Monday, 28 May 2012

Otters in May

It's May already. I've been deep in the editing process for 'Otter Country', and hard at work on my next book, which is a secret as yet.. (More on that in later editions of Wild watching.) In between, I have failed to wean myself away from the otter-obsession. Surely any animal as elusive as the wild and slippery Lutra lutra, a species that proves such a challenge to watch in the wild, must invite a degree of fixation. And I know it isn't only me. Having just begun reading Hugh Warwick's wonderful new book 'The Beauty in the Beast', which features Hugh's meetings with many knowledgable and eccentric animal obsessives, I feel confident enough to say that it's not simply me that's been diagnosed with over-enthusiasm. There are others. Look at Hugh. He had a hedgehog tattoo. And it turns out that from the hidden folds and hills to the urban edgelands of our wonderful archipelago we are many in being addicted to the wild. There's a toad man, a fox man, a water vole woman, a bumblebee man, a dragonfly woman... 

When you start looking closely at any creature, be it toad, ant, dragonfly, vole or bat, unexpected things always come into focus. The curiosity deepens, the multi-faceted object of your love glitters with fascination and the animal becomes inseparable from its intricate landscape. I felt it coming over me in the woods on Dartmoor last week. As I walked upriver, the water babbling companionably beside me, I came into a clearing filled with green light. My eye was distracted from the otteriness of the moving water and I noticed that over the mosses and ferns the air was flitting everywhere with little copper-coloured wings. They gleamed and glimmered. They were graceful. They were completely wrapped-up in their own world. Some were feeding on nectar, some were simply basking, some were unabashedly mating. I stared at one, and then another. I had a suspicion, but couldn't identify them. Not coppers, nor gatekeepers. Not silver-washed fritillaries, no too small for that. What sort were they? As soon as I got home, I rushed to my butterfly tome - Patrick Barkham's brilliant 'Butterfly Isles' - and rifled through the pages. I re-read Patrick's description; the timing and behaviour he described confirmed it. The rare pearl-bordered fritillary.

A few days later I was back, stalking around with my camera: no butterflies. I snuck about peering under leaves and snooping around the tree trunks. Not a proboscis, underwing or antenna in sight. Where had they all gone? Where did they roost? Do butterflies roost? Did they last more than a day? The questions began to pile in, and I began to get that old feeling, that curiosity which can send us trampling all over if we're not careful. And then I thought, no, just leave it. Poor butterflies. And I let them be.

But on the way back, the sun came out. And suddenly there they were, just so:

If you look carefully, you can see patches of gold on its lower wings that dazzle with brightness.

Back to the main story. Earlier this month I visited my favourite otter-haunt on the west coast of Scotland and stayed with an old school friend William and his partner Cathy. They are lucky enough to live and work on a Highland croft, which also happens to be in a prime location for otters:

William and I took a day out in his sea-kayak. As we paddled along the coast, on the glittering sea loch you see above, we came upon a familiar bump and a slick tail moving busily in the water. It turned out to be two otters - a mother and cub who were so intent on feeding that they didn't seem to notice us. We were able to rest our paddles and drift closer. They were heading towards us on the tide and we sat in silence and watched as they arrived. The mother was busy teaching her cub how to dive and feed. I've seen it before, but was struck again at how close they stayed to one another at all times - often floating almost symbiotically side-by-side or face-to-face - to eat their catch on the buoyant salt-water. Finally the mother noticed us (the cub seemed oblivious, or at least did not seem to recognise us as any kind of threat) but instead of taking flight she bobbed nearer and nearer to the boat, sniffing and snuffling noisily in an attempt to work out what we were. Clearly she had never seen a kayak this close. She didn't seem to know what we could be as she spent a good few minutes swimming around us attempting to work it out. She seemed to be relying almost entirely on her sense of smell, possibly because she couldn't believe her eyes. It was hard to decide whether it was a mixture of curiosity and confusion, or whether she was being territorial, or whether her eyesight was simply so poor that she did not see us as human, let alone anything dangerous. The strange contours of the small craft with two people in it were evidently not something with which she was familiar. At one point she was inspecting us so confidently that I thought she may be angry; we were trespassing in her dining room after all. I began to feel nervous that she would touch the boat or become protective of her cub; you had to be there - it felt as if anything could happen. Finally, after a great deal of boisterous snuffling she seem to have read our scent sufficiently to cause her to disappear with a 'huff'. She left nothing but a fizz of silvery bubbles. I swear I felt her swim beneath the kayak. When she melted away, she left her cub very confused and calling after her in its familiar, high-pitched whistle.

The cub might have been eight months old; its call was high, and it was a little smaller than its mother but still had good swimming and diving skills. Otters have to learn quickly in the demanding watery environment of river and coast, but it still can take a year or even more for them to have sufficient skills to become independent.. William noticed that to an un-practised ear it was very hard to distinguish the otter cub's call from a bird-sound. Then I realised that even though he lives within spitting distance of these animals, and must have heard it before, Will hadn't identified their sound. This must be true for many people who hear an otter call; either they do not notice it at all or they put it down to a bird calling. Yet another highly successful otter subterfuge! 

Eventually we spied the two otters reunited on the shore; they slipped quietly out of the water, trotted over the rocks and sneaked around to a holt hidden in thick brush on the hillside. Perfect otter habitat - undisturbed and impenetrable to many other animals and certainly to people.

Otters can be quite predictable, so a couple of days later I returned at the same time of day to the same stretch of shore. I saw the two otters again, swimming in exactly the same place, and they came out of the water in exactly the same direction. Again they went the same way into their hidden holt.. This time however I was ready for them, and I managed to film the episode. Just as I thought my day was complete, a few minutes later I saw three more otters, making a total of five otters all on one stretch! I hastily pulled out my camera again, and caught these three on film too. Because they were on the same patch, I think these otters must have been related - I expect they were an older brood from the same mother, or perhaps an additional female/a sister, a cousin or a sister-in-law, with last year's cubs? I couldn't help wondering what this meant about the population density of otters in the area - was I just lucky or is it an area particularly rich in otters? Do they have smaller ranges in places where feeding is better? What was it about this area which was so good for the otters? So many tantalising questions left unanswered.

This was a big day for me - I managed to capture all five otters (very inexpertly) on film. Using the only equipment I had, a wide-angle lens camera which was wrong for the occasion, I was able to give a fairly good idea of the fleeting glimpses you usually see of wild otters, rather than the rather misleading close-ups that you can see sometimes on TV which show every whisker and nostril in their finest detail. I researched my book 'Otter Country' with just a pen and notebook, and never took a camera. Sometimes I simply relied on the sensations from my memory to write it all down later; photography is clearly not my medium. I found the camera got thoroughly in the way of the experience. But still, the mother and cub are there on film now, for all to see. For me perhaps the most interesting thing, apart from the noisy eating, is that it shows just how secretive and difficult to see they can be on land, and how their fur seems to take on the colour of the surroundings, and how it reflects the light, water and rocks almost as effectively as an invisibility cloak.

Watch the otter film full-screen on youtube:

The fine line between watching these animals and disturbing their privacy was weighing on my mind this day. I was conflicted by the fact that I'd been given a camera to film, and felt I had to use it, but only had a wide-angle lens which I didn't really know how to operate. I succeeded in locating my couple of otters, but set out over the rocks and quickly found myself totally encumbered by my equipment. Worse still, I  discovered that if you set out to film, rather than simply watch and observe, the whole experience is transformed, and in my case, the technology seriously got in the way. However, my skilled daughter has helped me to edit my attempt at film - not a brilliant first go - and it is edited now into something almost presentable. It fails to depict how close the otters allowed me to come to them. The lens I had, and the fact that the camera stopped working, miss the fact that at times the otters were almost at my feet. In one shot you see the otter come to peer at me from behind a big rock; it seems feisty and curious and far too busy eating to bother about escape or concealment. Not at all like the impossibly secretive otters I know at home in Devon. Having had a first go, I am determined make a better job of filming next time, and if I can, I'll record the feisty otters of Scoraig more closely.


  1. Splendid piece of writing. Makes me want to go otter spotting right now!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it. More soon!

    2. Lovely as ever to read your words, and to see these lovely creatures and places through your eyes. Looking forward to more!

  2. it is interesting how a kayak seems unthreatening to may animals. I have kayaked a lot in Pembrokeshire, often alongside seals, porpoises and dolphins - but never, frustratingly, with otters.

    1. Yes kayaks always a good bet! Otter numbers may not yet be sufficiently high on the Welsh coast for them to be a very visible presence, but since otters have been reported seen around river mouths in Wales and they are definitely there, I wonder whether is is a geographical difference in the behaviour of Scottish otters/more southern otters? Is there less feeding for them there than on the Scottish coast? Are they more confident in Scotland, or more shortsighted..? More ottery questions and food for thought!