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.
85 thoughts on “North American River Otters”
Fabulous sighting. Lucky you.
Thanks Sherry. We were so jazzed to see those otters. Have a good weekend–
I enjoyed reading about these river otters and especially admire the full frontal shot of the one with fish in its mouth. I have only seen sea otters at Moss Landing Wildlife Area. There have been reports of a river otter near our house but it has so far been invisible to me.
Yes, isn’t that a fine photo, Hien, that close-up of the otter with the fish? How exciting that there might be a river otter near your house. I would guess with all the time you spend outdoors photographing that you will come across it one day soon. In the meantime, I’m glad I could share the river otters here with you today. Thanks very much.
Always fun to watch otters playing. And usually brings a smile.
It sure is fun watching otters play, Brad. I’m glad I could bring it to you today. Thank you for your visit and message. I do try to go to your site, but only your email comes up.
I’m piggybacking on Wildlife Intrigued for the articles. Though all of the photos can be found on bradmarks.smugmug.com.
I love otters, they are so cute and fun! It’s a beautiful thing when birds all take off together. ❤️☺️
Yes, I agree, John, the otters are fun to watch and I also like watching birds all take off in unison. My warm thanks, John.
You are welcome, Jet. ☺️
We have otters here as well but they are extremely shy and stay in the reeds. Well spotted and photographed.
Happy weekend wishing you
The Fab Four of Cley
🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
Lovely to have you stop by, Fab Four. I liked hearing about the otters in Cley. Thanks very much for your delightful visit today.
our otters live in the little creeks at the corners of the reed beds. One sees them very rarely.
Hanne-Dina would love to photograph them. But that needs patients. These are lovely pictures in your post.
We always like to visit your blog, great texts and pictures 👍👍
The Fab Four of Cley
🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂
Otters are funny critters. Excellent photos.
I enjoyed your visit today, Timothy, as always. Thanks for the kind words. And I enjoyed cruising your big open sky this morning.
Wonderful observations & report! In my experience, river otters appear unexpectedly & when I’m least prepared to make a study, so I’m envious of your opportunities at the refuge & the brilliance of those photos. Very nicely done, Jet, and so enjoyable to ponder.
Yes, otters do just show up, you’re right, Walt. And just as quickly they vanish. We were glad that man on the deck didn’t waste time in telling us about them. He was a volunteer guide and very knowledgeable. He also pointed out a skulking snipe which was practically invisible. We love the gift of the outdoors, you and I, Walt. I hope you are staying warm in your frigid neck of the woods. Cheers and thanks.
Good afternoon dear Jet. What a wonderful post. I love otters but have never seen an otter this big….Thank you so much for sharing these beautiful moments with us. Janet :)XX
Yes, these otters are big, Janet. A good sign. Plenty of food to keep them fueled and their coats glistening. A true joy to have you stop by and enjoy the otters with us, Janet, thank you.
You are welcome XX
River Otters are real cuties but the Gold for cuteness goes to the Sea Otters for me!
You Otta love them!
Yes, the sea otters are super adorable, and I can imagine you have seen so very many of them where you live, Wayne. Otterly delightful. Cheers, my friend.
when they raft up and link arms or clasp paws they are really cute!
There is so much life in those marshy areas. Wonderful photos. I can almost smell the marsh grasses.
Oh yes, I agree, Anneli. So much going on in a marsh. Always a treat when you stop by, thank you.
What a treat, Jet! Great photos 💗
Lovely to have you visit today, Jo. And my pleasure bringing you the river otters. Lots of hugs to you.
What excellent photos you got of the otters! Neat to read about them. Just from your post, I can see why they would make you want to dance. I’m smiling just reading it. 🙂
Those otters are all over the place–running and hopping and diving and surfacing. I’m delighted the otters here brought a smile to your face, Lisa. Thanks very much.
Lovely post about a lovely creature! We often see them in the creek and river and marsh here. Our first year here in Coastal Georgia, we watched several “brothers” who we think lived in the little timber area next door grow up together, and it was just delightful to see them frolicking with one another every day.
Oh I can imagine how fun that would be to see the brothers frolicking every day, Nan. Your marsh is abundant with lively activity–tidal changes, wildlife, beautiful sunsets. My warmest thanks and love.
Otters always raise a smile, and they did again today – a delightful report, Jet!
We’re fortunate to spot them pretty frequently here, river otters more easily than sea otters. One time we enjoyed watching a river otter take fish as fast as they could behind a fisherman preparing his latest catch down on the dock. A win for the otter, and the fisherman seemed pretty relaxed about it once he cottoned on. Healthy competition?!
Thanks for this – great fun – and have a wonderful weekend!
I’m chuckling, pc, at your story of the river otter stealing the fisherman’s catches. Sounds a bit like a Laurel and Hardy movie. Truly a delight to have you stop by and share your otter story, pc, thanks so much. You, too, have a wonderful weekend.
I love otters, especially when they at play. I often see them at our local Audubon, but mostly when they are busy fishing. Man are they quick! Your pictures were super. Continued good wishes for your safety!
Oh! wonderful otters. Any sighting can’t help but bring a smile because they seem to be so very playful and enjoying life. Athena did a wonderful job of catching these great shots. They are so quick and active that it’s not easy to catch their portraits. I’m so happy you both got to watch this latest appearance.
Our storms seem to have caused a change in our visitors… some ducking for cover, others moving down from the hills. Never a dull moment it seems. Then again some of us (!!! 😏 go into hibernation! 😴)
I enjoyed your comment, Gunta, as always. I’m sure you and E have had a wonderful time spotting and observing river otters in your own backyard. But no matter how many we see, there’s always a new smile that they bring to one’s face. They are quick and not easy to photograph, you’re right. And we were quite far away. Interesting to hear about the latest storms and the change in wildlife viewing up there in OR. Sending lots of big smiles your way…and thanks.
How wonderful! Love your photos.
Thanks very much, Cindy. Always fun to share the loveable river otters, I’m glad you enjoyed them.
What a cute fella! That would have been fun to watch.
Yes, it was fun to watch the river otters playing. Thank you, Lenore, great to have you stop by.
Playful otters are always a delight to see. We have them here in the river, but rarely see them (I think they’re mostly are nocturnal). When there was fresh snow in December we saw three otter slides along the waterfall and stream. Since previously we’ve only seen two slides, I’m assuming they gave birth this past summer. Good news!
How exciting to have river otters in your river, Eliza. I remember your photos of that river, and it is sizeable. Yes, the river otters are more active at night. And isn’t it so fun to see their slides? Super exciting to spot additional slides! Thanks very much.
How cool! I think I’ve only seen an otter once and it was being eaten by a bear… so I don’t know if that counts. Hopefully one day I’ll see one frolicking in its natural habitat.
Yes, I hope you do see a frolicking river otter one day, Diana. That sighting with the bear sounds unique but not very pleasant. With all your rigorous hiking in the mountains and valleys, I am guessing you will definitely see one some day. Fun to share these with you, thanks for your visit.
What fun to see the otters! They do look like they’re having fun and frolicking many times but they’re fearsome hunters as well. 🙂 Enjoy the weekend, Jet, hopefully with lots of sunshine and no rain for some time.
Oh yes, the river otters are fearsome hunters, you’re so right, Janet. When we watched a trio in 2019 they were actually gorging. They were like machines–they just snatched one fish after another. I’m glad you enjoyed the otters, thanks for your visit. We have enjoyed sunshine the last two days and some of the water in the swollen waterways is receding, thank goodness. Cheers.
I don’t think I have seen an otter out of water! They’re pretty big.
I, too, was surprised, Jan, the first time I saw a river otter out of the water. Usually we just see the head or part of the body. These two were about four feet long not including the tail. Glad to see you, thank you.
These mammals from the rivers are extremely playful, as well as obsessed with fishing all day long. The do eat a lot, maybe because they move fast and are continuously in motion. Thank you, my friend, I liked your post. 🙂
Yes, you’re right, H.J., the river otters do eat a lot. They don’t have blubber that keeps them warm, so they move a lot and therefore eat a lot. Always a delight to have you visit, my friend, thank you.
The otters are fun to watch and certainly great to photograph. Your photos are terrific
and show us how they live their lives happy and free. Thank you very much Jet!
Yes, it is a wonderful thing that we have refuges and preserves for wildlife in this country, Eddie, you’re right. It is a great thing to see them living happily and freely. A great treat, dear Eddie, to receive your kind words this morning, thank you.
You deserve it Jet!
That’s a timely post. I’ve been watching otter videos on YouTube. For over a year I’ve been designing a character that is a river otter. It will probably be another year before I write the story he appears in.
I’m sitting here at my keyboard chuckling, Craig. How rich it is to contemplate how your new river otter character will turn out. I think that is an excellent mammal to personify. They’re a unique combination of playful, cheeky and ferocious. We once saw a family of Giant River Otters in an Amazon tributary, they’re endangered. They’re actually scary. Cheers, my imaginative and tenacious writing friend, and thanks.
Haven’t decided if my Canadian otter will make it to the Amazon basin, but that was one of my first ideas. I might discover everything I need in Central America and need to scope that out before I decide.
Thanks for another fun and informative post Jet. I love otters and how playful they are. I’ve only seen sea otters in person.
It is fun to share the river otters with you, Brad, I am happy you liked them.
Great info and Athena did a great job photographing these elusive creatures. Well done as usual, ladies. 🙂
My warmest thanks, Frank. I’m glad you enjoyed the river otters, thank you.
One of my all-time favorite animals, Jet! I am sure you were right. They were having a blast chasing those ducks. Doesn’t mean they wouldn’t eat one if they caught it. 🙂 –Curt
I enjoyed your comment, Curt, thanks very much.
Awesome sighting, so much fun!
I’m glad you had fun frolicking with the otters, Donna. Always great to see you, thank you.
What a great encounter! I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing one in the actual wild – very jealous. Did get to see a couple at the Texas State Aquarium we visited a few days ago. I get the impression they plan their day around play ha. Great post.
I am so glad you got to join our wild otter adventure here, Brian. There’s a lot of playing going around, as you noted, and I guess that’s why it’s so fun to hang out with them. I enjoyed both your visits today, thank you.
Hi Jet, Such a delight to read your post about these amusing animals and enjoy Athena’s images. 🤗
Oh so much fun to have you join the otter fun here, Jane. Thank you for stopping by.
What a delightful and exciting sighting, Jet!. I was finally able to get over the mountains and go the Refuge on Saturday. No Otter sightings for me, but it’s never dull there.
I am delighted you made it to the Sacramento NWR, Deborah. Your patience in waiting for the stormy times to pass was rewarded. I can imagine it was glistening with the recent waters and brimming with birds. I look forward to seeing it at your site. Thanks so much for your visit.
You’re welcome, Jet! 😀
I don’t get to see river otters very often so enjoyed those that you and Athena saw and shared, Jet. When I do see them they are in the water and quite active so all I can do is enjoy them which I do. As Eliza mentioned, in the winter one can find their slides which are fun to see. Of course seeing the slides being formed would be even better. 🙂
I am smiling, Steve, happy that you have had the pleasure of seeing wild river otters, and that I could share some more here with you. We are lucky to still have that lively species on this planet. My warmest thanks for your visit and comment.
Fun. And maybe lucky, too. 🙂
Yes, it was fun and indeed lucky, Dave, to watch the river otters that day. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.
I’ve seen River Otters only a few times, and never on land. They only show up in our area during times of river flood, when I’m sure they come down with the fresh water. From what I’ve read, they will live in both salt and fresh water, but prefer fresh. I’d love to see them playing, but for that I’m probably going to have to spend more time around rivers!
You’re right, Linda, river otters do live in both salt and fresh water. And so often when you see the river otters they are in water, as you say. Being on a deck 500′ away was helpful because they were not inhibited by us and came out of the water. Thanks for stopping by and sharing in the river otter fun.
They used to have a great viewing tank at the Bronx Zoo for the otters. Always a crowd favorite. Their obvious joy in playing brings a joy to us, which calls for explanation. Which would be otterly silly. Great viewing station. And photos as usual. Happy New Year!
Oh yes, the otters are a crowd-pleaser, you are right Stephen. There’s something free and easy about them that is attractive. I’m glad you came by today for some river otter fun, thank you. And Happy New Year to you, too.
I like watching dogs play too. There’s something human about having fun. Cheers!
Wonderful, wonderful otters. This brightened my day! 😍
Oh so glad to have you stop by the river otter post, too, Dina, thank you. I am smiling right now, happy that this brightened your day.