Monday, 22 October 2012

Close encounters of the Otter kind

Whilst out birding today I spotted an otter in the distance on an isolated rock quite close to the shore line of a tidal loch. I hoped that with a bit of luck I could get a reasonable view of it if I sneaked along the shore from the east and maybe rattle off a couple of photos; although the sun was going to make life difficult if I got the chance with the camera.

As I approached, low along the shore I saw 2 ottters, a mother and cub on the same rock I had seen from the distance. The female was just heading off on another fishing trip having dropped something off for junior. I took this as my chance to get past the youngster so that I might be able to photograph it from the west, looking east. As I crept along the rocky shore I could hear the youngster start to call and although I couldn't see it due to the bright glare of the sun to the south I figured the cub had seen me. I hurried along and over onto the shore edge, positioning myself at the base of a boulder with my legs draped over a smaller rock in front. It was a rather unusual position, almost like being in a reclining chair made of rock but pretty comfortable. Initially there was no sign of any otters and I began to wonder whether they'd detected my movements and left for a quieter location. After a few minutes I heard the squeak of a youngster, shortly followed by the adult appearing on the favoured rock, approximately 50 feet away. I froze in my reclining position with camera poised, firing off a couple of images. Mum then slid into the water and swam towards me, passing within 12 feet of where I was. I dared not move and anyway trying to photograph her in the glaring sunlight was going to be pointless so I just let her swim by.

She returned a little later with a cub although as she passed by she obviously noticed something odd on the! She gave a couple of snorted huff like notes as I sat motionless. She obviously wasn't quite sure what was on the rock and as I hadn't moved she came closer with a cub in tow. They both watched from the water for a while as I snapped a couple of images and then continued to approach.

Quite incredibly mum and cub both came out on the rocks, just 10 feet from where I was, mum shaking the water from her fur coat before looking straight at me and the camera. I continued to fire off shots not daring to move as she gave some of the best views I've ever had. Both mum and cub came so close at one stage the camera was having trouble focussing before they slipped back into the water.

I have seen otters many times but this was something else and really quite magical. Mum swam back to the original favoured rock with a cub, followed by a second and then a third. All clambered out, sniffed around, sprainted and then returned to the water before heading off out of view, hugging the shoreline.

If you happen to be visiting the Uists and would like to look for otters please take a look at the website: Western Isles Wildlife.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

How many AGP's?

juvenile American Golden Plover, Baleshare, Sept. 2010
The autumn of 2012 is likely to be long remembered for the 3rd British record of Semipalmated Plover which was found by John Kemp at South Glendale on the 7th September. This individual followed hot on the heels of 3 Semipalmated Sandpipers and a Spotted Sandpiper as well as several Buff-breasted Sandpipers, Pectoral Sandpipers and American Golden Plovers. In total (so far), this autumn has produced 7 species of American waders in the Outer Hebrides compared with 9 species in 2011; just 4 species in 2010; 6 species in 2009 and 8 species in 2008.

It therefore hasn't stood out for variety and indeed hasn't stood out for numbers in particular, apart from American Golden Plover that is. In 3 out the past 4 years (2011, 2009 and 2008) around 6 American Golden Plovers have been found throughout the Outer Hebrides during the autumn although just 4 were reported in the relatively poor autumn for American waders in 2010. In 2012 a minimum of 15 American Golden Plovers have been logged including 6 adults (for more details please visit the recent sightings on: Western Isles Wildlife

Why 2012 has been so good for American Golden Plover is a bit of a mystery although it could purely be the year when lots were blown off track as has happened with other species in the past e.g. Semipalmated Sandpiper in 2004 and White-rumped Sandpiper in 2006. What is for certain is that there has been an upsurge in records during the last 30 years with annual totals in Scotland peaking at 12 in the 1980's, 31 in 1990's and 22 from 2000 - 2004 (Birds of Scotland). It was removed from the list of species requiring descriptions by the BBRC in 2006 and from SBRC in 2010. Observer awareness and better understanding of identification criteria have almost certainly led to the increase in records. Coverage in the Outer Hebrides is also increasing during the autumn and the county almost certainly now leads on records of American Golden Plover in Scotland if not the UK.

juvenile American Golden Plover, Kilpheder, Sept 2012
adult American Golden Plover, West Gerinish, Sept 2010