Backyard River Otters

The two resident North American River Otters of the nearby creek.

North American River Otter, cute and playful, or naughty and ferocious? These slinky sausages reside in my nearby creek, where I’ve been able to capture them on wildlife cameras. But their elusive movement can usually be detected by what they leave behind. Be that messy poop or evidence of a kill.

Most of the otter activity was during the day, but occasionally in the early morning too.

When I first set up my camera I thought the area I found with flattened horsetails and what I’d describe as dark gunk was from a nearby resident beaver. But no! Two slinky bodies showed up multiple times on the camera. Awesome! Now, I had to learn more.

Weighing in between 11 and 30 pounds, the North American River Otter’s (Lontra canadensis) semi-aquatic lifestyle requires some adaptations are needed to survive and thrive. Their thick fur repels water off, allowing them to stay dry underneath, very important in winter. In addition, their feet are completely webbed, adapted to zoom through the water where they can stay underwater for up to 4 minutes, some sources claim up to 8!

Sniff sniff sniffing one of the nearby trees.

Fish is the definite first choice on the menu but they’ll consume whatever is available which may be clams, mussels, snails, turtles or crayfish.

After discovering their presence via a wildlife camera, I was interested to figure out what purpose they may have for a creekside plot. North American river otters build dens in multiple areas, basically where a preexisting burrow can be commandeered to support multiple entrances, with an underwater entrance leading to a nesting chamber. I was surprised to learn their home range can vary between 2 to 78 km of waterways, holy smokes!

They were sometimes hard to spot in the dappled sunlight of the morning.

So perhaps their stopping place here is not of special significance, maybe just a creek pitstop? They do prefer to eat larger prey on land, whereas smaller prey will be eaten immediately. What this potential creek pitstop is more formally referred to as, is an “activity center!” These are areas with adequate shelter, plentiful food resources, and low levels of disturbance. I can confirm the area seen in the photos is between areas of constant human activity, one being a road, the other a residence, but the spot itself with very low levels of human disturbance. When I found this spot the horsetails were flattened and black guck was lying about, stuff the dog instantly rolled in. With slightly different motives than the farm dog, otters will actually rub and roll on grass or bare ground in order to dry themselves and retain their fur’s insulative capabilities.

Must be a bit camera shy, as I got many shots of the otter’s behinds!

So who could this pair be? A male and female, or two siblings? Males and females will hang out during mating season which is late winter/early spring, and when I first saw this pair it was well into spring here in South West BC. These dates align with when females give birth, which could be a litter of one to six. It was interesting to read that beaver ponds, marshes and slow sloughs are important habitats for mothers to teach their young pups how to hunt and all those other ottery otter stuff, all of which are nearby. Oh boy I hope I see some baby otters, eeek the cuteness! More likely is that this pair is actually a family group, and females will stay with their young. Other social groups include larger male groups, but that’s mostly in marine habitats. Another possibility could be that this group consists of unrelated juveniles.

This cutie looks freshly out of the creek.

To observe river otters is actually quite special, as their populations have been declining as the result of habitat loss, trapping, and environmental pollution. But in general across North America populations have stabilized after being hunted extensively for pelts. They have recolonized areas where they were previously extirpated. So the IUCN Red List classifies them as Least Concern, in BC they are yellow-listed, and their COSEWIC status is “Not at Risk.”

While I’ve since moved the wildlife camera to attempt capture other creatures (with fantastic success), I still believe they are using this site regularly. Having recently taken a boat down the creek, I can confirm they are still using the site based on the entry/exit sites along the creek’s bank appear well used. I hope to see these two again, and perhaps their offspring too!

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