River Otters!

Northern River Otters

Northern River Otters

A few weeks ago Deb and I met at Billings Bridge to look for spring migrants. Even though it was a few days past the spring equinox, the weather was still quite cold; hardly any of the snow had melted, and was still too thick for any groundhogs to have emerged. While a pair of Common Mergansers and a dozen Canada Geese had joined the usual mallards, black ducks, and Common Goldeneyes on the river, we didn’t see any Wood Ducks, Pied-billed Grebes, or Hooded Mergansers. The Ring-billed Gulls had also returned, and one was giving a strange, incessant call that I’ve never heard before. I stopped to make sure that the call was in fact being made by a Ring-billed Gull, and then I heard the raspy call of a displeased crow. I turned around in time to see the crow dive-bombing a large bird perching in a tree next to the river, and I told Deb, “We just walked right by a hawk!” It was a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk, my first of the year. I wondered if the hawk was the reason why the gull was calling continuously from its place on the ice.

As we walked past the island where I’d seen the otter slide a few years back, we heard a couple of loud chirps which we couldn’t readily identify. It sounded like the musical chip note of a songbird, and although it was getting louder I couldn’t see anything flying toward us. Then I looked in the water and noticed a cluster of animals rolling through the water toward us. They were tightly packed together, with their heads barely breaking the surface so I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. Then one of them pulled itself up onto the ice, and I realized they were otters!

Northern River Otter

At first we thought there were three of them; then a fourth one swam up a minute or two later. Two of them clambered up onto the island and sniffed around, while the other two spent some time walking around the ice, diving into the water, and then climbing back up onto the ice. Unlike the otter at Algonquin Park, we didn’t witness them bringing any fish out of the water or eating. Instead, they stood on the ice, laid down on the ice, groomed themselves from time to time, followed each other back into the water, then swam beneath the ice to the next open spot.

Northern River Otter

Occasionally we heard them vocalizing, not chirping any more, but breathing heavily rather like a dog “woofing” in the back of its throat. They were curious about us, too, and spent a lot of time looking at us – both from in the water and while standing on the ice.

Northern River Otters

River otters are well-adapted for an aquatic life with their webbed feet, water-repellent fur, and nostrils and ears that close in the water. They can hold their breath underwater for up to eight minutes and often rely on pockets of air trapped between the surface ice and the water below. They are active in winter as well as summer, using holes in the ice to breathe and to gain access to the surface.

River otters have large home ranges and constantly move about within this range. The size of the home range depends on the abundance of food resources and the quality of their habitat. The average size of an adult female’s home range size is 58 km of riverbank or lakeshore, while the average size of an adult male’s home range is 182 km. Otters build dens in the burrows of other mammals, in natural hollows, such as under a log, or in river banks. Dens have both above-water and underwater entrances and a tunnel leading to a nest chamber that is lined with leaves, feathers, grass, moss, and hair. Occasionally an otter may also sleep above ground, within abandoned groundhog dens, rock cavities, reedy nests, or under roots.

Northern River Otters

Northern River Otters are born in March or April. They are fully furred when born, but are otherwise helpless and are unable to their eyes until they are one month old. Litters may contain one to six young, with an average litter size of two or three. The young are weaned at about three months, at which time they start to explore the world outside their den. They achieve independence at any time between six and twelve months of age. Although mating takes place in the late winter or early spring, the young are usually not born until the following spring, as implantation of the fertilized egg may be delayed for several months. The actual gestation period is only 60 to 63 days.

River otters are usually nocturnal, but may be active during the day in the winter. They can live up to 21 years in captivity, but normally only live about 8 to 9 years in the wild.

Northern River Otters

Deb and I watched them for about 15 minutes, thrilled to be able to spend so much time in the presence of these uncommon mammals. Cars whizzed by on Riverside Drive the whole time were were there, completely oblivious to the otters frolicking about the frozen river. Eventually they all disappeared beneath the ice, and although we waited several minutes, we didn’t see where they resurfaced.

The sun was struggling to break through the clouds the whole time we were watching the otters, so the light wasn’t the greatest for photographing them against the dark water. Of course the sun came out as soon as we left!

Northern River Otters

As we were in the area, we stopped by the Peregrine Falcon nest site on Data Centre Road to see if the falcons were around. We found both of them resting on the building close to last year’s nest site. Ivanhoe, the male, was sitting with his back to us, but Rowena was facing us. Ivanhoe’s chest is a bright white, while Rowena’s is much streakier, making the pair easy to differentiate. They appeared to be enjoying the sunlight, perhaps taking it easy before the busy nesting season begins. As Diana, one of the downtown falcons, appears to have a new mate, it looks as though the Falcon Watch may have two nests to keep tabs on this spring!

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

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2 thoughts on “River Otters!

  1. That many otters right in the middle of Ottawa–how exciting! Do otters actually live here, or just occasionally show up at odd times of year?

    Once a few years ago, driving down Riverside in the winter, my husband and his coworker spotted a couple of what they thought were seals on the ice near Billings–probably they were actually otters, given that you’ve seen otter or otter slides in that location multiple times. Unfortunately Riverside is a high-traffic enough road that it’s not possible to slow down to look at something.

    • Hi Suzanne,

      I do believe that the otters live here; however, they have large territories that they move within constantly, so they may not always be seen in one particular area (ie Billings Bridge). I’ve also seen otters at Shirley’s Bay once and the Moodie Drive quarry once; finding these guys takes a lot of luck!

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