Every summer brings new litters of river otters to Missouri streams and I always try to get some fresh images in June before the young ones get too big. I was a little late this year when I headed south to one of my favorite otter holes on the Meramec River, so when I found the whiskered, toothy critters, I could hardly distinguish the two babies from their mama. But if you look closely, I think you can see the innocence in the face of this young-of-year river otter in the featured photo (500 mm; 1/320; f/4; ISO 400; Av).
My adventure began with a wade in knee-deep water to a site where I had spotted otters before. Upon arrival, I plopped down on a muddy bank with my feet in the water. I was in pretty thick vegetation so I didn’t use much cover other than drab clothes. In the past, I’ve found that otters are so busy feeding when they work their way toward me that they could care less about my attention to concealment. They usually “bust” me when they get so close they can smell me, but by that time they are too close to photograph anyway.
As I began my stand, I saw an old friend, a mink, come out of a den over my left shoulder and hunt the bank line for crayfish. I got a decent picture when it poked its head up for a look, but it was a little soft in the early light so it ended up in the delete bin later on. Next, I watched a juvenile snapping turtle moving its way downstream in the gin clear water, almost brushing against my wading shoes. I almost pulled my feet out of the water, against all rational thought as an aquatic biologist, but withstood the pressure to do so as the half-grown turtle coasted by in the lazy current.
For the next two and a half hours, I sleepily stared upstream, waiting for the otters to round the bend as they fed their way down the spring branch like they had many times before. By 9:00 a.m. I decided I had missed my quarry for the morning and made preparations to head home. As I packed my gear, I decided to take a short walk upstream to a deep hole where I’d seen the otters before. Perhaps I’d find them there.
As I walked upstream, I saw some familiar movement about 100 meters ahead and soon figured out that it was multiple river otters. As usual, they were so busy feeding, they didn’t even notice me slowly wading through the water, closer and closer. When I finally got within reasonable shooting distance, I splayed my tripod flat on a gravel bar, hit the ground prone, and started shooting.
As I focused on the action, I could see that I’d found a mama otter and her two babies. They were feeding frantically on small minnows, as usual, in the branch where I was hunting, and it was difficult to get them all together. The closest I ever came resulted in the image below.
Just as I expected, the three otters never saw me on the wide open gravel bar until they were only a few steps away. The final shot reveals a look that I got from one of the beautiful mammals right before the trio bolted into the woods along the bank.
No matter how many times I photograph otters, deer fawns, warblers or other species, I’m always excited to start fresh the following year. I’m always guaranteed a new look, behavior, or pose that I didn’t see on previous trips.
On the way back to my truck I was serenaded by a wood thrush, which just happens to possess the most beautiful song of any bird in our state. The “ee-oo-lay” echoed through the woods, notes from a Heavenly flute. I was alone, so my smile was somewhat wasted, but it felt good anyway.
Thanks for looking,
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