Saturday, 15 February 2014

A passion for Otters: from Arizona to Shetland...






It never ceases to amaze me just how strong of a 'pulling power' Shetlands otters have and just how far people will travel to enjoy these magical mammals. This weeks guests Fiona and Jim are a classic example of this, having travelled from Arizona in the USA!  Fiona, like me is a self confessed otter addict and has been obsessed for many, many years. What was really exciting and fascinating about guiding them this week was learning of the similarities of Fiona's experience with watching 'her' North American River Otters, which she has studied so passionately.

It was a week that was about just watching and learning about otters behaviour and ecology, without the 'pressure' of photography, simply the Swarovski 10x42's round my neck and the scope over my shoulder, fantastic! It is always a pleasure and I am extremely fortunate to work with otters as I do but is is an even greater privilege when the company is so good!

What was also really exciting was that Fiona already knew so much about otters in Shetland, having read everything available on them by Hans Krukk and so had looked forward to and enjoying the whole Shetland experience of otters and was far from disappointed. We had an outstanding few days and in total saw 29 otters, each day visiting new sites around Shetland taking in as much as we could in four days of the diversity of habitats and locations they thrive in here. It has to be said however and as anyone with otter experience will know, this is a good number. Specifically targeting this week for the tides and Feb/March also helped make sure we had everything possible in our favour.

We enjoyed a fascinating variety of interesting behaviour and unique insights from watching a live monitor fed from camera in an artificial holt where a mother and cub slept, groomed and played; many hours of families foraging and at play; a courting couple and perhaps most exciting of all was on our last day- no fewer than ten otters! At the location we visited on that day we enjoyed not one but three families, two of which spent time together as the two mothers (each with two cubs) reassured themselves with the familiarity they clearly had with one and other. The above images were all taken on that day and the last image shows the two families settling down just a few feet apart, where we left them snuggling down to sleep. As it was their last day we decided it was a good idea for me to take my camera to hope for some photo's to take home with them and although it was raining when I took all these above, I'm so glad I took it, despite the weather!

For more information on watching otters in Shetland visit http://www.shetlandnature.net/otters/

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Shetland Otter using ruined barn holt: Bushnel trphy cam footage

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(note that blogger appears to compress a lot so best viewed as seen, not full screen)
I always find it fascinating and very rewarding working with otters throughout the year and although I am continually monitoring sites around Shetland and am watching Otters most, weeks of the year, it is often the information I get from folk that sometimes offers the most interesting behaviour. It is thanks to a very good friend of ours, Julie Thomson that I found out about this female using an old ruined barn as a holt, something that I have seen otters do many times and are well known to do. But Julie had seen it cross the road and head into a field on several times, each day in the same place coming and going.
After a bit of investigating I soon found where the otter was going by following her run and locating spraint. I set up the Bushnel (CCTV!), subtly tucked tight in along a dry stone wall and left it set for a fortnight and sure enough....

Next stake out is a friend of mines Hen house!

Shetland Otter family using bathing pool: Bushnel trphy cam footage

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(please note, plays better as seen here, not full screen. Blogger appears to compress quality quite a bit)
Fresh water plays a crucial role in coastal living otters survival as it is imperative the salt water is cleaned from their fur. This mother and two cubs are visiting this small freshwater pool on most days as is a dog otter. These cameras are fantastic way to be collecting data and monitoring sites which is extremely useful when working on several projects at various different sites. Particularly if I have an image in mind or behaviour I would like to photograph, I gather footage over a period of usually two to three weeks to confirm whether or not they are doing what I think they are doing and if the shot I am after is doable. Some fresh water pools for example I have set up cameras on pools that are clearly active, only to see its used only at night- the camera records the data which in turn saves time.

Often you can see where otter activity is very obvious and an area is being used frequently but the camera footage gathers the data while you are busy on other things. I also use them to monitor sites which I can not visit as frequently as I would like. Using so many sites and working on so many families using such kit plays an integral role in being able to keep up to date with many, many sites which is key to be able to offer guests on my tours and photo assignments. Apart from that all though they are also just great fun!

I use three trophy cam's- but two of them recently packed in so am shipping them back!

Two Shetland Otter families interact at 'lay up'- Bushnel trophy cam footage

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(note blogger seems compress quite a bit so best viewed as is instead of full screen)

This headland 'lay-up' was being used by several otters throughout most of the summer, including two families; a mum with a single cub and a mum with two. This footage shows the two families kind of surprising one and other as they all arrive to use the lay-up more or less at the same time. When more than one resident female share a stretch of shoreline they generally tend to be related and well acquainted with one another and when they meet, which they will invariably do, their interactions are quite sociable, often even affectionate but usually brief. It is often the case that in such situations that there might well be two or even more generations along a stretch of shoreline.

In this clip its not just the interaction between the two families that's interesting but you can also really hear their calls, mainly the cubs contact call but also various frustrated 'whickers' and 'whines', beautiful noises.

This footage was actually shown on BBC's Countryfile when I had them out doing a bit on otters in Shetland in the summer.

Bushnel trophy cam footage- dog otter at lay up in Summer

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A dog otter at a 'lay up' above along one of Shetlands inner shorelines. This lay up is used on a daily basis throughout the year and on many days by more multiple individuals. At the time I had the Bushnel set here there was two different dogs visiting it.
These 'lay ups' play quite an important part in an otters range and you will find many different examples from sea swept turf headlands, rocky and vegetated out crops, sphagnum moss on peat moor and so on. They will often spend many minutes here grooming, scent marking and often dozing off. Quite often you will see them do this after foraging, coming up on high tide before they return to a holt for example.

Monday, 3 February 2014

A January afternoon with mother and cubs

As many will know we are experiencing the worst winter here in Shetland for many, many years as is many parts of Britain. Not surprisingly this is the hardest time of the year on wildlife and Otters are no exception to this and are in many ways even more vulnerable to the wrath of winter than many other creatures, as storms unleash their fury on the Shetland shorelines. In spite of the persistent gales over the last few weeks however life simply must go on for otters.

Over the past few weeks I have been busy working on various projects and assignments on Otters here in Shetland and have also been enjoying some good encounters with guests on my Otter tours. Most recently last week were guests from Germany on a bespoke photo itinerary with me. At the weekend I am looking forward to guests arriving all the way from Arizona, USA!  

Here is a sequence from last week of a mother and her two cubs on one of the few days recently with winds bellow gale force!