180913a-l Otters

A pair of sea otters float together off the West Coast. Local author Todd McLeish took multiple trips west to observe sea otters in their natural habitat.

Otters have been on my mind a great deal lately. That’s partly because I spent the last four years writing a book about sea otters, the adorably cute, hand-holding, tool-using marine creatures found exclusively on the West Coast. But it’s also because I’ve enjoyed several recent encounters with river otters here in Rhode Island, and I’m captivated by their playful behaviors.

Members of the weasel family with long, streamlined bodies and a flattened head, river otters are somewhat common in the Ocean State anywhere there is freshwater. Charlie Brown, a wildlife biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, has found more than 450 locations – spread throughout every community in the state except Block Island – where otters haul themselves out at the edge of ponds, lakes and rivers.

Not that the animals are easy to see. River otters are shy and secretive. Most of my sightings have been near dusk or dawn and are typically quite brief. But your chances of seeing one are pretty good if you pay attention when passing by local waterways almost anywhere you go.

If you catch a glimpse of one, take a moment to enjoy it, because it will surely leave you smiling.

At the Great Swamp Management Area in Kingston, I watched as an otter darted across a dike and dragged itself through a muddy area on its way to a pond, where it proceeded to give itself a bath. Near the Scituate Reservoir last winter, an otter reclined on a frozen pond while it chewed on a freshly-caught fish. And somewhere along the North South Trail in the western part of the state, two otters appeared to be doing what looked like synchronized swimming – side-by-side loop-de-loops just below the surface of the water. Whether they were chasing fish, rinsing off, or just having fun is something I’ll never know.

My favorite river otter observation occurred in Washington, where I was looking for sea otters but instead came across a mother river otter taking her four pups on a hunting expedition. None of the young ones seemed to have much success during the 10 minutes I watched, but a pair of noisy ravens were perched on a rock nearby, looking like they were planning to steal whatever the little guys caught.

If you want to go looking for a river otter, now is a good time, because some of the pups born last spring are beginning to venture out on their own, searching for available territories and practicing their hunting skills. And they’re at the age when they’re most playful – wrestling in the water, chasing each other around and around, sliding down hills, and practicing their fighting skills.

It’s hard to say, but I think river otters in Rhode Island may be a little less skittish than those found in other regions. That may be because the Ocean State is the only place east of the Mississippi that does not have a trapping season. Trapping of river otters was banned by law in Rhode Island in 1970.

That’s not to say that otters don’t have a reason to fear people – or at least their vehicles. Charlie Brown has documented nearly 100 river otters struck and killed by cars in the state in recent years, and he’s sure it happens far more often than that.

So, drive slowly near your local pond or stream, and watch for the telltale signs of what may be Rhode Island’s cutest animal.

Naturalist Todd McLeish has been writing about wildlife and the environment for more than 25 years. His newest book is called “Return of the Sea Otter.”

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