It was a mild day in Northern California when we spotted the river otters, a pair.
With the barrage of storms we have been experiencing in California recently, spotting wildlife or even getting into wildlife refuges has proven challenging. Fortunately we had visited before the storms, in December.
We were at Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge up on a wildlife viewing deck overlooking the refuge, spotting birds. Ducks, waders and geese were occupying the marsh, as usual; some were tucked in and sleeping, others were foraging.
This yellow-rumped warbler joined us, like they do every time we go on this deck.
Then all of a sudden, several dozen ducks all lifted simultaneously from the water–a wave and a lot of fluttering.
There was no sign of what had caused the clamor. There are no roads or humans in this area (photo below), it’s nothing but birds and marsh grass on this huge expanse.
Right away they settled back down.
But then a moment later it happened again. It was a different wave of birds lifting, also suddenly and dramatically. Just as I was putting my binoculars up to investigate, a man on the deck said to us, “Do you see the otters?”
Then we had the wildest surprise: two river otters were chasing the ducks!
It happened three or four more times, and then the otters waddled onto a strip of land, partially hidden behind tule reeds.
More info about this largest member of the weasel family: Wikipedia North American River Otter
Perfectly suited for water, river otters have short legs and a long, narrow body. Their swimming is graceful gliding.
They are not, however, aquatic mammals–they are semi-aquatic, spending much time on land. Four short little legs may work well in the water, and getting in and out of the water is a breeze, too. They effortlessly slide in and out of the water.
But when they’re walking on land, they are awkward, kind of hopping and waddling.
They were in and out of the tall weeds for a little while, each one preening.
Then they came out of the reeds, and we could see them better. They were about 500 feet (152 m) away.
We watched for as long as they were there and after about five minutes they disappeared, and everything settled down.
Lontra canadensis prefer a diet of fish and crayfish, but they are adaptive to seasonal availability and also consume crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians, small mammals and even reptiles. They do occasionally eat small birds including ducks.
Were they intending to eat a duck in all that hoopla? Is that why they were chasing them?
I don’t think so. I think they were just frolicking, having a bit of fun.
Three years ago in this same refuge but miles away, we watched a trio of river otters fishing. They were in a deep ditch filled with rainwater (photo below) and would go down under the dark water and come up with a flopping fish in their teeth, eat it, and then dive back down again. They did this for at least a half hour–focused and successful.
You can see the otter’s long facial whiskers in this photo. The whiskers are long, stiff and highly sensitive, aid in locating and capturing prey in the darkest of waters. There’s also a fish in its mouth.
This pair we saw last month, they were doing the river otter dance, having some fun, showing off their prowess.
River otters–so fun to watch–sliding and diving, playing and hopping. They make me wanna dance.
Written by Jet Eliot.
All photos in the wild by Athena Alexander.