Two surprises popped out of a hole in the ice on a small roadside pond on Deer Isle as I drove by the other week: river otters! They didn’t seem to mind the cold and snow a bit as they frolicked on the ice and then dove back underwater.
Winter is a good time to see river otters, which have plush, dark brown fur and are between three and four feet long from nose to tail. These playful members of the weasel family are usually more active during the daytime in winter, but tend to be more active in the morning and evening the rest of the year.
Strong swimmers with long tails and webbed feet, river otters eat mostly fish (they can smell them in the water!). They also will dine on frogs, salamanders, crayfish, small mammals and birds, insects and earthworms.
You can look for otter slides and “latrines” near the shores of rivers, streams, lakes and marshes. Otter slides are shallow grooves up to 12 inches wide in snow, sand, or mud wide where otters slide along on their bellies. Latrines are—you guessed it—where they pee and poop (and also groom themselves and mark their territory). Otter scat is dark and often flecked with the scales of the fish they eat!
Although they’re seldom seen, river otters live along the forested shores of streams, lakes and other wetlands with plenty of cover. They breed in March and April and have litters of two or three pups about a year later. The pups stay with mom until the fall, when they set out to find their own territories.
River otters also will hunt for fish in the ocean! One December, my friend Cathy and I were doing the Audubon Christmas Bird Count when we saw three sleek mammals swimming just off shore at Naskeag Point here in Brooklin. We thought they were small seals, but when we looked through our binoculars, we saw that they were river otters! And last spring, a local naturalist showed us otter slides on Marshall Island—way out in Jericho Bay!
When I doubled checked New England Wildlife, sure enough, it said that otters will hunt in bays and estuaries! Speaking of estuaries, an otter will make a special appearance in The Secret Bay, my new book about estuaries, illustrated by Rebekah Raye and due out this September.
Happy otter spotting!