A Coyote Den in Otter Town

I am delighted to be back on Whidbey this month! Spring is the time in Behavioral Biology that you REALLY want to be in the field, especially if you study predator behavior. I received many accounts from the “Whidbey Otter Watchers” of otter sightings, matings, caterwauling (often mating), and marking, throughout the island. While finishing up the spring semester, I really struggled with FOMO (i.e., Fear of Missing Otters). Though, I was able to sneak back on Island in April during our brief spring break. By mid-May I look forward to Aspen Shirley, a student researcher, joining me here in Coupeville as well. We will be collecting fecal samples for a comparative study of native (Island County otters) and captive (Oregon Zoo) river otter steroid hormones. That information can provide valuable baseline data for health and wellness.

My first day back on Whidbey always involves an early rise to go check on infrared cameras, known latrine sites, and visiting with folks who have regular otter romps on their property. One spot that yielded quite interesting footage is of an area on Admiralty Bay, normally an ecotone (i.e., an ecological transitions between habitats) for river otter. Now it appears to serve as a run for coyote, potentially near a female den. I count at least 3 different coyotes in the video from March – April. Check out the coloration on the tails, as well as the extent of mange to ascertain different animals.

Coyotes breed in February and March and pups are born about 60 days later. An average coyote litter contains 4-5 pups, parturition is in early April to late May. So the footage is a compilation of coyote behavior from mating season to pupping season (last video clip is May 5).

River otter too, are breeding and pupping during late spring, 2-4 pups are born from March to May. Although otters are one of the 68 species within the order of Carnivora that delay implantation. This is obviously not a conscious or voluntary phenomenon, but depends more on their health and fat resources. Steroid hormones like progesterone, rely on fat for production, without adequate energy to produce hormones, implantation may be delayed, thus the fertilized egg does not attach to the uterine wall immediately after breeding. This means gestation can range from 60 days to 375 days. So river otters pup from spring through summer and wean from fall into winter. That said, I have received several reports (see below) of otter matings in Mutiny Bay, Admiral’s Lake, Ebey Landing and at Scatchet Head on the southend of Whidbey.

Otter Sightings

Tuesday May 4, 2021 at 20:35Ebey Landing, Jann Ledbetter

Jann Ledbetter shared this photograph of a marine foraging river otter, grabbing last catch, a staghorn sculpin, again near the culvert of Ebey Landing. The activity pattern of this otter and the one she captured on the 27th (likely the same animal) are indicative of their most active hours, around dawn and dusk. Though around the island, given it is breeding and pupping season, they are out and about at all hours. Crepuscular animals are nappers and thus can be seen throughout the day, with peak sightings at sunup and sundown. This otter, with her extraordinary metabolism, will ingest, digest, and “process” this meal all within one-hour post-consumption.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021 at 6:20 – Ebey Landing, Jann Ledbetter

Jann Ledbetter, one of Whidbey’s prolific wildlife photographers, shared this otter sighting on Instagram (included here with her permission). If you have not had the pleasure of perusing her Instagram and Facebook pages, take a minute to find her. They are full of exceptional photographs of harriers, owls, foxes, and of course our local Whidbey otters. She is outside, connecting with the Earth, and advocating for the wildlife with her beautiful images every day. Jann said she snapped this otter with her morning catch near the Ebey Landing culvert. Breakfast Special: Starry flounder. Thank you for sharing Jann!

Tuesday April 27, 2021 – Dugualla Lake, Oak Harbor, Ron Newberry wrote,

I went to Dugualla Lake, adjacent to our Dugualla Bay Preserve on North Whidbey. I noticed a ton of openings along the lake edge in the clay banks. Some holes were almost the size of a volleyball. There were many, many entrances to underground tunnels. Are those from river otters?

Part of what is even more fascinating about this is adult Western Toads were coming out of them at night. That lake is one of the few Western Toad breeding sites I know of on Whidbey Island. I have heard of toads using rodent burrows. I wondered how extensive this underground system was and whether this lake is such a good breeding side for toads partly because of the protection these tunnels provide from other predators like herons. I’m guessing a river otter might eat a toad, too, but toads are known to have toxins in their glands, so maybe not. Photo credit: Ron Newberry

I am going to make my way to Dugualla Lake tomorrow (Saturday, May 8) to check these out Ron. My guess though is that they are not river otter dens, as our river otters typically do not dig dens in this area but rather exploit snags, beaver lodges (even though there are no rivers on Whidbey given it is an Island, there are still beaver), and overhangs, especially if they are near freshwater. I cannot be sure though, as Eurasian otters and riparian habitat river otter (most of Whidbey river otter are marine and freshwater foraging) will dig dens. Just seems likely here. That said, they do exploit tadpoles and have been known to eat salamander when the surf is too rough to fish for their favored food, flounder and sculpin (at least on Whidbey).

Tuesday April 20, 2021Mutiny Bay, Freeland, Marcie Hedman

Marcie emailed while kayaking in Mutiny Bay that she observed otters mating along the shoreline. She included a video she captured on her iPhone.

Saturday April 17, 19:00 – Admiral’s Lake, Coupeville, Sarah Blake and Bill Blake wrote:

Bill and I were walking the dog last night just before 7 p.m. and saw a good-sized otter running towards the beach in the double vacant lot area by 205 Keystone.

Friday April 16, 2021, 16:30 – Admiral’s Lake, Coupeville, David Dorsett and Susan Schmidt wrote:

We observed two otters “fighting” across the lake near the small park.  Their calls sounded like a raspy baby cry and were definitely angry. it seemed to be over who could be on land or could be in the water.  About 7:30 PM I went out on the back deck and realized they were still arguing.  I drove to the park and approached the area hoping to get a video and to record the vocalizations. I am texting the video as to what happened next. In the end one of otters swam across to the other side of the lake ending the confrontation.

This morning at 6 AM we observed an otter in the water at the edge of our property apparently feeding. It moved back and forth appearing to blow bubbles and vibrating its body.  Occasionally when its head came out of the water it seemed to be chewing something. This went on for over half an hour. 

David – you are definitely observing mating behavior in both videos. You also appeared to be a “safe place” for the female during her escape. Mating behavior is typically preceded by aggressive play, or if she is less receptive, just plain aggression. The male grasps her neck in his jaws prior to intromission, the coupling typically lasts from 10 to 40 minutes. The courtship can be quite loud, like you are hearing in your initial video. The behavior of lunging, rolling, and frequent dives is also indicative of courtship. Lucky you, it is not uncommon to hear otters mating (they sound like fighting cats), but it is rare to observe them mating since coupling typically in the water!

Monday April 12, 2021, 15:00 – Scatchet Head, Clinton,  Lori Reiter

Lori emailed reporting a lone otter along the road in Clinton.

Saturday April 10, 2021, 16:30 – Admiral’s Lake, Coupeville, Jill Cooper

Why did the otter cross the road?

To shoot hoops of course (there is a basketball court just to the right of this video).

Thursday April 1, 2021Scatchet Head beach, Jill Lipoti

Jill observed this otter in her backyard and also on Scatchet Head Beach enjoying the Catch-of-the-Day, Starry Flounder.

Wednesday March 31, 2021 at 11:52 – Admiral’s Lake, Coupeville, Bob Wilbur

Bob wrote, just to the left of the tide gate, that little blob turns out to be an otter. He’s been showing off there for the past week or more. Was very curious and wanting to make friends with Woebegone (Chesapeake Bay Retriever).

Wednesday March 3, 2021 8:00, Camano Island – Art Moxley

Big thank you Art and Mary for collecting and sourcing storage for this Camano river otter salvage. They found it beside the road. Also thank you to Camano Veterinary Clinic for storing it for me until I could come up and collect her. I was able to honor her death in the best way I can, her data (liver and tissue samples) will be included in an endocrine sample for comparison with the Oregon Zoo. All my salvages are permitted through the Washington State Department Fish and Wildlife.

Wednesday February 17, 2021, Admiral’s Lake, Coupeville – Kurt Blankenship

Kurt and his daughter observed this otter back in February near the tide gate at Admiral’s Lake.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021, 17:00 – Ediz Hook also 13:00 Discovery Trail, Port Angeles,

Alex Patia wrote, I am an active birder in Port Angeles and at least once a week I go out to Ediz Hook and see river otters almost every time. Late summer to fall of 2020 I saw one adult and two pups frequently, including on August 10th when I saw all three up close grooming and scent marking on the beach. It was sunny, 60 degrees F and the otters were on the bay side of the hook close to the paper mill. This winter I have seen just two otters, most recently on 2/16/21 at Ediz Hook. It was partly cloudy, windy, and 45 degrees F. They were both on the floating log boom, one was sleeping and the other was eating a flounder, this was around 4:40-5 pm.I also saw a lone river otter on the Discovery Trail on the Port Angeles waterfront about a mile west of the Morse Creek trailhead on 2/16/21. There was a lot of otter scat at these coordinates (48.1152, -123.3616) so presumably a latrine, and around 1 pm we saw the river otter cross the trail going from the beach up the hill into dense understory. It was overcast, windy, and 45 degrees F then. It was interesting to see it headed uphill so far away from the water, far too early for denning, maybe another latrine?

Wednesday February 3, 2021, 12:00 – Penn Cove, Coupeville, Ed Delahanty wrote,

On separate occasions both Carol, my wife ,and our daughter, Anna have seen what we believe to be a river otter in Penn cove, floating on its back. Both sightings probably occurred around noon, from a car on Hwy 20, relatively calm days.