© 2024
Virginia's Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Playful otters a treat to spot in Virginia

This cute little fella was spotted in a pond in southwest Roanoke County
Ilona Parks
This cute little fella was spotted in a pond in southwest Roanoke County

They’re playful. They’re adorable. They’re otters! And for All Things Considered host Craig Wright they’ve recently become something of a preoccupation.

For the past month, I’ve found myself on an unexpected quest...

The story of how I came to be sitting at the pond at Heritage Park near Blacksburg began when I saw a friend’s social media post. She had had a visitor at her pond.

Ilona Parks recalls first noticing the surprise guest, “Yesterday morning I saw some splashing and I came out and there was this little guy swimming around, splashing and looking at me and – he’s gone today.”

I asked, "So how close did you have to get before you realized it was, in fact, an otter?"

"I Pretty much knew immediately because they’ve been here before, maybe five years ago", answered Parks.

Now, I’ve seen a wide variety of wildlife since I came to Virginia way back in 1992: deer, raccoons, bears, turkey buzzards, foxes, even bobcats and a coyote. But never an otter.

Parks went for a closer look. “I went around the other side of the pond and he swam away from me. But he was very curious, He kept looking at me and just sticking his head out, looking and splashing around and going underwater again.”

This otter had moved on. But I was tipped off that otters could sometimes be seen at the Duck Pond on the Virginia Tech campus. But after almost two hours at the pond in the rain and cold, I had seen plenty of ducks – but no otters!”

Crazy how something like trying to spot an otter in the wild can so quickly turn into an obsession! So, I decided to seek out an expert for some facts.

Leah Card is a Furbearer Biologist with The Department of Wildlife Resources. Furbearer Biologist?! That’s a new one on me.

Card explains about the types of animals she's charged with, “It’s basically the mammals including anything from coyotes, foxes, raccoons, skunks, opossums. All those kind of medium-size mammals across the state.”

Yes, yes – that’s all good and well. But I wanted to know about otters!

Card provided a quick overview, “It’s the Northern River Otter, Lontra Canadensis is what it’s called and it can be found all the way across the United States. And in Virginia, they will be found in swamps, marshes, streams, rivers and along the edges of ponds and lakes. So, pretty much all those waterways and they are a little bit more dense east of the Blue Ridge Mountains than on the west.”

Once on the endangered list, the river otter is one of Virginia’s great conservation success stories.

Card tells how the otters have bounced back, “In the last century, there were steep declines in the population. So in 1978, they were listed as endangered for the state. Actually, we did move about eighteen otters from Louisiana into the population in Virginia to try to give them a boost. The otter population did rebound pretty quickly and by 1990 they were removed from the endangered list.”

While the numbers have grown, seeing one in the wild can still prove to be a challenge.

Card breaks down the odds, "They’re pretty elusive in behavior. It can be hard to spot them. But whenever you see one, it’s pretty special."

She then gave me some tips on how best to have an otter encounter of my own, "Well, again they are pretty wide spread. So they’re bound to be where you’re going. I would just be patient and be quiet if you can. And, yeah, good luck!"

So, I’m a month into working on a wildlife story. Uh, here’s the thing about otters: they don’t care about deadlines!

But then, on my third weekend of searching ponds and rivers – I thought for a moment that my persistence was finally being rewarded. Waiting patiently on the banks of Back Creek in Roanoke County, I spotted something swimming toward me. Muskrats! Not otters – but still a thrill to see these critters in a river so close to home. I’ll take it! And knowing a little more about otters now - I’ll keep looking.

Craig Wright hosts All Things Considered on Radio IQ.