Tuesday, October 1, 2013

August 2013: River Otters

I pushed off in my kayak an hour before dawn on August 5. I didn’t mind that it was the coldest dawn of the summer, dipping into the 40s. The chill would delay the sweat I was bound to get. I had a 45 minute paddle to Quarry Point on the east end of Picton Island.

I soon decided it might take longer because the west wind began picking up. I was heading with the slowly rising sun an hour away from being at my back.

I like paddling into darkness. The gulls and terns flying above impressed me as celestial objects. The heron standing on a rock in the Narrows didn’t flinch from its gargoyle pose as I paddled by it. Of course the gulls, terns, and heron trained their hungry eyes toward the light. When I turned around and saw how bright it was in the east, I dipped my head toward the dark water and paddled harder.

I needed light to see the otters but I wanted to be still, low and quiet in the water as the light revealed their black dives in the suddenly green and then blue river.

I went to the area off shore where I always go, and wouldn‘t even be diverted even by my own theories.

The last few times I had come out at dawn, in 2012 and 2011, I had noticed a goodly number of seagulls in Picton channel flapping over the water where the otters were fishing. Based on that experience, I theorized that a good strategy for finding otters at dawn was to follow the gulls. The gulls I saw at dawn August 5 were not going toward Quarry Point nor Picton Island.

Forget gulls, I ducked closer to the dark water and out of the wind that wouldn’t quit, and stayed my course. That didn’t relieve me of gloomy thoughts.

I had been out of the zone for years. From 1997 to 2005 I had a feel for where the otters were. I made about $1000 taking people out to see otters on Wellesley Island. But that was when mother otters used the beaver ponds to raise their pups.

Then the beavers ran out of bark to eat. Six large ponds became six large meadows. Only three ponds remain. I see evidence that an otter visits, but no evidence that any otter lives there like in the old days.

And then there’s trapping. About 10 years ago the price the Chinese paid in auction for otter pelts tripled. The State of New York offers a six month virtually unregulated season to trap furbearers including otters with no bag limits. You just can’t shoot them but many do.

Finally before I venture out at dawn in my kayak, I usually scout the shores of Picton from my 14 foot motor boat looking for fresh otter scats. This year I saw week old scats now and then, but never a fresh scat. For the past 12 years fresh scats in the summer and fall always enticed me out at dawn. Not this year.

I suppose I went out on August 5 without checking the day before because I didn’t want to cloud my resolve with negative anticipations as I made the long paddle.... Sweat and no gulls didn’t help.

The wind slowed me down, and I’m getting old. It was so light as I approached Quarry Point that I could see a deer drinking along the rocky shore.

I had no theories about whether seeing a deer improved the odds of seeing an otter. The west wind made it harder to see otters in the river, but at least blew my scent away from where I expected the otters to be. I saw a splash in that direction.

I had been hearing lazy fish splashes all morning, but this one looked and sounded more dynamic. I thought I saw a black head in the water so I dropped the binoculars and trained the camcorder on the area.

I saw at least two otters, maybe three, all diving and swimming toward and then along the shore. Perhaps because they sensed me they all headed toward the rocky shore. I heard the characteristic snort and looked in the right direction but focused on the water. The center of the photo below, lifted from the video I took, shows where I looked.

The video provides a brief glimpse of an otter on the rocks in the upper right quadrant of the video. Then I stopped hearing snorts and saw nothing. Then what I thought was a shadow in the rocks began to move,

And snort. I’ve come to appreciate many things otters do. Seeing them catch fish ranks as number one. Punctuating their swimming with porpoise-like leaps in the air comes in second. But, for me, the earth stands still when an otter poops.

It evidently means a lot to otters too. This one turned to me, as its tail continued to pulse and wave, as if it was quite proud.

But perhaps I flatter myself. The snorts were surely directed at me. I’ve heard many snorting otters and interpret the sound and accompanying gestures as more dismissive than defiant. Otters don’t think we are in the same league. When is the last time you jumped in the river and came up with a fish in your mouth?

But the otter might have been looking beyond me. The sun had just risen.

All our gadgets mark the time. According to my camcorder the otter pooped at 6:16. The same gadget stamped my photo of the dawn 6:17. The otter retreated into the rocks. I continued to hear snorts, but didn’t see the otter among or on the rocks lining the shore.

I wasn’t exactly back in the zone, but I felt in good odor with otters again. As I paddled along checking rocks for fresh scats or, in the case below, fresh otter urine

I saw a mink scampering along the shore. A mink looks quite small after seeing an otter.

Then I paddled toward the dawn.  I heard loon calls out in the expanse of Eel Bay.

But not in the direction of my breakfast.

While I was elated, I didn’t see enough of the otters to know who they were. The grand tail raising poop is characteristic of a male and the smaller otter or otters seemed more capable than pups born around April, as all North American otter pups are.

Ten days later I walked around the East Trail Pond in the middle of the day. I knew I probably wouldn't see any beavers but I wanted to walk around and see what they have been up to without disturbing them.

Then as I was sitting up on the ridge north of the pond I got a glimpse of an otter swimming past the lodge the beavers abandoned and heading toward the dam.

Trying to take a photo and get a video, I missed seeing the otter go over the dam. Nice seeing an otter in one of the remaining beaver ponds, but this was the pond where I used to watch a mother otter teaching her pups how to be otters, like the lesson below on a rainy afternoon in early August 2003.

The otter I just saw was probably a touring male, perhaps the same otter I heard under the ice of the pond back in the winter. It seemed to be alone then, too.

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