Hungry river otters are popping up around the Bay Area in places where they haven’t been seen in a while. Several years ago, a kid on a guided hike at Muir Woods pointed to Redwood Creek and asked, “What kind of animal is that?” Education program manager Timothy Jordan was surprised to see the child pointing at two otters. River otters hadn’t been seen in Muir Woods for decades, but now they’re a regular summertime sight. “Usually when I see otters, they’re crunching on invasive crayfish,” says Jordan. “They’re making pretty good work of them. I don’t see the crayfish in the numbers that I used to.”
A few miles north of the mouth of Redwood Creek, staff and teachers-in-training at Slide Ranch were headed for the chicken coop a few years back when they heard the chickens sounding the alarm. Program manager Emily Cohen says that when they got to the coop they had to chase out a five-foot-long otter on the hunt. Otters still show up at Slide Ranch, but the coop has been fortified, so the chickens are safe.
In 2006 and 2007, river otters started taking out brown pelicans at Rodeo Lagoon in the Marin Headlands. National Park Service aquatic biologist Darren Fong says that surveys and tests of otter scat confirmed it. The otters still use the lagoon and a pond near the beach in Tennessee Valley, but pelicans don’t swim there anymore.
Farther inland, otters have been seen from Napa to Berkeley. In Jessica Sheppard’s 23 years with the East Bay Regional Park District, she had never seen an otter until she saw four in Tilden’s Jewel Lake in 2009. Since then, a couple of otters have shown up in the lake every winter, and this year a wildlife photographer got pictures of them eating rare Sacramento perch, a California species of special concern.
“Otters are cute,” says Sheppard, a resource analyst in the district’s stewardship department. “They are also formidable hunters not to be messed with.”
It’s clear that otters are coming back, but it’s less clear where they have been and what their historic status was in the Bay Area. Enter the River Otter Ecology Project, which aims to answer such questions and get citizens involved in otter conservation. Since the group formed in February 2012, they’ve logged 90 citizen sightings on their online river otter spotter at riverotterecology.org.