In Tilden Park’s Jewel Lake: Spotting a rare river otter

The rarely spotted river otter was seen over this winter in Tilden Park’s Jewel Lake. Photo: Jen Joynt

By Elaine Miller Bond

Camera in hand, Jen Joynt goes out to Bay Area parks, “looking for excitement.”

On a day last winter she started from the Tilden Nature Area, just looking for what she could see. She hiked up Wildcat Peak, where she found and photographed a pair of coyotes. As she headed back, she happened to meet birdwatchers she knew from previous outings. And they turned her afternoon of picture-taking into a brush with Tilden history: they asked if she had seen the otter.

“Oh no, I hadn’t seen the otter!”

Joynt’s mind went to the Tilden otters from two years ago — four of them observed for about a week in 2009. Prior to that, river otters had last been sighted in Tilden, according to park records, during the 1940s.

By the time Joynt rushed down the trail to Jewel Lake, the rarely seen animal had slipped into the cattails for the night. Looking, now, for otter excitement, Joynt ventured out early the next morning — and waited. Finally, around 10:00am, the animal glided out into open water.

“It was chowing down on fish and crayfish like you wouldn’t believe,” said Ilana Peterson from the Tilden Nature Center. Photo: Jen Joynt

“The otter was a little bit curious,” she said. “Sometimes it would swim right by and pop its head up.”

Three groups of schoolchildren also visited Jewel Lake that morning. Yet, the otter kept swimming around the lake, hunting and taking occasional peeks at onlookers. Joynt went on to watch the otter several times over the winter, as it caught a bounty of fish and crayfish and even used small platforms in the lake as a dinner table for prey flopping in its jaws.

She headed to the lake many times in November and December 2011 and in January 2012, usually in the mornings or late afternoons.

Apart from some sightings in 2009, Jewel Lake hasn’t seen a river otter since the 1940s. Photo: Elaine Miller Bond

Despite the otter’s appetite, Jewel Lake remains healthy with fish, according to park naturalist Gail Broesder (also known as “Trail Gail”), who notes the rich birdlife still thriving there. Three otters, in fact, may have gone fishing in Tilden’s Jewel Lake and Lake Anza between November and January.

Otter sightings were also made miles away, on the other side of Wildcat Canyon, in Richmond’s Alvarado Park. Broesder believes that a small number of river otters are traversing the watershed, creek-by-creek — which is one more reason to leave streams unchannelized.

Photographer Jen Joynt uses a Nikon D7000 camera body with a Nikkor 80-400mm zoom lens

“Otters are such a pleasure to watch,” says Joynt. “They’re so smooth in the water.”

No-one knows for sure why these playful predators came and went from Tilden Park. And, whether otters have moved on for another year or two or sixty, it is fun to capture their spirit of curiosity and keep going out, looking for excitement.

For more wildlife photographs by Jen Joynt, visit her site The Owl and the Wildcat.

Elaine Miller Bond is the author of “Dream Affimals (Affirmations + Animals): Inspiration to Fulfill Your Wildest Dreams” (Sunstone Press, targeted for later this year), and photographer for the upcoming book, “The Utah Prairie Dog,” by Theodore Manno and John L. Hoogland (University of Utah Press, for 2013).

Berkeley owl family grows, more reports of dog swoops [04.02.12]
Up close with Berkeley’s wildlife at Tilden Regional Park [03.06.12]

Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out All the News.

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  • Only a few feet of Tilden Park are actually in Berkeley. The rest, including Jewel Lake, are in unincorporated Contra Costa County.

  • alina

    great story and stunning pictures. had no idea there were otters in tilden

  • Chris — thanks for reminding us of that. I’ve changed the headline accordingly.

  • John Holland

    I hope the little creature fairs better than Harriet from the Oakland Zoo!

  • RogerMr

    Another Berkeleyside exclusive, along with the Owl family! 

    It sometimes seems that it’s easier to cover in depth Berkeley’s animal life than its human activity…

  • Meliflaw

    I’ve not been getting up to Jewel Lake enough; I didn’t realize that otters had been seen there so recently. And I’ll send this story on to the grandboy, who is 5 years old and passionately fond of wildlife (and often more knowledgeable about it than I am).

    Thanks, Berkeleyside!

  • Jane Tierney

    Terrific story and photos. Thanks for making my day!

  • Awesome photos!

  • Misoneko

    I suppose if there is ‘Farms in Berkeley’, there can be Otter’s too! I love it!  Go Otter, Go Animal House… opps, wrong thing to say.

  • Spectacular pictures…I kind of dig the otter too, though I don’t share his appetite for raw crayfish.

  • Spectacular pictures…I kind of dig the otter too, though I don’t share his appetite for raw crayfish.

  • Heather_W_62

    How did the otters get there? And from where?  I am so intrigued.. have to get up there and see if I can see them! Thanks for reporting on this.

  • Maximillian

    found a family of river otters in tennessee valley a while back too.

  • Anonymous

    My 6 year old daughter asked me the same question tonight when I showed her this article and I was stumped too. I told her we should call the nature center tomorrow and see if they had an idea.

  • Juana Samore

    I love Tilden park and this story really brightened my day.  It is so neat to know that otters are around Tilden.  I saw them once at Ano Nuevo, off of Hwy 1, near Santa Cruz hanging out with the sea lions.