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On the Trails: Tracking at Eaglecrest

Posted: March 29, 2012 - 11:00pm
River otters, like the ones pictured, most often mate in May, though some believe it may happen earlier. While following recent tracks near Eaglecrest, one otter seemed to be on the hunt for something, despite the deep snow.   Photo courtesy of Bob Armstrong
Photo courtesy of Bob Armstrong
River otters, like the ones pictured, most often mate in May, though some believe it may happen earlier. While following recent tracks near Eaglecrest, one otter seemed to be on the hunt for something, despite the deep snow.

Eaglecrest Ski Area was open, because it was spring break for the schools. So, two snowshoers crept up the very edge of the groomed slope in order to (try to) stay out of the way of all the fearless little zoomers who were out to enjoy their holiday at top speed. A few of them apparently also enjoyed lunging over the edge of the groomed slope and plunging over drifts into the woods, so we kept a sharp eye out in case one came our way. Eventually we made it to the top of the slope and the upper cross-country loop, where things were calmer.

On this day we found many kinds of animal tracks — all the usual suspects, including red squirrels, snowshoe hares, weasel, mouse, ptarmigan, and peripatetic porcupines. Things got more interesting when we left the upper loop at its far end to visit Hilda Meadows. Just as we entered the first meadow, we encountered the distinctive and recent track of an otter, who had taken advantage of every little downslope to slide over the snow, leaving a smooth groove behind. This was an otter on a mission; it headed right down along Hilda Creek, which was mostly still buried in snow, into the steep canyon.

Not wanting to deal with the canyon, we were happily distracted by another set of tracks. Our best guess was that this creature was a coyote: fairly small dog-like footprints, all in a straight line. In the woods just above the string of small meadows, this trail paralleled Hilda Creek. The animal, like the otter, had a destination — with scarcely a deviation to sniff out a possible ptarmigan roost or to cross the path of a snowshoe hare, it bore straight down the valley. We’d lose the trail, sometimes, in the crusty snow under the trees, but we could always pick it up again in the next open space where the snow was softer. When the animal trotted down toward Hilda Point on the back side of Douglas, we settled for lunch in the sun.

On the way back uphill, we picked up the otter’s trail again where we first had found it, and back-tracked it along the creek. Near the top of the hill, we found that the otter had forsaken the creek in order to travel just inside the edge of the woods at a slight distance from the ski trail. When we reached the divide that separates Hilda Creek from the Fish Creek drainage (a swampy meadow in summer but now deeply buried in snow), we found the beginning of the otter’s trail. A hole in the snow led down to the very beginning of Hilda Creek, and the otter had emerged from that hole. So it must have slithered under the snow from the Fish Creek side, and presumably came up the Fish Creek drainage in its one-way journey. (And by the way, this is very near the spot where we found beaver tracks last month.)

We speculated that this might have been a male in search of a potential mate. Male otters range over many miles of stream and coastline and commonly overlap the ranges of several females. Mating is reported to occur usually in May (perhaps earlier in some years and some places), but the young are not born until the following winter or spring, because the embryo is not implanted in the uterus until long after mating and fertilization of the eggs. Delayed implantation is common among members of the weasel family. But it’s an interesting question: why do they do this!?

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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