Otters in the Midst

Top Photo: Otter latrine.

I’ve been documenting the occurrence of otters in our wetlands since before 2010 when I saw tracks of one of the mustelids on snow covered ice in the wetlands.

Tracks on snow covered ice (February 2010).

On one occasion during that time period I saw a large golden shiner, about 10” (they can reach 12”) floating in the water next to the Main Wetlands Overlook. It had a u-shaped mark on the middle portion of its body, as if something had grasped the fish with its mouth. There was some discussion at the time whether or not shiners that large actually lived in the wetlands, this was proof.

I rushed to get my camera out of a vehicle parked some 50 feet away. By the time I returned, the fish was gone. There was no sign or indication what had happened to it, where it had gone. There was no wind or wave action to blow the fish away. Whatever had bitten the fish must have returned to claim it, along with the proof that large shiners did indeed live in the wetlands. Otter? (These days, the camera stays with me).

There was a long dry period when I saw very little otter sign, no foot prints, scat and certainly no live animals. This seems to have coincided with the disappearance of the wetland’s submergent vegetation, golden shiners, and many of the invertebrate animal species in the wetlands, and the increase in red swamp crawfish.

In January of 2021, I discovered a community, or communal, latrine off the boardwalk. It wasn’t a discovery as such, it was in a very visible location where anyone who bothered to look over the railing of our 750 foot boardwalk could see it. It was at the base of a dawn redwood tree at the bottom of the boardwalk.

Otters tend to relieve themselves in a familiar location with some consistency. When in any specific area, they use the same place to poop over and over. It’s referred to as a latrine.

Some of the scat in this particular latrine was old, some fresh. It looked as if it was used on a regular basis. The otters must be visiting the wetlands routinely, but not every day.

In December of 2021 there was a large amount of scat in the leaf liter, again, at the very bottom of the boardwalk which I suspected was otter. It had all the earmarks of otter scat, shells, scales and roundworms. I didn’t know it at the time but otters commonly carry with them various parasitic worms. The worms I saw looked to me to be roundworms, though I’m not an expert (I have a sample in a vile at my desk).

Scat with parasitic worms at boardwalk latrine (December, 2021).

Early one morning, a few months ago, I saw a disturbance along the edge of the open water, just out of view. I never saw what made the disturbance, but suspect otters.

It’s fall 2022 and otters have been seen and photographed during the day in our wetlands (see here)

A new Floating Walkway is now in the wetlands. Alongside the walkway are floating planters where one can grow aquatic plants out of the reach of creatures like the invasive red swamp crawfish that now inhabit our wetland. It turns out, these floating planters also make good platforms in which to have a community latrine.

I noticed dried scat on one of the platforms floating next to the walkway. It was chock-full of crawfish fragments. The scat was old, and dried, it didn’t look like the latrine had been used in a while. A trail camera was set up in hopes they would return. No luck.

Dried scat with crawfish fragments.

Otter scat typically contains fish scales, shell fragments and any other undigestible parts of whatever the animal was eating, like the exoskeletons of crawfish.

A week or so later, scat was spotted very near the original location, just feet away. A trail-cam was redeployed. Although the otters had paid a visit, they weren’t captured on the cam.

Latrine located on floating platforms (matted down grass).

Is our little wetlands just a stopover on their beat? There’s no doubt otters are visitors to our wetlands. They tend to move around a lot and seem always on the go. They’re listed as crepuscular and or nocturnal, meaning they’re active at dusk, dawn and at night when we humans are not walking the pathways of the museum. There are nooks and crannies on one side of the wetlands in which otters could spend the day. There’s plenty of holes, roots, and crevices where an otter or two could while away the daylight hours out of view.

Over the years, otters have been visiting the wetlands and have simply avoided being seen. Even their sign, that is, foot prints, scat, etc., have been difficult to observe since there were few spots a person could easily approach to make observations. I’ve been asked many times if otters live in our wetlands and I’ve always had to reply “I’ve seen their sign but have never seen the animal itself,” until recently, that is. I think though, that their visits may be more frequent now than in the past.

What’s the best way to attract otters to a wetland? Otters will come if you create an environment where aquatic plants, insects, fish, frogs and other creatures can thrive. It helps if there is a stream leading to or from the wetland. Creeks, streams and rivers are their roads.

If we maintain pressure on the crawfish population in our wetland by continued trapping of the arthropods, and it seems the otters are helping in that matter by eating the crawfish, the wetlands may take care of itself and the otters will stick around and become a regular, and very welcomed, part of the scene.

They’ve probably been in and out of our wetland many times over the years, only just recently making themselves more noticeable by the presence of their latrines and occasional, very occasional, daytime appearances.

Lontra canadensis (9.15.22).

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