Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - July 10, 2015

Animal tales

It had been a good, full day. We had sampled some of the local food and wines, walked the picturesque streets and purchased typical Alsatian items. We also had taken the requisite "selfie" of husband Art, daughter Katie and me on a bridge over the River Lauch in the "Little Venice" section of Colmar. So it was then time to walk back to our hotel.

But as we crossed the bridge, Art pointed out some movement in the water.

"Look down there," he said. "It looks like beavers."

Me being me, I immediately reached for my camera.

The animals came toward us, gliding quickly and effortlessly through the water.

"Oh, wait a minute," Art said. "They're not beavers. Their tails are too skinny."

Katie suggested that maybe they were muskrats. She and I had seen one at the edge of the lake near our North Woods cottage a few years back. Art didn't think so. Too big and too playful. And muskrats are definitely not cute.

Before long, two of them scampered onto a rock directly underneath one of the restaurants that overhung the river. They were chewing on something - probably a tidbit a restaurant patron had dropped. I took a photo. Then we saw movement directly beneath us on the middle support for the bridge. A larger one and what we presumed was another "baby" had climbed onto the rock and were munching on something too.

Then the large one moved off the rock. But the motion was a jerky one - a fast forward skittering combined with its back section sort of ambling back and forth.

And then I saw its long, thin tail.

"Ew, it looks like a giant rat!" I said.

Yet their movements were graceful and there was no denying the playful interaction between them. So what were these critters with the faces and builds of a beaver, the tails of a muskrat and the actions of an otter? We got our answer once we were back in our room and Art did a bit of searching on the Internet. It was the European or Eurasian otter.

"Not as cute as our otters," I said.

The next day, we were in for a similar treat, albeit this time with something we have become very familiar with - storks.

We had seen them before - primarily in eastern Germany and Poland. Poland is a prime nesting site for the European or white stork, which in the fall heads for Africa to overwinter. With a wingspan of over six feet and four foot height, it is hard to miss as they forage in the fields.

I have sometimes wondered where they nested before men were around. Many buildings in Europe are very old and were constructed at a time when a fireplace was the only source of heat. These were situated in the various rooms and floors so the chimneys would emerge from the roof at a single location. They were constructed with a cover so rain wouldn't enter, leaving the flue gasses to escape from holes on the sides. But those large flat covers made a good location for the stork's large nest. Today, platforms have been constructed on the top of power poles to serve as nest sites.

In the nests we had seen before, the birds had seemed pretty reclusive, but those occupying the two nests we saw in Riquewihr were completely indifferent to us tourists milling about below. When we stopped for lunch, one of the nests was not far away - just across and down the street a bit. I didn't recall seeing so many in a single nest before. I was constantly reaching for my camera between bites of my smoked salmon and pasta.

I wasn't sure how many were in the nest because they kept popping up and down, and every now and then one of the adults would fly off and return with food. It didn't help that the youngsters were nearly the same size as the adults. Occasionally they clacked their beaks, their only means of oral communication.

The people of Alsace chose the stork as their state bird. They consider them to be symbols of happiness and faithfulness, and to bring fertility and good luck. Both Katie and I purchased wooden stork Christmas ornaments to remind us of our day in Riquewihr.

In Metz, our "home away from home in France," we frequently observed swans on the River Moselle. We have swans in the U.S., but they're not overly common in Kansas and so they seem exotic to me. I could spend hours watching them - the closer, the better.

A few years back in Germany while walking along the banks of a lake, I saw a swan near the edge and approached to get a better picture. The swan began "hissing" at me and stretched its wings to warn me off. Our friend Matthias laughed and said I had apparently come too close to the nest and she was just being protective.

I guess it's human nature to be curious about things that are different from what we know. So while it seemed a bit ironic, it was certainly not surprising to turn on the TV one evening in Colmar and see a program not on the swan, stork or otter, but on how people in the U.S. cope with opossums, raccoons and brown bears who get a bit too close to their human neighbors.

Left: European otters on the River Lauch in Colmar; middle: storks on their nest in Riquewihr; right: swans being fed on the Moselle River in Metz.

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