Lessons from the River Otter

As I scrolled through the critter-cam run by Clear Lake State Park’s Interpretive Association with its abundance of mammals and avian species one morning, I watched as some playful River Otters frolicked in the creek which empties into Clear Lake. I told myself that I need to witness those critters in person, so-to-speak. I grabbed my camera and off I went. After being treated to the zen-like stillness of a Great blue heron as it awaited its breakfast, and the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t sighting of an ethereal deer I made my way to Kelsey Slough in Clear Lake State Park. I stood stock still and took in the ancient setting that was once predominantly settled by the Pomo people, called Xabenapo Pomo, or, now called the Big Valley Pomo. Their neighbors, the Lile’ek Wappo people made use of the lands east of Kelsey Creek, while the Southeastern Pomo people resided east of the Lile’ek. Here is where these hunter-gatherers gathered tule reeds in which to fish the waters under the predominant land feature of 4,200 foot Mount Konocti southwest of Clear Lake State Park.

I inhaled the scent of the rich riparian setting which always enlivens me with its vegetal and true terrestrial perfume. I did not wait long, when an ever-growing string of bubbles erupted from beneath the water, then, as if by magic a river otter poked its head above the water’s rim with a fish in its mouth! It sidled aboard a large branch protruding from the center of the water-way and gnawed on its catch. Next, it proceeded with its catch under the waters as I watched its bubble-trail once again, which led to the shore this time. The midmorning sun shone on its silky fur and dripped to the muddy shore, as it continued consuming its prey. Next, to my delight, a  Great blue heron that had been standing just ‘off stage’, began to slowly sidle up to the river otter as though to say, “Don’t mind me, I’ll just help myself to some of what you’re having!” But the river otter wanted no part of that scenario, and promptly took his now half-devoured fish back to the watery depths, choosing to dine on the privacy of the big branch.

River otters can be found on the shores and docks of our county’s many water ways. Wildlife biologists such as those at the Bay Area’s River otter ecology Project say that the playful-appearing creatures are returning to various wetland habitats in promising numbers throughout northern California. This community science organization is set up to collect, map and save otter sightings throughout North America. They are documenting sightings and encourage the public’s participation, much like the iNaturalist program where every observation can contribute to biodiversity science.

Like many wild animals, this semiaquatic mammal was hunted for sport and for its insulated, water-repelling fur, but since trapping was banned in the 1960s they have been slowly gaining in population. These animals consume about 12 percent of their body weight in foods per day, such as frogs, birds, crawdads fish and shellfish, and weigh in at an average of 20 pounds. Their long tails are one-third of their 26-42 inches-in-length size. Considered crafty, river otters fish, chase  and even ambush their prey. They may remain submerged for about four minutes at a time! Adept at marking their territory with urine, musk scent or scat, river otters use this scent-marking as a method of communication. They can hiss or growl to communicate displeasure at being disturbed, too.

As many creatures do, the otters den in spring in order to give birth to their kits. The den, or holt can be an unused home of another animal. The den is lined with leaves, moss or hair to protect the one to five pups or kits that the female otter produces. When born, the kits, already furry, weigh around five ounces but are born blind. The blindness abates at age one month when the little fur-balls begin to gain the sense of play so often seen in adults. Then, like mom and pop, they tumble, cavort and exhibit other playful behavior with their siblings. At around two months of age they are led to the water for the first time to display their natural swimming abilities.

Scientists tell us that being playful is a great method for promoting mental health and can trigger the release of endorphins, the human body’s very own feel-good chemicals. Playfulness aids in managing stress and can even boost creativity! You, too can thrive like a member of the Mustelid family. Lake County’s river otters have a lot to teach  humans with their spontaneous and amusing play!

Kathleen Scavone

Kathleen Scavone, MA., is a retired educator who has resided in beautiful Lake County for over 45 years. She freelances fiction, poetry, nature writing, curriculum ideas, and local history. She writes for The Press Democrat, Napa Valley Register, News From Native California, Green Prints, etc. She has published three books, a play and a poetry chapbook. The second edition of her locally set historical novella, People of the Water- a novella of the events leading to the Bloody Island Massacre of 1850 is available in local museums and stores, as well as on Amazon.com and IngramSpark in both paperback and e-book formats. She has written Anderson Marsh State Historic Park- A Walking History, Prehistory, Flora and Fauna tour of a California State Park, and Native Americans of Lake County. Kathleen is a photographer and potter. Her other interests include hiking, assisting on archaeology digs, travel, gardening and reading.

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