by Gary Pendleton
On a cold January morning, a light layer of snow lay on the ground and the air was damp. Fog blended and obscured distant shapes. A crust of ice rimmed the edge of the Patuxent River. There were three of us out looking for birds that morning, when on the left a sleek figure emerged from the dead stalks of wild rice and phragmites growing in the marsh along the river's edge.
The otter crossed the frozen mud and ice and slipped into the river. We could see the streamlined form below the surface of the moving water as it swam to a tiny island, where it emerged to quickly move behind the grasses and out of sight.
For me, this was a rare look at an appealing native species. But river otters are considered relatively abundant near large non-polluted rivers. In West Virginia and Kentucky, acid runoff from strip mining has stripped the rivers of otters. But in Maryland, the population is believed to be stable or growing.
Slow-moving water with deep pools, abundant vegetation and plenty of fish satisfy their habitat preference. Crayfish, amphibians, mammals and birds supplement their fish-dominated diet.
In his 1927 novel Tarka the Otter, the odd but brilliant Henry Williamson used a powerful imagination and vivid language to tell the tale of a river otter in Western England. This animal story should not be confused with a children's book. It is an unsentimental and closely observed fictional chronicle of, according to the sub-tittle: "His Joyous Water-Life and Death in the Country of the Two Rivers." C.F. Tunnicliffe's superb wood block engravings enhance this classic work of natural history writing.
Some readers will be disappointed because much of the book deals with otter hunting, but the story is compelling enough to keep the tolerant reader involved to the end. Williamson's writing inspired the career of Rachel Carson, the great science writer and conservationist.
Read it if you are curious about the life of a river otter. If you want to see one, get out there, but be patient. It could take a while. Otters might be common, but in my experience they are not often seen.