People enjoy hiking at Audubon for a variety of reasons. Whether your motivation is exercise, wildlife viewing, bird watching or just the experience of being outside you can always be open to those surprises that may cross your path. In fact, it doesn't even have to be a designated outdoor experience such as a hike, kayak paddle or cross-country ski. Nature may surprise you as you walk to your car after work or glance away from the computer and out the window. The one and only time I saw a mink, it ran across the trail in front of me as I walked back from picking up signs on a trail. Terry LeBaron, an Audubon volunteer, lists seeing a hawk capture a rabbit as one of his top 10 amazing nature experiences. This is the kind of thing that you see on nature TV shows, and he witnessed it in the Audubon parking lot standing by his car. My point is: You never know what will happen when you are anywhere outside.
Terry, who spends a lot of time outside at Audubon, had one of those unexpected nature experiences recently as he was casually returning to the center on one of the trails. Despite having traveled this way many times before, he was scanning the adjacent woods and water for anything interesting. He happened to look out into a pond at the right moment and saw a trail of bubbles moving across the water. Just like they say about smoke, where there are bubbles, there's ... well, something. That something then popped its brown, fur-covered head out of the water. A river otter was looking right at him! He watched its graceful movements for a few minutes and managed to snap some photos before it disappeared.
River otters are not creatures we see too often at Audubon, so this was a surprise. In fact, Terry's are the first photos we have of the water-loving mammals on our property in recent history. (There may be others that we don't know about. If you have some, we'd love to know.) We have seen tracks and otter ''slides'' in the snow, but not the maker of those animal signs. It seems fitting to pay tribute to this animal we were so excited to have a report of on the property.
River otters are creatures that are not spotted often at the Audubon, though their tracks and ‘‘slides’’ in the snow are noted occassionaly.
Photos by Terry LeBaron
Otters are in the mustelid family along with weasels, mink, fishers and martens. Weasels and their relatives tend to have a bad reputation. If someone calls you a weasel, they are not being very nice. But otters stand out from the rest of the family. It is a good guess that the most frequently used word to describe an otter is ''cute.'' They move smoothly and are known to be playful in and out of the water. It is easy to anthropomorphize this cute creature, whether it is seen rolling, diving and gliding through the water at a zoo, or bounding and sliding through the snow on a winter's day.
It is not so easy to picture this playful animal at the top of the food chain. Otters are known as generalists, meaning they eat almost anything they can catch in the water. Fish make up most of their diet but they have also been known to eat frogs, salamanders, small turtles and crayfish. They find their food mostly by sight, but in muddy water, their whiskers provide additional help in finding their prey. With their streamlined body, webbed feet and closeable ears and nostrils, otters are designed for the water. And, with their facial features all at the top of their heads, otters can take a peek to see what's happening on the surface while keeping most of their body underwater. (I wonder how many times an otter was looking at me and I just never saw it.)
Otters are native to New York, but like many animals, their populations have suffered in the past due to hunting and the loss and destruction of their habitat. It is not a surprise that an otter was spotted at Audubon. There was an effort in the 1990s to re-establish river otters to Western New York through the New York River Otter Project. According to the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, there were 279 river otters released in the western part of the state, including the release of 15 otters at Audubon. Given our abundance of aquatic habitat, it is more of a surprise that we haven't seen otters frequently.
So, keep your eyes and mind open to the unexpected outside. While you may or may not see something that you can put on your top 10 amazing nature experiences list, you may be surprised at what you do see.
Katie is the newest naturalist at Jamestown Audubon.