (formerly in the lily family)

Clintonia, Clintonia borealis, also known as bluebead lily (formerly in the lily family)

  Starflower,  Trientalis borealis

Starflower, Trientalis borealis

  Canada mayflower,  Maianthemum canadense  , also known as "wild lily-of-the-valley"

Canada mayflower, Maianthemum canadense, also known as "wild lily-of-the-valley"

  Wild sarsaparilla,  Aralia nudicaulis

Wild sarsaparilla, Aralia nudicaulis

  Jack-in-the-pulpit,  Arisaema triphyllum

Jack-in-the-pulpit, Arisaema triphyllum

  Pink lady-slipper,  Cypripedium acaule  , also known as moccasin-flower

Pink lady-slipper, Cypripedium acaule, also known as moccasin-flower

Red Maples Female, and Red Maples Male

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When Adirondack red maples burst into blossom in springtime (our deciduous trees are really just giant-sized wildflowers) not all the blossoms are identical. Some red maples have flowers that look like those above, photographed near our mailbox. These are female flowers. In time, assuming they're pollinated, they'll ripen and produce winged seeds. The particular tree that bears these flowers is a female tree. It has no male flowers with pollen-producing stamens but bears female blossoms only. These are ruby red. Each flower has a pair of sticky, fuzzy styles adapted for catching pollen. Wind and insects both play roles in moving red maple pollen from the male flowers to the female.

See a second image of female red maple flowers immediately below. Gorgeous, aren't they?

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Let's not forget about the male flowers, shown in the two photos below. From a distance, these appear not ruby red like the female blossoms, but orange. This is because they have conspicuous yellow flower parts in addition to red anthers and bud scales. The combination of yellow and red creates the visual impression of orange. 

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The number of stamens in a single red maple flower varies. Commonly it's eight, but it can be more or less. The stamens have red or yellow filaments topped with anthers. When fully developed, the anthers are red on one side and yellow on the other. The yellow is pollen.

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The reproductive lives of red maples are complicated. While the majority of trees in a given area usually bear male and female flowers on separate plants, there may also be bisexual (the botanical term is monoecious) individuals bearing blossoms of both genders. We have such a red maple outside our kitchen door. The tree is largely female, yet one branch bears male flowers. When hiking in spring, I tend to find bisexual red maples particularly in rocky exposed areas, where the plants grow under stress. And to make matters even less clear, certain flowers on a red maple tree may bear both female and male parts.

Maybe there's evolutionary method to the red maple's reproductive madness. Diverse ways of making seeds likely help the tree adapt to a wide range of environments. You'll find red maples growing from the steamy alligator and cottonmouth-haunted swamps of the Florida Everglades to Newfoundland and the chilly interior of Quebec. In the Adirondack Mountains, red maples grow just about everywhere except on high summits. You'll find them at home in waterlogged swamps, on dry, windswept ridges, and on a variety of slopes and flats. Red maples please the eye in spring when in bloom, and they're stunning all over again in autumn. In September, the leaves turn the same deep, brilliant red as the female flowers of springtime.

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Costa Rica And Home Again

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The Adirondack winter ran long this year. As cabin fever set in, we put our goats, ducks, and guinea pigs in the hands of friends and neighbors and set off on a twelve-day adventure in Costa Rica. For the first five days, we chased birds, mammals, lizards, crocodiles and whatever else we could find in the distinguished company of Swarovski Optik's Clay Taylor and Alex Villegas. Alex's wife and five year old daughter were with us, too, as well as a fabulous bus driver named Marco Morales, who proved himself immensely knowledgeable about birds and one of the best fauna spotters of us all. One of our favorite birds during this phase of the trip was the red-headed barbet, shown above, and the fiery-billed aracari, a kind of toucan, shown immediately below, poking its formidable and colorful beak out of a nest hole.

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Other exciting finds during this first part of our Costa Rican adventure included (in the order they appear below) the long-tailed silky flycatcher, the giant parrot known as the scarlet macaw, and the green-and-black poison dart frog.

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After our memorable stops at Villa Lapas, on the Pacific Coast near Tarcoles, and Savegre Mountain Lodge, high in nearby mountains, we bade goodbye to our Swarovski friends and found adventures on our own. First stop, reached by a memorable and sometimes teeth-rattling half day ride into the mountains north of San Jose, was the Reserva Monteverde. There we had our best looks of the trip at the most celebrated bird of Central America: the resplendent quetzal. Here are three photos. The first two show a male. The third shows a female quetzal, less extravagantly plumed than the male but quite handsome in her own right.

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Our last major stop in Costa Rica was Rancho Naturalista, a small, beautiful, and welcoming eco-lodge in the hills near Turrialba. It was a fine place to conclude a trip memorable from the first day to the last. We ate delicious food, slept soundly each of our three nights, and with binoculars and cameras hunted for wildlife from first light to sunset. Accompanying us on several of our walks was Harry Barnard, a young, companionable, and erudite guide from England who spends part of each year at Rancho Naturalista. He was fabulous. So were the things he showed us. Examples below: blue-gray tanager; crowned woodnymph (a kind of hummingbird); a lineated woodpecker, in the genus Dryocoups, making it a cousin of our pileated woodpecker; and a green basilisk (the must stunning lizard of a trip that brought us sightings of many).


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I'll end this quick tour of our Costa Rica adventures with two final images from each of our four fabulous stops: Villa Lapas; Savegre Mountain Lodge; Monteverde, and Rancho Naturalista. Viva Costa Rica!

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It's Snow Flea Time Again!

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When the epic Adirondack Mountain winter reaches its zenith in early February, it's time to be on the lookout for snow fleas. These tiny creatures are wingless and unlike real fleas, they don't bite. Snow fleas are a kind of springtail. The spring-loaded tail which gives the springtail its name is called a furcula. It flicks out from beneath the creature when it feels threatened, and boing! Instant relocation. 

Snowfleas and their fellow springtails were long considered insects, but recently scientists decided they belong in another group. They are arthropods, as all insects and spiders are, and they are hexapods, like all insects, but instead of being considered insects they are now dubbed entognathans. Unlike insects, springtails have internal mouthparts. Mostly, they live in the soil and function as decomposers.

Why do snow fleas emerge on the surface of the snow, sometimes in concentrations that look like coal dust and turn white powder black? That's the million dollar question. Scientists aren't certain. What do you think? They might emerge to breed, but we don't find them breeding. They might emerge to feast, but there's little or no evidence of them eating. One idea is that by midwinter, there numbers have grown so high in the soil that they have nowhere to go but spill out onto the surface. 

I love seeing snow fleas. They tend to turn up on mild, cheerful days in mid to late winter and suggest that cold weather, as much as we enjoy it in the Adirondacks, won't last forever. Spring is coming!

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Otters And The Adirondack Winter

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Winter changes life for all of us in the Adirondacks, requiring adjustments. For river otters, which inhabit our lakes, rivers, and creeks and occasionally set off overland to reach the otter's equivalent of greener pastures, the adjustments demanded are more dramatic than for most of the rest of us.

There's the obvious conundrum. How do you dive for fish, and then come up for air, in a body of water that's covered with ice, ice that may be a foot or more thick? There's no easy solution. Otters could be forgiven for avoiding the challenge altogether and hibernating, but that's not what they do.

Along the Saranac River, we occasionally spy an otter in winter, earning its living through breaks in the ice. Because the current flows robustly in places, the ice stays thin or doesn't fully form at all. Otters find these gaps and weak spots in the lids winter places on waterways and nose their way in. They plunge in the cold water, grab a meal (it might be a fish, a crayfish, a hibernating frog, or something else), and paddle back to the opening. Mind you, to an otter, which wears a luxuriant and well-oiled fur coat, the water probably doesn't feel all that cold. Water beneath ice remains at 39.5 Fahrenheit throughout the winter. That's water's maximum density. Any water that cools beyond 39.5 diminishes in density, floats to the top, and becomes ice. Even if the air temperature is 30 below zero, the water remains at 39.5 above. Balmy! Well, everything's relative.

Otters that plan ahead may also maintain holes in ponds or lakes with thick, iron-hard ice cover. As the ice thickens in early winter, they use an entry hole again and again. Repeated use keeps the hole clear or almost clear---thin enough, if the otter is lucky, to maintain a place for diving and breathing. Otters swim like fish, but they don't have gills.

The photo above was taken one morning when I was whisking my daughter, Tasman, off to a dentist's appointment. As we passed by a pond that could be seen through the trees, I glimpsed an otter popping out of a hole, right in the middle. This was too good an opportunity to pass up. And because we were running ahead of schedule, we didn't need to pass it up. I swung the car over to the shoulder. Tasman and I popped out. We waited for the otter to go under. As soon as it did, we clambered down a slope onto the ice. The otter popped out of the hole again. We stood like statues. When the otter took its next plunge, we made our move. 

Again, we stood completely still. The otter popped out like a jack-in-the-box. It had a fish in its mouth. As it ate, we watched from just a few feet away, trying not to twitch or giggle. It was gorgeous, its wet suit of chocolate brown fur glittering with beads of water.

Suddenly, at just the moment I took the photo, the otter, perhaps detecting our scent, turned toward us and lifted its nose. Then, in an instant, it was gone, shooting headfirst into the dark water. We waited. It never came back. The otter had another way out.  

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