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Jul 1, 2019 4:16 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

River Otters Could Be Repopulating On Long Island

Mike Bottini, a wildlife biologist, has been surveying local otters for the past 10 years. ELIZABETH VESPE
Jul 2, 2019 12:39 PM

Three otters were fishing off the coast of Southold as Mike Bottini, a wildlife biologist who counts otters each year, was paddling his kayak through the water with a camera dangling around his neck. Without making a sound as he paddled toward the semi-aquatic mammals, Mr. Bottini sat still as his kayak drifted 30 feet or so away from the animals. The otters, which measure about 4 feet long from nose to the tip of the tail, were so intent on fishing that they continued to come up for air, and then dive deep down in search of fish, eels and blue crabs.

“One noticed me,” he said while recounting the very rare sighting of the mostly nocturnal animals, which occurred last summer. “Otters can dive down and go a quarter mile or so without coming up for air.”

But then: “One otter made a sound as the other two became visibly agitated and excited.”

The three otters lifted their heads above the water a few times to get a better look at Mr. Bottini. When they darted under the water, he said, he thought they’d have to come up for air eventually and that he could snap some photos.

But they disappeared, most likely to a cattail marsh area at the edge of the pond.

Mr. Bottini, who also is the outdoors columnist for The Press, told this story on a recent Thursday afternoon while kayaking through the Long Pond Greenbelt in Bridgehampton on his way to collect video cameras that were set up to record possible otter sightings.

Since 2008, he has been conducting an otter survey on Long Island, and evidence shows that otter populations on the island are increasing year after year.

Since he began documenting the presence of otters, 168 potential “latrine” sites have been surveyed—with 77 confirmed by the presence of otter scat, or, in layman’s terms, poop. These latrine sites represented 26 sub-watersheds, compared to only seven sub-watersheds, or ponds, bearing evidence of otters in 2008. Of 143 sites surveyed that year, 22 contained otter scat.

All those numbers suggest that the Long Island river otter population has increased and expanded its distribution over the past decade. Mr. Bottini has evidence of otters living on the north shore of Nassau County, as well as in Greenport, Southold and the Long Pond Greenbelt.

Whether swimming or walking on all fours, a single otter can have a home range that measures 12 linear miles. An otter that visits the Long Pond area could be the same one that visits Barcelona Beach in Sag Harbor, and maybe even Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island.

On this particular Thursday, the sound of Mr. Bottini’s boots crunching the branches echoed throughout the wooded area of Long Pond as he searched for his cameras hidden in the trees and bushes.

Mr. Bottini spotted a small pile of otter scat from a distance. “You can see the fish scales. Here’s a perfect scale,” he said as he knelt down to take a whiff and lifted a fish scale up to his face.

What makes looking for otters fairly easy while paddling, Mr. Bottini explained, is that disturbed areas where leaves have been removed or where reeds have been broken suggest that an otter may have been present recently. Otter scat is normally within 10 feet of the edge of the water because they won’t travel far into the woods to relieve themselves.

Originally, scientists believed that otters stayed on land most of the day, entering the water mostly to search for food. However, after years of research and videotaping the creatures, Mr. Bottini said that he sees they only come out of the water to “do their business” at the latrine sites for less than a minute, then return to the water.

“Here’s some fish bones,” he said while examining the scat. “This reddish stuff is the remains of crayfish, which are local to the pond.” Due to the rain, the scat had been flattened out. Based on the smell, Mr. Bottini said, the scat would be about two to three weeks old, meaning an otter was recently in the area.

“There’s still so much we don’t know,” he said while leaving the scat behind and continuing toward a camera.

Typically, otters come up on an island to leave their “sign,” Mr. Bottini said, which is how they communicate with each other so they can avoid aggressive interactions.

“We think that they’re communicating: ‘It’s okay—join me if you want to fish here,’ or ‘Go away—I’ll be here another few days.’”

Otters remain active all year. During the winter, when the pond is frozen over and there is snow on the ground, they tunnel into the snow drift in the cattail marshes to build igloos.

The otter cameras are activated by movement, including blowing leaves or flying insects. Altogether, Mr. Bottini had 1,700 videos collected on that single camera. He said watching the videos is very tedious, and involves seeing hours and hours of footage only to find a few seconds, or minutes, of pictures and videos that include otters.

One recent video, taken during the day on a small piece of land toward the southern end of Long Pond, showed a male and female otter together. The male, Mr. Bottini said, was doing a scent marking behavior—stomping his rear feet, urinating, and relieving himself of fish scat while the female was off to the side.

In the 1600s, otters were found all over North America, in most waterways and estuaries with abundant supplies of fish, crabs and eels. Their pelts became highly valued in the growing fur trade—short, but super dense—tough, insulating, and very durable.

Mr. Bottini explained that Long Pond would be an ideal location for a female otter to give birth to her young, with no outboard motors allowed, limited houses, and a fairly quiet spot with not many predators.

Otters are at near the top of the food chain, but sometimes hawks, or larger birds will prey upon the babies.

“Nothing will bother the adults because they’re fairly large, and tough,” Mr. Bottini explained.

However, it is not uncommon for otters to be killed as they cross the road to go to travel to bodies of water. The first winter after the 2008 study, three road-killed otters were reported to Mr. Bottini in an area of the north shore of Nassau County.

With the way the survey has been going in the past decade, Mr. Bottini said, he believes otters will be abundant on Long Island again in the next decade.

“The otter could even make its way to East Hampton, eventually,” he said.

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Thank you for this fascinating article and photos [especially of the otters during the night].

Well done Mr. Bottini.

By PBR (4953), Southampton on Jul 4, 19 7:12 AM
I LOVE Otters !!!!!!
By Sturgis (605), Southampton on Jul 4, 19 9:43 AM