I Otter Be Happy But I’m Not

Last month, I got a call from a neighbor who lives next to one of our Platte River Prairies.  I was a little nervous when I picked up the phone because I never know how a neighbor call will go.  Sometimes they’re just calling to shoot the breeze or see how much rain we got.  But other times, they’re calling to let us know that one of “our” hunters shot a deer on the wrong side of a fence or that the cows from our pasture are eating their corn.  This time, it was even worse.  He was calling to tell me he’d just seen a river otter.

I should have been excited to hear about a sighting of one of those cute, playful animals right next to our property, especially because they are considered an at-risk species in Nebraska.  I should have been gratified that our neighbor was excited enough to call me and celebrate it.  Well, I wasn’t.

I don’t have anything against river otters.  In fact, I think they’re great.  But I’ve never seen one in the wild in Nebraska, let alone on one of our properties.  Not one.  Not that I care, of course.

This restored wetland hosts numerous otters, as testified to by scat, tracks, and occasional dead fish.  See any otters in this picture?  Me neither.

This restored wetland hosts numerous otters, as testified to by scat, tracks, and occasional dead fish. See any otters in this picture? Me neither.  The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, Nebraska.

My failure to see an otter comes despite the fact that we own and manage a wetland that has some of the highest otter use in Nebraska.  Several years ago, we even housed a research technician on our property who was trapping and implanting radio transmitters in otters.  The researchers chose our site because of all the otter scat and tracks they found there.  I’ve seen the scat.  I’ve seen the tracks.  I’ve even seen piles of dead fish scattered around holes in the ice where otters have been fishing during the winter.  What I haven’t seen?  One single stupid otter.

This fuzzy little jumping spider is very cute, and I photographed it at the wetland where the otters often hang out.  But it's not an otter.

This fuzzy little jumping spider was very cute, and I photographed it at the wetland where the otters often hang out. But it’s not an otter.

I spend a lot of time on our properties.  I mean a lot.  And the stream/wetland habitat where the otters hang out is also one of my favorite places to hang out.  We should be buddies!  The otters and I should be waving at each other every day on the way to work, exchanging pleasantries like good neighbors and friends do.  Instead, they’re avoiding me like the plague.

This tiny soft-shelled turtle is very cute, and also lives at the otter wetland.  However, it is not an otter either.

This tiny soft-shelled turtle is very cute, and lives at the wetland with the otters. It is, however, not an otter.

Quite a few of the technicians that have worked for me over the years have seen otters.  Even some of our volunteers have seen otters.  Now the neighbor right next door has seen one too.  The researcher tracked the otters up and down the river, and located their signal on our wetland countless times.  He even showed me video clips of entire otter families tripping along the bank of the river and playing cute otter games in the water.  I went out with him to check his traps, figuring it’d be a good way to see an otter.  When I went out, he caught beavers, raccoons, and a skunk.  Not that it’s a big deal either way.

Kent Fricke caught lots of otters and implanted radio transmitters in them.  When I went out with him to check traps, he just caught other animals like this big beaver.

Kent Fricke caught lots of otters and implanted radio transmitters in them. When I went out with him to check traps, all he caught was other animals like this big beaver.

I get to see other animals on our properties, and they don’t seem to mind me watching them.  Notwithstanding my rocky relationship with prairie dogs (see my earlier post and a follow up to it), I’ve had pretty good luck with most kinds of creatures, including fairly reclusive ones such as Franklin’s ground squirrels, smooth green snakes, woodcock, and whooping cranes.  Often, animals even pose pretty nicely for me while I photograph them.  SO WHY DON’T OTTERS LIKE ME?

Maybe I’m trying too hard.  Maybe if I stay away from their favorite wetland for a while, they’ll stop hiding from me every time I show up (the little dirtbags).  Maybe I’ll spend more time with other animals for a while – animals that are just as cute as otters, but that have more generous dispositions.  Maybe if I do all those things, I’ll eventually get to see a real life otter on one of our properties.  Someday.

Not that I care.


About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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27 Responses to I Otter Be Happy But I’m Not

  1. Orvin Bontrager says:

    Even Linda and I saw an otter at Bader Park last winter. Ha ha.

  2. Melissa Marinovich says:

    I feel your pain, Chris! I finally saw two otters crossing a sandbar near Prosser last spring when I was doing a whooping crane survey (I have yet to see a whooper in the wild!!! They always seem to be a few wing flaps ahead of me). And I survey for them a lot! Seems like whenever you are looking for them, you’re not going to see them, but then just when you’ve given up and you’re looking for something else – there they are on a sandbar laughing at you!

  3. Adam Thada says:

    Since this post seems to be begging for otter reports, Friday I had four otter come check out our crew while we were sampling water in small town (NE) Indiana. Don’t try so hard! It couldn’t hurt to leave some tobacco burning in a mussel shell at the water’s edge or something… :)

  4. elfinelvin says:

    Maybe they don’t like the soap you’re using. ;) Patience, Grasshopper, your time will come. And I can’t wait to see the photos you’ll take.

  5. Karen Hamburger says:

    I have found that if you don’t have a camera with you the most amazing critters show up and pose!!!
    Try leaving you camera in the car.


    • janeb says:

      Hi Karen, I just discovered you and this website. You’re terrific. I love your writing style, and your care for the natural world. You brought sunshine into my day.

  6. Amy Symstad says:

    Years ago I happily reported back to my office along the Mississippi River one day after seeing 5 or 6 otters sliding down the bank and doing other cute otterly things. One office mate felt just like you do — he’d done his Masters degree on otters and never seen one!

  7. bob mills says:

    Hey Chris, I saw one on 4-12-2010 in front of rose ranch while doing river profiles for the whooper project.

  8. Sara McClure says:

    Sorry to add to your pain, but an otter did a not-so-quick swim past the crane blind 2 seasons ago.

  9. Sue Coder Kagarise says:

    You otter see one soon!

  10. James McGee says:

    We have never seen an otter either. I hope you will see six silly otters.
    Can you please find a bigger tarantula?
    Stupid is a bad word. Don’t say it! Please!
    (my six year old son)

  11. becky says:

    I plan on reincarnating as a river otter…so when that happens, I promise to come spend time with you.

  12. Jeanine Lackey says:

    otter or no otter…. your photos are wonderful and the spider and turtle are super-de-duper\ cute!!

  13. Ann Bowe says:

    This is a delightful piece of writing!

  14. Brent Lathrop says:

    Ah, Chris sorry to pile on but back before smart phones I did see otters in that wetland stretch and also in front of the Studnicka blinds.

  15. Leticia says:

    Hi, sorry that the otters are hiding from you! Love the way you wrote about it, and your pictures are wonderful!

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  17. Sandy Fricke says:

    Excellent writing! Just watching Kent’s videos made me appreciate the playful life of otters. Your time will come.

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  21. jay says:

    Chris like Karen said leave your camera in the truck

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