The riverbank is white with a recent dusting of November snow. A torrent of slate blue water tears against the riverbank. There is other motion—what are those dark chocolate brown blurs, arcing in and out of the water and sliding down the shore? A rare and wonderful sight: otters in the snow.
River otters are membes or the mustilidae family, which includes mink, fisher, beaver, pine marten, and weasels (called ermine in winter).
You might have seen mink, who are also regular visitors to the water’s edge. They are tiny and are not easy to spot. Otter are larger, weighing up to 33 pounds and measuring from 40-48” inches long at full maturity with their tails comprising up to 40 percent of that length. Otter tails are strong and with their hind legs, help propel them through the water as fast as eight miles per hour.
They move fluidly between the shore and in the water. As a social animal, they can be seen in pairs or small groups where they engage in playful behaviours. They slide down river banks or burrow in fluffy snow. It looks like fun and it is. This rare and wonderful sight is another gift from our rivers.
“I’ve seen mink actively fishing – moving quickly upstream, poking their heads into and out of the water, looking in nearly every direction, “said John Magee, Biologist, NH Fish and Game and New Hampshire Rivers Council member, “They are so fast that I sometimes wonder how fish, especially in small streams where there are fewer escape routes, ever survive this intelligent predator.”
In addition to fishing during warmer weather, otter will hunt through holes in the ice and bringh up prey including fish (their preferred food) along with crayfish, insects, and frogs. Some human river visitors have reported seeing an otter bringing up and eating a painted turtle.
Even if you never have the pleasure of seeing an otter hunting, eating, or moving in the water and along the banks, you might be able tell if they have been there by spotting piles of spent mussel shells called middens, which will be on the edges of submerged rocks and along shore areas. While other animals also eat mussels, otter can also contribute to these heaps of shells. You might also hear them through their whistling, buzzing, growling, twittering, chirping vocalizations. They can also scream if they feel threatened. That sound can be heard for over a mile. Lastly, if you don’t see or hear them, or find their middens, you might smell them. They leave scent marks on vegetation by urinating or defecating or releasing musk frtom scent glands near the base of their tails.
While seeing river otters is not yet a common sight, New Hampshire’s restoration efforts have been successful—so much so that a few of “our” otters have been moved to Pennsylvania to help with their conservation program. They key is habitat: studies show that 300 feet of greenway along rivers could maintain almost 80 percent of our state’s species diversity. This is another reason that we work for our rivers and watersheds.
PS: please watch your mail (with one of the “otters in the snow” stamps) for our year-end appeal. Your generous gift supports our work of keeping rivers and their habitat for people and the other animals—including otters—who depend on them.
As Sally Soule, one of our board members works with her otter puppet, who always tells everyone, “This otters loves clean water”—and says, “Thank you.”