A Chance of Otter's 17th May 2019

At the back end of last year I heard about a small number of Otter's showing well and at a location local to me too. Being so local and a chance to see wild Otter’s it was worth checking out.

Visit One

I ventured out early one December morning, I probably can’t say early considering sunrise is around 8am in December, to find out if there was any potential for photographs. But I was also hoping to see my first wild Otter. Having seen enough on social media and knowing the area well I at least knew roughly the right area to search. I walked slowly around the lake, keeping back from the edge to not spook anything. For just over an hour I saw no Otter’s which isn’t unusual, wildlife is always a waiting game. I didn’t think I would see any Otter's as they should be quite elusive. It would be quite lucky to see one on the first visit. At best I was hoping to see a sighting of Otter, even if this was up the opposite end of the lake and far too far away for a photo. Having seen nothing on my walk around I decided to stop at an open area with a good view of majority of the lake rather than carry on walking around. To my surprise as I was standing there surveying the lake an Otter popped out of the reeds to the left of me! It couldn’t have been more than 10m from me.

For the next thirty minutes this Otter continued to fish right in front of me, sometimes only a few metres from me. It was an unbelievable experience. I never thought I would ever get this close to a wild Otter let alone see one fish right in front of me. One thing I noticed was that it was so comfortable in the presence of people. This created my first niggling doubt about its potential survival, Otter's just shouldn't be this comfortable in the presence of people! It fished in the shallow water chasing the fish back and forth. I followed the trail of bubbles rising to the surface trying to track an underwater Otter. It either ate what it caught whilst floating on the surface or brought it back to the reeds just metres away from me. This was turning out to be a very magical experience of my first wild Otter.

My favourite image I took on this first outing was this image below.

I walked away that first morning thinking I'm probably never going to ever get a better experience with a wild Otter ever again.

Visits Two & Three

As winter days are very short and having a job (sadly wildlife photography doesn't pay the bills) it meant the next chance to visit again would be the following weekend. I have to say the next two visits soon brought me back down to earth. I visited both Saturday and Sunday mornings, spending several hours standing waiting, watching an empty lake void of an Otter activity. That's wildlife for you, you can't just expect to turn up and the wildlife to be there displaying perfectly for you every time. It would be kind of boring if it did.

Visit Four

By this point it was getting close to Christmas. Christmas this year fell on weekdays, it meant there would potentially enable me to visit more often more days away from work plus close by could equal getting out for the odd extra Otter watch. Sadly this year was the first Christmas and New Year we weren't spending locally so I couldn’t make any extra trips. I was at least able to make two more trips before Christmas. Both trips turned out to be my most productive photography wise of the whole project.

We were waiting for about an hour before the Otter show started once again. The Otter would often swim around fishing then return to the reeds. It had this one spot it loved returning to, it was great watching it dive back in each time.

I never thought I could better the image of an Otter looking straight at me close to the bank that I took on my first visit. It turned out the Otter quite liked this location and was often very close to the bank, even looking up and staring back at people gazing at it. This time it decided to bring the fish it had just caught and gulp it down in front of me. That fish didn’t go down without a fight!

The Otter stayed out for around thirty minutes on this visit, the sun even came out for a short time illuminating the reeds and water in golden light.

Visit Five

Christmas Eve was the only day I was able to make a trip over the festive period. The weather definitely gave me an early Christmas present. It was one of those morning where the conditions were perfect, the rising sun backlighting the lake that had a thin layer of mist on top, and the Otter's had turned up too. The Otter had started to turned up regularly as if it had a watch. On each visit it had turned up around 40-60 minutes after sunrise. Some people actually started to turn up a little later hoping to get a few more minutes in bed. In between early Otter activity I was able to capture a Mute Swan gliding slowly over the calm surface. That was thing, whilst the Otter's had drawn me to this local location I was noticing there was an abundance of wildlife. The lake was home to Swans, Geese, Ducks, Coots, Black Headed Gulls, Cormorants and even a Kingfisher. It's surprising what we take for granted that's local to us in the search for wildlife images. Sometimes a common species in great light will provide a great image just as much as the more exotic species.

Whilst the light was present one of the Otter's did cross the lake further up. As it crossed the lake it was mobbed by a local Black Headed Gull that wasn’t happy by its presence.

The Otter's were out enjoying the weather too, for forty minutes they swam around fishing in front us. They didn't seem to be bothered by the crowd that had gathered either. On my first visits there were only a 2-4 photographers waiting around. As time went on it got busier as more found out via more posts and phots on social media. It wasn't just photographers coming along, dog walkers were stopping and families were bringing along children to see the Otter's too. The Otter's had become a local sensation, it was great to watch children being interested in nature but sadly that niggling doubt came back to the surface once again seeing the crowd increasing in size with each visit I made.

Visit Six

My sixth visit was in between Christmas and New Year. The weather was dull and Otter activity seemed to have dropped off. I was told by another photographer Boxing Day was quite busy, both on the Otter front and in the number of people waiting in the morning. There was one short three minute window on this visit to get a few images. Sadly the weather wasn't going to help on this visit.

Visits Seven, Eight, Nine & Ten

The last four visits passed quite uneventfully. A visit on New Year's day met a record crowd. I arrived early as usual at sunrise and meet with several photographers who had also been visiting regularly. As the morning went on more people joined us, at one point I counted fourteen people standing waiting for the Otters (the local coffee place didn’t seem to mind having some many people around). Whilst not all were photographers a large percentage were. New Years day become a no show on the Otter front so the crowd went home having not seen an Otter. The following weekend was another no show. The following day I waited for a very very brief visit by a very timid Otter. I suspect this Otter was a cub as it was quite small and timid. My last visit in mid January was once again a no show. Speaking to other regular visitors it would seem the mother and cubs had likely moved onto the main river sections as sightings of Otter's up and down the river had been reported. Sadly that was to be the end of what was an awesome month spent watching and photographing Otters in the wild. Something I never thought I would get a chance to do.

Talking Rubbish (and not just whilst standing around waiting)

One thing that I noticed is the amount of rubbish that's in our environment. On my first trip I noticed the remnants of a wire fence in the water. The wire fence was sticking in and out of the water, worryingly at a height that could potentially hurt the Otter's. Thankfully a few weeks ago I noticed the reeds have been removed along with the wire fence. A few trips later I noticed a block of polystyrene float amongst the reeds. Luckily it was close enough to the bank to fish it out and put it in a nearby bin. During one of my last trips I captured an image with the Otter with plastic wrapping cord around it's neck.

It was worrying to see the Otter with a piece of plastic wrapping cord around its neck. Thankfully the Otter seemed to dislodge this cord the next time it dived as it wasn't showing in later photos taken by other photographers. Unfortunately the wrapping cord couldn't be seen in the water. It's worryingly how easily rubbish can find it's way into our environment and the potential adverse effect it can have on wildlife. A great reason why you should pick up any rubbish you ever come across.

Waiting for the right time

It’s been six months since I first visited the Otter’s. I’ve held off posting images because it just didn't feel right. At the time there was a huge local interest on social media in these Otter's. There were already enough photographers posting images, I felt uneasy about posting even more and potentially adding to the growing interest. As time went on I found visiting difficult as on one hand it was fantastic to watch the Otter’s but there was a niggling feeling how huge crowds could affect the Otter’s. It was on the days when I was one of a crowd that I was asking myself should I be there? Usually I avoid ‘hotspots’ where I would be part of a crowd of photographers (it's one of the reasons I’ve never gone to places like Richmond Park or Thetford when Otters were there). It was a difficult feeling, I had learnt of the Otters by a social media post so couldn't say other's shouldn't be there posting images they took. It was becoming popular but there was a feeling it could negatively affect the Otter’s natural behaviour. This feeling is likely something other photographers have battled with at times too. The good thing was the Otter’s didnt seem to phased by people. I’m not sure if this was because the location was very public and were used to people being around and that meant they didn’t see humans as a threat. They seemed to disappear when they wanted to, and it was good to see people and photographers were generally giving them space and weren’t chasing them around the lake. It worries me when animals don’t see people as a threat as sadly people’s intentions aren’t the same. Social media can be a very useful tool, it can be a fantastic way to connect people with nature, but I feel we should consider its potential negative impact too. Posting images to social media is fine if you don’t give away very specific information such as location or timings on an open post, you dont know who is reading the post or what their intentions will be. As nature photographers we should consider the potential effect such open information could have if less ‘well intentioned’ people read the information we provide. I read one social media post that bought this point home. On a post someone said a catapult with metal ball bearings was needed as Otter’s have an adverse effect on fish and water fowl. This is of course true, Otters are predators and do prey on fish and water fowl. Sadly that’s nature, nature has a way to balance itself without human interference. I wouldn't say don’t tell others privately about the amazing experience that can be found but please don’t post very specific information on open social media platforms such as facebook. An animal’s welfare should always be our first priority, sadly we just don’t know how people will use the images and information we post.

Overall it was a fantastic month spent locally on a mini project. Normally I spend my photography time away from groups of other photographers. It made a nice change to get to know other local photographers who regularly visited too. Looking back over the ten visits I made I had three visits that were very good photographically. To be honest I saw Otter's on 50% of my visits. Those were higher returns than I was expecting and shows nothing can be taken for granted with wildlife photography. I’m happy with the images I took but still feel there is room for improvement. It feels like I didn’t make the most of the opportunity. I should have got lower to the water, there is just something that adds to an image but it’s difficult getting lower/ closer to water especially when in a crowd. Due to its public location I had limited myself to a 70-200 f4 as I hate carrying big lenses around in public places. I can’t stand the you must be a pro comments or the thought of being mugged. To get the close ups I did with only 200mm I was very lucky. Overall it was a fantastic experience, one I’m definitely not going to forget for a while.