By Mavis Gulliver
One of the joys of our location on Islay is the ever-present possibility of observing otters. I see them fishing in the bay. I know that they shelter in the low-roofed cave at the foot of our cliff, and I watch them emerging onto half-submerged rocks at the bottom of our garden.
Even when I can’t see them, I find evidence of their feeding in broken crab shells and in Aristotle’s Lanterns - the intricate mouthparts of sea urchins. I watch them devouring lumpfish and an occasional eel; but it is the size of some of their catches that really impresses me. The flat fish caught by this youngster was so huge that it fed for forty minutes before slipping back into the sea.
Otter presence is evident in other signs. A trail of flattened vegetation leads through grass and sea campion to the cave, while spraints at the entrance inform me of recent activities.
Black, tarry spraints with a sweet, fishy smell tell of a recent visit; but as they age, spraints become dry and crumbly. Eventually they disintegrate into a scatter of tiny bones, fish scales and bits of crab. When they reach this stage it is obvious that an otter hasn’t been around for a while. At regular sprainting sites the vegetation becomes scorched so that bare patches are not uncommon.
As winter approaches I hope for snow because it is then that tracks alert me to regular otter routes. In compacted snow, otter footprints with an elongated pad and five toes are distinguishable from the rounded pad and four toes of a dog - even when the smallest toe is less pronounced than the rest.
Snowfalls are rare on Islay, but otter footprints can be found throughout the year on both damp mud and firm sand. Such tracks may link the sea to dunes and burns, and sometimes grooves and low tunnels can be traced through long vegetation. These may lead to freshwater lochs, or even, on occasion to the presence of a holt.
During summer, when Islay’s beaches are busy with visitors, ‘my’ otters retreat to more remote locations. My best chance of seeing them is in the evening just as the light starts to fade. But now the island is quiet and days are short. They are back and can be seen at any time of day.
People often ask where they can see otters. On Islay’s coast, the answer is almost anywhere. It’s a case of watching the sea and knowing the difference between a curling wave, a swirl of seaweed and an otter. When an otter dives it tends to be a rapid movement with the tail being the last part to disappear. This helps to separate otters from seals. Seals, unless suddenly frightened, when they do an impressive backflip, vanish in a slow, smooth curve. And when seals come up to breathe, their domed head usually emerges slowly whereas a hunting otter frequently bobs up like a cork.
The secret of getting close to an otter is to keep still when it is on the surface, to move when it is under water, and to ‘freeze’ again when it reappears. Sometimes an otter is so intent on hunting that it may disregard you, but if it takes exception to your presence, it will dive, swim away and emerge out of sight.
Small prey is eaten in the water. Large prey is carried to the shore, the otter keeping its head above water as it swims directly to a landing place. With care, it is possible to anticipate where it is heading, to get close and to take photographs like the ones above without using a telephoto lens.
Otters always excite me, from my first sighting in 1980 to one I saw yesterday. There have been dozens in between – one so close that its wet fur, clumping in dark peaks, was within touching distance – another that failed to notice me as it slept in a seaweed bed. But the biggest thrill of all is in watching a female with cubs and knowing, with certainty, that there are more sightings to come.
Mavis Gulliver’s passion for islands and wildlife dominate her writing. Her work is based on close observation and a sense of place. Her poems appear in magazines, anthologies and in her two collections, Slate Voices: Islands of Netherlorn and Waymarks. Her children’s fiction allows her imagination to run wild through landscapes that she knows well. Cry at Midnight, Clickfinger and The Snake Wand are set on islands and each has a Facebook page. Her website gives further information and includes a monthly blog detailing her activities. She is working on a poetry collection entitled From One Island to Another.