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Local photographers document river otters in the Willamette

by: Rita A. Leonard Tom and Marianne Nelson display a photo of the river otters they’ve seen at Oaks Bottom. This photo will appear on the cover of the fall edition of “Wild in the City”.

River otters are among the most playful wildlife in the Willamette River. Westmoreland couple Tom and Marianne Nelson, who walk the trails of Oaks Bottom almost daily, enjoy watching them play.

The Nelsons are transplants from Illinois, and love observing urban wildlife and taking photos for their business, Nelson Nature Photography (www.nelsonnature.com). Their favorite photo of a group of river otters appeared on their 2010 Christmas card, and will also be featured on the cover of the fall update of 'Wild In the City', authored by Portland Audubon's Mike Houck and M. J. Cody.

If you're not familiar with it, the second edition of 'Wild in the City: Exploring the Intertwine' is subtitled 'The Portland-Vancouver region's network of parks, trails, and natural areas'. It offers descriptions of over 100 of the best local natural areas for wildlife viewing, as well as all new maps, new natural history essays, and tips for living with urban wildlife.

The Nelsons are avid wildlife enthusiasts and are friends of urban naturalist and author Houck and of Russ Jolley, author of 'Wildflowers of the Columbia Gorge'.

'We report early and unusual sightings of wildlife to Mike, and also to Mark Wilson [a Sellwood resident] of Portland Parks,' reports Marianne. 'Mike liked our photo of four otters sunning on pier pilings near the Oregon Yacht Club, and we were thrilled when he asked if he could use it on the cover of the new edition of the urban wildlife guide.'

Both Nelsons enjoy introducing others to the rich variety of wildlife in Oaks Bottom. 'We've seen otters, beaver, mink, sea lion, deer, herons, bald eagles, osprey, owls, woodpeckers, and even a hummingbird feeding her babies,' smiles Marianne.

The Nelsons have exhibited their work at booths at the St. Agatha's and Llewellyn School Christmas Bazaars, selling photo cards and framed wildlife prints, and entertaining shoppers with tales of local wildlife sightings.

'River otters are elusive, but they're active all year long, requiring a clean, freshwater habitat. We suspect their den is somewhere near the houseboats north of The Oaks,' Marianne says. 'We've seen them swimming and playing around the pilings there.

'During winter and spring, when the backwater behind the railroad berm refills with water, they reappear to hunt, fish, play along the shore, and to seek breeding grounds. The first time we saw them was during a fall salmon run up the Willamette River. Otter pups are born between January and May. We haven't seen much of them yet this year, but we're always looking.'