There are moments in nature-watching when the world seems to contract around you. Your pulse raises, and your hands start to shake. Your vision sharpens, as you focus intently on what’s in front of you and lose awareness of everything else. And if that sounds a lot like falling in love, it’s because it is. I’ve been following a family of otters on some local lakes for several years now. We have this on-off love affair: sometimes when I turn up at the nature reserve they will be there, but often they won’t. Sometimes they will stay and play where I can see them, other times they will tease me, leaving only field signs like bent tunnels of grass or scratches on a muddy bank; or they’ll let me hear the reedy, high-pitched whistles the kitts make, but never show themselves clearly. It’s an unequal relationship, but I don’t care. That’s often the case when you love something, as parents and pet owners can attest.
Yesterday I turned up at the reserve, aware that the otters had been showing well over the last few days. I say ‘otters’ because we often see more than one . The reserve is the bitch otter’s home base, and she often raises her kitts here. She astonished me recently by being seen with two near-adult kitts, long after I thought she had lost her mate (see THIS POST ) and failed to breed this year. Earlier this week, the three otters that had been reported as reduced to two. That’s not necessarily bad news. Otter kitts stay with their mum for anything up to 15 months, by which time they are fully capable of living independently. Older kitts can separate from their mother for extended periods of time, and will eventually leave altogether. The absence of one kitt was a clear sign that the kitt’s lives with their mother were coming to and. Although they can breed at any time of the year, otters tend to mate at the turn of the year, and in just a few few weeks’ time, the bitch would be coming into season again. Any male kitt still lingering with his mother at that time would be at real risk of being killed, as a male otter will not tolerate another male in his territory, even his own sons. A dog otter killing his own kitts is rare, but not unheard of. There is no sentiment in otter’s lives.
otter bitch (behind) and male kitt (in front)
For me, watching wildlife often involves long hours of waiting. It’s not that bad. If you love nature in all its forms, there’s always something to see, as was the case with my wait for the otters. A passing kingfisher was a small electric blue missile skimming the water’s surface. End-of-season dragonflies coupled desperately while they still could: not one of them has more than a few weeks to live, and once certainly didn’t as the hobby, a migrant raptor about the size of a kestrel practically flew into my face as it grabbed one. But yesterday the waiting was eased by the small café built along the water’s edge. It’s not often I get to wait for wildlife with coffee and lemon drizzle cake.
Too many cups of coffee and several hours later, though, there was no sign of the otters, and I gave it up and went for a walk to ease my legs. A beautiful fox, dozing in a hollow of dry grass and warm sun, leapt away as I turned a corner and we both startled each other. A common lizard basked on a log, its skin taut as it started the process of shedding it, flexing its muscles to try and split the old, dry skin away from the pliable new skin underneath. After twenty minutes I turned around and started walking back to the café… and finally saw an otter. It was far away on the other side of the one of the other lakes, so distant that I could barely make it out even with binoculars. I returned to the café and announced” there’s an otter finishing up on the main lake”.
Nobody moved. Nobody cared.
Not, it turn out, because they weren’t interested in otters, but because while I’d been out walking, the bitch otter and her kitt had turned up, swum around for a few minutes right in front of the café, then left. After hours of waiting, I’d missed them.
It was a gut-wrenching disappointment, but it made me all the more determined. The café was closing, so I grabbed a last drink and stood around. And roughly an hour later, my patience was rewarded. I was with two people who had never been to the reserve before, and never seen an otter before, and they were in for a treat. At first the otters were swimming around on the far side of the lake, catching fish. That was worrying: if an otter catches too many fish it will retire into the undergrowth to digest its meal. But then the otters came closer. And closer. They would tease us, approaching, flirt with our hopes, then swim away again. But then they approached more closely. And then they approached as closely as they possibly could.
At one point, the bitch swam through the clear water immediately below the edge of the café, so closely that I could have reached out and touched her, and we could see her clearly beneath the water, twisting and turning until her chase of a fish churned up the silt and made her invisible again. In between fishing trips which were all successful, the bitch and kitt put on a display for us. Dives were synchronised to perfection, both backs arching our of the water together, both thick, muscular tails flipping upwards at the same time.
Both otters knew we were there. But when they feel safe, otters can become very curious creatures. This wasn’t the first time an otter has sat in the water just a few feet away from me, and checked me out, as curious about me as I was about it, and that’s exactly what the kitt did. For several long minutes we watched each other. I won’t say there was a connection between us, but there was a recognition, a shared understanding that we were both part of each other’s worlds.
The otters played and fished, catching trout and crayfish, and other coarse fish I couldn’t identify. And then, just as suddenly, it was over. As the shadows of the trees lengthened over the length, we caught a last glimpse of one of the otters, porpoising through the waves to the other bank. Coffee, cake and otter – now that’s my recipe for the perfect café.