Yesterday, we saw an otter family for the third time this month, and the babies have definitely grown bigger. Until the last few weeks, I would say that an otter sighting on the island is a rare occurrence; in eight years we have seen them about eight times. (I think the post headline is always the same, too– Otters!) Until this summer. In late June, we had renters casually mention that they had seen the otter family in their first hour here. I asked them to repeat what they had just said, and then impressed upon them the fact that it was an exciting and unusual event.
The next morning, I had a guest coming and needed to finish turtle patrol early, so I headed over to the beach on my bike just as the sun was coming up, about 5:50 am. As I rounded the curve near Chapel Pond, a mother otter and two babies ran across the road and up a nearby driveway. Armed with only a cell phone camera in the early light, I didn’t even try to get a photo and just enjoyed the three of them as they chattered to each other and sort of gallumphed in a funny gait across the road. I did not know how hilariously ungainly they are on land, flouncing about back and forth, dragging tails… and I didn’t know how chatty they are. It was like the three of them were having an ongoing conversation!
Since then, we have seen them in the impoundment, where they somehow manage to avoid the alligators, fishing near the shore. And Saturday night, we were coming home from the Art show, and were astonished to see what I think was the same set of three otters, running up the road with their same galloping gait. As we rounded the bend, they froze in the middle of the road, and then veered off into Chapel Pond, right where the alligators cross the road! Traffic stopped while several carts of people watched them virtually vanish, into the underbrush at the edge of the pond. I managed to get a photo of their tracks, but my camera was in the house. When I returned, the otters were long gone. But here is a photo of the tracks, and we will definitely we watching for them from now on. They might be confused with alligator tracks, because of the central tail, but you can clearly see that both the gait and the feet are different.
River otters are adaptable animals inhabiting a variety of aquatic habitats including ponds, rivers, and saltmarshes. In South Carolina, they are common along waterways of the coastal plain.
The reproductive biology of river otters, as in other Mustelids, is unusual in that they exhibit delayed implantation. The fertilized eggs float around in the uterus for about 9 months before implantation occurs, rather than implanting on the uterine wall shortly after fertilization. Gestation lasts about 60 days, and the young, called kits, are born almost 1 year after conception. The female otter usually gives birth to two to four kits in a den located in a hollow tree or some other type of shelter. Kits are helpless and blind at birth but are fully furred. Their eyes open after about 3 weeks, and they take to the water in about 8 weeks. Female otters teach their young swimming and foraging skills until they can look after themselves, usually by 6 months. However, kits usually stay with their mother until they are 1 year old. Adult male otters do not participate in caring for the young.
River otters establish home ranges that vary in size depending on the animal’s age and gender and on food availability. They are most active from dusk to dawn, but diurnal activity it is not uncommon. River otters are carnivores, feeding mainly on fish, especially slow-moving species. Crayfish, where available, are also important food items. Crabs, amphibians, and other aquatic organisms are also a part of the otter’s diet. River otters are very curious and playful animals. They engage in more play behavior, either by themselves or with other otters, than do most other wild animals. River otters live about 15 years in the wild.
Dewees Island Otters from BluePixy on Vimeo.
This pair of otters initially slipped past as I, entranced, thought of my camera just as they melted into the marsh. So I set up the camera with a tripod and kept watch. Eventually they surfaced at the edge of my visibility and fished for a while. You can see them at the edge of the water, chewing the fish that they have caught– at one point right at the feet of a Great Blue Heron!