Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Mull Late August - White-Tailed Eagle Heaven

I know what you're thinking. "Mull, again?" And you'd be right. I have spent a great deal of this year on the isle, and have blogged about each trip. This one, as with previous years, was for a vacation, but it didn't start too well. Wanting to book the same B&B as before, I found out new owners had taken it over in Oban, but after a couple of failed email attempts, received a reply, and confirmed by replying to that. In hindsight I should perhaps have called to confirm, but I didn't, and it wasn't the most pleasant surprise after an 8 hour drive up there, to be told by the owner that there was no reservation, that the B&B was full.

My fault too, apparently, initially because I'd used the wrong email address. Well, the one on the website (which I clicked on) failed, and I received an unrecognised email message back. I tried the old one, and received a reply from the old owner, who forwarded it on to a different account. Progress, I thought, so when I heard from that, I simply replied to confirm my details. He never received the confirmation, and I spent a night in another hotel sleeping on the floor to remind to check next time. That is, if I bother to use that B&B again.

As we were up earlier than usual, and the hotel didn't even offer breakfast (!!), we ended up being ushered on to the ferry before the one we'd booked, so arrived on Mull in very good time, and chose to head over to the Coffee Pot in Salen for a bacon baguette. Just the tonic. Then it was off to find some wildlife, taking in the sights around the lochs. I never tire of these expansive views. Usually though, the first day on Mull at this time of year, is fine, but this year, we were a week earlier due to my brother's wedding clashing with our normal dates, and the first day was horrid. It wasn't a huge surprise after getting the keys to the cottage, that Dad didn't want to go back out again, leaving me to explore alone.

My targets for the fortnight were to be birds of prey. Don't get me wrong, I love seeing and photographing otters, but the Photography Tours I co-run on Mull very much favour otters over raptors, and the latter were what tempted me to Mull in the first instance, all those years ago. As it happened, the first afternoon / evening session on the isle, provided a great appetiser for such hunters, seeing buzzards, a ringtail hen harrier, a sparrowhawk and a white-tailed eagle all within the space of a few hours.

The buzzard was initially hunting, then caught something which may have been a frog or toad, and ate it on the lochside rocks.

The sparrowhawk had been sitting in a small tree near one of the plantations, but surprised me by flying down towards the car, and perching up much closer when I poked the camera out of the window! Doesn't normally happen.

Then just as I was heading back to the digs, I clocked the white-tailed eagle skimming the tops of the trees near the Kinloch Hotel, and as I pointed the camera up at it, the eagle decided to empty its bowels! Delightful.

Normally when I park up at the cottage, I'm gutted that the day has ended, but I was utterly shattered and was very glad of a bed that night!

Despite my intentions of aiming for raptors, I did encounter quite a few otters, and I wasn't going to ignore them. That said, as it was mid-August, and hence mid-holiday season, there were a lot of other people around, and in almost every case, I watched the otter get spooked by them. Sometimes it would be from another photographer failing to approach properly, or from them having taken their shots, failing to creep away as silently as they approached (this really annoys me - you should apply the same level of stealth and effort to leave an otter as you do to get close in the first place, not just stand up, and walk off).

Or it'd be from sightseers seeing me, and then stopping nearby, and walking over for a look. Nothing that can be done about that I suppose.

I'm not perfect though, I did spook one myself though one day, when it had rained overnight, and the rocks were like sheet-ice. I was crouching down, slithering across the top, when I just slid down into a rockpool, and found I couldn't get out! All sides around me were too slippery for any traction, and I ended up getting wet feet when I pushed off the edge of the pool and bridged my back to get some grip from my clothes! The otter must have heard (but not seen) the disturbance, and was swimming further away when I dragged myself free. But before I could relocate, the clouds parted, a rainbow formed across the loch, and a bus-load of tourists jumped out of a coach to photograph the view, and that was the end of that!

After the fortune of the Mull Summer Photo Tours both enjoying fabulous weather for the Mull Charters boat trips, overcast conditions greeted us for our first trip of the fortnight aboard the Lady Jayne. Still, Martin and Alex provided warm welcomes, and the eagles didn't disappoint either. It has been a phenomenal year for sightings from the trip, with some sailings seeing over 10 visits from the birds.

While we didn't get quite such a show, we still had fantastic views as the eagles came out, and my old 100-400mm lens locked on for some cracking shots. I wonder if I'll miss the ease of the push-pull mechanism when I update it to the new twist zoom model?

One of the dives was interesting in that after taking the fish, the eagle then banked sharply to head back to land, and gave us photo opportunities of it clutching the fish. Often the eagle simply powers away after the take, and offers little to shoot at.

With a couple of spaces free on the afternoon trip, Martin invited us to stay aboard, and we weren't going to refuse such an opportunity, heading out again in search of more eagles. It took a bit more effort on the second sailing, but eventually "big beak" paid us a visit, and gave us all what we wanted with a terrific showing.

Another great day out with the eagles and we had another sailing booked for the second week too. Just can't get enough of them.

As with many previous visits, I spent time around the marshes in the hope of a close encounter with a hen harrier, and as before, one didn't materialise. Instead I would park up at the back of a small beach area where the tide had left a strip of seaweed, and feeding on the insects on that, were dunlins and ringed plovers. Gorgeous, busy little waders, and tolerant of a noisy car parking up, thankfully.

There were a few greenshanks around too, though being such timid characters, they remained at a distance, alas.

The second week was already upon us, and with a break in the weather, Martin invited us on for a Saturday sailing. With hindsight I should have taken aboard both my 500mm lens and also a 24-105mm, as the conditions were calm enough for balancing with the larger beast, and stunningly beautiful to warrant some wider landscape, or should I say seascape images to be taken.

The colours reflected on the calm waters as we sailed out to some of the islands were magical. Just gorgeous.

Of course the eagles put in an appearance later on, and with some slow approaches, gave everyone time to get locked on for the approach.

More images of the wonderful birds to add to my collection.

It's funny sometimes how one thing can lead to another, and one calm morning, with a high tide, I had settled beside the shore once again, to photograph the band of waders. They were a smidge too far off for my liking, but before I could consider approaching, the mewing call of buzzards stole my attention. Glancing up the hillside I watched four of them, circling and then diving at something on some rocks. A white-tailed eagle.

I started the car, but before I could get any closer, the eagle unfurled its massive wings and lifted off, soaring away towards the river and marshes. Something inside me told me to follow, so I did.

Initially, it seemed to have been a waste of time, with no sign of the eagle on the marshes, though the gulls, geese, waders and ducks had all scattered as normal. I turned the car round and was about to head back to the shore when something unusual caught my eye. When you spend as much time as I do looking for wildlife, anything unusual, even in your peripheral vision grabs your attention, and as I trundled closer, I realised that a white-tailed eagle was perched on a small rock near the shore of the loch, not a million miles from the road.

Driving slowly past, as I had to turn around to park up safely, I crossed my fingers that the eagle wouldn't be spooked by the car, and that was when I saw the other one. Sat in the water, just a few metres from the one on the rock. Wow. Thankfully my luck held out, and neither flew off when the car's ignition was switched off, and I pointed the camera at them. I grabbed images of them individually, but couldn't believe my fortune when the one that had been paddling in the shallows, took off and joined the other on the rock. Dreams are made of stuff like this! Perched beside one another, the difference in size between genders was clear to see.

The female even looked over at me briefly, when I assume she heard the shutter on the camera fire.

Then a large mobile home thundered by, and the moment was gone; one of the eagles lifting off to fly away to the other side of the loch, leaving the other to perch alone briefly, before also flying over to the rocky shore, further away. I didn't take another image that day, but do you know what, after that experience, I really didn't care. Incredible.

The island of Mull has stunning scenery of course, and amazing wildlife, but also seems to have a fair number of Highland cows and bulls around these days, and it seemed to be a missed opportunity to ignore these characters on brighter days.

And with the herds often feeding near our cottage, it was easy to pop out when conditions suited me, and one calm, sunny morning, some of the cattle were paddling at the edge of the loch. I couldn't refuse such an image, and scuttled over for a few minutes.

I know it's not "wildlife" but they make great subjects.

With a break in the clouds one night, I tried for some astrophotography, which meant standing in the pitch darkness near the loch, grabbing long exposure images when the moon went into hiding behind a cloud.

Made for some interesting shots, but I regretted not reverting the camera back to normal settings the following morning, when one of the local white-tailed eagles swooped down in front of the cottage, in an attempt to take a mallard. While I could quickly adjust the settings back to suit daylight, I was caught out with the 2 second delay on the shutter. I uttered a few words not to be repeated on here... one day I will learn!

The eagle relocated to some rocks along the loch, which allowed Dad and me to get some shots from the car. Wasn't quite as close as my encounter earlier in the week, but I was pleased Dad could share in something similar.

If I wanted close, then the otter encounter later that morning would provide that. Having tracked one along the shore for nearly an hour, I guessed where it might head back in, and set up behind some large rocks to get shots should the otter decide to groom for a while.

Crouching down, back resting against a rock to hide my shape, I waited, and waited for the otter to appear where I expected it to. It didn't. Instead, it climbed on to one of the rocks I was using for cover, and stopped in its tracks when it looked over the top and down at me. There was a moment of surprise for both of us, and knowing full well the otter had seen me, I grabbed a couple of shots.

The otter then scampered down away from me, appearing on more boulders further along the shore. I remained exactly where it had seen me, and resisted the urge to move. Only when the otter had stopped looking in my direction, and was absorbed with grooming, did I creep a bit closer again.

Thankfully this time the otter didn't move, or spot me, and I enjoyed great views of it grooming, rolling around and then heading off up one of the streams to its holt.

After the incident with the rockpool, I hoped I might catch up with that individual again, and without any overnight rain, the rocks were safer to scramble over one sunny morning. As with many otter encounters, it took a while for me to enjoy any luck, with the otter bringing catches in frequently just out of view from where I was hiding.

Eventually my luck changed, and after missing another catch being eaten, the otter climbed on to a rock in the sunshine, to scan the area, before heading off out again.

Later that day I saw another otter, and it brought ashore a huge fish. I thought my luck was in for this, as surely it would take a while to consume, but after only a few seconds of feeding, the otter left. The fish as it turned out to be, was a lesser spotted dogfish, and according to some of my otter-watching friends, these fish are horrid to eat on account of their abrasive skin. The otter only tends to consume soft fleshy parts such as the stomach, heart or lungs, leaving the rest as it is too unpleasant to attempt to eat. Always learning something new in this game!

Another lesson learned for next year is to book the ferries earlier, as the one taking us off Mull was later than I usually would like, so we had a few hours to kill before getting on it. I often hope the final day is terrible weather, so it's easier for me to leave, but it wasn't. It was glorious, and we parked up at the viewpoint car park at Grasspoint to watch the world go by.

Whilst hoping for a sighting of perhaps a harrier or short-eared owl, I ended up crouching beside a dry-stone wall, with my macro lens pointing at a common lizard basking in the sunshine.

No sign of any raptors, and it was soon time to head to Craignure for the ferry. Another fortnight consigned to the history books, or this blog at least, and of course a great deal more fine memories of the wildlife and other sights on Mull.

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...