When ice starts forming along Maine’s rivers and streams in the late fall, Sheila Wakefield knows it’s time to start looking for river otters. Visiting waterways throughout northern Penobscot County, she and her husband, Tim Wakefield, search for these playful, aquatic animals all winter long.
They call the activity “ottering.”
“It’s sort of become our winter thing, going and watching them,” said Sheila Wakefield. “Right now we’ve got six otters together in one spot, and it appears that at least three are smaller ones. They must be last year’s spring babies.”
Once the couple finds a group of river otters, Sheila Wakefield takes photographs while Tim Wakefield captures video.
They share these photos and videos — along with images of other Maine wildlife — on their Facebook page, Dirt Road Pix, which has over 3,000 followers. And at the beginning of January, they opened a YouTube channel under the same name to share their videos with a larger audience.
“There’s so much negativity [in the world]. People just need something happy,” Sheila Wakefield said. “So really that’s why I started the page to begin with, to share the pictures and tell stories about where we’ve been and [what we’ve] seen. If the otters can bring a smile and some joy [to people], how awesome is that?”
When ice forms along the edges of rivers, streams, ponds and lakes, local otters climb on top of the ice to eat the fish they’ve caught, bask in the sun and play. This makes it easier to observe and photograph otters in the winter than at other times of year, Sheila Wakefield explained.
“They’re very playful on the ice,” she said. “They’ll run and slide and roll. It kind of reminds me of puppies playing. They’ll run at each other and roll around, and every once in a while, they’ll fight over a fish. They’ll wrangle with each other and pull on it like [they’re playing] tug of war.”
Bundled in layers of warm clothing and camouflage, the Wakefields have watched the otters for hours on end, and they’ve learned a great deal about the animals in the process.
“They eat one fish after another. It’s phenomenal,” she said. “They eat all different kinds, but we notice them getting a lot of hornpout — catfish. They eat them from the tail down. Sometimes they eat the whole head, and sometimes they don’t.”
The activity often attracts eagles, which swoop down to steal fish out of the otters’ paws. The Wakefields have witnessed this many times. They’ve also observed the variety of sounds that otters make, from warning snorts to chirp-like calls. And they’ve watched the otters slide long distances on their bellies over the ice, which appears playful but is actually an efficient way of travel.
To find the otters, the Wakefields speak with local residents, “oldtimers” who know the land well. They also gain permission from landowners to walk on their properties to access sites where otters can often be found.
“We’ve come across at least two winter dens, where it’s obvious they’re going in and out of regularly,” Sheila Wakefield said. “You’ll see on the top of them, when they go to the bathroom, the feces are right full of shiny fish scales.”
To observe the otters without disturbing them, the Wakefields keep their distance, wear camouflage, stay quiet and mask their scent.
“Their sense of hearing and smell is phenomenal, but we’ve had them come in really close to us.” said Sheila Wakefield, “I had one otter get so comfortable [with me being around] that he got up on the ice and took a nap. That was probably one of the coolest experiences I’ve had.”
From left: A river otter pauses while moving across the ice of a waterway in Penobscot County; A river otter runs across a thin sheet of ice in Penobscot County. Credit: Courtesy of Sheila Wakefield
Sheila Wakefield began photographing wildlife as a hobby in 2012, and since then has traveled throughout Maine to find animals to photograph. Her husband Tim Wakefield has been her “guide and biggest supporter,” waking early in the morning to hike with her into wildlife areas. And in recent years, he’s picked up a camera as well, mainly to shoot video.
Currently Sheila Wakefield uses two Nikon cameras — versions d3200 and d5300 — with a Sigma 600-mm camera lens. And Tim Wakefield uses a Panasonic LUMIX fz80 mirrorless camera with a 1200-mm zoom built in to shoot video.
“With the 1200-mm lens, we can get into places and get more film without having to be quite as close,” Sheila Wakefield said.
The couple views Dirt Road Pix as a hobby, but they do sell prints and calendars, and they’ve participated in a few craft fairs. For them, watching wildlife — whether it’s “ottering” or stalking a giant local moose they’ve named Brutus — is an opportunity to spend time together and embrace the beauty of their home.
“It became our constant goal to share joy and blessings with others,” Sheila Wakefield said. “Truly the bottom line has been to give people something to see in this great state — something to find happiness in.”