Look The Otter Way

Though we’re currently not gathering in groups such as Greater Lovell Land Trust’s Tuesday Trackers, which typically convenes when the first flakes fall, the mammals are still on the move, crisscrossing our lands as they hunt for food. With the latest snowstorm, a hike up the Flat Hill trail at Heald and Bradley Ponds Reserve revealed tracks of a red fox or two, red and gray squirrels, mice, a fisher, and the resident porcupines.

But . . .at a different locale, that being John A. Segur Wildlife Refuge East on Farrington Pond Road in Lovell, there were other signs and tracks left behind following an earlier Nor’easter.

For starters, a beaver chew, which turned out to be only half a success on the sawyer’s part.

For rather than the top of the tree topple as planned, it got hung up in its neighbor’s branches. Such is the case in maybe one out of every eight or nine attempts, especially along a shorefront as wooded as this.

Then there were the prints made by a mouse, presumably scampering along a downed tree that had collapsed on its own accord and landed in the water. On more than one occasion a track like this led to the end of a log in water and one has to wonder: why did the mouse scurry that way?

A larger mammal also left behind its telltale footprint—the chevron in the heel pad almost identical to that which David Brown sketched in his Trackards. Other clues to the identity of the creator included the size and the X between toe pads and heel. Perhaps the mouse scampered because the fox was trotting?

And then. And then there were the prints that might fool anyone who is just putting on his or her track eyes for the first time in this snowy season. And that would include me. The pattern of the overall track didn’t seem correct, but the icy clump left behind almost matched. Could it be a black bear? My heart be still.

Or . . . perhaps a moose. Flummoxed I was. One other possibility entered the brain because each print seemed rather rounded, but there was no other sign to make one feel certain about the creator’s species. What was obvious, however, was that it had gathered ice much like I was upon the underside of my micro-spikes and constantly I had to stomp the ground to loosen the frozen ball or risk walking on high heels. The latter I know not how to do.

Later I learned from Land Steward Rhyan Paquereau that a local resident rides her horse at JAS East. If only the horse had left behind a calling sign in the name of manure!

Other mammals, however, did leave plenty of signs announcing their frequent visits to this land trust property, including using this large boulder near the water as a frequently visited latrine.

There were piles of older scat filled with bones and scales that had grayed with age and practically disintegrated. An otter’s diet consists of birds, bird eggs, turtles, aquatic plants, and small mammals, but their favorite meals are crayfish and fish, thus the bones and scales.

There were fresher examples, also filled with scales indicating the meal of choice. Oh dear, I hope you aren’t dining on breakfast or lunch as you read this 😉 Otter scat can be tubular in shape, or look as if it was squirted. Sometimes it takes on a reddish hue, a la crayfish.

And where there is scat, there might even be urine. Scat and urine and anal gland emissions at the latrine all include information that we might see or smell, but more importantly, that another otter can interpret. The latrines are communal and it may be that one otter is announcing its intention to seek a date in the upcoming months or he may know where the best fishing spots are located and is willing to share the secret.

Part of the fun of looking for otter action is the discovery of a slide used repeatedly as you can see by the two different directions of the prints in the light snow covering.

Placing David’s Trackards on the side, gives a sense of width of one print on the right, and a discerning eye may see the second footprint located diagonally behind on the left. Weasels are bounders and their print pattern is typically on the diagonal.

And where else might there be tracks? Why, upon a log in the water that tells the rest of the story. Or perhaps it’s the beginning of the story, for the log served as a dinner table.

And based upon the blood left behind and location of the site, I’d surmise it was a fish that had been devoured.

Knowing that this was a frequently used area, it was time to set up a game camera a day later. And the next day, the action began.

Two hours later, another shot—we know not if it was the same or a second otter, for Rhyan had happened upon three of them frolicking in the water a day or so before my visit. Otters tend to follow a circuitous route in their home range, visiting the latrines over and over again to defecate, scent mark, and roll around as a means of spreading oil throughout their coats to make them waterproof, which is why our frigid temperatures don’t affect them.

The next morning it appeared that two or maybe three, romped by the latrine. A day or so before I visited, Rhyan had seen three frolicking in the water. Chances are it’s a momma and her kids appearing to “play,” which in otter speak means she’s teaching them how to hunt or some other survival skill.

Two days later and our friends made it obvious that they are active both day and night. The trick to seeing one: being present. Or, as we did, using a game camera to capture some of the action.

Because you never know when one might to decide to pose for a selfie and look the otter way. Naturally.