Celebrating the River Otter

Snow Geese and Sutter Buttes, Sacramento Valley, CA

Tule marsh with snow geese. Sacramento NWR.

Every winter we drive up to the Sacramento Valley to watch the bird migration. This year we not only had the spectacle of millions of geese and ducks, we were also treated to a half hour with three feisty river otters.



The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge offers a self-guided auto tour that loops through 10,819 acres (43.78 sq. km.) of wetlands. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that about three million ducks and close to one million geese are spending this winter here.


Every winter I write a post or two on what we found in the Sacramento Valley. There are a few links below.

Snow Geese


Across the United States, the North American River Otter has had a difficult history with declining populations due primarily to hunting, water pollution and habitat destruction. Reintroduction programs have been successful, but the otters still have a tenuous existence.


In some states it is now legal again to hunt river otters, though not in California. Range map below.


Over the course of our winter wildlife viewing in these wetlands (25+ years), we have had a total of about ten minutes observing river otters. They simply haven’t been around much, despite the wetlands being a perfect habitat.

Sacramento NWR, snowy Mount Shasta in background


Last year we had the joy of watching one otter in a flooded field. Five Minutes with a River Otter.

River Otter walking (last year)

This year we had a bonanza with three otters.


Fortunately we took the auto tour very slowly, or we probably would not have spotted the otter activity.


It is a six-mile drive and we spent five hours on it.


After years of practice, including numerous African game drives, we have perfected our auto tour experiences. I am the safari driver, while Athena has the entire back seat for photographing. She has both windows open and several lenses available.


Our winters in the Sacramento Valley are always cold, and often rainy…but we are never miserable. We always bring along a hearty lunch and a thermos of hot tea. For elevenses, we warm our home-baked scones on the dashboard heater vent.


It is prohibited to get out of the vehicle except in the 3 or 4 designated spots. Using the vehicle as a moving blind, visitors are able to see birds and mammals up close without disturbing them.

Sacramento NWR bird watch sign

When we first noticed a flock of coots flustered and riled in a deep ditch of water, we stopped to see what the excitement was about. We couldn’t see anything, so I slowly drove forward.


About five minutes later and along the same water-filled ditch, we saw more movement, still unidentifiable.


Here’s what it looked like without optics. There is an otter in this photo: in the center–a dark brown mass in the watery green weeds. It is just below the tall golden reeds and slightly right and back of a horizontal white weed.

Otter in ditch, Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge


Tricky spotting.


We both had our binoculars up, scanning, scanning. Hmm…something was going on.


Then an otter head popped out.

Otter with fish. Lines on the back and neck demonstrate how water courses off the otter’s fur.


And another.

Otter pair with fish


Athena’s camera was rapidly firing, and we were silently thrilled as the two active otters were joined by a third.


Each otter would vanish under the cold, dark water, then come up with a wriggling, silvery fish in its mouth. It was a frenzy. Continued for a half hour.


Eventually the three otters got full bellies, swam to the end of the ditch, scampered out of the water and disappeared.

Otters coming onto land.


The rains had been abundant, and fish were too. Oh how I love the blissful days in nature.


Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

Selfie of Jet (L) and Athena (R)

Related posts:

Winter Ducks and More

Snow Geese are Heading Home

Wildlife Auto Tours

Snow Geese


No. American River Otter Range Map. Courtesy Wikipedia.


78 thoughts on “Celebrating the River Otter

  1. I’m astonished to realize that, for once, I’ve had more opportunities to see a part of nature than you and Athena! River otters aren’t exactly a daily sight here, but they’re around, and especially when there’s high water, they’ll appear in places like the marinas. There have been a few times I’ve thought I was looking at nutria, and then realized I wasn’t. They’re great creatures, and those photos are splendid. While I see the otters from time to time, I’ve never seen them fishing — what a wonderful experience for you.

    • Wonderful to hear you have plenty of river otters in your TX neck of the woods, Linda. The Texas coast is loaded with excellent and abundant wildlife, so I’m not surprised. I agree with you, the otters are great creatures and yes, watching them continually come up with a fish in their mouths was thrilling. Thanks so much, Linda, I always enjoy hearing from you.

    • I enjoyed your feedback, Deborah, on your visits to the wintering grounds in the Sacramento Valley. You gave me a chuckle on the channeling compliment. We have seen river otters in the Sacramento NWR only about three times in 25 years, and never for very long except this year. Perhaps they’re increasing and hopefully you’ll see one next time you’re there. Thanks so much for your visit and comment.

    • It is a true joy to share the marvels of our Calif. waterfowl migration with you, John and Susan — I’m so glad it brought back memories for you. So you know the thrill of that cacophony and the sky darkened with so many geese in flight…ahhh. Thanks for your comment.

    • I liked your comment, Timothy, describing the otters as cute and ornery — so right on both counts. I, too, think river otters are really cool animals. Thanks very much.

  2. So happy for you that you saw river otters for an extended period of “play” – they are a delight to observe. We’re lucky enough to spot them quite often, as they are usually hanging out and looking for mischief on the docks around here.
    Loved your words and Athena’s photography, the wetlands, inhabitants (and visitors!) are lovely!
    Thanks, Jet!

    • You are so right, pc, the river otters are a delight to observe, and it’s great that you see them quite often up in your watery parts of Canada. They are mischievous for sure. I can imagine they keep Scout animated with curiosity, as well as you and Mrs. PC. I so enjoy your visits and comments, pc, thanks so much.

  3. I love otters. We had some in the stream behind our camper a few years ago. It was pre-dawn and I left my camera inside while making campfire coffee. They don’t stick around long, so I just enjoyed them. I love the selfie, too.

  4. Great sighting! I love seeing otters occasionally on our river and esp. their slides in the snowy banks.
    I enjoyed your prep and provisioning notes, well-travelled as you are! A great team and loved the selfie, nice shot of you two in ‘your native habitat’. 😉

    • I smiled at your comment, Eliza–Athena and I in our native habitat. Although I never thought of it, it truly is our native habitat, we’ve been going there for so long, and of course we’ve adventured all over the wild sides of California. Every year when we go up to this Refuge, we set the camera up on a post, the same post, near the Visitor Center and take a timed photo of the two of us in our gear. We’ve been doing this for 25+ years, so it would be interesting (and a little scary) to see the series. My warm thanks for your visit today, Eliza, always a joy.

  5. What a treat for you to see those otters. Luckily you have a good eye for spotting them. Cool photos! And those snow geese! I suppose they were quite noisy when they were milling around above you. Wonderful adventure you two had! Thanks for sharing it.

    • Oh don’t you know it was quite a cacophony, Anneli. I love hearing all the squawking and honking amid the swirl of those giant geese flying in all directions. Many thanks for your kind comment, much appreciated.

  6. Loved this post! Otters are such fun to watch. I’m glad your patience and skill were rewarded this year. We have them here on the marsh, but they are surely illusive little things! The selfie at the end was wonderful. You looked like a couple of playful otters!

    • Oh how I loved being compared to the playful otters, dear Nan. We were certainly as perky as they look, after our animated encounter. Thanks so much for your wonderful comment.

  7. Pingback: Celebrating the River Otter — Jet Eliot | huggers.ca

    • Oh how very nice to have you drop by, Myriam. It was a great day. I’m glad I could share it with you. I’m heading right over your way to see what you’ve been up to.

  8. I loved the selfie of the both of you at the end, and experiencing the “drive” and the river otters with you. Sacramento NWR is an amazing treasure. Glad you added the otters to your memories there.

    • The tule marshes are a great joy and I appreciate your understanding of how special it is to have some of this wilderness still exist. I’m glad you enjoyed the river otter post, and I hope you get to spot some in Colorado. Thanks so much for your visit and comment, Eilene.

  9. wow I’m jealous of your otter photos. I spotted 3 otters on the dock next to us but no photos of actual otters. Its a lot harder than it looks. Thanks for sharing

    • Yes, it is a lot harder than it looks to take photos of otters. Especially when they’re in a frenzy. Athena took no less than 50 photos to get these. They dip and dive and move so fast. Really enjoyed your comment, Bill, thanks so much.

    • You had a smart mother, Jill. Keeping an otter filled with fish would’ve been very expensive…not to mention the living quarters you would’ve needed to provide. Your comment gave me a big smile, thanks so much.

    • This is a great National Wildlife Refuge, T, and I hope you do get a chance to visit. Winter is the best time to be here, for the spectacle of the migrating waterfowl. Many thanks.

    • I got such a kick out of your words here, Frank, thanks so much. I’m so glad you could vicariously join us on our annual visit to the Sacramento Valley and the otter party. Warmest thanks, and a very big smile.

  10. Kudos to Athena for all the wonderful photos, but that head shot of the otter was above and beyond. What a wonderful way to spend 6 hours! Thanks to both of you for sharing this wonderful adventure.

    • It was indeed a wonderful way to spend six hours. And fun to be able to share it with you, Gunta. Thanks so much for the high comments on the photos, I read it to Athena. You know how quick the otters are. Thanks so very much, my friend.

  11. Oh so glorious!! So happy for you that you got to witness these otters in person. So sad how wildlife everywhere is so threatened by reduced habitat, and hunting. I honestly can’t even imagine how anyone can shoot an animal!!! Gorgeous photos of everything….birds, otters, and landscape. So very nice to see a photo of the two of you!! Lovely. The joy speaks for itself. How fabulous that you have done this trip so often and you got so lucky this time.


    • Thanks for your lovely message, Peta, always a joy to have you stop by. When we started birding we were quite young, living and working in the city (SF) and it was a way for us to be in nature even in the city. Our first trip to the Sacramento Vly was with a SF birding club, in the early 90s, and every year it was a great thrill because the volume of birds and the drama were/are so enlivening. I am so happy we never stopped our annual trek to Sacramento Vly, and in fact have seen much of the world now with birding as the premise, as you know. On the hunting comment, I completely agree. I make a big effort not to address my strong disapproval in hunting because it changes no hunter’s mind and it makes me so angry. I, like you, cannot understand how a loving human being can shoot an animal just for fun. Always a joy, my friend, thank you.

  12. As you say, Jet, otters lead a tenuous existence. Coming back quite strongly in UK, with stringent protection measures (much easier in a small land mass). There’s a conflict as so often with introduced species. Mink were a real problem but they are not protected in the same way, thank goodness (though ‘furry’ and ‘cute’ in their own way, as many would argue).

    • I enjoyed hearing about the UK otters, RH, and am glad there is a stringent protection measure in place. I hope it stays that way and the otters have a chance to rebuild their population. Really appreciated your contribution, my friend, thanks for stopping by.

  13. Boy do you pack a lot into one post, Jet! I just ate this post up with my hungry eyes. The picture you spoke about with the “tricky” spotting of the otter, sorry, I couldn’t see it. Nope. Loved every single otter picture! To see birds in this amount of numbers …. what a phenomenal experience, one that I can only imagine how thrilling it is. LOVED yours and Athena’s selfies. Your smiles and the happiness on both your faces say it all. Thank you so much for this post. How I long to travel … but through posts like yours I see what I would have done if my life had been different.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed the otter post, Amy, and I appreciate your kind words. This visit to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge is a 2-3 hour drive from our house, it is a day trip, and yes, oh how we love that day trip. Happy we could share it with you.

    • We are lucky to have otters on this planet, and oh how adorable they are. It doesn’t surprise me that you are officially in love with them, Resa. You put a smile on my face. Thanks for your visits today, much enjoyed.

  14. Oh I love this blog post Jet! Never mind the otters…. just the picture in my mind of you and Athena in the car and heating up scones, you wrote it really well, and then the image of you and Athena and the car, really great. Also the images of the otters! Thoroughly enjoyed it.

    • Your comment gave me a wide smile, Bertie, thank you. I’m glad you could witness the magic of the otter event. It’s always a marvel to me that we can be doing this every winter for over a quarter century, and we’re still absolutely thrilled. Many thanks for your visit. And cheers to you.

  15. These bird captures are fabulous, make me want to go there. For some reason we didn’t get to see many birds in the Gulf coast as we did before.
    Otters are so cute! 🙂 Thank you for sharing, Jet. Love the selfie of you and Athena. 🙂

    • Wonderful to receive your visits today, Amy, thank you. Thanks for your comments on the bird captures, I like those photos too, they do a good job of expressing the sheer volume of ducks and geese. Fun to share the otters too, and our selfie following our delight in the otter experience.

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