Not long ago, but before Shelter in Place, I spotted three adult river otters swimming in a vineyard pond behind Ram’s Gate Winery at the south end of Sonoma Valley. I was on a late afternoon winter ramble on the walking trail behind the fancy tasting room above the wetlands of San Pablo Bay.
I’d never seen river otters around here. I first glimpsed them in the lower pond. Then all of a sudden there they were lope-trotting up the vineyard road from below to the upper pond where I was walking and bird watching. I froze and pinned my binoculars on them. Up and over the rim of the little reservoir and into the dark water they went, one, two three. The best otter sighting of my life!
River otters are making a big comeback in the Bay Area, surfacing in surprising spots like winery ponds, Sutro Baths in San Francisco, and Lake Merritt in Oakland. The River Otter Ecology Project tracks them here.
The slick-furred trio rolled and swam and foraged along the edge of the pond looking for fish, frogs, turtles, and even birds. An elegant snowy egret and a showy white heron fishing from shore were clearly not pleased and followed the otters at a safe distance. This was their feeding area, not the marauding otters!
Two women who probably had been wine tasting walked past, so I pointed out the otters. Their eyes lit up as they watched the critters swim and play until the cold got them moving along on this mid-winter day. I stared and smiled at the otters for as long as I could before heading back to my warm car.
Further up Highway 12 from Ram’s Gate, when we are not sheltering in place, you can walk short paths at several other wineries and look for otters, birds, and even a coyote wandering by. Viansa Winery long ago restored wetlands at the base of the knoll where it was originally built by Sam and Vicki Sebastiani (hence Vi-an(d)-Sa). Next door Jacuzzi Winery opens to the wetlands below where you can saunter out to view shorebirds and ducks in the reeds. Not far away Sonoma Creek makes its way to the Bay.
Places like Sonoma Valley—where agricultural lands are allowed to meld almost seamlessly into nature—provide critical habitat for otters and many other wild creatures. It can also offer us all a wild experience once you get just a little bit off the beaten track. Our team at Greenbelt Alliance is committed to protecting open space lands, giving our future generations the opportunity to explore and enjoy these special places too.
Photo: Victoria Alexander via Unsplash