[This is Act I, the preamble of a two-act otter play. Act II is the denouement, next week.]
As a child, I read Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water, and fantasized about having my very own wild otter. Since I had never even seen an otter outside the zoo, this was not on the cards. But given half a chance, childhood passions have a way of resurfacing.
Here in Maine we have river otters, Lutra canadensis, which are 3-4 feet long, including the tail, and weigh 30 pounds. They are fairly secretive, but I see signs of them regularly along the edges of my beaver ponds, plus just once I captured a shot on my game camera. I often see scat, full of fish scales. Here are some crayfish remains from an old meal:
Until this year I had never seen them swimming around, but suddenly I had sightings:
or the back of one’s head and foot as it dived:
Now everything is frozen, and they are hunting under the ice. They may breathe in the air pocket left if the water level drops after the ice has frozen, but they also make air holes, which they revisit to keep open. Here is one on my pond this morning:
They remind me of the air-holes that seals keep clear in the Arctic. Luckily there are no polar bears in Maine keeping these air holes under surveillance.
I have stopped watching for the actual otters now winter has come, but then I saw this strange track on the snow-covered ice:
Here is my hat for scale:
The tracks followed the shoreline for perhaps 1/4 mile, and then petered out at a spot where the ice turned to open water near the dam. An otter had been heading for that open water to fish, and he had been sliding along on his belly, a favored form of locomotion in the winter. Apparently they hold their arms in, and kick themselves along with their hind legs. Here is a wonderful video of one in action (not taken by me!):
They don’t always slide: here are some more familiar tracks, on the surface of the same frozen pond, leading to a copiously used latrine (photo omitted!):
I always knew that otters would slide down river banks, but I hadn’t realized that they also go tobogganing on the flat. I would give a lot to see one actually doing it.
I have read that otters are more diurnal in the winter time, so maybe there was hope of seeing them if I returned every day? Next time, my phantom otters materialize.
PS The day after I posted this I found otter tracks on a frozen stream about a mile away, and they are lovely clear examples in thin snow on black ice of how an otter travels, so I’m adding them to this post. Here the otter is doing a bit of sliding (foreground) , and a bit of walking (background):
Here he is just walking, and dragging his tail behind:
And here is a close-up of his footprints, showing the five toes, though sadly the webbing isn’t really visible:
With thanks to Leigh for confirming this ID.