WELCOME GUEST  |  LOG IN
transportation, hamptons, jitney
27east.com

Sports Center

Oct 22, 2018 1:52 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

In Search Of Otter Sign

A remote camera caught this sequence in East Hampton on September 6: one otter exits the drainage pipe from a freshwater pond into a tidal creek, shown here. MIKE BOTTINI
Oct 22, 2018 1:52 PM

While Long Island’s fall foliage show is no match for upstate New York and New England, late October is as good as it gets here. The best colors can be found along our freshwater creeks and ponds, and they are best viewed from the seat of your favorite paddling craft.Autumn rains usually raise water levels enough to float your craft through areas that in mid-summer are unnavigable shoals. This is my favorite time to paddle the Peconic River, but this past weekend I decided to stay closer to home and spend an afternoon on Long Pond in the Long Pond greenbelt.

A 1992 Southampton Town study lists Long Pond as 74 acres in size, and determined that pond depths “averaged approximately six feet” with its deepest point 11 feet. The pond shrinks quite a bit and gets noticeably shallower in most summers, and along with its abundant aquatic vegetation—both the floating leaf pads of fragrant lily and spatterdock, and a variety of emergent vegetation including broad-leaved cattails, ludwigia and Canada rush—makes for awkward paddling. But by October the aquatic vegetation had thinned out some, and recent rains raised the pond enough to make for an enjoyable paddle.

I had another reason for exploring the pond’s shoreline: at least one otter had moved into the pond this past spring and established several scent stations along its western and southern shorelines. I wanted to survey the east side of the pond, and the easiest way to access that stretch is by shallow draft canoe or kayak.

One noticeable difference between the fall and the summer or spring seasons on a pond is noise. No frogs calling, no red-winged blackbirds maintaining territories in the marshes with the loud “Bokaree!” song, and no geese or ducks cackling. It was very quiet. Among the few wildlife calls heard that afternoon was the loud rattle of the kingfisher.

A stocky, short-necked heron perched on a tupelo took flight quietly, and landed further down the pond on a white oak. With binoculars I could make out its yellowish legs and brown and white streaks on its breast, marking it as a juvenile black-crowned night-heron. According to Bull’s Birds of New York State, this species will remain on Long Island during mild winters when it can find shallow open water to hunt for food.

There was a striking difference in the foliage of the woody “wetland” plants from that of the upland species. Most of the latter was predominantly green, including the American beech and the oaks. Among the wetland edge species, tupelo was already bare of its leaves while the red maple showed much variation, perhaps reflecting its tolerance of both wet and dry soils. An exception to the pattern here was clethra, a dominant shrub in the pond’s wetland fringe yet in full photosynthesizing mode having lost none of the chlorophyll from its leaves.

Pulling ashore at one of the tiny wooded islands, all of which are linked to the eastern shore by swaths of impenetrable shrub swamp, I documented another otter scent station, or latrine, this one visited the previous night based on the fresh deposit of greenish-black fish remains.

I know that the pond has lots of “otter food,” including two of their much-favored prey: American eel and crayfish. But I paddled over to the two fishermen in a very small, flat-bottomed craft outfitted with an electric motor to see what they have been reeling in. “Yellow perch and large-mouth bass” was the reply, not seconds before hooking into a seven inch bass, a perfect size for an otter.

Both fish species are excellent fare for an otter in winter when many of the estuarine fishes have moved offshore into deeper water and the haunt of another piscivore: the seal. Lacking the seal’s superb insulation—a thick layer of blubber—that works well both on land and in the water, otters must be efficient in their search for food when the water temperature drops into the 30s. And they have the added challenge of maintaining the insulation value of their fur in salt water, which decreases the fur’s ability to trap air.

Their hunting efficiency would greatly diminish should they deplete a pond’s fish stocks by remaining too long. To prevent this, otters follow a pattern of visiting a stretch of river, creek or pond for just a few days before moving on, no matter how good the fishing is. Constantly moving around in their large home ranges ensures a healthy fish and crab population.

As the sun dips below the forest and I paddle back to the put-in, a large dark bird flies eastward: a young-of-the-year bald eagle ... a great sighting to end the trip!

Back home I hear from a friend who happened to be fishing off the northwest coast of Fishers Island last week, perhaps a half-mile or more from the island, but within sight of a small group of uninhabited islands further offshore. “I saw this head pop up and right away thought “seal,” but a second look made me realize that I was looking at a river otter!”

You've read 1 of 7 free articles this month.

Already a subscriber? Sign in