Otters are utter delight

A river otter at the Buffalo Zoo in Buffalo, N.Y.

A river otter at the Buffalo Zoo in Buffalo, N.Y. PHOTO COURTESY DAVE PAPE// WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

“Footprints in the Snow” is an old country song I like to hear and play on my violin, and it came vividly to mind when a friend asked me about some otter prints he and his son had found in the snow this week. The trail was quite easy to follow, though it led eventually out to the beach. Along the way, they discovered slides these playful mammals had made. Otters seem to have a playful nature and actually do things just for the fun of it. There are many places on this island near local ponds where they have been known to slide down an incline on their stomachs and right out on the ice over and over again. If you wander about near any of the local ponds, watch for their slides.

Otters are always wearing a beautiful warm coat, and they enjoy the Maine winter with its ice and cold temperatures. River otters are secretive creatures, and it is difficult to predict exactly where you will find them, but occasionally, they may be viewed as they swim in local ponds and in the water along the shore in their search for fish, frogs, salamanders, worms, small snakes and even some plants. The mammal’s sleek brown body is muscular, and the short legs very powerful. Some otters are even residents of the outer islands. We do not have any sea otters on the East Coast, so any otter seen on Mount Desert Island is a river otter.

If you do not get to see otters in the flesh, you may still find their slides in either mud or snow. They slide down such inclines on their bellies with their feet folded back out of the way and slip down a steep muddy bank right into the water. The same action is enjoyed in the winter on snow and ice.

Since otters are large mammals from 3-4 feet long, not including the tail, and weighing up to 30 pounds, look for a wide packed-down area on a steep bank leading to water. Although it is nice to think that these slides are just for fun, otters do use them also for moving about more easily, especially in the snow. The otter’s hind foot has five fully webbed toes with claws at the tip, and it is about 4.3 to 5.9 inches long. This is big compared to the foot of its weasel cousins.

The big fire in 1947 that burned thousands of acres here had a great influence on the otter population. The mature forests of spruce and fir were replaced by much more diverse woods that included aspen, birch and other deciduous species. With more food to their liking, beaver numbers increased, which in turn increased the numbers of ponds providing stable water levels year round. Those ponds provided a good supply of year-round food for the otters in the form of fish and amphibians. Otters sometimes use an abandoned beaver lodge for denning and as resting sites. They might also enlarge a muskrat house or woodchuck’s burrow for their den. I’ve also heard of them denning under the porches of summer cottages.

Last week, I spoke about flying squirrels on the island. Normally, the flying squirrel seen here is the northern flying squirrel. This past week, a very good naturalist friend of mine, living up near Franklin, identified the southern flying squirrel visiting her feeder off island. Down East Maine is near the northern boundary of the southern flying squirrel’s range. To have both flying squirrels visiting a feeder at night is very special. It will be interesting to watch them and to see how they differ in behavior.

Frigid temperatures were experienced over the weekend and made me think a lot about how the various forms of wildlife cope with such cold. We add layers to our clothing or turn up the heat in our houses and stay indoors. We don’t have to worry about catching our own food. Our local birds have much more to think about in order to stay alive when the temperatures dip very low. Dealing with cold temperatures for birds is serious business. Some birds fluff out their feathers to trap heat. The area between the puffed out feathers traps heat and acts as excellent insulation. The little goldfinches visiting your feeders now actually grow extra feathers for winter. Some birds use shivering all the time to escape freezing. Small birds have more trouble keeping warm than the larger ones.

Little tiny birds like chickadees shiver even when they are asleep. To keep their tiny feet warm, birds often stand on one foot and keep the other pulled up close to its body. They switch feet as needed. Ducks have warm blood circulating through the feet to heat them. Birds like the small quail or bobwhite circle tightly together all facing out to keep warmer. You can help winter birds to keep warm by providing many roosting boxes for different sized birds so several can roost together communally. Stocking your feeders with high energy food such as suet and black oil sunflower seeds in very cold weather will help as well.

Many of our native plants count on a snowy blanket to protect them from the cold. Seals have a special set of blood vessels to keep them warm. Manatees in Florida seek out the warm water discharged from power plants. Some kinds of fish come equipped with a natural “anti-freeze” to survive. All wildlife is living on the edge of life and death in very cold weather.

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.