River otters play on the ice on Silver Lake in Harriman State Park.
After a snowy day, the next morning’s forecast was for clear skies and cold temperatures. I headed to Harriman State Park well before sunrise hoping to capture a few unique images before the snow dropped from the trees. At the parking lot for the Ranch Trail, I noticed some very large and amorphous, tracks in the snow. Some were definitely horses, but one set of track blobs headed east on the trail and looked suspiciously like those of a large grizzly. That put the damper on my plan to walk along the river and after grabbing a few shots, I started back down the park road.
Silver Lake was just catching the sunrise and with snow-covered trees and a thin crust of ice on much of the lake, it was a pretty sight and I pulled over to make an image. As I began to hunt for the perfect angle, I noticed something dark out in a small hole in the ice. I mistook it for a bird at first, but then a long body hopped up on the ice and sent me scrambling for the telephoto lens. Not one, but two otters were enjoying a swim in the icy water! They began to move away from me and I noticed three more and realized that for the first time, I was seeing a family of otters in Silver Lake.
As the otters moved toward the opposite shore, they repeatedly made attempts to climb up on the lean ice layer. Usually, it would not support their weight and they would slide back into the water. Occasionally, though they would be able to use their long tails to help propel them up onto the ice. They didn’t stay there long though, quickly sliding back into the water, like besting the ice was just part of an otter game.
River otters, with their playful behavior and curious nature, seem to be on everyone’s list of favorite mammals. They are on my short list too but, the river otter has remained a nemesis photographically. I have yet to capture a single image that is pleasing to my eye, much less marketable.
The river otter, or more formally known as the North American River Otter, Lutra canadensis, is the only otter species in the interior of the continent. It was once widespread, but unregulated trapping took a toll and the river otter was extirpated from many areas. Today, river otters can be found throughout Idaho, but most of the mid-west and southwest have yet to re-establish populations.
While river otters are large compared to other members of the mustelid or weasel family (they may measure four feet long and weigh up to 30 pounds) they are not nearly as large as their fully aquatic cousins, sea otters which may tip the scales at 80 pounds. River otters also have webbed hind feet that allow them to be more agile on land, whereas the sea otter has developed large flippers for hind feet.
It seems that whenever a photo is published of a river otter with a fish, that fish is a beautiful trout. Otters do eat trout, but study after study has shown that the bulk of an otter’s diet consists of chubs, suckers and other fish that humans tend to ignore.
Someday I hope to create that quintessential image of an otter, one that will find its way onto magazine covers, calendars and office walls. But if that never happens, I will still enjoy every minute spent watching them.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
And tell them that you heard about it from Nature-track.com!
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho