I was on the water EARLY. Just as there was the first glimmer of light in the sky. It had to be that time to coincide with the tide, and I always like early, because early gives you the best chance of seeing that most slinky and shy of the UK’s animals….Otter. Although I couldn’t really see anything at all for the first half-hour.
The superb autumn colours eventually appeared out of the gloom.
The estuaries with their steep and wooded banks are a perfect place to escape the wind , which was fairly buffeting the trees at the top of the hill.
Nearly five miles paddled, and I was approaching the tidal limit marked by the weir. I was in complete stealth mode and making sure I paddled without any splash at all. Tucked in close to the bank.
An otter surfaced in the middle of the river just far enough away for me not to frighten it. It was very busy diving down to the bottom, probably looking for their favourite crunchy snack…crayfish.
In this last clip you can see the otter looks at me and is probably aware of my presence. Their eyesight isn’t great but I know they have sharp hearing because it kept jerking its head around when it heard the clatter of tins from the recycling truck half-a-mile away.
So is this the same individual I saw five weeks ago, a mile downstream from here, which I nicknamed ‘Pinknose’ ? It was certainly about the same size, and seemed to do quite a lot of mouth-opening and gagging just like the one I saw before, almost like it had a sore tooth.
Otters quite often have a few white patches around their nose and throat, (especially further north) and this one has a pink patch in the middle of its nose. But is it the same both times? See for yourself. Excuse the appallingly blurry pics but light was very poor and the images are heavily cropped.
I think it’s the same individual. This maybe shouldn’t be a surprise as it is the same stretch of river and Otter’s are territorial, but it is very difficult to observe and record markings that are unique, and certainly the first time I have ever done so.
It’s currently exceptionally stormy and wet down here in Devon and Cornwall. So there’s not a hope of venturing out into the open sea, and even the coast is a bit dodgy and requires careful planning to avoid battering by a hefty swell.
Simon and I had a very enjoyable trip along the sheltered east-facing coast at Teignmouth during a weather window.
Thanks for this next pic, Simon.
We nearly bumped in to this seal that was resting (‘logging’) at the surface. It didn’t seem to appreciate the intrusion and let us know all about it. I apologise if I approached too close but we really didn’t see it until the last second, and it was right in the middle of a gap between two rocks. At least we were in silent, slow-moving, easy to avoid, craft. It wouldn’t have been so good if we were a speedboat with a propeller.
On the more windy days the only option is to find a bit of water as far away from the exposed coast as possible, in as narrow a creek as possible, and beneath as high a hill as possible. And the more tortuous the estuary the better, as it baffles and breaks up the wind.
Here’s what I mean. About as sheltered from the strong wind as you can get, but unfortunately not a lot of protection from the lashing rain.
However there’s always a pleasant scene to enjoy:
and a bit of history to investigate, if that is your thing.
Or a bit of mindboggling Victorian architecture:
I spend most of my time, while slipping silently along these sheltered creeks, straining my eyes for the slightest hint of movement, or ripple, as far ahead of me as I can see.
And I was lucky enough to see this dog otter beside an estuary which was broad enough for it to not be disturbed by my presence. I’m pretty sure it was a dog otter anyway, it certainly seemed very long. Look at the distance between its head and the tip of its tail.
You will see from this still, and subsequent videos, that he has got a few white whiskers and some more white hairs on his throat. You can also see him lifting his head to have a good sniff as he slithers along. He can probably scent me but he knows I am far enough away to not represent a threat.
maybe I am reading too much into a relatively fleeting view, but I think this was an older dog otter that was completing his nightly patrol of his patch of riverbank. They have such a large territory that it is a struggle to fit it all in during the hours of darkness.
Seeing an otter is absolutely always very, very exciting because they are so incredibly difficult to observe.
And it more than compensates for the rather autumnal weather.
Is it really worth going out for a paddle in an autumnal deluge, when you could be in a dry place drinking tea and eating Victoria sponge?
Yes, if you’ve got a decent drysuit. It’s actually quite fun. And there’s no jetskis on the water. Nobody else at all in fact.
It was great to see that the remaining cygnet on the river had survived following the mysterious death of its two siblings a few weeks. The parents were their usual feisty selves and had a bit of a go at my GoPro. The cob (male) swan had a real go at me when the cygnets were young and came whop-whop-whopping directly at me which was a tad alarming.
This very pale buzzard wasn’t phased by the torrential downpour. It was like water off a….er…duck’s back.
Buzzards which have this much white are frequently mistaken for other species, but it is not abnormal. The French name for Buzzard is ‘Buse Variable’.
Even though I havn’t seen an otter here for over a year, I was hopeful of seeing one. Although the best time to see an otter is a twilight, they do seem to put in an appearance when it is raining. I’m not sure why this is…..could it be that it is because it gets darker when it rains (and so mimics dusk), or is it that they feel they are not going to be disturbed when it is absolutely hosing down because only the daft venture out?
Because it was really chucking it down I felt that an otter couldn’t resist coming out.
And it did. I saw a smallish otter carving a ‘v’ in the water far enough ahead of my kayak that I could easily glide over to the bank and sit absolutely quietly tucked in the middle of a (very drippy) bush without it noticing me.
This is my video in its entirity. It nicely shows the weather conditions, which was not great for my completely unwaterproof camera. It also shows how difficult it is to track a diving otter, which doesn’t usually surface in the same place it dived…..although this one did.
Apologies for the shaky camera work…it’s really not that easy from the kayak seat.
I think this was a bitch otter because it isn’t that big. I noticed it had a rather fetching little pink patch in the middle of it’s (usually black) nose.
I managed to sneak past up the river without disturbing it, and then picked it up again on the way back down twenty minutes later.
There’s not much doubt it was the rain that lured this otter out. The photos were timed at 1215. It’s not very often you encounter otters at midday, they are usually well tucked up in bed.
Having not seen a single otter along the River Torridge last year, I was quite keen to try my luck now the water level had dropped after a week of dry weather. There was plenty of evidence of the recent heavy rain, however, with all the driftwood dammed up against the bridges.
Otters are incredibly difficult to observe because they are extremely elusive and shy, not to mention being mainly nocturnal. So I made an extra effort to get out onto the water at first light. By the time I paddled off my fingers, despite wearing gloves, were already numb. Maybe not a surprise as it was minus 3 degrees. What an idiot. I certainly didn’t anticipate encountering any other kayakers.
I wasn’t at all prepared to see the first otter which was just around a corner only five minutes into my trip. I was fiddling about with my camera and the otter sensed my presence and vanished. I have learned from experience that if you get too close they just disappear and you will not see them again, no matter how long you wait.
The Torridge is fun to paddle, whether you see any otters or not.
Today’s eighteen mile, five hour paddle was as absorbing as ever and I soon found myself in the ‘zone’, paddling along in absolute silence and looking out for the slightest movement on the water or along the bank. The only noise I made was the occasional slurp of a warming draught of coffee. And crunch of an Orange Club.
Seventeen kingfishers, twenty-seven Dippers, five Goosanders, a Woodcock and a possible glimpse of a Mink, and of course I was hoping for another otter.
I looked at all the little patches of sand along the banks as I drifted past, and to my surprise nearly all of them had footprints and little scuffs that I’m pretty sure were otter prints. The owner of the footprints often seemed to have come from out of the water, and some of the tracks in soft sand were clearly webbed, so some were otters for sure. There was hardly a patch of sand without any tracks, so it looks like there’s plenty of them about.
After a couple of hours, along a straight bit of river, there was a big otter swimming in the middle of the river directly towards me. I paddled as fast and as silently as I could to the bank and hung onto a branch with one hand while I prepared my camera with the other. Excellent, it hadn’t seen (or smelled) me.
It worked its way up the river catching a small crunchy snack at every dive. At the end of this next clip I think it can sense my presence so it submerges with hardlyt a splash, and is gone.
I waited for it to reappear but soon gave up because I was getting cold, and I more or less knew it wouldn’t show again anyway.
To my astonishment, half-a-mile downstream was another otter also fishing in the middle of the river. This one put on a good demonstration of the technique of porpoising.
I knew it couldn’t resist climbing out on one of the mini islands to ‘mark’ it, as it drifted downstream away from me, so was ready with camera raised when it did so.
This otter was spooked by the whine of a slurry tanker in a field half a mile away, instantly disappearing as soon as the pump started.
Absolutely fantastic, two of my best otter sightings away from the coast of Scotland, and within a couple of minutes of each other.
I like everything about the River Torridge. It’s a great name, it’s my local big river (although I actually live just over the hill in the Tamar catchment), and it conjures up images of wild places with its link to Tarka the Otter, the novel written by Henry Williamson in 1927. No, I didn’t know the date off the top of my head, I’ve just Googled it.
The seventeen mile section between Hatherleigh and Torrington has so many twists and turns that you have got absolutely no idea of the direction in which you are pointing, and to add to the sense of adventure some of the tangled woods through which you pass are so dense that they could easily act as cover for a pack of hunting Orcs.
My paddling companion today was Mark and we set off from just below the bridge at Hatherleigh.
The water was quite low so there were lots of little gravelly beaches to lure us in for the odd coffee break.
After Beaford bridge until the outskirts of Torrington (11 miles) there is really very little sign of the existence of humans, apart from the occasional fishing hut several of which look like something out of Hansel and Gretel.
We found a good beach for lunch but we were getting slowly but surely colder so didn’t dither about too long. I got a sandwich blockage in my gullet from eating too quickly but succssfully shifted it with an orange club and swig of coffee.
The wildest part of the entire trip is Long Wood and it important to have a complete noise ban here because there is always the chance of seeing an otter.
On today’s paddle we didn’t see any otters at all, although to compensate we saw a load of birds: 25 Dippers, 15 Kingfishers, Goosanders and Mandarin ducks and Mark saw what was probably a Mink running along the bank (black and furry!).
Here’s a pic and video clip of previous otter sightings on the Torridge:
This cub looked like it was thinking about jumping into my kayak (it was a classic otter day..they seem to love the rain):
The first weir to negotiate is a couple of miles above Torrington: Lady Palmer weir. We didn’t fancy getting wet so portaged down the face.
The second weir is outside the old milk factory in Torrington and is easily shootable using the salmon ladder on the right hand side. Mark makes it look effortless:
Exit is at Rothern Bridge beside the old railway station at Torrington.
Although the otter catching and eating the crab was by far my best wildlife encounter during my five days in the Arisaig area of Western Scotland, there was plenty else going on in the natural history section.
Not least the five trillion midges that came over to pester me one still and warm evening. What sort of a creature is it that deliberately flies into your eyeball and voluntarily gets blinked to death? In their thousands. Their friends in the itch depatment are ticks several of which, despite my best efforts to avoid them, managed to find their way into various cracks and crevices about my person.
More of a threat to wildlife was the two Mink I briefly saw. Despite being very fluffy and floating high on the water they are adept swimmers and seem to dive as well as an otter.
I would have been disappointed not to see an Eagle and ended up with two. Sea Eagles are so incredibly huge that if one is around you really have to be pretty daft not to see it (or eyes down on your phone…..again). One was being pestered by Gulls on the south side of the Arisaig peninsular, the second sat in a tree at loch Moidart.
The half dozen or so Great Northern Divers I saw were all nearly in full summer plumage. I’m not sure whether these are non-breeding birds that spend the summer here or that they are winter visitors that still havn’t headed north. I suspect most will soon depart.
A pair of Red-throated Divers were fishing in the sea in front of my tent at Peanmeanach beach and flew back to their loch in the hills calling in classic, honking, ‘Rain Goose’ (their Shetland name) style. There was no rain in the forecast however, and I suspect they got this name in Shetland because it rains much of the time and there are a lot of breeding Red-throats there.
Trying hard to compete with the divers for snappiness of plumage were the Black Guillemots. I really like these busy little birds (although their movements verge on frantic) and unlike their southern cousins they have an extraordinary high-pitched whistle as a call note. A good sound for carrying distance on a windy day. In the video the second bird hasn’t quite finished moulting out of its winter plumage. (video)
The islands in Loch na Ceal near Arisaig hosted a lot of birds and the still and sunny weather enhanced the atmosphere. The main soundtrack came from the Oystercatchers. If they didn’t have such charisma I might be tempted to say what an appalling din. (video)
A pair of Common Terns looked like they were checking out somewhere to nest,
and a rather smart looking Common Gull was busy incubating her eggs beside a bouquet of Sea Pink. (could be a ‘he’ I suppose). Incidentally ‘Common Gull’ is a very bad name for what is NOT the most Common gull and is in fact an extremely neat and attractive bird.
I know it’s ‘only’ a seagull but I had to insert this video because I love the way the Gull settles back down to incubate its eggs so proudly and cosily with a contented shuffle and waggle of its tail. (video)
A pair of Ringed Plovers were a bit agitated as I passed so I guess they were nesting as well. They got a lot more stressed when a Great Black-backed Gull turned up with bird’s eggs on the menu for lunch.
Arisaig’s most prominent residents are the Harbour Seals. There are a lot of them and they drape themselves about on low flat islets and their bawls and grunts carry far over the water. They enjoy nothing more than following kayakers in large numbers and diving with a splash. They are rather more photogenic than Cornwall’s Grey Seals, and have a more dished cat-like face. (video)
I saw one Grey Seal in amongst a colony at the mouth of Loch Moidart. It had a whitish blaze across its head.
A trip to Scotland would not be complete without a Red Deer and I would have been surprised not to see one…..
but I certainly wasn’t expecting to see quite so many (tens of thousands) Moon jellyfish wafting about in the clear waters of Loch Sunart. Accompanied by a few Lion’s mane and small white jellies with very long tentacles.
The other wildlife highlight of my early morning paddle on the smooth waters of Lochs Sunart and Teacuis was the sound of birds with the songs of Blackcaps, Willow and Wood Warblers drifting down from the deciduous woods on the bank. Plus the occasional Tree Pipit and ‘zip, zip’ of a Spotted Flycatcher. Didn’t see any of them . Plus the odd Cuckoo, which I did see. I could hear one calling from over a mile away.
The rarest bird I saw was not the most glamorous and a bit specialist to the ornithologist. This iceland Gull was hanging around the fish farm on Sunart.
It was so still most of the time that I could here the ‘coos’ of these Eiders long before I could see them.
It was time to head for home, a mere 650 miles away.
I could not resist the continuing fine weather for kayaking in the west of Scotland so set off armed with tent and provisions for several days of wild camping, but first I had to do battle with the roadworks on the M6.
My number one wildlife aim was to get a decent photograph of an otter. Most in southwest England are active in poor light at either end of the day and so difficult to photograph , whereas in Scotland I have seen them along the coast in full sunshine.
After two days of paddling I had glimpsed a single otter surface once and then disappear, and had a marginally longer view of a couple of Mink.
Back amongst the islands of Arisaig I had given up hope of meeting up with an Otter because it was midday, sunny and hot, and there were loads of seals around. Then I saw this: (this is a video)
Otters can look like a small seal at a distance but the tail whipping up when it dives can mean it’s nothing else!
When it came up I could hardly believe my luck…it had caught an enormous crab and I knew it would be heading to the nearest rock to consume it.
I sneaked after it as quietly as I could and sure enough it hopped out on a rock, had a good shake, and prepared the crab for demolition, but the crab had other plans and kept trying to scuttle off:
It then stared hard at me because I was at the absolute limit of frightening it, about twenty yards. Otters have pretty poor eyesight and fortunately the light wind was in my face. If it was blowing the other way the otter would still be on the way to the Isle of Skye as fast as it could swim (I hadn’t showered for a day or two). It had winkled off the carapace of the crab in one piece and still had it in its mouth as it stared.
Luckily I was blown back out out of its worry range and it got stuck in to crunching the crab’s legs. It made more noise than Rick Stein tucking in to a lobster.
It really wolfed its way through its seafood lunch and made sure there was nothing left before exiting the scene with a perfect splashless racing dive.
Absolutely excellent. This was exactly what I had hoped to witness on my paddle trip to Scotland but hadn’t expected quite such a perfect show.
Incidentally, this is the same species of otter that is found all over the UK. It is often thought, quite understandably, that these are Sea Otters because around Scotland they do most of their hunting in the sea. Sea Otters are a quite distinct species that live in the Pacific off North America.
Compared to rivers and lakes the sea is absolutely bursting with all the otter’s favourite foods. It’s chock full of crabs, anenomes and butterfish, so it’s no wonder that’s where these European River Otters like to hunt. Looking for food in the sea must be like walking into a well-stocked delicatessen, whereas trying to find food in a river or lake is very more challenging and like trying to locate the buffet car on a train.
Unlike Sea Otters, European Otters need a source of fresh water nearby in which to clean up, and always take larger prey items on to solid ground to devour them.