Raising Pups in July 2001
On July 19, 2000, I got my memorable video of five otters, three of them swirling pups, swimming up Otter Hole Pond and then disappearing. I didn't see them again until late September suggesting to me that otters are extra protective of their pups and that I would be lucky to see them in July and August. Then on July 19, 2001, a year later, I was flabbergasted when I sat on the south slope of the East Trail Pond and a mother and two pups came up and took naps just below me.
Yes, they slept, but there were not many dull moments. I learned that otters can be active sleepers. First, there are the preliminaries including scatting, rolling in the dirt, snuggling and a little grooming. The video clip below is long, over 5 minutes, and I was in a difficult position as I tried to take the video. There were grass stalks between the otters and me, and I kept squirming closer to improve the quality of the video which meant I never quite got the camcorder steady, and I kept noisily trying to adjust the focus.
In this video clip we see again that the otter mother is a leader, not a herder. She came to the shore first, and, I think, scatted and then came up the slope without, as far as I can see, even looking back at her two pups. The pups played follow-the-leader. While the mother is rolling on her back in the dirt and grass, the pups seemed to jump about where she probably scatted and then came up the slope and rolled next to her. I don't think pups scat too often. They certainly can't keep up with their mother, even later in the year.
Over the years I've taken a number of photos of rolling areas. Both of the photos below are of rolling areas on the shore of the East Trail Pond. Of course, other animals scrape up grass and get down to dirt, so I look for otter scats near the rolling area that help me visualize an otter rolling and then stepping away, usually not far, to let fly.
Back to the three otters. The mother is clearly doing the serious rolling, and it strikes me that the pups prefer rolling into each other, playing, if you will, and also rolling on their mother. When she starts licking herself, one of the pups climbs on log. The mother could easily pull it back, but doesn't. The pup comes tumbling back down on its own accord. I was rather close to these otters, and I heard very little noise coming from them. So I don't think the mother was communicating with them. The scrapping noise you hear in the video is just me desperately trying to adjust the focus of the camcorder. From the angle I had on this scene, it sometimes looks like the mother is nuzzling one of the pups. But I think she is just going through her own relaxation rituals, and the pups simply keep trying to imitate her, when they are not distracted and looking over the log. The pups' back rolls often turn into a full body roll. She doesn't put them to sleep. She shows them how it is done. One pup at least seems to get the hang of it, as long as mother is the pillow.
She doesn't serve as a pillow for long. As the video clip below shows, when she shakes herself loose from the pups, she doesn't get into a bother, not wanting to wake herself up nor rile the pups who seem to be settling down. The otters slept for almost a half hour. Needless to say I edited the video down to those moments when they did twitch a bit, which the pups kept doing. After one big yawn, one pup seems to get sleepy, then some more twitches.
Then the mother got a pup's tail in her face, waking her up enough for a big yawn, and her head pillowed down on the pup's back, which wouldn't do at all. Waking also seems to be a series of rituals. The mother first takes care of her own itches, and then grooms her pups. It is obviously easier to do this while the pups are sleeping than while they are squirming about before the nap. Then after the mother jostles a pup a little more briskly, she hops over the log for a scat. Then the pups get their wake up call: picked up and thrown by their mother, rolled down the slope.
The pups quickly got into the gear and the three of them were soon diving in the water. Recall that the pups on the previous page, in video clips taken on July 11, 2002, didn't seem adept at diving, but by July 14 seemed better at it. The video clips on this page were taken on July 19, 2001, perhaps more evidence that those July 11 pups just needed another week's practice to master the dive.
These video clips raise more questions, and to address them I need to go back a bit. You might recall an April 15, 2001, video clip that showed an otter alone in this pond, wary of beavers, but getting over to scat on slope beside the dam. I speculated that this was the mother, breaking away from her new born pups, to get food, maintain her claim on the pond by scatting where another otter was likely to enter the pond, and sniffing the air for the presence of a male otter looking for sex. I admit that's reading a lot into a video clip, but I think animals, especially otters, live their lives to the fullest in the spring. Here's a shorter version of that video clip:
I kept visiting this pond regularly in the spring and summer, regularly saw scats but no otters. Then on July 6, I briefly saw one otter fishing in the pond. On July 9 I saw an otter foraging in the pond and saw it go up onto the latrine beside the dam, much like the otter I saw April 15th did. Most of the video clip below just shows the otter fishing. At about the 3:40 mark it gets close to a painted turtle sunning on a log and not until the otter looks at it does the turtle dive. At the 5:40 mark the otter goes up to the same latrine an otter used on April 15. Here is the clip:
Again, I assumed, or hoped, that the lone otter was a mother briefly away from her pups. On the next page I'll share video clips of pups in August and get back to showing how they develop their fishing skills. The video clips on this page remind us that otters are also land animals. Seeing the mother otter going up on the land on April 15, July 9 and July 19 raises the question of when and how do the pups learn to manage life on land. The videos of the mother with one pup showed them fishing in South Bay and then up at the East Trail Pond. Those two otters could have come up a creek, then crossed a series of beaver dams, and perhaps they did. But judging from how one of the pups had trouble getting over the log next to where the otters took a nap, climbing up a beaver dam might not be that easy for pups. On July 31, 2002, as I was coming up to the East Trail Pond dam to check on the beavers there, who generally came out at dark, I was startled to see three otters swimming toward the dam. I soon saw that it was a mother and two pups, and I learned that the mother also teaches her pups how to get about on land. Here's the video clip:
Earlier in the month I had noticed some scats on the log about where the otters climbed up on it. Maybe the mother marks the logs to train the pups' noses to get up that high. Camcorders make images brighter as darkness comes on, and in reality, it was harder to see the otters than the video suggests. But I did see them go all the way up the slope evidently taking a shortcut to the creek going down to South Bay. So otter pups in July not only learn to swim, they also learn to use otter trails on the land.
Finally before going on to look at otters in August, the video clips of the sleeping otters raise other questions, when, where and how long do otters sleep. I have a theory about this, which I will develop after I share more videos. For now, I must say I was amazed that these otters napped quite exposed on a grassy slope making no effort to conceal themselves, when there must have been dens in tree trunks, beaver lodges and muskrat burrows near by that they commonly used. What lesson was the mother teaching by napping out in the open? The only answer I can think of is that she was trying to acclimate the pups to the land and assure them that otters belonged there, could relax there, and need not be fearful of exposure. To survive an otter will have to learn to operate in an extensive territory. It can't manage that if it is fearful of any aspect of it.
I should add that in my suggesting a continuity in the education of the pups summer after summer, I am not suggesting that all otter families behave this way. I think their behavior depends on their habitat. Beginning in 2004, I think the otters relied less on the beaver ponds as nurseries for their pups. I saw them around the cattail marsh in nearby South Bay. On July 23, 2005, I was walking around the bay in the early afternoon and sat above an otter latrine on the shore. Then I saw what I first thought was a muskrat swimming along the marsh. I soon saw that it was an otter.
It wasn't pleased to see me.
But it still went under the dock below me. Take a look at the video clip:
This old broken down dock had plenty of room for a den.
My guess is that this was a mother looking for her pups. By this time in my otter watching I had learned the value of recording the date and time along with the otters, so I can report that the otter stayed under the dock for a little over ten minutes. She was not idle, not only continuing to snort at me, but also running under the dock with enough aggression that I backed up the hill! That doesn't prove that she was a mother in a protective mode, but what happened when she came back out suggests that she was looking for her pups. She snorted good riddance to me and then swam along the marsh. At the end of the clip, above the ambient noise of motor boats and human shouting, you can hear the alarm chirp of otters.
You can see how different the bay and marsh are from the beaver ponds. There are much fewer floating logs. The shore line is not always nearby.
I have seen pups in the marsh. I kayak around it often, but I don't take my camcorder when I kayak and don't have any video. When I see the pups they always immediately duck back into the marsh. I'm not sure how the mother marks the boundaries, as it were, for the pups. How does she keep them there while she goes in search of fish out in the bay? The best I can come up with so far is that she leaves fish out for the pups to eat, and she fashions rolling and resting areas on the granite outcrops in the middle of the marsh. I have some photos of what the otters have left behind there.
But I've never seen them there and so can't really say if they find this such a safe place that the pups can lollygag there alone for a good length of time. Now, on to August: Page 9
By Bob Arnebeck mailto: firstname.lastname@example.org