| | In late 2012, Drakes Estero in the very heart of the Point Reyes National Seashore became the 1st designated Marine Wilderness Area in the continental United States. Forty-years in the making and no easy feat to secure.
"Anyone reading the literature on otters will be struck by how little is known about them in the wild." 1st line of "Otters," a book by Daniel Allen.
Scouting out for otters along Drakes this morning we were entirely swept away by the beauty of this place and the richness of life that occurs here. Peregrine Falcon, and early morning tracks of an otter family, bobcat, coyote, raccoon, deer and elk along the inland bays. Black ravens perched high above the cliffs, and rafts of seabirds foraging in the near-shore, a Great-horned Owl hooting from the edge of the water (even though it was almost mid-day.) As we stripped off our shoes and socks to follow the track of 4 otters heading from a protected bay out to sea, we almost stumbled over 3 sleeping elephant seals . Sleeping so deeply as they soaked up the warm rays of sun, they didn't stir or even notice our presence.
It is out here along the Point Reyes National Seashore where the basic fact that River Otters regularly swim out to sea as they criss-cross from bay to bay, river to river, one watershed to another, is most evident. Their familiar paw tracks are often seen heading seaward before they wash out in the surf. And some hikers have even been fortunate enough to be on a beach as river otters spilled out of waves and cruised up the beach towards their freshwater habitats.
Our River Otter Ecology Project team (100% volunteer) continues to work hard to document otters along the Point Reyes National Seashore, something that has never been done before. In partnership with Seashore and GGNRA staff, our remote otter-cams are helping us clearly document the local family groups, including pups (especially since it is so rare to actually see otters in the wild). As we track along and document these animals we are also gathering data on their preferred habitats and how they make a living in these coastal ecosystems.
It's an exciting time to be a river otter ecologist. So many mysteries to untangle, so much to learn, and despite a never-ending (and growing) stream of work to get done we do get to work in some of the most beautiful places in the world - Drakes Estero and the Point Reyes National Seashore being clearly among those places.
It's with immense relief and gratitude that we recognize that the Estero will be forever protected. And otters and the myriad of wildlife here will find a refuge and make their homes in and along these waters for the foreseeable future to come.
Paola and Ken Bouley
Otter tracks along the high-tide line.
Otters mom and pup emerging from the sea. 2012.
A family of otters along Drakes documented on our Otter-Cam.
Drakes Estero & Drakes Bay. Photo: Robert Campbell.
Photo by Jason Parks
For the past 14 years I have lived in Martinez with direct access to Hidden Lakes Park. I have walked my dog many times there and around the lakes.
The lakes have always been full of life. Fish, birds, even a family of turtles were living there, but I have not seen them in quite some time.
About 12 years ago I thought I saw an otter swimming in the lake. But I was unsure what it was and never really saw any evidence of otters ever there. This week, on a whim, I took my camera along with my dog for a walk.
While walking around taking pictures of the little valleys, morning mist, the sun coming through the oak trees I heard splashing in the lake. I went down to the edge and finally saw out in the open water the elusive otter.
I have been hunting for him for all this time, and there he was out in the open swimming and having a great time. He just stopped and stared at me a few times while I tried to take as many pictures as I could to show my wife and kids what I had found.
Then I noticed him go over to the bank across from me and I saw his friend. Two otters are now living in the lake. What a discovery, for me at least. The two otters kept diving, swimming, and finally came up with a rather large fish, then decided to do have a private breakfast in the bushes out of sight.
Needless to say I was happy to get their pictures. River otters are common to Martinez and its vast network of creeks and streams. The otters likely came to Hidden Lakes up from Grayson Creek and Pacheco Slough according to the county GIS maps. In an article by Gary Bogue of the Contra Costa Times in January 2011 he states “Those river otters initially started out in the Sacramento (CA) River Delta, where there are LOTS of otters. They swam down the Sacramento River to where Pacheco Creek empties into the river at the base of the Benicia Bridge by Martinez, turned up Pacheco Creek and swam to where it turns into Walnut Creek. They continued on to where the creek branches into a multitude of little creeks that head off in all directions. These otters obviously followed the little creeks that eventually passed close by Lafayette Reservoir, where they crossed over to the reservoir. Otters have used the same technique to get to Heather Pond in Walnut Creek and Hidden Lakes in Martinez. A few beavers have also made that trip to the Walnut Creek area, where I know they cut down at least one little tree in the back yard of a very surprised homeowner. Clever creatures. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were otters in the reservoir in the 1950s. The river was there and the creeks were there, so the otters could have used them back then and probably even earlier. It should have been an easier trip back then because the area wasn’t nearly as urbanized as it is now.”
The residents of Hidden lakes are in for a treat if they ever get to see the otters swimming. Otters are more nocturnal in the summer months, but in fall and winter they are out more during the daylight early morning and evenings. Make sure to bring your binoculars or camera with a telephoto lens to see if you are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of them.
Photo by Jason Parks
First published in the Martinez Patch: http://martinez.patch.com/articles/otters-spotted-in-martinez-lake
Photo by Anthony Brewer
Sometime around 1.8 million years ago, Eurasian River Otters (Lutra lutra) crossed the Bering Land Bridge onto the North American continent. Analysis of molecular clustering suggests that North American River Otters (Lontra canadensis) evolved from Eurasian River Otters over time after that. From that natural introduction to a new continent, dispersal was quite thorough over time and the divergent species spread throughout North America.
From the first human-recorded history of what was to become Marin County, river otters were an evident part of all fresh-water and some estuarine, habitats. After Europeans began to “settle” the West, mammal trapping for pelts became a popular and profitable business and it is likely that River Otters and their cousins the Mink, steadily declined until both were extirpated by 1960. Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) had been extirpated by hunters from the Marin coast before 1900, and their populations have not recovered, nor have the Mink.
From 1960 to 1987 River Otters were totally missing in Marin as far as anyone knew. In May, 1987 I was stoked and elated to find three of these excellent creatures on middle Walker Creek about three miles southwest of the town of Tomales. Because the species is known to travel overland between watersheds, and are known to scoot through salt water, including the ocean, I have no doubt that these pioneers came from the nearby Russian River population that had been spared from complete annihilation.
River Otters have repopulated vigorously, and are now seen again in Marin ponds, creeks and bays and occasionally the ocean. It’s likely that the clean-up of waterways, banning of DDT, and protection of river otters from trapping in California as of 1962 were among the changes that helped river otters thrive again. Clean, unmolested pure fresh waterways and marshes as well as safe corridors to upland breeding habitat and excellent riparian (streamside) vegetation are as crucial to the success of River Otters as are the small aquatic animals they hunt and forage for food.
The four otters were in the water on Sunday when I arrived at he West end of Rodeo Lagoon. The bobcat frequently hides in the reeds and runs out on the beach to catch a gull at the West end of the lagoon, but was actually standing in a small clearing between the reeds North of the beach area. The bobcat was watching the otters swimming and eating those large headed, slow-swimming fish.
Suddenly one of the otters appeared to notice the bobcat and become quite interested. H/She climbed out of the water onto a small sandy area directly below the bobcat, who was about 6 feet from the edge of the water. They stood there looking at each other briefly and both started moving around and watching how the other responded. The otter jumped around sideways as did the bobcat, still watching each other, and they both seemed to retreat at the same time. The otter quickly returned to the water and the bobcat backed off to its left and with a somewhat surprised look, watched the otter return to the water and then ducked into the reeds.
I next saw the bobcat on the South side of the lagoon about 20 minutes, make an attempt at either a gull or a Snow egret right below where the trail starts up the hill. The bobcat was unsuccessful and got all wet. We saw it go back into the reeds and it was not seen again.
The otters appeared to clear out of the lagoon as they were not seen again that morning. I looked for them around the bridge at the East end of the lagoon in the the lake further East but did not see them.
In the days when the earth was new and there were no men but only animals the sun was far away in the sky. It was so far away that there was no summer. It was so far away that the trees and the grasses did not grow as they should.
He-Who-Made-the-Animals saw how it was that there was not enough sun to heat the earth, and so he fashioned a snare. The Sun did not see the snare in his path, walked into the snare and the snare held him fast. The sun was close to the earth. In fact, the snare held the sun so close to the earth that there was no night. Day after day the sun shone and the earth dried and the grasses withered. There was not enough food or water for the animals and they desperately called a council. “Sun,” the animals said, “You give too much heat to the earth.”
“Set me free from this snare” the Sun said, “and I will go away.”
“But if you go away, then there will not be enough heat.”
“Set me free,” the Sun said, “and I will come to the edge of the earth in the morning and in the evening; then at noon-time I will stand straight above the earth and warm it then.”
The animals sat around the council fire and they said, “Who is going to set the sun free?”
“I shall not do it,” Wildcat said. “Whoever sets the sun free must go so close to the sun that he will be burned to death.” Lynx said, “Whoever sets the sun free must chew the leather thong that holds him; the sun will burn him to death before he can do it.”
“I shall not do it,” said the deer, the wolf and the raccoon.
“I shall do it,” Otter said.
“How can you do it?” said the animals. “You are too small, your teeth are for fish, and your fur has already burned away.” None of the other animals liked the otter because he played too much. They did not think he was brave.
“Let him try,” Bear said. “He will burn to death, but we will not miss him. He is of no use to us. He looks silly now that his fur is gone.” The animals laughed.
Ignoring the taunts, the otter set off to the place in the sky above the earth where the sun was held by the snare. Otter took many days to get to the sun. The sun burned him. The sun was so bright; Otter had to close his eyes. When he reached the sun, Otter began to chew on the leather thong that held the sun. His skin was burning and blistering, his eyes were hot stones. But, Otter did not stop chewing. Suddenly he chewed through the leather. The animals saw the sun rise into the sky. The animals felt the cool winds begin to blow on the earth. Otter had freed the sun from the snare.
Time passed. Otter lay in the center of the council ring. There was no fur at all left on his body. His skin was burned and scorched and his flesh was falling off his bones. His teeth were only blackened stumps. He-Who-Made-the-Animals also stood in the center of the council ring. “Otter,” he said, “the animals will not forget what you
have done for them. I will see that they do not forget,” and he gave Otter new strong teeth, tireless muscles, keen eyesight, and a powerful tail to help him in his hunting and in his play. He did not have to give him bravery. But he gave him new fine fur that was like down on his skin, and a second coat of fur to guard the first so that he would not get cold in water or in winter. Then he gave him joy so that he would always be happy in his otter’s life, and Otter has so remained until this day.
Soaring Otters, Watercolor painting by Derek Robertson RSW SSA, with permission.
Studying river otters can sometimes easily be mistaken for hanging loose on the beach -as researchers we walk, climb, and sometimes just sit, watch and record along some of the most beautiful coastal areas on Earth. It was on one of those rare hot Central CA summer days (only a gentle westerly breeze in the air) that I wanted to be doing a bit of both work and relaxation. So I decided to visit one of our new study sites on the west shore of Point Reyes National Seashore. Straddled by a large dune system to one side, tall coastal cliffs to the other, and the pounding surf of the exposed west shore of Point Reyes this study site is tight - i.e. small, walkable in an hour or less. As a biologist you just appreciate it... it's one of the sites you can look out over from a nearby dune and get an eagle-eye's view of it all.
One of our new project member's and expert tracker, Scott Davidson, had recently put this spot "on the otter map" for us. Scott had scouted out the area and detected quite a bit of otter activity - tracks and scat. The most wonderful part of the discovery were the tracks leading from the inland lagoon straight out across the beach and into the Pacific Ocean. It turns out, the otters on what looks like a daily basis make this migration back and forth from the Pacific Ocean, upland into the freshwater wetland.
Otters emerge from the surf. Photo: PRNS.
Now it's not that we don't know river otters happily make part of their living in the marine environment - Northern Tomales Bay (one of our main study sites) is marine, although protected compared to the west shore open to the swell. And we've had reports of otters pouring out of the surf on Drakes Beach. Yet somehow, being able to follow in their footsteps from calm inland lagoon to the pounding Pacific Ocean surf is just pretty cool.
On almost any given day here, you can walk along the high-tide line and pick up tracks of otters that are moving back and forth, crisscrossing with the tracks of people, dogs, coyotes, raccoon, egrets, gulls and falcon. Some otter tracks lead to sea, others back to land in the hot sand dunes along the shore. Some otters move in groups, close together - maybe a mom and her two young? Others move solo.
The "nature of the track" shifts with the sands - from clear-cut paw prints in the saturated soils along the lagoon, to more subtle shifting tail swags and curves in the dry, hot sand between water and land.
I follow where the tracks lead on this particular day. And I have to laugh because as I am tracking into the dunes focused intensely on the precariously placed and shifted sands on the ground - some young children run right up in front of me paralleling the path of the otters straight up into the dunes and trampling any signs that might have been.
So I backtrack, head towards the sea, re-tracing their path. And it's at the edge - where the sand and land meets the raging sea and where their tracks disappear into the surf - that I decided to sit, watch, wait... maybe I could be one of the lucky few to see them actually spill out of a big wave and trot on up the beach. It was really unlikely, but couldn't resist trying.
As I sat there watching the pounding tide sweep up the beach, thoughts coursed through my head ... about otters and their recent recovery across the Bay Area, about their role as top aquatic predators and sentinel species, and how they interact with the diversity of other species that regularly occur here - both predator and prey. And, how the public perceives and responds to top predators (generally not too well).
At our study sites we often see remnants of birds on the shores, a wing here and clump of feathers there, obviously predated. And people are very quick to point to otters as the cause. But at each an every site we also see regular occurrences of bobcat, coyote, and raccoon, all effective predators in their own right. And then BOOM... as I sit there thinking of all this, right in front of me I watch a Peregrine Falcon strike and kill a Heermann's Gull on the beach ~150-ft from where I sit. A brilliant and powerful display of predation (+ a new species to add to the list). And a good reminder of how predator populations that have been so hard hit in the past (in the case of Peregrines due to DDT) can make a successful recovery.
Photo: Pup feeding on a sculpin alongside mom and sibling. By K. Bouley.
It's an exciting time for the River Otter Ecology Project team. We are not only leading the 1st-ever study in the Bay Area documenting the recovery and status of river otters, but we are also working to tease apart and understand the ecology of these charismatic carnivores- understand what sustains them and how they move across the landscapes we know so well - from residential neighborhoods along the shore of San Francisco Bay to the national parks that span the coast north of the Golden Gate.
One day I'll be lucky to see an otter or three tumble out of a roiling Pacific wave, I'm sure. For now I'm grateful for the resilience of life when given the chance and for the recovery of both Peregrines and otters, and also content to focus on the signs - subtle and not so subtle - that tell their story.
ED & Co-Founder
River Otter Ecology Project
When river otters re-appeared after a long absence in Muir Woods, we were so excited, but conflicted because we knew they preyed on salmon. We have endangered coho and threatened steelhead salmon in Redwood Creek in Muir Woods, at different life stages throughout the year. When the river otters show up, the rangers put out a call on our radios. It clears the buildings like an ice-cream truck rolling down a desert highway. The staff come running out to see. Both rangers and visitors follow like a gaggle of paparazzi as the river otters go up or down the creek.
On one particular day, I noticed a mama with two juveniles nosing in and out of root wads, large woody debris jams, deep pools; all of the likely places where salmon might be.
The juveniles were nose t0 nose with mama. She seemed to want to get away and have a meal. I realized that her behavior was actually teaching the juveniles how to hunt. What a formidable force the three of them were in the water! What will happen to the coho that are on the brink of extinction?
When they crossed under Bridge Number Two, and I stood to watch the cloud of silt they stirred up in their passing, I saw salmon of various sizes come out in their wake. The fingerlings feasted on the margins of a silt cloud that was fast collapsing. They rounded up the benthic macro invertebrates that tend to be on the bottom. As we know, the majestic salmon are not bottom feeders. Isn't that the way with nature? With one exception, predators don't get all the prey. In all of nature, we humans are that one exception.
Join us on Muir Beach, where Redwood Creek meets the ocean, for the traditional salmon blessing by the Coast Miwoks, and share stories and poetry of the glorious things of nature. Welcome Back Salmon, Nov. 11, 1-3PM. and/or join the Redwood Creek Restoration at Muir Beach stewardship team for weeding and planting on the floodplain, Nov. 11, 9:30-Noon. Email, email@example.com.
From ROEP: Thank you, Lou, for your beautiful illustration of the river otters' place in the long, flowing life of the river! We will be there with you to welcome back the Salmon in November and to share in the joyous homecoming of the gorgeous and priceless Salmon people who return from the sea bringing life and sustenance to the land.
Why is it that I love watching wildlife even more from a kayak than from the ground? Usually, it’s more difficult; the boat rocks and swings around every time I get a bird in my binoculars. The paddle can be problematical. The bird book is always in the dry bag behind my seat, and the “creatures of the bay” book is still at home. So many fascinating creatures are below the water, and difficult to see without taking a swim myself. The kayak is so brightly orange it scares me, let alone the more discreet wildlife minding their own business in the Bay. It’s impossible to sketch in a kayak, (unless you’re Jack Laws, who can most likely draw a perfectly-proportioned flock of mixed birds from a kayak in a tsunami). A lot of volition disappears when you’re on the water.
Paddling out to stalk the elusive Tomales Bay river otters that morning had been an exciting, beautiful, exhausting trial. We missed the ideal time to paddle through the boating channel with the wind and tide helping push us along, and had both against us on the way out to the scout site. We thought to keep in the lee of the point as long as possible, then paddle our heads off across the channel, only working especially hard for the last quarter mile.
We fly. Some call us cute. Photo: eos.org
But then at the eelgrass beds near Walker Creek, we saw some interesting shapes arising in pairs of rounded-off shark fins, and had to investigate. YES! It was Tomales Bay’s own bat rays (Myliobatis californica), feeding in a herd in the eelgrass beds, maybe 20 or 30 strong. Oh joy! Since the tide was way down, and the bay is quite shallow there, the rays’ “wings” emerged from the water as they raised them, and slipped back under as they propelled themselves through their orchard. The wings are actually pectoral fins, and they look like shark fins because rays are reasonably closely related to sharks. They use those fins for self-propulsion, and also to move the sand underneath them and unearth delicious crustaceans. They crush the crustaceans with their plate-like teeth, and spit out the shells.
Weird, hexagonal teeth. Photo: eol.org
Bat rays give birth to anywhere from 2 to 10 live pups, each one with its own little stinging barb, covered in a sheath and soft at birth. Mama ray says, “Thank you sea goddess!” Those little barbs harden up within a few days to help them defend themselves. I love rays because of the way they glide through the water, their weird flat, rubbery bodies, and their cute faces. Yes I said it. Cute!
In succumbing to the charm of ray wings above the surface, we tarried too long in the eelgrass beds. It’s easy to tarry in the eelgrass beds, even without the bat rays. Coming out of the lee of the point and beginning to cross the channel toward the beach, we got hit by wind and incoming tide at the same time. After I’d struggled mightily for too long to tack across the channel, making little progress, I elected to pull out on a more southerly beach It seemed a good place to seek otter tracks.
Scouting for otters has a lot to recommend it. First, there isn’t a 100% chance of seeing them. I’d say quite a bit less than that unless you know exactly where they are and have been watching them for a while. I proffer that unlikelihood as a gift, because in the search, you find so much else that you might get sidetracked for hours or days. Case in point, the bat rays. Back to the otter scout; I saw a small creek, a trickle, really, running down from a little arroyo. I landed, clambered out and investigated. Lovely, with a wildlife trail leading uphill and perfect for tracks, except that there were many, including scuffs, and none distinguishable for certain as otter tracks.
Sea star, high and dry. Photo: Megan Isadore
On the next beach up, the one the husband was presumably landing on at that very moment, I had seen bobcat, coyote and otter tracks before. I always hope for mountain lion tracks on Pierce Point, but haven’t seen any yet. Though, being a novice tracker, I might trip over a mountain lion track and not know it. One lives, watches, listens and learns. Another positive about scouting for anything…..watch, listen, go further, photograph, take notes, go further, take notes, ask questions, learn! You get to indulge your inner 10-year-old. This is good.
Is that little dot a curious otter? Yep! Photo: Megan Isadore
What is not good is climbing up a wildlife path (picture a damp tunnel lined with poison oak and nettles, as well as other, more salubrious, plants), that’s so overgrown with willow and other shrubs that crawling would be essential. So I simply peered into the dim tunnel and marked the spot on my GPS. Then I began searching the rocks around the beach for otter scat, or spraints. Otters often use prominent rocks as latrine sites.
Otter "jelly." Photo: Paola Bouley
When we find a latrine, we mark the point with our GPS, photograph it and add it to our records. In another post, once the otter research has progressed, I’ll relate more about it. Indeed I did find some otter scat….we spend quite a bit of time ascertaining whether scat is otter or raccoon, as there are otter and raccoon tracks all over the place, both have latrine sites on rocks, and both have similar diets along the bay: lots of crustaceans. Otters leave a distinctive jelly at times, which is a huge help in identifying, as raccoons never leave the jelly. A steady fish diet, which otters often have, means a specific kind of scat, like the dark, oily one on top in the photo (seen with older, bleached out scat). No matter what, it’s a learning curve. We photograph, take notes, watch and learn.
Dark, fresher scat with older bleached scat. Photo: Megan Isadore
Pellies, suspended. Photo: Megan Isadore
Then, the reward….once we’ve had our big paddle, our photos, our notes, our scats and tracks and signs, our struggles to get to where we’re going, our snacks are eaten, we have water left in our bottles and maybe a just a few squares of chocolate left……work done, we head home. That’s the best time of all.
The tide’s coming in, sweeping us southward down the Bay toward Marshall. The wind has quieted down, and when it does blow, it works with the tide. The water level is nice and high, so we don’t have to take long detours around mud flats. That’s when the whole of nature conspires to convince me that I am the luckiest person on earth. No need to paddle much, no rush at all, I lie back in my kayak and let the waves nudge and shove me along. I close my eyes and bask in warm sunlight. I stick my feet out on top of the kayak. I piddle around, not really doing anything. There are five osprey hunting above, a raft of pellies fishing and floating around the oyster racks and landing on one of the wooden rafts. A whole flock of cormorants bobs and dives in concert, chasing a school of fish.
Loitering. Photo: Megan Isadore
Harbor seals and their pups lie fatly on Hog Island, ignoring us. Gulls call, and loons. I watch for the immature bald eagles I’ve heard about out there, but I don’t see them. I don’t try that hard. An osprey flies above my head with a whole fat fish in its claws. I watch it as it moves up and inland, flying eastward and dipping into a copse of trees some way in from the shore. Surely it has chicks, or is bringing food to its mate. It’s a successful bird, and it flies straight and true.
There, suspended between earth and sky, between work and play, between doing and not-doing, there in the ocean where volition has less meaning, I find my place. So much of what we do as humans with our busy minds and busier hands, is relentlessly purposeful. Must we always be so relentless? I leave you with that question.
"The thing is - a landscape that suits beavers becomes one that suits otter so the two, while not friends, are almost inseparable."
Do you remember as a child that kid on the block that always went to your school, shopped with her mom at the same store, and hung around where you wanted to play but was never exactly a ‘friend’? Maybe she was too rude or too bossy or too uncool to actually play with, but she was never very far away. In fact, as you grew up you might or have gotten braces from the same dentist, worked in the same factory or married cousins from the same family. Regardless of your particular likes and dislikes, your fate seemed tangled up with hers: linked forever by circumstances that played a more essential role in both your developments than character.
This is the fate of the otter and the beaver.
Konrad Gesner Woodcutting: 1558
Yearling Beaver Grooming: Cheryl Reynolds Worth A Dam
As the founder of Worth A Dam and an early advocate for the famous Martinez Beavers, I ended up knowing a lot more about both species than I ever planned. This 16th century portrayal makes me laugh and conveys something of the attitudes both creatures have conjured over the centuries. Neighbors in every way but neighborly, beaver and otters couldn’t be much more different. Otters are thrill seeking opportunistic fish eaters that troll vast territories for their daily meal. Beavers are family oriented herbivores that stay in one place and sculpt the same landscape over and over again until it matches their needs.
The thing is - a landscape that suits beavers becomes one that suits otter so the two, while not friends, are almost inseparable.
This is true even though otter [carnivores] are considered a threat to very young beaver kits. While there is controversy among researchers as to whether otters actually predate beaver when they can get them, what I’ve seen from our local beavers seems to indicate that their furry minds at least are made up. Although their arrival is ignored most of the year, each May when otters that visit the beaver pond they are greeted with a series of very loud tail slaps until they saunter nonchantly away. I first saw this on an early visit to the beavers in 2007 when I discovered a very large otter sitting atop the beaver lodge. It was so early in the story that at the time I admittedly remember saying in confusion, ‘That’s not a beaver, right?”
The father beaver soon chased that otter away and sent the waters echoing with a total of nineteen memorable tail slaps! Since that time I have never observed more than one or two at a time and they seem most likely to occur in the spring. We know that otters like to rest and den in abandoned beaver lodges and on two separate occasions I saw eager otters try to enter the beaver lodge only to be roundly chased out by mom beaver or one of the yearlings.
Beaver kit chewing poplar: Cheryl Reynolds Worth A Dam
River otter on flow device: Lory & Ron Bruno Worth A Dam
One young otter in 2010 was renowned for using the pipe of the flow device as a kind of “waterslide” to climb through to the beaver pond. He could be heard noisily banging his way through the PVC and would emerge on the other side out of the filter, slip through the protective fencing and begin devouring available fish. I like to say that he eventually ate so many fish that he stopped fitting IN the pipe and had to cross over the dam like everyone else. Whatever the reason, he eventually stopped coming.
The fact remains: beaver dams create ideal conditions that improve fish population density and diversity. In fact, in Oregon and Washington beaver ponds on public lands are protected as essential fish habitat and NOAA has been active in promoting this. Not waiting for California to get on board otters are already drawn to our beaver ponds where they are sometimes unwelcome and mostly ignored. As an avid canoe-er, I am used to finding river otter along the Albion, Navarro or Russian rivers, but I never understood how urban their population could be until I started watching beavers. It has become a predictable surprise to be looking downstream for the familiar “V” of the low swimming beaver and see one or two heads pop up suddenly out of the water as if they were standing on ladders below its surface. Otter visitors! Enjoyed around town for a couple hours or a couple days before leaving as suddenly as they arrived.
Watching the neighborhood activity never fails to make me smile. Surely, as different as the two species are, they both need the same things - habitat and clean water. When one is harmed the other will suffer, and nothing we can do to protect the first will hurt the second! This summer’s Beaver Festival will celebrate the role of beavers and creeks with a fitting display from the River Otter Ecology Project. Otter peeps should join us on August 4th from 11-4. I hope we will see you all there to learn your stories of these two remarkable species!
The 28 square miles of the Corte Madera Creek Watershed supports a large variety of aquatic and terrestrial animals, in addition to the renowned—but much reduced— salmonid populations of our creek. The following is a brief snapshot into the lives of one of our wild neighbors, whose family has been here for many generations, along with, and before ours.
They are the playful and elusive northern river otters, feeding on the fish of the creek. The presence of otters offers a sense of the influence of the wild areas, primarily along the ridges of the valley, which contribute to the healthy watershed so vital to a healthy creek.
Walking slowly upstream in waders, conducting a survey for spawning salmon in a nearby watershed, suddenly we felt a quick underwater bump and brush along our waders. We turned just in time to see the tell-tale sleek brown body of the river otter dive back under the water. There was a local family of otters nearby, and they were just thrilled to have the easily obtained feast that the salmon that have completed spawning provide, and right at the start of the winter months.
Otters are very playful animals, a trait rare in adult wild animals. This species wrestles even as adults, and have been known to make slides down slick river banks and treat themselves to this homemade amusement park. Sliding is also used as an efficient means of travel across grassy slopes or ice. Other forms of play include chasing their tails, playing with captured prey. An otter in San Anselmo Creek was seen rolling energetically in moss before returning to the water and playing with a plastic plant pot.
Their young, called “kits”, are born between February and April. They start playing by the time they are about five weeks old. Although they wean at about 12 weeks, they stay with their mother, and she provides them solid food for almost a year. They are a very social species, and the basic social group is the mother and her young of that year. These basic family groups sometimes include “helpers” consisting of unrelated adults, yearlings, or juveniles. This extended social time provides precious opportunities to see the mother and her youngsters playing along the creek, possibly enjoying the salmonids and crayfish!