Natural Observations-river otters

photo by Robin Song

On this locally produced segment of KTNA’s Earth and Beyond program, host Robin Song describes her encounter with river otters on a nearby lake. Audio is 6:20.  Text is below.

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By Robin Song–On August 25th, my puppy Lyra’s first birthday, I was in a canoe on Fish Lake, in a light rainfall. The dark water was like silky glass. I noted the presence of the two pairs of Common Loons, neither of which have surviving chicks this year. The red-necked grebe was with her single chick, which was almost as large as she was. The chick was still dependent on its mother, waiting until she dove and came up with a fish, then swimming quickly to her, gulping down her offering. The Common Merganser family was in the channel at marsh entrance on the east side of the lake, and an adult bald eagle sat atop a spruce, leaning over to watch the mergansers as they passed in single file along the shoreline below its tree. I had been told that the merganser mom started out with sixteen chicks this year, but now the family was down to six members. These were now as large as their mother, and should be past the danger of most predators and ready to migrate Outside in just a few more weeks. There are two Trumpeter Swan families on the lake this year, one with a single cygnet, the other family down to three cygnets, from their hatching of six. I glimpsed them far out in the marsh channels.

As I neared the entrance to the marsh, I heard chirping. I thought this odd, for most of the songbirds had already left the area, and it didn’t sound like any familiar bird species. Then ripples in the water to my left caught my eye. A brown head broke the water’s surface, and at first I thought it was the resident beaver. But too small. Muskrat? The creature dove, but not like a muskrat. Suddenly two heads appeared, then a third. To my astonishment, I recognized river otters. I had heard of other people sighting them on the lake over the years, but I had never seen one. Now, at last, it was my turn.

The trio was diving and rolling in the smooth water, making loud purring noises. It seemed they decided to check out the canoe, for I watched as they stopped, heads and necks far out of the water, watching me intently. They quickly dove, and after each dive they popped up closer to the canoe. At one point they swam adjacent to the canoe, their slick, smooth bodies undulating as they swam close together. As they neared the canoe, they emitted loud growls and hisses. I had stopped paddling as soon as I realized what I was seeing, and was letting the canoe drift as I filmed and photographed the trio. The otters passed by the canoe and dove, coming up behind me, near an island. Out from the marsh came the beaver, heading straight for the otters. In typical otter fashion, the trio played with each other, diving over and around each other, keeping an eye on the canoe and the approaching beaver. When the beaver was just a few feet from the roiling otters, it dove and slapped its tail on the surface with a loud whack. That seemed to break up the game and all the otters dove and disappeared. I didn’t see them again, though I heard their chirping far out in the marsh. I hadn’t taken my large camera with me in the canoe, but I had the little Olympus digital. I did the best I could in the low light and lightly falling rain. The image of the playing otters remains bright in my memory.

Back at the cabin, I looked up the otters in my mammal books. Members of the weasel family, they are found in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North and South America. In Alaska, they range over most of the State, with the exception of the Aleutian Islands and the far northern arctic coastal plain, east of Point Lay. Large males reach from 3 ½ to nearly 5 feet in length, and stand 9 to 10 inches at the shoulder. Males weigh 10 to 25 pounds, with females being smaller. They mate in May, with a gestation period of 9 to 13 months. Otters have delayed implantation, like most weasels. The pups are born between February and June, with one to six in a litter. When born in their riverbank den, they are the size of a small ground squirrel, and blind. Their eyes open at about five weeks and their mother teaches them how to survive in water. At about two months of age she will push them into the water, watching over them until they are adept at swimming. The pups will stay with their mother for about a year.

River otters, also called land otters, are the most playful members of the weasel family. They wrestle with each other, chase each other on land, and dive, roll and wrestle in the water. They seem to enjoy sliding on muddy slopes, diving in to the water headfirst. They will climb to the top of the slope, turn their feet to the rear and slide on their bellies to the water, doing this over and over. In winter they make slides in the snow, which get faster and faster as their wet bodies create slick ice on the slide. When they climb out, they shake the water from their fur and roll in the snow.

While otters spend their lives in and around water, they may travel from one waterway to another. They may traverse steep ridges, and in winter they will slide along on their bellies, using their webbed feet to half-walk, half-slide them over the snow.

They are graceful in the water and can move underwater for hundreds of yards without surfacing. When underwater, their nostrils and ears close tightly. They are in almost constant motion, pushing sticks and leaves along the water’s surface, chasing one another underwater, turning somersaults and diving for pebbles. In winter they will use a hole in the ice, surfacing where the water runs too fast to freeze. They eat mainly fish, and are opportunists, eating whatever is available, including frogs, shellfish, birds, eggs, small mammals and plants. They search for food on land and in water. Their extremely dense fur and layer of fat keeps them warm during the winter months.

Watching these otters on the lake, I saw that they were unperturbed by the rain, the grumpy beaver, and the presence of the canoe. Though their growls made them sound like miniature bears, that is just a part of their wide vocal range. Their main objective in life seems to be to eat and play, play and eat, with the emphasis on play. While almost every other creature on the planet is always on guard for predators and danger, otters seem exempt from worry or stress. What a life! And what a lovely example of how to live: whether rain, sleet or snow, get out there and enjoy being alive!

The Magic of River Otters

Aug., 2011

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