One day last week, when I went down to the river for my daily walk, there was as yet no snow on the ground. I like to watch the daily changes brought on by the freezing weather, and I like the walk. That day I spotted a chocolate brown critter. I wasn't sure what it was; it was too big and the wrong color to be an ermine and not big enough to be a martin unless it was a juvenile, but still I've never seen a chocolate brown one. When I got home, my husband had the best suggestion, saying it was probably a mink.
Salmon, our summertime sport-fishing treasure, swims upriver to spawn and then they give up. Sometimes they become trapped in some little backwater upriver somewhere and sometimes they drift down river dying slowly along the way. My dog used to find some such carcass every year along there so I figured this little guy would find something too. He did. By the time I found a place closer so I could get a better look at him, he was ensconced under a shelf of ice gnawing at his find frozen into the mud there. All I could see was a sliver of his rump wiggling from time to time. Then I got cold so I went home.
Yesterday, I got another treat. A family of otters - mom and three half-grown kits were fishing a short distance downriver from where I stand. They too were far enough away where I had to guess what they were, but since they were in and out of the water, I didn't have to guess too hard.
Otters, minks, martins and ermines are all cousins and are similar in body build to each other but vary in size by quite a bit. I skinned one once that was probably 4 feet long from nose to tail tip. I hear the ocean going variety can get twice that size.
When I first spotted them, one had just climbed out of the water and was nosing around another one. That one happened to be laying still at the moment so I couldn't tell what it was - just a black shape on the white snow.
As I watched, I was able to distinguish the four shapes. While I was watching, mom explored the edge of the bank (my side) followed closely by one of her kits. The other two were more interested in the edge of the water and would go toward mom a short way and then back to the water as if impatient for mom to join them and show them more of the interesting stuff under the water and under the edges of the ice along the bank.
Mom eventually rejoined them. She led them into the water, heading directly across to the other side. She was probably being smart. That water was probably very cold and they couldn't afford to get too wet, though they are nature-made for their watery life. Mom then gamboled away from the edge of the water, taking time to enjoy a slide as soon as she hit snow. Her little shadow hung close to her side, the other two still played in the water. As soon as they joined her, poking at her with their noses to get her moving again, she led them close to the bank and then on downriver and out of my sight. Cute to watch.
While there's no way to know for sure, I like to think those who hang closest to mom as they grow up are the girls learning how to be moms, while those more inclined to range are the boys. Can't you just see the boys being more careless while sis hangs onto mom's apron strings? I spotted this behavior with a family of spruce hens this summer. Two could always be found close to mom, even after their number began to grow smaller. Ah, whatever, it's just my fancy. I love watching my world.