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Difficult to Catch a Glimpse of the Shy River Otter

Difficult to Catch a Glimpse of the Shy River Otter

It was a freezing cold January morning in 1979. My job at Old Sturbridge Village that morning involved feeding and watering a dozen sheep, two cows, one calf and General Lee (a horse). Maggie, the cow, had been milked and was happily munching the last bits of loose hay. Stalls had been cleaned and two wheelbarrow loads of manure had been hauled to the expansive, steaming pile located just outside the barn. Morning chores were done, and I sat in the warm sun by the back door of the barn to finish a breakfast of now-cold coffee and a muffin.

About 100 feet from the barn, down a steep embankment, meandered the half-frozen Quinebaug River. Slowed by a 10-foot tall dam, the backwater was a combination of moving dark liquid slipping beneath sheets of white, snow-covered ice. My peaceful repose from morning farm chores was suddenly interrupted by the splash of a long, dark brown, glistening, sleek acrobat. Up from the water and onto the ice slipped the largest member of the weasel family (Mustelidae) found in Connecticut, rarely seen, but never forgotten. It sat on the ice eating a smallmouth bass breakfast as I watched in awe. I will always remember that winter morning and my first river otter sighting.

Since that January morning almost 40 years ago, I have seen river otters perhaps a dozen or more times. Most of my sightings have come while paddling the Quinebaug River. I’ve also caught a glimpse of these elusive creatures while paddling the Shetucket and Natchaug rivers, and when walking along the side of a pond just at dusk. Winter is a good time to see otters because they stand out against white snow and ice, when more sensible muskrat and beaver are slumbering in burrows and lodges.

River otters are very shy of humans and are seen less frequently than other water mammals. One time, I was in my kayak and 100 feet ahead of me I could see the head and nose of a swimming animal gliding effortlessly through the water. I knew it wasn’t a beaver or muskrat as soon as the head extended out of the water to show a sleek neck, then a slender body followed by a long tail. The animal rose slightly above the surface of the water before sliding headfirst down into the river depths. No other swimming mammal moves like an otter.

A great resource for information about our region’s animals is the Wildlife Division of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. DEEP produces wildlife fact sheets and posts them on its website. Here is a synopsis of DEEP’s information about river otters.

The state’s river otter population is healthy and stable. They are found in parts of Canada, the Northwest, upper Great Lakes area, New England and Atlantic and Gulf Coast states.

River otters have a slim, stream-lined body, with short legs and a long, muscular tail that is wider at the base and thinner at the tip. They average 36 to 50 inches long from the head to the tip of the tail (the tail can measure from 12 to 18 inches long by itself) and weigh between 12 and 25 pounds.

The otter’s overall color is dark brown, which pales to gray on the underside. The otter’s head is small with a broad nose and small eyes and ears. Otters spend most of their time in the water and have large, webbed feet for this purpose. They have sharp, strong claws on their feet to help them catch prey.

River otters live in aquatic habitats — streams, rivers, lakes, and freshwater and saltwater marshes. They prefer to live in marshes and along wooded rivers and streams with pools and overhanging rocky banks. They will use dens made by beavers, muskrats or woodchucks.

A thick coating of insulating fat overlays the body of an otter, and the underfur is soft, dense and durable. Air becomes trapped in the fur and helps to insulate the otter when it is underwater.

The ears and nose have a valve-like skin that closes and keeps the otter watertight while under water. Otters have long, stiff, and highly sensitive facial whiskers behind and below the nose that aid in finding and capturing prey.

The otter is a graceful and swift swimmer, capable of staying submerged for up to four minutes and swimming a quarter of a mile under water. Otters can dive to a depth of 60 feet and can reach a speed of 7 miles per hour when swimming. The flattened and well-muscled tail enhances the otter’s swimming ability.

Their diet consists of fish, frogs, crayfish, shellfish, and sometimes aquatic insects, snakes, turtles, salamanders, earthworms, and small birds and mammals.

The home range of an otter is extensive, covering as much as 50 miles. It may take two weeks to a month for an otter to cover its territory. An otter rarely stays in one place for more than a few days.

While not built for land travel, the otter does move along rapidly in an awkward lope. In snow, an otter can move quickly by throwing itself forward on its belly and sliding with all four legs tucked backward. A similar motion on ice is extremely efficient.

Being quite sociable, otters are often observed in family groups in summer and early fall. Otters “play” more than most wild animals — wrestling, chasing other otters, tossing and diving for rocks, toying with live prey and, occasionally, sliding.

I have friends who have seen an otter swimming at dusk in the Quinebaug River in Putnam, adjacent to the Quinebaug River Trail, in the section below Cargill Falls. One of the more interesting sightings I’ve had of a river otter was on the Shetucket River. I was enjoying a winter hike at the Sprague Land Preserve on the western side of the river.

I walked to the Scotland Dam and noticed interesting tracks in the snow that came out of the water below the dam and climbed up the hill to the top of the earthen side of the dam. When the animal reached the top, the footprints ended, replaced with a long “slide” depression in the snow down the side of the embankment and into the water upstream of the dam. My curiosity about what had made the print tracks was answered as soon as I saw the slide depression. A quick scan of the river confirmed my suspicion. There on the ice was a river otter – munching on a fish.

I gave a chuckle and called out, “hey otter, didn’t I see you years ago on the Quinebaug River in Sturbridge?” The otter looked up, rolled onto its back and turned its head to look at me, before rolling over again and slipping quietly into the water. I hope I didn’t interrupt its lunch.

Our region is home to many species of amazing animals. River otters are one of my favorites. Maybe that is because of the otter’s unique qualities of human-like play and frolic, or perhaps it is because I encounter them so infrequently. They are always a surprise to see, and forever a quiet reminder of our beautiful region and the quality of our rivers. I hope you’ll join me and others as we care for, enjoy, and pass on this place we, and river otters, call home — The Last Green Valley.

Bill Reid is the chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He has lived in the region for more than 35 years and can be reached at bill@tlgv.org

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