Tales from the Riverbank

  • February 2, 2018 6:56 pm

The thin January light seeps through Winter’s brown stems, warming the muddy tones faintly golden. The cold grips my limbs despite three layers, as I sit frozen to the damp riverbank. A Blackbird whispers his subsong in the cool sunlight, practising for when Spring arrives. The water is high, and the river flows fast, eddies and ripples and swirls of bubbles fizz downstream. The vegetation leans with the current, a Grey Wagtail alights here, bouncing tail and bright lemon zing in the sparkling river light.

He flits away upstream as a pair of Swans and their grown up Cygnet cruise slowly into view.

They paddle by both peacefully and powerfully, taking the current in their stride.

The water ahead rolls, a darkness boils up and becomes living, a hump of greasy fur coils above the surface, and is followed by a sharp straight tail. Sinking away, gone, the river settles. Closer, a trail of bubbles appears from the depths, with anticipation I follow each new one as it shimmers upwards. A nose rises through the water, a broad head, and wet whiskers decorated with pearls of liquid, pauses at the bank and calmly observes her domain. An Otter. A privilege to see and always enchanting to watch. She relaxes in the sheltered water of the bank, just her nose, eyes and ears in the cold air, and in perfectly evolved alignment. She tips her head, takes a breath, and curls back into the river, so smooth that maybe she is made from the water itself.



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  • March 21, 2013 8:51 pm

Had a brilliant morning with the Otters, but first, a word to photographers planning to visit this location. If you are not aware of the Nature Photographers Code of Conduct, then please read it thoroughly HERE. This is the code of practice by which all nature photographers must abide, to protect the wildlife we love to photograph, and to protect ourselves as ethical photographers. The welfare of the subject is more important than the photograph.

Photographers please have respect for this location and your fellow photographers and wildlife watchers. Normal social rules and etiquette still apply – keep your distance and be patient. Do not muscle in on someone else’s photos – you don’t want to get exactly the same images as them anyway, do not get in the way of people watching, and do not chase the otters relentlessly up and down the river. The best photos can be achieved by sitting quietly and waiting for them to come to you. Please do not leave litter or disturb or annoy the local people.

Finally, and I cannot stress this final point enough: PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE OTTERS.  I have read online and witnessed some people feeding them – this is wholly unethical. Not only does this put the river system and otters at risk of ill health and disease (you do not know what parasites and bacteria might be present on the food), you are also endangering the otters lives. Feeding them encourages them to associate humans with food – but the otters cannot tell the difference between a person with a camera and a person with a gun. You are also putting yourself at risk of being bitten – otters have an extremely powerful bite (remember Terry Nutkins had part of two fingers removed by an otter) and again this puts the otters at risk of persecution. Imagine if one were to bite a child. The otters have already suffered a lot of bad publicity and despite the fact they are fully protected by law, there is still a small minority of people that wish them harm. Please give these wild animals the respect they deserve.

If everyone can behave responsibly and sensibly, then we will all be able to enjoy the presence of these very special creatures.

Now to the photos. An early start again this morning with a lovely companion, who really wanted to see the Otters. Sitting quietly by the river we observed some of the other river wildlife, including Grey Wagtail, Kingfisher and the long staying Black-bellied Dipper. After a long wait we were rewarded as the dog otter drifted gently past. He surfaced and dived, moving up river, so we gave him some space and then followed along behind. We had some fantastic views of this magnificent animal, and then as two other photographers joined us, we were able to watch him hunting. In the clear water we could see him below the surface, twisting his powerful body in the current, a curtain of silvery bubbles rising from his fur. An amazing experience.

There’s plenty of wildlife here to photograph:

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos, female, duck, standing on riverbank, Norfolk,

Later, after the male Otter went off to bed, we took a stroll along the river. Ahead on the path a chap was standing with a video camera, so we held back, and then noticed an Otter on the path right in front of him – amazing! This time it was a female, and she was clearly on a mission heading downstream, moving very quickly. We circled around and set up to wait for her to appear, but instead of swimming along in the river as I expected, she was running along the bank. A delightful sight with as tail held high, she bounded and bounced along.

Otter, lutra lutra, female running along riverbank, Norfolk, March


Otter, lutra lutra, female on riverbank at base of tree, Norfolk, March

We moved back to where the other photographers had set up and warned them she was on her way. We all waited in anticipation, and she didn’t disappoint, giving us some wonderful views.

 Otter, lutra lutra, female shaking head, water drops, Norfolk, March

 Otter, lutra lutra, female on riverbank, Norfolk, March

An incredible experience once again with these beautiful animals, and also again, a great group of friendly people.


Further reading:

The Nature Photographers Code of Practice

Nature Photographers Network – Code of Conduct

The International Otter Survival Fund – Otter press release

The Mammal Society – Otter factsheet

Elliot Neep – How to photograph otters (Based on coastal otters, but much is relevant to river otters.)


Otters are strictly protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and cannot be killed, kept or sold (even stuffed specimens). They are given full protection under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act – the restrictions on photographing otters at their places of shelter are exactly the same as those for nesting birds, meaning it is an offence to disturb them at their holt.

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Not Otters

  • March 12, 2013 9:38 pm

Sometimes you can try too hard. My lovely boss let me have the day off (thanks!) and to make the most of every minute, and hoping to avoid other photographers, I was out at first light – first car in the car park.  Nothing doing. Retracing my steps up and down the rivers, still nothing. I did find some other wildlife though.

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos, male, drake, on water in golden sunlight, Norfolk,

Muntjac deer, Muntiacus reevesi, in undergrowth, Norfolk

Egyptian Goose, Alopochen aegyptiacus, resting on river bank, Norfolk

 At 8.30am a trio of photographers arrived, and then a few more followed. I could read their minds before they opened their mouths to speak – are they here, have you seen them? I set off in the opposite direction but a photographer hurried past – ‘if you’re interested the otters have been seen further down’. I hesitated, do I join the crowd, or stay here with nothing to photograph. I followed along, after all, there weren’t as many people as last time. Arriving on scene I see a tail slide into the river, and a head pops up. The two youngsters are hunting, one catches a large fish and takes it into the undergrowth to eat. The other photographers follow their progress up and down the river, but I hang back. I dislike this chasing them up and down, it doesn’t feel right photographing like this, so I turn away. This is incredibly frustrating.

Despite the chill in the air and frost on the ground, in the sun it actually feels quite spring-like. Siskins are feeding in the alders by the river, Marsh tit’s are singing, somewhere close by a Green Woodpecker laughs. I sit for a while next to the fast flowing river, it’s so peaceful here, you wouldn’t believe you were so close to a town.

Jay, Garrulus glandarius, perched in tree in sunlight, Norfolk

Treecreeper, Certhia familiaris, Norfolk

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos, female, on water in golden sunlight, Norfolk,

I head home, and return later in the afternoon. Walking slowly along to where I last saw them, but there’s nothing around. I retrace my steps for the umpteenth time. Again I meet another photographer who informs me there’s an otter heading this way. Again I hesitate, but I follow anyway walking back the way I came, this might be my last day off  for some time, I have to make the most of it.  They set up, and I move away and find my own spot. There’s a Kingfisher on the far side of the bank, a shining blue jewel of a bird. I watch him for a while, but suddenly the water swirls in front of me, could it be? A few bubbles pop up, then a broad whiskered head appears by the bank before disappearing again, rolling away. This time there’s no splashing, this is one of the adults, she moves from land to water with fluid ease, silently hunting. She bobs up again and glances at me, and there it is, that amazing moment, just the otter and me.

She moves off  back the way she came, and some friendly locals encourage me over and point her out. Everyone I spoke to today were so enthusiastic about these creatures, they are so proud to have them here, and lots of people were keen to share what they knew, where they’d seen them before and describe their amazing encounters. The other photographers invited me closer, and I gratefully accepted. This is much more civilised than at the weekend, everyone keeping their distance, waiting for the otter to come to them. I set up hoping she would come up the bank for some photos with a reasonably clean background. Instead she headed straight for me, too fast for me to track her, and too close to focus. She peered curiously at me, ‘hunfff’ she snuffled. My research suggests this means ‘I smell you’ – I know you’re there. I imitate and she looks at me, we repeat and she’s now just a couple of feet away. I just can’t believe it, an absolutely incredible experience. I haven’t got any decent photos, but right now it doesn’t matter. I’m sure I’ll be back to try again.

European otter, lutra lutra, on river bank under bridge, Norfolk,

A big thank you to the lovely friendly photographers I met today, thank you for not only your help, but for restoring my faith in human-kind!

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Urban Otters

  • March 2, 2013 6:46 pm

For some weeks now, I’ve seen reports and amazing photographs of Otters in a town not too far away from me. Finally, I could no longer resist such a fantastic opportunity, and today I set out to find them. The Otter is an iconic mammal, shy and elusive, gracing our rivers once again after many years of persecution. But these guys are the new kids on the block, bold as brass, with attitude and charm in equal measure, they’ve swum their way into our urban environs.

Walking along the river footpath, I have a moment of uncertainty about the direction of the trail, when suddenly there’s a great big splash. Peering through the bushes I glimpse my first wild urban Otter, incredible. I see her shake out her coat and then dive right back in with another splosh of water. A photographer comes round the corner hurrying and struggling through the undergrowth trying to keep up. My senses come back to me and I hasten away from the action, they’re heading downstream and I’m already ahead of them, so I circle round a bend in the river and set up and wait.

European Otter, lutra lutra

What happened next, I could never have predicted. Many gardens back onto the river, and at the edge of this particular garden there were a group of chickens scratching through the leaves on the riverbank. The opportunistic Otters didn’t miss a trick, and leapt from the water onto the bank and gave chase, there was a lot of clucking as the panicking birds scattered out of the way of the Otter, as he pursued them back and forth. Cleverly, he slipped back into the water. One of the hens froze in fear, caught between the wrong side of the fence and the river and unable to see the predator, a fatal mistake. The Otter came silently and swiftly, propelled from the river by wide paws and thick tail, two bounds and he caught the hapless hen, who barely had time to react. Squealing and flapping hard she nearly broke free in a cloud of feathers, but the Otter dragged her to the water where she finally met her end.

European Otter, lutra lutra

An astonishing thing to witness, nature red in tooth and claw. A fine meal for the two Otters, but not so pleasant for the chicken’s unfortunate owner. Hopefully, with their preferred diet of fish, this isn’t a scene repeated too often.

The Otters were totally unconcerned by the human onlookers, and as more people joined the group they ate their fill, then had a swim and paused to dry off their fur and rest.

European Otter, lutra lutra

But that’s the only thing that spoils this for me. To my left, twelve cameras all set to ‘machine-gun-fire’, a barrage of shutter noise whenever the Otter moves. Call me a purist, but this isn’t wildlife photography. Not one of them is watching their back, thinking of wind-direction or stealth. For me, that’s wildlife photography at it’s best – watching and photographing an animal without it knowing you are there, and creating images different to anyone else. It’s not the Otter’s fault, they’re a modern mammal, adapting to the increasing urbanisation of their natural home. Perhaps I ought to get with the times too. But it’s great to see so many people taking an interest in our wildlife, it needs as many protectors and supporters as it can get. The Otter’s are unfazed by the attention, but I’ll be back at a quieter time.

Posing for the cameras…

European Otter, lutra lutra


Domestic chicken

Is it safe to come down yet?
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