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The Week of the River Otters

This North American river otter posed for Kay along the Middle Fork of the John Day River, Grant County, Oregon. After years of sightings with poor (or no) photo ops, Terry and Kay both experienced outstanding opportunities to produce wonderful images of this beautiful creature.
This North American river otter posed for Kay along the Middle Fork of the John Day River, Grant County, Oregon. After years of sightings with poor (or no) photo ops, Terry and Kay both experienced outstanding opportunities to produce wonderful images of this beautiful creature.

 

Terry’s history with otters.

I’ve always been very interested in river otters. As a kid growing up in Prairie City (Eastern Oregon), I spent immeasurable hours fishing for trout on the main fork of the John Day River and wondered why we never saw any. If otters had been present, I would have seen them.

As I grew older, and left my past outdoors-man lifestyle in exchange for nature photography, I really wanted to photograph the North American river otter. I traveled farther afield and saw more and more of them. To my great dismay, I could not seem to produce a decent photograph.

Years ago, I spotted a group of otters that seemed to be feeding in the Yellowstone River. I parked my rig, got out and set up a big lens to try to photograph them. Hordes of nature photographers populate Yellowstone National Park in the fall of the year.  A lens on a tripod pointing at a subject is an immediate draw. Instantly I had nearly fifteen photographers joining me at the roadside. Meanwhile, the otters moved to the river bank nearer to us. A tourist approached with a point-and-shoot camera. Not having a long lens, he walked right up to the bank for his picture. At that point, one of the otters popped out of the water and began to sniff his pant cuff. The tourist started to re-position himself for a shot at it. The big lens photographers shouted at him, “Don’t move! Don’t move!” – sounding as though they were in total command. I was so disgusted with their arrogant and very overbearing performance that I wanted to shout back at them that tourists have as much right to get a photo as they did. I sure didn’t get any worthwhile photo of otters on this day. For whatever reason, I’ve always had difficulty getting good otter shots. 

Terry Steele is checked out by a North American river otter at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon. They are playful and curious; and they are a challenge to photograph in an enclosure as well as in the wild.
Terry Steele is checked out by a North American river otter at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon. They are playful and curious. As a favor to the museum, he was photographing exhibit animals for their brochures, newsletters and general publicity. For his own portfolios, captive animals are never acceptable subjects.

 

Several years later, in Big Cypress National Preserve near Everglades National Park in Florida, I encountered otters twice. The light was so poor that I had to shoot 400 ISO speed film. This film produced very grainy photos, not good for much but a slideshow. At least I got a couple of pretty nice otter shots. 

North American river otter, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida - eating catfish.
North American river otter, Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida – eating catfish.

 

North American river otter in Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida.
North American river otter in Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida.

There is not enough room here for me to tell of all the opportunities to photograph otters that didn’t work out. However, my wife Kay, doesn’t seem to be walking under the same dark cloud in this regard. I’ll let her tell about the week of the otters we recently experienced.
– TRS

The Week of the Otters

Early February, 2017, Grant County, Oregon.
A river otter, emerges from the water with a wet, slick coat as it traverses the broken ice slabs pushed along the banks.
A river otter, emerges from the water with a wet, slick coat as it traverses the broken ice slabs pushed along the banks.

We’ve just experienced a harsh winter that produced unusually thick ice on our two local rivers – the North Fork and Middle Fork of the John Day River. A sudden thaw brought an abrupt breakup of the ice in early February. Terry headed down to the North Fork to check it out.  He was rewarded by a surprise encounter with a pair of river otters. They obliged him with wonderful photos. (This link to our last slide show of the season, Winter Wildlife in Grant County, Oregon – Part III, includes his otter photos.)

Four days later, Terry drove us up the Middle Fork, providing me the opportunity to photograph whatever we could spot. I never dreamed I’d have a chance to track another otter along the river.

We followed this otter up the Middle Fork of the John Day River a mile. It traveled along the the bank and swam areas of open water, all the while keeping an eye on us as it appeared to enjoy itself climbing over ice sheets and playing in the pockets of deep snow.
We followed this otter a mile up the Middle Fork of the John Day River. It traveled along the bank and swam areas of open water, all the while keeping an eye on us as it appeared to enjoy itself climbing over ice sheets and playing in the pockets of deep snow.

This time the light was good, and the otter was very cooperative. Again, the large blocks of ice in fast flowing water seemed to force the otter out of the river to travel along the bank.

River otters are constant motion. This one is travelling the river bank when a sudden thaw released huge ice blocks in the flow and made travel by water high risk.
River otters are constant motion. This one is travelling the river bank when a sudden thaw released huge ice blocks in the flow and made travel by water high risk.

This constantly moving otter paused long enough to play in the snow. It dived out of sight, popped up and sledded on its belly – all for the fun of it.

A river otter loves to play in the snow. Throwing its arms back along its sides, it sleds down the snowy bank to the river's edge.
A river otter loves to play in the snow. Throwing its arms back along its sides, it sleds down the snowy bank to the river’s edge.
The river otter pushed itself along in the snow, sledding, rolling and frolicking its way to the river's edge.
The river otter pushed itself along in the snow, sledding, rolling and frolicking its way to the river’s edge.

Repeatedly, Terry moved us up the river with the otter as I photographed it running along the bank, climbing over ice slabs and swimming stretches of open water.  I don’t expect to have another opportunity like these two days for a long time; but we seem to have broken the otter jinx Terry had been living through past years.

A river otter, playing in the snow, pauses to keep an eye on the photographer focused on its antics.
A river otter, playing in the snow, pauses to keep an eye on the photographer focused on its antics.

The Day of the Eagles

This winter, Terry has deliberately been our driver to set me up for photo opportunities because he feels he has enjoyed many years of my assists to him. This has positioned me on the best side of the vehicle to make it possible for me to build my own portfolio of winter wildlife images. Up to this day, the best eagle shot ever was of a bald eagle in the snow along the Middle Fork of the John Day River taken by Terry a couple of years ago. 

Though the weather forecast on Feb 23rd was for snow showers, we decided to go on a photo shoot, figuring we could always turn around if it got too stormy. Little did we imagine that snow would become a key element in nearly all of our photographs that day.

Four bald eagles - two adults, two juveniles and a black-billed magpie.
Four bald eagles – two adults, two juveniles and a black-billed magpie.

Early on along our route, there is a wonderful distant snag (1/4 mile away) where we have often seen a bald eagle perched. On this day there were four plus a black-billed magpie. We should have known then that this was going to be a different kind of day.

We checked all our favorite locations as we drove miles up the river, but nothing much happened by the time we reached Galena. We thought we’d give it up and turn around by Camp Creek. Then Terry suggested that we’d come that far, we may as well go a few miles further. 

As we started on up the Middle Fork, we spotted ravens in the road. Then we spotted bald eagles in some cottonwood trees. We moved closer and saw a road-killed coyote just off the road to our left. It had obviously been fed on by eagles but at the moment there were only ravens and magpies on the carcass; so we focused on the bald eagles to our right.

Three adult bald eagles in on cottonwood tree.
Three adult bald eagles perched on the cottonwood tree.

There were technical difficulties to produce good images. The snow showers were sporadically heavy and light. When too heavy, it’s impossible to get good focus. The sky was blown out gray, so lining the birds up against a dark background was a must. We had three adults on one tree which was special, but bald eagles (with white heads and very dark bodies) are notoriously difficult to photograph with proper light exposure.

We decided the better image was to use more magnification and isolate just two subjects against the mountain, with shutter speeds capable of stopping the snowflakes from blurring. Terry and I usually discuss these technical challenges of the subjects we are shooting, if time allows. This has undoubtedly improved our success rate.

Light snowfall against darkened mountains accentuate this winter scene of bald eagles.
Light snowfall against dark mountains accentuate this winter scene of bald eagles.

When I felt I had the pictures I wanted, we continued up the Middle Fork. As we returned, we spotted a golden eagle feeding on the road-kill. We were amazed that it stayed on the carcass as we crept closer and adjusted our position to shoot out the window.

Golden eagle feeding on a road-killed coyote.
Golden eagle feeding on a road-killed coyote.

In all our past experiences, the golden eagle has been very skittish and we have not been able to approach as close as we’d like. I shot away until a person working in the area drove up and frightened the eagle off. He apologized saying he didn’t see our lens out the window.

As we began driving away, we noticed two bald eagles stacked in the tree on the opposite side of the road. We drove down to turn around, came back and I was able to photograph them in the lightly falling snow. Once again, we headed up the river road to a turn around.

With falling snow and a darkened background, two bald eagles perch in the cottonwood tree.
With falling snow and a darkened background, two bald eagles perch in the cottonwood tree.

It is important to point out why we repeatedly drove to turnaround points in order to line ourselves up with photo subjects, rather than to stop nearby, get out of our rig and use a beanbag over the hood, a tripod or even hand hold a camera. It is guaranteed that getting out of your vehicle is a sure way to get your subject to leave the area asap. While they may be wary of you stopping and pointing a lens out the window, most wildlife does not recognize a vehicle as a threatening predator or competitor. If you want the photo shoot to last and produce, stay in your rig. 

As we returned back down the road, Terry spotted the golden eagle on the hillside above the road-kill. I was fortunate this particular golden eagle was so tolerant.

It is unusual for a golden eagle to tolerate a photographer so nearby.
It is unusual for a golden eagle to tolerate a photographer so nearby.
This golden eagle was the most tolerant of its kind we have ever encountered. He perched on a kill by the road, on the nearby hillside, and on a downed tree limb - offering wonderful poses.
This golden eagle was the most tolerant of its kind we have ever encountered. He perched on a kill by the road, on the nearby hillside, and on a downed tree limb – offering wonderful poses.

I am aware that this “day of the eagles” was something that may never happen again in my lifetime. Every wildlife photographer has experienced many days when nothing productive happened at all. Relative to Terry, was this a case of beginner’s luck? I think not. I had at my side nearly thirty years of his wildlife photography experience. Everything came together for success – the close proximity to eagles, the artful background of darkened mountainsides with the entire scene veiled in falling snow, the judgments about what settings to use, and what workable positioning to achieve. All of this melded into a once in a lifetime, special happening. Thanks, Terry. (I must mention he did all of this with a broken rib from a fall on the ice just days before.)  Next time, I’m driving.

 

Wildlife Photography in Winter’s Beauty

Pygmy Nuthatch perched in western juniper tree.
Pygmy Nuthatch perched in western juniper tree.

When we moved to our canyon in Grant County, Oregon over 12 years ago, we enthusiastically began to build a portfolio of wildlife photography in winter’s beauty. Our first subjects were winter songbirds visiting our bird feeders. However, wonderful captures of Oregon juncos, several species of nuthatches, chickadees and finches became repetitive, and eventually boring. As artistically pleasing as the juniper branches and rich colored trunks of the ponderosa pine were for backgrounds, the same species of birds were photographed over and over again. Little was new to add to our portfolio, so we slacked off mid-winter photography for a couple of years.

Mallard Ducks: I feel very fortunate that I timed my shutter release as to stop these mallards in flight.
Mallard Ducks: I feel very fortunate that I timed my shutter release as to stop these mallards in flight.

Then as gas prices improved in late 2015, we started to travel out to do photography from our vehicle along remote roads edging the local rivers. Now subjects were farther off and, with constantly changing snowy backgrounds in low light, our rate of successful shots dropped off dramatically. There is a real learning curve in successfully doing photography in snowy conditions. Just before that season, we also experienced nightmares with a new Canon camera that should never have been issued – the 60D. Its focus mechanism was faulty – producing inconsistent good results with lots of blurry subjects in between. Got rid of that camera, and eventually we acquired Canon’s 7MDII and the 5DSR.

Beaver: Typically nocturnal, beavers can be seen on river ice during winter afternoons.
Beaver: Noramlly nocturnal, beavers can be seen on river ice during winter afternoons.

With new cameras, there are learning curves, especially in the area of focus choices. The technology is so advanced in cameras with built-in (default) settings that it has taken quite a while to disable all the bells and whistles and get things under control. Whatever happened to the value of keeping things simple in order to manage the photographer’s quick response to fleeting wildlife? If you’re a high tech person, perhaps this is a non-issue. For someone who isn’t, it takes persistence to stick with it and figure out what will work for you.

Rough-legged Hawk: the only buteo that consistently lights in fine branched willows, brush and trees with small twigs. (Probably male.)
Rough-legged Hawk: the only buteo that consistently lights in fine branched willows, brush and trees with small twigs. (Probably male.)

 

Golden Eagle - lifting up from the rim rock where birds of prey were gathered to feed on a winter kill. (Photo: KSS)
Golden Eagle – lifting up from the rim rock where birds of prey were gathered to feed on a winter kill. (Photo: KSS)
Mule deer bucks in a blizzard of snow made it tricky to catch focus.
Mule deer bucks in a blizzard of snow made it tricky to catch focus.

During this current winter season (2016-2017), we have had the harshest weather we’ve experienced here. It has been a reminder why winter photography had not been a high priority in the past. We truly welcome the snowy backgrounds to frame our winter subjects, but we have dealt with very icy roads, sub-zero temperatures, wind, freeing rain followed by blizzard level snowfalls, and sometimes snow drifts that threaten to close the road behind us. It’s been hard on bare fingers, equipment and especially the wildlife.

Mountain Quail: Secretive and harder to find, family groups of these beautiful birds come down from the high country to forage along the rivers during deep snowy winters. (Photo: KSS)
Mountain Quail: Secretive and harder to find, family groups of these beautiful birds come down from higher country to forage along the rivers during deep snowy winters. (Photo: KSS)

We have posted here half a dozen special images from our recent photo shoots. These are just samples of dozens more images that we have developed into slideshows.

The promised slideshow is in two parts:

Winter Wildlife Photography (Part I) in Grant County, Oregon

Winter Wildlife Photography (Part II) in Grant County, Oregon