Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen—
In my opinion there is no better medium for finding animal “sign” than snow. The thought of following early-morning tracks and trails in fresh snow brings out a special level of giddiness anticipation (giddipation) in trackers. The lessons are so immediate—tracks being laid at most a handful of hours prior to finding– tracking can be such a great way to learn what your wildlife neighbors are up to in the wee hours. And if I have a choice between trails, I always follow otters—take that mink!
North American River Otter (Lontra canadensis) is the species of otter found in Maine and there are lots of them along the entire coast (and probably inland as well). River otters are rather large, mostly nocturnal members of the weasel family (Mustelidae), growing in lengths up to 3.5 feet long and weighing around 30 pounds. They are referred to as “semi-aquatic,” spending most of their waking hours in water and coming to land when denning, marking a territory or moving from one body of water to another. Typical otter territories are between 3-15 sq. miles and it may take an individual several days before passing through an area twice. To accommodate this infrequency, an otter (or otters) will have several dens scattered throughout a single territory, as well as multiple latrines to maintain neighborly boundaries between visits.
Latrines, or marking areas, are exactly what they sound like—spots where river otters routinely scat, or “spraint,“ as well as use scent glands for marking. Otters use latrines as message boards, relaying information whether a territorial otter is in another corner of its territory, or just around the corner in a den. Otters are creatures of habit and locate their latrines in places where other otters are likely to look for them (smart). Hot spots are points of land that stick out in ponds and coves, where creeks meet, where otter overland trails begin or end (depending on which way you look at it), and close to (and sometimes on top of) dens. Latrines may be visited for years and by multiple generations. Littered with fish scales and matted down grasses, otter latrines are easy to find and can be numerous around lakes and shorelines. For the typical otter enthusiast, a latrine offers clues to the number of otters in an area and, more importantly, if they have been in the area recently.
With five inches or so of snow predicted to start mid-day on December 9th I checked eight of my favorite otter latrines—four in Tenants Harbor marsh and four in the Long Cove area—before they got covered. I was happy to find all my latrines active, with sign of a single otter using the latrines along Long Cove and multiple otters using the latrines in the marsh. With some snooping around two of the more heavily used latrines, I came across two new otter dens (new for me that is)! The dens were classic in that one was in tree roots and the other was in a pile of granite shrapnel left over from the quarrying days. Habitats wild and human provided. Simple, active otter-sized openings in the ground with excessively sprainted marking areas nearby told the story here. My first two-otter-den day in quite some time.
The next morning I followed my giddipation and ventured to the latrines in the marsh (right out the back door!). Within minutes I was on the trail of a pair of otters that had worked their way up from town and to a large latrine associated with a den my son Leif and I found a few years ago. This latrine is sweet—a relatively high, steep point along the marsh shoreline that otters still can scurry up and onto. Once on top, the way down is perfect for belly slides, and sure enough there were two 10-foot slides heading down the incline and into the water. Otter belly slides are so cool—there is a part of me that only likes animals that belly slide.
Seeing that the otters had come from the lower marsh, I decided to head over to the library trail and to what the kids named “Goose Point” a few years back (apparently the point acts as a latrine for multiple species). Low, bare rock jutting out as a point into the water; it just feels like a place that otters would visit. And to little surprise, trails clearly showed where the otter pair broke through the thin ice and made their way up and over the point, marking the very top. Slow meandering belly slides led to where the otters went under the ice and re-entered the chilly marsh.
The otter pair in the marsh was probably out of the water for less than a minute total while visiting the latrines, but left evidence in their trails that could be found for much of the day. Most people don’t get to see otters on a regular basis (me included), but I’ll take the tracks, trails and belly slides anytime. It’s what gets me up and out on snowy mornings.
PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen