By Jess Turley, Residential Volunteer and Guide at the Scottish Dolphin Centre
Having arrived at the centre in the middle of the snow we had in March, I was keen to get out and start exploring the local area. As the snow had limited getting out on the roads, I decided to focus my search for wildlife closer to home. Having gone on a local orientation walk with Cath, she had pointed out some key areas where she has seen the otter in the past. This was a wider stretch of the river where the river bends round some shingled areas that sit prominently across the river. It’s the stretch of river I’m lucky enough to see from my bedroom window in the attic. Having the basic understanding that otters are more likely to been seen at dawn and dusk and the fact that they’d been seen in that area before, I decided that all I needed to do was wrap up warm and leave early. I set my alarm for 6am and had an early night.
Like every morning, the first thing I did was to look out of my window and saw for the first time since arriving, that there was no snow on the ground. With more snow forecast, I decided to make the most of not having to sit in a wet snowy puddle and head out. I knew that although there was no snow, it was still freezing out there, so I dressed in several pairs of thermals, a pair of ski trousers, 2 Nordic knitted jumpers and a Dryrobe. It was a struggle trying to quietly move down the 2 flights of stairs without disturbing my sleeping housemates. It was 6:30am by the time I left the house and began to walk along the river. Although it was overcast and still fairly dark from the clouded sunrise, it was beautiful. I didn’t see any dog walkers or bird watchers the entire time I was out, so my only company was the awaking birds singing their dawn chorus. As I walked along the river, I startled a few sleeping ducks along the way – they seemed as equally surprised as me that I had got up so early. Having reached the spot recommended, I scouted out some rocks next to the river. One had almost a seat-like curvature to it, offering the perfect place to sit and wait. While the sun was almost fully out by the time I had settled down, the clouds had made it darker than normal, meaning the murky water looked like beastly shapes darting beneath the surface. Some of the diving ducks also provided false hope and would pop up and shake their wet feathers as if to mock me. I started to realise that fingerless gloves weren’t the best option and maybe I should have put some more thought and planning behind this.
Sat on my rock, I began to scour the landscape for any movement. Several trees had been washed down stream by recent storms, these included the roots which were impressively large. I thought I saw something moving in the fast water on the far side of the river, but my view was obscured by the fast-flowing water. I then panned back to the left to see what I thought was a log, floating around the base of one of the tree trunks washed up against one of the shingle banks. The log moved slowly around edge of the tree and towards the shallows of the shingle bank where it came to rest. I raised my camera instinctively for a closer look and saw that the log had ears. To my delight it was the otter. It stayed there for several moments before it bumbled over the shingle bank and back into the water. I didn’t get a chance to take a decent photo as I was too surprised to see it out of the water and almost fell off my rock. Luckily I was treated to it again coming fully out the water and lolloping along a shingle bank before diving back into the icy waters. I was ready this time and managed to capture several images of the otter running. However as soon as it slipped back into the river, its little bobbing head soon became lost in the breaking waves of the torrent of fast-moving water and was gone. Considering some members of staff at the centre, who have worked here for years, have yet to see the otter, I felt unbelievably smug. I sat for a while after, hoping to see it reappear but also taking in what I has just seen, on my fist visit, in my first week and hoping this was a good indicator of my luck to come.