It was early morning on Dollar Lake and the dawn light highlighted the converging lines of a wake trail out in the icy water. I assumed it was the mark of a muskrat swimming across our end of the lake. The little rodent had been especially busy over the last few days and his antics provided some small entertainment as of late. All muskrats have the habit of raising their tail out of the water when they eat aquatic vegetation. Front paws occupied on the foodstuff, they assume a swayback posture that causes their tail to arch out of the water like a ladle handle. This Dollar Lake ‘rat habitually holds his tail at such a high angle that it appears to be the head of a miniature Lock Ness monster (see below).
Grabbing the binoculars (it was too cold to run out in my pajamas) I scoped the wake-causing creature through the window and was pleasantly surprised. Instead of the expected form of a muskrat, the unexpected lines of an Otter came into focus. This was only the second time I’ve seen this creature in the lake – the last time being a few years ago. Needless to say it was no longer too cold to run out in my pajamas, but I threw on a few layers of clothes anyway.
The Otter performed a periscope move to assess me when I arrived at the end of the dock. It apparently determined that I was harmless and opted to continue as if I weren’t present. Normally otters are fish-eaters but on this morning it was seeking an alternate form of seafood. The thing was crayfish hunting and obviously working a good spot. Over the course of twenty minutes I personally saw him nab at least eight crawdaddies and eat them with great gusto.
The sequence usually started with a contemplative full body float at the surface. They are long animals – ranging between 31”-51” in length -and appear very snakelike. The tail alone makes up nearly one half the body length. Plunging headfirst into the drink, the creature then dove down and rooted through the bottom debris. Rafts of bubbles marked the underwater search path as it sought the quarry.
If a catch was made, the otter bobbed to the surface and dispatched the prey with wide-mouthed bites. Occasionally rolling over on its back, sea otter style, it often handled the “cray” with nimble front paws. The sun highlighted the pink palette and substantial teeth of the predator as it gnawed away on the mudbug.
Sometimes, instead of immediately eating the crayfish, it swam with it to the Northwest corner of the lake. There it dove under at a spot near the shore where it probably entered a bank burrow and finished the meal there. Oddly enough this was the same location where the muskrat also dives under and I wonder if the two were sharing this entrance to a common burrow. Muskrats and otter do not traditionally get along (as in – otters can eat muskrats), however, so I’m not sure what was going on there. The muskrat was active at the same time the otter was out so perhaps the two have come to terms somehow (aided by the fact that the otter was satiated by a more than ample crayfish supply).
Otters are not un-common in Michigan but they are widely scattered and rarely seen. One study in Northern Michigan showed their distribution to be about one per every 4.8 miles of river shore. Every sighting, therefore, is special. One doesn’t get the chance to look down the mouth of a Michigan Otter very often. Unfortunately I was somewhat down in the mouth because we were closing down the cabin for the year and this was our last day for the year. I can’t tell you how long the creature worked the lake or if there was any drama between the muskrat and the otter. The morning sun was still breaking over the trees and the otter was taking a break in its burrow by the time we left. We otter be back by next March to continue the story.