Otter Habitat

Otters can flourish anywhere there are fish. At first glance the photo of those three otters in the snow seems to disprove that. That was a cold day and there weren't even snowfleas around. However, the otters were sticking their heads out of a hole in the ice of a pond. Underneath the ice, this is something like what they saw:

and that channel may have led to an area under the ice looking like this (though the camera flash is a luxury otters don't have!)

little pools of water, lightly frozen over, where they could find fish to eat -- and it was probably quite a bit warmer under that ice especially when the sun went down. So otters live in two different worlds, no actually three: the dry one we are familiar with, the under water world and the under ice world. In the latter two they get most of their food. They do need dry land, though. Otters, not just sea otters, can fish many miles out in the ocean but they have to come back to dry land where they can wash off in fresh water, rest, and raise a family.

You can find otters in rivers of all sizes, canals, lakes, marshes, and bays off the ocean. I watch otters on a large island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, which is several miles wide where I live. I do see them in the river, for example, off Picton Island at dawn

where in those waters about 6 to 8 feet deep they often get crayfish crawling along the bottom. It's hard to see them and get video or photos of them in that great expanse of water. Here's a poor image of an otter periscoping up out of the water off an old quarry on Picton Island to get a better look at me as I floated by in a kayak.

I see them best in the interior swamps of the islands in the river, in the ponds made by beavers, that rodent with big teeth and a pancake shaped tail that makes dams to create ponds so they can swim closer to the trees they cut down for food and building materials for their dams and lodges. It's easier for them to float logs than to drag them over the ground. Beavers have no interest in the fish, frogs, and crayfish that flourish in the pond that the otters go after.

The photo above shows the dam of a pond where I've see many otters especially on the lodge just beyond the dam, and one April they pranced on the rock behind the lodge.

The last thing I want to do is to suggest that there are certain physical features of a body of water or a shoreline that attract otters. For example, I've seen otters get quite a bit to eat in a pond that is mostly mud.

Obviously otters get more fish where there's a little more water! When they go on land I've seen otters go into rather secretive places where no predator could get them

That secluded rock ledge was their den, and here's a photo of me standing near it when the pond's water level was low.

They also den in beaver lodges, beaver and muskrat burrows into the pond and river banks and in hollow logs. I saw three otter pups scamper out of a fallen pine.

Once in November I came upon a large otter family in a pond and they all tried to hide in a trunk. Back in July, when the pups were smaller, they probably all could fit.

They soon realized they had grown too fat and went to hide in the tall grasses and logs lower in the water. However, I find that otters are not shy about posing in the open.

           

So I am skeptical of any suggestion that otters need water so deep and a shore line with plenty of cover. I let the otters I see define their habitat. It took several years of otter tracking before I started consistently seeing baby otters in July and one reason was that too many books about otters said that they raised their young in secluded ponds. Because of that I didn't look in one pond that was half surrounded by a frequently used hiking trail, thinking the mother otter would never let her pups be so close to people, some of them with dogs. The pups were there, and I continue to go back to that pond every July to find the year's new pups.

sometimes nestled with mother just down the hill from the trail. One year I got there in the nick of time to stop two hikers from throwing a stick to make the pups run.

So I'll try to avoid making categorical statements telling you where you can't find otters. All I can do is share what the otters I've seen have taught me about their habitat. If you look for otters in a fast flowing river or a drainage canal or an estuary, you'll have to discover for yourselves how the otters use that landscape. There is a good chance that certain fundamental things apply and to the degree that this web page helps you think like an otter, it will help you identify any kind of otter habitat.

I've noticed no particular place in ponds that otters favor for fishing. They go along the channels dug out by the beavers, but also the shallows. The dive around the lodges and behind the dams, but also around the dead trees standing and fallen that are often in the pond. They also fish through the broad expanses of the pond that have no logs and trees, rooting around, I assume, in the grasses under the water.

However, otters do favor certain dry areas in the pond and along the shore, especially the beavers' lodge

where they frequently scat, and also where they groom and sleep.

Lodges are safe places to relax but they are short on grass, moss, and dirt, three things that otters seems to glory in, though in the process they often kill the grass and moss. I've yet to get a good video of otters digging in what are called their rolling areas, but I have many photos of the result.

The most important places on the shore for otters seem to be the points where they leave messages for other otters. Otters define their own territory by leaving small scent markers, often just a small pile of grass and leaves with a small squirt of scat and urine. They put them on the trails they commonly use and seem to maintain these message boards, so to speak, year after year, so that I can go to a pond, go to the right area and get a good idea if otters have been through the pond recently. I find it very difficult to get a good photo of an otter's scent mound

You can see the grass pile and the scat on top, but it's hard to show how the otter scratched and pawed it all together. They don't always make scent mounds, but they repeatedly scat, that's pooping, in the same places. The best places to look are on rocks, mossy slopes,

logs on or near the shore,

and in the middle

and at the end of dams. As I mentioned before, they often do most of their scatting on beaver lodges,

Much to the dismay of my family, I take a photo of just about every otter scat that I see. I will include a photo of a typical scat here and then provide a link to another page that will show the several varieties I've seen. I urge you to check out the link on scats because there is no better evidence that an otter has been around.

Except when the mother is first acclimating her pups to water and in the coldest weeks of winter, otters usually move around quite a bit. Sometimes I can find enough prints in the mud,

trails in the grass, and a series of fresh scats so that I can follow the otters from pond to pond and back to the river. Once or twice I've actually followed the otters, but thanks to the otters' habit of sliding in the snow,

in the winter it is easy to get a grip on an otter's territory. Tracking in the snow teaches you that while otters usually wind up where there are fish, to get there they can climb up and slide down some pretty high hills.

but at the end of the trail I often find the warming sight of a hole into the snow and ice so the otter can get into the pond water to get fish, and outside the hole, hot black scats in the soft white snow.

Once I track otters to the holes in the ponds, I think I really have them cornered. After all, as long as it snows every other day or so I can find their fresh tracks. But then the spring thaw comes, and once again, I never quite know where an otter will pop up.

with a fish in its mouth.

I hope this page has been helpful. Here are my other web pages on otters:

identification: how to tell otters from minks, muskrats, beavers and fishers     behavior: how otters confront challenges and survive

by Bob Arnebeck

mailto: bobarnebeck@gmail.com