The tail disappeared into the water. It had a distinctly tapered end, looking like a long thick cone. I watched as the ripples faded across the pond and sighed. I was too late again. The tail belonged to a river otter, and it disappeared from view too quickly to see. Just when more otters are being seen, the tail end of one is all that is visible to me.
River otters were re-introduced in Chautauqua County the same month that I was introduced to the county in September 1996. It was my first two weeks as a naturalist in New York, and I was carrying cages with river otters in them. Life couldn't get much better. As part of the New York River Otter Project, 279 otters were released in Central and Western New York that year. Some were released into French Creek and 15 were released at Audubon. I had dreams of kids on walks catching a fleeting glimpse of these amazing animals. None of that happened. Winter hikes would occasionally reveal otter tracks or scat, but rarely would the river otters show their faces. This was the first otter I had seen since I helped carry the cages out 15 years ago. Okay, this was the first tail-tip of an otter I had seen since they were released.
The surface of the pond stilled and reflected the ominous gray clouds again. The water began to churn by the water's edge, roiling with energy. The river otter slipped out onto the shore, just 10 feet away from me in the bushes. It shook off vigorously, then rubbed its nose along its back.
River otters are making a remarkable comeback in Chautauqua County.
Photo by Jeff Tome
My heart started racing. The camera in my hand was useless. Any movement would alert the otter to my presence. I stood as still as a tree, trying to blend into the background. In the end, it was my smell that gave me away. The otter perked up and sat on its hind legs, sniffing the breeze. It started to walk toward me, but broke a branch and dove beneath the water with hardly a ripple.
There is no way to describe such a close encounter with an animal. My heart was racing out of my chest, but I was also filled with an incredible joy, as if someone had filled my belly with a sunny smile that was beaming out of every pore of my body. I felt like I was floating.
River otters are making a remarkable comeback. While they disappeared because of over-trapping, pollution and disappearing habitat over 100 years ago, the conditions here now are perfect. There is ample wild space, food and everything they need to survive here.
The river otter I saw today may have disappeared, but I have a feeling that more will soon be here. Baby otters should be born soon, if they haven't been born already. Lucky kayakers, fishermen and hikers may soon see these frolicking babies diving and playing the waters of local creeks and lakes. I know that I'll be looking for them.
Jeff Tome is a senior naturalist for programs and exhibits at the Jamestown Audubon Society and regular contributor to this column. The Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is a local not-for-profit organization that is dedicated to preserving and enhancing the water quality, scenic beauty and ecological health of the lakes, streams, wetlands and watersheds of the Chautauqua region. For more information, visit www.chautauquawatershed.org or call 664-2166.