Saturday was a perfect day for being outside. It was unseasonably warm, but I wasn’t complaining, autumn tints were finally beginning to show in the hedges, the sky was clear and the sun was shining.
I was checking my otter sites on the local brook and was in no hurry. I stopped to watch a little troop of long tailed tits flitting through the willows calling to each other. As I stood I saw a grey heron flapping lazily from its sentry position, and a little egret brilliant white in the sunshine. Starling numbers were beginning to build up, but I missed the cronk of the ravens, I hadn’t seen or heard them for a month or so.
I scanned for spraint under a concrete bridge but couldn’t see anything obvious, so I ducked underneath for a closer look. I wasn’t expecting what I saw. There was a large, almost perfect footprint, with the slight impression of a second close by.
I knew a breeding female regularly visited the brook , but this print was bigger than anything I had seen there before. A dog otter I guessed. He didn’t seem to have been hanging around, there was no spraint to advertise his presence, and no other prints, so it seemed he was just passing through.
Further upstream I checked a ledge under a pretty stone bridge where I nearly always find spraint.
There was nothing new there, but before I extricated myself I double checked and found fresh spraint on a much smaller ledge that, as far as I knew, had never been used before. Otters are creatures of habit, and mark the same rocks time and time again, so this supported my gut feeling that the signs I was finding were left by a different animal.
Casting back to September I remembered that I had found spraint at a completely new site, upstream of a busy road that crosses the brook. I had been slightly concerned at the time as I feared the resident otter had been dicing with death (the bridge is grilled so she couldn’t get underneath).
I began to fit the pieces of the jigsaw together. Partly guesswork I know, but I built up a picture of a new, larger, animal patrolling this stretch of stream. Dog otters generally cover more ground than bitches, and may have more than one female in their home range, so I wondered if he could be the father of previous cubs, or an outsider in search of a mate, or a new territory.
For some reason I stopped and wondered how I had developed the ability to conjure up so much from a footprint and a few piles of poo. It had become like a sixth sense, a kind of magic.
It’s not magic though, it’s something that can be learnt, and if I can learn it anyone can! When I attended my first otter survey training course with Avon Wildlife Trust six years ago I doubted that I would ever be able to recognise spraint, let alone footprints, but all it takes is time and practice. I was lucky that the first site I was given to survey was visited regularly by otters. The brook was tiny, narrow enough to step over in places, and I didn’t think for one minute I would find anything there. Much to my surprise and delight the first time I looked I came across several bony droppings with the unmistakable whiff of otter poo. I’ve been looking ever since! Footprints were harder, but with experience, and a fair bit of help, I began to gain confidence. The trick is to ask when you don’t know, and not to be afraid of making mistakes or looking silly.
Learning to recognise animal tracks and signs is one of the most rewarding things that any aspiring naturalist can do. It has given me endless hours of pleasure, to the bafflement of several of my friends who comment wryly on my obsession with ‘poo and prints’.
Few of us are fortunate enough to get even a a fleeting glimpse of a wild otter, but it’s possible to learn a great deal about them if you know what to look for. I have been asked how often I see ‘mine’, the answer is I don’t! I would love to of course, but most of the time I can honestly say that it’s enough just to know they’re there.