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A Few Moments with a Dancing Otter

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By Elizabeth Fread

The first time I ever saw the river otter, I was pretty sure it was a muskrat or maybe a beaver. I was watching the bank side for birds to photograph, when I heard a faint splash.

I looked out into the water and saw a smooth body that was brown and thin. At first I thought maybe it was a snake, but then it came up again revealing a small head with whiskers on the side. I watched it slowly make its way along the bank, and he was literally gliding in the water, twisting and twirling all the time.

I looked over to Mr. and Mrs. Boswell, who were following in the car, and said, "that's an otter, and went chasing after it." It was one of the most exciting moments I experienced since we began shooting photos for our website. In a situation like this you can be glad you know your camera equipment. There isn't time to think about settings, you barely have time to focus and shoot. With my heart pounding, I just knew I had a chance of getting some of our best shots. I was not disappointed.

After swimming and diving his way along the waterway, he, maybe it was a she, turned away from me and climbed up on the bank on the opposite side from me, but still not more than 25 feet away.

Otters, being curious creatures, are interested in almost anything, so as soon as I started making some clucking noises, he quickly turned his head my way and looked right at me. Then he decided to put on an act. It looked like he was performing a little dance, but really all he was doing was shaking off some water, turning around and around. Then he just plopped right down on the bank, enjoying the warm sun.

After a little while he slid off the bank into the water continuing back the way he had come. A few weeks later we photographed another otter, or maybe it was the same one. But the thrill of those few minutes with my dancing otter is something I will never forget. I hope you enjoy looking at the photos as much as I did taking them.

Otter Facts:

* The range of the river otter is throughout Virginia. This species is semi-aquatic or almost entirely aquatic and they are most abundant in food-rich coastal areas and the lower parts of streams and rivers.

* The breeding season is about 3 months in the late winter and early spring. A litter of 1-6 kits is born from March to April in natal dens (overhanging banks, tree knots and abandoned stream bank burrows). This species does not dig its own burrow. The male avoids the area of birth but rejoins the family while the young learn to swim.

* The family group stays together for 6 months-1 year. They are active at any hour and season. They feed mostly from dawn-midmorning, and in the evening. The life span for the otter in the wild is usually 8-9 years.

* River otters can live no more than a few hundred meters from the water. Clean and unpolluted waterways isolated from human contact is preferred by the river otter. Their aquatic habitat consists of log jams and submerged trees. They occasionally use duck blinds and abandoned boat houses.

* Otters have a total length from 3 to 4.2 feet, and a weight of 10-25 pounds. The males are larger than the females.

* The river otter is recognizable from other creatures as river otters have a streamlined body. They also have short legs and webbed toes. Another characteristic is that the river otter has small eyes and ears.

* River otters can swim at around seven miles per hour and dive to 35 feet. When the otter dives flaps of skin close-off the otter's nose as well as ears. This allows it to stay underwater for two minutes or longer before it must come up for air.

* One of the biggest things about the otter is that it has a long tapering tail which is thick at the base and thin at the tip and helps the otter navigate through the water rapidly. The tail measures 40 to 50 inches long. Males are larger than females in most cases and have a mass which averages 5-10 kilograms. The weight of an adult otter ranges from 11 to 33 pounds.

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