Today I spent the morning at one of my favourite places, RSPB Minsmere. The mix of habitats from heathland, through rolling deciduous woodland, to marsh, coast and sea with careful management means a rich and diverse ecology. Although obviously the RSPB have a particular focus on birds, it is also rich in mammals as well. Last year I saw my first water vole there, and the highlight of this morning's visit was seeing my first otter. I know these are now a relatively common sight across the UK, having fought their way back from desperate straits a few years ago. In fact, so common have they become, that they have started to become for some people a nuisance, with a story just today of the havoc they can wreak locally. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly a wildlife success story, and I have been hoping to see one for the last couple of years to no avail.
So when, sat in the Island Mere Hide at midday, I knew there was a chance of seeing one with plenty of recent sightings there, but with the time of day against me. It was relatively quiet in front of the hide, with a steady, strong wind keeping birds sheltering, other than a covert of coots (yes, I've just looked up the collective noun, by the way...) sitting around 20 yards in front of us. From looking pretty set, they suddenly flew up and flew across the mere for no apparent reason. Not apparent that is until a few seconds later when a sleek, dark shape breached and arched for a moment in the sunshine.
Breaking unwritten hide conventions and playing it supremely un-coolly I shouted 'otter!' as he clambered out on to the bank, posed for a few photos and then dived into a dyke. For once, I didn't panic too much and managed to take a couple of photos just about in focus and with the otter in the frame.
It always amazes me how when one first sees an animal with which one is familiar from photos and TV, one just knows what it is - that sounds obvious, but what I mean is that one doesn't go through a conscious process of looking and thinking 'hmm, that looks like an otter' or whatever, the knowledge that that is what it is arrives fully formed in your brain. I guess that's a pretty useful evolutionary adaptation, to be able to rapidly identify whether an animal is either one that's worth eating or running from, without having to think too much (again, I guess the thinkers died out pretty quickly...). But it serves modern wildlife watchers in good stead so they can go to bed happy, knowing that they have, definitively, joyfully, seen an otter.