Monday, 8 October 2018

Mull, Late Summer

After spending the best part of a month on Mull during the middle of summer, guiding clients on bespoke workshops and tours, I was keen to ensure my holiday there later that season would focus on what I wanted to see, and not be so intense that I came home feeling like I needed a rest! Otters are always top of the most-wanted list for clients, so I told myself that I'd concentrate on my preferred birds of prey instead.

The debarcle last year with the usual B&B not having my booking, meant I booked somewhere else this time, though the beds in the new place were only marginally more comfortable than sleeping on the floor! Didn't matter too much, as after a decent breakfast, some shopping, and a quick scan of Oban harbour, we were ushered aboard the smaller of the two ferries serving Mull, and it took just four minutes to see an eagle after arriving at Craignure. A white-tailed eagle soared over the main road as we drove north towards Salen!

With clear blue skies and barely a breeze, Mull was glorious, and reminded me of the weather Andy and I had enjoyed with our clients earlier in the year. The lochs reflect the colour of the sky and the whole place is transformed, to resemble perhaps a holiday island in the Med. By mid-afternoon I'd dropped Dad off at the cottage to settle in, while I zipped off into the hills nearby, in search of raptors. And within minutes of parking up, the distinctive shape of a hen harrier quartering over the hillside grabbed my attention.

A female, looking tired in terms of her condition, from a busy breeding season. She kept her distance from where I was parked, which is something I am well used to! But a joy to see, nevertheless. As was the male that appeared soon after, hunting further along the hillside. Having observed at least four different harriers searching for food in one area, I decided to relocate to a closer spot, and hiked up the hills. Nestling in beside a boulder, wearing camo and coated in Smidge, I waited. The harriers had been appearing every half hour or so. They'd appear soon, right?

No. Whatever mystical, magical, telepathic warning these birds use to avoid me getting images had been sounded, and nothing flew over the hillside for the next two hours. Would my luck ever change with these birds?

As is typical with Mull, after a day of glorious weather on arrival, the first full day on the island was grey and very damp. The picture-postcard blue lochs were choppy and murky, and the tops of the hills blanketed in cloud. And boy did the rain come down! With Dad's health not being great of late, I suggested he stayed in the warmth of the digs, whilst I braved the elements. I didn't struggle to get him to agree! And I wondered why I had bothered after failing to see anything on my first circuit of the loch.

A branch washed up on the tide was serving as a perch for hunting swallows, battling to pick out insects between the droplets of rain, and provided me with at least something to watch for a while.

I didn't hold out much hope of seeing raptors in this weather, but beyond the swallows, in the bay appeared a head... of a fishing otter. It seemed quite content to be catching small prey and eating them out in the water, which suited me, as I didn't fancy getting soaked out of the shelter of the car. Then another head appeared, and started to swim over. A second otter. Perhaps it knew the other one?

Suddenly the second otter started to head ashore, at speed. I tried to see if it had caught something, but it hadn't. It appeared down the shore from me, and sprinted up towards the hills. Naturally I pointed the camera at it, and grabbed some shots, though at an awkward angle to where I was facing (sometimes big lenses aren't the best solution!).

Weird, I thought, until I saw the first otter charging past the car and off into the bracken behind. I could hear squeaking and scanned the undergrowth for any sign of what might be happening. Both otters then burst out of the ferns, and scampered at pace briefly along the road behind my car, then back into the bushes again. More sounds and I worried for what might happen in front of me. I last saw them, presumably an unwelcome youngster being chased by the territory-owner, as they scampered across the "Otter Car Park" and off up one of the streams, going straight up and through a waterfall along the way.

The day ended with me enjoying the sight of at least one hen harrier braving the elements to find a late supper. I didn't envy it, and wasn't surprised to see it perch up after a while, perhaps waiting for the rain to stop before it went completely dark. It didn't...

Despite my intentions of targeting raptors for the break, I kept spotting otters, and certainly wasn't going to ignore any, where there was the opportunity to approach.

Somewhat ironic, that during the summer we struggled to find them for clients, probably due to the number of tourists and the unusually warm weather, yet here I was, hoping to photograph birds of prey, and tripping over otters each day!

With fine weather forecast mid-week, it was time to sail aboard the Lady Jayne again with Martin and Alex. Having experimented a few times recently with using my 500mm prime lens, I opted to use the 100-400mm this time, as it is easier to wield and track the eagles in flight, and I hoped to get some shots showing the agility of these huge predators, as they approach to take the fish.

And boy were we treated to some action.

The eagles seemed to have read my mind, performing some spectacular dives, twisting and turning before dropping down.

Sometimes with the glorious blue sky as a backdrop, and other times against the green hills cupping the loch.

After the trip, we drove around the coast, finding a parking area near Burg, and simply stood around in the sunshine, admiring the stunning views. With buzzards and ravens spiralling up and down on the thermals above us, it was heavenly.

The day ended watching a couple of hen harriers hunting over the marshes in golden light, followed by a serene sunset, full of pastel shades. If I ever suffer a Groundhog Day, please let this one be it...

One of the sounds of Mull at this time of year is the chatter of barn swallows, both young and old, as they gather in flocks, making the most of the harvest of flying insects, before they head south, away for the winter. Nesting under the eves of houses and farm buildings, they often use the wire fences nearby to rest up on, and they can be quite accommodating to photographers. I used the car as the hide, and was able to get very close to one group. Strong light isn't a photographer's friend normally, but it did highlight the blue tones of their feathers.

As is often the case on Mull, after a day of glorious weather, the next is dull and wet, and with no action in the water of the loch, I chose to watch a large flock of finches feeding on the bounty of left-over seeds and insects after a meadow had been cut for hay. There were mainly chaffinches, goldfinches, siskins, meadow pipits and pied wagtails, and every so often, they would lift off from the vegetation, and some would perch on the wire fence nearby. Not the prettiest of perches, but the birds made up for it with their charm.

When the almost inevitable sparrowhawk arrived on the scene, and the birds dispersed in all directions, I chose to head back to the marshes again. By now the light had improved enough there to offer a glimmer of hope of seeing the harriers hunting, but it was another predator that caught my eye. A stoat!

Initially I spotted something moving along the road down from where I was parked, and after getting my bins on it, I could see it was a stoat, and it seemed interested in picking up the shards of bark left from the logging trucks as they thunder by. Then, as only stoats know how, it started to go a bit demented, leaping around, twisting and darting across the tarmac, vanishing into the grass, before peering out, and charging out again once more.

I drove past and parked closely enough to get some shots, but not so close I'd spook it. Even so, I did catch it staring at me from the perceived safety of the tall grass beyond the verge.

Another dreary day followed, and after the local band of stonechats had provided me with something to photograph, I spotted a large shape in the skies above, against the grey cloud.

A golden eagle, and it was soon joined by another. They were circling above the trees lining the hillside, and for some reason, despite the forecast of heavy rain, I chose to relocate to a spot closer, which meant hiking up the slope. Easier said than done, when much of it is lined with broken or cut down trees, holes or bogs, and chest-high sections of bracken, no doubt hiding places for ticks and other nasties. And carrying a 500mm lens over your shoulder on a monopod, when doing such a climb isn't wise... but I managed to get some way up the slope when I glanced up and realised there were now four eagles circling.

Three were of the golden variety, with one, perhaps brave sub-adult white-tailed eagle, that seemed intent on scrapping with one of the adult "goldies". Was thoroughly entertaining to watch though, if not quite close enough. I needed to go higher, and I wished I had done so earlier, instead of waiting lower down for a while, when I realised one of the golden eagles was perched in a tree, not far from where I had intended to head first.

Needless to say, after I scaled the hill to a point where the eagles had been soaring over, and I'd sat down amongst the stumps, camouflaged and still, I saw absolutely nothing for the two hours I was up there. Apart from some sheep. And a wall of rain, forecast, rolling in from the end of the loch. Looking at the rain, and then at my not-so-waterproof jacket, I chose to head back down, finding a much easier descent, and was rewarded, upon reaching the road again, just as the rain started to fall, with yet another otter sighting.

And it was a close one too, filling the frame at times.

I just caught the end of what must have been a fishing session, as the otter sprainted, groomed for a while, before heading out and up a stream.

With Dad having expressed that this trip would be his last to Mull, on account of the long journey time mainly, I wondered if he wanted to finally visit Iona, somewhere we'd often looked across at, but never set foot on. Heading south one of the warmer days, I suggested we perhaps head over, and was met with a rather apparent lack of enthusiasm for the idea! He wasn't bothered at all, and was quite happy enjoying the views of it from Mull, and strolling around the blissful white sand beaches instead.

Suited me, and I left him admiring the views and soaking up the sunshine, while I went looking for Irish mountain hares. And much like the visits earlier in the year, they appeared from out of nowhere, and scarpered, allowing me only a handful of distant shots when one paused to look back at me.

Later that day we caught up with the young otter I'd seen being chased, only this time it was in the shallows, enjoying the shoals of mackerel, catching numerous fish, and wolfing them down. Speaking to a local, this was one of the two tiny cubs I had seen back in November during the Otter Photography Tours, and was apparently the "runt" of the litter. This was both surprising and remarkable, that the smallest, most timid of the two was making a good go of it on its own. Sure, it was small, but it seemed to be finding plenty to eat, as long as it avoided the other larger individuals around the area, and chased off.

The day ended with another otter encounter, and one of the close kind. It was dead calm, without a breath of wind, which of course hinders the approach for photographing such creatures, but I had clambered into a gap between some large boulders and was taking shots ever so infrequently, in the quiet conditions. The otter started to head in, and I expected it to head up the stream along the shore from me. It didn't.

It appeared, right in front of me, heading up the same channel between the rocks where I was sitting! Way too close for me to photograph, and having to play statues anyway, I just looked at it, only moving my eyes in its direction. It was no more than two yards away. It too stopped, looking at me, obviously curious of the strange shape in front of it. Then I heard it sniff, deeply and again a second time. But without any wind to carry my scent, it simply couldn't determine what I was. It took a step closer and just as I thought it would pass within touching distance, a cyclist rushed past on the road behind me, and that was enough for the already wary creature to turn tail, and bound back to the water.

Without moving, I watched the otter looking at me from the water, before it swam along the shore, and up the stream I had assumed it would use before.

While I was getting productive sessions of photography early morning and late afternoon, Dad was struggling to find anything much during the day to interest him, so we arranged another trip out with Mull Charters. Again the weather was calm, and the water like a mill-pond. Whilst waiting for the Lady Jayne to moor up, I realised one of the other photographers queuing was one of my clients from the winter! He and another photographer I follow on Social Media were staying over on the mainland for the pine martens, but had driven over for the boat trip. Always lovely to catch up with such friendly folk, and of course led to amusing banter throughout the trip.

Alex always says folks need to be ready for the eagles early doors, but I think even he was surprised at the speed of the take from the first visiting eagle. The fish had barely hit the water when the eagle decided to dive straight down from over the boat, snatching the fish and heading off to a small skerry to eat it. I reacted almost without thinking, and somehow managed to get the shots, and I was about the only person to do so.

Thankfully for the other punters, the eagles visisted several times, and with some great positioning of the boat, and subsequent throwing by Alex, I managed to get some more unusual images of the eagles, against dark water.

Even with some reflections in the calm conditions. Stunning.

It was interesting too, that because of the almost windless weather, the eagles were having to generate their own pace for the dives, creating enough speed to gain height again after taking the fish, which meant they would fly almost overhead, then twist and dive steeply and sharply to accelerate down. Awesome to witness at such close quarters.

Certainly ticked all the boxes for an incredible last trip for Dad. And gave his camera a bit of a work-out too.

If the success of the boat trip had been almost expected after this year's experiences on it, what happened the following evening most certainly wasn't. As usual, I had decided for part of the late afternoon trip to park up overlooking the marshes, and hoped I might see a harrier or perhaps short-eared owl hunting. With numerous gulls flying around it was a miracle that I managed to pick up the one bird, hunting some distance off, just by the way it was flying. A male hen harrier. "It'll fly off" I thought, as they seemingly always do to me.

It started heading across the marsh and towards where I was waiting. I grabbed some distant shots waiting for the inevitable change of direction, but it kept on coming. Would one finally come close enough for a half decent image?

No. Something caught its attention as it followed the edge of the loch, and it dived down into the vegetation. I considered getting out and creeping closer, but harriers can disappear for a long time if they've caught a decent meal, so I stayed put. Just as I was about to relocate, up it came again, and continued on its way, getting closer!

After taking most definitely my best ever images of a male hen harrier, it must have realised it was me in the car, and promptly headed off across the river, and elsewhere to hunt. But by then I had some shots, and for once, on returning to the cottage, I could answer Dad's usual question of if I'd enjoyed any success with the harriers, with a "yes".

Perhaps the curse had been broken, because the following evening I enjoyed some decent views of a juvenile hen harrier hunting, and that added to a smile that had been brought on first thing, when I had spied a female merlin perched up in the marsh.

Suddenly the last full day was upon us. As usual, I headed out early, and despite hoping to see a raptor, it was another otter that stole my gaze. The light and wind-direction were at odds with each other for any sort of approach, so with the otter moving along the shore, fishing as it went, I managed to get in position and hoped it might bring something ashore nearby, up wind from me. It did, but right behind about the only large boulder on the shore. Sometimes that's the way it goes, but as it was so close, I couldn't move away until I was sure the otter had gone. Then the rock in front of me moved.

A head appeared, and the otter studied me carefully. Needless to say, I froze. The head shrank back into the weed again. I was able to get the camera lined up, and sure enough, moments later it peered out again!

Then the otter did something I've not seen before. It went to sleep under the seaweed. It was clear from my view that the otter was young, perhaps the same individual I had seen several times before, and wasn't keen on sleeping out in the open, in view of other otters. Of course this meant I had to stay on the shore too, waiting for it to wake up and move on. Not the worst place in the world to sit though, with that view all around.

After about twenty minutes, I saw the weed twitch, and the otter headed back out to fish. I watched it continue along the edge of the loch, before it headed in, up a stream.

The day ended with more wonderful views, though never that close, of hen harriers hunting. While I can't always take photos, I just love to watch these enigmatic, owl-like birds quartering the marshes, hills and meadows. Having to drive for hours to perhaps see one at other times of the year, I try to make the most of any chance to enjoy them when I can.

Another trip to Mull was over the following morning, and Dad said farewell to an island he has always loved, since his first visit several years ago. I, of course, will be back in a few weeks, hopefully tripping over more otters, for clients this time, though I won't be ignoring any harrier views, especially if they dare come so close again!

Sunday, 29 July 2018

Summer In The Highlands And On Mull

After the financial nightmares of problems with the three most important tools for my job (camera, car and computer) I was relieved to pack the car, now working like new again, thanks to a new turbo, tyres and brakes, and drive north to Oban. The Mull Photography Tours were still a fortnight away, so what was I doing there so early?

Andy Howard, who I co-run the summer tours with, had arranged a bespoke tour with some clients, to see wildlife in the Highlands, and then on the Isle Of Mull, and he'd asked if I could lend a hand, splitting his group in half, hence making guiding a little easier. I wasn't going to pass on an opportunity to visit Mull, so met up with him and his four clients late afternoon. By then, I had already spent a couple of hours watching hen harriers hunting over some marshes, and a ringed plover scuttling busily about on a shingle shore.

My clients wanted to capture images of otters, though they were also happy to see what else Mull had to offer, so while looking for otters, we enjoyed the sights of some of the more common birds, such as oystercatchers with their young, and common sandpipers watching over their offspring from lofty spots, such as rocks and roadside posts, plus special moments with hen harriers, short-eared owls and a golden eagle.

The second day of the tour involved a private trip with Mull Charters, which is never a bad thing in my book. It was sunny and relatively calm on the water, so with the extra space to move around on the boat, I used both my 500mm prime lens, and my new 100-400mm mk2. The latter is so impressive, and offers the chance to compose shots using the zoom, while easily handling it, tracking the eagles. Something nigh on impossible to do with the heavier prime lens.

And we enjoyed several visits from the eagles, something that has become almost the norm for this trip of late, which must be a real blessing for Martin and Alex who run it.

Bespoke tour over, and rather than drive south, I followed Andy back to the Highlands for a week off. And with Andy also not working for a few days, we could enjoy some of the local wildlife together. First stop was Chanonry Point, where we watched some bottlenose dolphins chase down salmon as the tide rose, with the occasional breach to entertain the crowds standing enthralled on the beach. I love this spot - to be able to stand and see these normally elusive mammals at such close quarters is incredible really. Though capturing them as they break free of the water is still tricky!

As a thank you to me for helping with the Mull guiding, Andy had arranged a morning's session down at Rothiemurchus Estate for the ospreys. It meant a very early start, and being in the hide at dawn. Now I have been to this site before, though many years ago, and it has changed significantly since then. Instead of being in a hide beside the main lake, the photographers now view a small pool, from hides sunken into the ground, giving water-level views. As before there's a spotter employed by the estate, to give the photographer some sort of advance warning of when an osprey is circling or diving.

What hadn't changed was the wait for something to happen. It was hours before we heard the radio crackle into life, informing us of a bird circling, and then saw the shadow of it over the trees nearby. Then it was the excitement and tension before we heard one was diving, and after that it was a case of getting the camera focused on the osprey, and attempting to maintain a focus lock as it lifted out of the water, to fly away.

Not as easy as you'd think, with all the spray of water from the wings, but wonderful to watch regardless.

We were fortunate to see at least nine dives by various ospreys during the session, and came away with some great images, in bright sunny conditions. I think I may need to revisit this estate again in the future, as it was an awesome experience.

The remainder of my time in the Highlands saw me observing a local sand martin colony from close quarters, attempting to capture images of the nestlings about to fledge, some of them doing so accidentally when the sand gave way below them and they fell out of the nest area!

Plus some shots of the adults flying to and from the burrows, which involved a certain amount of timing and luck in equal measures.

A trip up the hills one afternoon resulted in a charming encounter with a pair of mountain hare leverets. Initially they vanished under the heather as I approached, but after I waited a while silently, they crept back out, and I watched one snooze in the warm weather, and then both grazed on the vegetation around me, even nibbling on a daisy!

They really are utterly adorable little animals.

The week flew by and towards the end of it, our attention turned to the Mull Summer Photography Tours. This summer saw us running three, back-to-back. Based in the same farmhouse as before, we didn't take long to settle in, once all the contents of the two cars were unloaded. We had just a couple of hours free on the Saturday night before getting some sleep, and welcoming our first clients to the house, on the Sunday.

Now I could detail what happened on each day of each of the three tours, but this blog would perhaps rival War And Peace in terms of length, so I'll try to compress the action somewhat. Without doubt, Andy and I agreed that the highlight of each of the tours were the sailings on the Lady Jayne with Mull Charters, for the white-tailed eagles. For next year's tours, we are changing the itinery so that the public trip we did this summer, is replaced by another private charter, so our clients get two private sessions on the boat.

With advice and preparation before the eagles arrived, we ensured our clients had their cameras with the right settings dialled in, and everyone managed to capture some cracking images of the eagles diving beside the boat.

Personally, I varied the lenses with each dive, sometimes favouring the flexibility of the 100-400mm mk2, but occasionally trying the 500mm, and even that with the 1.4TC attached. That combo was a little tight in terms of getting the eagle in the shot.

The waters around Mull were unusually warm, and this perhaps had led to the arrival of huge blooms of jellyfish. These at times numbered in their thousands, and from a distance turned the colour of the water pink. Alex dipped his Go-Pro camera in amongst them to record a fascinating video - almost star-field-like. Hypnotic even.

And we were fortunate on one trip to encounter a pod of bottlenose dolphins, which entertained our clients and provided additional photo opportunities.

The downside to the warmer water was the effect it had on the local otters. We guessed that because the shallower parts of the lochs were warmer, the food the otters normally caught had moved out into deeper, cooler water, and that meant the otters swam further out, and generally stayed out, eating prey while they swam. Not great for us as guides to get clients close enough to for images. Also, with the hot conditions, the otters were favouring night-time hunting to stay a bit cooler. And when we did get an individual behaving more like we're used to, heat haze from the rocks was a problem, resulting in soft images.

But we refused to give up, and took to dawn starts to search for these mammals, or looking just before dusk. And as a result of our determination, we managed to get all of our clients some images of otters.

I have to make a special mention to two of the clients during the second week, who showed tremendous generosity to back away from an otter opportunity, to allow the other three clients the chance to bag some images for themselves. With images of otters already in the bag, it was something Andy and I had discussed should the situation arise, thus ensuring everyone left with something. Whilst Andy was searching for an otter, I spotted one close to me and my clients for the day. I asked my clients if they minded giving up the opportunity to Andy's group, so they could get some shots, and they kindly agreed. After managing to get Andy's attention and not spook the otter, I was very relieved to watch from afar, as he guided the group in to capture images of the otter as it rolled around on seaweed.

The other "banker" each week, provided the weather was ok (which it was every week this year) was the Turus Mara sailing to Staffa, and then on to Lunga. We used the Staffa stop off mainly for a picnic spot, though on one of the weeks we crouched beside the steps leading up the cliff-face, to photograph some black guillemots nesting nearby.

But Lunga was the place to be, with its huge colony of seabirds. Puffins galore along the first stretch of cliffs, with a more treats of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, shags and more puffins further around the coastal path.

With several hours beyond that of the normal public trip to hand, we offered advice when needed to enable the clients to take images of the birds, with some images pre-planned and executed with a bit of patience, and others gained by reacting to what was on offer.

Using different light and backgrounds, subjects being close or further off, stationary or moving, we were able to suggest numerous ideas for images throughout the day.

While the puffins are undoubtedly the crowd's favourite subject, I chose to focus on other birds, particularly the enigmatic shags, that hide away in dark crevices (to avoid overheating), but hiss should you stray too close.

And grabbed opportunities with guillemots, especially a bridled one that was perched on the cliff-top, close by.

The bright, white of the kittiwakes made for a contrasting sight against the darkness of the deep channels below too.

One day perhaps I will get the chance to stay later on the island, to see sunset and sunrise, but during these weeks, we left at around 8pm, and were whisked back on a speedy boat, courtesy of Iain and Sharon from Turus Mara. I always enjoy these days out on the islands, with the wildlife but also the stunning vistas all around. Magical place to be in the summer months.

Our primary species of otters, white-tailed eagles and puffins were all ticked off, but of course Mull has a lot more to offer on top. We frequently saw golden eagles, though never particularly close. Hen harriers remained hard targets, typically turning tail as soon as a camera was raised. But opportunities to photograph birds such as common sandpipers, pipits, swallows and even juvenile cuckoos were gratefully accepted.

And seeing as the Hare Whisperer himself was present, we used Andy's skills to get some of us close one morning, to a trio of Irish mountain hares.

It wasn't the closest encounter though. I had one scamper out in front of me on a beach, as I scanned the rocks for an otter I had "misplaced". Sadly I was carrying only my binoculars, so such images remain only as memories.

Between the tours, Andy and I had just half a day to chill out, before preparing for the next one. And we used this time after the first tour to visit his family's home on the island, strolling along the cliffs amongst the bracken, watching stonechats, pipits and whinchats, crouching close to the ground to watch a distant golden eagle soar over the higher ground, staying low to capture images of a dragonfly sunbathing, and taking in the incredible views.

We even spotted the Lady Jayne sailing out into the sea, and watched a pair of white-tailed eagles fly to meet her, from well over a mile away. The speed they covered the distance at was phenomenal. It is a sight like this that tends to stay with me in memory for years. Something a bit different; impossible to photograph, just there to be enjoyed and inspired by.

The final, third week was unusual in that for once, the unsung hero of the tours, Andy's wife Lyndsey, was joining us. Not just to help with the cooking, but to experience the joys of the tour for herself. Having visited Mull several times before, she was familiar with most of it, but had never visited Lunga, Staffa, or sailed aboard the Lady Jayne.

She wasn't disappointed. While she chose not to join us for the otter days (having already obtained many images from previous visits, and bagged the Scottish Nature Photography Competition Behaviour Category with a stunning image recently), she did tag along on others, enjoying the antics of the puffins on Lunga, the eagles around the boat, and even some of the smaller residents, like stonechats and goldfinches feeding near the roads.

In the blink of an eye, the three weeks were over, we were all gathering up bits and bobs from the accommodation, and then heading north again, in convoy. Not for wildlife this time, though we did watch the dolphins again while I was in the Highlands, but to help celebrate a friend's birthday.

Then it was time for the long drive south, and the task of sorting out several thousand images. The three tours had been a massive success, although tiring for us as guides. The images obtained by our clients spoke volumes for what the tours can provide, and before we'd even left Mull, the places for 2019's three tours had already been filled.

Of course my Mull adventures for this year are far from over, with a holiday there in a few weeks, and the two Otter Photography Tours planned for November. And I can hardly wait...