In January I went to a flooded agricultural field to observe ducks and cranes. At one point there was a curious underwater movement…unidentifiable. We waited, and watched. And a river otter popped out!
We have been going to this field for three decades, have spent close to 50 hours observing wildlife on this one field. Every winter it is loaded with songbirds, ducks, cranes, raptors, waders, and more…but we have never seen an otter here.
We have, however, seen the river otter hunting on a nearby river several times.
There are 13 species of otters on earth, and they are all aquatic in nature, feeding primarily on fish and invertebrates. In North America we have the river otter (our focus today) and the sea otter.
They are swift in the water, but get around just fine on land too. And its not just rivers they like; they occupy streams, lakes, wetlands and apparently even flooded fields, if they’re wet enough.
Carnivorous, river otters not only hunt fish but also a variety of amphibians and invertebrates like frogs, salamanders, clams, mussels, snails, turtles, and crayfish.
They have many aquatic characteristics: long, streamlined bodies, short limbs, webbed feet, and more. They can also hold their breath a long time underwater.
Coveted for their thick, waterproof fur, both river and sea otters have been heavily hunted by humans for centuries. Their populations declined precipitously in the past, and some species are still in danger.
The North America river otter’s conservation status is currently “Least Concern.” Fortunately their population has recovered and can be found inhabiting much of North America. See range map below.
If you ever walk along a river and see smooth, narrow mud slides leading into the water, keep your eyes open for a river otter. With short legs and low to the ground, the sleek mammal effortlessly slips into the river.
Here is the same field in a drought year. Even with scant water it attracts a lot of migrating and resident winter birds.
For five quiet minutes the otter glided underwater, then came out onto land. Next, the otter scratched its ear with its foot, like a dog. They do this to dry themselves, thereby keeping their fur more insulated. Walked a bit, returned to the water, paddled for awhile, then vanished.
Truly one of the day’s biggest thrills.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.
I decided I otter include other otters we have observed. These below are the two biggest otters in the world.
The sea otter (Enhydra lutris) also lives in North America. We saw this one in the Gulf of Alaska near Seward; and always see them in Monterey and the Bay Area, along the Northern California coast. Popular for photos, playful. They are listed as endangered.
The giant otter, also endangered, is found in South America. We watched three hunting together on an oxbow lake in Peru, not far from the Amazon River. A rare find.