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  • Julie

When is the best time to watch for Otters?

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

Otter (Lutra lutra) on the beach at RSPB Balranald

Otter cubs waiting for their mother, Balranald, Isle of North Uist

Otter cubs waiting for their mother, RSPB Balranald

Watching Otter cubs is a highlight of any wildlife holiday in Scotland

Whether you visit the Isle of Mull, Skye, Harris or the Uist's you have a great chance to see wild Otters. However, the Uist's are still a relatively undiscovered gem. Of all the Hebridean Islands, our best and most consistent Otter sightings have been along the gorgeous west coast of North Uist which in our experience should top every "Otter watchers" bucket list.

Here on the Isle of North Uist there is a host of other wildlife and birds to see in between looking for Otters, especially at the world famous RSPB Balranald reserve. Also, the ferry crossings from either Skye, Mallaig or Oban offer a chance to see dolphins, porpoise, seals, basking sharks, whales and sea going birds such as shearwaters and petrels. Once here, the Uist's are so much less busy than the west coast of Scotland and the Inner Hebridean islands (including Mull and especially Skye) allowing more space to explore the coast and wilderness - and to enjoy the wildlife.

There is a lovely article written in the August 2017 edition of BBC Wildlife Magazine by Mark Rowe, a travel writer and author of "Outer Hebrides: The Western Isles of Scotland" (Bradt Travel Guides). In this article, Mark really conveys the magic of the Outer Hebrides and the feeling of being immersed in nature, even whilst going about day to day chores. It's definitely worth a read.

Otter on the rocks a highlight of a Scottish island holiday

I took all of these Otter photographs near to the cottage. One morning, I was nestled in the rocks taking time-lapse shots as the sun came up and suddenly a dog Otter appeared less than one meter in front of me on the rocks. I'm not sure who was more surprised!

I sat still in order not to scare him and he retreating a few feet whilst barking at me (Otters are surprisingly vocal creatures) before slipping into the sea beneath me. He watched me for a while and then went further out to fish. One of those magical moments you never forget.

Traditionally the best time of day to see Otters on the coast are at dawn or about two hours before high tide, particularly if this occurs in the early evening. I have enjoyed many early morning sightings when I have been out on the rocks below the cottage, taking pictures around sunrise.

Otter cubs waiting while their mother fishes in the Outer Hebrides.

Watching Otter cubs is always a special treat and an opportunity to see and/or photograph them in the wild must be on every nature lovers wish list.

I took these Otter cub photographs near to the cottage one late calm September evening, about two hours before high tide. The mother and her two cubs were fishing and playing just a few metres away, completely unaware of our presence. The highlight was the two cubs having a tug of war with an eel as the waves crashed over them - a memory I'll cherish for the rest of my life. Fantastic !

Otter cubs with an eel, RSPB Balranald, Outer Hebrides

Sometimes, Otters appear when you least expect to see them including suddenly whilst driving along the coastal roads (top tip: drivers should either stop the car to watch or keep their eyes on the road). Like us, many of our guests have enjoyed watching them from the kitchen window or back door in the middle of the day when the tide is favourable. Otter watching from the kitchen (not to mention the Seabirds, Seals and occasional Golden Eagle sighting) makes cooking meals extra special, though the distraction can easily ruin the dinner!

It's always worth walking around the coast and over the rocks to check for signs of Otter activity. Partially eaten crabs and fish and the presence of droppings (also called spraints, containing visible fish bones and with a distinctive odour - some say reminiscent of Jasmine tea) are signs of where Otter's are tending to fish and come ashore to eat and can suggest good places to watch for them. It's worth remembering that Otters also like to come ashore wherever there is a freshwater Loch within easy reach, as they need fresh water for drinking and also to help them care for their coat.

Otters can be seen in North Uist at any time of year and I can't think of a better place to see these beautiful elusive creatures!

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