Whidbey Island May Otter Data Submitted!

This May concluded with river otter specimen collection on Whidbey Island.  Aspen Shirley, a post-Bacc Pacific University student joined me at the Whidbey Island Research Station (WIRS) for a week, thanks to the Pacific University Murdock Grant.

We collected marine foraging river otter fecal and jelly samples from around the Island, charted behavioral movements and presence and met up with wildlife photographer, Ty Kent at Port Townsend.  Ty has had an excellent run of otter activity near Fort Warden at low tide this spring.  Since our behavioral data collection and photographic luck on Whidbey was a lot of verbal exchanges like this one,

Heide (at Admiralty Bay), “The female just entered the culvert to Admirals Lake with a flat fish, if you go over there, perhaps you can capture her with your camera.  I will stay at the Bay to see if she comes back.”

Then texts like this,

Aspen (at Admirals’ Lake), “Did the otter come back to you on the bayside? I videoed her for a minute before she disappeared in the bulrushes.”

Ty Kent graciously gave permission to share some our favorite, choice photographs from his otter encounters the week we were at Whidbey.  You can find these and others (check out the mating otters on his Wildlife Photography page) at his website, Earthrootz Imagery. Also check out his other photos, they are remarkable. I’m especially partial to the romantically, stylized photos of his fiancé, Kelly.

Ty described this series of photos as a romp of three, when a interloper tried to join them and was chased away. Likely this was a kin group with a female and her three female pups, the interloper is also a juvenile, likely a previously weaned male. You can really feel the speed with which the little male was dispatched in these photos.

Thank you Ty for sharing your otter spot and the otter photos!

We were fortunate to also have a number of other wildlife encounters during our week-long stay at WIRS. A small group from the more than 3,000 black-tailed deer on Whidbey decided to forage among the poppies right in front of the cabin.

We also had a couple visits with California sea lions (one visit was concurrent with otters in the bay), harbor seals, harbor porpoise, short eared owls, northern harriers, bald eagles, whimbrels (Port Townsend), coyotes, and beaver.

One morning we awoke to find an otter had hauled a staghorn sculpin on the stairs of WIRS and finished off everything but the spines and gills.

The infrared cameras also caught an interesting predatory encounter with a mallard duckling and a river otter.

Note in the video at about one minute, a hen and a drake are disturbed lakeside. They’re upset because below waterline, a river otter is attacking their brood of ducklings. They attempted to scare it away, but as you will see, they were unsuccessful. That little, yellow fluff hanging from the otter’s mouth is a duckling.  

A total of 59 fecal specimens were submitted to the Oregon Zoo, Wildlife Endocrinology Lab the following week.  Many of the samples were from earlier visits, citizen scientist collections, and represent 2 years of otter activity on Whidbey.  The otter specimens are part of the second round of research involving the marine foraging river otters in Island County, as well as a comparative sample of rescued, captive North American River Otters from Oregon: Tilly, Buttercup (now deceased, but whose data will still be used for comparison), Flora and Hobson at the Oregon Zoo.  We are interested in better understanding otter wellness as measured through glucocorticoids, specifically cortisol as well as steroid hormonal values across the two different populations.  Steroid hormones, specifically testosterone, can be moderated by parasite load, diet, and contaminant exposure. These factors can further diminish the efficacy of healthy immune systems.  This will be the first comparative study of captive and native North American River Otters, although both populations are wild born, from similar geographic regions, the Pacific northwest.  Below are photos of Candace Scarlata, the Director of the Oregon Zoo Wildlife Endocrine Lab and where our data samples will be residing.  

Standby, analyses are coming!