For a few dives and a feast of fish, one lively group of river otters has turned little-known Ashland Pond into its favorite swimming hole.
North American river otters have been spotted on several occasions at the pond since it was built in the 1970s, but a group of as many as six has been seen frequenting the area during the past month.
The pond is accessible from the foot of Glendower Street. A quarter-mile trail leading to it off the Bear Creek Greenway can be reached only by parking at the city Dog Park and walking down to the bike path.
"Sometimes they come up right through the ice," said Harry Fuller of Ashland, who frequently bird-watches around the pond. "They're fun to watch — really active, strong swimmers; obviously, quite curious."
One otter, before retreating to a nearby log and devouring its fresh catch, swam up to the bank with a fish in its mouth and stared at Fuller and his dog for a while, he said.
Fuller said he mostly spots the otters in pairs, though he and other pond visitors have seen as many as six at a time.
The otters have a slide that winds through the grass and back to the creek from the pond's deep end.
A few species of pan fish and goldfish, which have been illegally introduced to the small pond, are likely drawing the otters in, said Mark Vargas, the Rogue District wildlife biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"They like fresh meat: shellfish, crawdads and a lot of fish if they can find it," he said. "We've had reports of people fishing for trout, and they'll have one on when a river otter comes up and takes the trout right off their line."
Vargas said otters will sometimes cover more than a mile a day along a creek or river in search for food.
Terence Philippe, 65, of Ashland, usually walks his dog around the pond twice a day. He saw two otters on Monday. They were fishing and had to break through a quarter inch of ice to reach the water in some areas, he said.
"They're a delight to watch," Philippe said, who bird-watches in the area. "It's a great asset for the neighborhood and for the community."
The pond, enclosed in a 12-acre area by a stand of fir, ash and cottonwood trees, is accessible from the foot of Glendower Street. A quarter-mile trail leading to it off the Greenway can be reached only by parking at the city Dog Park and walking down to the bike path.
It draws water through a side channel from Ashland Creek, with water draining back into the creek at the other end of the pond. Ashland Creek joins Bear Creek right after the pond.
"Otters are very, very abundant in Bear Creek and the Rogue River watershed. In all these bodies of water and the drainages, there are just otters everywhere," he said, "and they are very adaptable to humans."
The department receives several reports each year of otters clearing the fish out of residents' backyard ponds, Vargas said.
"They're an aggressive carnivore "… and they'll cross plenty of land. They're not limited to the water by any means," he said. "They can be a bit of nuisance at times."
In addition to otters, salmon and beaver have also been spotted in the pond's glassy water.
"They're pretty amazing animals," said Fuller, adding that he has seen more otter activity on the pond during the past month than during the past few years.
"They get so close you can count their whiskers."
Sam Wheeler is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-499-1470 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.