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Rivers are cold and quickly flowing, then sluggish and warm. Water rises and freezes. Ice gets thicker and winter descends. Ice breaks and spring begins. Welcome to The Nature of Phenology where we share the cycles and seasons of the outdoors. I’m your host, Hazel Stark.
November: it’s not my favorite month. As a person who has, in some people’s eyes, an unreasonable appreciation for all things outdoors, this is saying a lot. I love investigating wildlife scat, touching slime molds to figure out just how slimy they really are, and I also love skunks. But November—I don’t love it. However, as the committed naturalist that I am, it has become my personal quest to find things to love about November. It’s certainly not the foliage—most leaves have fallen or are crinkly and brown by now. It’s also not the outdoor recreation opportunities—there usually isn’t enough ice or snow in Downeast Maine to be able to ice skate or ski, and hiking in November has me dressed in blaze orange, looking over my shoulder for fear of looking too much like the much sought-out white-tailed deer while I paw around looking for things like mushrooms and tracks. Despite all of November’s shortfalls, over the past few years I have figured out something that I can appreciate about this time of year: river otters.
While river otters can be quite elusive most of the year, I’ve had more opportunity to observe them in November than any other month. The first time I started to notice this trend was when I was in grad school, living in a New England city with a population of about 30,000, where I regularly took walks in a city park. The pond in this park boasted a fine population of pumpkinseeds, a small colorful fish related to bass, which local kids loved to catch. In November, I started noticing people with cameras that had lenses as long as their arms migrating to the pond edge. Following them, I observed an otter munching on a pumpkinseed near the edge of the ice shelf that had been slowly creeping its icy reach across the pond’s surface. I returned daily and watched the ice ebb and flow across the surface, matching the ebb and flow of the daily temperatures, and with it, the otter that would dive, catch a fish, flop onto the ice shelf, and devour it for all to see. As the thin crust of ice finally spanned fully across the water’s surface, the otter would push up through it, sending tinkling shards of ice around its exit hole, finally flopping over onto a thicker ice slab that supported its weight. Apparently otters prefer dining at a table rather than sloppily on their laps.
Fast-forward a couple years and I observed nearly the same phenomenon along the quiet bend of the river where I now live. Again in November, I saw not one, but four river otters utilizing the growing shelf of ice over the sluggish backwaters as a dining platform for their piscivorous repast. Apparently this November otter behavior may be more than just a coincidence. River otters born last spring are having their last family meals with mom and siblings before heading out on their own to establish their own territories. They may leave the watershed they’ve been living in, covering more distance than usual, so we are much more likely to see these young otters on the move as they try the fine dining at different fishy spots along their journey, day and night, and through the winter. And they sure look happy during their explorations—tumbling, sliding, diving, and eating doesn’t seem like the worst way to spend the often bleak month of November.
So the next time you’re outside, you can try to be like the river otter by making some extra fun for yourself. Perhaps you could cartwheel, somersault, or skip along your favorite trail. A smile will be sure to appear—and if you top it off with a fine meal on a lovely tabletop of ice you may even turn November into your favorite month, thanks to the inspiration from the river otter.
You can find a link to the full transcript of this show as well as references, contact information, and accompanying photos by visiting archives.weru.org. You can also listen to or download our features or subscribe to podcasts. Theme music was by a pileated woodpecker, made available by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Thanks for listening and please join us next week for another dive into The Nature of Phenology.
River Otters. (n.d.). Retrieved October 22, 2018, from https://www.maine.gov/ifw/fish-wildlife/wildlife/wildlife-human-issues/living-with-wildlife/otters.html