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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Catching the rise

Trout rising to a mayfly. Copyright Philip Williams

It was a golden July day. I was five years old and kneeling on the banks of the River Test in Hampshire next to my father. My young and impressionable eyes surveyed my surroundings: blue sky above, greenery all around, the bank side willows trailed their slender branches in the river’s current, and through them paddled the water voles. I squeezed the buttercup heads between my thumb and finger, inhaled the scent of honeysuckle and mint blended with mown grass and damp earth. The dragon flies swooped, swans’ wings creaked like bellows as they flew low over head; moor hens peeped, coots honked, and I was speechless.

Next to the manicured river bank ran the perfectly clear river, transparent and revealing. Hidden behind a clump of thistles, I peered through my father’s magic fishing glasses, held on tight with elastic so they didn’t fall into the watery abyss below. Under the overhang of a juniper bush, I saw a creature. A dark backed and golden bellied fish with speckled spots and a swaying tail. This was a monster; a monster that rose up from the deep towards me. My body stiffened. Was I safe? Its head broke the surface of the water barely three feet from my face, jaws opening wide, as were my own, seemingly to gulp me down. My world stood still. I was transfixed… frozen. He disappeared in a reflective ring of crystal. Gone.

“See that?” my father said next to me. “He rose up and took a fly! He’s feeding!”.

He rose up again. Out came his head and shoulders, gulped down a fly, and then retreated back down into his lair. The ripple that trout sent across the pool washed through me too.

“I can’t see what he is eating” I complained.

“Just keep watching” my father assured me.

The trout continued to rise as the flies floated down. As this fish filled his stomach, I began to notice what indeed was filling it. The dark olives wafted across the river and were seized by other fish sending ripples towards my bank. From my ring side seat, I marvelled at this enchanting display.

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Later that day my father handed me his fishing rod as it arched and quivered, then thumped down, the rod tip piercing the surface of the water in my novice hands as a fish tried to strip line from the reel. That sensation set my heart pounding, and so it still does to this day. My father took a picture of me, proudly displaying the first fish I ever landed, a grayling weighing one and a half pounds. We killed it (they were considered vermin then). I am told we ate it.

Years later, I still kneel by that river, but I wear a different hat to the one I wore on that first day with my father. The years I have spent fly fishing for trout have taught me not just how to catch a fish, but also about how to catch the rise of that fish, as a photograph. More often than not, when I am by a river these days, my finger is not resting on the cork handle of my fly rod, ready to strike as a trout rises to my artificial fly. Instead I have my finger resting on the shutter release of my camera, ready to snap a picture at the precise moment when the trout rises to a natural fly.

I still love the satisfaction of persuading a beautifully marked wild trout or grayling to take my artificial fly. The challenge is there, but where my fishing companions will spend hours pursuing a seemingly stubborn fish with the aim of hooking it (and very often they do), I am more than happy to lay down my rod and reach for my camera instead.

The approach of a trout “photographer” is exactly the same as that of a trout fisherman. But whereas, when hooking a trout, you are rewarded with the physical sensation of the kick and struggle of the fish on the end of your line; when photographing that fish, your reward can, if the variables of photography all work in your favour, be that precise moment when the fly is taken by the fish, captured in a split second as an image, lasting forever.

Wielding a camera, long telephoto lens and tripod is slightly more cumbersome than a fly rod and landing net. One of the lenses I regularly use weighs over 12 pounds on its own… a fine salmon by my standards. Add to that the camera, tripod and head, and you’re humping around 25 pounds in weight of equipment, just waiting to be sucked into a bog or slipped into the river. You don’t want to hear the language sometimes!

Once the rising “star” has been spotted, I have to manoeuvre myself into a suitable position from which to take the photograph. Light, reflections and camera angles need to be considered, as does one’s sanity on occasions. I rarely admit it for fear of ridicule, but I DO enjoy dressing up in camouflage clothing. I suppose the kid in me still relishes the opportunity to crawl around in undergrowth. Sometimes lying flat on a river bank, right next to the water’s edge can get you soggy, but this is often the only way I will get the photograph I am after. Furthermore, you get to see some unusual things.

One afternoon I was lying flat on my stomach, set up to take pictures of a feeding trout, when something out of the corner of my eye diverted my attention. A leaf seemed to be swaying its way across the river, blown by the wind in my direction. Across it came, closer and closer to where I was lying. This leaf seemed to have its own source of wind power, as the afternoon was perfectly still. Then I realised that this leaf was not a leaf at all, but the head of a snake gliding towards the little gap in the bank where I was sprawled, burly camera lens pointing in completely the wrong direction. I wouldn’t have been able to take a photograph of the snake by the time I had realised what it was, as the camera wouldn’t have been able to focus on it. So, dear reader, you will simply have to trust me when I tell you that this snake, a grass snake, swam right up to the bank where I was lying, slithered its way out of the water and straight over my boots, across the bank and into the bull rushes!

So I find myself by my favourite stretch of the River Test in early October. The first leaves of autumn are letting go and starting their downstream migration, riding the current towards the sea. My camera and lens are on my back in a ruck sack, the tripod and head for the camera in one hand and the other hand steadying my binoculars as they sway from their strap around my neck. Polarized sunglasses are perched on my nose, and I am creeping my way up the river bank to where I have seen a fish rise. There it is again. And again. I carefully and quietly lay my kit down onto the bank and then continue to crawl slowly to just a few feet below where the fish is rising. Through the binoculars I can see the fish clearly.

It is a beautiful, golden bellied brownie, and a pleasure to watch as he enthusiastically glides around picking lacewings off the surface. His movements are purposeful but relaxed. Normally, if I was fishing for him, I would retreat downstream and put a fly over him. Instead, I spend a few minutes enjoying the scene before me, watching the trout take the flies, undisturbed, confident, and seemingly happy in his watery environment. There is no let up in his feeding as I crawl back to my camera bag. I set up the tripod and fix the camera and lens on top. I am in a kneeling position, high enough to get a good angle on the fish, but low enough to minimise the risk of spooking him.

Instead of rummaging through my fly box deciding which fly I am going to use, I make the necessary adjustments to my camera settings. Then, rather than cast my fly upstream of the fish and concentrate on its downward drift, I do my very best to keep a red dot in the centre of my lens trained on the fly as it flits across the surface close to where the trout is lying. A swirl. Strike! (I mean take a picture!). The trout seizes the fly but I’m too late and miss the take. I see another lacewing coming down and I begin tracking the insect as it glides down to where the fish is lying in wait. Again, the fish takes the fly and as I fire off a rapid burst of frames, “the trout photographer’s strike”, I know I have missed the initial rise and am left with the ensuing ripples from where the fish broke the surface. I missed him.

I decide to start firing off a series of frames in anticipation of the fish rising. I suppose this is the photographer’s equivalent of ensuring that there is no unnecessary slack in the line on the water. On this occasion through more luck than judgement, I manage to capture the moment as the fish rises up to the lacewing and pokes his head out as he takes it. I review the pictures using the small screen on the back of the camera, and hope that I may well have got a decent photo. However it won’t be until later when the images are viewed on a full-size monitor that I’ll know for sure whether the picture is a “keeper” or not. For the next hour and a half I photograph this dutiful fish as it feeds on these elegant flies and I’m grateful to this trout for putting on such a good show.

That evening, I scroll through the hundreds of photographs I have taken during the day. Out of over 1,000 pictures taken, perhaps two are usable. A good day! It is a reflection of the fine line between success and failure, like hooking the fish or plucking the fly out of its jaws. Perhaps it is also fair to say that I am on a learning curve, photographing these wonderful creatures in their watery world.

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Of one thing I am certain. My early bank side experiences made an impression on me as a child, and they have remained with me ever since as a fisherman, and now, also as a photographer. I have my father to thank for that. Oh, and some rather fine trout as well.