Regular blog readers might be aware of my grumblings about my lack of luck with otters and with just one sighting all winter, at Minsmere, it hasn’t exactly been an otter bonanza for me - as per usual. Things were really looking up though when news of "the best otters you will ever see" began to emerge on internet forums, from birders who had been to enjoy a wintering black-bellied dipper (the continental subspecies of our dipper) on the river in Thetford in Norfolk and got more than they bargained for. You might have seen photos of them on the internet as they will probably be the most photographed otters ever.
Every man - and his dog
Within a week or two the full story emerged - basically otters were showing, literally, to every man and his dog, often in the town centre. Seeing some of the hundreds of photos on the internet really gave a clue as to just how well these animals were showing. I hoped this would really be the chance to "nail" otters once and for all and keep me happy (for a few months at least). Thanks to a helpful map from my colleague Ben, who works in the RSPB Wildlife Enquries team, and top gen from this ace photographer (check out his website - see below his otter pics below), I was confident of success and come a dull Saturday morning, and seeing the rain was holding off, I set off on the hour drive to Thetford with my wife-to-be, confident of success. Even Laura would be blown away by an otter sniffing her feet (yes, they have been doing this I was reliably informed).
One of the Thetford otters by Ben Andrew: www.benandrewphotography.co.uk/
Clutching Ben's map like a treasure map, we attempted to find the favoured stretches of the river where the otters could be seen. An hour later and no joy, I had that sinking feeling. Laura suggested we tried heading up towards the town centre and seeing a huddle of photographers, my pace quickened. Unfortunately, it soon became obvious that they weren't watching anything. So, we carried on and returned about 20 minutes later. It was then that I saw the famuilar figure of Ben in the gathering. Cue one of the most depressing conversations I've ever had:
Ben (incredulous): "You haven't just got here have you?!"
Me (embarrassed): "Er, no we've been here since 9 o' clock. Been checking out your other favoured area for sighings.
Ben (massive grin on his face): We’ve been here since 7 and had a couple of hours until about 9 o'clock watching them constantly, just there (points to a spot about three feet away in the river).
Me (queasy feeling in my stomach, fighting with building rage): “Wow...”. That’s...great...
Ben: “We last saw them swimming towards the holt and they’re probably going to be asleep now for a few hours.”
Laura reports that at that point, I wasn’t doing a very good job of hiding my annoyance. If only we'd left earlier from home and walked this way along the river. Anyway, we accepted Ben's offer of being taken upriver a hundred metres or so to see the holt. While staring at the big pile of logs where I imagined a smug otter, curled up laughing at me, a commotion back at the photographer gathering has us running back at the shout of “Otter!”.
After scampering back along the riverbank, I was not prepared for the sight of a huge, water-slick otter propped up against a thick willow trunk by the river, like a bear searching for honey. After an initial outburst at the remarkable sight, I calmed down and we spent the next 10 minutes or so being entertained by an otter that had no concern whatsoever for humans. It really was just a few feet away, either watching us from the water, or scurrying around the tree. As you can see from Ben's shots, there is no exaggeration at how close they show.
The feeling of relief when you think you have blown your chance to see something and it then appears is one of my favourites in the world of wildlife watching. An intense low transforms into elation in a split second. You know the feeling I’m sure. Anyway, the otter finally swam off leaving a buzzing crowd of photographers, wildlife watchers and residents of the town. Ben mentioned that it would be worth trying back at his other spot and not long after our arrival there, a similar performance ensued from an otter before I watched it swim past me and away up the river. Truly remarkable. A great day.
RSPB Members’ Weekend is always a great event in the calendar and once again, I was “on duty” at the 2013 extravaganza at University of York, attempting to make myself as useful as possible.
In case you have never been before, the weekend happens every April and is a packed three days of talks, presentations, stands, excursions and workshops – and more. It’s a great way to meet fellow RSPB members and to meet RSPB staff – like me! And I tell you something else, the food isn’t half bad either.
As usual, I led the early morning bird walk around the campus along with my loyal band of co-leaders. I’m always amazed at the enthusiasm shown by people getting up for a 6 o’ clock kick off. We always get around 100 people turning up, so I feel the pressure to dig out something of interest to reward their efforts.
Following three weeks of bitter north-east winds, and having just done an interview for the RSPB podcast about the lack of migrant birds up until mid April, I wasn’t sure we’d even get any migrant birds. I needn’t have worried though as the ornithological gods smiled on me with the wind switching to the south at last on the Friday.
In fact, I’d already had a stroke of luck while on “meet and greet” duty for delegates on the Friday afternoon, while helping people with their bags with my colleague and birding chum Richard Bashford when I spotted a male hen harrier migrating north over the campus. Fab!
Once I’d finished my duties, a walk to the new lakes on campus produced some real goodies with an Arctic tern accompanying a common tern, several jack snipes, green sandpiper, little ringed plovers and more.
The auditorium by Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
Anyway, the early morning walk did the business again and my stake outs from the day before paid off with most groups enjoying top views of treecreepers, siskins and redwings representing the winter visitors and a few chiffchaffs in on the migrant front.
I accompanied the excursion on the Saturday afternoon to RSPB Old Moor – a reserve I’d never been to before. There was some good birds to be seen here too with several bramblings, tree sparrows, Mediterranean and little gulls delighting my group.
Losing my grip
My other official duties were on the meet and greet front on auditorium duty for the evening presentations, which included a cracker from the lively Mike Dilger from the One Show. Swapping my outdoor gear for my bird walk duties for my eveing wear, including a brand new pair of leather shoes, I head over, practising my best welcoming smile whern suddenly, the world was turned upside down. They’d forgotten to put any grip on my new footwear and I was lying perilously close, on my back, the the hoardes of bird droppings from the various geese and ducks that frequent the campus.
With only 5 minutes to go before I was on duty, I hardly dare check for damage on my neatly pressed, pale blue, linen shirt, but it was the embarrassment of it all that was my first concern. Luckily, it was dark and I could only see three people in the vicinity. Hopefully, they’d keep quiet and save my blushes, was the consoling thought I had. Amazingly, there wasn’t a mark on me, so dusting off my pride, I scurried over to the auditorium.
There were some great talks at Members’ Weekend and it was nice to see bits of Mike Unwin’s turtle dove feature in the current issue of Birds being quoted and to hear from the Albatross Task Force (more on them next issue).
If you’ve never been to Members’ Weekend before, I really recommend you give it a go next year – from the chance of getting a good laugh at me falling on my backside to the chance to see some good birds (I saw 70- species round the campus this year - not abd at all...). Hopefully see you next year.
To be in with a chance of winning one of five RSPB nestboxes (as seen in Birds magazine Summer 2013, page 85) simply send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
Make sure your email has the subject line “nestboxcomp” and that your entry gets to us by 20 May 2013.
Terms and conditions
1 Entries must be received by 20 May 2013, irrespective of the date of sending. Proof of sending will not be deemed to be proof of delivery.
2 Any entry which is incomplete, illegible or late will be deemed invalid in the sole discretion of the RSPB.
3 This competition is open to UK residents only over the age of 18.
4 There is no cash alternative to the competition prize.
5 Prize winners will be drawn at random on 21 May 2013.
6 Winners will be notified within two weeks of the draw by e-mail.
7 Prizes will be delivered within 28 days of the closing date.
8 The winners' names will be published on the Birds magazine blog.
9 The editor’s decision on all matters affecting this draw is final and legally binding. No correspondence regarding the results of the draw will be entered into.
10 Any RSPB employee or anyone directly connected with the organisation or their immediate family will be ineligible to enter.
11 Any winner who has not responded to notification by e-mail within 21 days will forfeit their prize; a replacement winner will be selected from other entrants