An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

North American River Otter

North American River Otters Sliding

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There is no denying that North American River Otters know how to travel and have fun in winter. Whether on a flat surface such as a frozen pond or river, field, or down slopes, otters take advantage of the snow, bounding then dropping to their belly and sliding, saving precious energy. Most slides are relatively short, around 10 feet long and 6-10 inches wide, though they can be as long as 25 feet long on slippery ice. At the beginning and end of a slide there are tracks (from where they push off with their hind feet, and cease sliding and begin bounding again), creating a dot-dash pattern. Sometimes a downhill slide is used repeatedly and when it is, bobsledders have nothing over otters, as water from the otters’ coats creates an icy and very slippery slide.

For those of you who would like to view an excellent video of an otter sliding, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBB0OLOkvIU .

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Low Water Levels Provide Palette for Tracks

10-27-16-tracks2-1The low water levels in our ponds this fall do have one benefit – visitors leave obvious signs in the exposed muddy banks. It is fairly astounding how much nocturnal and crepuscular wildlife regularly visits these spots and remains undetected by humans under normal conditions.

 Under cover of darkness, White-tailed Deer, Mink, Raccoons and a variety of birds and small mammals frequently visit and leave traces of their presence in the form of tracks. Other creatures whose tracks you may well find in the exposed mud of wetlands this year include Beavers, Muskrats and River Otters.

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Young Otters Just Beginning to Explore Outside Their Den

e-river otter 125Between February and April, female North American River Otters give birth to an average of two or three young inside their dens, which tend to be near water, usually in an excavated cavity under tree roots, logs or thickets.  Occasionally they have been known to give birth in abandoned beaver and muskrat lodges as well as woodchuck burrows.  The mother doesn’t allow her young to exit their den until they are three or four months old, which, for the oldest litters, is in May.  At this point, after their waterproof adult coats have grown in, she begins to teach them how to swim (surprisingly, this skill is not innate). The mother continues to be very protective and secretive, hiding and shielding the young (even from their father) until they are about six month old.  Thus, glimpses of young otters are not likely to be had until late summer, and only then if you’re lucky. (Photo: adult river otter. Thanks to Heidi Marcotte and Tom Wetmore for photo op.)

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North American River Otters Running & Gliding

2-24-16 otter slide 142One hundred years ago, naturalists were puzzled by the disappearance of otters in the winter. Some people theorized that they must be hibernating, but in fact, otters are active throughout the year — they just aren’t observed as often in the winter as in the summer. Because they inhabit water, where the fish that they eat are found, and often reside in bank dens (above water level), otters can spend most of their winter under cover of ice. However, some do travel over land from open water to open water, upon occasion. In fact, it is not unusual for them to cover several miles in their search for an open stream or a spring. Run and glide, run and glide, often along a frozen river or marsh, but also through the woods, where otter tracks seem so incongruous. Paired foot prints stop and start each slide; this combination is a dead giveaway as to who is making grooves in the snow. Ultimately, if you persevere when following them, you will find that these slides disappear into open water.

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Otter Tracks

3-3-15 otter tracks IMG_5843North American River Otters have four webbed feet and strong claws that assist them in water as well as on land. There is relatively little hair on the soles of otter feet, and therefore the individual pads are often well defined in good tracking snow. Each foot leaves a five-toed track, with the inside toe on the front feet being somewhat smaller than the others. Otters have four plantar pad glands in the center of each hind foot with which they mark mounds of vegetation they create.

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Otter Ingenuity

1-30-14 otter slides  058North American River Otter tracks are usually found where otters have travelled from one body of water to another. In the winter, this can be on frozen streams as well as over land. If they come to an incline, even a small one, they often take advantage of it by letting gravity do the work on the way down. In this photograph, two otters travelling together had the same idea at the same time, and reached the marsh at the bottom of the hill by effortlessly sliding down the hill on their bellies, leaving two 12-inch-wide grooves in the snow. Although John James Audubon, in the mid-1800s, observed a pair of otters sliding down an embankment over and over 22 times, stopping only when they discovered that they were being observed, the otters that made the tracks in this photograph were intent on getting where they were going, and only slid down once.

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Otter Holes

1-20-14 otter hole IMG_5577River otters are one of the most aquatic members of the weasel family. They can swim up to six or seven miles per hour on the surface of the water as well as underneath it, and can remain submerged for up to two minutes. Otters spend a great deal of time fishing under the ice, and obtain oxygen from open holes such as the one pictured (as well as from air bubbles under the ice). As their tracks indicate, otters come up onto the ice to eat their prey, be it fish or crayfish, their two favorite winter meals.

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