Around these parts — Jackson Hole — you might see a dark muzzle pop up out of even a small irrigation ditch. The odds are river otter.

Otters are great swimmers and reasonably good overland travelers (for a few miles at least), and will often take long daily commutes. Thus, otters could show up anywhere, anytime — or not again.

Olaus J. Murie wrote of river otters: “... Members of the weasel family specialized for aquatic life. Three and a half to 5 1/2 feet long, including a foot- or foot-and-a-half-long tapered tail. A rich brown color above, lighter brown to silvery below. Webbed feet with five toes on each foot.

Otters are fun-loving, clearly enjoying wrestling with and tumbling about with each other. In one game, they create “slides” along the banks of rivers or lakes, a kind of runway or wallow down which they repeatedly will propel themselves, sometimes for a half hour or more. I know they’re noisy around their dens; although I never heard them in winter, I do know they speak all year. They are also reported to give off an offensive odor when disturbed, and I’m happy to say I’ve never experienced that trait, either.

River otters eat fish, aquatic invertebrates, even muskrats, young beavers, birds. Yet it’s a predator one can enjoy for its energy, its playfulness, its presence. If one is only fortunate enough to see one.

About 30 years ago I watched one place along the Snake River for weeks during January as otter slides appeared and then multiplied, finally numbering perhaps nine. And never saw one otter. Ah, but the expectation was great.

That winter I’d seen otters, or otter slides, but not many small mammal tracks. A pretty open winter, then, but few rough-legged hawks or other specialists in rodent control were present in the valley. My presumption is that the wet, cold summer was responsible for an apparent reduced rodent population.

Field notes: Tim Griffith had the observation of the week, when he and birding friends from Indiana identified a broad-winged hawk at the corner of Highway 22 and Spring Gulch Road.

A few hummingbirds are lingering in the valley, preparing to start or continue their migration: on Sept. 23 Loy Kiefling, calliope; on Sunday, Dick Collister; on Saturday, Tim Griffith, broad-tailed and rufous.

Dennis Butcher reported seeing a Western tanager on Sept. 11; a merlin was spotted at the entrance to the Elk Refuge and several dozen meadowlarks, several of them singing, on Sept. 26. I suppose that the singing could be in response to the fall daylight hours being equal to that of spring hours, or else they are just anxious to get out of town.

Bruce Hayse, Tim Griffith and Loy Kiefling all had Clark’s nutcrackers at their feeder.

Frances Clark reports: Elk are moving through Wilson on both sides of Highway 22, and bugling locally. Still have one osprey in the nest although it is certainly able to fly south. A flock of about 40 bluebirds was seen on the north end of Shadow Mountain last Thursday. Yellow-pine chipmunks are still gathering seeds near Bradley Lake and north on the Valley Trail.

Susan Marsh submitted these observations: flocks of birds moving with the storm — ruby-crowned kinglets, American crows, robins chowing on mountain-ash berries.

Bernie McHugh’s recent sightings from around the valley include a rough-legged hawk; a fallout of ruby-crowned kinglets; 110 scaup (all appeared to be lesser, mixed male and female); 50 ring-necked ducks (mixed male and female); approximately 60 pronghorn; three Northern shovelers (two male and one female); two male redheads; and five American wigeon (three male and two female).

Some observers noticed a quick appearance of yellow jackets at hummingbird feeders followed by a sudden disappearance. And Dennis Butcher wants to know why.

Making a surprise appearance, from her own private stock of chislers, was a half-grown ground squirrel emerging from his slumber and apparently foraging, Brenda Allen reported on Sept. 24.

Bert Raynes writes weekly on whatever suits his fancy with a dash of news on nature. Contact him at columnists@jhnewsandguide.com.

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