Wildways: View from the chair

Well this is a first. Who would have thought I could write a nature story on going to the dentist? Certainly not me!

I really dislike the dental experience, so much so that I have avoided it for years, so many years that when I finally went in to get my teeth cleaned it required two full-out sessions of an hour and a half or longer, with my jaws numbed and my mind drifting up in the cloud of nitrous oxide.

Amelia Dental Group was gentle with me, for sure, knowing my history of dental avoidance and my unfounded (it turned out) fears. The people were great, for sure, but even greater for me was the setting.

The dental chairs are situated facing large picture windows overlooking the natural water fed pond just off Citrona behind the YMCA. The area in immediate view is landscaped with butterfly-attracting flowering shrubs on a well maintained yard area, immaculate, well groomed, but still with much diversity to admire.

Before each treatment I had time to chat with the staff and it cheered me up when I learned that, yes, otters are often seen from these windows. The clinic staff enjoy seeing them, and when any are spotted everyone is alerted, patients and staff alike. A time-out to watch otters at the dentist office — who would believe it?

The otters they see sometimes from their windows are our regular North American river otters that roam throughout our island from the marina, through the Egans Greenway and along the series of retention ponds that remain of the once more natural Egans Creek.

Luckily these otters are adaptable to people and their environment. From an otter viewpoint there are hidden travel paths up and down the island, in culverts under roads and roadside ditches often full of aquatic vegetation that hides them from people. Most of their travels are also done at night when their dark color makes them even harder to spot. Every few years I hear of a road-killed otter, but not as often as you would think. Otters are clever animals, and learn about cars early on.

Otters still have reliable food sources on our island. They eat living prey from fish, to frogs to birds and even the occasional small alligator that strays too far from its mom. If there are lots of cicadas around, or berries, or eggs, otters have been known to eat these too. Although otters much prefer live food, they are known to hang out around Atlantic Seafood and the downtown marina where the occasional discarded fish or bait might be snagged.

To find enough food and to locate mates, however, otters need to move around the island. Most do not stay long in any particular area except when females are raising cubs. Without a study involving trapping and putting on transmitters, it’s hard to say how many otters actually live here.

But over the years I’ve begun to think there are core areas for at least three groups: otters around the marina and north end of the island, otters in the south end of Egans Creek Greenway and neighboring areas, and otters in the middle of the island and further south.  Over the years that I’ve been here I’ve seen mother otters and cubs crossing 14th Street by the Bosque Bello Cemetery, in the south Greenway and at the marina. Others, though have reported a mom and cubs in the pond behind the YMCA and, it turns out, the staff at Amelia Dental group have seen families in their part of the pond too.

It would have made a good story if, when lying in my dental chair, the alert went out that otters were spotted in the lake, but that’s too good to be true. But what is true is that I spent much of my time in the dental chair thinking about the otters in this area, and the ones elsewhere in the island. And I thought about my own otters that I hand-raised from cubs at Marine World/Africa USA and handled throughout their lives, the closest I ever had to children of my own.

And before I knew it, the dental session was done! And better yet, my long-standing fear of dental work was alleviated. Was it the view from the chair? Was it the kind professional staff? Or was it the gas? Whatever it was, Amelia Dental Group is now the place for me!

Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. patandbucko@yahoo.com

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