Where to See River Otters Around the Philadelphia Suburbs

Missed that Ridley Creek river otter selfie? You can still see the animal for yourself at these nearby spots.

In 1924, the first-ever radio broadcast was made from the White House, Walt Disney created his first cartoon, Vladimir Lenin died and the last river otter was spotted in the headwaters of Ridley Creek in Chester County, Pennsylvania…or so we thought.

When European colonists arrived in America in the 16th century, otters were common throughout the region, but fur trapping and habitat destruction slowly led to their demise. Eventually, the expansion of industrialization led to polluted local waters and seemingly sealed the fate of the North American river otter (Lontra canadensis) in Pennsylvania.

However, in early May, Willistown Conservation Trust released footage from one of its trail cams of a river otter in Ridley Creek. Thought to have been entirely extirpated from the watershed during the 20th century, the return of this friendly, albeit elusive, semiaquatic mammal represents an environmental revitalization in southwestern Pennsylvania.

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Social Media Sightings

The footage captured in December 2023 is purported to be the first sighting of a river otter in that area. Furthermore, it’s prompted others who have seen otters around the region in the past several years to come forth via social media. From Charlestown Township to Marsh Creek, White Clay, Tacony Creek, the Brandywine and more, dozens have reached out with otter sightings over the past several weeks.

In fact, both Gordon Natural Area and the Instagram account @trailcam_tuesday have captured footage of river otters south of West Chester and in West Grove near White Clay Creek, respectively.

 

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Trailcam Tuesday even posted a sighting months before Willistown Conservation Trust announced theirs and, while there was only one otter spotted in Ridley Creek, four were caught on camera near White Clay Creek.

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Spotting River Otters

If you missed the recent wild otter sightings, don’t fret, since both the Philadelphia Zoo and Norristown favorite Elmwood Park Zoo have otter habitats open to visitors every day of the week.

In fact, at Elmwood Park Zoo, you can book 30-minute encounters with otters Rocky, age 19, and Piper, age six.

“[Rocky’s] been here for a very long time and he’s rather laid-back at this point. Being as old as he is, we give him a lot of extra care. We have specialized ramps to help with his age and mobility. And then we have Piper, who is six years old [and] a very hyperactive young lady who loves greeting guests in their exhibit. She loves attention,” says Elmwood Park Zoo zookeeper Lexi Eging.

Rocky, age 19, takes a swim through his habitat at Elmwood Park Zoo.
Rocky, age 19, takes a swim through his habitat at Elmwood Park Zoo.

If you want to see river otters in the wild though, you’ll have to work a little harder than paying Elmwood’s $275 non-member, or $250 member, fee. Otters are most active at dawn and dusk, Eging explains, and they’re very elusive creatures.

“There’s a reason why people don’t see them very often,” Eging continues. “They’re very good at going in and out of the water unnoticed. They’re very quiet.”

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When otters are inactive, they spend most of their time hiding in dens by waterways out of sight. So, the best way to spot wild ones is often by trail cam.

The fact that people have seen them at all is a good sign. Otters are indicator species, so their presence implies that streams and rivers are clean. They won’t inhabit polluted or dirty waterways.

Overall, the recent river otter sightings are a sign that the ecosystems of southwestern Pennsylvania are healing. Given the handful of otter sightings in the past several years, we can assume that there are dozens, if not hundreds, more of these animals that have gone unseen. If the water is clean enough for otters, it will be clean enough for other elusive aquatic mammals like beavers, minks and muskrats. It’s a positive indication that the natural environment is on the up and up in Delaware Valley.

If you see an otter, whether via trail cam or in person, be sure to submit it to the Otter Spotter database, a community that catalogs otter sightings anywhere in North America.

Related: Elmwood Park Zoo Celebrates 100 Years in Norristown

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