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Otterly Advice

Tips for river otter spotters at the marsh



After witnessing one of her own mowed down by a car in April, a local river otter asked me to share her advice to otter spotters and others on visiting wetlands, lagoons and rivers. Here's what she had to say.

Start early and notice the ducks.

We're hungry all the time but especially first thing in the morning. Bring the nifty thingamajigs you all use to look across the marsh. Watch for rings of bright water and be aware of duck alarm calls. Look in the direction they look.

We're cute but misunderstood; keep your distance.

Some otters don't mind when spotters get excited and go all googly when they see us swim by. River otters are cute, I know, but we're also a top predator in the marsh. We catch and eat critters with fins, slippery skin or feathers. In fact, all we ever eat is meat. We're the wolves of the wetlands and we'll use our teeth to defend space or young pups. So watch for the slightest ripple when you're on or near the water, and keep your distance.

We may be in stealth mode while hunting for fat ducks, so you'll need to scan carefully.

Fat ducks go all head-up at the slightest line of bubbles or worrisome wake. Only the most observant otter spotters notice an otter's nose and eyes emerge on a smooth water day. We can hold our breath while swimming the entire length of a lake-sized pond while hugging its floor in hope of catching a fat duck near the opposite shore.

Note mother ducks splashing in the pond; an otter might be following close behind.

The other day, I tried to catch a three-day-old duckling but its mother got in the way, making a commotion. She squawked, flapped and splashed right in front of me. I could have sworn both her wings were broken and went for her instead, but after chasing her twice around the island, she suddenly took off.

We love dumb, tasty coots, so notice movements in the veg.

Clued in otter spotters watch for an odd wiggle or sway of hard-stemmed rushes or a subtle undulation in the floating plants. That might be one of us sneaking toward a preoccupied coot chowing on their last meal of shrimplets. Dumb, tasty coots make up a large part of our diet in a wetland winter.

We're easier to find when fishing.

Delectables like fish, frogs, crab and crayfish hide in tangled strands of algae choking the shallows. We turn and churn algae mats until something wiggles free. We don't bother to hide when working an algae mat, so look for our legs and tails flailing until we come up through the slime, nose in air, to chew and swallow.

Listen for noisy pups.

Otter moms are the best. They catch smaller critters and let them go on shore for their pups, who yell, squabble and bite until one wins the prize. Grown daughter otters like me also catch crittters for younger siblings. Heaven knows, otter moms can use the help. Pup otters have sharp puppy teeth, though — I'm not sure how much longer I can take it, kin or not!

Remember to keep your distance.

Give an otter some space to do her thing, even when upside down in an algae mat. An otter will move away if she must look too many spotters in the eye, even if she has to go away hungry.

Check the shorelines where we take fish to eat.

Sometimes we stumble on big, fast fish that wash in with high tides and try to catch them. Last year, my muscle-bound brother and I worked together to catch our first spikey fins [staghorn sculpin]. While he pushed a trio toward the shore, I grabbed a fourth skimming through the mud. I used to love watching my brother speed across the marsh chasing breakfast. He swam like a perfect porpoise.

Look for our belly slides in the mudflats at low tide.

Watch out for long lines in the bay mud, about the width of a River Otter's body, with periodic punch marks on either side. We love to sprint, stretch and dive — face forward, chin up — to slide across slick, slimy mud, paddling with our back feet every second or two. It's a blast!

Find us celebrating on a sandbar.

Otter spotters who see us before we see them may find a whole bunch of otters on the mound where tides pass sand island. You might hear us talking, see our foot-stomp dance or, if you are lucky, catch us playing and rolling in a big ball of otters. But if we see you first, you may still find a few tracks, roll marks and scat to study.

Lastly, please slow down for otters crossing at the Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary.

Would-be spotters might prefer to wait for us to cross near those bright yellow triangles with the marks etched in black: "OTTER XING."

Anyone can see evidence of our crossing: muddy tracks in sets of four loping, splattered prints coming in from the bay. That traditional pathway, which our ancestors used since before otter spotting was a thing, is where my brother got run over. My perfect brother bled out in the middle of that crossing. Seriously, guys, we're in this together, so if everyone would just slow down, us river otters would have a fighting chance.

If you would like to join the network of River Otter Spotters in Humboldt, Del Norte and adjacent counties, you may let us know when and where you saw wild otters, how many, and their behavior. Send records to [email protected].

J.M. Black (he/him) is an avid bird watcher and river otter spotter, instigator of last summer's North Coast Otters public arts initiative, and professor of wildlife conservation and management at Cal Poly Humboldt.

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