July 2, 2022
Salish Sea, Pacific Northwest
Earlier this month I took a long walk on a long dock to pick up the trailcam (that report here) and had the great good fortune to cross paths with a gang of River Otters in actual real time. There were three of them — good-sized, efficient at hunting, and all about the same size, so this was not a family group of a mom with her current year pups (otters are born in spring and aren’t weaned until summer). Very likely this was the same gang who’ve been showing up in the trailcam footage over the past month. As I mentioned in my last report River Otters (unlike Sea Otters) are usually solitary, except for a mom and her pups, but at times several males will band together.
THE DAILY BUCKET IS A NATURE REFUGE. WE AMICABLY DISCUSS ANIMALS, WEATHER, CLIMATE, SOIL, PLANTS, WATERS AND NOTE LIFE’S PATTERNS.
WE INVITE YOU TO NOTE WHAT YOU ARE SEEING AROUND YOU IN YOUR OWN PART OF THE WORLD, AND TO SHARE YOUR OBSERVATIONS IN THE COMMENTS BELOW.
Seeing even one otter is cool. That’s what I saw as I walked out. It was busy fishing, which means dive for 5-10 seconds and surface, as often as not with a fish.
Then when I reached the end of the headwalk, I looked over at a nearby dock and saw two otters had climbed out and were doing dock stuff.
River otters can’t help but interact with each other when there’s more than one. When one buddy decides to go fishing, they both do.
So, TWO otters!
While I watched them fishing, steadily diving and coming up with the small bottomfish so abundant in this bay, I heard some clunking directly below where I was standing.
For some context of the setting, here are the two docks. The top photo is our dock, where I’m standing. Bottom photo is the Tulalip dock where the two otters were. Note how low the tide is, by how steep the ramps are down to the floating sections of both.
(For an otter, low tide is nice: it’s not as far to dive from the surface to the bottom. Since the headwalks were at least eight feet above the water level at that moment, it’s a quicker dive for yummy bottomfish compared to high tide — in this part of the bay, less than half the vertical distance.)
The otter vigorously shook off water and ambled down onto the longer floating section. He seemed to be done fishing for the moment, but veered over to a boat tied up there and began directing strange mewing sounds toward it. Later, I heard from Mr O, who was further along on the dock, that it was a convo with another otter who had climbed into that boat momentarily.
Here’s some footage of what I was seeing from my vantage. It seemed clear that as intriguing as the boat might be, the otter was pretty focused on drying and grooming just then. The dock surface grating probably feels really good for that.
It seemed strange how indifferent this otter was to our presence — and it definitely knew where we were. Usually otters are more skittish. Perhaps it knew that it could jump back in the water much quicker than we could approach. I was about 80 feet away, and Mr O was 30 feet further out from where the otter was working on his fur coat (distances are foreshortened by the camera’s zoom lens).
Otter fur is incredibly dense, with coarse guard hairs over packed interlocking underfur hairs. To maintain insulation, they have to fluff up their fur, realigning the hairs and trapping air. It’s serious business for a creature that spends a great deal of time in very cold water. The otter on the dock was in grooming mode, and while the other two cruised by now and then, he didn’t join them just then. He was watching though.
So, THREE otters here at once. That’s consistent with the several who have been showing up in trailcam footage I posted in my last report, the June gang.
It’s unusual for me to see a group of River otters, usually it’s one lone individual out fishing. Research studies report varying degrees of sociability among these otters, with many noting that gangs of mostly males are not unusual (The social system of North American river otters; Sociality in river otters: Cooperative foraging or reproductive strategies?).
One study in Canada found that otters tend to be more social in summer. What I’m seeing in my local waters may represent observer bias: I spend more time watching the ocean in winter (in summer, there’s a steady stream of traffic on shoreline roads, and tourists clutter up the shorelines and bays of the San Juan Islands). I prefer to avoid that scene. Maybe the summer otter gangs feel the same, and make themselves scarce locally. If so, our encounter in early July was an especially awesome treat.
Overcast in the PNW islands. Calm wind. Temperatures in low 60s.
WHAT’S UP IN NATURE IN YOUR AREA TODAY?