Monday, November 8, 2010

Do otters like to play in piles of leaves?

Dan writes:
I've been resisting the temptation to jump in the huge piles of leaves
my neighbors have been raking up this past week. Do otters also have
these same urges? A recent walk at Delaney WMA suggests this might be
the case.

I was checking out some fresh deer scrapes on evergreen trees at the top
of a very steep slope that led down into the Delaney wetlands. Around
the base of a marked tree, there were these tunnels through the leaves,
which then plunged over the edge and went right into the water next to
an old beaver scent mound. It's hard to see in these photos, but they
were perfectly round trenches through the leaves, nearly identical to
what otters would leave behind if they were sliding through the snow.

I tried to rule out other causes - I didn't find any hoof or nail marks
from an animal slipping or sliding down the hill. I did a fair amount
of unintentional sliding myself. :) I looked for fresh-cut beaver
logs, thinking perhaps a beaver had dragged something down the hill. I
checked for otter scat near the water, and back up at the tree. Nothing.

My best explanation is that a buck came through, and worked over the
tree. An otter coincidentally used the tree as the starting gate for
his pre-winter bobsled practice, taking advantage of the steep slope
covered in dry leaves. Any other ideas?

As I walked further down the trail, noting fresh scrapes on the young
hemlocks, I realized that the sharp-needled tree I originally looked at
wasn't a hemlock. I went back and took a closer look. Sharp needles.
No lines beneath. Needles in two flat rows. Pleasant smell when
crushed. This keys out as Balsam Fir in my books, which would place me
in southern Maine, and not central Massachusetts. There are a number of
these trees, all about 8-15 ft high, in the north part of Delaney. What
are they?


  1. I only recognize trees that live in southern NH and central MA =b But I wouldn't rule out Balsam Fir because it's "supposed to be" in southern ME... what's the history at Delaney? Possible they were planted for some reason? And more important than height, what are the diameters?

  2. There are a few balsam firs around here. There are some at the Oxbow, a small specimen of which has also been rubbed by a buck. Maybe they were planted by people as Vivian suggests, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility that they got there without the human assist. I just attended a field workshop which involved a visit to a Vermont ridge top swamp, with big old black gum (tupelo) trees (remember that one, Vivian? Very cool). These trees usually grow way down south, but because few other trees do well in those strange conditions, there they are in Vermont.

    I have seen otter roles and slides on leaves in fall similar to what have pictured. The times I saw it, though, there were associated scats, so I was sure.

  3. Just came back from retrieving my camera from a wetland and saw much evidence of this otter leaf-sliding. Though I didn't find any scat, I know that otters frequent this particular area, having seen lots of sign there in the past. Thanks for bringing this behavior to our attention, Dan. I would have photographed what I saw but my camera's batteries were dead anyway - something I discovered when I got home. This was particularly disappointing because to retrieve the camera, I had to remove my boots and socks and wade into calf-deep water. Note to self: when leaving camera at edge of wetland, take into account that the water level may rise.