Otter sightings in Yellowstone tend to be pretty rare. In the warmer months, especially, I hardly ever see them at all.
They’re easier to find in the winter. When temperatures drop otters become more active in the daytime, which helps. And as Yellowstone freezes over it concentrates the otters at whatever open water remains, which is mostly on the rivers that flow through the big valleys. Happily that’s mostly where the roads are, too.
Winter arrived early this year, as did my first otter sightings of the season. Soon after that, Marie, Aidan and I drove to Denver for a really nice Thanksgiving with my family, and when we returned to our cabin in Silver Gate I was eager to try to find the otters again.
It didn’t take long. We arrived home on Saturday evening, and early on Sunday morning I spotted the otters near the Confluence area of Lamar Valley (where Soda Butte Creek meets the Lamar River). It looked like the same family of three – a mom with two mostly-grown kids – that I’d seen earlier in the week. I spent hours with them.
The next day I found the otters again, farther away from the road this time, and for most of the morning I had them all to myself.
One of the things that makes otter-watching so much fun is that they always seem to be having such a good time. They play constantly. They groom each other, curl up together, and sometimes take short naps on the icy riverbank. They spend long stretches fishing, diving down into the water before surfacing with a mouth full of trout – usually small, sometimes big.
Otters seem to especially love the snow. They roll in it like bison wallowing in dirt. They slide across it on their bellies, they burrow into it and pop out again, they scratch their backs on it while sticking out their pink tongues.
Two days later, Jill and Greg – our friends and neighbors – drove to Confluence in hopes of seeing the otters. The otters had been out a little earlier, but by the time Jill and Greg arrived they were nowhere to be seen, likely resting in one of their dens. We waited a good while but eventually gave up and walked back to our cars. Before leaving I drove by one more time, and there they were again – considerate enough to make a quick appearance for Jill and Greg.
On our way home a young bull moose temporarily blocked the road.
For the next couple of weeks I only caught glimpses of the otters, including a very brief sighting in the creek by our cabin. Wildlife encounters often seem to come in waves – an incredible string of sightings followed by a long dry spell. And I’ve experienced enough otter droughts by this point to fully appreciate the amazing run of shows they put on in late November.