Sunday, 18 August 2019

Mull For Spring Wildlife Guiding

Normally my trips to Mull begin late June and end with the Otter Photography Tours in November, but this year I was asked for a bespoke tour on the island at the end of May. Then Andy asked if I could assist with a group of clients the following week, and suddenly my diary was pretty much "Mull" from late May until late July. Not a bad thing, when I love the place so much.

The tour in May was unlike the July tours, in that the clients had arranged their own accommodation, and I would be just guiding them. They had requested a trip out with Mull Charters, so I duely booked us on to a trip, and then added another place when Lyndsey asked if she could tag along, whilst spending the week on Mull, sharing the accommodation I'd booked. This made the week a proper mix of work and play, as I'd have company during the evenings, and as we were based in Tobermory, we could enjoy the delights the resort has to offer.

And prior to my guiding days, we both went out looking for wildlife, and quickly located some otters.

My clients had asked to see otters and any owls, if they were around. Alas the short-eared owls on Mull seem to have suffered a couple of poor breeding seasons, so I was unable to tick that request off, but we did see some beautiful hen harriers instead.

Otters were somewhat easier to find, though keeping them to ourselves was harder. It's hard to remain hidden when pointing large lenses at an otter, so other visitors to the island will often park up, and sometimes, cheekily approach for a better view. This is something that is impossible to prevent, but anyone choosing to approach a photographer who is close to an otter should think twice... they might have spent hours waiting for such an opportunity, and your approach might spook the otter, if not done very carefully and considerately.

My clients were just about perfect though, following my advice and enabling us all to get close to things, plus it was evident that they simply just loved wildlife, and being on Mull, so everything we looked at was as interesting and adored as the "star" species.

Speaking of which, the Mull Charters trip was typically wonderful, though the bright sunshine made the images rather contrasty. Rather that though than the heavy rain we endured during the July tours; more on that in the next blog post.

And the otter encounters, especially one, were magical. Having spotted one swimming near the shore of a loch, I parked up, and we all headed down to the shore to watch. The conditions were good in terms of a breeze, though the light was slightly against us. That said, I really regretted my decision not to take a camera down to the shore, when the otter proceeded to catch and bring in several crabs, eating them just a short distance away from where we were hiding. Thankfully my clients hadn't been so complacent, and amassed many images of the otter.

After retreating for lunch, when the otter had moved away for a snooze, we returned to where it had rolled up, and waited patiently for it to wake up. This time I did bother with my camera, and grabbed a couple of images for myself!

Towards the end of the week, I had a couple of days free before Andy was due to arrive. I really wanted to find some hen harriers to photograph, but my usual luck was in, and the rains arrived. So I went looking for more otters, knowing any others I might find would assist during the coming weeks of guiding. Along the way though I couldn't refuse to stop and photograph a band of house martins, collecting mud from a roadside puddle.

Unlike harriers, otters don't mind the rain, and I soon clocked one scooting along close to the shore, diving for food. Then it was just a case of tracking it, and grabbing any photo opportunities that arose.

And a few were given in the hours spent with the otter. The first sighting was just before 2pm, and I left at about 5pm, when I realised the rumblings from my empty stomach were getting loud enough to perhaps spook the otter! And the more observant reader will notice that there were actually two otters during that session.

Initially I thought I might have spooked the first otter, but it was actually the arrival of the second otter into the same stretch of shoreline that made the first leave and head elsewhere.

I then enjoyed moments as it fished and ate the catches both out in the water and on the shore, and later when the tide was further in, out on the legs and support structures of an old pier.

The weather was appalling throughout, which was probably why no-one else seemed to be out, and I had the place to myself.

As is typical when fishing for any length of time, the otter heads ashore for some grooming and a nap. This one chose a nice rock to curl up on, and I simply had to sit and wait for the action to begin again.

More fishing, and then a close encounter when another session of grooming occurred, right in front of where I was hiding.

Of course having such an amazing experience meant there was no prizes for guessing where Lyndsey and I headed to the following day. And in similar conditions!

We followed one of the otters quite some distance along the shore, to the point where I decided to cut my losses (it wasn't giving us many photo chances) and return to pick up the car (ever the gentleman), leaving Lyndsey to continue the pursuit alone. I hoped she'd have more luck on her own, and as I drove back towards her, I realised she had, and was watching the otter as it munched on some sort of fish, pretty close to where she was hiding.

I waited until the action had finished, before parking up to collect a rather bedraggled Lyndsey, and we drove along the loch to see if we could catch up with the speedy creature. We did, but chose to photograph it from the car, to avoid disturbing it, and well, to stay a bit drier!

The first week had flown by in the blink of an eye. Lyndsey was leaving and being replaced by her husband Andy, for my second week. We were to start the week aboard the Lady Jayne with Martin, Alex and Dan, for a fishing trip for the eagle food. I was initially looking forward to it, though the bad weather had continued and the sea was rough.

In hindsight the trip was a bad move. Both Lyndsey and I were feeling rather rough from a good night out on our last evening, and going out on a boat trip with a dodgy stomach in calm weather isn't wise... After attempting to photograph some of the seabirds flying past, and taking my eyes off of the horizon, my stomach rolled over, and for the first time ever in my life, I was physically sick aboard a boat. Martin was sympathetic, asking me to move elsewhere, further away from the wheelhouse to empty my stomach!

Needless to say I was of no use whatsoever for the first part of the fishing, and just watched the others occasionally landing fish. It wasn't proving to be a successful trip for the fishing either. But when the seas calmed, so did my stomach, and I was able to join the fun. I even caught quite a decent sized fish, though I think Dan had to get it off the line for me! I'll stick to the photography I think!

With just the Sunday to recover before Andy's bespoke tour began, I was relieved to see the sun had returned, and it actually felt like summer. Back to the same area where I had enjoyed success the previous week, we soon spotted an otter fishing, and got in position. Andy, had sent his professional camera body and 600mm lens away for a service prior to the tour, so was using just a 7D mark 2, and 100-400mm lens that day. I envied him when the otter came in, as without the bulk of what I was carrying, he was able to slither down the shore to a much closer position to watch the otter.

The otter had caught a sizeable skate, and then spent an age eating it.

And with the tide coming in, it pushed the otter closer still! I had to move across at one point to avoid getting Andy's hat in my shot.

Monday saw the first of my "working" days, where I took one of Andy's clients out looking for otters. And within minutes of starting to look for them, I spotted a youngster out mooching through seaweed beside the shore. And we were relieved it was a youngster, as the conditions were almost entirely against us as we got closer, with the wind blowing the wrong way, and hardly anywhere to hide. But being young, it wasn't bothered by our presence.

I had seen this otter out the previous week, but with its mother. I assumed she was resting nearby, and the cub was out alone, looking for something to satisfy its ever increasing appetite.

At one point, the cub crept right past us, too close for pictures to be taken. I just whispered to my client to simply enjoy the moment, and watch.

And as the cub scrambled further along the shoreline, I called a halt to our session, not wanting to risk spooking the otter away from where its mother was sleeping, and waiting for the cub to return to. Years of experience of both the locations and the otters on Mull allow me to make such decisions during these sessions, which is beneficial to clients and otters alike.

Our trip to Lunga the following day, with Turus Mara, saw me just tagging along for my own pleasure, though I did offer advice for suggested images and settings when asked by the clients. I had secretly hoped for bad weather after seeing the images Lyndsey had managed the week before, but the skies were clear, and the sun was shining on the small island and its inhabitants. It did make a change to be there earlier in the year as both sea pinks (thrift) and bluebells were in bloom, though the latter were beginning to fade away.

The following day saw the first of two private sailings with Mull Charters. And it was wet.

Not that the weather dampened our spirits, or the eagles' desire for food, and we were treated to a number of visits, seeing the action at very close quarters.

We also encountered a pod of dolphins, though they weren't interested in playing with us, focusing on fishing instead. Still lovely to see.

I favoured using my 100-400mm lens during the trip, but took along my 500mm, coupled with both the 1.4 teleconverter and my 7D mk2, giving me a focal length of 1120mm, should something a bit further off warrant a photo. And it did... when a pair of eagles perched up on a skerry.

That said, hand-holding that lens whilst balancing on a moving boat isn't easy!

The second private charter, a couple of days later was a different story. Bright and sunny, with a breeze too, but unusually, both were from the same direction. This meant we had the chance of well-lit shots with the eagles flying towards us. Cue a great throw from Alex, perfect positioning of the boat from Martin, and a dive sequence that left even Andy and me with our jaws on the deck.

It was the perfect way to end a great week on the island.

Rather than head south, I followed Andy north to Inverness for a day, which wasn't wasted of course, when we went out looking for mountain hare leverets, and called over to Chanonry Point for the dolphins.

It rounded off a fine fortnight in Scotland, but was really just a taster for the main event, which would see me returning to the Highlands again in less than three weeks, to help Andy and Lyndsey prepare for the Mull Summer Photography Tours, then of course head down to Mull to run them...

Sunday, 5 May 2019

RSPB Otmoor As A Substitute For Norfolk

In recent years, this blog would now be populated with an account of my annual trip to North Norfolk, but Dad's ailing health and numerous appointments meant it never happened this year. Spending time on the Norfolk coast, looking for new arrivals for spring, seeking out brown hares, barn owls and anything else I can find, is one of the highlights of my wildlife calendar.

Instead, April pretty much passed by without a great deal of camera time. I found some adders early on, and managed to see one shed its skin too, which allowed for some macro images of the detail on it, when the owner had slithered away.

One highlight from the month was a day trip down to Otmoor, an RSPB reserve I have admired for many years now. With well established reedbeds and shallow pools, it has attracted species such as hobbies, bitterns, marsh harriers and common cranes, plus the paddocks and tracks are home to brown hares, cuckoos and the increasingly rare turtle dove. In fact, it could tick off a number of species I'd normally go to North Norfolk to photograph.

The visit in April provided a few sightings of marsh harriers and a brief flight from a bittern, plus the sound of one booming from a reedbed. But it was perhaps a tad early for what I usually go there for, so when May arrived, I headed back down to the reserve once more.

Opening the car door at the car park, I immediately heard a cuckoo calling, and along the track to the main part of the reserve, I added both common and lesser whitethroat to the list. High over the meadows and reedbeds were hirundines, busily catching insects on the wing, and after last year's disappointingly low numbers, I was very pleased to see some swifts too.

Further along the path, a sedge warbler was high in a hawthorn, singing away, and warranted a couple of shots.

Taking a brief wander alongside the ditch, past the hide, I hoped to see a grass snake, but I soon realised that the volunteers / workers on site were replacing fence posts, so there was little chance of seeing a creature often just disturbed by creeping past, let alone when posts were being hammered into the ground nearby! But I'm not going to moan, as the site is maintained so well, for wildlife and visitors alike, that it's got to be one the jewels in the RSPB's portfolio of reserves, and that is down to their hard work.

Down at the first screen, a couple of lizards were sunning themselves on one of the darker coloured logs, probably wondering why it was colder now in late spring than it was in late winter...

The pools were busy with diving ducks, such as "tufties" and also numerous miffed coots, frequently chasing one another over the surface of the water.

As I watched the hirundines and swifts chasing insects on the wing, I mused to myself that the hobbies ought to be arriving soon. Then instantly, as if by magic, I clocked a falcon in the distance and immediately recognised the shape! They were back too, and one became six, then seven and maybe even eight as I watched them drop down from the heavens, to chase insects. Wonderful.

A bittern was once more booming from the cover of the reeds, and after enjoying the sight of a marsh harrier paying a slightly closer visit, one visitor sharing the screen with me, commented that she'd love to see the bittern before she left. Right of cue, one burst from the reedbed and flew across the back of the pool!

By lunchtime the reserve seemed quiet in terms of people, perhaps because they'd seen the forecast of heavy showers. I was alone at the screen watching the hobbies, hoping one might fly nearby, when I glanced out of the side window, and spotted a brown hare. Before I could get a shot, it had hopped out of sight.

A family of greylag geese swam by, the parents looking supremely proud of their many goslings, following close by. I grabbed some shots, but in the back of my mind, I wondered where the hare had gone.

Out the back of the screen, I scanned the path and there it was, sitting on the grass, about a hundred yards away. Normally there are people milling up and down the track between the screens, but with no one around, I crept closer. The hare didn't bat an eyelid.

So I dropped to my knees, and then lay flat, and crawled closer along the ground. Remarkably the hare didn't run off. And by being at eye-level with it, I could get some nice mush in the foreground.

Then it was a case of waiting for the hare to do something, and hoping that other visitors didn't arrive.

In fact the only problem for me then were some red ants that were crawling around beneath me. I crawled a bit closer, and away from the ants...

With a huge slice of luck, I managed to spend a good hour lying there watching the hare, and it was active too. I saw yawns, stretches, pellets being taken, grooming, shaking (post rain shower) and grazing.

And when one other visitor arrived at the screen, he kindly chose to wait for me to finish photographing (the hare finally moved away and into a hedgerow).

Having enjoyed such a fabulous day, I was keen to return, so with a dry forecast, I found myself back at the first screen once more. This time however, it offered little in the way of shelter from the cold wind blasting across the reserve, so I set up camp beside the path behind, watching the many swifts buzzing around, secretly hoping for one of the hobbies to fly over too.

As I was carrying both my 500mm and my 100-400mm, I rigged the 1DX up on the big lens, and the 7D mk2 on the zoom. For the ridiculously agile swifts I used the lighter zoom, and when a hobby strayed into view, swapped out for the big 'un.

Thank goodness for digital media, or I'd have spent a fortune on film, and achieved very little. And annoyingly, the dry forecast turned out to be anything but, with heavy showers being hurried through the reserve on the icy wind.

With no sign of the hare alas, I spent the afternoon focusing on birds in flight, and left with images of swifts, hobbies and even some of the cuckoos that have been very vocal of late.

It might not be Norfolk, but Otmoor has certainly raised my spirits, and given me a mountain of images to look through.