Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Signs of Fall

Douglas County, Oregon, USA: Sept 29, 2011
Last night we heard geese flying overhead. Flock after flock gabbled as they flew over our bedroom, too high and too many to be our local flock heading from nearby pastures to nighttime pond. We seldom hear migrating geese, maybe because we are usually too insulated from night time sounds.

As we head out of town this morning there is a surreal beauty. Smoke fills the Umpqua Valley. Fog is cool and grey, but this has a brownish tone and warms the yellowed grasses. Even the nearest hills are soften by the murky air and just a little farther the hills are shapes without detail. After a long dry summer we’ve finally had just a little rain and now heavy dew. The nearby ranchers have a brief window of opportunity to do their field burning before falls rains soak the ground.

At the eastern edge of the valley the air clears. Blue sky above and sparkling dew on every blade of grass and leaf. A slope on our right is overgrown with teasel. Amongst the tall stems are scattered a field of crystal lollipops. It’s actually webs left by orb weaving spiders, but in the crisp, clear air they look like crystals. The golden teasel and sparkling webs and low morning sun sing of the end of summer. Even the turkey vultures are responding to the end of summer. At least a hundred soar high above me, slowly drifting in a southerly direction.
Another hour and we are at Lake in the Woods. Fall is in the air here too. Rusty brown hemlock needles drift down with every slight stir of the air. The ground is dotted with the colorful needles and more float on the quiet pond. A few of the cattail fronds are turning yellow. Dragonflies still dance over the dark pond, but few species are left this late in summer. I see turquoise and black darners, rusty-red autumn meadowhawks, and the flashy black and white wings of eight-spotted skimmers.

Soon after arriving we spot an otter family. Here, they too are a sign of fall. We never see them here in midsummer. I think they den somewhere along the creek and only come to the pond when the pups are old enough to travel. Twice we have photographed the otter feeding on rough-skinned newts here (see my blog post Aug 2010: ) . As a result of the photographs we sent to Dr. Edmund Brodie from Utah State University, some researchers came to Lake in the Woods this summer to catch some of the newts. Dr. Brodie is finding that the toxicity of newts lessens at higher elevations. A few years ago only one variety of garter snake was thought to be able to eat rough-skinned newts, but now they know of at least two other species including our otter.

Now that we have otter here again, we would like to see what they are feeding on … and, of course, we’d like to get some good otter pictures. I settle down near the pond edge while Dale goes to another spot. Three otter are in the center of the pond feeding. Soon two move on and I’ve only got one in front of me. By the time I start counting I figure I’ve seen this one catch 5 salamanders. Most dives are successful. Eight dives in eight minutes. Sometimes he munches on something small, but before long I quite sure he has eaten 15 salamanders! No sign of any of them being newts, but that does seem like one big Thanksgiving dinner.
My otter moves on and disappears into the cattails on the far side of the pond. Two mallards are on a log near me so I sketch them. When I finish I start walking to join Dale, but suddenly the mallards erupt in frantic flight. There must be another otter back in the cattails. I settle quietly with my camera well braced. Off to my left a level log just out of the cattails and floats on the pond. The log has been growing it own little garden for years. Lush grasses and forbs form a green carpet.
For just a moment an adult and a young otter pop up onto the log and greet each other affectionately … big, dark eyes; eyes high set on their heads; small ears; coat drenched in water. They snort and dive back into the safety of the pond.


  1. Everything looks so beautiful. Love those sketches!!!

  2. Great sketches and photos. I have noticed less Geese flying now. We were hearing them flying back and forth at night in the dark. Which surprised my neighbor and I.I didnt know they were flew at night. I love coming here to learn things I wonder about. I couldnt comment here for awhile. Now I can. never can figure out why sometimes.

  3. Love your story and the pencil sketch of the hemlock trees

  4. Elva, how do you know what the otter is feeding on? Apart from that, the photographs are great and your story so poetic...

  5. Your story is poetic indeed. I love to be able to share in a world so very different from mine!!!! Thanks for sharing!

  6. Hi Concetta ..... We both spend a lot of time photographing the otter with our telephoto lenses. Some of the photos are good enough to see what the otter is chewing on. My /aug 2010 post "Newts for Dinner" has photos.

    And thank you all for your kind words!!!

  7. Always enjoy you sketching and words, Elva!

  8. Elva, the photo of the spider webs is absolutely gorgeous! And I am envious of your otter sightings. Your patience (and understanding of mallard behavior) paid off at the end.

  9. How lucky you are to see these playful and super quick otters. Wonderful! And I do like that sketch with the resting ducks.