Photographing otters

October 2009

I was on Dartmoor again, trying to get a photograph of a wild otter for my article about their return to every county in England.

Arriving at the River Dart about an hour before dusk, I plonked myself down on the riverbank opposite a substantial holt, recommended to me by local otter expert , Tim Cox, of “Dartmoor Otters and Butterflies” at Buckfastleigh in Devon.

The weather was sunny, and the river relatively low, so conditions were good. However, the bitch otter and her cubs had not been spotted on this stretch of the Dart for a couple of weeks, although a dog otter had been regularly sighted a few hundred yards downstream. He was coming down a stream which ran off the moor at the point where it joined the Dart near a large weir. He had been leaving plenty of spraint for the bitch otter, as if to say, “Hi! I am around if you would like to mate. Your holt or mine?”, or communication to that effect.

By the time it had grown dark, I had seen Dippers being completely dippy again. They are quite boisterous with one another, and I couldn’t stop grinning when two of them collided low over the water. One of them plopped onto the surface, regained its composure and then fluttered over to a stone looking a little dazed. It wasn’t long though before he was back in the scrum with his mates.

Long tailed tits were much in evidence, as were a couple of cormorants who roosted over night in a nearby tree.

I decided to pack up my camera after dark as photography was now no longer possible, but continued to ramble into my sound recorder. Just then, I saw an animal swimming downstream, its head poking out of the water. I estimated its length to be less than two feet. It dived under the water leaving a trail of fine bubbles which were reflected on the surface by the street lights above the road opposite, and then made its way over to my bank. I waited with baited breath, hoping that whatever it was would climb onto the bank so I could have a closer look, but that was the last I saw of it. Initially I got myself very excited at the possibility of having seen a young otter, but it dawned on me that this was more likely to have been a Mink, given its size.

Morning Mist-1

I slept in the comfort of a warm cottage that night, but returned to the misty chill of the river before dawn on the Saturday to continue my vigil.

There had been a lot of rain overnight, but the river showed no signs of rising as the light grew, revealing the holt opposite. Were the otters around?

Around 7.00 am however, the river started to rise. Within an hour it had risen 18 inches or so, and the water flooded the extensive network of hollows opposite. If the otters were there, they would still have enough space to remain hidden because of a raised gravel bank at the back of the holt. I changed my position on the river so I could get a good look through my binoculars towards the back of the holt with the low morning sun, but couldn’t see any signs of life.

Home Sweet Home-1

With the threat of further rain, I put up my hide and moved the few bits of kit I had into its shelter. The water continued to creep up the bank and white foam started to drift down the river as the water rose. The foam was then followed by groups of kayakers and canoeists.

The day flew by oddly enough, considering I was cooped up in my little shelter, but with so much going on across the river, I had a never-ending source of “entertainment”. At one point a kayaker rolled upside down and couldn’t right herself. She soon emerged from under her kayak, spluttering water and grabbed hold of a companion’s kayak who paddled her to shore, whilst another paddler shunted her abandoned boat onto the safety of the shore as well. After a few minutes she was back on the water – no damage done except a cold head and her pride dented a little.

Autumn Colours on The River Dart-1

Around lunchtime I left the shelter and headed down the river to pay a visit to Tim at the otter sanctuary to get the latest news. I found him mopping up after the previous night’s storm. He confirmed that the bitch and cubs hadn’t been seen for a while around the holt I was watching, and also pointed out that with the river now in flood, they would probably remain at a holt away from the river on drier ground. I was saddened to hear that the sanctuary’s only male Eurasian otter (lutra lutra), which is Britain’s native species, had died a couple weeks previously from a kidney disease. Tim is very close to the otters at the sanctuary, and the loss of the otter had clearly affected him. We went to see the deceased’s mate who was curled up asleep in her artificial couch (normally a bed of grass or reeds in the wild). Tim explained that she had been grieving since his death, and could remain relatively inactive for a few more weeks until her mood improved.

Meantime, they had contacted the other sanctuaries around the country letting them know of their loss, asking that they could be notified should a dog otter require a new home. They continue to wait for any news.

Tim with otters-1

The sanctuary closes to the public during the winter, and Tim told me that he would be based for much of this time at Bristol Zoo looking after the otters there until the sanctuary opened again in the spring.

Realising that my week-end was probably going to be otter-less, I returned to my hide to watch the shadows lengthen over the river. I have known from the start of this project that otter spotting is very much a hit or miss affair. So far, I have been missing.

I know that this stretch of the Dart hosts a healthy otter population. With Tim’s help, I know where the holts are and where the otters like to roam. I have seen their tracks and spraint, but so far I haven’t been in the right place at the right time. This makes me all the more determined to visit the river again just as soon as I can in December. I’ll make sure I pack some warm clothes.OR2X3176_edited-1