Shetland Nature

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Otter Heaven in Shetland – A visit from Arizona

Posted by Brydon Thomason on Wednesday 5th November 2014 | Otters, Reviews

A lovely account from guests Fiona Clark and Jim Boggs visiting all the way from America on one of our tailored Shetland Otter Experience holidays in February 2014 along with a couple of images from their trip. Their account communicates perfectly the insight and experience that these itineraries offer for guests wanting to really learn about otters, their behavior, ecology and where, when and how to study them. We run itineraries like these all year round but they are particularly recommended during the ‘night and day’ seasons from late autumn through to early spring. Contact us for details on these packages info@shetlandnature.net

I have something of a magnificent obsession when it comes to otters. When I lived in Seattle, I spent almost all of my free time (plus a lot of time when I was supposedly working on my graduate studies) on a beach in a nearby park, tracking and then eventually watching the North American river otters (Lontra canadensis) that lived there.

In my quest to learn more about these “river” otters that lived on the coast and did their fishing in the sea, I came across the work of Prof. Hans Kruuk, who had done extensive studies on coastal or marine foraging Eurasian otters in Shetland and on the Scottish mainland. While there are some significant differences, the North American river otter and the Eurasian otter share many similarities, and Prof. Kruuk’s work helped me tremendously in understanding my local otters. A seed was also planted: my husband Jim and I clearly needed a trip to Shetland at some point.

Being typically broke students back then, the trip had to wait for a good few years. But in February 2014, Jim and I joined Brydon Thomason in Unst for four days of otter watching. From searching online and reading about Brydon, his knowledge on otters and work he does it was clear he was our man. I liked Brydon from our very first email exchange: he too was a fan of Prof. Kruuk’s work and was clearly an otter enthusiast of the first order. We soon agreed that February would be a fine time for a trip. As with the otters in the Seattle area, Shetland’s otters are usually active in the daytime. In winter, the otters seem to concentrate their activities into a shorter time period since the days are so short. This can make them easier to find and more fun to watch. An added bonus is that you can stay in bed till a civilized time since it would be too dark to see anything if you got up too early.

Brydon picked us up in Lerwick and we talked otters nonstop all the way to the superb lodge at Barrafirth in Unst. Next morning we found a mother and two cubs at the very first place that we stopped to check for otters. We went on to see a staggering 29 different otters over the course of our four days at various sites around the islands along shorelines Brydon studies. And these were not fleeting glimpses of far distant otters. We spent hours watching some of them.

We also saw some otter behaviour that I had only read about, or inferred from seeing otter tracks on my beach. This included watching (and hearing – they were loud!) a courting couple, and also watching two family groups come together. Jim particularly loved to see the cubs play wrestling, and trying to eat fish that were almost as big as they were. He still talks about being so close that we could hear one of the cubs chomping on a fish. Seeing all of the loving interactions between otter mums and their little ones has also stayed with us: I had seen some of this on my beach, of course, but due to the terrain there I had never had such prolonged views of these mother-cub interactions. Knowing my interest in all aspects of otter behavior, Brydon also took us to see otter holts, lay up areas, and bathing pools so that I could get a much better understanding of how otters in Shetland use the landscape. And what a landscape it was, with miles and miles of deserted beaches, spectacular cliffs, and moorland glowing in the winter sun.

Having spent around seven years trying to learn the habits of the American otters, I knew that finding all of these otters in Shetland, and being able to watch them for extended periods, was no accident. It was the result of Brydon’s deep knowledge of otter distribution and behavior, which comes from his years of fieldwork and his high level of field craft. As one of my wildlife tracking teachers used to say, “animals are not randomly distributed on the landscape.” Knowing when and where to look for otters dramatically increases your chances of finding them. Knowing how to use the wind and the landscape to your advantage allows you to remain undetected by the otters. This allows you to watch them as they go about their daily lives, without disturbing them in the slightest, and to me this is one of the greatest privileges imaginable. Even so, seeing 29 otters in four days was rather extreme, even with all of Brydon’s skills, and is not something that we will be expecting the next time we visit Shetland. We are, of course, going back. Four days was too short, however, so we are going for a week next time.

Fiona Clark