Fauna: Lontra canadensis

Lontra canadensis
North American river otter

River otters can thrive in a variety of environments – hot, cold, low lying, mountainous – including freshwater and coastal marine habitats, like rivers, lakes, marshes, swamps, and estuaries. They need a healthy environment with plentiful food sources, and they will quickly move to other environments if there is pollution in their area. Water quality issues and loss of aquatic or wetland habitats pose long-term threats to the overall health of river otter populations.

They are semi-aquatic animals, meaning they live in and near water, but are land mammals. Their soft, dense fur keeps them warm in the variations of their environment. They have tiny ears and nostrils which they will close up when going underwater to hunt and fish. Their webbed feet help them swim while their claws allow them to dig up food or pry open prey. In the Ogeechee River basin, their main prey is crayfish.

River otters make their dens in the burrows of other mammals or in natural hollows, such as under a fallen tree, or tucked into river banks. They build underwater entrances for their dens, which protect a nest that otters will line with leaves, grass, moss, bark, and hair. Otter families tend to respect the boundaries of other otter territories.

Mating pairs will give birth to one to six pups per year, usually in the spring. They need their mother until they are about three months old. River otters can live more than 20 years in captivity, but typically live about nine years in the wild. Males can reach 25 pounds and females average about 18 pounds when they are adults. Their tail is about a third of their length.

River otter. © Oregon Zoo / Photo by Shervin Hess

They can stay underwater for about eight minutes and typically hunt at night. They are known for being “playful” as they can often be seen diving and swimming in waterways. They are also noted for using tools, such as rocks, to open the shells of the bivalves.

Fauna: Perimyotis subflavus

Studio portrait of a tricolored bat, National Geographic Photo Ark

Tricolored bat
Perimyotis subflavus

Tricolored bats are very small, weighing about the same as a U.S. quarter, though its wingspan can reach up to 10 inches across. Their fur is a mix of black, brown, and light brown, giving them their name. The species used to be called Eastern pipistrelle, but a 2019 DNA test showed they in fact are not related to the Pipistrellus genus. The new genus, Perimyotis, indicates its similarities with the Myotis or mouse-eared bats.

Larisa Bishop-Boros – A healthy hibernating tri-colored bat (Perimyotis subflavus)

The first known specimen was collected in Georgia by John Eatton Le Conte, a naturalist and a captain in the United States Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. Among other locations, he was stationed in the Savannah harbor and at Ossabaw Sound. Le Conte’s tricolored bat specimen was studied and categorized by zoologist Frédéric Cuvier in 1832.

Tri-colored bat with visible WNS symptom, USFW, Darwin Brock

Males are solitary, while females can sometimes be found living in small colonies. They may take up residence in a cave but they are also found in trees, overhanging water. Scientists have also recently discovered colonies living in tree lichen (like Spanish moss), presumably because the lichen has natural anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and anti-insect properties. This is especially important as the tricolored bat is susceptible to the deadly white-nose syndrome, which has killed about 70% of the population since 2006.  Though numbers have stabilized, this bat remains on the Endangered Species List as “vulnerable and threatened.”

Art by Caroline Rose

Like most bats, this species hunts in early evening and at night, using echolocation to find its prey. It eats mainly insects like mosquitoes, moths, cicadas, and ants. It loves to hunt in areas near water, especially. It’s a very efficient hunter and is able to consume a quarter of its own weight within a half an hour.

Fauna: Acipenser brevirostrum


Shortnose sturgeon
Acipenser brevirostrum

The shortnose sturgeon is a hefty freshwater fish that can be nearly five feet long, weigh upwards of 60 pounds, and generally live about 30 years — some females have been known to live 70 years! Though they can be found feeding in saltwater environments, they live, and spawn, entirely in coastal, freshwater rivers, including the Ogeechee.. Because of this, their survival depends on two types of healthy ecosystems. Shortnose sturgeon are currently listed on the Endangered Species List.

Native Americans fishing, John White, 1530. Public domain.

Sometimes called a ‘living fossil,’ the shortnose sturgeon has been thriving in coastal areas for millions of years. There is evidence that the species has been fished by humans for at least 4,000 years. However, overfishing contributed to a swift decline in the late 1800s. According to NOAA, In 1890, more than 7 million pounds of sturgeon were caught in that year alone. In 1920, only 23,000 pounds of sturgeon were caught.

via NY Post

Their trademark ridged back is formed by bony plates called ‘scutes,’ giving them the appearance of armor. They lack teeth but have bony plates in their esophagus which serve to crush their food. They use their barbels — sort of like fish antennae — to find insects, crustaceans, and bivalves on the ocean floor or river bottom.

Art by Caroline Rose

Due to their low numbers, protecting their habitat and spawning ability is crucial to the species population. Sturgeon require free flowing, unobstructed rivers and streams in order to swim upstream and spawn. They also need healthy intertidal zones to feed and rest.

Fauna: Pandion haliaetus

Larry Stamm/Audubon Photography Awards

Western osprey
Pandion haliaetus

This large bird of prey can often be spotted in the Ogeechee watershed as they feed almost exclusively on live fish. They are adept hunters, diving in shallow waters and pulling up fish in their opposable talons. As a species they have adapted fairly well to living near human settlements. They often built sturdy nests on tall structures like telephone poles and channel markers, as well as trees overlooking waterways.

The nests are put together from sticks and other natural materials but can grow to be more than 10 feet wide over many years. Aside from breeding and nesting, ospreys are usually solitary birds. They hatch 1-4 fledglings each year and their numbers have stabilized since the ban on DDT which harmed their eggs.

Ospreys at Nest, by Jake Dingel, PGC

The birds seem to live about 15-20 years, and according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, they have been known to log more than 150,000 migratory miles in their lifetime. One can spot the osprey with its mostly white coloring, especially on the underneath side of their nearly 6-foot wingspan. They sport the well-known hooked beak look of a bird of prey.

Artwork by Caroline Rose

You can watch local osprey nests on Skidaway Island. The live cameras are operated by Skidaway Audubon and Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Watch baby ospreys grow up, leave the nest, and adults come home to roost, or choose clips of past highlights. 

Fauna: Strix varia

Photo by Tom Ingram/Audubon Photography Awards

Strix varia
Barred owl

The barred owl is one of the most prominent bird figures in the Southeastern United States. With a rather sedentary lifestyle, this bird hunts, fishes, and lives year-round in the Ogeechee River Basin. Often, an owl’s dwelling place can be found in a hollow tree trunk or in a previously abandoned nest but spotting the barred owl is a rarity. It boasts a brown and white speckled hide that blends perfectly into any mature forest. A birder is likely to hear its voice long before detecting its camouflage presence. 

Barred owls can weigh anywhere from 1 to 2.5 pounds, carried on a wingspan of up to 4 feet wide. Like many birds of prey, the owl has a muted flight presence that allows it to catch prey off guard. Breeding pairs generally mate for life, or at least for several consecutive years. They may lay 1-5 eggs per year, though 2 or 3 is most common. Juveniles will begin exploring outside of the nest at about 4 weeks old.

Photo by Janet Strozzo Anderson

The barred owl is responsible for finding its own dinner, made feasible by its ingenious features. The owl has extremely large eyes that capture as much light as possible, making dusk and nightfall into primary hunting hours. Its nocturnal nature is combined with keen ears, and prey is often unaware it is being stalked.

Choosing small rodents like mice and rabbits to frogs, snakes, or lizards, the barred owl is an opportunistic predator. Of course, its hunting skills are rivaled closely by fishing interests. As a native of the Ogeechee River Basin, it is known for gliding over the water and hooking fish with coveted grace.

Lauren Porter contributed to this post.