Sunday, 18 September 2016

Mull, Late Summer Break

It hardly felt like I'd left Mull when I drove off of the ferry and turned right to head towards Salen and on to Loch Na Keal. The trip in July for the inaugural Photo Tour on the island had been a roaring success both in terms of capturing images of the wildlife promised on the itinery and also for everyone who had gone along, who we had become firm friends with.

This fortnight was mostly going to be a break though, and having been on Mull so recently, I already had a very good idea of where the wildlife would be. That said, at the usual layby for watching the white-tailed eagles on Loch Na Keal, there were none in the trees. One was however, across the water being divebombed by a black-backed gull, as it fed on something washed up on the shore.

Further along the road, I caught sight of something of a disturbance in the calm surface of the water, parked up and realised quickly that there was an otter fishing there. Within moments I had donned my camo jacket, attached the monopod to my camera and was hot-footing it across the uneven ground to where I'd seen it surface. With a more careful approach closer to the otter, both for the sake of spooking it and for me not slipping over on the seaweed, I was soon as close as I thought I needed to be, and as well hidden as possible amongst the rocks. Silent Mode activated on the camera, and it was time to wait.

The otter was in front of me, mooching around in a pool of seaweed, almost cut off from the main creek. Every so often it would surface, and look around. The pool must have been shallow, as I could see the otter lifting the weed as it searched the area for food, until it burst up pretty close. I took a couple of shots, and in the calm conditions, it was clear the sound of the camera had carried, when the otter froze and looked in my direction.

I froze too, and after a few seconds, the otter seemed to relax and continued looking for its dinner.

Eventually it climbed out of the water and I could see that it had quite some bulk to its back; pregnant, I assumed.

The otter then spent quite some time rolling around in the seaweed on some rocks, drying her fur and grooming. With her busy with such activity I was able to take more images, before I decided to leave her be, and quietly creep away again. She was still snoozing on the rock when I arrived back at the car.

Heading south again, we didn't see anything much worth stopping for, apart from our neighbour for the fortnight, a friend from Birmingham who had been tempted to see what Mull had to offer after seeing my images all the time in the local country pub!

The evening seemed to be drawing to a close when a gap between the cloud and the horizon let the sunlight flood through, and we all emerged from the cottages and hotel to watch the sunset.

My friend Reg, walks his dog very early each morning at home, so it was no surprise to me to find I wasn't first out of the cottage car park on the first morning. After waving at him as I drove around to the marshes, I clocked something out of place on the top of a hillside, and soon realised it was a white-tailed eagle. I waited for the sun to reach it, but really it was a bit too high up for anything worthwhile.

Autumn was already starting to show with the hawthorn trees laden with berries, gratefully received by the local hooded crows.

Calm conditions again meant it was easy to spot otters fishing, and I found another along the road, fishing just off shore. Once again, I scuttled out, and followed it along the lochside. When I realised it had finished fishing, and was heading ashore, I managed to get ahead of it, and tucked myself into some rocks, near where I thought the otter would come out, and head into a holt. All seemed to be going well when it scrambled out of the water, just out of sight for a shot, along the beach area. Then it headed back in again, and vanished from sight. Was it going past me? Damn, I thought. Then I heard a crunching sound from next to me.

Bearing in mind my lens has a minimum focusing distance of about 5 metres, it wasn't much help when I found myself staring at a similarly surprised otter, only about 4 feet from me, in the rocks I had chose to hide in! There was a moment of both of us looking at each other in bewilderment, before the otter turned tail and shot off back into the water! If only I'd been wearing some sort of head-cam.

After collecting Dad from the digs, we continued on a tour around the area, and I soon spotted another otter, dragging something large ashore to feed upon. By now the sun was strong and I noticed that there was quite some shimmer between me and the otter. Annoying, as it seemed to be eating a huge lobster!

I crept as close as I dared, but being in an exposed spot meant I soon attracted a crowd, and the sound of car stereos and doors slamming, soon disturbed the otter, which vanished out into the seaweed-covered water. I've lost count of the number of otters I have seen spooked by people who don't realise they need to be quiet in such situations, and attempt to be discreet when viewing. But such is life, and the otter had eaten most of the lobster before it decided to leave.

The first full day ended with me watching distant hen harriers hunting over the marshes. I truly believe I am cursed when it comes to getting something really good of these birds, and this was proved during the week when Reg, out walking his dog, managed to get some full-frame images of a ringtail. I spent hours in the same area later that week and failed to see anything.

The Monday was slightly unusual for me, in that one of the clients from the July tour was also on the island, and had asked if I minded guiding her for a half day. I didn't, but it meant a very early start to reach her digs on the other side of Mull. I really should have stopped along the way, as the sight, and colours of the sunrise over the Sound Of Mull and later over the entrance to Loch Na Keal was jaw-droppingly beautiful. What a place.

After enjoying a great trip out with Martin on the eagle trip, my client was keen to see some otters, and hopefully add to her image collection from the July tour. It didn't take long to spot one, but it was fishing way off shore, and I couldn't see an easy way to get close, without being too exposed.

I chose to head to another spot where I had seen some the day before. As we drove closer, it was clear that another photographer was already working that patch, so I parked up some distance away, and we carefully approached the area, where we had both seen an otter fishing. I don't like treading on other photographer's toes, so to speak, so I suggested we watch from a sensible distance and see what happened. The otter headed ashore near where the other guy was hiding, I had to admit I felt envious.

But we chose to be patient, and it soon became clear that perhaps the envy was based on the wrong assumption that he'd got a great view. Maybe he had initially, but suddenly we saw the otter scampering over the rocks towards us, whilst looking over its shoulder, back at something. The photographer had perhaps lost sight of the otter, and had climbed up for a better view. We both grabbed a couple of shots of the otter before it dived back into the water.

I guessed that it would head towards where we'd parked, so we made our way along the shore, found a good viewing spot that provided some good cover, and waited.

Result, the otter came out of the water right next to us. I took a couple of shots, but I was acutely aware of the sound of my camera, even on Silent Mode, and made sure I paused if the otter looked at where we were hiding. My client's 7D Mark2 was on Silent Mode too, but that actually is silent, so she happily snapped away.

Back out into the water, and fishing for a while longer, we followed it further along the shore, where it again came out, this time to groom and dry off. It was far enough away not to be concerned about the sound of the cameras too.

The half-day had to be ended (probably well over the half-day in terms of time) as my client needed to get to the ferry to leave. Another successful guiding session on Mull, and long may it continue.

Back to my holiday for the remainder of the trip and a trip out to Croggan yielded some good views of a pair of golden eagles, and a family of spotted flycatchers near one of the cottages.

No otters again on that loch - I think Andy cursed it when he said it had provided him with a 100% success rate for seeing them, and we have not seen one there since!

As is usual for Mull, buzzards seem to be everywhere, and while some might choose to ignore them, I love to take advantage of the chances for images of them, especially on natural perches. There's even a very pale individual that has been around for some years now, that posed one morning for me. Gorgeous.

Our first trip out with Martin on Mull Charters came mid-week, and I had my doubts about the forecast. Reg also came along, though he admitted he didn't really have sea-legs. Needn't have worried for the start of the sailing, as it was reasonably calm, and we had a white-tailed eagle come over almost as soon as we'd left the new jetty.

Unfortunately the "take" was facing away from us, and as the trip progressed, the weather deteriorated, ending with most of us crammed in the cabin to shelter from the driving rain. Reg amused us, as he repeatedly banged his head on the door frame when turning to talk to us. I don't think he was quite as amused as I was though.

The following day brought another otter sighting, and I managed to get a few more shots. Plus we encountered a most obliging buzzard, perched on the top of a roadsign. Even when we drove up to it, it remained perched. I reversed back, and took some shots, only seeing the bird spooked when another driver came towards us, and pushed the bird off to another post.

Having spent many an hour touring around the far side of the loch each morning, and even over to the next one, I was amused to spot a pair of otters almost within walking distance of the cottage. They had climbed out on to some rocks and were so absorbed with whatever one was eating, they didn't notice me approaching from the road. Tucking myself into a cleft in the rocky shore, I ensured I was in a position close enough, but not too close to risk missing shots of the pair if they moved apart slightly.

It was great to watch the pair finding plenty to eat in the loch, and then feeding on the catches on the rocks. One even started to explore the area which brought it much closer to me.

The day ended sharing a meal and a few drinks in Reg and Yvonne's cottage, though it was interrupted when the ever-changing light on Mull coaxed us outside for a few shots of the unusual sunset.

The following morning was dead calm, and while we both drove around the marshes and on to the loch, I caught sight of a young common seal lying just out of the water. Unfortunately, as Reg parked up behind, the seal slid back into the water. Watching from our cars, we saw it soon clamber back out, and we spent the next hour or so photographing it, as it dried out on some rocks.

Initially it was a touch too far really, but the calm weather meant the loch was like a mirror.

Then, while we watched from the cover amongst the bracken and heather on the shore, the seal relocated back to the same closer rock once more, and we were able to get some lovely images.

I moved around quietly to ensure the water, and hence reflections were dark, which made for a good contrast with the seal, which was gradually becoming paler as it dried off.

The day ended with me receiving some broken voicemail messages from Reg. He'd found a young hedgehog wandering around in the road, and had taken it back to the cottage nearby, to relocate it somewhere safer. I'd missed this, and also when he offered it a plate of dog food, which it apparently scoffed down! Putting out a second plate, on a track beside the car park, he'd hoped it might have found its way off away from the road.

I was initially gutted, especially when I got back to find Dad had photographed it, and didn't know where it had gone. I've not had the chance to photograph a hedgehog since I bought my DSLR gear back in 2006! I used to have some visit my garden but they, like so many others, have vanished.

Thankfully, I spotted Reg whilst driving out again, and he explained where to look and sure enough, there was the 'hog, pottering along a nearby track.

Amusingly, after hoping it would vanish into the woodland nearby, it chose to climb back into the garden, and we watched it scuttle about the lawn, searching around the plant pots for more to eat. How it could be hungry after two plates of dog food is anyone's guess.

It eventually skulked off into some bushes, and we hoped it would be ok. It was rather small, and I worried about it being large enough at this time of year. But I wasn't sure if there were any facilities on Mull for looking after hedgehogs, so it would have to rely on nature looking after it.

A thoroughly miserable day followed, with pouring rain. I still forced myself out and was initially rewarded with a fine double rainbow over the marshes.

And then on the way back, I spotted the pair of otters again, and grabbed some shots as they ran over the rocks together.

When the rain finally eased, Dad and I parked up where the otters had been, hoping for a view. Whilst waiting, I was aware of several ravens calling, and my Spider-Sense tingled. Sure enough, I was right to be alert, as Fingal, the local white-tailed eagle soared into view, just skimming the tree tops behind us.

I thought that it was about time we had some memorable encounters with one of the eagles, as we had on so many previous trips, but that didn't happen until the following morning. Across the loch, I noticed something sat on the rocks some distance away, and both Reg and I parked up to look. A white-tailed eagle.

Just then, another flew overhead, and perched in a tree across a field from where we'd parked. Reg went for a closer look, whilst I watched on. It soon took off, circled over us and headed towards where we had seen the other. Reg went one way, I chose to go look for the original one on the rocks, and as I did, I heard a horrible cry from a grey heron. Like the sound they make when fighting... or being killed by an eagle, in this case.

I can't be absolutely sure as the kill was made out of sight, but soon the two eagles had become four, and after abandoning my idea of approaching the one on the rocks, Reg joined me on the headland, where we watched the four flying overhead.

Two of them, sub-adults from what we could tell, were unhappy with one another and briefly fought in the skies, before circling, chasing each other, right over our heads.

It was fantastic to see, and way too close at times to keep both in the shot.

The adults from the nearby nest had also come down for a feed, and we saw both leaving the area shortly after.

By the time I'd returned back to the cottage to collect Dad, the skies had cleared and it was a glorious day. We both thought it warranted a drive south, to look across at Iona. That stretch of water is so beautiful, especially on a day like we saw it.

Time was flying by and our second trip on the Lady Jayne had arrived. Again it was overcast, but dry at least, and the light wasn't at all bad. And we were treated to a number of takes from the eagles, at two of the nest sites Martin and Alex sail out to.

As in the summer, the preferred combo of Canon 1DX and my old original 100-400mm zoom lens worked perfectly, tracking the eagles as they circled, descended and grabbed the fish.

And the drive home was productive when we encountered another otter.

Yet another miserable wet day followed, with gusty winds and monsoon-like rain. I just sat in the car and watched the wildlife close to the cottage, including grey and pied wagtails, and a small band on dunlins and ringed plover feeding from the shore.

And so arrived the last day. After seeing the local otters on my drive back to the cottage, I collected Dad and we returned to watch. I didn't hold much hope of getting any shots given the number of observers at the site, all of which were standing on the road or just off it, in plain sight of everything, including the otters. Needless to say, the otters kept away, and when a boat moored up right beside them, dropping out some lobster pots, the otters vanished completely, along with the crowds.

I drove down the road, and waited, and, after making sure everyone had gone, we returned, and waited some more. It was a good move, as one of the otters had obviously been hiding amongst the rocks, and once the audience and boat had left, it came back out to fish, and by then, I was kneeling close to the water's edge, in a swamp... so glamorous!

But worth it, when the otter climbed out to clean and groom, only a few yards from me.

Back into the water soon after, and then it seemed to head back up a small stream. I lost sight of it, and was about to return to the car when I saw it in the water near me still. Time to freeze, and move once it had dived again. It caught quite a large crab and needed to be ashore to handle it. Thankfully I was just able to get to a spot to photograph it from, but I was also aware that two people who had left before, were now back, and as before, were standing like beacons on the edge of the road.

The otter could plainly see them, and left some of the crab lunch to head back to the water again.

The beacons then left once more and after a while, the otter approached the edge of the loch, climbing out with yet another crab to eat. I relocated, and while not as close, still enjoyed the sight and sound of the otter crunching through the catch.

A pair of hooded crows pestered the otter, and even stole some of the food. This pushed the otter back into the shallows, and for a moment I thought I was going to get a second close encounter of the otter kind. But the traffic on the nearby road kept the otter at bay, and I could see it watching from beneath the cover of the seaweed.

The break was pretty much over. Two weeks spent on this gem of an island, and we would be getting a ferry mid-morning for the drive south. Reg and Yvonne had left at the crack of dawn, as they'd booked the first ferry, but I just had enough time for one last drive around the loch. Was so worth it, with a pair of golden eagles attracting my attention first...

Followed by yet another otter encounter shortly afterwards. To be crouched watching the otter fishing in a calm loch, in sunny, mild weather was heavenly, and I felt sick to have to drag myself away to drive home. Even the pouring rain that had arrived as we waited in the queue for the ferry didn't wash away the feeling.

I am considering returning maybe in November, if I can get any interest from clients wanting guiding for otters. Hope so, as I am already missing the isle. Please email me if you're interested...

2 comments:

John Armstrong said...

Great blog Pete, brought back a lot of memories

All the best
John

Neil Duggan said...

As always Pete, an enjoyable read and brilliant photography !