Friday 3 July 2015

Shetland: Otters And Midsummer Mousa

Overnight the bright weather had given way to cloudy overcast conditions, which looked set to stay for the day. Andy had been in contact with a local wildlife enthusiast who I have admired for years (mainly with a hint of envy at the subject material he photographs on Shetland) John Moncrieff, or "Crieffy" as he prefers.

Last time I was on Shetland, I was with Ian Cook who went the extra mile, most days, to find otters on any lochs that looked suitable and with his hawk-like eyesight, we were very successful. This time though, it would be Crieffy showing us some locations for these elusive creatures, and after meeting and greeting, we followed him to an area where he had seen several otters the day before.

Scanning the water and the rocky shores of the lochs revealed nothing initially, so we took a stroll along the water's edge. And just before lunchtime we were all crouched down hiding our forms, watching a pair of otters fishing nearby. Much like on Mull, they only seemed to need to dive down once to catch something to eat. The waters must be rich with life here.

Otters use their sense of smell a great deal, not only for locating prey and avoiding danger, but also for marking territory and recognising other individuals in the area. One of the otters clambered out of the water and vanished into the large boulders beside the loch, appearing moments later to sniff out various scent marks (scats) left on the rocks.

Then with great agility, it was back to the task of finding dinner within the loch. Trying to follow the antics of a pair of otters is quite tricky, as they can appear and disappear at will. Hence it wasn't a huge surprise when I realised I hadn't spotted one that had actually climbed out of the water on to a barnacle-encrusted rock to consume a large fish it had caught.

Benefits of many eyes watching the action, and I was soon grabbing shots of the otter as it made light work of the fish, now it had its paws available on dry(ish) land.

Predicting where otters might decide to come ashore comes from experience, and I have quite a bit from trips to Mull, Skye and Shetland before, but nothing is quite as good as local knowledge from a guide like Crieffy, who accurately guessed where the otters would bring their catches, or try to return to a bolt-hole. This gave us great opportunities to see the otters close up! Never a bad thing.

After the pair of otters swam away and eventually out of sight, we diverted to grab a very tasty fish & chips dinner from Frankie's, and as the high tide started to recede, we relocated to another area, and took a lengthy wander along the edge of the water. It wasn't sunny but it was reasonably warm, and we were entertained by the terns, oystercatchers and ringed plovers nesting in the vacinity. All along the walk were signs of otters, with bits of crabs and urchins littering the rocks and grassy slopes, plus signs of their activities beside freshwater pools, possible holts and of course plenty of scat on the rocks and channels leading from the water.

As we headed back towards where we had parked, we spotted another otter, and again, Crieffy was on hand to suggest the best place to wait for it near the shore. The otter soon caught something a bit too slippery to deal with on the water, and brought it ashore.

Closer than before, I again made use of the silent shutter mode on the 7D Mk2, which unlike Andy's machine-gun 1DX made barely a sound as I grabbed shots of the otter nearby.

Whilst we were in the right place as far as wind direction was concerned, the otter could definitely hear the cameras occasionally, and looked over at us a couple of times. As we were hiding well, it carried on eating, giving us all great views.

Then, once back in the water, it performed the usual disappearing trick, though Andy spotted it some distance away shortly after, heading to another shore. They are masters of vanishing. Speaking of which, it was late afternoon and our guide for the day needed to head home. We thanked him for his help and tried to convey how pleased we were with the results of the day.

With no need to hurry back, we drove slowly around the area and Andy clocked another otter fishing out in the middle of one of the lochs. Gear grabbed, we headed down to the shore to watch, with Andy and Kate choosing to nestle amongst the shoreline boulders to wait, leaving me crouched on the headland, watching from above.

After a good while, the otter finally started to head in, but not with a catch. It was making a beeline to a small harbour, and as it dived each time, I scampered along the headland to follow it, playing statues just before I guessed it would surface. It's always a bit of a guessing game, but it worked here, and I was rewarded with fabulous views as the otter hauled itself out of the water, just within the confines of the harbour wall, and on to a large seaweed-covered rock.

My problem was getting a clear view though, as the wall was a smidge too high to see over, and way too loose to attempt to climb upon. Tip-toes and careful balancing of the lens, with a rather uncomfortable resting position on the end of the wall allowed me to just get the view I needed.

A benefit of my spot though, was that as well as being able to see the otter, I could also advise my fellow otter-fans as they approached from behind, of when they could get closer and when to pause. Thankfully the otter was more concerned with grooming and the noisy antics of a pipit nearby, to notice Andy and then Kate arriving at the wall.

Over a twenty minute period we were treated to wonderful views of the otter as it groomed, scratched and tried to get some sleep on the rock.

I think it may have been close to the pipit's nest as the bird made quite a racket, disturbing the otter from its sleep at times.

Eventually the otter decided it needed to head back to its holt, and slipped back into the water, and as usual, promptly vanished from sight completely. Time for us to head home, though not for long...

It was midsummer's day, or "Simmer Dim" as it is known in Shetland, and we were booked (thanks to Paula) on the trip to Mousa that evening, to witness the storm petrels at the broch on the island. This is an ancient Iron Age round stone tower, that the petrels have turned into a multi-storey nesting block, and becomes a hive of activity as soon as darkness falls. Problem was, given the location and the day, darkness would be in short supply that evening!

Even so, we set sail, with Paula eventually agreeing to come along too - she hates sailing, especially when the water is a bit choppy. Mousa was as I remembered, awash with calls of the seabirds, but somewhat boggier than last time, given the recent rains. As before, we weren't allowed to take flashguns along, so the trip would for the majority of us, be for viewing only. Kate, however, was armed with a night-vision scope from Bushnell, and as the night eventually drew in, made great use of it by videoing one of the petrels within the wall!

Despite it being midsummer, it was pretty chilly as we stood around watching the shadowy birds flutter in and out, somewhat resembling bats, and while the others remained at the broch for the last boat back, Paula and I strolled back to the quay. Wanting to get the crossing back to the mainland over and done with, she took the earlier boat, while I chose to stay on the quay alone, to wait for the last boat. To be honest, I wanted to savour the sights, sounds and scent of being on Mousa, and it was so tranquil being sat there in the dark, listening to the waves, the distant calls of restless birds and the splashes of a nearby seal doing a bit of night fishing.

The boat returned, and promptly took us all back to join Paula again, before we zipped back the house for a few hours sleep.

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