An otter with one of its favorite meals - eel- at Marion Lake in Southold. Carolyn Bunn photo
Back in 2008, wildlife biologist Mike Bottini spent a lot of time searching ponds, creeks and waterways throughout Long Island in search of a most illusive species — Lontra canadensis, a.k.a. the river otter.
It was something of a long shot.
That’s because by the turn of last century, otters, which were once plentiful from Canada to Florida, had been completely wiped out on Long Island and throughout most of the state — done in by their luxurious fur coats.
“Starting in the late 1500s, the otter pelt was the gold standard for the fur trade,” explained Bottini in a recent interview with the Express. “We think of the beaver, but otter fur is so dense. The hair is short, less than an inch long because long hair would slow them down in the water. The skin and pelt are very durable.
“By 1900, there were no otters in New York State, except in a small area in the most inaccessible part of the Adirondacks,” he added.
By the mid-1960s otters had recovered somewhat in the Hudson rivershed and the Catskills, and a repopulation effort in the mid-1990s added more otters to various parts of the state, though there were still no otters on Long Island.
But nature abhors a vacuum, and Bottini’s 2008 sturdy confirmed something that he long suspected.
“They were here,” he said. “I pieced together sightings, there was at least one breeding pair in the Glen Cove area.”
The solid red line on the map depicts the distribution of otters in 2008 (the north shore of Nassau and western Suffolk including the Oyster Bay area and Nissequogue River watershed, and an area on the East End including portions of Southold, Shelter Island and East Hampton). The dotted line shows how their range has grown in the 10 years since.
Bottini believes that Long Island is slowly being re-colonized by juvenile otters from Westchester County and coastal Connecticut. In addition to that 20-mile range in Nassau and western Suffolk counties, Bottini also discovered a second, smaller otter territory on the East End in 2008. This one indicated stops on Shelter Island, Southold and at Scoy Pond in East Hampton’s Grace Estate.
Bottini explains that otters move a lot, and over the course of a month or two will visit up to 80 den sites on a large circuit. In ’08 he believed the East End sites to be the territory of a lone male that had lost its mate to a documented car strike in Southold the previous year. Evidence revealed the female had just given birth to two young that would have perished due to the loss of the mother.
Now, 10 years after his original research, Bottini is compiling a 2018 otter survey. Though not yet completed, data collected over the winter indicates that otters are doing well, having doubled their range on Long Island over the past decade with evidence of successful breeding documented in Nassau County, the Nissequogue River, and right here on the East End.
One of the newest locations where Bottini has found evidence of otters is along Northwest Creek and Staudinger’s Pond off Swamp Road in Northwest Woods.
“It’s one of the best sites on the East End,” said Bottini, explaining that otters like ponds and saltwater creeks near each other in order to have access to both fresh and saltwater fish species.
But otters have big territories and are notoriously difficult animals to spot. Not only are they active between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., they spend a lot of time in the water or laying low in dens or “couches” hidden in stands of cattails or phragmites.
Which is why, if you want to find an otter, you need to look for what they’ve left behind in the form of scat.
Otter latrine sites are often found on points of land close to water bodies they frequent. A latrine can reveal a lot about what fish an otter is eating and how long ago the spot was visited. While otters have expanded their range here, Bottini notes that much suitable habitat remains unoccupied, especially along bays, tidal creeks and freshwater streams. Just last week, a series of newly documented otter latrine sites were found in Riverhead, though unfortunately, also found was a young male that had been killed by a car on Route 58.
Now, Bottini is looking for the public to get involved in his Long Island River Otter Project. On Saturday, April 28 from 9 to 11 a.m., he will lead a workshop in Hubbard County Park in Southampton for those who would like to learn how to spot signs of river otters where they live.
“I’m going to talk about the survey technique, how to read a map and pinpoint where otters will most likely be,” said Bottini. “I’ll set up a mock latrine. This has worked out well in the past.”
“Two people take the lead and they have to do the search and go through the process,” he added. “They look for vegetation piled up, scat and fish scales.”
Though past participants have often been so fixated on looking for otter tracks, they miss the scat, once they understand what they’re looking for, the clues tend to reveal themselves.
“The idea is to get people monitoring sites,” said Bottini. “I want to pick a site in the Long Pond Greenbelt. Within the next three years, I believe otters will be there.”
Who knows? With any luck, perhaps one day soon Bottini or one of the volunteer monitors may find evidence that otters have found their way back to Otter Pond in Sag Harbor.
“It’s a great spot,” smiled Bottini.
Mike Bottini’s otter field survey and monitoring techniques workshop is Saturday, April 28 from 9 to 11 a.m. at Hubbard County Park in Southampton. A second workshop will be held at Arshamomaque Preserve in Southold on Saturday, May 5 from 9 to 11 a.m. Contact Mike Bottini at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and to sign up.