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.

How (Not) to Photograph Prairie Dogs – Part 2 (Why are you laughing??)

Back in March, I wrote about a failed attempt to photograph prairie dogs about 15 miles south of where I live.  Apparently, many of you thought it was hilariously funny and had a nice time chuckling at my expense.

Thanks for that.

Well, I got another chance this summer.  This time, I found myself in the Nebraska sandhills on a beautiful evening with a 4-wheeler, a camera, and a couple hours to kill.  I headed down a two-track dirt road, looking for something to photograph, and came upon a small prairie dog town.  Now, my memory’s not fantastic but traumatic episodes do tend to stick in my head, so I very nearly decided to just keep on moving.  But for some reason – call it stupidity or stubbornness – I stopped the 4-wheeler, unstrapped my tripod, and got my camera out.

As I sat on the 4-wheeler getting everything put together, I watched the nearest prairie dog out of the corner of my eye.  He (I prefer to think of it as a “He” – so sue me) was just sort of loitering around the edge of his hole, maybe 20 yards from where I was parked.  Someone not as experienced with prairie dog photography would probably have assumed that the prairie dog was paying me no attention.  I was under no such illusion.

I knew the prairie dog would be perfectly happy to hang around outside, doing all kinds of cute things, until I moved to the edge of photo range.  Then he’d dive, cackling all the way, into his hole.  I knew that, but I started walking slowly toward him anyway.  I didn’t crouch down like they do on TV or pretend I was a bush. (Why look like a fool for no reason?)  I just walked steadily toward him, figuring that once he disappeared, I’d find a nice comfortable place to sit while he and his friends laughed at me from the safety of their underground bunkers.  Eventually, it would get too dark for photography, I would go home, and they would resume their petty little lives.  It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was a plan.

Sure enough, as I got just about to where I figured my 300mm lens would be worth trying, the prairie dog made a quick feint to the left and dashed back to the right – toward his hole.  But then he pulled up just on the edge of the mound.  Big mistake.  With cat-like quickness, I spread my tripod legs, focused, and snapped a mediocre photo.

Got him!

Ha HA!  I flashed him a big grin to make him think I was really happy with the shot – just to give him something to think about once he got belowground.  I figured he’d stew about that for days.

Knowing what was coming next, I stepped forward again, figuring I might as well get it over with.  He froze and watched me with his beady little eyes, his whole body tense and ready to dive.  Then, just as I reached the point at which I might actually get a decent shot, it happened.  His head went down…

…and came up with a little grass shoot.

…and he started to chew on it.

My head spun.  What was happening?  Hands shaking slightly, I squeezed off three or four quick shots that were… actually… pretty decent.  In a sudden panic, I whipped around – fully expecting to see three or four of the little buggers making off with my 4-wheeler while their hoodlum friend was distracting me.  But no, everything was quiet behind me.  And in front of me, the prairie dog – who was actually kinda cute, once I actually looked at him – was still chewing on his little piece of grass.

Look at those gorgeous eyes…

So I took some more photos of him.  Then I sat down and crawled a little closer.  And took some more photos of him… while he sat up, walked around a little, ate something else, and generally acted completely unconcerned by my presence.



Yeah, yeah, very perky.

Eventually, I started to get bored.  I mean, he was cute and everything, but photographing him just sitting there and enjoying the pleasant evening didn’t really have the “edge” I had prepared myself for.  I stood up and started walking slowly toward him – just to see how close he’d actually let me get.  As if he was reluctantly playing a part his agent had signed him up for, he looked me over, and then slowly ambled toward his hole.  When he got to the edge of the burrow, he gave me one more glance to be sure I was really still walking toward him, and then dropped from sight.  After a moment, he popped his head up one more time to see if I was really going to force the issue, and then sighed and disappeared.

One last look.

One last look.

The light was still pretty nice, and it seemed a shame to waste it so I took a couple half-hearted photos of some flowers – but my heart wasn’t in it.  Everything just felt wrong.  Where was the challenge?  The frustration?  The mocking laughter?  This wasn’t how prairie dog photography was supposed to go!

Just then, over the nearest hill, the barking of a prairie dog woke me out of my lethargy.  I was being challenged!  It was if the little bugger was saying, “Sure, you put one over on my stupid cousin Stan, but you can’t photograph a REAL prairie dog!”

That was more like it…

I crept up to the crest of the hill to find my new adversary.  Once I spotted him, I hunched over and worked slowly down the hill – careful not to make eye contact.  As I got near the edge of photo range, I watched, closely but surreptitiously, for the telltale tensing of his body that would precede his dive down the hole.

It never came.  It turns out, he was just as dumb as Stan.  I kneeled down and took some photos of him, but pretty soon I got tired of it and walked back to my 4-wheeler to head home.  After all, how many photos of stupid prairie dogs does a guy really need?

Doesn’t look that bright, does he?

(By the way, there’s no way I’m telling you where this prairie dog town is.  Mine Mine Mine!  So there.)