Leaving Mull via the Fishnish terminal felt somewhat alien, and despite knowing I was heading north for more adventures, I still felt slightly saddened to be travelling away from the Isle, especially on a calm, sunny morning. The crossing was brief, and after allowing those in more of a hurry than me past, I continued my journey across the moors, through the glens towards Corran, where I had intended to get a second ferry over to the main road, leading to Fort William. However, it was glorious and there was an alternative, scenic route to be used, which led north along the edge of Loch Linnhe before heading west around Loch Eil. With no schedule to adhere to, I took the longer route, and loved every minute of it.
Dumping my bags in the spare room, Andy was quick to explain what wildlife was around and suggested we head out to the mountain hares, seeing as the weather was good and we had plenty of time on our hands. Thankfully, one of the hares that Andy had introduced me to before, nicknamed Bagpuss, was sat contentedly on the hillside, with another whiter companion nearby. With careful approach, we soon got close enough to them for some shots and I followed Andy's lead on what angles to try for, and listening to his knowledgeable ramblings on what to expect the hares to do, based on his lengthy observations of them over the years.
Sunday was a day off for both of them, and we set off to look for some local reserves. Finding one from the RSPB proved to be interesting, taking in some bumpy tracks along the way, but eventually we found the right place. The lake had a hide on it, and aside from the wildfowl on it, there were feeding stations either side, to bring in some woodland species of birds, plus red squirrels.
It was a pretty gloomy day, and the local water rails, apparently frequently photographed around the hide, failed to show, though I heard a couple calling some distance away. Two pairs of little grebes provided some entertainment though.
Stopping to photograph firstly some goats...
No. Just as I turned the car up the steepest part of the road leading to the top, the cloud rolled in, and by the time I was at the car park, it was snowing so hard I couldn't see past the end of the bonnet.
It cleared eventually, but by then I was unwilling to trek up to the top, for fear of another icy blast rolling in. Sat in the car I watched a distant white-tailed eagle lift up over the summit, and an even more distant golden eagle drift along the ridge behind. Bizarrely though, on the way back down I noticed a dipper on one of the small pools.
All week I had been watching the forecasts, and Wednesday seemed best to try for the ptarmigan up on the Cairngorms. With Andy's detailed instructions and a map he'd lent me, I was soon puffing and panting up the slope. Overnight it had continued to snow and some of the paths described to me had simply vanished. Nevertheless, after a call to Andy, I was soon in the right place and kneeling in the snow with a pair of ptarmigan sat on boulders nearby.
The hike up, crawling round on my knees, balancing between boulders, trying not to let my camera fall away from me and holding it all steady for shots proved to be rather tiring, and I left the mountain mid-afternoon. Surprisingly, the way down was much easier as where there had been snowy slopes before, gravel paths now showed me the way back to the car park. Amazing how quickly the snow thaws from the hillsides.
Not wanting to waste the fine weather, I again headed to the moors to catch up with the red grouse, and capture them in bright conditions for a change.
The day of the lek started early. Very early. Begged the question whether it was worth going to bed, when you had to be up for 1:30am. We drove out to Mark Hamblin's place and then followed him over to the lek site. Thankfully some of the hike to the lek was taken care of by my Yeti, which coped admirably with a very bumpy, rutted track through the woods. Soon we were in the hide and after listening to instructions from both Mark and later Andy, I settled down to wait for the action to start.
The first sign of it is the sound of the birds landing, and then you have to strain your eyes, to make out the pale tail feathers against the darkness.
With dawn comes the sight of the lek, and what a site it is. With mountains behind, it is almost magical.
Despite feeling like we had done a day's photography, it wasn't even breakfast time, so we headed north, calling into Huntly for brekkie, before on to Troup Head, an RSPB reserve on the north coast.
The fields were filled with yellowhammers, though they wouldn't let us get close enough for anything like a decent shot. The cliffs though, were already a hive of activity, with gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes and gulls nesting high up, and guillemots and razorbills whizzing around below, closer to the sea.
Andy had hoped that a stiff breeze would allow us to get some good flight shots of the gannets, but it eased and we had to make do with shots from their antics on the nesting sites.
My final day saw me try again for the black-throated divers, and as before, they remained at distant. Annoyingly I encountered a pair on another loch, very close by, but they flew before I could get a shot. The harsh light and strong winds made for a challenging day's photography, and saw me return to the woodland floor for some more toad shots.
Andy Howard) as a guide.
My fortnight in Scotland in March had come to an end, but what a trip it had been. Full of fun, excitement and new experiences, providing memories to treasure, and proving that Scotland is a fabulous destination to aim for at any time of year, for its rich abundance of wildlife.