Sledding in a Wetland – the Story of Otto and Luna

Come meet the animals using the wetlands of Vermont during the winter season. The Winter Tracking Series will share a new story every week until the full moon following the first day of spring; March 20, 2016.

During the winter, when the ground is frozen in varying shades of white, gray, and sometimes shades of blue, a wetland often appears devoid of life. No movement. No sound. Have all the amphibians, birds, and mammals gone away?

During the winter, when the ground is frozen in varying shades of white, gray, and sometimes shades of blue, a wetland often appears devoid of life. No movement. No sound. Have all the amphibians, birds, and mammals gone away?

Two river otters, Otto and Luna, make their home in and around a small lake in Vermont (see above). They love their home. You see, the lake is deep enough to have fish and there is a wetland along the southern end that supports frogs, turtles and rodents; tasty snacks.River Otters play in the snow together. A channel of water runs through the wetland and becomes a small stream, which even during the coldest months has some level of open water for them to play in and travel to the lake to catch fish. This is important because we all know that frogs, salamanders and turtles dig down out of sight in the mud below the ice until the warmer weather of spring brings them back out again. Having a lake and stream full of fish, like trout, provides breakfast, lunch and dinner each day for Otto and Luna.  Otto and Luna could not have a more perfect place to live and to play.

That’s right, play. Otto and Luna are some of the most playful animals you will ever meet.  They know how to play all-year round. They are excellent swimmers, and will often adventure in the water either by themselves or as a group. Otto and Luna love to dive and play in the currents of the stream. They have contests to see who can hold their breath the longest underwater, or who can dive the deepest. Did you know that Luna can hold her breath for almost two whole minutes, and Otto once dove 50 feet down?  Otto and Luna play tag and enjoy laying out in the sun to get warm. They love to slide off the stream bank into the water, not unlike children on a waterslide into a pool. You can sometimes see the mud slides they make during the summer. During the winter Otto and Luna love to go sledding. If you brave the winter’s cold, you might just see their tracks in the snow and where they have been sliding on their bellies.

Otto the river otter running across the snow.

Yes, sledding and sliding in the snow. It is such fun. Otto is a little bigger than Luna. He weighs about 25 pounds and is almost 4 feet in length. Luna weighs 18 pounds and is 3 ½ feet long. With such streamlined little bodies, when they get up enough speed they can actually slide across the snow or ice up to 25 feet or more. Wow! Did you ever run and slide on a patch of ice on your feet during the winter? Well that is what Otto and Luna do, except they are so low to the ground that they can slide on their bellies like a sled! And that is what they have been doing today, enjoying the snow; run and slide, run and slide.

Otter belly slide onto the ice covering the wetland.It is January and the lake has a thin layer of ice over much of its surface. There is a couple of inches of snow on the ground. Otto and Luna have been wrestling with each other, rubbing each other’s faces in the snow, perhaps even trying to make snow angels, or their version of them! We can also tell that they have been out sliding on the snow and ice on their bellies, because they have left these beautiful slide marks for us to see.
Otter tracks are about 3 inches wide, with their 5 toes spread out like a fan; they have webbed feet kind of like a duck or a frog foot. Usually only the heel pad and claws can be seen in the tracks. When they go sledding, they leave behind a pattern of slides about 1 foot wide. So the next time you are out exploring a wetland, stream, or lake, look for otter tracks and signs. In the meantime, Otto and Luna will continue to play in the snow this winter. You might not see otters playing in person, but you can tell if they are using the wetland as a playground; run and slide, run and slide.

River otter tracks include 5 toes spread out like a fan.Winter tracks will also tell you what other animals have been out hunting, playing or just traveling through the wetland. Many animals use wetlands during the winter. Perhaps you might recognize the tracks of Mrs. Fox or Mr. Coyote. They like to look for rodents, who have tiny little trails and tunnels all thought the tufts of wetland vegetation.  I must say, it is pretty funny to watch Mrs. Fox cock her head to listen for the sound of scurrying little feet under the snow. When she does hear something to rises up on her hind feet and does this amazing little leap, dive, pounce combination until all you see is here bum and tail sticking up in the air with her hind feet waving. I guess a mouse is a tasty treat, but Otto and Luna prefer to swim for their dinners and enjoy a nice fish.

Happy Winter Tracking…join us for the next Chapter of this series and meet “Clarence”, a snowshoe hare.