I’m moving purposefully up the half-mile trail from the parking lot in Point Reyes National Seashore. If I’m going to see the river otters and still find a bobcat, this detour can’t take too long. Along my way, there are birds all about in the low coastal scrub; white-capped sparrows, California quail, a towhee, phoebes, and more. I paused for a few quick photographs. I can’t help myself. And then hurried on.
Cottontails dart from the dirt trail into the bushes as I approach. Their presence is a good sign that bobcats and coyotes are around, too. Where there’s prey, there are predators. I’m scanning the fields as I go, watching for movement, or the silhouette of a cat. A neat pile of feathers lies at the side of the path. Inspection reveals that they belonged to a coot, a duck-like bird with the most spectacular feet you’ll ever see in a bird. Another step further and the culprit is revealed – otter prints! The otters here have taken to eating the waterfowl, much to the dismay of the local birders. There’s even a story circulating about the otters eating a pelican in the water recently. That is impressive. Pelicans are big birds.
The next surprise along the trail is Megan, the head of the River Otter Ecology Project. She just came from watching four otters frolicking in the upper lagoon. I’m anxious to see them before they disappear, but we make a bit of small talk first. Megan is just back from a vacation in Scotland, where she saw wild Eurasian Otters, a new species for her. When your work is your passion, it’s also what you do on vacation!
As I approach the small footbridge over the conjuncture of the lagoons, four adorable heads pop up in the far side of the pool.
I’m tempted to hurry around the shore to see them closer, but I know if I wait for them to come to me, they will accept and tolerate my presence. I will get to spend time watching otters being otters. If I walk toward them, I’m likely to spook them, and they will quickly leave. I sit down, both to be less imposing and to make my movements more predictable to the otters. I’ll just sit here and wait while watching them fish.
This family of four, a mom and three near-adult pups are making their way toward me. Their eyesight is poor (they navigate using sensitive whiskers, smell, and touch), so they come closer as if to study me. My lens is too big to continue taking pictures at this close range, but the moment is better enjoyed without the barrier of my camera anyway.
The otters float closer and then curl below the surface in silence. They may resurface in the same spot or some distance away as they can hold their breath for an astonishing eight minutes! A line of rising bubbles foretells where they’ll surface. With four of them playing, porpoising, and fishing, there’s almost always one in sight.
The mother is focused on fishing and keeping her catches for herself, while the three pups are playing, fishing, and harassing their mom. The litter will stay with their mom for a year, although though they are mostly self-sufficient by the age of six months. North American river otters are skilled hunters eating fish, mollusks, shellfish, amphibians, and even birds.
As they continue with their meandering playing and eating, they all disappear under the bridge, leaving a trail of bubbles behind. Then pop, pop, pop, pop, four heads bob to the surface in succession in the inland lagoon. They head straight to the dunes where they haul out and spend the next fifteen minutes rolling, scent-marking, grooming, and rollicking. There is nothing quite like the carefree play of otters. They are the physical embodiment of joy.
First, the mom bounded to the water and slipped quietly away. Soon, the pups followed sliding down the sand and disappearing into the murky water. And that was it. I never did see them surface again. This side trip to find the river otters was perfectly timed. What a treat!
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