Photo of the Week – August 31 2017

I’m not a wildlife photographer.  Wildlife photographers put in countless hours tracking, observing, and either stalking subjects or sitting in a blind.  I admire wildlife photographers but I don’t have the patience to be one.  Instead, I get my wildlife photos the easy way – by always (ALWAYS) carrying my camera when I’m in the field so that when I have a random close encounter with an animal, I’ve got a chance to take its picture.  This month, I’ve had three successful (and accidental) photographic encounters with mammalian wildlife species, and am sharing the results here.

Mule deer (in the rain) at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Back in mid-August, I was up at the Niobrara Valley Preserve collecting data on flowering plants across various management treatments.  I’d gotten up early that morning and driven the 4+ hours up to Niobrara because the forecast said the rain would be ending in the early morning and it looked like a good day to be in the field.  Instead, it rained all day.  While I was driving my truck between sampling locations (in the rain) two mule deer flushed out of some brushy vegetation in front of me and turned to look at my truck.  The buck turned away again and took off over the hill, but the doe stayed behind to see what I was up to.  I rolled down the passenger side window of the truck, grabbed my camera from behind the seat, and took this photo.  I didn’t even get wet – did I mention it was raining?

A young porcupine at dusk – The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Later the same day, it finally stopped raining, the sun came out, and both the landscape and I dried out a little before evening.  I wandered around with my camera until the photography light disappeared, and then hopped in my truck and headed back to headquarters.  As I was coming down the lane between the mailbox and the crew quarters, where I was staying, a young porcupine crossed the road in front of me and climbed up the embankment.  Other people had been seeing the same porcupine this summer, but though I’d seen its mom, this was the first time I’d seen the young one.  It was moving quickly enough that I didn’t have time to grab my camera out the back seat of my truck, and instead just grabbed my cell phone out of my pocket as I climbed up the embankment to get a closer look.  The porcupine didn’t even pause or turn its head to look at me as it made its way to the top and then waddled off across the prairie toward a small patch of trees.  I squeezed off three shots with my phone camera and got one that was decent.

Black-tailed jackrabbit in the Platte River Prairies.

The final photo (and my favorite) comes from yesterday, when I was riding my ATV through our Platte River Prairies.  I was cruising along pretty slowly and flushed a jack rabbit.  That’s not unusual, but in this case, instead of popping up out of the grass and bounding off with its ears held high, the rabbit took two quick hops and then hunkered back down in the vegetation.  I stopped the ATV in surprise, and when I realized the rabbit had invested in its hiding strategy, I grabbed my camera from my bag and took a couple pictures of it through the grass.  Then I slid slowly off the seat of the 4-wheeler and took a few steps to get a better angle for the photo (above) I ended up liking the best.  After that, we just sat there, keeping an eye on each other, until I decided I had work to do and wished the rabbit a pleasant day.  As I started up the ATV motor, the rabbit finally decided to scamper off.

Maybe someday I’ll gain the patience and perseverance it takes to be a real wildlife photographer.  In the meantime, I’ll just keep my camera handy for those times when the wildlife decides to pose for me.

My Long Irrational Nightmare is Over. Sort of. Nevermind.

Many of you are familiar with one of the great disappointments in my life.  I know you’re familiar with it because you take great delight from bringing it up in conversation when I see you in person.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve been introduced to someone at a conference or other event, and as I shake their hand, they smirk and ask, “Have you seen an otter yet?”

And I always answer “no.”

This is despite the fact that I have spent more than 20 years working along the Platte River, where there are very high populations of river otters – especially in the stretch of river where The Nature Conservancy owns most of our land.  I see tracks, scat, and other sign of otters often.  Other staff, researchers, volunteers, neighbors, and (I assume) people just driving past on the interstate have all seen otters.  But I have not.

Well, I have an update on that situation.  During the week of Christmas, my wife Kim and I spent several days up at the Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.  It was a combination work trip/vacation.  One morning, Evan Suhr, the Preserve’s land steward took us out to look at the results of last year’s grazing and fire treatments.  During the trip, we took a brief break and walked down to the river to see where Hazel Creek dumps into it.

Evan Suhr. Niobrara river in winter. The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Evan Suhr along the bank of the Niobrara River.  The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

As we stood on the river bank admiring the view, I heard the sound of soft ice cracking, looked up, and stared right into the face of a river otter.  Yes, really.

I had my camera in hand, but had my wide angle lens on, which was worthless for photographing wildlife.  I called out to Evan and Kim to look at the otter and fumbled around in my camera bag for my longer lens.  Before I could get the lenses switched, the otter dipped back below the surface.  A few minutes later, however, we saw it reappear just upstream, and a second otter head popped up next to it.  Unfortunately, there was a dead cedar tree partially blocking my view of the otters.  I stepped slowly and carefully around the tree, but just as I did, both otters disappeared again.  Kim managed to see the two of them once more before we headed back to the truck, but I didn’t, and never managed to get a photo.

So, how am I to feel about this?  First, defensive.  YES, I saw an otter.  I have two witnesses to back me up, as well as a photo of the hole through which the first one popped its head.  I don’t care what you say – I saw an otter.  Two, in fact!

Ice hole where an otter was a few seconds earlier...

This is the hole in the ice through which an otter head popped up.  I have witnesses.

Second, it was really cool to see those two otters.  After waiting so long, and enduring so much grief, the experience was even more sweet than it would otherwise have been.  We didn’t get to see them for long, but they were fairly close, and it was exciting.  It was especially nice that Kim and I both got to see them.

Third.  Now that I’ve moved beyond the initial thrill of seeing those otters, I can’t help slipping a little back into the kind of bitterness I’ve expressed about otters before.  Yes, I saw otters, but I still haven’t seen them along the Platte, where I’ve spent many years waiting and looking for them.  I also didn’t manage to get even a bad photo of them, despite the fact that I saw them twice and HAD MY CAMERA IN MY HANDS at the time.  I can’t help thinking this may be part of the broad otter conspiracy against me.  It’s almost as if the otters were afraid I was giving up on ever seeing them and decided it’d be a lot more fun to throw me a crumb and make me want the rest of the cake even more.

I know, I know.  I’m being completely irrational and ungrateful.  I know I should just enjoy the experience of seeing them and not worry about the fact that it happened on a different river or that I didn’t get a photo taken.  I also acknowledge that it’s unlikely (but not impossible!) that the otters of Nebraska are in any way conspiring against me.  I know all of that.  But I can’t help it.

Kim Helzer. Niobrara river in winter. The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska.

Kim, being a normal and well-adjusted human, was ecstatic to see the otters and harbors no hard feelings toward them.  That, or she’s in on the plot.  I’m not sure.

Until I see an otter along the Platte River, I’m just not going to be satisfied.  Sure, I’ll do my best to enjoy my life otherwise.  My wife and kids are wonderful, I have a great job, and life seems very good.  It’s just not quite complete.  But sooner or later, those otters are going to slip up.  One of them is going to fail to notice that I’m there and it’ll pop out of the water with a fish in its mouth and start tap dancing on the bank – as they do when I’m not around.  But THIS time I’m going to be there.  With my camera.  And we’ll see who’s laughing then, won’t we??

Yes we will.