This guest blog post was written by Lisa Kaufman, local birder.
For 19 seconds on a Sunday afternoon in March, Duck Hollow became Otter Hollow for me.
I’d just finished three hours of uneventful birding, dragging my bulky camera around the woods, never once having occasion to take the lens cap off. I’d originally planned to drive up to Moraine for a ruffed grouse known to be frequenting a certain side road that weekend, but the day felt dreary and the spirit wasn’t willing. I headed instead to Duck Hollow for late-winter migratory waterfowl, a jaunt I take several times a week. It was a relatively slow duck day so I’d gone for a hike. Now, almost back at my car, I was kicking myself for being lazy and missing out on the grouse, which would’ve been a “lifer,” or a bird I’d never seen.
Nearing the parking lot, my back aching from carting around the long lens for no good reason, I saw that three Northern Shovelers I’d spotted on my way out were still cruising together midway across the Mon. Hoping for a clear shot, I detoured down the paved path to the water’s edge where Nine Mile Run joins the river. As I lifted my camera toward the distant ducks, a movement much closer in caught my eye. Just 25 feet out, where a fallen log sat atop storm debris, a black nose poked up, leading a furry gray face bejeweled with small, black eyes as glossy as river stones. Webbed feet appeared and hoisted a slick, muscular torso onto the log. Last, the tail. Oh, that tail! Nearly half as long as the body, thick and tapering elegantly.
I’ve lost many a shot fumbling with settings so I didn’t risk it, firing off a series of single frames and hoping for something identifiable enough to watercolor. It posed for a quicksilver second, erect and alert, ears tucked flat like a shy puppy; then turned, scooted to the log’s far end, glanced back over its shoulder and slipped into the river. I kept shooting as it swam, head up, toward the creek.
Back at home, I downloaded my photos, twenty in all, and mostly in focus thanks to technology. The scene replayed in my mind like a surreal film clip that I would’ve guessed had lasted a minute or two. In reality, total time elapsed from when my lucky find stuck its nose out of the water until the closing credits rolled as it disappeared up the creek was a mere 19 seconds, or about as long as it took you to read this paragraph.
There aren’t many river otters in these parts. My 1987 Merritt mammal guide said the only part of Pennsylvania where they could be found was the Pocono Plateau. Thirty-five years later, the Game Commission calls their resurgence one of the greatest modern success stories in wildlife conservation and says they now inhabit every major river system in the state without significant water-quality issues — but mostly still in the commonwealth’s northeast and northwest corners. Like the return of the bald eagle to Pittsburgh’s skies, the sight of a river otter with a 152 ZIP code, even if fleeting and isolated for now, is an encouraging sign of riparian recovery.
So sharing a moment with a Pittsburgh otter felt serendipitous, a little gift of hope and optimism from the natural world after the pit of bottomless despair that was 2020. It was so brief, so random and intimate. Of all the half-submerged logs in all the once-heavily-polluted rivers in all of Pennsylvania, it climbed onto mine. And I was there to see it not out of any skill or clever calculation, but simply because that day I didn’t go chasing after the next great thing, and rather, let nature come to me. It’s been part of my pandemic journey to be more of a homebody, to explore closer to my own backyard, to show up in nearby spaces, to find pleasure and comfort in the familiar; and recently, to be rewarded with a wild encounter that I hope will soon be as common around the neighborhood as seeing an eagle fly.