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Otters: a breathtaking wildlife experience

Otters in West Cork
Unexpected encounter: two otters on the banks of a local stream in West Cork photographed with a mobile phone through binoculars — the only camera available

It was a day that I should have spent in the office working… but the forecast for the rest of the week was bad. This was the only weather window to get out around my local patch. Decision made I grabbed my binoculars and headed out.

You never really know what to expect when you leave the house in search of wildlife. That sense of anticipation is like a drug… it heightens the senses and means you’re more tuned in to things around you. If you keep your eyes and ears open you really never know what you might see.

A badger print in mud
A badger print — the hind foot superimposed over the forefoot.

Today turned into a bit of an impromptu mammal-fest. Things got off to a great start when I found a badger print on a muddy farm track. I know there are badgers around the patch, but it’s always great to see confirmation they are still here. Getting to see the animal itself is another matter. I still haven’t seen a badger on my local patch — something I’ll need to remedy over the coming year.

There were lots of fox signs around too — tracks, fur snagged on barbed wire, that distinctive musky fox aroma and of course that regular fox “calling card” — poo! This wasn’t unexpected: there are a lot of foxes around at the moment. We’re entering the breeding season, and males are abroad searching and competing for females. I spotted five the other night in one field, directly across from the house, illuminated by the remarkable Fenix PD35, a pint-sized powerhouse of a torch I’m currently testing.

So, plenty of foxes — and no shortage of fox food in the form of rabbits. Rabbit populations around here tend to fluctuate — building to ridiculous numbers, then crashing completely, before slowly building again. At the moment they’re on the rise, and there are lots of rabbits along all of the ditches and hedgerows, and plenty of rabbit signs… tracks, poo, burrows and signs of digging all over the place.

Traipsing across a wet field I flushed a group of snipe — there must have been around 30 of them hunkered down in this one soggy patch of pasture. They stayed completely hidden until I was almost on top of them. One broke and took flight, then another, and suddenly the grass in front of me erupted as the rest took to the air, calling noisily as they zig-zagged into the distance. They’re always lovely birds to see — and you don’t often get to see that many all at once.

Flooded quarry
This small flooded quarry on patch has lots of potential… but so far has under delivered on the wildlife front.

I made my way along the edge of the marsh and over to a small flooded quarry I only discovered last autumn. I’ve been checking it regularly since. — it has steep, ivy and shrub-strewn sides dropping to the water on three sides, and an overgrown, but more shallow approach to the water on the other — which means that while there’s no access for people, there is a way in for animals.

So far the only things I’ve seen here are kestrels, chough, the usual suspects on the small birds front (tits and warblers and the like), and mallard on the pool itself. I’m hoping it might attract a kingfisher at some point… assuming there are any fish in it of course… fingers crossed.

Leaving the quarry I made my way down to the road that follows a stream running out of a nearby lake. The stream fluctuates between shallow, fast-flowing rapids and deeper meandering sections. Following the road I kept one eye on the stream, the other on the scrub and pasture either side of the road for signs of life. A high pitched whistle caught my attention, then a dark arching back in the middle of the stream — an otter! Another back appeared… two otters!

I couldn’t believe my luck. I’ve seen signs of otters on the patch before — otter “slides” from the bank into the stream, the occasional sprainting site and otter tracks. Once I saw a large dog otter at a distance on the lake at dusk, but to see two close up in broad daylight like this was a rare treat. Luckily I was downwind, and they continued porpoising in mid stream completely oblivious to me.

Following the road I stayed with them as they made their way upstream, hunting as they went. Occasionally they would climb out onto the bank, then slide gracefully into the water again. One — the larger of the two — seemed to be taking the lead, the smaller following, calling to each other with that high-pitched, whistling call. From their behaviour I’m guessing this was an adult female and one of last season’s kits.

At one point the larger otter caught a fish — a medium-sized trout it looked like — and took it up onto the grassy bank. The smaller otter followed and noisily attempted to claim a share of the prize. They quarrelled noisily, then slipped back into the water to continue their leisurely journey.

It seemed like I was with them for ages. At times the road looped away from the stream, and I hurried ahead, worried I’d lose them while they were out of sight. I was always conscious the wind could carry my scent their way and spook them. But my luck held… they always re-appeared, making their way steadily upstream. At their closest they were no more than twenty feet away from me.

Had I brought the “proper” camera with me I’m sure I’d have captured some outstanding images. But on a walk around the patch I often choose to leave it at home — travelling light, enjoying watching the wildlife rather than worrying about the perfect shot. Today though I was kicking myself for leaving it behind. I had to make do with my mobile phone and my binoculars — a poor photographic substitute, but the best available. I snapped away and hoped for the best!

Eventually the mother otter caught sight of me, sounded the alarm and they disappeared under a small bridge and didn’t re-emerge. I waited for a few minutes, and then left them alone. I’d been with them long enough.

I was literally buzzing with excitement. The half-hour or so I spent with these remarkable creatures ranks as one of the most amazing wildlife encounters of my life.  That includes coming face-to-face with a wild male orangutan in a Bornean rainforest, watching killer whales off Vancouver island, and humpbacks just off the West Cork coast. It was an unforgettable wildlife moment… and it happened right on my doorstep.

That evening I spotted them again, up at the lake, this time sharing the experience with my 10-year-old daughter. They were further away, and the light was fading, but it was still a magical encounter. I’m hoping they’ll decide to stick around, and that I’ll be lucky enough to catch up with them again soon.

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