Water Closet for March 3, 2017

[pullquote]”As streamlined swimmers they undulate gracefully on their 3-D dance floors.”[/pullquote]Now and then in our travels around the Ipswich River Watershed we spot a handsome member of the weasel family, the otter. A decade or more ago four were admired playing in Tragert’s Pond off Essex Street, Middleton.   People like otters and will telephone or email the old Closeteer with reports of sightings. Most folks know more about the Pacific coast sea otters who often star on TV shows. Those Enhydra lutris are three times the size of our river otters, Lutra Canadensis. The dense, fine hair of both species keeps the heat in and the water out, hence no need for blubber.
As streamlined swimmers they undulate gracefully on their 3-D dance floors. When together at water play they twist and turn seemingly trying to out do one another. They make aquatic-dancing groups like Ester William’s look awkward.
While great swimmers and catchers of fish they also spend quite a bit of time roaming from water body to water body on land. They favor places where streams enter or leave ponds. Like us otters don’t like polluted water. Unlike us they don’t pollute it. Radio tracking shows the adult males have ranges of up to 30 square miles; females have only 12 or so. A male’s range may overlap those of several females. Breeding occurs between December to April during a six week period of estrus. Due to delayed implantation birth doesn’t take place until the following late winter-early spring.

Otter enjoying sashimi on ice without rice on the Ipswich River in Topsfield. – Judy Schneider photo

On a warm January day with little snow or ice, like most days this warm winter, a couple of Stream Teamers scouting out a route for the Stream Team’s annual winter hike northeast up Cudhea Crick Valley from Prichard’s Pond, happened on an adult male otter corpse near the concrete dam that forms the pond. Death had to have been recent; the undamaged black coat still had its sheen. Other than very slight bleeding from one nostril and the mouth, there were no signs of trauma. The nearest road with dangerous cars was a half mile to the west. The night before a snowless nor’easter roared through the woods. Perhaps a fallen branch had hit the otter causing internal injuries. Also males have been known to fight over females in heat, but there were no surface scratches or bit marks. Later Stream Teamer, outdoorsman Leon Rubchinuk, on seeing a cell phone photo of the body thought it skinny, and suggested malnutrition may have been the cause of death. The numerous scat sites largely of fish scales near the dam indicated plenty of the otter’s favorite food can be found in the large shallow pond which receives clean water from Boston Brook down from Boston and Holt Hills seven miles upstream in Andover.
Since the deceased was in good shape we were prompted to revert back to a popular, some might say macabre 19th and early 20th century hobby. After our Winter Hike scouting trip we returned and took the 15 to 20 pound otter to a taxidermist living one third-mile away. Perhaps while stuffing he will determine the cause of death.
The pine shaded eastern edge of Prichard’s Pond has a bank lodge built and occupied by beavers. Vertical holes leading to visible water near it, within 20 or more feet from the pond’s edge, lead us the think the bank has many tunnels connected to the pond. It is in such holes and cavities that female otters raise their young. Otters don’t make their own dens. Families have even been found in woodchuck holes some distance from water bodies.
In winter, tracks and slides in snow of overland movements are found especially along the long abandoned Essex Railway bed flanked on both sides by Boston Brook. Otters slide down the bed’s shoulders into openings in the ice. The slide tracks are like those of a child on a little toboggan. However, their sliding doesn’t require a slope. The Closeteer once followed the slides of two otters for a quarter mile in new snow on the flat ice of Prichard’s Pond. Ten or so foot-slides marks were followed by a few feet of five-toed tracks, enough to launch the next slide and so on and on, the two within one foot of each other side by side. What were they saying during such play? Were they racing? On such paths in snow there is often a distinct tail mark. Their tail, a third of the body’s length, is relatively heavy; no doubt important in-water propulsion.
Last summer on a kayak-canoe paddle on the beautiful mile long impoundment in the Ipswich River between the Boston and Maine Railroad Bridge and the EBSCO Dam in downtown Ipswich, a group of us came upon three otters fishing on the up-river side of the dam, the source of power for Ipswich mills for three centuries. No intakes to mill sluice ways threaten wildlife and haven’t for almost a century. The river is now clean and safe for river animals. If you’d like to see otters and many other animals and plants join the Ipswich River Watershed Association and borrow one of their kayaks or canoes waiting for you on the bank of this section of the river.
We Stream Teamers have no population figures, just reports of now and then sightings. We’ve read that otters are thought to be on the increase here in northeast. The waters are now cleaner and in Massachusetts leg hold traps are banned. No longer intensely trapped beavers, muskrats, mink, and otters may be enjoying places closer to what they were like 400 years ago before the English brought agriculture and industry. The many beaver dams with the help of the Massachusetts River Protection Act have produced long impoundments that in just two decades have become the best of habitats for animals that thrive in.


Precipitation Data* for Month of: Nov Dec Jan Feb
30 Year Normal (1981 – 2010) Inches 4.55 4.12 3.40 3.25
   2016/2017 Central Watershed Actual 2.68 4.41 4.02 3.1**as of Feb 24

Ipswich R. Flow Rate (S. Middleton USGS Gage) in Cubic Feet/ Second (CFS):
For Feb 24, 2017  Normal . . . 86 CFS     Current Rate . . . 136 CFS
*Danvers Water Filtration Plant, Lake Street, Middleton is the source for actual precipitation data thru Jan.
** Middleton Stream Team is the source of actual precipitation data for Feb..
Normals data is from the National Climatic Data Center.
THE WATER CLOSET is provided by the Middleton Stream Team: www.middletonstreamteam.org or         <MSTMiddletonMA@gmail.com> or (978) 777-4584