Yesterday morning, Iooking out the window at breakfast, I gave a happy cry. “The otters are back!”
This Maine winter has seemed really long to me, but at last the Narramissic is ice-free and flowing swiftly down to the Penobscot bay, and the banks are proving good pecking ground for Canada geese and several types of duck. I have been watching the ducks on the river, studying the wake they make as they swim about, watching them flirt and show off to each other (it is mating season!) but it was another wake I was watching for. There’s something about the wake the otters create when they swim: it’s not that much bigger than a duck’s, but it seems somehow more purposeful. And that’s what I saw as I ate my avocado toast yesterday: that long wake spreading out behind, not a duck, but a small dark head with the bright eyes, making a determined journey down the river toward our riverbank. The otter was returning, bringing me a sign that Spring is really here at last.
All last summer we watched the otters come and go, making their daily early morning and twilight trips from their burrow among the roots of the willows to the lily pads, where they would dive and feed on the little fish in the shallows. Sometimes I would see Ottoline (my name for the mother Otter) swimming back to the nest trailing a long stalk of lily, probably to line the nest. Her otter kits nestled among lilies is a lovely picture, although only in my mind’s eye. Otters are known for their playfulness, but I was impressed by the way they worked at their daily tasks as they raised their family on our river bank.
For all my watching last year, I still know so little about the otters. Where did they go this winter? I wasn’t sure if they had been here all along, hibernating, or whether they had moved inland, or went further south, as so many of our Maine residents do when the cold sets in. So I did some reading.
The Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) provided some answers. Their studies have shown that river otters prefer to travel to ice-free water in the winter, sometimes going a long way to find the right spot. They have been able to put tracking devices on some otters to see where they go. One male traveled more than 30 miles one winter, over a mountain, a big journey for a little guy. (They are usually no more than 3 feet long from nose to tail-tip). Our little river was quite frozen over for months, so that is reason enough why we haven’t seen them.
But now they’re back! And in a month or two we may have the further joy of seeing a kit or two following their mother down to the lily pads. You can bet I will be keeping my eye on that place on the bank where the willows lean over the stream.
Something else I learned from the NRCM site (https://www.nrcm.org/nrcm-creature-feature/river-otter/) is that May 27 is called “International River Otter Awareness Day”. We will be celebrating that for sure, here at Oranbega!
As the NRCM writer says, “To encounter a river otter in the wild is to know joy. How could it be otherwise?”