Just a few years ago, I’d become a little burnt-out on competitive fishing, which I took up to relax because I’d become burnt-out on competitive golf, so I decided to buy a camera and just get out and enjoy nature. This seemed like a good way for me to relax without any schedules or competition or anything else that might introduce stress. So I bought a digital camera and headed out.
One of the animals that I had pictured in my head that I wanted to photograph was the Northern River Otter. I’d seen a few, very few, of these while fishing and thought to myself, “that can’t be too hard, I see them now when I’m not even looking for them. I couldn’t have been any more wrong…
Fast forward 5 years… to March of 2014 to when I’ve finally found a female otter and her den. Yep, it took me 5 years to find a single otter, and it appears that that was the easy part! As of this writing, I have about 40 hours invested in this female and her den for a grand total of 14 minutes of her being visible… About 21 of those hours came over 2 days sitting in the mud, cold water and briars that appear to have been growing since prehistoric times. I knew that I would have long waits but had never imagined that it would be like this. When I initially found what I believed to be a den, I was elated. There was a lot of tracks from a large otter with the signature den complex next to a great food source and a lot of otter poop. However I didn’t actually see an otter so I couldn’t be 100% sure that the den was being used and not just visited.
So I did what any other responsible adult who was obsessed with otters would do, I played “Hookie”. I took a day off work to photograph the den. Everyone knew what I was doing and probably realize that it’s and undeniable urge so they very gracefully obliged. It’s a long hike to the den with a couple of creek crossings and a lot of mud, underbrush and briars. I wanted to be setup and ready before the sun started to come up, so I left the house around 3:30 in the morning. There are a couple of other problems I should mention at this point… The area is an incredible area for wildlife because it receives so little human traffic. In fact it’s full of everything from Cottonmouths to wild pigs. REALLY BIG WILD PIGS! Fortunately for me, the weather is still a little cold for the snakes but I jumped two groups of pigs on the day that I found the Otter den and found dozens of pig dens as well as a set of tracks for one huge pig. The place that I had intended to set up was only a few feet from one of the dens so I knew I needed to be careful and allow plenty of time to get there. I should also mention that the entire hike in would be done entirely in the darkness before dawn and my backpack weighs 84lbs.
I hiked into the area and set up on the spot I wanted without incident and felt pretty good about it all. The air was cool and there was a nice whispy fog coming off of the water as the dawn started to brighten the sky enough to examine the area. After only a few minutes I saw a small shape emerge from the den in the darkness and saunter up the bank. Up until that moment, I really hadn’t been sure that the den was occupied so I felt vindicated that my tracking skills had not let me down. The otter moved around the immediate area of the den “marking her territory” and then disappeared for about an hour. I felt as though I could now sit there patiently all day without the ugly “doubt” monster persuading me leave. The otter had only been visible for a few seconds and the photos were far from the great photography that I’d envisioned in the previous days, but I had some visual evidence that I’d finally found an otter and it’s den.
When she arrived back at the den she came in via the water and quickly disappeared into the den via a water-level entrance. This second encounter has lasted only a few seconds again and I didn’t get much in the way of photos this time either. But…. I’m still happy with it all and patting myself on the back for finding the den. Again, after about an hour or so, the otter reemerged from the den and marked the territory once again, only this time, I got better opportunities to shoot and was able to identify that this otter was probably a female. I’d thought that that was probably the case since female otters become solitary when it becomes time to birth the kits. This meant that not only would I be able to, hopefully, get some shots of the young otter kits as the emerge, but also, it meant that she would stay in the area because of that. After the kits are old enough to leave the den, the family becomes somewhat nomadic and develops a territory and may only return to any particular area in the territory every 5 days or so.
After about 3 minutes or so, she was gone again. As I examined the photos, I’d just taken, Panic began to set in. In one of the slightly out of focus photos, she appeared to have something in her mouth. The “Doubt Monster” quickly tried to convince me that she had discovered me and was moving the kits to another den. I quickly ran through my checklist of things I did/didn’t do right. I set up down-wind from her, I was completely covered in camouflage, including the camera, with no skin or metal showing. The camera was set to “Silent Shutter” mode and I hadn’t moved or made a sound when she was visible. I hadn’t even clicked the shutter when she was still enough to here me. I didn’t see any way I might have been “busted”. However the “Doubt Monster” maintained that I’d made a mistake somewhere and that the “jig was up”, I might as well go home now. “Probably ought to go on in to work and save half of a vacation day. She won’t come back now, heck probably won’t come back ever”. By the way, I hate that guy but it appears he travels with me wherever I go.
The time of her last sighting and the possible relocating of the kits was 8:03. There was no sign of her again for the next 7 hours. The voices in my head were now in complete control and feeling pretty smug. Doubt had walked in, slammed the door and pulled up a chair next to me. It was a looooonnnng 7 hours but I refused to give in and stuck it out.
At a few minutes after 4, she emerged from one of the many entrances of the beaver den that she’d claimed for her home and began to sit and groom herself for the next 10 minutes. There was scratching, yawning, rolling around and all sorts of wonderfully exciting photo opportunities during this time. In case I forgot to mention it. I’d been sitting alone for the last seven hours afraid to move and nothing to keep me occupied except doubt and disappointment. This new spectacle of grooming was pretty exciting to me by now! After a few minutes of this she slipped off into the water and out of sight none the wiser that I’d ever been there.
Once I was convinced that she was far enough away as to not see me, I used to opportunity to pack up and leave the area undiscovered. It was still a long hike back to the truck and I was happy to leave the otter not knowing that I’d ever been there.
After getting back to my study at home, unpacking and cleaning the gear, I downloaded the images and began to make my notes about the day. I have to admit, though I was very tired, I was no less excited than the day before. I’d spent a little less than 14 hours on the project that day and according to the EXIF data from the camera, the otter had only been visible for about 14 minutes. That’s right, about 1 minute per hour invested.
UPDATE!!!! I’ve now made a second trip to the den complex, after a couple of weeks, in hopes of seeing the otter kits emerge from the den to play. I used the same tactics as last time, very low to the ground, full camo and a very slow, methodical and quiet approach. There were lots of signs of Mama in the area, fresh tracks, and Otter Poop, along with some new scratchings, so I was very optimistic about the day. However, after a full day with just my thoughts…. I left the area without her ever emerging from the den. The day was the first sunny day after a front moved through and the other animals we watched on the previous day were all hunting relentlessly, so I have to believe that she’d done the same and didn’t need to on this day. The weather was very mild as well. I’m confident that she’s still there and hopefully the otter kits are doing well. I’ll only be visiting every two or three weeks so that the chances of disturbing her are minimalized. I’d rather stay away so she remains safe than to subject her to stress just to get a few shots. Otter first, photography second.
SO…. the average now is 1 minute of action, for every two hours invested… I’ll keep you posted….