It was on one of those rare hot Central CA summer days (only a gentle westerly breeze in the air) that I wanted to be doing a bit of both work and relaxation. So I decided to visit one of our new study sites on the west shore of Point Reyes National Seashore. Straddled by a large dune system to one side, tall coastal cliffs to the other, and the pounding surf of the exposed west shore of Point Reyes this study site is tight - i.e. small, walkable in an hour or less. As a biologist you just appreciate it... it's one of the sites you can look out over from a nearby dune and get an eagle-eye's view of it all.
One of our new project member's and expert tracker, Scott Davidson, had recently put this spot "on the otter map" for us. Scott had scouted out the area and detected quite a bit of otter activity - tracks and scat. The most wonderful part of the discovery were the tracks leading from the inland lagoon straight out across the beach and into the Pacific Ocean. It turns out, the otters on what looks like a daily basis make this migration back and forth from the Pacific Ocean, upland into the freshwater wetland.
The "nature of the track" shifts with the sands - from clear-cut paw prints in the saturated soils along the lagoon, to more subtle shifting tail swags and curves in the dry, hot sand between water and land.
I follow where the tracks lead on this particular day. And I have to laugh because as I am tracking into the dunes focused intensely on the precariously placed and shifted sands on the ground - some young children run right up in front of me paralleling the path of the otters straight up into the dunes and trampling any signs that might have been.
As I sat there watching the pounding tide sweep up the beach, thoughts coursed through my head ... about otters and their recent recovery across the Bay Area, about their role as top aquatic predators and sentinel species, and how they interact with the diversity of other species that regularly occur here - both predator and prey. And, how the public perceives and responds to top predators (generally not too well).
At our study sites we often see remnants of birds on the shores, a wing here and clump of feathers there, obviously predated. And people are very quick to point to otters as the cause. But at each an every site we also see regular occurrences of bobcat, coyote, and raccoon, all effective predators in their own right. And then BOOM... as I sit there thinking of all this, right in front of me I watch a Peregrine Falcon strike and kill a Heermann's Gull on the beach ~150-ft from where I sit. A brilliant and powerful display of predation (+ a new species to add to the list). And a good reminder of how predator populations that have been so hard hit in the past (in the case of Peregrines due to DDT) can make a successful recovery.
One day I'll be lucky to see an otter or three tumble out of a roiling Pacific wave, I'm sure. For now I'm grateful for the resilience of life when given the chance and for the recovery of both Peregrines and otters, and also content to focus on the signs - subtle and not so subtle - that tell their story.
ED & Co-Founder
River Otter Ecology Project