A few weeks ago we took a day off and went for a day trip to the Valle del Jerte, west of Madrid, to see the cherry trees blossoming. Apart from the traffic getting there and the slight sunburn on my nose (my nose always becomes red!), the day went really well and by the time we had finished driving around the valley the sun and our energy were pretty low.
Then I saw a dam.
Ever since working for a year in Portugal studying otter behaviour, I’ve developed a modest obsession with dams, rivers, streams, rivulets…basically any body of water will attract me irresistibly and I’ll have to go to the edge of the water and check for signs of otter presence.
What are these signs?
Well, first of all there’s the famous spraint. Spraint is the word that defines otter faeces – only otters have this posh name for their dung, don’t ask me why! It’s easy to identify a spraint: the position is very important, as spraint is used by otters to mark their territory and so often placed in strategically obvious places – the top of a rock, a branch of a beached tree trunk etc. The shape and contents are important, although not essential (otters eat many, many different things, being basically opportunist carnivores) but the most important thing is the smell.
I can hear you going urg, she’s going to talk about its smell! but no worries: spraint smell is the best thing about it! The easiest way to positively identify spraint, discriminating it from any other semi-aquatic mammal that might be marking its territory, is its pleasant, fishy smell. Yep. Pleasant. As soon as you bring your nose close to a hypothetical spraint and it stinks – well, it’s not spraint. If instead it smells of fresh seafood, cut grass or fish risotto then it’s most positively a spraint!
Another easy sign of otter presence are its footprints. Obviously.
And the last sign can be partially consumed prey – half eaten fish (otters nearly always start from the head), chomped-up crayfish (otters luuuuv crayfish) or river molluscs with large, canine puncture marks in them.
So off the car we got, and walked over to the water. There were dozens and dozens of footprints in the sand: human, horse and dog. There was rubbish on the shores, and there were fish in the water.
And there were otter signs.
I was extremely excited because the footprint were so fresh you could see the signs of drops of water that fell from the otter as it was walking around!
We didn’t find any half-consumed prey but with fish jumping around, crayfish in the spraint and dead molluscs on the beach I didn’t doubt that the otters present were being provided with a healthy balanced diet.
This day was one of the most successful so far!