OUTDOORS COLUMN: Otters in the woods? Who knew?

Albany Herald Outdoors Columnist Bob Kornegay

Albany Herald Outdoors Columnist Bob Kornegay

Imagine enjoying an afternoon at your favorite fishing hole when you catch a glimpse of an unidentified animal swimming near the bank on the other side. Trying to determine the beast’s identity, most of us in this part of the country would probably guess alligator, beaver or maybe an otter. These possibilities make perfect sense to us because these are the animals we are most used to observing in aquatic environments.

However, if we observe an unidentified creature traveling overland through the woods, we might be inclined to believe it is one of a host of other animals totally unassociated with a wetlands environment. Consider an encounter I had this week.

Squirrel season, opening day: I was sitting with my back against a tree in a hardwood forest waiting for the bushytails to become active. As usual, my mind and eyes began to wander and I began to observe many different animal species as they made their morning rounds. There were deer, of course, critters I always seem to see plenty of when I’m not deer hunting. In addition, I watched a raccoon, numerous birds, and even a solitary bobcat slinking through the underbrush.

Suddenly, something different drew my attention. A short distance away, moving sinuously with an undulating up-and-down lope, was a sleek-furred animal making its way leisurely across the clearing I was watching. Built long and low to the ground, this was no critter these tired old eyes had ever seen in the middle of a dry woodlot.

When my initial shock wore off, I was able to identify the animal as an otter. Believe me, before I determined my identification as positive, I pinched myself and looked two or three times upon the “intruder” with surprise and disbelief.

Later, wildlife biologist Bennett Moseley informed me that several aquatic animals, including river otters, regularly utilize land routes between bodies of water and are often mistaken for species more commonly observed on land.

“Otters often create frequently traveled trails across land between aquatic feeding areas,” Moseley explained. “They can sometimes be seen making overland treks during early morning or late afternoon. They move on land with a loping or bounding motion, using their long toes for gripping the ground. They travel on land surprisingly fast.”

River otters have brown to gray fur. Their bodies are long and slender with small heads and wide snouts. They have black noses and white whiskers. Adult males may measure three feet from head to rump with tails up to 18 inches in length. Males weigh up to 30 pounds, while females are noticeably smaller.

“Fish are the otter’s primary food,” Moseley said. “They commonly eat sunfish, shad, and carp, but will feed on whatever species is most abundant and easiest to catch. Crayfish and frogs are also eaten if available. Otters are powerful swimmers and catch their food by chasing it into shallow water, where they catch it with their strong front feet.”

According to Moseley, river otters live alone most of the year, generally breeding from January to April. The average litter consists of two to four pups that are cared for by the female. Otters tend to raise their young in abandoned beaver dens because they are unable to dig their own burrows. Wetlands created by beaver dams make excellent otter habitat.

“Although river otters are aquatic carnivores and are most often observed swimming in bodies of water ranging from pools to rivers,” said Moseley, “they will indeed cut across land if it’s more convenient. More than one person has been surprised to see them in places they don’t think they’re supposed to be.”

So, next time you observe a short, “weird,” unidentified animal bounding through the forest, don’t be so quick to deduce that it is probably a dog, a “long-tailed cat,” or some other land-dwelling creature. It could very well be an otter.

There really are otters in the woods. Believe it or not.