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Charlie Hamilton James on how to film otters

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 07:24 UK time, Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Guest blogger: Charlie Hamilton James, photographer/cameraman and guest presenter of Autumnwatch 2010, is in Shetland filming otters. Here he gives advice on the best way to film these elusive creatures.

It's so nice to be back in Shetland filming otters. I was up here about five years ago shooting otters for Springwatch with Simon King and John Aitchison. We got some great stuff on that trip and hopefully we will this time too.

Shetland is the best place to see otters in Britain. It seems to have just the right mix of good habitat and plentiful fish supplies. The otters up here are also pretty easy to spot as they come out during the day.

Charlie Hamilton James

Charlie has been going to Shetland for 20 years to film otters

My job as the cameraman/presenter is to get the viewers good shots of them, which means getting close to them. I don't want just any old otter though - autumn is the best time to see otter cubs in Shetland and that's what I'm after.

I've spent 20 years coming up to Shetland to photograph and film otters. I even lived up here for around 18 months. During that time I learned a lot about how to approach them and get close to them. It's a bit of an art but it's not exclusive and if you follow a few simple rules it's possible to get really good views. The key thing is to not disturb the otters.

When I go out filming otters the first thing I do is look at the wind direction. I usually have several good sites up my sleeve and each works well in different wind conditions. The trick when looking for otters is to be in a location where the wind is blowing either into your face as you travel along the beach or from the sea directly onto the land. If you get this wrong the chances of seeing otters are almost zero. An otter will be able to smell you from a good few hundred yards away and will vanish before you get to it.

When I arrive at my chosen site I usually get out of the car, walk to a vantage point and have a good long scan with my binoculars. This involves really carefully checking every inch of coastline and then scanning the sea to about 100m out. These two places are where the otters are most likely to be. There are some locations where I've got to know where the otters holts and lie-ups are. This is really useful. These spots are areas of increased activity and the otters are very often there.

Once I've spotted my otter I get my kit and start approaching. I keep low and quiet. Otters have bad eyesight and can only really detect movement and silhouette so give them a person walking along a ridge and they'll spot it!  So keep low and quiet and head towards the otter.

My advice is keep off the beach. The beach is noisy and often not very wide - you don't want to get too close. Get yourself in a nice position 50-100 yards from the otter, keep low and look through your binoculars - enjoy the show. The instinct is to get as close as you can to watch or photograph the otter. My advice is resist. As a result you might get to witness behaviour you would never see if you got too close and disturbed it.

If you you want to watch otters near you home further down south get out on your local river really early in the morning. The  bigger the river the better, as otters are easier to spot on large rivers than small ones. Take binoculars and try to use the same techniques as above. I've been filming otters lately right in the middle of a city at seven in the morning. So you may not need to travel far. Good luck!

Charlie starred in BBC One's Halycon River Diaries. You can see if Charlie's been successful filming otter cubs on Thursday night's Autumnwatch. And if you'd like to ask him a question about the species or about his other passion - kingfishers - please post one here. He'll answer the best on Unsprung.

Check out the behind the scenes photostory for a sneak peak at Charlie's search or for more on how the remote team have coped on their small island this past week check out production coordinator Ellie Williams' recent update.

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