It’s July and the otter pups are growing up! Liz Hardman sent in this beautiful photo of an otter pup in Murdoch Valley, where she has been lucky to see a family fairly regularly. According to Liz, the pup had been learning to fish, accompanied by its mother. Here, the pup follows its mother back through the boulders:
Over the last few weeks, I have shifted some of my camera traps to Cape Point. An extensive and productive coastline, rocky shores, an abundance of reed beds and little disturbance makes this an absolute paradise for otters. Here are some of the better photos of otters and other critters caught on cameras in the Park:
After the icy UK and a few (necessary) desk-bound days, I am itching to be out and about in the field again! I have heard from numerous residents of otters sighted along the coast in recent days and while Cape Town is looking particularly beautiful, I cannot wait to do some ‘otter spotting’ myself. Here are a few photos of a recent trip to Cape Point and a few older ones for some inspiration – enjoy!
A mere 300m down the road from busy restaurants and shops in Main Street, Newlands, an urban river – the Liesbeek – meanders through suburbia. The Liesbeek has its source on Table Mountain, above Kirstenbosch Gardens. It joins up with the Black River in Observatory, and flows out to Table Bay via Paarden Eiland. It is one of Cape Town’s oldest urbanized rivers and was used extensively in the past to supply water to industries, including the South African Breweries.
Today, much of the river is canalized, yet remains home to many birds, mammals, fish and crabs. As part of my study on otters in the Peninsula, I have been setting camera traps on the Liesbeek in an attempt to survey otter activity along the river. A few cameras were lost, stolen or flooded by the heavy Newlands rain, but despite these hiccups we have managed to gain some insights into what animals exist here.
In the first few months, we found mostly porcupines, squirrels, water mongoose and birds. Then in October I got a huge surprise when I was flicking through the photos from and came across a deer! As there are no African buck species that have antlers, I was particularly confused until I realized that it was the Sambar deer – an alien deer that was introduced to the Cape in the 1960s.
Many months went by and there was still no sign of otters on the cameras despite rumors of otters at the Arderne Gardens in Claremont and sightings in Kirtsenbosch Gardens. In February this year, residents in Lemon Lane, Newlands, contacted me with the news that they had been visited by an otter which had left its droppings all over their garden. Eager to catch a glimpse of the Liesbeek otter, I set up a camera trap in their garden and we were all finally rewarded with a photo two weeks ago when the otters visited once more. A big thank you to the residents of Lemon Lane and the trusty Bushnell camera trap that survived being completely submerged in rain and mud during the last storm!
Full Circle magazine published an article on the Otter Project in their March issue, showcasing beautiful photos of otters from Liz Hardman and Matt Lewis. Check it out online here!
In the United Kingdom, the Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra) is considered Near Threatened and therefore the focus of many research and conservation efforts. Otters disappeared from parts of Europe throughout the 1900’s and were declared locally extinct in certain parts of the UK and Netherlands by 1988. After extensive research, studies showed that the decline in otter populations could be attributed to poor water quality and the accumulation of dangerous toxins in the tissues of these top predators. Subsequent river clean ups, bans on certain toxic substances and re-introduction programs have had the desired impact and otters are once again starting to be found in European rivers. Through this process, much has been learnt about the biology, conservation and management of otters.
Hoping to learn from these experienced researchers, I spent most of March in the chilly UK – attending a conference on Mustelid Conservation (otters are of the family Mustelidae, along with badgers, weasels and stoats), and visiting the Cardiff University Otter Project. The trip was a success and I was lucky enough to meet and learn from top scientists in the field, and find out more on the various techniques available internationally to study the spatial ecology and health of our urban otters. Some additions to my methods (inspired by the Irish) include a Peninsula wide census to be run in Summer and in Winter. That is a lot of ground to cover, and many hands will be needed! For those interested in getting involved, keep a look out on the blog and I will post details on when, where and what closer to Winter.
In the meantime, I have posted a variety of photos taken while ottering in Oxford, Wales and London:
The past few months have been a busy time for the Otter Project, with field work well underway. In addition to collecting otter scats for diet analysis and sign surveys for occupancy modelling, we need to have an understanding of what prey is available for otters around the Peninsula to test whether prey availability could be a contributing factor driving otter distribution.
Thus, in November last year and January this year, we sampled each of the study sites for crabs and fish – the otters main prey – using a variety of methods, including electro-fishing, fyke nets and seine nets. All fish and crabs caught are immediately identified, measured, weighed and released unharmed. After many long nights, early mornings, a few nightmares featuring large creepy looking catfish and more than the occasional nip by a feisty crab, we have successfully sampled six rivers and three vleis twice and have packed in the nets until winter when we will sample the sites again.
Although we did find a number of alien fish species, there were fewer than I had expected. All rivers had healthy populations of freshwater crabs and the indigenous fish species found included Galaxias and Cape kurper (Sandelia). Other fish included Mozambique tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus), Banded tilapia (Tilapia sparrmanii), Carp and African Sharp Toothed Catfish (Clarias gariepinus).
As I have mentioned before, otters are extremely vulnerable at this time of year (November – March). Newly born otters are only just learning to forage and are still dependent on their mothers, and one-year old otters from the previous years litters are just starting to disperse. The dispersing yearlings are in danger of encountering cars, roads, trains and humans en route to finding their new territories, and the young pups are in danger of being separated from their mother and becoming lost and eventually abandoned.
This was the case for a young female otter found in Langebaan at the end of last year – November 2012. The pup was found in Veldrif Nature reserve, all alone, by the SANParks rangers. Often otter mothers will whistle and call for their young should they get separated, and will eventually be reunited. However, in this case, the otter family did not find the otter pup after sufficient time and as the pup would not be able to survive on its own, she was taken in to a nearby wildlife rehabilitation facility – Wildlife Rescue, in Langebaan. The centre is run by Tanya Heald at HOW. Tanya is a trained wildlife rehabilitation expert and will be raising the otter until it is old enough to be released back into the wild. So far, Tanya has been teaching the otter to swim, and she has been making great progress. I will post further updates as she grows, but in the mean time, check out these photos of her in her large enclosure:
There appears to be a family of otters living just past Simonstown. They frequent Windmills beach, Partridge Point and a certain freshwater spring somewhere in between. Residents in the area have spotted them numerous times and it is very exciting to watch their family grow and develop over time. A big thank you to Liz Hardman who provided these stunning photos of the otters of Murdoch Valley:
In July last year, I posted one of Liam Cornell’s photos of an otter in Pringle Bay. Having sighted one again at the end of last year, Liam wrote to me with the following story and photos:
“I had the strangest experience with an otter at Pringle Bay at the end of last year. I walked out onto the rocks to photograph a family of Egyptian geese swimming in the sea, when I heard a splash, and right next to me in the water was an otter. He disappeared under the water before I could take a photo and I thought: ‘well, at least I got to see him’. To my surprise he came up again and for the next half hour he swam around me snorting loudly and almost mock charging me. I could not work out if he was curious or really irritated about something. Whether I was in the way of food, or there were pups around. There were lots of fishermen on the rocks the day before and I wondered if they had maybe been feeding him scraps. At times he came right up to me (maybe a meter away). Eventually I left him as I did not want to aggravate him too much.”
Thank you for the great photos! Very interesting behaviour indeed. As it is the time of year for pups, the otter may have been trying to divert attention from them, but this is rather unusual behaviour.