Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Symbiotic Hope

By last Tuesday our Union Bay osprey made significant progress on their potential nest for 2016. Viewing their work from a distance, it is easy to imagine how wonderful it would be to watch young birds being fed, learning to fly and ultimately learning to hunt for themselves. In fact, every casual passerby who stopped to watch me photograph the birds reacted positively to their presence. Watching the osprey's nesting efforts succeed has nearly universal appeal.

It is harder to imagine the pressure and the challenges being faced by the folks at the University of Washington. The light pole the osprey have chosen sits almost directly above the entrance to the beautiful new baseball field. Falling sticks are an obvious danger to students and fans. A stick falling from over a hundred feet could easily injure a fan standing in the midst of a game day crowd.

From a distance, it is easy to overlook the large scattering of excrement which is thickly sprinkled around the pole. The white "frosting" does not fall neatly just at the base of the pole, rather it drifts out in all directions. It falls into the soccer field, around the ticket booth and into the beautiful new courtyard - which is the entrance to the baseball stadium. The excrement is certainly not pleasant to smell, potentially a bio-hazard and not what any of us would want covering our own front porch. 

With the baseball season in full swing, the danger from the nesting fallout is simply not acceptable. Yet, if eggs are laid the situation becomes permanent, until the osprey leave in the fall. The facilities team for the Athletic Department must be feeling immense pressure to resolve the situation

We should also remember that last summer the Athletic Department thoughtfully paid for the alternative pole and nesting platform  which were installed in the Union Bay Natural Area. Unfortunately, this pair of osprey have strong site fidelity, they appear to have no desire to move.

On Wednesday, with official permission, the team at the University of Washington removed the incomplete nest before eggs could be laid.

Two small vertical poles were also installed on top of the light structure. The little poles are not one of the formal deterrents suggested by Jim Kaiser from Osprey Solutions. I suspect that given the timing and pressure, the poles were quickly selected from materials at hand and installed with the optimistic hope of inspiring the osprey to nest elsewhere. 

On Thursday morning there was a lot of calling back forth between the osprey, while they attempted to rebuild. Occasionally, the birds were able to get smaller branches to stay on the lights. When they approached with larger branches they were unable to navigate around the two new poles. The osprey were not immediately successful at rebuilding, but neither did they relocate.

Fred Hoyt, Associate Director from the University of Washington Botanic Gardens, graciously offered to help find a more promising alternative site for a nesting platform. Fred, Jim and I reconsidered virtually every potential location in the surrounding area. The variety of constraints were surprisingly complex. 

Fred pointed out that many of the small natural areas around the stadium are actually environmental mitigations from previous improvements. Jim said it might be possible to get special permission to site a nesting pole in one of those areas. However, he went on to mention that where ever tall trees have grown up, a nesting platform is unlikely to succeed. The osprey are likely to reject those sites due to fear of predators - like raccoons. 

To the east, much of the nearby Union Bay Natural Area will not work because the 520 mitigation which is scheduled to start with heavy equipment and distracting noise, etc. Plus, areas east of the 520 mitigation get closer to a local bald eagle nest, which could encourage increased harassment from the eagles. In addition, the UBNA is on fill which may not support the truck required to carry and install a nesting pole. This is one of the reasons the nesting platform installed last year was sited close to the walking trail.

Potential sites north of the athletic fields could be impacted by noise from the helipad which is used for medial emergencies. Last week Tyler Clay, UW Facilities Manager, pointed out that the use of the helipad increases during Spring and Summer. This conflict will increase at exactly the time when the osprey would be laying eggs and raising young.

The areas to the west of the athletic fields are already developed. Siting a nesting platform there would not significantly reduce the conflict with human use. Plus, it would be further from the water where the osprey like to hunt for fish.

Ultimately, one site stood out above the others. The grassy area immediately south of the baseball field and just north of the gravel road which runs between the baseball field and the Conibear Shellhouse. Not surprisingly, this was one of the choices recommended by Jim Kaiser last year.

By Friday afternoon the osprey had become more focused and active. 

They were silently delivering sticks to the light pole and nest building like professionals. 

While I watched, they were arriving with new sticks at a rate of 26 per hour.

Often a number of sticks would accumulate before a large clump would fall. It is clear the birds are no longer intimidated by the two small vertical poles. It will only be a matter of time before they are once again successful at getting sticks to stay on the light pole.

There seemed to be more sticks falling on Friday, than on the days prior to the nest being dismantled. Clearly, the osprey will not be allowed to actually complete a nest at this site. If the osprey are not able to lay eggs in the next couple of weeks, they are unlikely to be successful this year. Sadly, if nesting is unsuccessful the osprey are likely to build "frustration nests" through out the summer. The net result will be an unsatisfactory situation for both the osprey and the UW Athletic Department. 

In retrospect, my post last week which described the situation as Dancing With Osprey, may have understated the complexity, pressure and challenges involved in this situation. The solution with the best potential for all around success appears to be to:

A) Quickly, erect an alternative nesting platform south of the UW Baseball Field and
B) Invest in professional deterrents to induce the osprey to move.

Even though there is no guarantee the osprey will accept this alternative, it seems to be the best response to a dynamic and difficult situation,

Someday, I can imagine one of our grand-children watching a UW athlete hit a home run. The ball drops over the fence and lands below an osprey nest. At the same time, an osprey delivers a fish to a young bird calling for food. The child notices and points excitedly. The child might be distracted from the the baseball game for a moment. However, this distraction might actually reinforce the values of UW Athletics. Team athletics focuses on teaching larger life lessons - like working together. Successfully siting an osprey nest near the field will demonstrate working together with nature. No doubt a harmonious vision of home runs, osprey and nature will last a lifetime. 

Have a great day on Union Bay...where osprey yearn to nest in the city!


Saturday, April 23, 2016

Dancing With Osprey

They are back! The vacation is over. Our Union Bay Osprey have returned.

I have started thinking of them as Chester and Lacey. Do you notice any distinguishing features? Can you tell which is which?

From a relaxation perspective, it may be unfair to call a self-propelled, round-trip flight to Central or South America a vacation. They travel thousands of miles over a constantly changing landscape, through a wide variation of weather, while incessantly searching for food - almost always fish. 

Unlike eagles, who only pick up fish from the water's surface, osprey will hover a hundred feet above the water and then dive headfirst. At the last moment, their feet flash forward and with their head between their legs, they hit the water. In spite of the impact, they can end up as much as 3 feet below the surface. Their fishing efficiency is unsurpassed.

While their migrations are hard work, their winter sojourns are a vacation from familial responsibilities. When they leave in the fall the young do not travel with the parents. In addition, the adult pair do not spend their winters together. They go their separate ways. In the spring they head north, reunite and begin the the nesting process. Oddly, osprey pair-bonds may keep the birds together for multiple years, but only during the months centered around summer time and reproduction. 

By the way, Chester has the pure white chest, which is common for a male osprey, while Lacey is the one who appears to be trying to hide her speckled necklace of brown spots, which are strung across her white breast.

You may be wondering why I believe these are the same two osprey that visited Union Bay last summer. In addition to their pair bond, they are once again fixated on the same light pole on the southwest corner of the University of Washington soccer field. It seems almost fitting, since soccer may be the most universal sport in the world and osprey may be the most universally distributed raptor on the planet. 

Last year, the osprey were never able to get their branches to balance on the rounded, metallic surfaces of the lights. Without a nest, they were frustrated and unable to reproduce.

This year, after only a few days they are already way ahead of last year. (Maybe they spent the winter practicing on light poles above Brazilian soccer fields.)

Last Sunday as the sun was setting, Chester even carried a piece of sod up to the nest. Sod helps to form a secure cup for holding eggs and nestlings.

The osprey's apparent success cuts two ways. On the positive side, they appear ready and able to become parents. Which means that over the summer we should get to watch their young learn to feed, fly and fish-for-themselves. To my knowledge, osprey reproduction has not happened on Union Bay for at least five years.

On the negative side, the osprey have ignored the nesting platform which was generously constructed last year. (Harassment from red-winged blackbirds may have contributed to the osprey's reluctance.) The University of Washington Athletic department graciously funded the platform and pole, the Union Bay Natural Area (UBNA) happily provided the site and Jim Kaiser, from Osprey Solutions, provided the expertise and guidance.

The UBNA seemed like an optimal location for a number of reasons. The osprey would have been closer to the water where they fish. The location would have provided local birders with another exciting opportunity when visiting the natural area. Plus, the University of Washington would not have had to worry about fish entrails, osprey excrement and large sticks endangering their students or fans. 

Unfortunately, the light pole, which the osprey like best, is almost directly above the entrance to the new Husky Baseball Field. During the next few weeks there is a small window of opportunity for the nest to be relocated. With special permission and great care, it may be possible to relocate the nest before Lacey lays eggs.

To increase the odds of success, Jim is suggesting a three-part approach. The first step is to install a nesting platform, away from the blackbirds and closer to the snags along the lower portion of Ravenna Creek, which is often referred to as University Slough. The snags provide the dead branches that the osprey use in their nest building. The second step is to move the branches from their soccer field site, onto the new platform. The final step would be to install a deflector on the light pole above the soccer field that will stop the osprey from nesting on that pole.

There are no guarantees that this approach will be successful. Harmony with nature requires work, investment and persistence. Wild creatures have freewill and are driven by urges and desires we do not fully understand. Finding a mutual solution is almost like a dance. Both parties make moves which ultimately determine their combined trajectory.

Chester and Lacey are fortunate to have chosen the most prestigious university in the state as the site for their nest. According to the Board of Regents, the primary mission of the University of Washington is, "...the preservation, advancement and dissemination of knowledge.."  Finding a solution, which protects the health of the students and also enables our Union Bay osprey to reproduce, will demonstrate patience, persistence and wisdom, while also providing the ultimate teaching moment.

Have a great day on Union Bay...where osprey choose to nest in the city!


Saturday, April 16, 2016

Raptor Roulette

Peregrine falcons are the fastest creatures on earth. If pigeon's could talk, I am sure they would tell us that speed kills. In spite of their speed and intelligence, young peregrine falcons face a lot of challenges.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to ride with Martin Muller while he was checking out potential peregrine nesting sites around Seattle. Each year Martin and his friend Ed Deal attempt to band all of the peregrine nestlings in the Seattle area. 

Martin pointed out that the bird in the photo above is a juvenile who is nearing its first birthday (or maybe I should say, hatch-day.)  Can you see a major difference between the young bird and the one in the next photo?

This is a mature female. The difference between the two birds is somewhat similar to the difference between a juvenile and a mature Cooper's hawk. In both species, the mature birds have horizontal barring on their chests versus the vertical stripes of an immature bird.

Here, our young peregrine is pulling its wings in and preparing to dive or stoop. The faster the peregrine needs to go, the closer the wings will get to its side. When a flock of pigeons see a falcon stooping them, they immediately take to the air and hope the falcon will lose them in the crowd.

In Bud Anderson's raptor class he tells his students, "Never take your eye off a flying falcon". This would seem like good advice for the pigeons too.

Bald eagles are not as fast as peregrines, but they are bigger and given the chance, they will eat the lunch of smaller birds. This type of regularly occurring theft is called, kleptoparasitism. In addition, eagles have no qualms about removing and consuming other bird's nestlings. Peregrines recognize bald eagles as a threat. A peregrine will usually attack any eagle that ventures too close, especially during nesting season.

In this photo, our young peregrine is attempting to drive a hungry eagle away from its selected flock of pigeons. 

The eagle twists its head to keep an eye on the speeding peregrine. 

The peregrine pulls its wings in tighter - diving ever faster. The eagle's response looks a bit slow and somewhat clumsy.

Both birds attempt to put their best foot forward or at least their sharpest talons.

It was a bit like watching a deadly dance in the sky.

For all the eagle's acrobatics, it is clear that the falcon is far more agile.

It is almost like the peregrine is laughing as the eagle grasps at thin air.

The eagle recognizes the falcon's superior skill in air-to-air combat.

The eagle retreats. The peregrine wins the initial skirmish.

The young falcon returned and continued to chase pigeons.

Eventually it caught one. The young falcon was apparently attempting to return to high ground before eating its lunch. Sadly, with its excellent eyesight, the eagle had observed the falcon's hunting and was gaining ground on the peregrine. With the added weight of the pigeon, the falcon could not make full use of its superior speed. Ultimately, it had to choose between giving up its meal or becoming the second course on the eagle's menu. Ultimately, the falcon decided to drop the pigeon.

Not only must young falcons learn to hunt, but they must also learn how far an eagle can see and when to hide their catch. Speed helps, but knowledge and experience are the ultimate keys to survival.


About Martin:

Martin Muller (and Ed Deal) spent many years working with renown raptor-guru Bud Anderson and his Falcon Research Group. During this time they banded a wide variety of Washington state raptors. The raptors Martin has banded range from kestrels to golden eagles. Golden eagles are even bigger than bald eagles. In Washington state, Martin has banded raptors on seaside cliffs in the San Juan Islands, on mountain ridges in the east Cascades and on top of skyscrapers in downtown Seattle. 

Currently, Martin and Ed continue to band peregrine falcons while also banding Cooper's hawks in the Seattle area. Their Cooper's hawk project continues to build on the original pioneering work of Jack Bettesworth.

Curiosity has driven me to ask Martin (and Ed) many different birding questions. Both gentlemen have graciously answered my questions and guided my learning. Last week, I asked Martin about a couple of his personal experiences.

What was your first birding experience?

Initially, when I was about 11 years old I enjoyed taking my bike and riding out to explore natural areas around my home in Amsterdam. However, the moment when I became truly hooked on birding was when I was 18. A group of friends took me to visit a blind at Oostvaardersplassen - which translates as "East Sailors Ponds" - east of Amsterdam. The area was developed by diking a portion of water, partially dewatering it, and dumping seeds into the shallow water. In time, plants grew up and attracted a variety of birds. At Oostvaardersplassen I watched shorebirds, great crested grebes, herons, rails, white spoonbills and many others. Today, the birds can be easily viewed from boardwalks, when I first visited the area we had to wade through the mud to watch the birds.

What is the largest raptor you have banded?

A few years ago Bud inspired a group of us to trap raptors along Entiat Ridge, northeast of Leavenworth. In the fall, the raptors follow ridge lines as they migrate south. The location where we were working was immediately above a 2200' escarpment. The wind was fierce. (The air flowing up and over the ridges provides lift which minimizes the raptor's effort to fly and assists in migration.) During the weekends there were a number of people present to help with the banding. However on Sunday afternoons, most everyone had to return home to prepare for the work week. On this particular Sunday, I took an extra day off so I could stay and continue banding. Not long after everyone left I noticed a golden eagle approaching from about 7 miles out. The golden eagles are notoriously wary. Once I noticed the eagle had fixated on the trap, I did nothing further. I simply waited and watched. The eagle hit the trap with great speed, and though unharmed, became thoroughly entangled.

Suddenly, I realized I had trapped a very angry golden eagle. Getting close to the eight sharp talons and a very sharp beak was sobering. I had heard that bald eagles will attempt to remove the eyes of people who trap them. I wasn't sure if the larger golden eagle had the same idea but I did attempt to keep my head away from the beak. With great care and a firm grip I untangled the eagle, applied the band and finally let it go. That was my first encounter with a golden eagle and the largest raptor I have banded.

Martin and the golden eagle in a selfie, before the day of selfie-sticks.

Be sure to compare the size of Martin's finger to the size of the single talon visible in the lower right portion of the photo. Banding is a passion for Martin. There is no monetary reward, but the time spent in close proximity raptors is a very special kind of compensation.

Have a great day on Union Bay...were nature lives in the city!


Saturday, April 9, 2016

A Match Made In Heaven

As children we are taught that ducks go "quack-quack", dogs go "bow-wow", cows go "moo" and roosters go, "cock-a-doodle-doo". During our early years life is simple. We cry to be fed or changed or just for entertainment. I am sure my children must have been entertained by their parent's frantic efforts to make their lives perfectly happy.

As we get older we realize not all ducks go "quack-quack". For example, wood duck calls are more similar to the cries of a child - Click Here to hear their whining. As we mature, we find that life is not simple. We deal with the growing awareness that our parents don't have all the answers. The positive side of this enlightenment is realizing that if we stay curious there will always be more to learn.

A few years ago I learned that in the spring wood ducks take to the trees. The females are searching for safe sites to nest. So last week, I was not shocked to see this female wood duck carefully considering a knot hole in a willow tree.

She really had to work to force her way into the tree. A safe nesting site can be worth the effort. You can see more of these types of photos in a 2013 post, entitled, "Ducks In Trees."

On the other hand, earlier this week I was surprised to find this female mallard sitting on a birch branch - higher than my head. I often see mallards climb onto logs laying in the water but I do not ever remember seeing a mallard in a tree. My immediate thought was, "What is she doing?"

A moment later I noticed a male mallard wandering through the grass around the base of the tree. My second thought was, "This time of year the males are aggressively chasing the females and attempting to mate, maybe she is just looking for a little peace and quiet."
The normal alternative for a female mallard to escape a male's affection is to take to the air and fly, but a male can easily follow and I am sure flying must be tiring. 

A moment later, I noticed a male wood duck on a second branch in the same birch tree. The male wood duck was curiously observing the female mallard.

While I watched, a female wood duck landed directly in front of the male momentarily breaking his line of sight to the female mallard.

Much like a child who is fixated on playing with a new shiny object, the male wood duck flew to the female mallard's branch.

As I mentioned in last week's post, I find it hard to read a bird's facial expressions. As he left, the female wood duck's careful observation of the male made me think she felt a little frustrated and left out.

As the male wood duck edged closer and closer, the female mallard took to the air. The male mallard immediately took off from the ground and followed the female. I was ready to move on and write this episode off as a unique curiosity....

...when a second female mallard landed beside the abandoned female wood duck. Mallards can weigh almost twice as much as wood ducks, so the wood duck's reaction was a bit of a surprise.

The female wood duck was apparently not in a happy state of mind. She was not intimidated by the size of the mallard.

The mallard got the message.

The mallard moved away and gave the appearance of considering the birch leaves as a potential food source. At this point the frustrated female wood duck decided she had made her point and a change of scenery was required.

In a surprising twist, a male mallard developed the courage to follow the object of his desire and landed next to the female mallard.

The body language of the two mallards seemed to imply mutual acceptance. Their behavior left me wondering, was I the first person to observe the mallard equivalent of - a match made in heaven.

This morning I took the time to look up mallard behavior in the online resource, Birds of North America. I found the following in reference to mallards, "...Does not regularly alight in trees, but can perch on elevated sites under special circumstances; e.g. when female tries to evade harassing males in spring.." (Please see the citations below.)

Currently, spring is truly in the air. Birds are nesting on the ground, under bushes, in the trees and just about any place you can imagine. It is a wonderful time to get outside and observe the wonders of nature and the surprisingly varied behaviors of wild creatures. It is actually reassuring to realize that for as long as we live, there will always be more to learn. It is a great time to fan the flames of your curiosity!

Have a great day on Union Bay...where nature is full of surprises!


1) Bingham, V. P. 1980. Novel rape avoidance in the Mallard. Wilson Bull. 92:409.

2) Drilling, Nancy, Rodger Titman and Frank Mckinney. 2002. Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/658

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Nature's Nursery

The facial expressions of ducks and geese do not easily communicate emotions - at least not to me. However, their body language can speak volumes. Last Monday, the waterfowl around Duck Bay were in effect, silently shouting. The mallards and geese, gadwalls and coots were out of the water and oddly still. Uncharacteristically, they sat on the shore with their backs to both humans and dogs - hypnotically staring. 

For new or non-resident readers, Duck Bay sits in the southern part of Union Bay. Union Bay is the western-most portion of Lake Washington. Union Bay is commonly know as the body of water next to Husky Stadium in Seattle.

In the Spring, Duck Bay is usually filled with water. In the Fall, the water recedes exposing a secondary shoreline of mud. In the Winter, the bay is occasionally covered in ice and in the Summer, it is mostly covered by lily pads.

In Spring a pair of osprey often settle on Union Bay for the summer. Occasionally, one of them will spend a few hours looking for food on Duck Bay. Their focus is fish. They seem completely indifferent to the ducks.

It is not uncommon to see a bald eagle or two, a red-tailed hawk or a Cooper's hawk sitting in the cottonwood trees above Duck Bay. Peregrine falcons have occasionally been seen in the area as well. The eagles usually eat fish but they are not indifferent to ducks. Cooper's hawks have been seen eating ducks as well. However, regardless of the raptor or the time of year, there are almost always waterfowl calling, feeding, splashing and preening on Duck Bay.

Canada geese are the watchdogs of the waterfowl world. Usually, they see you long before you see them. If you head in their direction the closest bird will stop feeding and let loose with a warning, "Honk!" If this does not slow your progress, then their friends and relatives will join in an incessant chorus which warns every creature within earshot of your position and progress. If you are deaf or indifferent to their alarming assault then at the last possible moment the geese will awkwardly run. (I would not be surprised if someday a photographer catches the geese rolling their eyes and sighing - just prior to running.) 

The awkwardness stops when they spread their wings and take to the air. Usually, they simply settle on the water a short distance away. They will continue to watch you just to make sure you are unwilling to swim. If you stop at the shoreline then their honking will slowly decline.

It is not uncommon for the mallards on Duck Bay to also begin calling, when they see you approach the water. However, unlike the geese the mallards will often fly towards you, in ever-increasing numbers. The mallards have learned that humans often provide free meals - particular small, giggling humans. However, on Monday they were all silent and still.

When I passed behind them, the gadwall gave me an indifferent glance and the mallard ignored me completely. Their body language was saying something, like "Hey, human! Are you blind? Don't you see the danger?"

Even the cormorants, who normally dive at my first inadvertent glance, simply sat and ignored me. Of the three types of cormorants in the Pacific Northwest, only the double-crested cormorants are regular morning visitors on Duck Bay.

Only in Spring have I seen their double-crests. So far, this is my best photo of a pair of the oddly, ear-like appendages of feathers.

The most surprising and least seen part of a double-crested cormorant is actually the electric-blue interior of the mouth. I have been told that when birds open their mouths, for no apparent reason, it can be a sign of distress, called gaping.

A few days earlier, I spotted the remains of a couple of eggs less than one hundreds yards from the waterfowl. At the time Ginger, my daughter's dog, began shivering and shaking, uncontrollably. I tried to console her, but nothing seemed to help. Ultimately, I had to take her home, just to help her calm down. I concluded the consumer of the eggs was not a raccoon or a dog. My logic had two parts, 1. Ginger, surprisingly, is not scared of raccoons 2. I have never seen her react to a dog like she behaved around the broken eggs. At the time the only culprit who came to mind was a coyote.

A few minutes earlier on Monday, while chatting with a friend, I noticed an unusually large shell. I wondered how it ended up near the shore. To have grown so large, I suspected it must have originated from one of the deeper parts of Duck Bay. I have never seen raccoons dive or beavers consume meat. My friend astutely suggested, another creature who could have brought the shell to the surface.

A few moments later I spotted a solitary head in the water. It looked a bit like a beaver...

...however when the creature dived a foot and then a tapering tail flashed above the surface.

A moment later it resurfaced - headed in the other direction.

When it turned to look at me its predatory stare seemed heavier than its estimated body weight. Online sources suggest a river otter can average over thirty pounds. Their long powerful tails along with four sets of claws and a sharp set of teeth make them very efficient. As demonstrated by the behavior of the waterfowl an otter can make short work of fish, waterfowl and most anything close to their size in the water.

Finally, I put it all together and realized, Barb was right, it was quite likely the otter who brought the shell to the surface and consumed it. Most likely, it also ate the eggs, shook-up Ginger and scared the ducks, cormorants and geese out of the water and into a reverent silence.

It should be easy to remember that from the first day of Spring through the Fourth of July the whole out-of-doors becomes nature's nursery. Most creatures are either laying eggs or having young in one way or another. Many birds nest on the ground or near the shore where their eggs can be easily consumed. If the eggs are lucky enough to hatch the situation becomes even more challenging. The inept little creatures can now move around, make noise and attract attention, however they cannot fly, have no fear and are in more danger than a sitting duck.

There is little we can do to protect the the young creatures from otters, eagles and hawks - who must also feed their own young. However, those of us who own dogs can keep our pets out of the water and away from the shoreline, during this special time. In addition to protecting the young creatures, it could also be in Fido's best interest to stay close to you. An otter is essentially a professional, underwater killing machine who views a well-fed, innocent pet...as just another source of food.

Have a great day on Duck Bay...where otters hunt in the city!