Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Otters on the Ichetucknee

River otters love nothing so much as a mouthful of crayfish

It was as quiet as one would expect of a thirty five degree morning as we carried boats and gear down to the Ichetucknee launch deck. Aside from my friend John Drum, who was also gearing up for a paddle, the only other sign of life on Ichetucknee this morning was a johnboat that came puttering up to the dock just as our group was launching. The johnboat was loaded to the gunnels with cameras, gear and thickly-bundled people, including scientist and cave-diver extraordinaire, Tom Morris. I knew from previous correspondence with their producer that this was a film crew from the U.K.. They had come to film river otters for a BBC documentary. 

River otters are common on the Ichetucknee. Some mornings, as I am staging my boats for a tour, a group of otters will swim past the launch deck. They begin near the head spring and slowly make their way down the run, diving and poking into every submerged crevice and clump of Sagittaria in their energetic search for breakfast. Aided by sensitive whiskers, excellent underwater vision and a prowess common to many mustelids (the weasel family), they usually surface with a mouthful of food. In other parts of the country, they main prey are fish. But, in the spring-fed rivers of North Florida, they seem to relish nothing so much as a crunchy crayfish. In fact, I often hear the crunching of approaching otters before I see them.

Otter fur is so efficient its skin rarely gets wet
Another telltale sound of river otters is their huffing. When they dive, otters close their nostrils (and ear openings). When they resurface, they blow the water from their nostrils like little construction workers. Over the years, I’ve come to recognize the enthusiastic crunching and bubbly snorts of approaching otters as surely as my dog Murphy recognizes the jingling of my truck keys. And both sounds are a call to action. In Murphy’s case, it means lunge for the door. For me, it’s a signal to freeze.

The best thing about hearing crunchy snorts (I will call them that until corrected by an accredited snortologist) is that it means the otter hasn’t seen me. If I freeze or, even better, crouch behind some cover, I will likely have a grandstand seat for one of my favorite wildlife encounters. Nature rarely gives advance notice—and never so pleasantly as the soft, wet snorts of a river otter.

Such are the moments that have steered many bright-eyed youngsters into  careers with nature. Ask any nature photographer, nature writer, or park ranger and you’ll probably hear a story of an encounter like this. If I asked the half dozen Brits huddled on that boat, I’m sure I would have heard a half dozen tales involving wonderful animals I have only heard about.

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