The tail poked out of the water, suspended in time for just a moment, before it disappeared. Ripples across the water were all that were left. Moments before, an announcement went out across the loudspeaker at the Audubon Community Nature Center. “Look in the backyard pond! There are two River Otters swimming.” I feared I was too late.
Then the head popped up. It was the unmistakable face of a River Otter. It paddled about for a moment or two and then dove under the water again. For 45 minutes, a group of people got to watch as the otters dove and hunted.
I eased myself out the backdoor and sat on a bench to watch the otters. When they dove, I quietly and slowly moved to a picnic table that was a smidge closer to them. In a few minutes, I had a quiet, front row seat to an otter hunting frolic. It was simply amazing.
River Otters have a history at Audubon that re-started in 1996. They had been missing from the area for decades, victims of habitat loss, poor water quality, pesticides and heavy metals in the environment. Their history at Audubon and mine began at about the same time.
My first day as a naturalist was in mid-September. Not only did I have to figure out where the trails were and learn a lot of programs, but I had a lot to learn about nature and a lot of other things. Faced with the sheer volume of things that happened at the nature center, I was overwhelmed.
The first River Otters were released on October 8, 1996 as part of the New York River Otter Project. They were trapped alive in the Adirondacks, kept to be sure they were disease-free and healthy, then released across Western New York. The state released 276 River Otters across the region.
About half a dozen were released into Big Pond with great fanfare. A crowd of people gathered to watch. The otters were carried in cages from a pickup truck and set near the water. I had the great honor of helping to carry one of those cages. The doors were opened and the otters swam and ran all over, looking for a place to go. A week later, eleven more otters were released with less fanfare. Only Audubon staff and a few volunteers were there to watch as the otters disappeared into the brush and weeds.
Since then, otter reports have been scattered. At first, the only report we had was from the Department of Environmental Conservation. One of the otters released at Audubon had been hit by a car. That otter was sent to a taxidermist and is now on display at the Nature Center. It sits in a display case with a Beaver and a Muskrat to help people figure out if they have seen and otter or another animal.
Sightings have been more frequent in the last ten years. River Otter tracks have been seen in the snow or mud. Otter slides can be found in the winter, where the otters slide into the ponds.
The otters themselves have been more seldom seen and the sightings come in bursts. Recently, a couple reported two otters, possibly muskrats, on a pond. The next week, a volunteer reported two swimming in Big Pond. The day after that, the announcement was made that they were swimming in the backyard observation pond at the Nature Center. Another naturalist has since seen three otters swimming in the backyard.
They are at Audubon now, and may stay for a day or a week or a season. You may be able to go for a hike and watch them, or you may never see them. It’s hard to tell. One of the best reasons to go outside is because of the mystery and suspense on each hike. Today may be the day a River Otter swims out in front of you, or a mink dashes across the trail or a deer dozes in the sun while you watch. Every hike has its own surprise. The more you walk, the more you see.
Audubon Community Nature center builds and nurtures the connections between people and nature. The trails are open from dawn to dusk, as is viewing of Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is now on winter hours, open daily from 1 – 4:30 p.m. except Saturdays when it opens at 10 a.m. Call (716) 569-2345 or visit auduboncnc.org for more information.
Jeff Tome is a naturalist at the Audubon Community Nature Center.