November 1, 2022

An Encounter with an Exceptional River Otter

Photos by the author.

A family of four river otters lounge partially submerged on the edge of a shoreline. The front river otter is all white, and the other three river otters are dark brown. In the background, is green vegetation.
The group of otters encountered by the author and her father. Front and center is the juvenile piebald otter staring into her lens. Directly behind the piebald is the mother of the three young otters surrounding her.

The call time for kayaking was 5 a.m.

“You have to be up before the sun if you want to see the cool stuff,” said my Dad. We got in at our usual launch spot and were aiming to get photos of the raccoons fishing in the creeks at the edge of a lake in Washington County.

Lately, my favorite way to start the day has been kayaking. The songs of the lake are a melody to my ears. I love hearing the hooting of a barred owl as I paddle out on the lake and squawking great blue herons as they rise from the trees to soar to new perching areas. Getting on the water early is an essential factor for my kayaking trips because I like to see the nocturnal animals before they head to their day-time retreats and the diurnal animals are just waking up. I got to the back of the lake and made my way into the next section of the creek where raccoons were scattered everywhere, finishing up fishing before going nest for the day. I snapped some photographs of the raccoons and made my way to a new area, completely unaware of what lied ahead.

Up ahead maybe 30 yards I saw a group of animals swimming. They were quick and dove down in the water. After a few moments being perplexed as to what I saw I came to realize my dad and I had just stumbled upon a group of river otters. The raft of otters swam across the creek and onto the banks where they stood together as a unit threatening us with hisses and growls. Standing in plain sight before us were four river otters. One of them was a piebald! The otters meant no harm by their vocalizations, they were just trying to deter us from coming any closer. I had not meant to get so close to the otters and they were not expecting to see me. I was overcome with a rush of emotions as these experiences with wildlife are what I live for. Seeing river otters is a treat in itself, but to get to witness a juvenile piebald also is something even more special.

A white river otter with dark spots on its head wades in a lake. In the background are fallen tree branches near the shoreline.

This encounter with the river otters was nothing short of remarkable. I have known river otters to be in this particular lake for a few years but have only caught mere glimpses of them. To see them flourishing and reproducing is such an honor. River otters are found in every county in Illinois, however, they are still a special sighting as they are most active at night. A healthy river otter population indicates a healthy environment all around. The recovery of river otter is a testament to modern wildlife management, improvements in water quality and a lot of hard work by biologists and landowners who made it happen.

What Does Piebald Mean?

Piebald is a genetic condition that causes an animal’s fur or skin to have dark pigmented patches on an unpigmented base layer of skin or fur. Many animals can have this coloration, including deer, squirrels, snakes and more. With a coloration that stands out in nature, piebald animals are at greater risk of predation. In my area, otters can be preyed upon by coyotes, bobcats and humans. Humans trap otters for their furs; some people trap otters if they take up residence in a privately owned pond, which requires applying for a special nuisance permit from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources if conducted outside of the normal trapping season. Otters can eat many fish in a private pond, but rarely consume them all, especially if adequate habitat is provided in the pond that allows fish to escape predators. Once the fishing is no longer as good for them, the otters will move on to the next pond, and continue moving until they find an adequate body of water that can support their food requirements.

More About River Otters

A brown river otter eats a fish  while partially submerged in water along the bank of a lake.
A river otter eating a fish along the bank of a lake.

These semiaquatic mustelids are primarily carnivorous, feeding on animals such as fish, crawdads, amphibians, turtles, etc. If you suspect a river otter to be present in an area, check the edges of nearby water sources for the fecal matter, or spraint, they leave behind. Spraint is often easily identifiable because the feces will contain large amounts of fish scales and/or crawdad exoskeleton pieces. River otters live for approximately eight years in the wild. Mature females will have litters of one to three pups. The pups will stay with their mother for around one year until she is ready to breed once more. Otters are social creatures and will often be found hanging out in groups playing.

Take it from me, the unexpected, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime, cool stuff of nature is incentive enough to respond to the 5 a.m. wake-up call.

Willow Simmons works as a veterinarian technician and in her free time she practices wildlife photography. Her photography primarily focuses on southern Illinois wildlife where she is based.

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Submit a question for the author

Question: Ever seen a solid black one (otter)? I have video of one. It’s not brown with wet hair that looks black. It is as black as black can be. Totally caught me off guard when I saw it.

I was caught off guard since it was a couple hundred yards from water (small creek). I run a lot of trail cameras and haven’t ever seen one here in this area. I’m in the woods a lot hunting and haven’t ever known of otters being in this area. I can’t find any reference anywhere to an otter being black in color.

Question: Good Morning Willow. I am a good friend of your grand dad, Buck, and live in NC. What lens did you use to get the beautiful otter photos? I am a retired Medical Photographer and used Nikon equipment all my life.