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.


Joys of the Pacific Flyway

American Wigeon, visiting from northern Canada & Alaska

American Wigeon, visiting from northern Canada & Alaska

Bird migration, one of the most fascinating natural phenomena we have on this earth, occurs all over the world.


Here in California and other western states, the Pacific Flyway, the migration route, has been loaded all winter with migratory birds.  Now, as winter  wanes, they are heading back to the northern climes to begin breeding.


Pacific Flyway mapOutside of North and South America, other routes exist:  east Atlantic, Mediterranean, Africa, Asia, and Australia.  For world migration map routes, click here.


Every winter for over 20 years I have visited migratory bird concentrations in the Pacific Flyway.  And every year it is a different party.


The migrations are all about the birds finding food; and many components contribute to migration success including weather, predators, stopover sites, etc.  More bird migration info here.


Sacramento Valley geese

Sacramento Valley geese

In long distance migration, the birds know when to start their journey based on change in daylight, lower temperatures, and changing food supply.


Migratory genetic predisposition and use of magnetic fields are something scientists are learning more about every year.


Snow geese, Sacramento Nat'l. Wildlife Refuge, CA

Snow geese, Sacramento Nat’l. Wildlife Refuge, CA

This year we saw thousands of snow geese, as we do every year; but we also saw hundreds of white-fronted geese, which hasn’t always been the case.



White-faced Ibis

There were several dozen different duck species, as always, but this year we were also treated to a large number of white-faced ibis.


Bird migrations are something that most of us are vaguely aware of in our home region.  I was born and raised on the Mississippi Flyway; decades later I’m in a different area, and still the migration continues.

Ibis flock, Sacramento NWR

Large Ibis flock, Sacramento NWR



But this marvel is not to be taken for granted.  As birds lose their habitat to the growing human population, the already-arduous migrations become more difficult.  Global warming has changed the weather, the major factor in bird migration; and many other factors have altered on our earth.


Green-winged Teal, male

Green-winged Teal, male

Take a look at one of the maps here, it’s possible you have a migration within your reach, and it’s possible you might be dazzled.  U.S. migratory maps here.



White-fronted geese, Pacific Flyway

What a thrill for us to be part of this living miracle–and a testament to the endless beauties of life on earth.


Photo credit:  Athena Alexander

Northern Pintail in Colusa Nat'l. Wildlife Refuge

Northern Pintail, Colusa Nat’l. WR, CA