Going to Mull in January doesn't strike you as an obvious choice, and to be honest, I had thought long and hard about it. Late in 2016 I had been asked if I could provide some guiding for seeing otters on Mull, and I worked out that altering dates for the Highlands trip allowed me to divert to Mull on the way home.
The idea depended on whether I could find some suitable digs that meant the trip would mostly be covered by the fee for the guiding. Even when I found something in the correct price bracket, I wondered if it was wise. Until I remembered why I had left my old life behind and started afresh. Grab any opportunity that comes your way; live for now. Within reason, of course. I'm not mad...
So in the pouring rain, splashing through melted floodwater puddles across roads, I made my way along the shore of Loch Ness, calling into Fort William for some supplies, and then via the Corran ferry, I dashed across the hills leading to Lochaline, and was surprised how quickly I reached the ferry terminal. Unfortunately I hadn't figured for it being a winter timetable... on a Sunday. D'oh! I had over 2 hours to wait for the next ferry over to Fishnish.
Had it not have been pouring down, I'd have gone back up into the hills, but instead I sat in the car and watched the birds around the shore, with the usual suspects such as oystercatchers and curlews featuring, plus a rather unexpected view of a kingfisher, perhaps forced to relocate from higher ground after the recent fall of snow.
Eventually I rolled off the ferry and was on Mull again, though I had a long drive ahead of me (still in monsoon conditions) down to the cottage near Bunessan, in the south of the island. I took it steady as my headlights were lighting up huge red deer stags beside the roads, and both woodcock and snipe would burst from ditches, the latter often resembling pale bats as they fluttered across the beams at speed.
Bed, breakfast and a brief stroll around the area where I was based. It was still raining, so I headed back to the shelter of the car, and headed north.
As usual, I was trundling along slowly, taking my time to scan the shore when beside a loch, the rocks nearby, and hills, posts, moors... basically looking at everything. Plenty around, but the first thing to warrant a photo was a kestrel, sheltering amongst the exposed rocks on a hillside.
A similar scene presented itself to me on the second day, with rain falling and calm conditions. It was surprisingly mild though - not what I had expected in January. A brief sighting of an otter early on, along with plenty of views of the wintering divers around the shores kept me entertained as I drove along. Then I clocked another eagle sat near the shore, and after pointing my bins at it, I realised there were four birds sat close to each other. I decided to go for a look, and used what little cover I had to get closer. Problem was, I had to take such a detour around the area to get such cover, by the time I popped my head over the hillock for a better view, all but one of the eagles had left!
More otter antics followed, but mostly in dreadful light, and as with the previous day, it was dark by 4pm. If only the clouds would lift a little, I mused. As I turned the car round, a distant bird hunting caught my eye. A hen harrier. Too dark to bother with photos, but I made a mental note of where I'd seen it.
The otter guiding was towards the end of the week, and I had planned to find locations for otters prior to then. I had of course already done that, and quite a few of them, so fancied a change of scenery. I'd seen white-tailed eagles, but no golden ones yet. That had to change!
Knowing Mull like I do, means I know where to look for golden eagles, and within seconds of arriving in the area where I hoped to see one, I did. Two, in fact, hunting the hillsides. For such a massive bird, they have an uncanny ability to blend into their surroundings, and as soon as they pass in front of a hillside, instead of the sky, tracking them becomes a real challenge. Given the speed at which they can reach in a dive, I parked up and scanned all around me, when I lost them from view.
Wise move, as a third approached from behind me!
The light had almost faded when I spotted her quartering the shoreline, that white band visible with the naked eye. She was ahead of me, and after grabbing some shots from where I had parked to watch for otters, I "made time" along the road to get ahead of her. It was a gamble, as I parked over a ridge and waited. Usually hen harriers vanish if I am prepared for taking a shot, so I was very surprised (and pleased) when she appeared on the horizon, and briefly hovered over a clump of grass.
What a fine end to a great day of raptor watching. My evening meal tasted extra special that night.
The following morning led to yet more otter fun, and I managed to get really good views of one as he slept, then groomed beside the loch.
Having focused on otters so much, I hadn't driven through the glens much, so chose to do so one morning, but the low cloud meant little was visible, aside from buzzards drying off on posts. I went to another location where I have enjoyed success with golden eagles, but failed to see any, and as I was trundling slowly away, spotted an otter near the shore. Initially I parked up, but could see the otter watching me, so I moved the car away, with the intention of getting out and approaching on foot. That didn't happen, when unexpectedly the otter surfaced with a vibrantly coloured scorpion fish, and swam right over to where I'd just parked up again, to deal with it. I couldn't get out, but had a glorious view anyway.
Aside from the wildlife on Mull, I was also pleased to catch up with Martin, Judith and Alex, who are the family behind the Mull Charters boat trip success. Of course the Lady Jayne was away in dry dock for the winter, so I spent a rather chilly half hour watching waders at the end of Loch Na Keal, laughing at Martin's cursed tripod; every time he gets it out, the weather turns for the worse, and he's forced to put it away again. Certainly was the case that day, when we were blasted with icy winds and cloud, only to see the clouds part in the rear-view mirror of the car, as we headed back to their B&B in Salen for a coffee!
Seeing so many otters during the week put me in good stead for the guiding, which went well - no problem finding otters, or putting the client close to them. In fact I had more issue with equipment, as the client had damaged his gear prior to meeting me (loch-side rocks are like ice, so be careful readers!), and I ended up lending him my camera and big lens. This limited my options during the guiding, but the client has to come first.
Revisiting the spot where I'd seen that otter so closely earlier in the week proved to be yet another great move, though originally, when I was sat in the rain watching nothing but gulls beside the loch, I did wonder if I'd made a mistake.
Then a v-shaped wake appeared on the water, and I saw an otter with a fish swimming towards me. Out the car, and into hiding. Unfortunately the otter did the same (though not out of a car, of course) and ate the fish out of sight. But it did appear eventually to groom, and I got more great views.
Not one, but two white-tailed eagles were perched on the shore. Awesome. With room to go off-road somewhat, and having a car capable of doing so, I was able to park as close as I dared, to get some shots.
If you fancy joining me on Mull for such an adventure, drop me an email, or sign up for one of the Otter Tours I am co-running later this year. I can bleat on and on about how fabulous this place is for wildlife, but until you witness it for yourself, you'll always just be wondering...