It swims and dives with great readiness and with peculiar ease and elegance of movement…
Thomas Bell on otters, 1874
I recently spent a couple of days with a great group of guys in my favorite winter haunts – Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges.
The first day started out beautifully with a rich sunrise…and that was about the end of the nice weather. The next day and a half, we experienced very little sunshine, and a lot of wind, cold, drizzle, and clouds (did I mention wind?!!). And much of the wildlife thought we were crazy being out there, so they stayed home.
The Snow Geese have arrived, but they continue the trend of the past few years and are a bit unpredictable. Instead of flying out to the refuge fields in the morning, they took off far to the east for points unknown. The Tundra Swans were a bit more obliging as they flew out of Pungo Lake in small groups, giving us some nice views. A few hundred landed in one of the impoundments and graced us with their mesmerizing calls, one of my favorite natural sounds.
And where there are waterfowl, there are eagles. We saw several Bald Eagles as they flew over the flocks looking for possible weak birds that would make an easy target.
But the highlight of the day was seeing several River Otters. A friend had said he had seen a bunch on a recent trip so I was looking. Finally, I caught some motion out of the corner of my eye through the thick vegetation lining the canals – an otter! We drove up a bit and got out waiting on the otter to swim our way. It turned out to be three River Otters cruising the canal. They were very aware of our presence and barked and snorted their disapproval. At first, they proved to be difficult subjects for photography – just about the time I focused on an otter head, it would disappear with a ker-plunk.
Finally, one raised up to get a better look and I got a shot. It soon became a whole lot of images, as we walked along the banks of the canal trying to figure out where they would pop up next.
The first siting had three otters. They disappeared through a culvert under the road and then we found five lounging on the bank. When they swam off, we came across three of them on another canal and began watching them. Two suddenly came up across the canal while one seemingly disappeared.
The two began swimming very close together and one had its head down relative to the other. I soon saw why – it had a fish it was dragging beneath the surface of the water. At first, I couldn’t make much out, but then the otter reached the shore opposite me and began to drag its prize up on the canal bank.
The fish looked huge compared to the size off the otter. I think it was a Carp, or perhaps a Bowfin. One otter had its paws full tying to lug the fish up on the bank while keeping the other otter at bay. This made for a lot of commotion and splashing, and not a very good view of the fish from where I stood.
The finest chefs have nothing on the skill of these otters as they quickly stripped off chunks of the fish and gulped them down, essentially fileting it, all while swimming and tussling with each other in the water.
We finally decided we had disturbed their meal long enough (in between bouts of fish eating one or both would occasionally give us “the look”). So, when they turned and swam off with the remains of their lunch, we let them be, amazed at what we had just witnessed.
I never tire of watching these energetic mammalian masters of the aquatic realm. I will certainly keep my eyes open for them on my next trips down this way in the coming weeks.