| When a dozing otter steals the show|
|There is a magic about some birds that makes one long to see them, and the more difficult that is to achieve the stronger their allure seems to become. The gyrfalcon, pale and powerful falcon of the north, bird of tundra, taiga and Arctic coasts, has just that sort of charisma – and the phone message says one has been seen on North Uist. The light is failing by the time we hear the news but next morning, in the hope it may have stayed around, we speed northwards.|
The morning is chilly, but be-hatted and be-gloved we search methodically along the fence lines where the previous day the gyrfalcon had obligingly sat out in the open. With that curious mix of hopeful anticipation and rising dread at the prospect of missing out that is so well known to birders, we repeatedly scan the fields, every pale and distant flying bird causing a reflex twitch of the binoculars. Then a chance encounter with a friend reveals the disappointing but not unexpected news: the bird has not been seen that morning. But he does tell us about something he thinks we might find interesting at the lochan. And he's right.
For there, lying atop what in another part of the country could be mistaken for the remains of a bittern's nest, is an otter dozing behind a screen of yellowing reed stems. It's as relaxed as a dog in its basket. As we watch, it stirs and then leans back and begins to groom, running its teeth repeatedly through its throat and belly fur. It's an activity vital for otters for they have little subcutaneous fat and it is the structure of their fur with its dense under-layer and overlying layer of long guard hairs that keeps it warm both on land and in the sea. Satisfied at last with its toilette, the otter curls up again, resumes its nap and we, mightily entertained and having given up all hope of the gyrfalcon, nip off for a quick look at a surf scoter instead.