A river otter scampered across the snow at Potter Marsh last week carrying a muskrat in its teeth. The otter, not built for impressive land speed, was determined in its task to find cover down the icy banks of an unfrozen creek as two bald eagles took turns swooping in from above.
The scene was a fleeting and entertaining window into part of Anchorage’s wild world, conveniently visible from a viewing deck. But according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Dave Battle, the animal behaviors weren’t necessarily rare.
“An otter is a predator,” Battle said. “They eat a lot of things.”
Debbie Boege-Tobin, a University of Alaska Anchorage/Kenai Peninsula College professor of biological sciences who studied river otters for her doctoral work, said it’s likely the eagle was hoping to snatch the otter’s prey rather than the otter itself.
“An adult river otter can get up to 20-25 pounds, and that’s kind of on the edge of being too big for an eagle,” she said.
Battle said river otters have been on his radar more in last couple years than they had prior due to “conflict behavior” in Anchorage. He said there has been at least two instances in recent years in which otters attacked a dog. Once, Battle encountered otters at University Lake while walking his own dogs.
“They definitely showed some interest,” he said. “They started swimming over toward us.”
Battle said it’s difficult to know whether the otters are responding to a perceived threat or acting predatorily. He encouraged dog owners to be mindful at Taku Lake and University Lake in particular.
In another instance, Battle said he took reports of people feeding and getting very close to an otter in a South Anchorage neighborhood. Boege-Tobin said river otters can be charismatic creatures to observe, especially when they run and slide on their bellies.
But make no mistake, she said. They are “voracious predators with very sharp teeth.”
“I would not think of them as cuddly,” she said.
On Tuesday, a patient eagle sat atop the bank of the creek at Potter Marsh, but the otter didn’t reappear. Eventually, the eagle departed with empty talons.