North American River Otters

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.

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83 thoughts on “North American River Otters

  1. 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.

    • 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.

  2. 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
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

      • Dear Jet,
        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 👍👍
        Keep well
        The Fab Four of Cley
        🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!
    Julie

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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, 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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!

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