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

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No. American River Otter Range Map. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Five Minutes with a River Otter

River Otter walking

In January I went to a flooded agricultural field to observe ducks and cranes. At one point there was a curious underwater movement…unidentifiable. We waited, and watched. And a river otter popped out!

River otter swimming in field

 

 

We have been going to this field for three decades, have spent close to 50 hours observing wildlife on this one field. Every winter it is loaded with songbirds, ducks, cranes, raptors, waders, and more…but we have never seen an otter here.

Flooded field with ducks, January 2019. Compare this scene to the photo below from January 2014.

 

We have, however, seen the river otter hunting on a nearby river several times.

River otter with fish. December 2008

 

There are 13 species of otters on earth, and they are all aquatic in nature, feeding primarily on fish and invertebrates. In North America we have the river otter (our focus today) and the sea otter.

 

North American River Otter Wikipedia

 

They are swift in the water, but get around just fine on land too. And its not just rivers they like; they occupy streams, lakes, wetlands and apparently even flooded fields, if they’re wet enough.

 

Carnivorous, river otters not only hunt fish but also a variety of amphibians and invertebrates like frogs, salamanders, clams, mussels, snails, turtles, and crayfish.

 

They have many aquatic characteristics: long, streamlined bodies, short limbs, webbed feet, and more. They can also hold their breath a long time underwater.

 

Coveted for their thick, waterproof fur, both river and sea otters have been heavily hunted by humans for centuries. Their populations declined precipitously in the past, and some species are still in danger.

 

The North America river otter’s conservation status is currently “Least Concern.” Fortunately their population has recovered and can be found inhabiting much of North America. See range map below.

 

If you ever walk along a river and see smooth, narrow mud slides leading into the water, keep your eyes open for a river otter. With short legs and low to the ground, the sleek mammal effortlessly slips into the river.

 

Here is the same field in a drought year. Even with scant water it attracts a lot of migrating and resident winter birds.

Red-winged Blackbirds, Sandhill Cranes, Egrets. Same field, but in January 2014.

For five quiet minutes the otter glided underwater, then came out onto land. Next, the otter scratched its ear with its foot, like a dog. They do this to dry themselves, thereby keeping their fur more insulated. Walked a bit, returned to the water, paddled for awhile, then vanished.

River Otter scratching

Truly one of the day’s biggest thrills.

 

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander unless otherwise specified.

I decided I otter include other otters we have observed. These below are the two biggest otters in the world.

 

The sea otter (Enhydra lutris) also lives in North America. We saw this one in the Gulf of Alaska near Seward; and always see them in Monterey and the Bay Area, along the Northern California coast. Popular for photos, playful. They are listed as endangered.

Sea Otter, Alaska

The giant otter, also endangered, is found in South America. We watched three hunting together on an oxbow lake in Peru, not far from the Amazon River. A rare find.

Giant Otter, Peru. Photo by Bill Page.

Giant Otter, Peru. Photo by Bill Page.

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North American River Otter range map, red is river otter range. Courtesy Wikipedia.