by Trudy Irvine, PaBIA Education Committee

A day trip to the Key Harbour area this past Saturday resulted in my first sighting of a North American River Otter. With my dogs and the rest of my party forging ahead on a walkabout of the outer island on which we had anchored, shouts caught my attention. I looked up just in time to see what looked like three extra-large minks come bounding out of a clump of cedars and plunge into the water. Three bewhiskered heads then floated off the shore for a few seconds, looking back at us and grunting indignantly. Fumbling my iPhone out, I was only able to record a very short and very poor-quality video peppered with profanity laced exclamations from my companions before the otters dove and swam away. Thank you to Helen Bryce for supplying me with the wonderful pictures taken at Flatrock Island.

Like mink, river otters are members of the weasel family, but where mink might weigh a maximum of 3 pounds, river otters can grow to be about 30. It hardly seems fair to call such  gregarious and playful creatures “weasels”- they live in family groups of adult females and their offspring, often with unrelated “helpers” of all ages. Juveniles engage in wrestling, chasing and other play that sharpens their swimming and hunting skills.

Males also establish enduring social groups with as many as 17 individuals. Otters are not strongly territorial, and their home ranges often overlap. Fish are a favorite food of the otter, and they also eat crayfish, turtles, amphibians, and freshwater clams and snails. (This was very obvious in their “latrine” area- whew.) These strong swimmers hunt mostly at night, and their acute senses of smell and hearing help with this, as well as a delicate sense of touch in their paws for dexterity. Their eyes are well adapted for aquatic hunting with built in goggles in the form of a transparent extra eyelid, but they are quite nearsighted out of the water.

Otters are active all winter long, coming and going from dens originally made by other animals such as fox or beaver, or in hollow logs or rock hollows lined with moss, leaves and hair.

Since I had my glimpse of the otters, I have heard of a few sightings in the Pointe au Baril area, several around the Shawanaga River. I am curious just how common these sightings are- I felt very lucky to finally spot these charming animals and was sorry to disturb their nap!