How to Film Wildlife – part 2: Otters on rocky shores

BBC cameraman John Aitchison reveals that filming coastal otters is as much about good field skills as photographic aptitude. 

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How to film otters on rocky shores main spread

BBC cameraman John Aitchison reveals that filming otters is as much about good field skills as photographic aptitude. 

KEY FILMING SKILLS

1. Seek shallow water

In the sea, otters can only dive down to about 10 metres, so start by looking in shallow areas (where seaweed tends to be abundant).

Much of Scotland’s coast is like this, and almost all of it has otters. The species is also spreading back to old haunts as far south as Cornwall.

2. Pick the right time

Winter and early spring are usually the best seasons to film otters – the water is colder so they fish for longer, since they need greater quantities of food to keep warm.

Otherwise, early mornings are often good, but the species may be affected more by the tides than time of day.

Filming otters in Shetland for Springwatch, I found that one mother and cub fished a bay during the rising tide, then slept while another female hunted as the water receded.

3. Look around

Calm days are best for otter-spotting. Look offshore for the telltale wake (trail of water), with a small head shaped like a low triangle at the front. 

Otters’ dives are also distinctive – their curved backs and tail-flicks are unlike those of any diving bird. They usually surface every 15 seconds or so.

Use this time to approach – count to 12, then stop. The key is not to move when the otters are surfacing or if they are looking at you. Keep still and you can get surprisingly close.

Watch out for gulls, too – they often hang around the shore when otters are feeding, waiting for scraps.

4. Listen and smell

Listen out for the pipit-esque peeps of otter cubs that carry far across the water, and try sniffing for sprainting spots, which have a distinctive fishy smell (this is not as unpleasant as it sounds!).

 

STEP-BY-STEP: HOW TO TELL IF OTTERS ARE PRESENT

1. Find otter habitat 

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

The classic habitat for coastal otters is shallow, weedy water. This offers the perfect fishing conditions – the seaweed provides cover, and the animals don’t like to dive very deep.

Otters sleep a lot and prefer places with all-round visibility, so look for them on headlands and islands. 

 

2. Seek out spraints  

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

Otters use droppings to communicate where they’ve been fishing, and generally deposit them in prominent places. Fence lines and walls that lead down to the water are favourites.

Old spraints are dry and grey; recent ones are wet. The spraint pictured is not even 10 minutes old.

 

3. Follow tracks

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

Otters take the shortest route between two bodies of water. Tracks in long grass used day after day sometimes close up to form a tunnel and one like this could lead you to a regular resting place by the shore – or even a holt (though remember it is against the law to disturb them).

 

4. Peer into pools

© Mary-Lou Aitchison

Coastal otters need to wash salt from their fur in fresh water every day. Even a tiny pool can be a magnet.

Finding these mammals is all about looking for every indication of their presence. If you meet an otter on a recce, try and come back at the same time or slightly later the next day.

 

5. Stay stealthy

If you find a sleeping otter, creep as close as you dare, set up your camera and stay still. When the animal wakes up, you should be able to film it grooming and sprainting.

If it’s a female with cubs, this is when the family plays together before setting off to go fishing.

 

ESSENTIAL EQUIPMENT 

Lens hood: On sunny days, there will be a lot of light reflection from the water – a lens hood will cut out the flare. 

Tide tables: Individual otters tend to fish in the same tide-state, and these local guides provide invaluable information. You can find them in local shops and online

Binoculars: I use Swarovski EL 8.5x42 binoculars, which offer excellent clarity (even in low light), aren’t too heavy and can cope with the worst Scottish weather.

 

Look out for How to film wildlife in ponds... coming soon 

 

Find out more about the work of John Aitchison and follow him on Twitter @johnaitchison1

 

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