Marievale – An Unexpected Sighting

In my most recent post ( https://mostlybirding.com/2020/03/31/my-atlasing-month-february-2020-part-three/) I mentioned my encounter with an unusual mammal while atlasing / birding at Marievale Bird Sanctuary, but thought I would dedicate a special post to this most exciting sighting. If you have seen an Otter close up in the wild before, read no further – for those that have not ….. well, read on.

Marievale Bird Sanctuary

Just as a reminder, Marievale, with its extensive, shallow open waters and wetlands, reed beds and surrounding grasslands, is well known among birding enthusiasts as a place where you are pretty much guaranteed to see an excellent variety of waterfowl, wetland and grassland species in a morning’s birding.

I was atlasing (bird-mapping) along the “power line road” – a maintenance track below the main overhead power lines that run through a section of the wetlands. The track is narrow and lined with reeds in places, affording views of the ponds and small lakes, most of which have abundant bird life. After heavy rains the track becomes inundated and impassable, but at most times of the year it is drive-able as long as your vehicle has reasonably high clearance and you don’t mind the potential light scratches that may be caused as you squeeze your vehicle between the reeds and vegetation on both sides.

Once committed to the track, the only places to turn around are where the track has been widened at each of the pylons and I used one such spot for a coffee break, after which I headed back along the track toward the paved main access road. Still alert for any new bird species to record for atlasing purposes, I was passing a smaller pond when I noticed movement in the water and a glimpse of a dark shiny body. Dismissing it as a fish I was about to proceed when suddenly a small head popped up out of the water and looked at me – I knew immediately what it was and let out a gasp of excitement – an Otter!

As I watched, I saw that there was more than one otter, but they surfaced for just a second or two then dived below the surface, disappeared for a half minute, then popped up again in a different part of the pond. I got out of the car and carefully crept around the back to where I could watch their antics and hopefully get a photo or two. This game of cat and mouse – or man and otter – went on for a good ten minutes or more as one or both otters popped up to look at me curiously then slithered off below the surface only to pop up metres away, with me trying to anticipate where they would appear.

My only previous sighting of an otter was a distant one many years ago, while birding a farming area not far from Marievale, so this was for me a very unexpected and special moment.

Initially when I wrote this post I identified the otter as a Cape Clawless Otter, but was prompted by a comment (see below) to research a bit further and came to the conclusion that this was the much smaller Spotted-necked Otter. Wikipedia provides the following info :

The spotted-necked otter (Hydrictis maculicollis), or speckle-throated otter, is an otter native to sub-Saharan Africa.

The spotted-necked otter is a relatively small species, with males measuring 71 to 76 cm (28 to 30 in) from nose to rump, and weighing 5.7 to 6.5 kg (13 to 14 lb), while females are 57 to 61 cm (22 to 24 in) and 3.0 to 4.7 kg (6.6 to 10.4 lb). The tail is long and muscular, measuring 39 to 44 cm (15 to 17 in) in both sexes. Like many other otters, it is sleek and has webbed paws for swimming.

Although considerable variation exists among individuals, their fur is usually reddish to chocolate brown and marked with creamy or white blotches over the chest and throat. The head is broad with a short muzzle, small rounded ears, and a hairless nose pad. The teeth are adapted for consuming fish, with large sharp upper canine teeth, curved lower canines, and sharp carnassial teeth.

Below is a selection of the photos I was able to take of this endearing animal.

Spotted-necked Otter (Hydrictis maculicollis),, Marievale Bird Sanctuary

12 thoughts on “Marievale – An Unexpected Sighting”

  1. I have been waiting for this: an otter – I would not have guessed. What a delightful experience! It is difficult to choose a favourite, yet the third photograph really appeals to me.

    1. This was a surprise to top all surprises when it comes to nature sightings. That third photo was a beautiful moment – the otter had to stretch above the edge of the culvert at that point, in order to see what I was up to

    1. A very special one indeed Dries, I was glad to be able to come away with some photos as the Otters seemed to be playing a game of hide and seek with me

    1. Pete, you have left me slightly bewildered – I have to confess to being clueless about clawless otters, but thanks for pointing me in the right direction. When I wrote the post I googled otters in SA and it only came up with one species so I assumed this was a Cape Clawless Otter (Aonyx capensis). I have now researched a bit further and I am now convinced it is a Spotted-necked Otter (Hydrictis maculicollis), a much smaller species of otter with white blotching on the neck and chest, which the last photo on my post shows quite clearly. The Cape clawless is a much longer and bulkier animal than the one I saw (although its body was submerged for most of the time) The research article you referred me to mentions the Blesbokspruit as part of the study, being the river that feeds Marievale, however they only found traces of Aonyx capensis on this river during the study so nothing definitive to be gained from it. Thanks again for the prompt! Oh, and I will correct the post of course

      1. Very exciting! I’ve only seen a spotted-necked in the Okavango! If there’s a contact address you could contact those research people?

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