Skip to main content

First Encounter of the Otter Kind

By Ranger Danny 

Sunset over a serene reflecting river surrounded by lush vegetation and trees.
Sycamore Grove Park  at sunset  - Photo credit: Frances Barclay-Cotton

An Unexpected Visitor

It was late, and I was closing Sycamore Grove Park one summer evening. I had just finished locking up the Arroyo Road entrance and walked around under the bridges next to the creek to close the pedestrian gate on the side of Veterans Road.

Just when I went to close the gate, a rather large and fast creature about the size of a house cat came running out of the bushes right past my legs and jumped straight into the creek. I initially thought it was strange, but not uncommon, for a cat to sneak into the park from surrounding areas.

However, I found it strange that it jumped right into the creek.
That’s when it hit me!

Arroyo Del Valle Ecosystem

An otter in water with wet fur.
River Otter 

The Arroyo Del Valle is filled with all sorts of life: plants like Narrow-leaved Willows (Salix exigua) and Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica) spring up; small insects like Dragonflies and Mayflies dart about as the Sculpin and Western Pond Turtles glide through the water. But insects, fish, reptiles, and plants aren’t the only ones who utilize this creek as a habitat.

The North American River Otter also calls this creek home and actively uses it to hunt up and downstream.

The Playful Nature of Otters

You may see these playful creatures swimming up and down the creek or running across the street into the Wente Vineyards golf course pond. The otters are known for their fun-loving attitudes, often seen wrestling or playing chase. They are also curious creatures with near-sighted vision due to their aquatic habitat.

To see underwater while still protecting their eyeballs, river otters have a see-through membrane over their eyes, almost like a second pair of translucent eyelids. This is called a nictitating membrane. Because of this, they can appear extra playful, as they must come up close to kayakers and boaters to see what is happening.

Life at Sycamore Grove

At Sycamore Grove, there is plenty of playful space in the creek for them to chase each other and wrestle. There is also plenty of food for them! Otters are incredible and active hunters. Their primary food source is typically fish, but they eat crawdads, insects, small amphibians, and even small birds!

These fierce predators also take down prey larger than themselves, like brown pelicans or even sharks in our bays!

You never know when these critters will jump out to say hello. The last two times I saw them, I was walking on Creek Trail, and they swam beside me for a quarter of a mile. After that, I was with a group of school kids, teaching them about the creek and life in and around it. I explained to them that while we often only find insects and, maybe, some fish and frogs, we’d probably not see any otters when we are splashing around and disrupting their habitat.

Lo and behold, two otters jumped right up on a tree and on shore to see what we were doing! So next time you’re in the park, please spend time next to the creek—you might spy a friendly otter!

Editor’s Note

If you are lucky enough to see a river otter, you can report your sightings to the River Otter Ecology Project.

Their Otter Spotter community science program, which originated in the San Francisco Bay Area and has now expanded to anywhere in North America, informs scientists about the amazing recovery of these mischievous mustelids in the past couple of decades and the continued need for their conservation.