You really otter read this

Published 10:54 pm Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Two river otters appeared recently in our little arm of Lake Meade. We see them a few times a year, along with occasional muskrats and beaver. But this is not the only place we see them.

Windsor Castle trail in Smithfield crisscrosses a salt marsh — we’ve seen a family group there. River otter is a bit of a misnomer. They are found in lakes, swamps, marshes, any body of water with a healthy fish population. We’ve seen them in Chuckatuck Creek; they’re even in the mighty James.

We see them in the Dismal Swamp every now and then, usually early in the morning or late in the afternoon. They are “crepuscular,” most active at dawn and dusk. Most often we see their “slides” in the banks trailing down to the water and their “rolling spots,” where they wrestle and play.

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All of these sightings are good news. Otters will not live in polluted areas. They will walk up to 25 miles overland to get to another water source that’s clean and fish-full. Their diet is about 90 percent fish — either large, slow species like carp and catfish or school fish like shiners. They also eat shellfish, crawfish especially, although a friend who lives in Rescue reports seeing them cruising his waterfront dining on mussels. In summer, frogs, snakes, turtles and even mammals such as small muskrats and mice may be on the menu. As energetic and playful as they are, they require a lot of food.

A member of the weasel family, otters are at maturity about three feet long with an 18-inch tapering tail, covered in dark brown fur, with a lighter-colored throat. Their long, slender bodies have small heads, eyes and ears, long white whiskers, and as you might expect, they have webbed feet for swimming purposes.

They can submerge for up to four minutes, dive to 55 feet, and swim a quarter of a mile underwater.

But they are equally at home on land. Their burrows attest to this, as there are usually a couple of underwater entrances in a riverbank and several above-ground openings.

The female gives birth to three or four young in her burrow, and the blind babies won’t see for nearly a month. Dad stays away till the young are weaned, then rejoins his mate after six months or so.

But their signature behavior — play, play and more play! Visit the otter exhibit at the Virginia Marine Science Museum in Virginia Beach and watch them play. Listen to them whistle, growl and chuckle.

Or visit your local, clean unpolluted waterways in Western Tidewater and see them where they live.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at