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.