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Group sees river otters on the rebound

Published in Newsday: November 17, 2012 9:02 PM

Otters swim the Nissequogue River in Smithtown, about

Otters swim the Nissequogue River in Smithtown, about a mile south of the Landing Avenue bridge. (Aug. 4, 2011
) Photo credit: Joe Kelly

Mike Bottini knelt over to sniff the specimen: dried otter droppings.

"There's a sweetness to it," he said. The crowd around him at Upper Francis Pond in Mill Neck nodded in agreement. Said Louise Harrison, of Peconic, "It's delicate, but not overpowering."

The scat was a sign of hope to the crew of biologists and nature enthusiasts trying Saturday to document the comeback of the river otter, as part of the first Long Island Natural History Conference.

The conference began Friday and was sponsored by the Long Island Nature Organization, a new group that promotes nature studies. The group held lectures at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton on Friday and sponsored field trips in Mill Neck and other outdoor sites on Saturday.

Bottini, an East Hampton biologist, has been researching the return of river otters on Long Island since 2008, and this year he installed cameras near ponds and rivers Islandwide. The photos revealed the presence of a handful of river otters, including four traveling together on the North Shore, and one on the East End. Bottini said he hoped biologists would gain information at the conference to enable them to identify an otter's trail, so more are found.

Eric Powers, a biologist from Smithtown, said he was gratified to see evidence of a comeback firsthand.

"We work so hard to restore nature and to bring it back," he said. "It's so exciting to see it come back on its own."

The disappearance of otters from Long Island 150 years ago largely was caused by hunting, according to researchers. Later, pollution wreaked havoc on their habitats, damaging waterways and the marshes where they look for food.

In 2008, Bottini documented more than 30 sites where otters had traveled, identifying them by their droppings, as well as tracks and tail drag marks. Otters have been identified in areas including Oyster Bay, Cold Spring Harbor and tributaries of the Nissequogue River. On the East End, they've appeared on Shelter Island, in East Hampton and other locations, he said.

Bottini said that while he's found evidence that the otters have been breeding successfully, one challenge looms for the species: death by roadkill. Last winter, three river otters were run over on the North Shore, he said.

The species is at a greater risk on Long Island because they travel long distances and waterways are broken up by dams close to roads.

"In the Adirondacks, they could have that whole range and not encounter any roads," Bottini said.