It was November 15th when we saw the first sunshine we had seen for many days. Late October had brought in torrential wet storms from the Pineapple Express. As a nature watcher, I’d been reduced to watching Anna’s hummingbirds beat their way to the feeders in strong winds. It was entertaining, up to a point. But when the sun finally came out, I was ready for something different.
So when Glen called that morning after driving to work, and reported that he’d seen “wall to wall” ducks on the Deschutes estuary, I made a plan to go down to the water with my sister Nancy to see for myself.
So much for my plans: by the time I got there in late afternoon, the ducks had mostly flown the coop. But rather than getting disappointed about plans gone awry, nature has taught me to look around and see what else is on offer. And what showed up that day was river otters.
It took me awhile to notice them. By the time I got to the estuary it was late afternoon and the early winter sunset was beginning to paint the sky pink. I scanned the water with the spotting scope, looking at the dark clots of winter ducks. But when I turned to train the scope over near the dam itself, my scanning stopped with a sudden, surprised lurch as my eye was caught by otters, cavorting on the bank just beyond the concrete dam wall.
These were the river otters that were known to be around Capitol Lake. I remember a few years ago a sign was posted near 5th avenue about keeping an eye out for otters crossing the road; the story was that an adult female and her young were living very near the dam and crossing the road regularly. While the adult was no doubt skilled at avoiding cars, her pups were not. Hence the sign.
I’m guessing today’s otters were adolescents, born in the same brood early this year and getting near independence (Adult otters are solitary and territorial). As I watched they rolled up and down the bank, nipping each other and chasing each other around. The last of the sun was shining on the muddy bank and they seemed to be enjoying it as much as I did. The tide had also reached its zenith and salt water came pouring over the dam into the estuary, creating a froth of bubbly fast moving current. The young otters frisked and frolicked through this, as well.
Then they caught sight of my sister, who had snuck up near the dam to get pictures. It was comical, the way they all froze and stopped, staring at her and sniffing for possible danger. I love the look in their eyes.
When she ducked from sight, the otters returned to play, hanging out on the bank and slipping in and out of the water. As the sun started to fade from the sky, the play stopped and they grouped up, swimming purposefully, heading down south. I had trouble tracking them while they were underwater, but realized I could follow them by the ducks; it is not unknown for meat-eating otters to snatch a duck, and the ducks know this. As the otters got close, among the quiet rafts of ducks, there was a sudden otter-induced cackling and hooting and rapid skittering flight to a safer location.
Finally the otters had progressed well across the water and I lost track of them. The sun by now had slipped behind the hills to the west; my hands were cold on the scope and I began to shiver. For me, it was a time to pack up and head home to a warm house. For the otters, it was the beginning of their “day” (they are more active from dusk to dawn); off to check out a favorite feeding hole, to find crayfish and small fish and crabs and unwary ducks to maintain that high metabolic rate that keeps them warm on days like this.
As I drove home, in the waning light of dusk, my head was still full of young otters, swimming and swirling, moving as fluidly as the element of water they make their own. I thought of them roving the estuary that cold winter night, hunting in the dark by smell and by whiskers, yet another piece of the rich life of the Deschutes estuary that is my own lifeblood, and theirs.
• Otter photos by Nancy Partlow
• YouTube link to a battle between a heron and an otter - a bit grisly: