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.

Photo of the Week – June 14, 2013

This was an interesting week for observations.  Here are some of the things I saw and learned.

A

Our burn from last week is greening up nicely.  This photo was taken one week after the burn.  We’re supposed to get some rain today and through the weekend, so that should help keep the green-up going.  In a few more weeks, it’ll be difficult to tell the site had been burned.

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B

Another photo of last week’s burn.  Most of the earliest regrowth was grass.  Wildflowers were just barely resprouting.  Cattle have access to this now, and we expect them to switch their focus from unburned portions of the prairie to this lush regrowth.

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C

Some of you who have followed this blog for a long time may find this particularly interesting.  In general, patch-burn grazing with a light stocking rate leads to very selective grazing by cattle in our prairies – the cattle eat mostly grasses and avoid most wildflowers.  However, rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium) is one of the few wildflowers cattle often target even in unburned areas of our prairies.  One of the joys (truly) of using cattle grazing as a management tool is that I’m often surprised by what cattle do.  In this case, cattle seem to be ignoring rosinweed completely, which is very unusual.  I have some theories…

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d

This headless and hollowed out carcass of a gar, lying along a restored wetland, was a great indication that river otters are still active along the creek where we did the restoration project.  We converted ponds into a stream with adjacent shallow wetlands, and I wondered whether we’d see a decrease in otter activity since the ponds were excellent feeding areas for the otters.  Based on some scat (poop) sightings recently and the presence of this gar, it looks like the otters are still around.

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f

This is a photo of some remnant sand prairie, showing two species that are prominently blooming right now.  The grass in the foreground is needle-and-thread (Hesperostipa comata) and the yellow flowered plant is hairy puccoon (Lithospermum caroliniense).  Both species are present, but still in low numbers, in a restored prairie we seeded immediately to the south (see below).

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h

This is the photo of the restored sand prairie mentioned above.  You can see the same tree line on the horizon of both photos.  The re-seeded prairie has most of the same plant species, but often at different levels of abundance.  The shell-leaf penstemon (Penstemon grandiflorus) shown here is an obvious example of that.  As I’ve mentioned many times before, our restoration goal is not to recreate history or mimic an existing site.  Rather we want to use restored areas to enlarge and reconnect isolated remnant prairies to increase their health and long term viability.  Having somewhat different plant species compositions in adjacent sites has advantages – especially for species such as pollinators.  Right now, many bees nesting in the remnant prairie are likely spending foraging time in the restoration, where the penstemon is providing easy and abundant food.  (A PhD student is currently trying to document that.)

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