Monday, May 23, 2011

River Otter at Westmoreland's Bechtel Lake

River Otter

On the morning of April 22, I was out on the trails enjoying an early morning bird walk.  The cold overnight temperatures lingered well into the morning hours despite the sunshine, and, as a result, the bird activity was a little stale.  After reaching the north end of Bechtel Lake, the bird activity was still non-existent, but there was soon to be a surprise.

While standing near the beginning of the Wood Thrush trail, the sound of rustling leaves caught my attention.  Expecting to see a squirrel, or possibly a chipmunk, emerging from the tangle of fallen timber, I hesitated to grab my binoculars.  Out from under the fallen tree emerged an otter!

The North American river otter (Lontra canadensis) is a small-medium sized mammal belonging to the weasel family.  Similar in shape and proportion to the domesticated ferret, the otter is adept at moving across land and through water, though its short, slick fur, long, rudder-like tail, and webbed feet make it a more effective and efficient hunter in the water.

The otter I observed spent some time exploring the rock walls, the holes and cavities around the base of a few trees, and the shallow water along the shoreline before making a foray into the cool water of Bechtel Lake.  After losing sight of the otter for a few minutes, it was spotted again at the opposite end of the lake near the dam.  From the elevated vantage point of the Easy Loop trail, the otter was observed diving and surfacing like a snorkeling diver trying to get a better look at a reef.

Eventually, the otter made a mad dash toward the shore and ejected a large sunfish from its mouth.  Quickly securing the sunfish with its front feet, the otter proceeded to consume its freshly caught breakfast.  Starting at the tail, the otter used its well defined canine teeth and molars to chew through the fish’s scales, flesh, and bones.  Within 6 minutes, the entire catch was chewed and swallowed with nothing more than a few scales left behind.  Almost immediately after the final gulp, the otter returned to the water and quickly vanished.  See the series of photos below.

Though long suspected to reside on the sanctuary property, it has been quite a while since the last time the staff or a visitor made a substantiated report or documented evidence of an otter at the sanctuary.  Westmoreland’s director, Steve Ricker, believes that it has been nearly 12-15 years since the last time he saw an otter at Bechtel Lake.  Let’s hope it’s not that long before the next time!

-Adam Zorn, Naturalist

Beginning to chow down on breakfast

Getting a good grip

Chewing the tail off

Rearranging the sunny in its mouth

Using the strong molars to chew on the fish

Using the molars on the other side now

Nearly finished, but there's a bit more chewing needed to swallow the head

One final bit of chewing before the last bit goes down the hatch

Turning back into the water

Guess they don't have to wait 15 minutes after eating before  returning to the water?

A final glimpse before it disappeared back into the water

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