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Dec 19, 2017 6:29 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Trailing The Elusive Otter

Dec 19, 2017 9:18 AM

On Sunday I decided to visit a relatively new otter “site” (documented in the fall of 2015) in East Hampton to see if there might be some fresh tracks in the snow after Friday’s snowfall. The light snowfall was just the right texture and depth for getting good tracks of an animal the size and weight of an otter. Based on when the snow stopped falling late Friday night, any tracks I found would be less than 36 hours old.The site had a series of otter scent stations, also known as otter latrines, along a berm separating a freshwater impoundment from a salt marsh. Many wildlife biologists get excited about searching for the “spoor” of their subjects of study, or even simply their favorite animals, “spoor” referring to any sign left by the creature. This includes feeding sign, marking sign (e.g. bite marks on trees made by bears), tracks and scat.

Some non-biologists find an interest in the latter a bit odd, perhaps even disgusting, but in addition to providing information on when the animal passed through by noting how fresh the scat is, it also provides a glimpse into an animal’s diet and, in turn, its habits and behavior. The fish scales and crab parts found in nearly all river otter scat can be examined under a microscope to identify the exact species that the otter preyed on: yellow perch, American eel, striped killifish, blue crab, crayfish, etc.

We have not deciphered exactly what kind of information the otters are communicating to each other at these sites. In addition to scat, they leave scent from several different glands. Unlike many other carnivores, otters are not territorial. Their home ranges overlap one another, and we speculate that the scent stations help avoid confrontations at key fishing spots.

I had visited this site in late November, and noted that the otter (or otters) had visited within the last one or two days. I went back again on December 8 and counted 50 piles of scat, all but a half dozen comprised of fish scales. That’s quite a lot of spoor, as otters tend to move around their home range frequently, and rarely spend more than a few days at one site. So I wondered if this might be a case of several otters traveling together. Young otters spend 10 to 12 months with their mother before dispersing in late winter, and this could be the spoor of a mother with nearly full-grown pups.

The first tracks I encountered on Sunday were of another person and a dog, but at the first of the series of scent stations I found the classic otter “scrape” forming a small pile of leaves on which fresh scat was deposited, surrounded by the perfect imprints in the snow of the otter’s five-toed front (smaller) and hind (larger) feet. This was worth getting the camera out for a couple of photographs.

The otter had exited an opening in the frozen freshwater pond directly up against the steep-sided bank, walked six feet to a small clearing, left its business card, and headed back into the pond.

While making my way to the next scent station, I heard a loud commotion off in the marsh, the dinosaur-like “Frrooonk!” call of a great blue heron. Looking up I spotted the source of its agitation, a red-tailed hawk, but not the bigger, long-legged, wading bird.

Wild turkey tracks joined those of Homo sapiens and Canis familiaris to the next otter scent station. As previously mentioned, the otter had exited the pond, scraped together a small pile of leaves in a clearing six feet upland from the water, deposited its fishy scat, and returned to an opening in the pond ice.

The story written in the snow at the third scent station was different. There the otter left its scat and continued on away from the pond, entering a stand of phragmites and sliding down an embankment into the salt marsh. There I lost its tracks as it entered a narrow, shallow tidal creek. Following along the creek’s muddy edge, I eventually picked up the tracks for a short while until it re-entered the creek.

Here I noted something that was worth getting my feet wet: dozens of small two- to three-inch-long fish, most likely mummichogs or striped killifish. On Saturday’s windy and cold Christmas Bird Count we found a few great blue herons and great egrets, and wondered what they were able to find to eat at this time of year. I assumed that the ubiquitous mummichogs and striped killifish found in our shallow embayments and tidal creeks had moved into deeper water and burrowed into the soft bottom sediments by December. Not so.

These abundant, nutritious fish are part of the otter’s diet. Otters are gregarious and known to forage together, herding schools of fish into shallow water where they are more easily captured. I could visualize the otters combining business and play here, making a game of chasing the fat baitfish among them in the inches deep tidewater before pinning one down for an appetizer.

As is the case with most field trips, I headed home with more questions than answers. I had hoped my trailing exercise might lead me to the location where the otters spent the day. A remote camera study that I completed some years ago revealed that scent stations are visited in the dead of night, and are a quick, less than a minute break from fishing. But where did they lounge during daylight hours?

The answer will have to wait until another snowfall.

Happy Holidays!

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