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.


Pacific Flyway Series 3 of 3

Sandhill cranes at Woodbridge Ecological Preserve

Sandhill cranes at Woodbridge Ecological Preserve

A truly elegant and delightful bird, the sandhill crane visits us every winter.  I don’t know if it’s their elusiveness, beauty, or dramatic mating dances that I find so attractive, but I can never seem to get enough of this four foot tall bird. This is the third and final part of my Pacific Flyway series. Here is Part 1 and here is Part 2.


Winter in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region is not sandy beaches and surfers, that’s southern California.  Although we’re not inundated by a million feet of snow and ice like in other parts of the world right now, it is often raining and in the 40s between October and March.  It hasn’t rained enough this winter, but that’s another story.   


The cranes love our rainy, foggy winters in California’s Sacramento Valley.  To a long-legged bird that prefers open grasslands and freshwater marshes, the rice fields in this area are particularly attractive.  There are four sub-species of the sandhill cranes and they primarily live in Canada during the warm seasons.  In the winter they migrate to warmer climates where they can be seen feeding on their grain-filled diet. We saw over 500 cranes on this visit.


Cranes with red-winged blackbirds

Cranes with red-winged blackbirds

Although cranes are very skittish, the best viewing time is at dawn when they are leaving their nighttime fields to go out feeding for the day.  You can also watch them coming in to roost at dusk.  There have been many times when I was in the really dense fog, so dense that I could not see the cranes, but I could still hear them.  The sound is sort of like a gobbling turkey, but with bugling and rattling.  If you stand there long enough, soggy and dripping, they eventually descend through the fog and become visible just as they’re landing.  By then it’s too dark for photos, but you can marvel in their invisible cloaking act.  I am happy to say I still have their familiar sounds in my mind from our recent rendezvous. Here’s a recording.


On the last morning of our crane adventure, all three of my mates were photographing so I volunteered to drive them around, a sort of crane safari.  We found six or seven cranes in a field with picturesque morning light and stopped immediately, set up the equipment.  Because of the nature of sandhill cranes, the birds were quite far away and, as usual, tricky to photograph.  We parked as close as possible, separated from the field by a deep levy.

I’m not a photographer.  In fact the dozen or so photos you have seen in this 3 part series have all been by my partner Athena.  But I was content to stay quiet, observing, while my mates recorded the crane activity.  There was no wind this morning, so our friend with the video camera could do some decent videography; while the two photographers stood at their tripods patiently clicking away.

Sandhill Cranes in rice field

Sandhill Cranes in rice field

We stayed here for two hours.  In that time dozens more cranes came in, gingerly stepping across the watery field, as you can see in this photograph.  One crane at a time, they walked through the water lifting their legs high, in order to eat on the other side of the field.  All three photographers quietly worked at their skills, changing positions and lenses, recording the grace and wonder of these lovely birds.

I stood elevated on the car’s running board with binoculars, watching raptors perch for hunting, becoming overly-familiar with the car roof.  Ducks and geese filled the air, honking endlessly, and a giant flock of red-winged blackbirds flashed in the sunlight, gurgling their melodic meadow song.

Then a rather spastic jackrabbit came on the scene.  He raced past us on the levy, first down the field, then back up again, did this a few times in fierce pursuit.  He seemed to think that every occasional passing car was chasing him.  He was too fast to photograph but we had a fun laugh watching him.  The last time he shot past us we caught the glint of his pink ears, translucent in the morning sun.

As he disappeared behind a thatch of tall reeds, I vowed to come back again next year, as I have for the last 21 winters.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird



Pacific Flyway Series 2 of 3

Northern Pintail in Colusa Nat'l. Wildlife Refuge

Northern Pintail in Colusa Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge

Welcome back.  Yesterday I presented an overview of the Pacific Flyway in the Sacramento Valley of California, that was Part 1 of 3 in this Series.  Today let’s take a closer look at the ducks and geese that winter here.


In addition to the millions of ducks and geese that spend their winters here, there are sandhill cranes, tundra swans and other birds in the thousands.  In the spring they return to their home for breeding.  In between that time, we have the glory of their presence for several months.  If you’re paying attention, you can see stunning ducks like this beautiful Pintail just about anywhere there is water. 

I have a winter birthday and where do you suppose I like to go to celebrate the day?  The local sewage ponds.  Oh yes, you’ll see me in my birthday tiara with a big ol’ smile, because hiking around with my binoculars taking in the magnificence of these wild creatures is one of my favorite things to do on earth.  Ya’ get over the sewage stench in no time.


As the ducks and geese make their treacherous journey south, they stop along the way in refuges and fields.  If they can make it through the plight of storms, and perils like wind turbines and sport hunters, they usually start arriving in September and October.  Their arrival is influenced by the weather, and every bird species’ migration pattern varies as well. 


Green-winged Teal, Cosumnes River Preserve

Green-winged Teal, Cosumnes River Preserve

For example, the Northern Pintail duck nests in Alaskan and Canadian prairies.  When they migrate down they are one of the earlier arrivals on the Pacific Flyway.  The dapper Green-winged Teal prefers to nest in boreal wetlands and parklands in Canada and northern states of the U.S.  Their winter migration can be here on the Pacific Flyway, but they also head further south, and some even live year-round down here. 


male Northern Shoveler

male Northern Shoveler

Large flocks of geese here include:  greater white-fronted goose, snow goose, Ross’ goose, Canada goose.  Ducks in the area include cinnamon and green-winged teal, northern shoveler, gadwall, American wigeon, ring-necked duck, bufflehead, ruddy duck, and common mergansers.  In addition to the many migrants, there are resident birds of all kinds.  There are hundreds of species and it varies every year. 


Some years a certain species didn’t breed abundantly for one reason or another, so you may not see them in great numbers one winter.  I record every bird species we see every single year, I guess it’s the novelist in me.  Then I tabulate the data in a birding software, and have kept a Pacific Flyway census that now spans over two decades.  It’s an interesting set of statistics with the ironic theme:  no year is ever the same. 


White-fronted Goose

White-fronted Goose

This year for our annual trek we met two friends, and the four of us went birding and photographing for two and half delightful days.  There were several noticeable changes I saw this time compared to previous years.  One disappointing change is that major bird roosting areas surrounding the town of Lodi, areas that were once rice fields for the wintering birds, have now been turned into grape vineyards. This will most likely cut into the wintering grounds for future bird populations.


One happy change was that we saw three yellow-billed magpies.  Six or seven years ago it was thought that 50% of the population of this bird had died from the West Nile Virus. We didn’t see any of that special species for many years and thought they were on their way to extinction.  Fortunately they are making a comeback, and we were witness to three healthy individuals frolicking one dawn among oak trees. 


White-fronted Geese on Staten Island

White-fronted Geese on Staten Island

And although we saw hundreds of thousands of geese and ducks this year, and many hundreds of cranes and swans, there were not as many ducks and geese as there were last year.  Park rangers told us it was so very mild that the birds had already started to migrate back north by the end of January.


If you live or visit California in the winter, I highly recommend checking out one of the refuges in the Pacific Flyway.  The skies are full of geese, the ponds are full of ducks, and sometimes it is so incredibly loud that you can’t even hear your own voice.  Tomorrow we’ll conclude this series with highlights of my favorite winter residents of the Pacific Flyway:  the sandhill crane.

Pacific Flyway Series 1 of 3

Snow geese at Sacramento Nat'l. Wildlife Refuge

Snow geese at Sacramento Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge

There’s a phenomenal bird spectacle occurring in America right now, it happens every winter.  It is the bird migration of waterfowl who have traveled from the northern reaches of the continent to winter here in California and other milder parts of the country.  I recently returned from my 21st annual trip to the Pacific Flyway in the California Sacramento Valley.  It was such a spectacular site that I present it to you this week in a three-part series. 


Millions of ducks and geese winter here.  They come all the way from Alaska, Canada, even Siberia.  Other travelers include sandhill cranes and tundra swans; and they join raptors, egrets, herons, shorebirds, songbirds, and many other birds too.  The avian winter visitors prefer the wet, marshy flat lands and mild weather for feeding, and they stay here usually from October through February. Once the harshest part of their winter is over, they fly back north to breed and raise their young.


There are four general patterns of bird migration pathways or flyways in the United States.  In California we have the far western pathway called the Pacific Flyway.  It extends from the Arctic Circle down the western coasts of the U.S., Central America, and South America. 


Even though I have been going up here every winter for 21 years, there has never been a dull moment.  The migration is different every year depending on weather, bird populations, and habitat.  This year California has a drought, so I didn’t know if there was water or birds.  We called ahead and spoke to one of the rangers, who assured us there were still plenty of birds.  All she had to say was “there are a thousand cranes” and our bags were packed.  Fortunately rains came in the past few weeks to relieve the drought conditions, and even though there is still low accumulation of rainfall, there was enough water in the rice fields and duck ponds to attract an impressive array of waterfowl. 


Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

Sandhill Cranes near Cosumnes River Preserve, CA

In the Sacramento Valley there are two major areas.  Each year I go to one or the other, and sometimes both. 

  1. The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge Complex has six major refuges:  Sacramento NWR, Delevan, Colusa, Sutter, Butte, and Sacramento River;
  2. San Joaquin County has Cosumnes River Preserve, Woodbridge Ecological Reserve and many bird-rich back roads.  


I like the Sacramento Complex for the insane numbers of geese.  Also, if I have loved ones along who are not super mobile or the weather is non-stop stormy, the auto tours are a good choice.  I also like the San Joaquin County area, especially for the sandhill crane populations.  This year I went to San Joaquin County where the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers create a delta wetland.


Geese flying, San Joaquin County, CA

Geese flying, San Joaquin County, CA

The Pacific Flyway is awesome for witnessing the colossal flocks of these birds.  They rise up off the pond in an undulating wave, honking and squawking with deafening power.  There are over 300 species of migratory and resident birds and mammals here.


Wherever you live there is a bird migration, it is a natural phenomenon that has occurred throughout the ages.  But it is not to be taken for granted, especially these days when human population is booming, and wildlife and wilderness habitats are dwindling.  Passenger pigeons were once in enormous abundance (much like these geese are today) until they were extirpated a hundred years ago. 


If you live in the United States click here to look at the U.S. Flyway map, check out which corridor you are near and when the big migrations occur.  If you live outside of the U.S., click here for map and information.  Take some time to visit the refuges in your area.  We are so lucky to have these resources available to us; it is usually a minimal cost, there are often auto tours, and it makes for a great day of easy, wildlife appreciation for people of any age.


Tundra Swans

Tundra Swans

Tomorrow I will cover highlights of the Pacific Flyway with photos and a short essay on the ducks and geese we saw, the day following I will cover sandhill cranes.  I hope you like the series.