Juan Islands Wildlife:
A Handbook for Exploring Nature
by Evelyn Adams
Excerpt from “In the Company of Otters”
At anchor one warm July day in Stewart Island's Prevost Harbor, I watched an otter dive for food and then surface with a fish, which it soon swallowed, whiskered snout pointed skyward. Later that day, when dusk was beginning to blend into the water, resounding splashes broke the stillness, and I could only guess the noisy revels meant the otter had returned.
A summer stroll along San Juan beaches or a day in a quiet anchorage may be enlivened by an otter or two sporting in a cove or running over shore logs. Although often seen in salt water, these members of the weasel family are not sea otters (which are larger, with light gray faces) but river otters, equally at home in freshwater lakes and wetlands and sometimes even beneath islanders' living rooms.
"People were always asking me how to get rid of otters," says Tim Ransom, a curator of the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. River otters don't build dens instead use natural cavities or other animals' abandoned holes to curl up in. The lung area, where the kits stay for approximately three months, may be sited well away from the water. The prospective mother heads inland — up to 60 yards from shore — to give birth in a cozy protected spot, such as a crawlspace. It's common for islanders to find nests under their homes made snug and warm with the latest in ripped-off insulation.
"As long as you don't recognize the long term implication of breathing insulation” says Tim, "short-term is that it's a perfect place to have a den." In response to those homeowners unsympathetic to a mother otter's needs, he advises prevention. “Reducing access to the space is really the best thing. Close it up as much as you can, and put something like ammonia in there when she's looking for a den in the Spring.” Otters have extremely sensitive noses, and once they catch the first whiff of a bowl of ammonia, they won't stick around for a second.
One homeowner with a nesting family in his crawlspace successfully routed the mother, which exited carrying her kits. When a nest is already active, Tim urges to let it alone for the season and later beef up prevention. "We just have to remember that we're sharing their space and not vice versa," he remonstrates gently.
In the trauma of the mother otter's exodus, one youngster was left behind. The forgotten kit eventually ended up at the Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, where she was christened Pogo. Eventually the otter was released off San Juan Island with Albert, another orphan, and Tim was present at the release, paddling a kayak out into the bay to monitor the otters' behavior. Albert "charged off doing his own thing and later decimated a crab population where we had released him, even though he'd never seen or eaten crab before. It was amazing."
Pogo, on the other hand, kept trying to climb into the kayak. Eventually she went off with Albert but returned and "was approaching people all the time. It was potentially bad situation." Wolf Hollow recaptured the friendly otter, and for a while she became a surrogate mom for otter foundlings until she was successfully released a season later off Patos Island with Peter, one of the orphans she had mothered.
Before Pogo's release, however, "we had the opportunity to do a little unnatural observation with her." It was a unique chance for a man who calls his usual methods of observation "radically natural."
Most of the information we have about river otters comes from trapping studies, but these provide very little data besides basic physical traits and diet. Capturing otters and transferring them to an unnatural environment such as a zoo is not much more helpful, for little is revealed about their behavior in the wild (river otters in zoos, for instance, do not usually reproduce). Only slightly more positive about releasing otters with implanted radio tracking devices, Tim, who has a doctorate in animal behavior, describes his preferred methodology as one he used when living with baboons for two years in Africa: "basically just putting in the time to go and be there so that you're part of the environment when they come by."
The idea is to build up over a period of time an animal's awareness of you as a benign part of its environment. Such an approach is far more difficult to use with otters than with baboons, Tim admits, simply because so much of what otters do happens underwater. The actual amount of time he was able to spend observing one or two individual otters was very slight, but be was fortunate in finding a couple of good study sites in the islands.
The first was at Rosario Harbor on Orcas, where he lived for thirteen years. While working as a musician at Rosario Resort, Tim spent his spare time down at the resort's docks studying and photographing a pair of otters. Because the otters were living in an area frequented by people and thus were used to human activity, he could get close enough to see, right from the start: "I was able to go out and be with them almost every day in the winter. Eventually, I got to within 12 to 15 feet of them regularly." He observed the mother daughter pair for over a year, noting behavior and trying to build his understanding enough to he able to anticipate the pair's actions.
Again, with baboons it was easier to get to know an individual and predict how it would respond in different situations. With otters, simply distinguishing between males and females is a difficult feat, and it's even harder to tell who's who among the same sex. But at Rosario, Tim was able to differentiate mother from child not only by size but also by behavior. For instance, if he saw the mother approach a part of the dock that held fish, rope, and boxes, he knew she'd beeline toward the fish, but the kit would focus on the boxes and rope, being much more inclined to play. At times, the kit and mother would play together, but "her mom had a very short fuse for that."
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