Monday, 31 July 2017

Mull Photo Tours (July): Otters, Eagles and Plenty Of Puffins

The call of a white-tailed eagle woke me with a start. Despite the tent having a black-out lining, I could see a shard of morning light streaming in already and, with the chorus of nearby gulls greeting the dawn, I knew I'd never doze off again. Peering out, I looked in vain for the eagle which had long gone, but the midges, absent when pitching the tent were back with a vengence, and I quickly retreated to safety inside. I was on Mull again, and after a night in a B&B, I had wild-camped overnight near the shore, ready to continue looking for the wildlife I hoped to share with clients over the next fortnight.

Smidge applied, I soon gave up on the idea of folding the tent back into the microscopic canvas bag it was sold in, and dumped it in a footwell of the car. I'd agreed to meet Andy late morning for coffee, but that was hours away, and in the fine weather, I fired up the car, and drove over to a nearby loch. Despite my intentions to locate and photograph birds of prey for the days preceeding the Photo Tours, I'd spent most of my time crouched amongst boulders or lying in seaweed, watching otters. Not a bad thing, as our clients wanted to see some too.

Having spotted one in a creek before arriving at Oban, and then another young-looking otter on my first afternoon on Mull, I was now approaching three individuals; a mother and two cubs, though one of them seemed to already be larger than his mum. I quickly saw why, when she brought ashore an eel that was about the same length as she was, and this youngster took ahold of it, and spent the best part of an hour eating every last inch of it.

And he wasn't keen on sharing it either, scampering away when his sibling tried to join in the feast.

By the time I was parking up in Salen at the Coffee Pot to meet Andy, the fine weather had been replaced with heavy rain, and we took shelter inside, catching up on the last few days of searching for wildlife, as well as enjoying a coffee and some tasty snacks. Andy was keen to spend the afternoon searching for otters, so we returned to the area I'd seen the three earlier to continue looking. When Andy spotted an otter on some lochside rocks, we thought we might be in business, but another wildlife photographer beat us to the spot, and then inexplicably ran down the shore to photo the otter.

Here's when we both thought something weird was going on, as if an otter sees a person they normally disappear, so one lumbering down the beach should have made it scarper halfway across the loch, but it remained on the shore for a few moments. It seemed reluctant to go in the water.

Eventually it did, and swam along the shore towards where we were sat getting soaked in the deluge. The otter brought ashore a crab, and paused to eat it on the shingle beach. Both of us had a decent view and began to take shots. But something wasn't right with the otter in my viewfinder. Its fur was too pale, and the sleek waterproofing seemed absent across large areas of its back. Also apparent were the signs of a recent and brutal encounter with another otter. Deep bite marks on the nose, puncture wounds and cuts around the muzzle, and another injury to this poor creature's paw.

It was a young male and we think it'd bumped into the local dominant dog otter, and from this evidence, come off a very distant second best. It was a stark contrast to the amusing, sunlit scene of a safe, well-fed family earlier in the day, when I had to stifle giggles at the otters' antics. Now, in the grey gloom of a wet afternoon, there was another otter, struggling to survive after an extremely harsh lesson in life.

To witness an otter in such a state, to see it try to fashion a meal from a washed up jellyfish, and then prefer to limp along the shore towards its holt was a depressing sight. We feared the worst for it, but news of a poorly-looking otter surfaced later during the stay on the Isle, so maybe Mother Nature isn't finished with this creature just yet.

The farmhouse we rent for the Photo Tours was available shortly after, and we were soon dried off and settled in. While Andy and I run the tours over the fortnight, we couldn't do it without the additional help from Andy's wife Lyndsey, who drove down from their Inverness-shire home with supplies and ingredients to prepare the meals for the clients. The evening flew by, and by mid-morning, Lyndsey was back on the road heading north, and we were welcoming our clients for the week.

Both tours had the same itinery, subject to whatever the weather might throw at us. Thankfully the wet forecast prior to the drive up had been replaced with a mixed bag, and the first trip, out to the isles of Staffa and Lunga on the Turus Mara boat was blessed with sunshine and calm conditions. Lunga was first on the menu, to immerse ourselves in the antics of the puffin colony.

Puffins are almost perfect wildlife photography subjects. They of course fly, they pose, they run about the place, often preen, collect nest material, bring back beakfuls of fish, and with a distinctive shape, can be backlit if so desired. And they're accommodating, and will let you know if you're in their way!

For those that needed it, we offered technical settings, and also suggested shots to try for. But even with such knowledge, capturing images of these colourful birds isn't so straightforward, whether it be tracking them as they hurtle past in flight, or trying to find an unusual angle to shoot them from, to perhaps reveal something different about their personalities.

Lunga is also a good site for corncrakes it would appear, and we (well I) had more success here than on Iona!

Despite us being on the longer tour, aimed specifically for photographers, the day flew by and we were soon back aboard the boat. Staffa is also visited and some chose to venture into the cave, whereas others climbed the steps to the top, where more wildlife can be found, including rare birds like twite.

Two of the days of each week are set aside for looking for otters, and after spending time before the tours searching, we knew of some great locations. Even so, we are always on the lookout for new sites, and as we returned from the Lunga trip, Andy spotted a group of otters at dusk. Otters of course move around, so we were quite surprised to find them so quickly the following morning, and what a find it was too. Not one, not two but a mother with three cubs!

I've never seen this before - she must be an incredible mother to have successfully raised three youngsters while feeding herself too. All looked fit and well, and when they gathered together on the rocks in front of us, the family was obviously at ease with one another.

With so many in one place, we had to be ultra careful when photographing them. Cameras on silent goes without saying, but we had to show real self-discipline to only take a photo very occasionally. The last thing we wanted to do was spook the group, as that would risk dividing them up, and maybe one or more youngsters might lose contact with the mother.

As it was, one by one they slunk back into the loch, and we watched the group head along the shore together, allowing us to quietly retreat back to the cars. The perfect encounter.

For a bird of prey fanboy, the Mull Charters trips scheduled during our tours were always going to be my personal favourite, and we were treated to almost perfect weather. Barely a breath of wind, almost clear skies and warm too. And the eagles didn't disappoint either, with both the public and then private charters delivering multiple dives from them.

Taking time between dives to suggest new techniques, settings and even how to manage excitement or the stress of wanting to get that all important shot, we were relieved that the clients all left the boat happy.

As for me, the calm conditions allowed me to wield my 500mm lens for a change, and this meant faster, more accurate focusing, and some more pleasing shots of these awesome raptors.

The end of the first tour was a little disjointed, as one of the clients had to leave early due to a family tragedy and another who had been suffering with a back problem needed time away from us to have that looked at. As it was, the final day's otter watching for me turned into a one-to-one, and as the client had a poorly back, I had to avoid situations where we'd need to be lying down, in favour of a more relaxed approach; something I'm quite used to with trips with my Dad, who'd never get back up again if he was forced to lie down in the seaweed!

After tracking an otter along the shore for about an hour, I tried to second-guess where it would climb ashore to groom. I was correct, though not with the otter we were watching. No, that one swam past, and I was just about to move when a second individual we'd not seen nearby, climbed out in front of us. We froze, and watched... and waited... and waited.

For the best part of an hour the otter groomed and then mostly slept. And our patience was eventually rewarded when the otter woke, rolled around, and then approached us briefly, sniffing at the seaweed, before slipping back into the water.

The middle Saturday saw us bid farewell to the remaining clients, and go for a leisure drive up to Andy's family's house in the north of the island, where we disturbed Emma and Adam who'd just driven up from Wales, and had dozed off in the sunroom! Ah well, the sun was out and we all went looking for some local wildlife.

Whinchats, stonechats and wheatears were all in good numbers, and even a cuckoo made an appearance. It wouldn't be a walk on Mull without at least one eagle showing up, and sure enough, we watched a golden eagle soar overhead, albeit briefly. While the views from the cliffs were undoubtably breathtaking, we all found ourselves crouched around a rock, staring at what had just slithered beneath it. An adder!

Emma had spotted it, and one soon became four. I had to borrow Andy's 24-105mm lens to get any sort of shot, while he made good use of the new 100-400mm zoom. They're such wonderful creatures, and we had some good views when we all kept still and the sun brought the snakes back out into the open to bask.

Fish and chips on the quay in Tobermory, the purchase of a few bits and bobs for the week ahead and an early night, before Andy and I prepared to welcome the guests for the second tour.

With back-to-back tours one always wonders if one tour will be better than the other, or perhaps luckier with the wildlife. Not so with the second week, as the Lunga trip was as glorious as the previous one, though we stopped on at Staffa on the way to Lunga this time. Also in tow were Emma and Adam, who had scuttled off the Turus Mara boat ahead of me and had already found a small flock of twite on the island.

The puffins on Lunga were again on form, and once the daytrippers had left, we had the island and its stars to ourselves for the day. It really is wonderful there.

And it's not just about puffins, as just a short walk along the cliffs is a huge colony of guillemots, with numerous razorbills, kittiwakes and shags dotted amongst them. The latter like to nest in gaps between large boulders, keeping in the shade on hot days. I was going to creep close for some shots but the shags can eject their waste some distance it would appear, so I kept mine!

As with the first week, the Mull Charters boat trips were in fine weather, and we were again treated to numerous visits from the eagles. With Alex on a week off though, we were looked after by Oliver Wright, a professional photographer who specialises in hand-held stacked macro work. Not that he was practising such things on board the Lady Jayne... he was helping out and enjoying the show by the eagles, and at one point we were sat around with drinks and snacks, watching three white-tailed eagles soaring above us around the hills. Bliss!

Both trips to Iona weren't blessed with good weather, and neither saw us have any success with corncrakes. Andy spent most of the time scouring the beach for shells, whilst on the second trip there, I thought it'd be wise to look for the corncrakes whilst the others enjoyed a coffee. Wise move for them, as it poured down, and I was soaked, and no, I didn't see or even hear one.

While the tours are aimed at getting great images, it was actually an experience where no shots were taken that was treasured by two of the clients, and me during the second week. We had crept to the shore to watch an otter, and were sitting amongst rocks right on the water's edge when the otter brought a crab ashore. Initially out of view, the otter then clambered over the rocks and paused maybe six feet in front one client to look at him. The wind was in our faces so the otter couldn't smell us, and it continued along the shore, walking right past us, to climb on to another rock along the beach to groom.

It was way too close to even move the cameras, let alone take any pictures. But to see a wild otter so close, and not to spook it was an incredible moment, and the smiles from us all showed clearly how we all felt afterwards.

I had hoped to stay on Mull for a day or so after the second tour finished, but the weather was appalling (as it was last year!) and I ended up taking the Fishnish ferry off the island in convoy with some of the clients and Andy. I used to be absolutely gutted to leave Mull, but I visit so frequently with my new career that the next trip is usually only a few weeks away...

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Somerset Levels

According to this blog, it has been four years since I visited the Somerset Levels and that, for someone who loves the area, is quite frankly embarrassing. With a solitary day of decent weather nestled in a week of vile wet offerings, I was up before 5am and was parking up at the new (for me) RSPB car park at Ham Wall just before 8am.

Since my last visit, the RSPB have not only built a new car park, but added a visitor centre, toilets and landscaped an area nearby, with ponds and sculptures too. It's all rather lovely, and this all leads to a new path to the main reserve. Also new to the site is a large hide (Avalon) and that was where I wandered over to first. With a few photographers already peering from the windows, I chose a free space, and opened the large window.

The wind that had plagued the country for the last week hadn't died down alas, and was gusting right in my face. A cross-wind, an early start, driving for a couple of hours and a touch of hayfever meant my eyes were immediately tortured, and were so red later on, I was asked what condition I suffered from by another photographer! Perhaps I need to wear protective goggles next time...

I had barely had chance to get the seat in position when the cattle egrets I had hoped to see (a "tick" for me) popped out of the vegetation and perched at some distance on a gate. True to form, they were hanging around an area being grazed by some cattle.

I grabbed some record shots, before turning my attention back to the swifts buzzing around the hide. I really need to invest in a new 100-400mm lens, as mine just isn't fast enough to lock on, so I had to use my 500mm, and hand-holding that isn't easy.

Still, it was fun to try, and I hoped would "get my eye in" ready for any hobbies that might be around. That is if my eyes hadn't shrivelled up and fallen out by then!

After the fairly distant initial views of the cattle egrets, it was pleasing to see one fly past a bit closer, and as I was set up for the swifts, I didn't have to change anything for it, and grabbed a series of images as it drifted slowly by.

The pool in front had a couple of great-crested grebe chicks swimming around, with their parents busily bringing back fish for them. Not always of the right size, but entertaining to watch. And further off, the marsh harriers were also out hunting frequently, though rarely close enough for my liking for a shot.

Eventually a hobby dived into view, fizzing across the surface of the water, catching a dragonfly on the wing, before gliding casually along as it plucked the wings off before consuming the unfortunate insect.

On my last visit to the Levels, people were understandably excited to see a great white egret, and everyone was taking photos. Hence I was rather surprised to find that I was the only one taking shots when one glided past the hide!

Amazing that these once rare birds are now so plentiful on the Levels that the locals take them for granted.

Eventually the temperature of the constant breeze blowing in my face got the better of me, and I went for a walk again to warm up. After seeing a cattle egret for the first time, I wondered if my luck would be in for a second tick of the day, and headed down the track to where the little bittern had been occasionally showing. Speaking to the observers there, it had been seen just after dawn, but nothing since.

I could hear it though, but that doesn't really count. It was tricky to work out whether the "barking" sound was being made close to us or not, as the wind was carrying the call, and swirling round with it. Then, as I peered through a gap in the trees, I caught sight of it, as it flew between patches of reeds. No time for a shot, but I'd seen it at least.

Wanting to warm up still, I chose to hang around, and hope for another sighting, and it proved to be a wise move, as not only did we see it fly over the reeds, but on one occasion it actually flew round in a circle back to where it took off from.

They are small though, and not easy to focus on as they skim the tops of the reeds. That said, I did manage to get a few record shots. Quite a brightly coloured bird.

After the excitement of seeing that, I opted for a long walk around the tracks of Ham Wall, listening to the bitterns booming, and quite often seeing more great white egrets flying by. The forecast for the day had been for cloud coming in late afternoon, and that was indeed the case, as I decided to cross over to the other side, Shapwick Heath in this case. I had hoped to see the glossy ibis but when I did, the skies were darkening by the minute, and drops of rain sent me scurrying to a hide for shelter.

The rain looked set in, and any hopes of seeing one of the resident barn owls out hunting were washed away. I did catch a good sighting of a marsh harrier in the gloom, and also one of the great white egrets dropped into the pool in front of the hide, but annoyingly remained in the reeds, making it impossible for a shot.

When the rain eased, I made a dash for the car park again, and only just made it in time, when the heavens opened once more. So much for a dry day! Hopefully it won't be so long before I revisit the Levels though, as they reminded me just what a fantastic area they are to explore.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Scottish Highlands Early Spring

As the breeze subsided, the rustling of the reeds that lined the shore of the loch was replaced with the excitable trilled calls of little grebes, pairing up for the breeding season. In the distance, small pockets of snow, not remnants of the winter, but from a recent fall clung to the hilltops, in areas shaded from the spring sunshine and warmth from it.

The waters of the loch calmed, and reflections of the surrounding trees took shape on the surface, some bearing new green leaves, others still biding their time for spring to arrive for certain, but decorated with lichens able to thrive in the clean, fresh air.

A rise in temperature allowed one of the mute swans sitting on eggs in the reed-bed to shuffle out, and glide gracefully back on to the loch; time to stretch its wings before up-ending, reaching down to the bed of the loch in search of food, its rear end pointing skywards, taking on the appearance of a feathery iceberg perhaps.

Sitting as low as I could beside the edge of the loch, I tried to drink in the tranquility and beauty of the morning. The air was filled with bird song, from the resident linnets and goldfinches, to newly arrived sedge warblers, and the distinctive call of a cuckoo, very much the indicator of spring. Overhead the chatter of swallows caught my attention, and I watched in awe as they swooped down to pick insects from the water, or to scoop a small drink from the surface.

I was in Scotland again, and was hoping to photograph a stunning bird that uses these freshwater lochs in the Highlands for breeding. While I had missed most of the courtship dances, I was within a window of opportunity to get images of them, in breeding plumage before they began to nest.

Their call, similar but slightly quieter than that of the little grebes, burst from the reeds nearby, and I held my breath. A glint of gold caught my attention, and then that ruby red eye. A Slavonian grebe had emerged from the reeds, and was busy preening for a moment, before scanning the area, and immediately diving down for some food.

They can stay submerged for quite some time, and are able to cover a fair distance underwater too, so it’s very much pot-luck if the grebe surfaces near you. Mostly they didn’t, following a familiar route out into the loch each time, only varying it should something such as the swan or one of the coots be in the way. Sometimes only one grebe would appear, but when both did, I have to admit I was crossing my fingers hoping for a dance.

As with last year’s trip to the Highlands in May, this one wasn’t really planned - a last minute decision and one that happily coincided with some free time Andy had, meaning we would be able to spend some days out together enjoying the wildlife. That said he had to prepare for an exhibition, so we had some tasks to address, and I also chipped in with some maintenance around his red squirrel site.

Chanonry Point was the target on a couple of days, as there had been some unseasonable activity from the bottlenose dolphins. When I arrived, most of the action had calmed down, but for once I did manage to get a breaching shot, something that has all but eluded me despite several visits. It was good to catch up with other friends up there too; the banter and laughter helped distract us from the freezing wind that was cutting through us on the shoreline.

Aside from the dolphins, the beach offers great views around the Moray Firth, and we watched oystercatchers, common scoters, terns, gulls, sanderlings, ringed plovers, mergansers and eider ducks passing by.

Some offering better photo opportunities than others, which was welcome when the dolphins were failing to put on a show.

Lyndsey would be able to accompany us at the weekend too, and she suggested a trip out to Handa Island on the Saturday. I’d never been before, so jumped at such an opportunity. The drive across the Highlands was spectacular and I kept an eye on all the lochs for signs of any birds, especially hoping to see black-throated divers; another bird that uses freshwater lochs for breeding. What I hadn’t expected to see though, was a trio of common cranes circling over the hills! While I was relatively surprised to see them there, both Andy and Lyndsey were thrilled at the sight, and hastily parked the car up for a better view. Not a bad start to the trip.

The crossing to Handa is quickly dealt with, in a small dinghy boat which lands on a white sandy beach. After a brief introduction to the place from the volunteers, we set off along the paths in search of skuas. Andy had promised me views of both great and Arctic skuas, though the latter seemed in short supply. Bonxies though, were present in good numbers, and I settled down near a small loch where they were choosing to bathe. Bizarrely, amongst their numbers was a lone red-throated diver, which seemed to be sizing the loch up for somewhere to perhaps breed. It was testing the length of it for taking off, and tried from a number of spots around it, managing to take flight each time. Surely not the best place to bring diver chicks into the world, surrounded by predators?

Both Andy and Lyndsey had wandered off, with Lyndsey choosing to complete the whole circuit of the island. I found Andy lying on his stomach taking photos of meadow pipits, skylarks and wheatears, which amused him somewhat that he was ignoring the stars of the island in favour of such common species. I joined him for a few moments before taking a brief walk along the clifftops, watching the fulmars floating on the updrafts or bickering at their nest sites.

The views around the island were incredible though. On such a clear and sunny day, it was blissful to be there.

Meeting up on the beach for the last boat away from the island we were soon back on the mainland, and we had just started on our journey back towards Inverness when we spotted a pair of black-throated divers on a loch. I was lucky in that they were on my side of the car, and I had my camera to hand. I took some shots as they drifted serenely across the water, but when they started to head towards the end of the loch, Andy decided to move the car along the road, and jumped out for a better view.

I had barely opened the car door when I realised one of the divers had surfaced very close to where we’d parked, and using the door-frame for support, I was able to reel off a number of shots, capturing a sequence when the diver rose up out of the water to stretch its wings.

These birds have such intricate and clever markings on their feathers, perhaps evolved over time to mimic bubbles or streaks in the water when they dive and hunt for prey underwater?

They also have incredibly good eyesight, and must have seen the car, as they soon dived, and appeared some way along the water again. We tried to follow, but soon realised it was a lost cause!

Calling into Ullapool on the way back, we found a sheltered spot outside a restaurant and enjoyed dinner together, laughing about the day’s trip and planning what we might do the following day, though Andy had a client booked, so some of it was sort of pre-arranged.

Lyndsey and I pestered Andy to stop off at a couple of lochs along the route home, to take some scenic shots, though he was forced to join in when the sinking sun lit up some clouds over one reflective loch, and created a most beautiful sunset scene.

Dotterel was on the menu for the Sunday, and the client had said she didn’t mind Lyndsey and me tagging along. After last year’s hike to the summit, I chose to wear my summer trousers this time, as fleece-lined combats were way too hot before. But opening the car door at the Cairngorms car park made me regret the decision. It was freezing, and the air was filled with fine rain, like the Cornish “mizzle”. Annoyingly for Andy and his client, the forecast for the mountains had changed overnight, and the clear skies had vanished behind low cloud and rain. Dotterel was off the menu…

Thankfully there were plenty of alternatives, and after a coffee in Aviemore, and some indulgent shortbread, we found other subjects to point the cameras at, including red kites at the RSPB Tollie feeding station, a site that Andy and I had visited a number of times before.

Unlike Gigrin, there are only a handful of kites that visit the site, and hence makes it much easier to isolate the birds as they dive for food. Andy and his client came away with fabulous images and, despite being unfamiliar with a 1DX, Lyndsey managed to take some stunning images of the kites swooping down for the food. But took some convincing, having been used to the extra reach of the 7D mk2 and its sharper LCD screen, that her images were as good as I suggested. A review on Andy’s iMac later backed up my assessment, and she started to see why both Andy and I rate the 1DX so highly.

The working week began with Andy having to concentrate on final preparations for his exhibition, so I headed out alone and chose to visit a site good for watching sand martins. I’ve never really had too many opportunities to study these birds in much detail, but was charmed by how sweet they appear facially, especially as they peer out of the sandy burrows at the outside world.

They were busy with bringing in bits of grasses to line the nests hidden underground, as well as kicking out sand that had fallen at the entrances.

As the clouds cleared, I returned to the Slavonian grebes once more, and managed to get some reasonably close views. But the sun was making its way around me, and that wasn’t great for the shots, so I considered relocating…

Looking at a map, I picked a few lochs along a road to visit, hoping for a sight of more divers, but the further along I drove, the better the scenery became. Just a short distance along the road, according to the map was Loch Maree, a location that featured in a wildlife documentary about a year in the Highlands. With clear blue skies, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to see it for myself.

And boy was it worthwhile. Not so much for wildlife, though I did see a ring ouzel along the way, and a pair of black-throated divers, but for the scenery. Wow, just wow.

A friend from last year’s Mull tour calls this area home, and I can see why he loves walking around here so very much. It is simply stunning.

The blue sky was reflected in the loch’s water, and thankfully for me, the midges hadn’t emerged in great numbers yet.

My last full day was again spent alone. With bright skies and calm waters around the Moray Firth, I hoped the loch with the grebes would allow for some reflection shots. I was wrong, and a steady breeze kept the water’s surface choppy.

The grebes were still around, but I noticed a change in their behaviour. Instead of both birds coming out, or either one being out every 15 minutes or so, only one would appear, and would be out for much longer. The grebes were also much more defensive of the area, and chased off anything they considered to be a threat. That was my cue to leave, as the window had closed, and nesting had begun. Hopefully it’ll be a successful season for them.

As the day had warmed up so much, the heat haze had become a problem, and I chose to head back to meet up with Andy. He’d considered visiting the hares later that day, but all the effort of preparing for the exhibition coupled with the hazy light put him off the idea, and instead we visited Chanonry Point once again, calling in for an ice cream along the way.

As before, the dolphins failed to do much at all, and a drop in temperature tempted us to head back to base again, for my last night of the trip.

After saying our goodbyes, it was rather strange to wave Andy and Lyndsey off, as they left me at their house! They had to drop their two dogs off at the kennels before the trip for the exhibition, and I was still getting my bags together.

Rather than head straight back south, I broke the journey up with another visit to the sand martin colony, and after a quiet start, they soon started performing again. Perhaps the cooler weather meant they had to spend longer searching for insects.

The second destination was Langholm Moor, in the hope of seeing some hen harriers. I did spot a couple of the ghostly grey male harriers, but only from a fair distance, and by then the heat haze was blurring the view, let alone any images taken. Plenty of other birds around, such as meadow pipits and skylarks, cuckoos and buzzards, and even a wild goat!

The next “planned” trip to Scotland will be for the Mull Photo Tours in July, but I'm sure I'll find something to blog about before then...