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Otters on the Tees
Mary Askew at Saltholme
By BBC Look North's Mary Askew
Find out how Mary Askew is getting on in her search for the notoriously shy otter at Saltholme!
BBC Tees and BBC Look North have set up a webcam at Saltholme to try and catch a glimpse of an otter running wild in the grounds. Mary Askew is the roving reporter desperately trying to seek the creature out, keep an eye on how her search goes here...
Friday 5 June
Overnight something had eaten the sardine bait we had laid for our otter. But what?
Everyone in the office crowded round as we downloaded the pictures that the hidden camera has taken in the previous 24 hours.
Sadly, the culprit wasn't an otter but a moor hen and her three fluffy chicks. There were some great shots of them pulling the sardines out from under the stone, where we had hidden them. But I couldn't help feeling a little despondent. Were we ever going to see the Saltholme otter?
My mood was improved a little when Toby from the RSPB said that moor hens were very shy, and it was fabulous to be able to watch how they interacted. And the camera had caught a mallard duck and her chicks on film too.
Our plan now is to leave the camera in place, but check it a little less frequently because our scent maybe discouraging the otter. We'll probably download the shots once a week for the next couple of months.
I've had e-mails from people saying they have recently spotted otters elsewhere - Mickley, just north of Ripon; on the River Eden between Culgaith and Temple Sowerby; on the River Tees at Croft; and on the River Skerne near the bridge at Blackwell in Darlington.
So there are otters out there.
Sooner or later ours will show his face.
In the meantime, for a glimpse of the moor hen family happily demolishing our otter food, click below!
Thursday 4 June
Day four of ottercam... and still no otter.
But hey, these things wouldn't be fun if they were easy. And we are having fun.
Today we were joined by Matt Baker of Countryfile and Blue Peter fame, and together with half a dozen school children, we all went pond dipping. I haven't been pond dipping since my dad took me to Ryton Ponds in the Tyne Valley when I was about seven, and I'd forgotten just how much I loved it.
We caught water boatmen with their front legs like paddles, little stickleback fish, and, in our enthusiasm, rather a lot of sand.
Otters in Nunthorpe
Incredibly the pond has only been there for a few months yet seemed to be packed with tiny wildlife. Some of the kids there today had actually helped plant the watery reed beds in March, and they were really chuffed to see a black coot and her chicks nesting in area they themselves had helped to create.
It's one of the things I like about Saltholme, it really is a reserve for the whole family to enjoy, and not just for serious twitchers. Staff can even loan you 'Little Explorer Rucksacks' complete with a small pair of binoculars, plastic pots to house any bugs your kids find and a game of 'bird bingo' to play as you walk around.
But back to otters.
Tees Valley Wildlife Trust has also been hiding camera traps, hoping to film otters.
Its cameras (funded by the Heritage Lottery) are across the River Tees in Middlesbrough. And I am so impressed with what they have caught on film.
By far my favourite is some footage from Marton. A homeowner there was complaining that something - he didn't know what - was stealing Koi carp from his garden pond. A wildlife camera caught the culprit red-handed - a very happy otter was filmed carrying a Koi carp that was almost as big as he was.
Wednesday 3 June
Last night the camera trap caught a large eel swimming around our otter perch. It may not be the footage we were hoping for, but knowing that eels are living here is good news.
Otters need to eat 20 per cent of their own weight every day to survive, so having a healthy population of eels at Saltholme should mean 'our otter' sticks around.
The more I find out about otters the more interested I become. Today I learnt that otters can tell each others sex, age and mating potential just by smelling each others spraint (droppings). How clever is that, it's like Facebook for otters!
And apparently - although I haven't tried this out - fresh otter spraint smells fragrant, just like jasmine tea.
If you fancy seeing the camera footage of the eel, it's available at below. Fingers crossed that there will be shots of the elusive Saltholme otter up there soon too - who knows what tomorrow will bring?
Tuesday 2 June
Day two of Saltholme's 'ottercam' and this morning we were bursting to see if the camera trap had recorded anything overnight. Theoretically we just testing the kit, but at the back of our minds we couldn't stop hoping that we had hit the jackpot. First however, I needed to do a live chat with BBC Tees' Diane Youdale. During the interview I realised I was calling the Saltholme otter "our otter" - maybe I'm getting a little too involved!
Much to our delight, the camera's display showed it had tripped into action ten times since we had left it 18 hours earlier. Something had been there, but what?
The sardine bait we had left was untouched. We downloaded the camera's memory card on to a laptop in the back of Jonny's car, but my excitement faded as we played each of the ten 90-second films.
A dragonfly caught on camera
Each short burst of film showed nothing. In fact, it was really hard to see just what had triggered the camera. Our only clue was that all the shots had been taken in a relatively short period between nine and ten o'clock this morning. After much discussion it was decided that during that time the sun had been shining directly on to the stone perch. This had attracted a number of insects (including a beautiful dragonfly), and it was these that had triggered the camera.
Kenny tried to cheer us up, "I wouldn't expect you to get anything yet - the otter is probably only swimming past here once every three or four days. You are going to have to be patient," he said. For good measure Kenny put an otter spraint next to the sardines. He had collected the dropping many miles away, and the theory is that the Saltholme otter will want to investigate a stranger's scent. Here's hoping.
Will we have better luck tomorrow morning? We will download any film from the camera straight onto this website as soon as the team get back with the footage so make sure you take a look.
Monday 1 June
When I first heard rumours about an otter at Saltholme I was sceptical. I had fallen for the RSPB reserve back in 2007 when I reported on Springwatch's Kate Humble turning the first sod of the visitor's centre.
I loved the tranquil streams and ponds that lay just a few 100 metres from Teesside's heavy industry, but could an otter live here? I thought it unlikely.
Just a few years ago the Tees was classed as a 'dead' river and otters need clean, clean water to survive, but then I spoke to Saltholme manager Dave Braithwaite:
"It's true," he said. "Kenny Crooks of Tees Valley Wildlife Trust was down here looking for water voles, but while he was here he found otter footprints, and an otter spraint - that's otter poo. We're so excited."
The trap is set to catch an otter
"Has anyone spotted the otter," I asked. "No," Dave sighed. Then there was a long pause. We were both thinking the same thing: Wouldn't it be fabulous to set up a hidden camera to see if we could capture it on film.
That was three weeks ago, and today our camera finally arrived in the post. It's a really clever bit of kit that springs into action whenever it detects movement, the type of equipment that viewers to Springwatch have become accustomed to in recent years. Of course, it might be triggered by movement from any of the wildlife at Saltholme - even the rare purple heron that has been spotted over recent days - but, fingers crossed, it's going to be triggered by our otter.
So cameraman Jonny Coates and RSPB's Toby Collett pulled on their waders and fixed the camera to a post in one of the streams - although Toby nearly dropped it in his excitement at spotting what looked like a tiny bit of reed in the water, no more than 3cm long.
"It's a caddisfly larvae," he exclaimed, "I've never seen one alive before."
I hope I looked suitably enthusiastic, but I confess I had hoped to spot something a little bigger...
Jonny and Toby created a little stone island in the middle of the water, right in front of the camera, in the hope that the otter might rest there. And, to make it all the more tempting, we put some premium tinned sardines down too. It's a spot that had been singled out by Kenny Crooks (whose work with urban wildlife is funded by a Heritage Lottery Fund) as a good location.
He says he's confident we'll see an otter there in the next few days. All we can do now is wait. Early every morning this week, we'll be wading into the water to download whatever the camera has recorded in the previous 24 hours, and you'll be able to see what we capture here on BBC Tees!
last updated: 07/06/2009 at 16:28