River Otters Reappearing on Nassau County’s North Shore

November 16, 2008 at 4:28 pm Leave a comment

THE North American river otter, a semi-aquatic mammal rare on Long Island for 200 years, may be making a tentative comeback and has turned up, among other places, on Nassau County’s North Shore.

Michael J. Bottini, a wildlife biologist from Springs, said a survey of likely otter habitats he carried out across Long Island last winter found unmistakable signs of a female and several pups living in and around the 60-acre Shu Swamp nature preserve in the Village of Mill Neck in Oyster Bay.

The signs were the distinctive fish scale-riddled droppings otters leave in waterside latrines that signal one another of their comings and goings.

Mr. Bottini, who heads the Long Island River Otter Project, theorizes that small numbers of otters may be picking their way along water routes from relatively otter-rich Connecticut and Westchester across western Long Island Sound to Nassau’s North Shore, and fanning out from there.

“They may be trying to recolonize former habitats on Long Island,” he said. “And there is definitely room for more of them here.”

An otter expert, Thomas L. Serfass, said Mr. Bottini’s migration theory sounded plausible. Dr. Serfass, a professor of wildlife ecology at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Md., said programs to reintroduce river otters in 21 states, including in central and western New York, had been “extremely successful.” But he said natural recolonization was “the ideal circumstance if there is a source population.”

Following the otters’ logical route eastward, Mr. Bottini found signs in a Nissequogue River lagoon in Sunken Meadow State Park; by a pond in Smithtown’s Blydenburgh Park; on a tributary of the Peconic River in Southampton; in the Nature Conservancy’s Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island; and, following up a tip of a reported otter sighting, along the Forge River in Brookhaven.

Mr. Bottini said DNA testing of droppings would be needed to determine otter numbers. He guessed that about 12 otters might be living on Long Island, equally divided between Nassau and Suffolk. The only sign of otter breeding he found was at Shu Swamp, he said.

Tracks and road kill are other evidence of otters, which can measure more than three feet long, not counting a powerful 12-to-18-inch-long tail, and weigh more than 30 pounds.

A New York State Department of Environmental Conservation record of road kills lists six otter fatalities since 1999, including two in the Mill Neck area and a female in Greenport last year that Mr. Bottini said had recently given birth. He said road deaths could be the greatest impediment to otter recolonization. Otters tend to cross roads when ponds, streams or brooks they are following pass beneath the roads through narrow culverts.

A relative of mink and weasels, otters once ranged across North America, but fur trapping, loss of habitat and water pollution sharply reduced their numbers by 1900. By then they were all but wiped out on Long Island. As recently as the early 1960s, a state survey of mammals on Long Island found no evidence of otters.

They are still legally trapped for their valuable, thick brown pelts in many states and in upstate New York, where the conservation department said an average of about 1,000 have been trapped annually in recent years.

Otters are seldom observed in the wild on Long Island. Mr. Bettini said he saw none during his survey and could not find the den of the female and pups near Shu Swamp.

But news of sightings has trickled in over the years. In April 2006 a video recording captured an otter in Big Fresh Pond in Southampton during an alewife run.

In the wild, river otters are solitary and stay on the move except during mating season and, for females, during more than a year of raising two to three pups. They inhabit swamps, wetlands, ponds, rivers and estuaries. Though strong swimmers, they prefer to fish in shallow waters, have high metabolism and thus huge appetites assuring plenty of signs, and spend three-quarters of their time on land.

A male and a female imported from Ohio are on view at Atlantis Marine World in Riverhead, where they emerge from a pond-side burrow at feeding time inside a $1 million exhibit that opened in June. The aquarium is hoping the pair breeds.

“They are still getting used to people observing them,” said Ann Yaiullo, the aquarium’s training director.

By JOHN RATHER
New York Times

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Entry filed under: Get Wet, Natural Waterfront, Region. Tags: , , , , , , .

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