Truth be told there was nothing ominous about the morning as we duly kick-started it at 0600 am. The threat of rain seemed imminent, a leaden cloud slung low over Kariega’s contours and lazy mists rose from the grasslands below.
Brendon Jennings, our guide, was bright eyed and bushy-tailed and as usual, eager as a beaver to get going. Bouncing and bumbling gingerly down narrow tracks, we approached the South Eastern sector of the reserve hoping to catch up with some Cape Buffalo, but ALAS! We then reached Second River crossing…
Perched, by the water, an African Darter jolted its neck spasmodically back and forth clearly very excited about something. Two giant Kingfishers left the scene raucously as we reached the bottom of the river crossing. A trio of Hamerkops flapped and flitted across a small pool next to the car, downstream from us. Such a coincidental gathering is unusual at the best of times and it sure is hard to miss, but why? A trail of bubbles effervesced across the pool that the Hamerkops were staring and twitching at with intent.
Before I could find the right choice of words to alert Brendon about “my bubbling waters”, the unmistakable face of a Cape Clawless Otter emerged in “periscopic” fashion, staring at me with probably the same expression of shock and disbelief I bore across my face. Catching a glimpse of this graceful and elegant creature has always been a highlight in my life, but nothing could have prepared us for what was to come. Suddenly five other faces buoyed, broke the surface and stood aloft, staring at us in unison.
We instinctively reached for our cameras, the leaders of this Otter “impi” (properly known as a “romp”), sounded a hasty retreat with an ear piercing whistle. By the time I had reached, raised and trained my camera in their direction, all that was left of this idyllic sighting was a trail of murky water, more bubbles and shaking twigs. The Otter family had bolted for safety. But whilst merely out of sight, they were certainly not far away. We could hear them, in fact, the air was now filled with a new-to-me, yet rather distinct, high pitched collection of contact whistles that gently waned as our otters vanished downstream. Barely audible but intensely distinct, we decided to track down their alluring whistlings.
Our first approach was way too eager, they sunk and swam yonder. Our second attempt was however, more successful – anticipating their progress, Brendon chose the perfect clearing by the rivers’ edge to wait and intercept the family. Standing still ahead of them, we barely stood more than 5 minutes when they popped again in view. Glued to our cameras’ view finders, tracking and panning their approach, settings chosen and already firing, you could tell a mile away which ones were the breeding pair, and which ones the inquisitive, carefree youngsters. A turmoil of emotions swirled within. I was ecstatic to watch and photograph what we were witnessing, but I also thought the parents bore that distinct “herding cats” expression of despair. As a father of two myself, I felt a distinct sense of solidarity towards what they were going through should they discover our ambush, and so there and then – we decided on a cut-off time.
The minutes felt like hours, as we watched the “romp” work the edge and depths of the river bank. Dipping, diving and emerging victorious to find a log, rock or ledge upon which they could lie on their backs and crunch away through “river mussels” and crabs.
Their success rate was high, but it must have been their messy “table manners” and organized approach that gave rise to a fascinating interaction, one I have never before read or heard about.
As the otters scoured and fed downstream, a gamut of other riverine species started to tag along with them. Judging by their behavior, it was food scraps, and or fish that they were after. Most notably, a Half-collared Kingfisher was the first to join this procession – patiently following them downstream, changing perch, poised over their heads and dexterously harvesting it’s bootie as the otters made way. Similarly, a Long-tailed Cormorant flying upstream was observed making a sharp and sudden U-turn to join the otter’s progress as well, and presumably snatch the odd morsel too. Including our earlier and initial encounter, Giant Kingfishers, Hamerkops and even an African Darter were spotted along with the otters, five different species in total.
It would not be too bold to assume that just as Cattle Egrets follow ungulates in grasslands hoping for juicy invertebrates fleeing away from hooves harm, or as Crested Guineafowls trundle under troops of feeding Samango Monkeys waiting for fruit scraps.. that this behavior we had just witnessed at Kariega GR suggests that an entire suite of riverine species clearly benefit as well when following a “romp” of otters at work.
When the otters had passed and stillness descended upon the scene, Brendon and I stood still, bursting proud, joyful and gleefully through the seams having unashamedly and totally OD’d on the best Clawless Otter sighting ever. With a 4 GB card pleading for a merciful download and a most fascinating observation, we are rearing to find out if anyone has ever witnessed this before?