How I got this photo: Chance encounter with a river otter

  • Updated: February 20, 2014 - 11:39 AM

The photographer was stalking waterfowl when this otter materialized from an icy Minnesota river.

Photo: Photo by Bill Marchel

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If you’re a wildlife photographer and waterfowl are on your mind, late winter is a good time to get out. For one thing, the patches of open water are magnets for congregations of birds.

Ducks, geese and swans aren’t the only subjects attracted to open water this time of the year. A lucky photographer might see mink, beavers, muskrats or, if he or she is really fortunate, a river otter.

That’s what happened to me while attempting to photograph some ducks a few hundred feet below a dam on a central Minnesota river. A strong current kept the water from freezing in that location. Mallards, common mergansers and common goldeneyes used the small area to feed and drink. To my knowledge this was the only ice-free location within a few miles.

Wearing camouflage from head to toe, I stood behind my tripod-mounted camera and telephoto lens, hiding as best as I could in the scant shoreline vegetation while waiting for waterfowl to appear. The afternoon sun was shining over my right shoulder — all the better for capturing the iridescent plumage of the birds, should they happen by. I double-checked the settings on my camera.

I waited perhaps an hour, and no waterfowl appeared. A brisk northwest wind rattled the trees and brush around me. The temperature was in the mid-20s. Even though I wore insulated neoprene waders and a heavy jacket, the cold was starting to penetrate.

We’ve all heard the expression “the harder we try, the luckier we get.” I kept this in mind as I waited.

Then, upstream from my hideout, I noticed waves near the edge of the ice. Some sort of critter — a muskrat or beaver, I assumed — had disturbed the water. Now the animal appeared, its head above the water’s surface. It was an otter. Much to my delight it was carving a V-shaped wake in my direction. I trained my telephoto lens on the approaching animal.

As the otter swam closer, I worried it might catch my scent before presenting a good photo opportunity. But I also knew that otters are inquisitive animals. Sometimes they appear as curious about us as we are of them.

Indeed, when the otter got a whiff of me, instead of diving and swimming away, it rose up and stared in my direction, its walrus-like whiskers dripping water. I was able to snap two images before the sleek animal continued its trek downstream.

The wonders of digital photography allowed me to instantly critique the resulting images. Satisfied with my work, I headed for the warmth of my truck. I consider these two otter photos the best in my collection. Had I not been situated close to the only open water in the area, I never would have seen the otter.

Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.

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