Mornings Are For Otters
Nature Bummin’ with MCHT Steward Kirk Gentalen
“When is the best time to see river otters?”
I was asked the above question this summer, right around mid-August, when I posted a river otter video on “the Instagram” (handle @baldfulmar). Instantly, I came up with a couple of obvious answer, “any time is the best time”, but this was clearly the wrong answer. What the questioner was looking for, was a specific time of day that would increase her chances of seeing river otters in the flesh (and we’re not talking about the Pink Floyd song here).
I am asked this question often enough that I have an actual quasi-standard response which includes an impressively inefficient babble about how most otter activity picked up by my motion sensor trail cameras happens in the middle of the night—during the wee hours if you will.
So even though otters can, and will be active any time of the day, from my (limited) experience they are most consistently largely nocturnal. The truth of the matter is I didn’t actually know the answer, because I don’t know what the best time to see river otters is. I’m still not sure, but as of now at least I have a hunch—a solid hunch.
Teaser: I share that hunch somewhere towards the end of this column. Actually, the hunch is partially in the title of this column, but over-simplified. If only otter watching was that easy… in a perfect world.
But Otters Are Easy
Full disclosure—in the never-ending quest of “getting to know the neighbors”—river otters are my favorite animals to track, hands down. And if I am being honest, one of the biggest reasons why I like to track otters is that the sessions are quick, simple, and super informative. One might even say that “I am a fan of how, when learning about otters, the learning is efficient.” That is if one happened to find themselves talking about my interest in otters.
How is learning “efficient” you ask? We have probably gone over this before, but when you think of otters, you’re likely picturing them in (or very close to) water—just making sure we are on the same page here. However, river otters will den, mark, and sometimes travel distances (both short and long) across land, which technically makes them a “semi-terrestrial” mammal. Their cousin the sea otter—you know, the cute ones that only live in the Pacific Ocean—spend their whole life at sea and are truly an aquatic mammal. The ones in Maine are not sea otters, even if you see them in the sea. So, let’s forget “our” otters’ west coast cousins. Who should we forget about again, you ask? I can’t remember.
“Spraint” is the word
Anyway, a key part of the phrase “semi-terrestrial” is “semi”, and river otters do have to go to land for a few essential activities. One important use of the terrestrial world is the underground lairs where they sleep, give birth, and nurse the next generation. Some of these secret lairs even come with underwater access (very cool)! Beyond resting accommodations, river otters will also go onto land to mark—mark territories, mark trails, mark dens, and mark their presence.
One important use of the terrestrial world is the underground lairs where they sleep, give birth, and nurse the next generation.
Otters have glands on their body for scent marking and they leave behind signs that we (the royal “we”) are not able to detect. But the markings I’m talking about can be detected and that is in the form of scat—or what is lovingly referred to as “spraint” in Britain. And when we are talking about otters, we are talking about a lot of spraint. The combination of an otter’s need to mark and their very active digestive system equates to frequent trips to land.
So, what does river otter’s spraint consist of? And what does it look like?
If you were to ask me the questions above (I don’t think anyone ever has) I would say, along coastal Maine, river otter spraint most often consists of fish scales and bones and bits of crab exoskeletons. I’ve also seen lobster remains making up much of some spraint (don’t tell fishermen or the Monterey Bay Aquarium). When around fresh water they eat amphibians and that’s when their spraint gets a little (shoulder shake), uh, gross. Not that fish and crab spraint ain’t gross, it’s just that ampho-spraint (just made that word up) is much grosser.
Otter spraints come out in tubular shapes, but the “spraint tube” shape breaks apart quite easily, often with the first rains, often sooner, leaving behind piles of fish bones and crab parts. So, when you find an intact spraint tube, you know it’s a fresh one.
Where can if find this so-called “spraint”?
River otters are creatures of habit, like so many animals and humanoids, and are guilty of having many habits they are a creature of. One of their biggest habits (and dare I say best—judgment) involves the placement of spraints as tools for marking. Otters will lay a tubular of fish bones at specific marking locations within a territory. Once you start noticing otter spraint, you’ll get the feeling that otters are everywhere.
One important use of the terrestrial world is the underground lairs where they sleep, give birth, and nurse the next generation.
So, for the most part, river otters save their spraint for these well visited and well-marked locations—locations that are likely to be visited by other otters. Three classic sprainting sites include: points of land jutting out into bodies of water, high points along a shoreline, or places where two bodies of water meet—say a stream and a lake for example. Otters will also routinely spraint at the beginning and end of overland trails between bodies of water, as well as close to active dens.
These are the spots they use to get a variety of messages out—territory, numbers, estrus, etc. It’s conversation via spraint if you will. An otter may have a couple dozen (or more) of these spraint spots within a territory, so they have plenty of opportunities to put those tubulars to use. And from the amount (quantity of spraints) that can be found, it should be noted that there is no shortage of material. Some of those in the business refer to these locations as “latrines”, while others stick to calling them “marking areas”. Spraint don’t care what you call it.
Overall, the learning was at a good pace I would say
I got turned onto tracking otters when I moved to Vinalhaven in 2004. I didn’t know anything about spraint or latrines when I got there but coming from coastal California, I quickly learned that snow is a great medium for tracking. I also learned (quickly again) that river otters were the second largest mammal on the island behind white-tailed deer. Okay, there may be an island raccoon or two that could give an otter a run-on girth alone, but I digress.
Anyway, it didn’t take long to learn that the tracks and trails of a wandering deer on an island with no predators is not necessarily overstimulating. Especially after watching the deer wander aimlessly during the summer—just not much there to learn from (which is fine). So, my snow time on Vinalhaven became dedicated to otters and mink (and sometimes snowshoe hare).
Finding a river otter’s trail in the snow was dreamy for me because the trails were easy to read. The otter would come out of a hole in the ice of a frozen pond, make their way to a latrine, do their “spraintly” thing, and then go back under the ice. Short, sweet, and efficient, right? Or they’d come out of the ocean, spraint, cross a yard and a road, visit a latrine, spraint, and then go into a den—likely with a couple of belly slides mixed in. If it snowed while they were in a den, their trail would lead you to where they accessed the water—be it a shoreline or another hole in the ice. They were creating trails that could be followed from start to finish. That’s what I’m talking about!
And so, the learning was quick and the tracking even quicker. And it had to be, mostly because during my first winters I was focused on crossbills, grosbeaks, and black-backed woodpeckers. Those were some fun winters. Anyway, and once again, locating latrines and visiting them on a regular basis became a habit of mine. And it is a habit—I can stop at any time, I just don’t want to.
Trail cameras are (figuratively) huge tools
For all the Vinalhaven otter lessons and trails I’ve followed, my actually otter sightings “in the flesh” on island was an infrequent occurrence. For my time on Vinalhaven, I would guesstimate I averaged about one otter sighting a year. And once a year was fine with me because with tracking—or at least how I track—seeing animals is not the goal. It’s all about the learning.
There was a group of four otters that I tracked for four years which lived on Old Harbor Pond on Vinalhaven. I knew their dens, I knew their trails, I knew their latrines and, deep in my heart, I knew that I was never going to come close to crossing paths with them. And then the ultimate tool fell into my possession—a motion censored trail camera.
I put the camera up, pointed it at a significant latrine (significant for me means 50+ spraints of all ages could be found there), waited a week, snagged it, and laughed with joy. So many otter photos! And even though the camera was for “work” (thank you MCHT), it found itself at latrines between “official” uses—gotta practice you know. Eventually I got my own camera (thanks Mom).
So, who needs to see otters when a camera will take photos of ‘em for you. And usually at 1am in the morning no less. I like otters, but I’m not getting up in the wee hours to see them. What a world.
We moved in 2015, and it was nice to find that the lessons from the island otter scene transferred to the mid-coast Maine mainland otter scene, and thus the continued. New trails, new dens and new otter latrines were to be “found.” A picture—however fluid—of the local otter scene began to take form in my head.
However, finding the right latrine for putting up a trail camera turned out to be a tricky undertaking. I’ve crossed paths with some exceptionally impressive latrines—a few even falling into the “majorly significant” category with 100+ spraint. But when it comes to deciding which latrine to place your trail camera at, I can think of three requirements. There needs to be a tree nearby (to put the darned camera on), there must be some open space (no darned low branches in the way), and lastly, it must be far from or hidden from human trail (so the camera is there when you come back, darn it). Unfortunately, none of the latrines I’d been coming across met this criterion.
Back in the day—Memory Lane Revisited
Once on Vinalhaven, I experimented with pointing the cameras at a few of the otter trails that crossed the island. There were a couple of well-used paths the otters would use to cross some of the shortest land distances—often no greater than 1.5 miles or so. I got photos, but as I should have expected, the results of the photos were not anything special. The biggest lesson I learned was that otters run fast on land. When triggered, the camera would get one photo of a full speed otter, and then several empty shots.
Finding the perfect spot
To make a long story short (too late), I eventually found an appropriate spot for a trail camera maybe ten feet from where this cross-island otter trail crosses a human trail. To my happiness and their safeties, it turns out that the local otters often pause before intersecting a human trail, I’m assuming to make sure there is no activity on the human trail before committing. Regardless of why, the spot turned out to be a gold mine of otter activity—so much so that twice I had to take the camera down because it was taking too much time to go through the videos. Sure, coming back to the camera and seeing that it had taken three hundred videos sounds nice, but it was too much.
Regardless of why, the spot turned out to be a gold mine of otter activity—so much so that twice I had to take the camera down because it was taking too much time to go through the videos.
But alas, this summer I noticed the trail was showing signs of even heavier otter traffic, and that a new, larger latrine had popped (or pooped) up. I decided to put the camera back up for a few weeks, which turned into a few months which turned into a mother and four otter pups using the trail multiple times daily.
I had tracked this zone for years—the area had always showed sign of several otters—so how many sets of pups had she had here over the years? Or had the population dynamics been fluctuating? Maybe bachelor groups and other otters had used it before the mother moved in. Either way there was certainly a den involved and the photos proved it was a hotbed of activity.
And the camera does not lie. It was triggered by otters during the day as well as at night. And that’s when I was asked the question. When is the best time to see otters?
Never Been a Better Time Than Right Now!
It was then that I realized, I had never actually gone out looking to see otters in the flesh before. I had taken my once-a-year sighting and all the trail camera and tracking info and was satisfied. I feel like river otters and I have had an understanding—I understand they are out there and try to learn as much as I can about them and they go about their lives with little to no knowledge that I exist. I mean, they undoubtedly have smelled me on the cameras at times (nothing gross though), and sure we’ve made eye contact when paths have crossed. But the vast majority of the time we (the otters and I) are learning and surviving on separate schedules. But now, I was tempted to try and see them. Crazy, I know.
So, the question threw me at first (not literally), and then I looked at the data from the videos I had gotten in August. I factored in my own sleeping habits and saw that if I headed over to Clark Island first thing in the morning, I was more likely to cross paths with the local family of otters doing something than if I stayed in bed. And so, I went.
And there they were
I heard them first. All five splashing about while either learning to hunt or just getting used to being in the water. They stayed close to the trailhead on their route back to the den but as they did, they frolicked and jumped from rocks and washed-up logs.
I went back again the next morning I had off, and it was more of the same. Otters in the water, me taking photos, them smelling me (I do smell like roses) and then them returning to frolic and mark. On the third visit I stopped taking photos and just appreciated. Those were good mornings.
The answer is…
So, my hunch is that river otters are on their own schedules. To state a time best for seeing them would be based on generalizations, and while generalizations are generalizations for a reason, how much does that really increase your chances of crossing paths with them? Getting outside and getting by water certainly increases your chances and going crepuscular never hurts.
Maybe a better question would be “how can I increase my chances of seeing otters?” The answer there is simple—learn about them. Look for their latrines, find their dens, follow their trails, and then why not put up a camera or two at sites that meets the stated criteria? Trust me, it’s a good place to start.
In conclusion— “first thing in the morning” is a good answer for the otter group that I am currently familiar with. At least it’s worked for me three out of three times. But this could largely be due to the fact that I’m following a female with very active youngsters. Their activity patterns undoubtedly switch with the seasons. It worked for me because I knew about their current behavior, which has by now changed. And that to me is the art of tracking. Current events, current habits.
I tend to be more of an “observer” than a “searcher”, but it was fun to go out with a goal, and to have that goal met. Regardless of what type of an observer you are, want to be, or will eventually become—the key is to get out there, because whatever gets you out there.
Hope to see you out there!
More Stories from the Coast
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Over the past six years, Maine Coast Heritage Trust has worked with partners to complete 36 marsh protection projects from York to Washington counties, conserving a total of about 1,800 acres of marsh and upland buffers.