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Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) Photo by Arie Ouwerkerk

Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) Photo by Arie Ouwerkerk

One of my friends on the internet just now took to social media to challenge the world with the following truism: “Try as hard as you want, but you can’t make a duck look badass.” I don’t know what prompted this outburst (!) but I am willing to bet it had something to do with one of the abominable duck mascots which fill professional and semi-professional sports leagues with Howard the Duck-esque ugliness and horror (and, indeed, these doofy mascots never manage to look badass, no matter how hard the designers try).

Behold the blood red eyes and needle beak! (photo by birdingmaine.com)

Behold the blood red eyes and needle beak! (photo by birdingmaine.com)

Fortunately a greater force than the University of Oregon has taken up this challenge—and with much greater success. The red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator) is a duck which lives throughout Siberia, Scandinavia, Scotland, Greenland, Iceland, Scotland, and the northern fastnesses of Canada (i.e. Canada). The predatory duck can sometimes be seen overwintering along the East and West coasts of America, the Chinese coast, Japan, the Koreas, England, Western Europe, or on the lakes and Inland Seas of Central Asia. In retrospect, the red-breasted merganser’s range includes most of the northern hemisphere except for the tropics and the extreme north—which should give you a clue as to what a badass the duck truly is. The ducks fly north in summer to breed on lakes, rivers, and coasts. In winter they live in coastal waters or in the open ocean.

Red Breasted Mergansers relaxing in their warm winter home--Lake Erie

Red Breasted Mergansers relaxing in their warm winter home–the open waters of Lake Erie (photo by Jim McCormac)

Merganser serrator has a ferocious appearance. The male has a black spikey crest, blood-red eyes, and a pointy black beak filled with needle sharp serrations (with a hook at the end). Oh, also his feet are incarnadine color with razor claws. The female has a similar shape, but her head is drab colored and she does not have the bright white ringneck and signal feathers of the male. The ducks are entirely predatory—they only eat living things. The adults catch all sorts of small water creatures including aquatic arthropods, amphibians, mollusks, and worms, but most of all they live on fish. The ducks dive down into the water and hunt the fish directly, so they are stupendous swimmers.

Mergansers desport amorously (photo by Marco Valentini)

Mergansers disport amorously (photo by Marco Valentini)

The ducks brood between 5 and 13 eggs. A day after they hatch the nestlings take to the water…and to the hunt! Ducklings feed themselves without help from their parents, although they tend to eat aquatic insect larvae and tadpoles (at first). To recapitulate, the red-breasted merganser lives in Siberia and North Korea or on the open ocean. It eats only living things which are caught and swallowed alive and whole into its inescapable mouth of needles. Make fun of mascots, all you like, but respect the living sawbills!

normal_red_breasted_merganser_diving_on_reeds_2

The Three Trees (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1643, intaglio print)

The Three Trees (Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1643, intaglio print)

It is Rembrandt’s birthday again—happy birthday to the great artist! Last year we looked at an enigmatic painting by the great Dutch master which could have represented several different mythological/historical scenes. This year instead of celebrating with one of his astonishing paintings of people, we turn instead to an intaglio print which Rembrandt made by combining etching, drypoint, and direct hand manipulation of the printer’s ink. Uncharacteristically, humankind is not the direct subject of the print (although if you enlarge the image, you will discover both a fisherman plying his luck at the river and a yokel loitering in the fields). Three monumental trees loom over the flat Dutch landscape—but their symbolism, if any, is not overt. A bustling city sprawls in the background, but it too is not the focal point on the composition. The real subject is the darkling sky which roils with strange clouds, abstruse turbulence, and glorious patches of sunlight. The world changes with astonishing speed: the mutable clouds are the most direct manifestation of the ever shifting nature of reality, yet the country dwellers, cows, city, and even the long-lived trees all seem to partake of the same impermanence.

Noodler's Forest Green Fountain Pen Ink

Noodler’s Forest Green Fountain Pen Ink

Today we feature a short post about ink…among other things.  The other night I rediscovered my old dip pens and I was doing some doodling (more about that later).  It reminded me of how wonderful dip pens, quills, and fountain pens really are.  I did some online research and I found a contemporary ink company called “Noodler’s Ink” which is an American company which specializes in fancy inks and pigments for specialty pens.  The reason this belongs on this blog is that they are obsessed with catfish—which feature heavily on their marketing and promotional material.  Here are some of the endearing and whimsical catfish drawings which Noodler’s puts on their bottles and boxes of ink.

Various boxes of Noodler's Black Ink

Various boxes of Noodler’s Black Ink

Noodling is a sort of loose word which can be used to describe doodling, but it is also a traditional southern method of fishing for catfish where the angler uses his or her fingers as a lure.  The intrepid fisherperson reaches into promising holes and pits in the bottom of the waterway and wiggles his fingers provocatively in hopes that a catfish will mistake them for some sort of prey.  If the catfish bites the angler’s hand he then uses brute strength to wrestle the fish bodily from the water.  Below is a picture of a Lucy Millsap, a professional (?) noodler landing a monstrous flathead catfish.  It sounds like an interesting sport I guess, but I think I’ll stick to noodlin’ with paper and ink.

Lucy Millsap with a Flathead Catfish she captured by "noodling"

Lucy Millsap with a Flathead Catfish she captured by “noodling”

In Norse folklore the universe was envisioned as Yggdrasil an immense tree with roots and branches winding through many different worlds and realms.  An immense serpent, Níðhöggr, forever gnawed at the roots of the tree thus threatening to bring the entire universe down– however Níðhöggr was not the only gigantic serpent in the Norse pantheon.

The Midgard Serpent

Between the chthonic roots of the tree and its lofty branches (at ground level, as it were) lay the world of humankind, called Midgard.   Midgard was protected by the gods and, to a lesser extent, by humankind, from the ice giants who were always attacking and from Loki, the strange trickster god, who was forever plotting. Loki knew the ice giantess, Angrboða, and together the pair had three children.  One was Hel, who went down to icy Niflheim to rule over the damned and lost (our word “Hell” comes from her name and her realm).  Another was Fenris Wolf, the all-devouring giant wolf who was chained by magic fetters to an immense stone thrust deep into the roots of Yggrasil. The last of the three children of Loki and Angrboða was Jörmungandr, a colossal sea serpent also known as the Midgard Serpent.  When Odin perceived how quickly the serpent was growing, he cast it into ocean which the Norse believed ringed the whole world.  There the serpent grew to colossal size, eventually surrounding the entire world and swallowing its tail.  In some ways the monster became synonymous with the world-girding ocean.

Jörmungandr is ever opposed by the god Thor. Twice the two met in the Norse mythical canon. The first time, Thor was fooled into thinking the world-sized ocean monster was a large indolent housecat (it should be noted that Thor was not only drinking heavily but also being magically fooled by a trickster king of the Jötnar).  Despite using all his divine strength, Thor was unable to lift the cat off the floor and only managed to heft one paw up for a moment.  The seemingly trivial feat of strength was revealed as more impressive when the nature true of the cat was manifested (the entire story is a very amusing one). Thor again encountered the serpent when he was fishing for monsters with the giant Hymir.  Thor had struck the head off the great ox belonging to the giant in order to catch two whales.  Against Hymir’s protests, the two proceeded farther out to sea, towards the edge of the world.  Thor hooked the Midgard serpent and dragged the creature’s head to the surface.  The monster’s fanged mouth was dripping with poison and blood and it was moving towards the boat to finish the two off. Before Thor could lift his hammer to kill the serpent (or the serpent could devour the two fishermen), Hymir cut the line and the creature escaped.

Thor Battering the Midgard Serpent (Henry Fuseli, 1790, oil on canvas)

Thor is slated to encounter the monster one last time at Ragnarök.  When the last battle comes, the serpent will swim towards land poisoning everything it touches and causing huge tidal waves.  This will be the signal for Naglfar to sail, bringing the hordes of walking dead back to the world of the living.  Thor will finally fight the serpent and, after a great battle, the thunder god will triumphantly kill the mighty creature. Thor will then walk nine steps before dying from his poisoned wounds as the mortally wounded Fenris Wolf swallows the sun and the world comes to an end.

Since I have already written so many mammal posts I am creating a new blog category for mammals (I will leave out human concerns to concentrate on zoologic overviews of other species, but please remember that technically we too are mammals and all of the posts on this and every website could fall under this category).  To make way for the mammals I deleted the “celebrity” topic for good (I had hoped to make fun of our queasy fascination with lackwit celebrities–but other than an one sighting of the disquieting Richard Simmons, I had nothing). Begone vile celebrities! The age of the mammals has dawned.

The Giant Otter, Pteronura brasiliensis

I already have plenty of posts about goats, pigs, wombats, hyraxes, and bizarre intelligent monotremes with which to populate this category, but to kick the topic off properly I am writing today about the alpha-predator of the Amazon.  This mammal is the king of the Mustelidae (also known as the weasel family) and, if you have ever seen a lightning fast stoat hunting a rabbit, or smelled a skunk, or watched a badger drive off a bear, or witnessed a wolverine tear apart a moose, you will know that the weasel family is not joking around. [ed: what? When did you see any of this?] The largest mustelid is a particularly magnificent creature—the giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis) which lives throughout the Amazon basin and Pantanal.  The giant otter is a long animal and males are up to six feet (2 meters in length) and weigh up to 100 pounds (45 kilograms).  Much longer males measuring nearly 8 feet in length were once reported but it is believed that extensive hunting may have eradicated all of the really giant giant otters.

An Immature Giant Otter held by Wildlife Conservation Worker Diane McTurk in Guyana

Giant otters are tremendously accomplished fishers living largely on cichlids, characins (such as piranha), and catfish, but, as an apex predator they are opportunists who supplement their diet with snakes, crabs, turtles, and caimans.  Although the otters are diurnal predators who hunt at daytime using their large acute eyes to find their prey, their hearing is also excellent and they possess extremely sensitive vibrissae (whiskers) to gauge the faintest water current.  Like other mustelids, giant otters have fast metabolisms and they eat about 10% of their body weight per day.  Their adaptations to aquatic life include webbed feet, ears and nostrils which clamp shut, powerful tails for swimming, and incredibly dense fur.  As with their cousins the sea otters, this valuable fur proved to be their undoing. During the nineteenth and early twentieth century they were hunted to the very threshold of extinction by furriers (and by fishermen who regard them as a clever nuisance). Their numbers still remain low today: only 2,000-5,000 giant otters are estimated to live in the wild.

Orphaned Giant Otter Cubs

Giant otters form family groups around a mated pair.  Older offspring from years past stay with this pair and help out rearing the young cubs before venturing off on their own. They travel widely through the inundated forest during flood seasons and spend the rest of the year based around a fishing camp which they build beside a lake or a choice stretch of river.  These camps consist of large multiple entrance home dens built under and around tree roots as well as several secondary locations (along with communal latrine areas).  The otters might also alter river beaches to be more to their liking by removing vegetation.  The fur of the giant otter is usually brown, red, or fawn and the otter’s bib is marked with cream and white stipples.  These are for identification purposes: otters “persiscope” up out of the water to get a better view of each other and to learn whom they are meeting.  Giant Otters are also famous for their complicated (and loud) vocalizations.

A Giant Otter "periscoping" (photo by Roberto Fabbri Wildlife)

Although the adult giant otter has no natural predators, young otters must look out for caimans, jaguars, and anacondas. Additionally the giant otters compete for prey with these creatures as well as with river dolphins, large predatory fish, and large turtles.  The otters are always on the lookout for dangerous stingrays and electric eels.  None of these natural threats, however, are particularly significant compared with the threat from habitat loss, logging, mining, and industrial pollution.

Some of the native humans indigenous to the great river basins believed the otters were river spirits who had, once taught valuable lessons to the first humans.  Other native peoples (particularly fishing people) held that the otters were worthless nuisances to be killed or run off whenever sighted.  Such sightings however grow increasingly rare as the giant otter, the longest mustelid, vanishes forever away from all but the wildest places in the rainforest.

A Wild Giant Otter Devouring an Armoured Catfish (photo by Roberto Fabbri Wildlife)

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

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