Friday, 23 May 2014

A narrow escape

The two Egyptian geese are watching something. Stood on the riverbank by the ancient crossing point they are alert, their heads focussed on the river and their whole bodies rigid in posture. On the river itself is a female mallard, her mate in attendance close by, and both birds protectively close to a brood of young chicks. While the chicks huddle together, close to their parents, the adults have adopted the same rigid, straight-necked posture as the geese. My immediate thought is ‘otter’ but it takes me a few moments to pick up the tell-tale trail of bubbles that reveals its underwater presence.

The otter surfaces close to the far bank, deep in the shadow of an overhanging willow, before the head slips back beneath the surface and the trail of bubbles begins once again. This particular individual seems to be working the bank and can’t yet have noticed the mallards and their vulnerable youngsters, exposed in the middle of the gentle flow. I too am now watching nervously, waiting to see if the trail of bubbles moves away from the bank and out towards the mallard family.

Again the otter emerges for air, this time exploring part of the riverbank in greater detail while on the surface. Surely it must have noticed the ducks just a few metres away? By now the otter is parallel with the ducks and this is the critical moment. Will it continue to work the bank or slip out into the current to take one of the ducklings? The next time the otter surfaces will be crucial.

The bubbles continue upstream, close to the bank and I feel my body relax as it becomes clear that the otter will not strike out at the ducks. I watch it disappear upstream. The ducks, however, remain tense and the chicks hang in the current, almost motionless beside their parents. Finally, after what seems an age, the birds relax and turn to ride the current downstream and away from the otter. As I continue on my way I replay the scene in my mind. How did the otter not see the mallards and their young? Perhaps more importantly, how did the ducks – not to mention the geese on the riverbank – spot the otter? Was it chance?

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