Spring Brings River Otter Pups

by Karen Ruth Richardson
VINS Volunteer

One morning, a January dawn, I walked the VINS trails before my volunteer shift. I turned on a trail which ran alongside the icy river. I heard a crack in the ice. I crouched down and held still. This was the crepuscular time of day (at dawn) when many mammals and birds are active. Suddenly, in a part of the free flowing river, three huge forms rose up. They threw themselves to the bank and rolled in the snow. They chased each other; they ran; they bounded and dove back into the water to repeat. I had just witnessed a rare sighting of North American River Otters at play.

North American River Otter (Wikimedia Commons)

With spring arriving river otters are taking to dens as birds to their nests. With the Ottauquechee River running alongside VINS’s property, the woods, fields and marsh lands will be filled with new life. Can I spot an otter pup? Perhaps–but very carefully!

River otters are plentiful in North America. They prefer non-polluted water and inhabit both marine and fresh water in streams, ponds, rivers, marshes and coastal-ways. Their food source is mostly fish, but they eat turtles, salamanders, and mollusks. At VINS, educators often find hatchling turtles on the property, and help transport them to the pond for a improved chance at life.

Otters are muscular, streamlined mammals with beautiful waterproof fur consisting of the rich brown pelage: the stiff, oily guard fur and the thick silvery underfur. Otters are sleek, powerful swimmers with webbed feet. They have the third, nictitating eye membrane, allowing them to see in murky waters. When otters want to chat, they usually sound like a low frequency chuckle.

These characteristics are important to know as I go “otter observing” in springtime.

It is the start of birthing season for river otters. The female will find a good den. She is creative and will use an old beaver lodge, hollow tree or she will dig one in the riverbank. Either way, she keeps it scrupulously clean. 2 to 3 pups are born from March through May. They nurse until about 7 weeks of age. I may first see them when they emerge from the den for solid food and then throughout the summer. So spring and summer will be great months to attempt the covert observation of otters!

Otter tracks (Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife)

I first look for signs of their habitation. Otters spend much of their day marking their territory and grooming.  I can, therefore, observe along the banks of rivers and streams for their prints in the mud and soft earth. Look for their oily scat which mostly consists of fish scales and sharp, tiny bones. Their prints are about 3 inches across with 5 toes atop a heeled pad. Also look for any paths approximately 7 inches across in either mud or leftover snow and slide marks in the banks. With their high metabolism, otters hunt frequently–mostly at night, but also in the hours of dawn and dusk. Hopefully, I’ve scouted a feeding, play or nesting site.

Otter scat (Karen Richardson)

Then, I will go to a high, covered spot amidst shrub or trees where it will be difficult to hear or smell me, like before. While otters have a very keen sense of smell and hearing, they are nearsighted and will not see me if I am extremely quiet. I will never approach an otter too closely, however, as a female with pups can be quite unpredictable. I have to wait patiently. With binoculars and silent stealth, I may just encounter another of these splendid creatures.  To see an otter play in the wild without fear is a chance, elusive meeting. To spot a pup would be a wonderment.

This Spring, join me hidden and silent, by the banks of a river, for just that chance.


  1. Katharine Britton on March 30, 2019 at 6:05 pm

    Wonderful article!

  2. Mary Davidson Graham on April 2, 2019 at 1:08 pm

    Karen, nice article! Yes, would love to join you!

  3. Mary Davidson Graham on April 23, 2019 at 3:23 pm

    Karen, excellent and yes, I would love to join you!

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