drifting mists and silent paws

There is a lot to be said for autumn. Indeed, I told someone recently that I couln’t live a country without seasons, for all the problems that they sometimes bring. Weather is like music: if you only ever heard one note, it would get incredibly boring. The dance of the seasons as they drift into each other is part of what makes life interesting.

Mind you, standing in the freezing cold looking for something that isn’t there often takes the edge off it. I was standing on the edge of a lake just after dawn recently, looking for otters to film.  Although I am a writer and photographer at heart, I have been trying to prooduce a small series of wildlife films. It’s not a process that comes naturally to me, but there are times where still photography, at least, leaves something of the soul of the creature behind. So I ocasionally resort to video. You can see the films I make here: https://www.youtube.com/@stevedeeley

I’ve been working on a short film about the otter family that I’ve been following for several years now. But they occupy a large area of lakes and most of the time I’m trying to guess where they are. Frustratingly, you can’t see any of the lakes from any of the others, and I have many times spent a frustrating day looking for the otters over here when they were on show all day long over there. That’s the bit they don’t show you on wildlife documentaries.

Filming otters is also frustrating becuase they dive quickly and surface at a random point elsewhere. A diving otter will often leave a tell-tale trail of bubbles on the surface as it swims… but not always. They can swim long distances underwater, and when an otter surfaces, it often takes me a little time to find it again with the camera and focus on it, by which time the otter is usually diving again. As a result, I have a lot of footage of otter bottoms. I am definitely no Hamza Yassin.

But on this particular morning, the lack of otter was compensated for by the dawn. A thin layer of cold air was flowing over the lake. There is a long technical explanation for why it happens, involving dew point temperatures and saturated vapour pressures, but I really didn’t care about any of that as I watched shifting veils of mist, no more than 30cm high, drifting and curling and spinning across the surface of the lake, backlit by the rising sun. It was eerily silent, without even a bird call to be heard, and stunningly, utterly beautiful. And I had it all to myself.

mist on the lake
frustratingly hard to photograph, but that’s mist on the lake

But then it turned out that I wasn’t alone after all. Out on the lake was an otter, fishing. Normally, otters are all business when the weather is cold.  Although their fur is a superb insulator and one of the warmest in the animal kingdom, otters aren’t actually waterproof. Their fur has two layers: a downy inner layer, and a layer of long ‘guard hairs’ on top. Much like a thatched roof, it is this layer of long, overlapping hairs that keeps the water out whne they swim.  Otters are air-breathers, and if the waterproofing of the outer pelt breaks down, an otter can drown, so tyhey spend hours every day creafully grooming and piling their pely. Even so, when they are in the water on cold days, otters tend to get a shift on. They fish, catch, and then leave the water to eat as soon as they can. But in this case the lake water must have still been relatively warm, warmer than the surrounding air, because the otter was taking its time.

bitch otter
bitch otter

Otters are masters of the waters, swimming, drifing and diving with consummate ease. This otter, which was almost certainly the female bitch otter, was diving  repeatedly and eventually caught a large crayfish from the bottom of the lake. Small meals an otter will eat on the move, but  a large crayfish is normally eaten ashore, so I knew my session with the otter would be soon coming to an end. I watched as the otter reached an island in the lake.  Then I heard a slight rustle to my right.  It was probably the pair of squirrels I’d seen in the bushes seeking the year’s last hazelnuts, but I did a quick glance over my shoulder, then a double-take, and then I stopped breathing and my jaw sagged open.  It wasn’t a squirrel, but an otter, crossing the footpath barely twenty feet away from me. And it wasn’t alone, because the fat brown snake of an otter’s tail whipped into the lakeside vegetation in front of the otter I was watching. These were the kitts, both around a year old now and about ready to elave Mum and set off for lives of their own.  A faint splash, and I saw both two otters crossing the lake to the island their mother was on.

Otters have a superb sense of smell, so the kitts certainly knew I was there before they crossed the path. I know that these kitts didn’t recognise me as an ardent otter fan. I know that they didn’t choose to cross where they did knowing because I was no threat.   They were simply going from A to B, and I was not something they were bothered about. And that is absolutely how it should be. This kind of encounter is something we would all be able to have, if only we took better care of our wildlife.

I didn’t get any photos or video of the kitts as they crossed. I was so caught up in the sheer delight of my close encounter with the kitts that  I didn’t think to. And that is exactly how it should be, as well, because if I ever lose my awe of encounters like it, if I ever start to see the wildlife I meet as a commodity or ‘just another photograph’ or Facebook likes,  then I become as bad as those who nearly drove them to extinction just a few short decades ago.  So here, in the best tradition of TV programmes, is one I prepared earlier.  A photo of one the kitts, taken earlier in the year

curious otter kitt
curious otter kitt

It’s hard to tell individual otters apart, but if the bitch otter is the same one that has been raising kitts on these lakes for the last seven years, then she is likely to be reaching the end of her breeding years. Otters can breed at any time of the  year, but this bitch tends to do so at the top of the year. So with a bit of luck, I may be able to film young otter kitts next year, being taught to fish by their experienced mum. I do hope so, because that gives me a little bit longer to practice filming. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even get the front end for once.

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