Each of us has our own way of marking the official arrival of spring. For some, the sound of spring peepers is proof that winter is over; for others, the rising sap in maple trees is a definitive clue. For sports fans, the crack of the season’s first baseball bat marks time in a particularly momentous way, and for birders, the arrival of the spring’s first migrants tells the time truer than any calendar. For me, today’s first Goose Pond doggy dip means spring is definitely here: if the dog’s wet and my feet are muddy, then black flies surely aren’t far behind.

Red squirrel, Goose Pond, Keene, NH

While Reggie was cooling his heels along with other assorted nether parts, I spent part of today’s dog walk photo-stalking. I didn’t go to Goose Pond today looking for any particular sort of picture; I didn’t go to Goose Pond today looking to take any pictures, really. Instead, I wanted to see whether the trailing arbutus has bloomed (it has) and whether the black flies are hatched and biting (they’re not). Along the way, though, I had my camera at ready, right in my pocket, in case anything interesting or unusual happened along my path, and in due course I found exactly that.

Chickadee, Goose Pond, Keene, NH

Photographing lighting-fast red squirrels is difficult enough; photographing energetic birds is even trickier. At least squirrels can be occasionally tricked into thinking they’re invisible if they sit still; perching birds, on the other hand, rarely freeze for framing.

Although I heard a first-of-year hermit thrush and black-throated green warbler, I didn’t see much less photograph either of these newly arrived spring migrants. Chickadees are year-round residents here in New Hampshire, and on nearly any dog-walk they’re easy to see…but photographing them is another story entirely. Sometimes, though, a cheeky chickadee will zoom in close enough for a point-and-shoot snapshot, and sometimes that cheeky chickadee will even perch motionless long enough for an almost-pose. Click: gotcha! At times like this, when all I want is a decent shot of a perfectly common but hyperkinetic bird, I feel a bit like John James Audubon with his gun, my ornithological impulses spurred by a collector’s zeal.

Chickadees, red squirrels, and swimming dogs notwithstanding, the true prize from today’s photo-stalk was the river otter that darted out of the woods and across the path–pausing, conveniently, at the edge of the trail to allow this picture–after Reggie and I had turned toward the car. (Click on the image for a larger version.) In all my years of hiking, I’ve seen a wild otter only once before today: several winters ago while walking along the Ashuelot River, I saw an otter scurrying along the riverbank underneath an overhanging ridge of ice, its shrill, whistling call betraying its predatorial presence. On that day several winters ago, I was too stunned and surprised to grab my camera; on that day several winters ago, it took a minute or two to fully register what was happening. “That, there…that sound…that sinuous, fluid roil of furred muscle…that isn’t a muskrat, isn’t a beaver, isn’t a rat or rodent of any kind…that incredible, out-of-nowhere creature is an otter, a common but rarely seen predator I’ve never seen before. Now, where’d it go?”

Today’s otter was silent, scurrying from the woods like a creature with a definite destination, disappearing into the woods on the other side of the trail as quickly as it had appeared. Today, though, I had my camera in my pocket; today, though, I had the wherewithal to snap, snap, snap several pictures, hoping just one of them would record for my own memory’s sake–record for my own proof–the fact that yes, there are river otters in Goose Pond. This lovely little place where I and so many other Keene residents walk the dog is actually a bit wilder than we knew, harboring predators and prey alike, some of them cheeky enough to show their face (or a flash of fur or feather) to anyone bold enough to stalk or swim in their midst.