Having arrived at a familiar place on the Deschutes River, I am filled with a tranquility to be here in this outdoors that is filled with memories from traveling these riverside paths. As I lift the binoculars strap over my head I am thinking of the possibilities of sighting a tolerant-to-humans coyote in the nearby meadow. While clipping a leash onto my Australian Shepard’s collar, grunts from the far bank of the river arouse my attention.
It is mid-morning, the sun is strong for this early Spring day. It’s warmth is welcomed as a puff of gentle breeze cools my skin. It is April 1st, fools day, is the weather going to play with me, should I add a layer of clothing? Distracted by the grunts in the air, I hustle down to the shoreline. I recognize some of those sounds. The tall yellow-green grasses on the opposite bank are interrupted by a mound of cut old and new branches, a beaver lodge. Thirty yards away, at the base of this giant wood pile, on the blue water surface, is where the commotion is coming from. Raising the power glass to my eyes I make out two rather round water soaked bodies tightly bound together.
The two are not beavers but river otters, with long and pointed tails not broad like a beaver’s. I bolt back to my vehicle to grab a camera, tripod, and the Canon 400mm 2.8 lens. Long hours, I have spent, looking for these busy wanderers in both the Cascade Mountain and Rocky Mountain streams. Those efforts have been greatly rewarded watching these graceful animals chasing a multitude of prey; trout, rocky mountain sucker, carp, crayfish, ducks and wading birds. Many times otters will approach my kayak and allow me to be in their world of water. I purchased the first image stabilized lens, the Canon 100-400mm f5.6 in 1999 to be a companion in the kayak.
I have just driven up and there they are to my amazement! My dog is out of his car kennel and his ears are up eyes fixed on these river sounds. It would be hard to get him back into the car and his leash is now attached to my belt with a carabineer. I feel like a honey bee locating nectar in it’s favorite flower when I am around river otters. Elusive and quick, river otters can be on their way in an instant. With big lens, tripod, and dog in tow, I speedily bounce up the river over grass hummocks, spreading willow bushes, and tree limbs to get closer a closer look and direct the sunlight at a better angle on these two critters. The dog gets clipped to a willow branch and ask him to please be good.
What is going on with this rolling tussling ball on the water’s surface,? Is this play? No, one is on top of the other. This has to be the male with his jaws firmly attached to a deep fold of fur and at the nape of the female’s neck. They are both in constant motion, heads close together, she stretches her neck to keep her head above water with her mouth wide open, teeth showing. It looks like he is going to drown her. She takes him up and down the shoreline, sometimes she climbs the short muddy bank at the river’s edge dragging him along. They even go through a wicket trap of branches but he never lets go. The two disappear underwater together but never a dive. The united couple keep bobbing and she often complains with squeals and squawks. It makes no difference he is always there upon her back his sharp clawed front feet grabbing her far rear back above her tail.
He reminds me of the full embrace a bull elephant seal has on a not always willing cow elephant seal I watched a recently on a California beach. The huge male mounts the female, half his size, on the beach by being behind and on top of her back, to position his manliness for copulation. He also bites the nape of the neck of his mistress to help persuade her to stay put.
River otter sizes between the sexes are even but this male river otter is so convincingly persuasive at controlling his captured female. Frequently his body quivers and drops of water spray from his fur. One can feel the intensity he is putting in this endeavor. This goes on unbelievably for over thirty minutes. Later I learn from the natural history literature that it could be twice as long.
The weather does play tricks today as the sun disappears along with the otters downstream. Dark heavy clouds are now overhead and snow begins to fall. I now feel like being inside one of those glass balls you can shake to make all the flakes cloud the clear water. Now I can hardly see the other side of the dark green river. But I have a warm glow as I return to my patient dog Poco quietly resting where I left him some time ago. I can’t wait to see the images and video of this wonderful surprise of nature.
Mating River Otters – Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 400mm f2.8, 2X extender, 1/1000 sec f/6.3, ISO 1600