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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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...