River Otters of Northern Yellowstone in the Winter
It seems that when we make our annual winter trip into Yellowstone between Christmas and New Year’s we have a specific animal we are hoping to see and photograph. Of course, we always see bison, moose, wolves, elk, coyote, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, and fox. Well, almost always see fox. This year we really hoped to see river otters and to be able to get some good photographs of their antics atop the frozen covering of the Lamar River and the Soda Butte Creek. To see them emerge through the openings in the ice-covered waterways and engage in their playful activities is a real treat, and worth the effort to get out and hike along the rivers looking for signs of the illusive critters.
We spent much of our time walking stretches of the Lamar River with great hopes of spotting the dark black bodies with grey fronts against the backdrop of pure white snow. Near the end of the day, we pulled into the parking lot at the entrance to Pebble Creek Campground. Pebble creek campground is located at the northern edge of what is known as Round Prairie. Our intent at this stop was purposeful as we walked over to the creek as it passed under the bridge along the northern road section hoping to spot some otters as we have previously.
We received a boost of optimism when we spotted several otter tracks with the accompanying undeniable belly slide and tail drags and whips in the snow, moving between water openings in the frozen and snow-covered creek. Unfortunately, darkness soon enveloped the sky ending our hopes for an otter encounter, and we headed back to the motel for some needed sleep in preparation for the next day’s adventuring.
To our great delight, we were rewarded the second day, after walking a stretch of the Soda Butte Creek, with a fun filled afternoon of watching and photographing three beautiful and sleek looking otters moving up and down the frozen Soda Butte Creek. The time of day was mid-morning when we first spotted them, and they were very much on the move heading downstream with periodic stops to emerge from the water and engage in playing around on the ice and taking back-and-forth trips to the other side riverbank.
Always trying to anticipate the otter’s next move in our attempts to be strategically positioned along the sides of the creek for a great photo op, we too found ourselves on the move. We would be snapping photos and then when it appeared they were moving downstream again, we quickly drew back from the river so as not to be detected and began trudging through the snow to the next place we felt they might emerge from under the ice at one of the few openings.
At certain points along the river the otters got close enough for us to capture some cellphone footage. Often times both of us struggle between choosing to photograph the animals where we are focused on looking through the camera lens, and simply wanting to put the cameras down and fully engage in just watching the animals in their natural habitat with no distractions. Sometimes this can be a difficult choice and thankfully we try to sneak in both. However, because a photograph or video footage lives on as a tangible reminder of the experience, most of our time is spent trying to get the best photos possible.
Some Fun Facts about Yellowstone River Otters
· Can weigh up to 30 pounds and reach a length of up to 55 inches
· Their pelt of fur is the densest fur of any animal and is waterproof and helps protection against the cold of winter as they are not covered in a fatty layer
· Their powerful tail act as rudders and accounts for nearly 1/3 of their total body length
· Their nostrils and ears close when under water
· Their long and sturdy whiskers aid in locating prey
· Their feet are webbed with short claws to aid in swimming
Their Athletic Prowess
· Can stay submerged under water/ice for up to 3 minutes before resurfacing
· When in water they are agile and fast swimmers (up to 6 miles an hour) allowing them to catch fast moving and agile fish.
· Love to slide down hillsides into the river, or simply include sliding when moving rapidly alternating hop movements and sliding – up to 15 miles per hour.
· Love to eat fish, and also eat crayfish, turtles, frogs, and even small muskrats and beavers
· Are a member of the weasel family
· Don’t breed until at least 5 years old, and breed in late March through April
· Produce one litter per year consisting typically of two to four pups or kittens that stay with their mother until they are up to a year old or until she has another litter
· Mothers have to teach their young pups/kits to swim
Yellowstone in the winter provides a very different and unique experience from Yellowstone in the spring, summer, or fall months. If you have not had the opportunity to adventure in Yellowstone in the winter, you really ought to consider such a trip. Dress warm and have a memorable adventure.
If your planning on visiting Yellowstone National Park, you should consider purchasing the Yellowstone Explored Travel Book. The book has all of this information and so much more! You can purchase the Yellowstone Explored book by clicking HERE.