River Otters have latrines on land where they come to defecate, urinate and roll around, all in the same area. This area is used over and over and is referred to as roll or brown-out. The latter name is derived from the fact that much of the vegetation dies as a result of the urine and acid build-up. Most otter scat (also referred to as spraint) disintegrates fast and consists of piles of fish scales, with little form. However, if you come upon a recently-visited brown-out, or if the otter has consumed prey other than fish, such as crayfish, tubular scat can be present (see photo insert). Look for River Otter brown-outs on narrow strips of land that stick out into ponds, or a strip of land between two bodies of water. (Thanks to Squam Lakes Natural Science Center for rolling otter photo op.)
One 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.
North 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.