Dolphins, ducklings, gannets and an otter – a look back on summer

Summer of 2020 was, like the rest of the year, unusual. However – at the time, restrictions were starting to ease and looking back on it, it was a time when I had the most freedom since the Covid pandemic hit. Able to travel further and see family and friends, this was a comparatively happier time. Unsurprisingly, it also resulted in some of my favourite wildlife encounters of the year. 


As soon as we were allowed to travel, I headed up to see some friends in Aberdeen. We enjoyed some lovely coastal walks, and spent a morning at Torry Battery  – one of the best places in the UK to spot dolphins. It’s normally quite cold and windy there, so you have to layer up and be prepared to stick it out. But this day was beautifully sunny and not too cold. More to the point, almost as soon as we arrived, the dolphins appeared.  A huge group of more than twenty, stayed for around an hour. We watched happily as they jumped out of the water with infectious joy.

I know better than to try and take photos when this is going on – I’m not a good enough photographer and I don’t have the right kit. The best thing to do is to not worry about photos, and just enjoy the moment. I watched through my binoculars, and felt so happy. Even in this rubbish year, I had seen dolphins. The World was not so bad. 

A view from Torry Battery © Catherine Leatherland


In August, my family came up to visit me. We spent a week going to local attractions and wild places around Scotland – it was the month where Scotland had the fewest restrictions and looking back on it I’m so glad we had this time. My family come from the midlands in England – so any trip to the seaside is a treat! We spent the last day of the holiday in North Berwick, and went on a boat trip run by the fantastic Scottish Seabird Centre.  

The boat took us around Bass Rock, an island which is home to the World’s largest colony of gannets. I always love watching these impressive seabirds, especially watching them dive down into the water for fish. But I have never been this close to them! The first thing you realise as you get close, is that the rock is not white – it’s just absolutely covered in gannets. Then the smell hits you (the smell, you know, the smell of seabird poo – called guano). After that it’s the noise – thousands of gannets calling to each other, with nothing else around. With all of that going on, it’s hard to know where to look. Every gannet is doing something – flying, preening, diving, displaying, fighting, feeding a chick; you can give yourself neck ache trying to see it all. 

It was a very memorable wildlife experience for me, and for the price of the trip it’s an absolute bargain – if you get chance to book a boat trip next summer, do it. I’ll definitely be going again!

Gannets on Bass Rock © Catherine Leatherland
Gannet pair with seaweed © Catherine Leatherland


Regular readers of this diary will know I love ducks, and therefore I love ducklings even more! Not just ducks actually, swans and cygnets are lovely too. Who can deny it? I got through the spring and summer by taking regular walks, often to areas with a river or pond. These are prime duckling and cygnet months, and I saw the young of many species, including: mute swan; mallard; goosander; and eider. Just being near water can calm you down. Being near water, and seeing little bundles of fluff, is enough to cheer anybody up! 

Mute swan cygnet June 2020 © Catherine Leatherland
Mallard duckling May 2020 © Catherine Leatherland


It was on one of these routine walks along a nearby river, that I had one of the best surprise wildlife encounters of my life – I saw an otter. I was just returning from a stretch where I photograph the ducks and swans, and looked across at the river by habit – it’s a spot where I always look. As I turned my head, I saw something brown disappear into the water. My brain was working faster than I could consciously think – and I instinctively knew it was something interesting, before I could work out what! I quickly whittled it down – there are not many large, brown animals that you can see in UK rivers. “Oh my goodness it’s an otter” I thought, and scrambled for my camera. 

At that point, the otter popped back up, and looked straight at me. It didn’t seem bothered by me at all. I was still careful not to disturb it, and just calmly watched, and started filming. It was such a sunny day and the otter was foraging for fish. I was so close to this otter – I could not believe my luck. I had already seen otter cubs on the canal in the city back in February, and I felt this was absolutely a bonus to be seeing one again a few months later!

As I watched, people naturally started to wonder what I was looking at. I helped another person to see the otter, and we watched as it caught and ate a fish. Just as the otter was munching away, my camera died! That’s what happens when you spend hours taking photos of swans and ducks, only to have a surprise otter at the end of the walk!

I did manage to get one photo before the camera died – it’s a little fuzzy but I love it. The otter is looking straight at me, and it’s a memory of a moment that I shall remember forever. A surprise otter in the sunshine, it doesn’t really get better than that!

Otter © Catherine Leatherland