Raising Two Pups August 2002
On August 12, 2002, I saw an otter mother and two pups in a large man-made pond that I call Audubon Pond because it was based on designs made by the New York Audubon society. Around 1969 heavy equipment scooped out a huge hole in a meadow and pushed the dirt up into a huge embankment. The north end is shallow and the south end toward the embankment deeper. A drain pipe regulates the water level. Perhaps otter mothers are attracted to it because there is a good depth of water, say 10 feet in places, so otter pups can hone their deep diving skills without contending with the currents and other conditions out in the river where depths can reach well over 100 feet. Plus the surrounding embankment, causeway and more natural shores are kept clear because hiking trails are maintained. It is not easy for a pup to go too far astray here. Below is a view of the pond from an otter latrine on the west bank.
That said, I don't recommend this replicated to attract otters. It is not used any more than the many natural beaver ponds nearby, all fashioned by beavers after 1969. I had last seen these otters, or so I think, I have no real proof that they are the same, back in the East Trail Pond on July 31 as they left the pond in the evening, climbing a log on the shore as they did. I had also seen them in that pond on July 11 and July 14. The video clips of those sightings are on page 7 and the video clip of them leaving the pond is on page 8. I assumed that these were the same otters, when I saw them on August 12 in Audubon Pond, simply because I saw a mother and two pups, and as I had walked around the other ponds that day I had not seen fresh scats nor the otters who I knew were likely somewhere in the ponds. To be sure, there is enough doubt in my calculations to make them less than scientific, but what I am trying to elucidate is not so much the upbringing of some particular pups, but pups in general, and I was definitely seeing a mother and pups. Before sharing the video clips, I should make one more point. Why did I take and why am I sharing clips that are of such poor quality like the first one below? I took the video because it is very difficult counting otters when they are in the water and any record helps clarify the scene. And on this day, when I took video from fifty yards away I was watching three otters. Then when I got a bit closer, I only saw two otters, and closer still, my best video, only one otter. Still the same group, because at the end of that best video, I saw the three together again. When I came from South Bay up over the embankment of Audubon Pond I saw otters fishing in the shallows of the east shore of the pond.
In the opening seconds of the video clip we see the heads of three otters, all swimming to the left. In October and November we'll see families fishing in this and other ponds by cruising and diving all going in one direction. But recall the videos of the pups we saw in July and their tendency to swirl in circles. On the last page we saw the same tendency in the pups fishing in a shallow pool, but they were rather confined in that pool. They had five acres to swim in here. Still, they seemed to be swimming back and forth over the same small area. Perhaps they were simply getting fish there, so why leave. But then at 0:55 second mark, we see an otter's head rear up out of the water and then leap head up, again to the left. Even an otter can't catch a fish with its head in the air so we are probably seeing one pup chasing the other. However, most of the time the otters have their heads under water and they are bobbing as if they are fishing. At the 1:21 mark we see another dive and this was seems more angled into the water. I think these pups are getting a lesson.
In the next video clip the otters are out toward the center of the pond. The quality of the clip is not good, but I keep studying it because especially in the first minute something happens that I can't quite interpret. I think the clip opens with three otters, then I see two heads craning, and another otter swimming around the lodge which is rather far away.
Unfortunately, I didn't take continuous video of these otters. When I couldn't see them, I turned off the camcorder. The clearest interpretation I can think of for the opening minute of the clip is that the mother dives and swims back to the lodge to test her pups on their ability to find a place of safety in the pond. That said it doesn't quite explain to me why the otter who is presumably the mother surfaces after her pups swim by on their way to the lodge. This occurs at the 1:04 mark of the video clip. As otter pups grow it becomes more difficult to distinguish them from their mother just by looking at their heads. But the rather engaging tail flips of the two otters swimming back to the lodge suggest to me that they are pups. The pup's tail takes longer to look just like an adults. Then once the pups reached the lodge they seemed to go into it, not on it, and meanwhile I lost track of the otter, presumably the mother, who surfaced behind the pups. This lodge had long been used by beavers but it had been abandoned by them in the winter of 2001-2002. I found one of the beavers dead on the ice in January, and saw a surviving yearling rather woe begone in the spring moving up to another pond. The otters evidently rearranged the lodge to their liking fashioning a hole coming up through it. Beavers never do that. So as I waited for something to happen, camcorder off, an otter popped up through the lodge and began grooming itself up on the lodge. Given this otter's size there is no doubt that it is the mother. She goes up higher on the lodge to scat and a pup comes up through the hole. It goes up the lodge to scat. Then the mother goes into the pond and swims off, and the pup, running down the lodge, follows. There is no sign of the other pup. The mother is on a log eating something and the pup swims by her once again showing its dependence on the mother and its propensity to go off on its own.
The next video clip shows the mother and pup fishing together in this shallow reach of the pond. We should look for two things: is the mother still feeding the pup and does the pup catch any fish on its own? These are hard questions to answer since the otters are foraging in a muddy shallow area where they were unlikely to get fish large enough for a faraway observer to see.
In the first 30 seconds of the clip we see the otters' heads meet twice. I think the mother is feeding the pup, or, put it this way, giving a pup a taste for what they are after. The pup imitates the mother and then keeps bobbing by itself which suggests it might be getting something to eat, but its propensity to follow the mother suggests it is not doing too well on its own. At the 2:15 mark the pup's attention seems to be wavering. The mother keeps foraging; the pup looks up at the lodge, perhaps checking on its brother or sister who might be sleeping on the lodge where I can't see it. The mother noses up on the grass, suggesting that she is not just interested in fish. She reconnects with her pup and leads it on a gallop to scat on the shore. Otters are often more particular where they scat, sniffing the area first, and stepping up a bit higher whether they be on shore or on a lodge. This otters don't and are quick about it. It looks like the pup is only observing, and quick to race back into the pond. Then I lost track of them until they materialized along the far shore where I could barely see them. I think there are two otters, but perhaps just the mother with her big tail suggesting that a pup is with her.
Beginning at about the 3:15 we see mother and pup nose to nose in the water around the lodge. She may be passing food to the pup, but then she begins to train the pup. It looks like she uses a nibble of food in her mouth, or the expectation of finding one there, to get the pups head up and then to lead it down into the water. Once the pup is in the water it looks like the mother forces its head down, perhaps with her paw on its back, so that its tail sticks out of the water. At about the 4:20 she seems to play with the pup under water. At one point the pups front paws only seem to be sticking out of the water. This time when they go nose to nose, it is more like pups playing than a mother using food to lead a pup on. The playing ends fairly quickly. To me otter mothers often exhibit a good bit of playfulness but soon draw the line. Then the mother climbs up on the lodge, the pup follows and before the mother begins the rituals of sniffing, scatting, and grooming, she hops back down into the pond. This time the otter doesn't follow and I was treated to the rather poetic motions of an adult otter fishing in the shallows alone.
Until the 4:30 mark the video clip above is self explanatory. But two things bear noting: she could have gone into any part of the pond, but she went back to the same area she fished with the pup. So the mother is not condescending to the pups; she is not necessarily taking them to where it is easy to fish, but where fishing is productive. Recalling the part of the last video where the pup was bobbing alone. Judging from how the mother fishes in this video clip, that is not the way to work the shallows. The mother is quick. I think the otters bobbing technique traps fish. The darting technique of the mother is more an effort to nab anything moving, which is why she strays onto the shore around the 4:36 mark. A flying insect probably caught her eye, or a frog jumped. But she's soon back in the pond, leaping like she saw something move out there that she might catch. At the 5:20 mark she catches and eats a fish big enough for us to see. Then we see how she works the shallowest part of the pond, more grassy muck than water. She keeps her nose just above the water and darting in three directions before she moves on. The otter's whiskers are quite good a detecting the motion of prey and I should think she is whiskering the water, if you will, rather than smelling it. At the 7:25 mark the voices of hikers coming down the trail to pond prompts the otter to go back to the lodge.
I waited out the disturbance and a few minutes after the hikers left, the otters appeared on the lodge. Once again we see two pups with the mother. Perhaps because the mother was worried about humans being around, she sensed my presence and went back in the water and around the lodge. I didn't see them again. That afternoon a friend and his two daughters, all otter lovers, came to visit. I took them out to Audubon Pond and once again the otters were out. The video opens with otters swimming to the lodge. I was alerting my guests and didn't get continuous video. Then the video shows two pups, I think, on the lodge. An otter periscopes and looks in our direction, the mother, I think, because she then slips some food to a pup. She swims over toward where we are hiding. Meanwhile two otters are about the lodge, the one on it eating the fish its mother provided, and the other demonstrating that it has learned from diving lessons. We briefly see its tail waving in the air. Meanwhile, the otter coming towards us gets distracted by fish and goes after a meal. She even got too close to take video as the grass and bushes obscured her. Meanwhile it looks like the pups are playing with each other on the lodge. Then we see the mother well out in the pond, and soon she has her head up chewing a fish as she swims, a skill I don't think the pups had learned yet. Here is the video clip, not of the best quality since the sun was going down, but I think it is important because it shows the degree that the pups can be away from their mother. Of course, they know she is there but they show no anxiety while they are on the lodge and she is out in the pond fishing.
At about the 3:00 the mother returns and the pups hurry down to her to get fed. I think the pups stay in the water diving to get what she brought, as she climbs onto the lodge and shakes water off her fur. Then one pup comes up through the hole for some kissing and grooming, and then the other for some wrestling with the other pup. The mother looks over in our direction. Clearly these otters did not panic when people were around, and were loath to vary their routine of moving from the lodge into the pond to fish when they were hungry. But did either of the pups catch any fish? Since the mother did not feed them as often as she did back in July, does that mean they were getting food on their own? Five days later I saw the otters again, in the same pond.
The pups certainly look like they are fishing, but on closer look they might have just developed another game. Instead of swirling around after each other on the surface of the water, they are diving, tails waving in the air, and chasing each other under water. At about the 1:20 mark we see an otter with a fish in its mouth, and then an otter or two otters seems go into a frenzy, wrestling with the fish in its mouth. It is likely the mother caught the fish and gave it to one of the pups. If not, the paroxysms of the pup with the fish suggest that this was a rare occurrence. At the end of the clip, the pups go to the lodge, one getting up on it, and looking out over the pond where the mother is out fishing.
For the first 2:30 of the clip below we see the mother fishing, mostly in the deeper part of the pond, though it is still grassy, and briefly in the muddy shallows. Meanwhile I shifted my position. I had noticed that viewing the otters from the causeway that formed the east shore of the pond, I couldn't see what where the pups seemed to prefer to nap on the western slope of the lodge, actually southwestern which afforded the best exposure to the sun from late morning on. By moving I got an excellent angle on the mother coming up out of the hole in the lodge and kissing one of her pups.
Then the mother attends to her itchy head. She has been moving through grasses and mud. Compared to the beavers and muskrats who work the same ponds, otters seem to appreciate sunbathing under an August sun. Unfortunately my being closer to the lodge made it more likely that the otters would notice me, and, as we see at the end of the clip, they did. The mother nosing around on the lodge most have been straining to interpret what she was smelling, and she got a whiff of me. The snorting sound she makes is not caused by her sniffing air, but by her blowing out air through her lips. She is communicating her recognition of me, and by the second blow the pup is up and quickly down the hole through the lodge.
The reaction of the otters to my presence was interesting. I got the impression that the mother wanted to increase the pups' familiarity with humankind. For the first 2:30 we see the mother and pups swimming out into the pond, not far from the lodge, periscoping and blowing.
We will see many more encounter between otters and me and I'll try to interpret the otters behavior. When otters raise themselves straight out of the water, we call it periscoping. Usually they make their blowing noise when they do it. Obviously they raise themselves to better see a threat. I think they make the noise to both alert other otters and to ward off the threat. So in this case the mother is teaching how to behave during a threat, her primary strategy being first to make sure other otters know of the threat, establish an escape route (the most important thing to teach the pups), and how to safely regain the lodge which the family, due for naps after their recent fishing, was loath to leave.
At the end of the video clip we see that the otters had another hole in the lodge which was not an escape route into pond but an entrance into an upper chamber in the lodge. The mother, after sniffing the air, comes out for a scat. Of the two pups in this family, one seems more keen to mirror mother's every move. I wonder if that is the pup that comes out and tries to scat just like mom. At some point in this video book I will digress into a discussion of how otters use beaver lodges, but I'll wait until we see more videos of their behavior around lodges. We see plenty of that on the next page as we see clips of these three otters on and around a huge lodge in another pond, what I call Otter Hole Pond.
Turn the page: Page 11
Contents and Guide to Video Clips
By Bob Arnebeck mailto: firstname.lastname@example.org