A River Otter enjoys a spring day near Haliburton, Ontario
A River Otter enjoys a spring day near Haliburton, Ontario
Bob and I had the opportunity to drive to the town of Haliburton on a recent spring weekend, with a set time required for our arrival, so nothing much was going to get in our way of arriving on schedule. As we drove along Highway 35, Bob drew my attention to a black blob on the ice of Cedar Lake, and I recognized it immediately as a River Otter (Lontra canadensis).
Never having a close encounter with a River Otter before, Bob did a hasty u-turn and rolled along the shoulder of the road until we had a view of the Otter where it lay on the frozen lake’s surface. I wouldn’t call this a close encounter, but at least we could make out the species and observe some of the Otter’s movements.
Bob and I stepped over the metal guardrail to gain an additional 15 feet or so in the direction of the River Otter, but a steep bank covered in loose gravel with a band of open water at the bottom forestalled our efforts for an even closer observation point. We were dressed for an event and could not risk slipping and falling this time ’round.
As spring days go, this one was almost balmy. Warm temperatures prevailed, the sun shone brightly, and the River Otter seemed as pleased as we were to finally see winter coming to an end. River Otters are typically more active between dusk and dawn, but during winter months, they become more diurnal as opposed to nocturnal. I guess this particular River Otter figured, given the ice on the lake, that it was still winter even as it lay there soaking up some sunshine.
As this River Otter lay sprawled on the icy surface, the position of one foot in particular provided a good view of its fully-webbed toes. This is one characteristic that makes River Otters well-equipped for aquatic life; webbed feet make for faster swimming.
Several times, the River Otter would disappear down its hole through the ice, allowing us to see its long, tapered tail. Ice holes are necessary so that a River Otter can surface and breathe during the winter. The large, stout tail is designed to give a River Otter a streamlined profile when swimming, and it is used for propelling an Otter rapidly through the water as well as providing stability, sort of like a keel.
This River Otter would remain submerged for minutes at a time. Much like when Bob and I observed a Beaver during the winter, we were left wondering if the Otter would reemerge through its ice hole, or had it swam off to its burrow at the edge of the lake? They are capable of holding their breath for up to eight minutes at a time, and we had little of that to spare, but we persevered only to see the Otter climb back out into the light of day.
This one time, the River Otter seemed pretty pleased with itself, and we could make out something clasped between its webbed feet. With his head raised and mouth yawning, it appeared that the Otter was singing its praises before beginning to eat its catch. River Otters have a broad muzzle on a flat head, and set against the darker grey of the face, we could even make out the long, thick pale whiskers or vibrissae. Because the whiskers appeared white-tipped, there is a good chance that this one is an older Otter.
Even though Bob and I were hundreds of feet distant, the River Otter was keenly aware of our presence. As it turned its attention towards us, it looked like the Otter gave us a toothy grin. River Otters are members of the weasel family, and as a mustelid, an Otter has teeth specialized to inflict lethal bites to prey and to crush hard shells of mollusks and crayfish.
For several minutes, the River Otter just held its prey close; it seemed in no rush to eat it. By zooming in on our photographs, Bob and I were able to determine that the Otter had caught a very large crayfish. We could distinguish its claws and feelers. River Otters will prey upon whatever species is readily available with fish making up the bulk of their diet for most of the year, but during winter and spring months, when water levels are higher, fish become more spread out and less easy to catch.
In hot summer months, when water levels dwindle, fish become more concentrated and crayfish seek out shelter, thus making fish the easiest catch of the day. Of course, River Otters also consume frogs, turtles and even small mammals such as muskrats or rabbits as well as the odd bird. A River Otter’s sensitive whiskers enhance its perception in dark and murky water making it easier for the Otter to detect prey, and its sharp claws enable it to get a good grasp on slippery critters.
The River Otter turned its back on us when it was time to eat…protecting its food perhaps…which gave us a nice perspective of its stocky, muscular body and lustrous fur. This amphibious member of the weasel family has short fur that can vary in colour from light brown to black, but no matter what colour, the thick, water-repellent coat of fur protects and insulates an Otter from the icy cold waters of frozen lakes.
River Otters go by several different names, among them North American River Otter and Northern River Otter. These otters inhabit most areas of North America except the Far North, and they are the only river otters found north of Mexico. Basically anywhere with a constant food supply and easy access to water suits their needs, and they will take up residence near freshwater as well as in coastal areas.
Our distance from the River Otter belies the heft of its body. These creatures can grow to be 4.5 feet long (1.4 m), with the tail making up one-third of that length, and will achieve a weight of between 11-30 pounds (5-14 kg). Bob and I only spared about 20 minutes to observe the River Otter, and during that time, it slipped down through the ice hole three times. The last time, we waited patiently for the Otter to resurface once again, had our eyes trained on the opening, but in the end, we figured it must have swam off to its burrow or popped up somewhere along the distant fringe of the ice. In another few short days, the whole lake would be open, and spotting the Otter the next time we pass by will be all that much more difficult.
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