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On the trail of mother and her cub: a wildlife artist studies otters in Scotland.
Wildlife artist Robert E Fuller goes in search of otters along Scotland’s rugged Ardnamuchan coastline and gets a rare glimpse of an otter mother and her cub.
I spend two weeks this summer watching and photographing a family of otters, including an otter mother and her cub, on the Ardnamurchen peninsula in Scotland. I had spent a full day following a dog otter along the rugged coastline of Loch Sunart ( Click here to read the story of how I watched the beautiful dog otter as it hunted along the shoreline) when I then spotted a female.
On the trail of an otter mother and her cub
I spent the next 10 days on the look out for her. By the time I caught up with her, she was hunting off-shore. Otters normally catch butter fish and small crabs out at sea and only come to shore if they get something bigger. I kept pace with this female, re-setting my camera and tripod every 10 or 20 metres in hope that she would land a bigger catch on the rocks to eat it. But she kept on hunting out at sea.
Then she swam around a headland and I couldn’t follow her. Steep rocks and thick rhododendron bushes blocked my path. I had to go inland to cut across the peninsula. I pushed my way through head–high bracken, clambered over fallen trees and more rhododendron bushes and eventually came out at the sea. I waited and waited, but there was no sign of her, not even a ripple in the water.
First sign of otter mother and her cub
Disappointed, I started heading back the way I came. Then I heard a high-pitched whistle. It is a sound that you would imagine being made by a bird, but I knew that this was the call of an otter cub. As I headed back round to the headland where I had last seen the female otter, I spotted her. This time she was with her cub. The cub was well-grown. As they both slipped into the water, the cub was still calling. The female turned to her cub and they touched noses.
Then the female set off; the cub following. This wasn’t a hunting mission. They were in transit, heading out to sea. I set up my tripod to support my binoculars so that I could watch where they were headed. Mother and cub swam in a direct line to Canna Island, almost a kilometre away. I watched them until they were nearly ashore, but then lost sight of them in the ripples of water.
A few days later I was up at 5am and I heard the sound of an otter diving into the water, followed shortly by another one. They were back. I was all fingers and thumbs as I pulled my boots on and grabbed my camera, tripod, binoculars and camouflage clothing. At the beach I scanned the lake through my binoculars and saw one of the otters disappearing round the headland.
I crossed the small river that leads into the bay in front of Birch Cottage the holiday home I was staying, owned by Shoreline Cottages. I ran to the next bay. I had been on the trail of these otters for 10 days and by now had worn an established route across the spit of land to a tidal island I had already named: Otter Island – after spotting a dog otter here before.
Enjoy my work?
Lucky for me it was low tide and I was able to run across the slippery seaweed and on to the island. I slowed down, approaching the end of the island cautiously. If they were there, I didn’t want to scare them.
The bond between otter mother and her cub
Then I noticed the otters, curled up on a rock strewn with seaweed and grooming one another. I crept forward with my camera, using the rocks as cover. Peeping out from behind one rock, I noticed they were now both asleep. Stealthily, I tried to open my tripod and mount the camera on to it. But the female woke up and looked my way. I froze. I was dressed head to toe in camouflage, even my gloves, the balaclava on my head and my camera was covered in camouflage. The wind was in my favour and since otters don’t have the best of eyesight she closed her eyes again and dozed off.
I finished setting up and made myself comfortable on a nearby rock as I waited for some movement. The two otters were curled up together, the shapes of their bodies echoing one another as they lay intertwined. The light was poor and there were midges crowding around me. It was only 6.05am. After 10 minutes the female scratched her chin with her hind leg, and fell back to sleep, using her cub as a head rest. Then the cub woke and began to suckle from the female. I was surprised at this because it was almost the same size as her.
After 10 minutes of suckling, the female yawned and stretched, then slowly walked to the highest point of the rock, sniffed the seaweed and then propped up her tail to mark out her territory with a spraint. She looked back at her cub and it promptly rose to follow her, mimicking her actions right down to the yawn and the spraint. They both then slipped effortlessly into the water and began fishing, each time the female slid into the water, the cub followed.
Cubs normally stay with their parents for more than a year as they learn how to survive in this harsh environment. I watched as the female caught a large butter fish and brought it ashore to eat on the rocks. The cub greedily tried to snatch it from her grasp. There was squawking and whistling followed by a scuffle in which the female dropped the fish. She angrily snapped at the cub, pushing it out of the way and then recaptured the fish from the seaweed, landed it and ate it before re-joining her cub at sea.
The wind changed direction and began blowing in their direction and as the female surfaced she suddenly swung her body round to face me. I didn’t move, but she began to swim directly towards me, raising her body half out of the water to stretch herself high and scent the air. Her cub was right behind her.
Soundlessly she turned away, her sinuous body slipping back into the water with barely a ripple. The cub followed her: I was surprised at how it knew to do so since the mother had not uttered a sound. The last I saw of her was a chain of bubbles as she and her cub melted away in true, elusive otter style.
Author: Robert E Fuller