Shortly after high tide on April 16, wildlife enthusiast Richard Spinney decided to take a stroll along the waterfront of Brewer. The Penobscot River was rapidly melting in the spring sun, and he watched as seagulls hitched rides on blocks of ice flowing downriver.
“Hey! There are some otters!” shouted a man working nearby.
Spinney focused his camera on what he initially thought were a pair of ducks.
“As I trained my camera on them, they dove under water,” Spinney wrote in an email. “I leaned against the black railing there so to get as close as possible to the water and scanned the surface. I heard a blowing sound and looked down beyond my feet. There was an otter, mocking me.”
The otter quickly dove underwater, and when it resurfaced, Spinney took several photos.
River otters, while seldom seen by people, are relatively common throughout Maine in ponds, lakes, rivers, streams and along the coast, according to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. They’re powerful swimmers, and their eyes are adapted to see food in murky and dark water.
While otters usually hunt in open water, they can handle their share of ice. In fact, in late winter, water levels usually drop below ice levels in frozen rivers and lakes, leaving a layer of air that allows river otters to travel and hunt under the ice.
If you do get the opportunity to watch a river otter, keep in mind that, like most wildlife, they’re wary of humans. Their hearing and sense of smell are well developed, however, otters are fairly nearsighted and may not notice you if you sit still, according to the DIF&W website.
I received Spinney’s email of otter photos just a few hours after he sent it. Excited for the chance to see an otter for the first time, I took a trip down to the Penobscot River to see if they were still there. At first, all I spotted were sea gulls and cormorants. Then, a brown furry creature swimming along the riverbank caught my eye.
“What’s that?” Asked two walkers, pointing at the critter.
I crept closer to the water, trained my camera lens on it, and realized it wasn’t an otter at all. It was a muskrat — which I identified by the science of deduction. It was too small to be an otter. It’s tail was too skinny to be a beaver. And it was too big to be a mink. While I’d never before actually seen a muskrat in person, I think my ID was correct. What do you think?