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The Vinalhaven Sightings Report is organized and edited by Kirk Gentalen on behalf of Vinalhaven Land Trust and Maine Coast Heritage Trust. Out and about on Vinalhaven, MCHT steward Kirk Gentalen reports on what he and others have seen in their travels. Contributions of stories and photos are welcome, and can be sent to


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

4 day old track
wind blown and grown
Welcome to the Vinalhaven Sightings Report
February 12th, 2013
Otter Update Bonus
“You might say I am a tad obsessed” – AM

OHP ice is nice
quick biz - basin snowshoe/tracking this sat. 10:30, skoog.
tiit trick - click on the photos and they magically get bigger.

VSR friend and good one Kristen Lindquist wrote up about a visit to a Vinalhaven otter latrine for the Pen Bay Pilots, minor league baseball team. here's the link :
OK, here’s a bit on what's been observed and reported (as well as learned and speculated about) with “our” otters over the course of a week or 10 days (“our” otters being town otters, like right in town).  More like a photo gallery, with chatter – something we just had to get off our chest before we could move on.
thanks for being part of the process.

otter head pokin'
photo by Ali McCarthy
For this otter update we’ll start with the most current (A) info – the stuff in just before the storm. From there we’ll go back to what we knew previously (B) (of course) and that should bring us to what’s been found (C) that led us to the most current. (D) is interpretation/ speculation, and that thin line. Cool? Cool. maybe it will make sense. maybe 


there are three there
photo by Ali McCarthy
(A)The latest, most current, what’s hot  – (2/7) – day before the snow started – Carver’s - Ali McCarthy spotted an otter ice out her kitchen window. It came out of a hole in the ice with an eel in its mouth. Before long there were three. She snapped these shots thru her window. Super cool.   Ali admits she frequently scans the water/ice when she is home. And who can blame her…(2/10) Ali spots (believed to be) the same three otters on the ice. Post storm!



3 of a kind
photo by Ali McCarthy
(B)Previously known – VSR regulars will recall that Ali McCarthy (and Johnny too) has/have been watching and photographing a family of otters in Carver’s Pond since the summer – like for 7 months or so. The group of 4 has been pretty much identified as a female and her 3 pups (pups being born last winter), as 3 of the otters were observed to be noticeably smaller than the 4th back in August.

Old Harbor Pond (OHP) – a group of 4 otter have 2 dens (#4 and #7) and several latrines. They use established routes to go from OHP to the Sands and from OHP to Old Harbor. In December and January the pond dens seemed to be used every few nights. More than likely it s the same group as the ones in carver’s. Greens – solo otter tracked in January


there are 5 sets of tracks here
(C)What’s been found(1/27a) morning - painfully windy on OHP, in the dawn, when my toes are cold (not really)…Fresh tracks coming from OHP to the Sands made the previous night (1/26-27) in 2 day old snow. For the first time this winter (and in my time out here) I found 5 sets of otter tracks together.  There were 4 sets together on the right (in the photo), appearing to be in standard group (Our group! Our otters!) formation, & then a single, lone tail dragging guy  slightly off to the left. From the feel of things he looked to be the newbie , and he was immediately referred to as a “he” which may or may not be true. (“Kevin’s a girl?”).  In my mind I mumbled “that looks bigger” when comparing his trail to the others, but to be honest (refreshing honesty) the tracks were windblown (not really), I took no measurements and I say that kind of stuff all the time. Tail dragging always changes the feel of the trail. It was all on "feel", and sometimes we "feel" on, and sometimes we "feel" off. disclaimer.
two and 3/4 sets of tracks


Anyway, the royal “we” back tracked the trails to OHP – a pond which with its shape, location & N/S orientation can create an impressive wind tunnel from the north-west on a 14 degree day. The trails led to the OHP’s edge and out onto the ice bearing towards the den (#7) area. some great definition was captured in these wind cleaned tracks on the pond. 
can you see them
marching off the ice


good times in the quarry
this is them leaving
(1/27b) afternoon – on a hunch I went out Norton’s Point Road towards the lobster pound where otters and their sign have been seen historically. It didn’t take long before I came across all 5 sets of their tracks going across the cute little quarry just on the right of the road. The trail in the quarry ends up being a small section of a longer trail that crossed Norton’s Point, going West to East, from the Reach back to the Sands, via the quarry and lobster pound. The trails were fresh from the previous night and remained consistent with the tracks found earlier – once on the quarry the group split (4 & 1) and went in separate directions around the quarry, only to meet up on the opposite side of the quarry (opposite from which they came!) and then left together as a group of 5. Newly found (personally) latrine on trail leading up from quarry.

which ones look to be playign with each other
and which look to be on the side, tail draggin'
and belly slidin'

when they got to the quarry
this guy went to the other side
conditions and micro-climates varied the
looks the tracks gave
when they got to the quarry
these four went to one side
windblown otter tracks are
nice when you already know
what they are
The next day - (1/28a) checking out for what the otters did before they left OHP den for the Sands (1/27a) - OHP – with the winds dying down we (the royal “we”) made it out onto the OHP ice and over to otter den #7. Sure enough there was plenty of fresh scat (man how many fish do they eat!?!) by the den’s main entrance and the snow in the area showed lots of sign of activity (5 otters will do that) from a few nights before (once again just before they headed out to the Sands (1/27a).


spraint and ice. home sweet home
can you dig it? two "new" entrances

There was a new development with the den observed at this time – ice. (“Flooding is a concern with dens”). With the fluctuations of temperature over the month there has been a lot of melting and re-freezing, you know standard winter stuff, resulting in….ice. the location of den #7 is towards the bottom of a hill, an area with plenty of run off potential. To make a long story short – the “main entrance” to the den filled with ice. Not the den itself, which most likely has to be crawled up and into after going into the den hole. Anyway, these otters were busy, opening up 2 other (“new” for us) entries  into the den. Something to think about when the snow blocks you into the house. Cozy. Moments later…. 

if this slide had been a foot over to the right...
it would have been blown away
(1/28b) And so we find ourselves looking at the trail the otters left when they made their way to the den 3 nights before?....Surprisingly (and not so surprisingly) parts of the trail that the 5 otters took en route to den #7 could be seen stretching out across OHP towards the den and originating from Old Harbor. The winds from the day before had removed most of the snow from the pond, leaving only the smoothest and most slippery of surfaces (totally sketch ball) with thin stretches of snow along the pond edges.

Fortunately for us (the royal “us”) otters often use pond edges for running (and swimming) and on this day small stretches of the group’s tracks and trails were to be found in the line of snow along OHP’s southern shore that hadn’t been windblown. The trail was patchy, but easy to follow and had examples of the group dynamics – 4 otters heading one way while the 5th (he) cuts off for a bit.

here are 5 sets of tracks. otters running together
well, at least the top 4 - no overlap in tracks.
running in a line, side by side?

The trail showed that the group of 5 came onto OHP from Old Harbor as a group and headed up to den #4 at the northern end of the pond. What they found there was similar to #7 – a frozen entry way. No effort to make an alternative entrance was noted. The otters then went back to the south shore and over to den #7 where they proceed to dig out a couple some alternative entrances.


the 5th set of tracks is off
line with the rest (way left)
belly slideand maybe a moment or two behind?

This trail was tricky to age with conditions being such, but the trails to and from den #7 showed sign of different lengths of exposure to the elements. Considering the efforts the otters made to dig out and re-open den #7 feels like the otters probably spent most of the day after in the den (their night). That puts the group of 5 otters cutting across OHP at the night of (1/25-26).   
a bottleneck in the trail
(just at the top of the picture to the left)
the 4 cross over to the left, and the
solo otter goes to the right. right.


later on the 4 and 1 otters
took slight diversions in their paths
What we have here – a route - the combination of these trails (put together from a few nights) lets us follow the otters out of Old Harbor and onto OHP(1/25), a night (our day) spent in den #7 and then went across Norton’s Point(1/26). the trail going west to east across Norton’s point means that when the otters came out of OHP, they came down the Sands and went around Norton’s point (they had to get to the Reach somehow) – in the water, assumedly fishing all the while – and then crossed back over to the lobster pound and then elsewhere. Maybe over to Carver’s Pond? I’d like to think so…but I clearly don’t know. are you with me? it's ok wherever you are.

belly slide over/thru
a rock wall
And So…. At this point there is a gap in the data, a few days when they were away from OHP. An extended outing, covering how much ground we don’t know, females with young can be expected to move up to 2.5 miles a day. There was a rumor of otter tracks on the quarries by the school. Lots of them, (tracks not rumors). A cross terra trip for otters from Indian Creek to Robert’s Harbor, via Ocean View swamp would take them across the quarries by the school. Got the speculator going…


(2/3) OHP - Anyway. 4 or 5 nights later the otters did come back, all 5 of them. Their formation was similar to “as previous noted” – trail groups of 4 and 1. (Am I blowing (up) this formation’s importance a little?). No way to tell, but it seems in all likelihood that the otters stayed together for the week.

5 otter trails back on OHP
4 & 1 formation

After crossing from Sands to OHP the group went straight  to the den and proceeded to dig it out. a 4th entry was excavated at this time – right on the top.


4 on the bolt
From here, though and however, it looks like the group split for keeps (keeps being at least til today). The fab 4 took went cross pond soon after making it to the den area, leaving the 5th wheel (otter) behind in the den. He would stay another night in the den before heading back out to the Sands (2/5). His solo path out (2/5) was the first of the 6 or 7 otter crossings (OHP-Sands) I’ve tracked this year that veered from the well worn trail the group of 4 “always” uses. Instead, this otter opted to go into people’s yards and do donuts around apple trees. Before heading out number 5 went about ½ way down OHP and then headed back out towards the Sands. That was the last we’ve seen of him.  

these two rascals went half way
and then came back
In the meantime (back to 2/3), the band of 4 were on their way down the pond. 2 of the rascals ran out onto the pond to cross on their own, only to turn around and head back to the others before crossing as a group.


The gang of 4 took to the woods briefly and then stuck to the shoreline as they worked their way. The otters continued along the north shore til about the “frozen canoe” (nice land mark) and then  crossed OHP. This was put together over the next two tracking sessions, and the conditions of the tracks and trails 3 and 4 days later where so cool.
belly slides from the bolt
3 days old

den #4 - entryway blocked by ice

before the solo otter left he did
a big donut belly slide around an apple tree

And so the group left OHP and went onto Old Harbor.  Their trails were later found crossing Norton’s Point Quarry (2/7), so there was a couple day gap in data there too.

Maybe they took a trip around city point and up to dyers? How about a luxury otter vacation to Greens Island!

After crossing Norton’s point (night of 2/6-7) the otters did not go to OHP instead heading….somewhere. Three otters were then spotted by Ali in Carver’s (2/7)…. Connection?



the 4 otter return to the quarry
(d)So what all does this mean? – all quotes Elbroch/Rinehart unless noted - In the grand pecking order of things, geologically and politically speaking, what we have witnessed here probably is worth little beyond the intrinsic value and beauty that is (are) otters being otters, and that is (are) humans appreciating otters. Speaking locally though, it’s pretty cool. (And when I say locally I mean a 5 ft. radius around my beard). 

The whole concept of a 5th otter joining the group is intriguing (to me). The fact that it (the 5th otter) stuck with them for at least a week (assuming it hung with the magical 4 (otters) during the gap times between trackings) takes it up a notch. Let’s dwell on this…


otter tracks, 4 days old
You can come around but don’t you talk to me - So River Otters have been described as everything from solitary to highly social. They have territories, but don’t seem to mind if their turf overlaps with its neighbor’s. Don’t get them wrong though, this doesn’t mean that they want to spend time with them. 

“Overlap is common between males and females, and sometimes there is overlap between animals of the same sex as well. …then the otters mutually avoid one another and focus their activities within more-or-less exclusive core areas”.


So they’ll share, but not the good spots. Sounds a little like the bass fishermen and fungally-inclined folk that I know. Anyway and continuing, if we are in agreement that the group is a female with young, then who would she tolerate not only in her zone, but in her dens…with her youngsters! Now that’s tolerance (granted the young big enough to be on their own).  is it even a thing? If they all did hang together for a week, that would mean that not only did they share dens (in the tank he’s groovin’) but they shared “core areas” (like really gross). Important spots like Carver’s and OHP, the neighborhood. they know each other's secrets. anthropomorphism at your service.

bound and slide
with a little tail drag
 Breeding females tend to maintain home ranges exclusive of other breeding females”.    

So it wasn’t another breeding female. In the literature there is mention of “another adult helper” who might assist with raising young – an otter nanny – that is never the father (nice job, spraint). Instead, it’s either a non-breeding or subadult (sounds less than an adult) female. They are usually a non-dipersed(?) female from an earlier litter that “…provide(s) food and protection for the young and play with them as they grow”. This behavior has been documented in coastal otter populations in Alaska and California, and may not be restricted to those states (We’re coastal! Why not us?). Does seems a little late for a helper to be joining, but Ali recalled counting to 5 (presumably by 1s) during some of the sightings this summer. Maybe he (#5) was a she (can the nanny ever be male?) and took off for a bit and came back. And then clearly took off again. Maybe.

3 day old windblown tracks

“Dispersal distances can be large, up to 125 miles (some # of km). One individual dispersed so quickly as to cover 26 miles (42000 m) per day, but typically they move about 2.5 miles (4000 m) a day.”

If 125 miles is the max, wouldn't that mean that the one who went 26 miles a day only went for 5 days. no stamina.

Dispersal – nature’s word for getting kicked out of your home. Sure the young otters were probably ready to go (and have been for a while), I mean it’s been a whole 8 or 10 months since they were born right? Stop babying these youngsters.

some days on OHP were patchy with snow
“young probably leave the mother in mid- to late winter and disperse” – Stokes, Animal tracking and behavior

It’s that time of the year, so maybe #5 is a youngster that has/was “dispersed” recently from another den. From the Basin. Or State Beach. Maybe even the Whites. If it’s going 26 miles a day dare I say could it even be from North Haven? Or even further away? (It shivers me timbers just to contemplate). So maybe the visitor is just a young stranger. Lost on his way, the traveler found a generous mother and family who took him (the royal “him”) in for a few nights, showed him where to fish, leaving him a better otter for the whole experience (pretty romantic, huh?). Maybe this was the only time he (#5) will visit Vinalhaven harbor, and has continued his journey looking for his own turf. Maybe, maybe maybe.


And speaking of dispersal, is that what’s going on with "our" group? 4 now 3? Is this the 3 without the mother? Is the band breaking up? Might the rhythm section run together for a bit. Maybe the next snow will give some tracks that tell of that future past.

this spraints for you!

Here’s another - Any chance it’s the father?

“The father will not be permitted near the young until they are about 6 months old. The male may associate with the female and with her young on his range after they are 6 months old, but only on a casual basis and for short moments.” – stokes….


With overlapping territories, the paths otters take surely cross at times, and the dad is pretty much the guy next door. Would the male be tolerated for any length of time? Would the male even try, even during the breeding season? Local latrines should be fully stocked to relay messages about females, families, and availability (if you know what I mean!). Otters know how to avoid and how to find someone if they want.  Makes me wonder how often otters bump into other otters unexpectedly?


OHP ice is cool, even without otters
Anyway, I have found little about any “typical” timing sequence with the dispersal of young and female coming into heat – its 6 weeks somewhere between December and April. Our female has not been in heat yet. Does the male come around and check when it’s around breeding time? He’s got hormones (and thusly “needs” too). Did he say, “hey – ditch the kids and let’s meet in a week”? Probably not, purely speculation. But they did leave him in a den to bolt in the night (literally, except for the bolt part). He had two days at OHP before he left. This was not a stranger escorted out of territory. Maybe that’s not what they do. Maybe it’s not presently a core-area. Maybe baby.


Could the freedom of recently “dispersing” her young possibly allow her to drop into heat (is it something you drop into?)? If that's what's happened. Mating sure is easier without kids around (no comment here), but it doesn’t really matter since we are speculating.

another in the series of dug
entrances to den #7
And so we find ourselves speculating about mammals that breed in the Maine winter. Like with grey seals, river otters are “active” (biblical sense) in the winter, while not being as specific as the grey seals to the calendar with mating – otters may breed thru the first 3rd of spring. Pregnant river otters won’t give birth until the next Feb/March, but only have an active (non-biblical sense) gestation period of about 7 weeks. Otters do the ol’ delayed implantation thing (like the grey seal, and all pinnipeds) but to the extreme – 8-10 months of a fertilized egg floating around (it’s warm and cozy) before a 2 month implantation session (warm and cozy and connected)! Many Mustelids (weasel family – otters are members) do the ol’ delayed implantation (DI)  thing, mink also perform DI locally (not on my beard though). But not to this extreme – with the otters the eggs are delayed 4 times more than they are attached!


Why the DI? To give the female time to build up reserves before giving to the young? In bears I have heard of fertilized eggs being re-absorbed (yeah, like they were absorbed some other time) if the female doesn’t build enough fat reserves to support. DI is for when you are ready to mate but just aren't ready to commit to the offspring. 8-10 months gives the otter plenty of time to get “it” together before committing to the kids? Nursing 3 young otter must certainly take its toll, got get strong before, and summer is a “better” time to build reserves. Maybe, I just made that up. All ideas are being entertained. Few accepted.


Needless to say it’s timing that works for otters. If humans had DI shotgun weddings would become more like sling-shots.


 “Tracking in snow is learning from the past to see more in the future, past”.


 Maybe we’ll get some answers in the tracks, undoubtedly more questions.
amy palmer tracks
aren't they cute?


Tracks are history. And how about history -what a way to learn.

Don’t forget to look at the snow. (I know how can you?)


Here are our tracks, just so you are not confused.
leify and daddy tracks