Feeding Otter

My First Encounter With a Water Dog

By Jessica Hamilton

DISTRICT DIRECTOR: sean lyons / EDITOR: Donal hickey

As an ecologist and general wildlife enthusiast, I am familiar with the signs that indicate an otter is residing in an area, (spraint, tracks etc). Often these signs are all you will see as their keen sense of smell, combined with their sharp eyesight mean that they often see you and disappear, long before you get a chance to see them. Unless you happen to be lucky- I have had just one close-up encounter with an otter, and it was up by the lock-gates at Lohercannon, just outside the town of Tralee. During the day this is a popular walking route – not a place you’d expect to see this species.

It was a beautiful spring morning when I made my way down the pathway that runs parallel to the canal that flows into Tralee Bay. A beautiful morning it was, but it was bitterly cold with frost still on the ground. It was also eerily calm, only broken by the sounds of oystercatchers who were heralding the start of a new day. At this point, my only plan was to photograph the sunrise, and the morning was showing some great potential. 

Sunrise at the Lockgate
Worth the wait, this particular shot was taken at the lock gates a few days later. Photo by Jessica Hamilton

While walking down to my preferred shooting spot, like the fog, life was beginning to stir all around. The canal’s resident swans floated silently, while Mr Fox was heading home after his night of gallivanting. After about ten minutes of walking, something caught my eye in the distance.

I could see a ripple ahead of me that no bird or fish would have made. The ripple soon started to glide towards me – still a distance away, but I soon realized it was an otter. Adrenaline started to rush! Despite being a widespread species in Ireland, prior to this moment, I had only ever seen the odd flash of an otter as they disappeared out of view.

I was accompanied that morning by my two canines so I quickly ushered them in beside me and we used a nearby wall to give us some cover, so as not to spook our oncoming friend. At this point, the daylight was starting to filter through nicely and I should have been getting ready to capture the sunrise. However, my priorities had changed. These moments happen so rarely, that just seeing the otter in the first instance was something special. After a few moments of waiting in silence, we were rewarded. I heard the splashing of water, followed by the sound of scrambling, and seconds later, our friend was perched on the rocky bankside, eagerly devouring breakfast he had just caught. He was a few metres away, but almost at eye level. 

Had I taken the camera out there and then, I would have gotten some great shots, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, besides any movement from myself would likely disturb him and would end the encounter there and then. Sometimes it is nicer to just embrace and savour the moment for what it is. 

The otter sat devouring his breakfast for what felt like half an hour, but in reality was probably ten minutes or less. With a swift glide, he once again became at one with the water. At this point, he must have caught the smell of the dogs, or myself as he quickly vanished. All that remained of his presence was a damp patch from where he had sat and devoured his meal.

The Real Madra Uisce
The Real Madra Uisce? Photo by Jessica Hamilton

I always joke that my own spaniel is an otter, her love and need to be always in the water, in combined with her dark fluffy head mean that when she is in her aquatic state, she does quite a good impersonation of one.  However, the fact that she is most often swimming while carrying her favourite neon-yellow tennis ball is probably a giveaway that she is but a pseudo-otter. 
However, the Irish name for otter is Madra uisce (Water Dog) – so perhaps their like-ness is not so far-fetched after all.

Eurasian Otter
Eurasian Otter (Lutra lutra). Photo by Brian Power

Some Otter-ly amazing facts

  • Ireland has only one species of Otter – the Eurasian Otter (Lutra lutra). They can be found in both marine and freshwater ecosystems and belong to the Mustelidae family, the same family as Badgers, stoats and Pine martens. 
  • Eurasian Otters are about the size of a small dog, have slender bodies and have a tail which tapers to a point. Males tend to be around ten percent larger than females and both have a thick brown coat, which is usually a lighter colour on their underside.
  • When not in the water, otters generally have two places where they rest up, in areas of thick vegetation known as ‘couches’ or in an underground burrows known as ‘holts’. 
  • Their diet will vary depending what food is available within their territory, predominantly taking fish but will also eat molluscs and crabs.
Feeding Otter
Eurasian Otter feeding on lamprey, Photo by Brian Power
  • Breeding can take place all year round but normally occurs in the spring or early summer.  Females usually give birth to two or three cubs who are born with their eyes closed and covered in fur.
  • Eurasian Otters are very territorial and use their droppings (known as ‘spraint’) to mark their territories, often on rocky outcrops or grassy tussocks, where they will be noticed by other otters. 
  • They are a protected species and are classified as ‘Near Threatened’, both globally and in an Irish context, although Ireland is currently a European stronghold for the species.

References / Further Reading:

  1. Reid, N., Hayden, B., Lundy, M.G., Pietravalle, S., McDonald, R.A. & Montgomery, W.I. (2013),  National Otter Survey of Ireland 2010/12. Irish Wildlife Manuals No. 76. National Parks and Wildlife service, Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Dublin, Ireland.

Available at: https://www.npws.ie/sites/default/files/publications/pdf/IWM76.pdf

  1. Jim Conroy, Andreas Kranz, Paulo Cavallini, Margarida Fernandes, Alexei Tikhonov, Juan Herrero, Michael Stubbe, Tiit Maran. 2007. Lutra lutra. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2007: e.T12419A3343999.

One comment

  1. Jessica’s Hamilton’s story My First Encounter With a Water Dog is a revelation of a time of day missed by most and a nature reward for the persistent. .Both points brought to life in the wonderful photographs by Brian Power and Jessica.

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