Monday 26 September 2011


After being too busy with work at the start of the year to get over to the east coast, an invite from good friends to stay a few days proved impossible to resist, and having blagged some more time off, I dragged Dad along with me for the trip. Working through my lunch allowed me to finish a bit earlier than usual, and by 8pm I was trundling towards Hunstanton, to the caravan site where Steve (Seal) and Ann were staying. 

A cup of tea and baggage drop later, and we headed to the Lifeboat Inn at Thornham for a bite to eat and pint. I was pretty knackered so we didn't stay out late, and besides, we had been promised one of Ann's cooked breakfasts in the morning! 

The first morning brought calm conditions, with a bit of sunshine, so Dad and I zoomed over to Cley, to see if any of the bearded tits were around. Last year I'd seen flocks of 20+ birds, but this time we hardly saw any. That said, a bit of patience yielded some sightings, and I managed a few half decent shots, especially when one male climbed up a reed right next to the path!
As usual, the marsh harriers refused to fly anywhere near us, and my distant shots taken in blind enthusiasm shall end up in the bin. Unlike shots of a little egret that was fishing in one of the small pools behind the shingle beach. Without the sun to blow the whites (or make it hard not to), getting nicely exposed shots was easy, and so were ones with a reflection, as the pool was like a mirror.
A scan of the sea over the brow of the shingle hill revealed a diver, and not miles out. Unfortunately with the (now) dull conditions, we couldn't make out whether it was a red or black throated one. Later inspection showed it was the former, so another set of images for the bin! Also around were Arctic skuas (good to see after Shetland), gannets, terns (little and sandwich), various small flocks of waders and a common scoter. 

Titchwell was next on the menu, where I hoped to get some shots of the curlew sandpipers and little stints Steve had bagged earlier that week. As is often the case, the subjects I wanted didn't come close, so I ended up photographing dunlins, ringed plovers and godwits. Not bad though.
Steve was very keen to get shots of a grey plover and this meant a trip down the path to the beach. Was worthwhile, as whilst scanning the flocks of waders, we clocked a grey plover in partial summer plumage. Unfortunately, getting to it was nigh on impossible, with mud and water in the way, and the bird kept retreating further away when we moved. 

Cloud greeted us on the next morning, so after a trudge around Thornham and then Salthouse, I treated Dad to a ticket to Cley Marshes. I had hoped the hides would yield waders galore and perhaps a sight of a spoonbill, but alas, all we did see was a very distant grey phalarope and lots of wildfowl. Disappointing, and as before, the marsh harriers kept their distance from the hide!
A brief stop off at Thornham was actually quite productive, albeit accidental. Dad had seen a redshank feeding near the bridge, and was taking some shots. I opted to join him, and we commented that the way it was feeding seemed unusual. That'd be because it wasn't a normal redshank! No, it was a spotted redshank, as was discovered later when looking at pics from the trip!
The day ended waiting and eventually watching a barn owl at a familiar location, though there was more action from the local marsh harriers. But with rubbish light, it was never going to yield anything special. 

Saturday was forecast to be good weather and so it proved. Hardly a cloud in sight, and it took us all to the beach at Titchwell once more, to try to track down the grey plover seen before. Steve headed off in one direction, and me another. While he was taking fabulous shots of waders in flight, I'd tracked down the plover, and after creeping over to it, managed some reasonable shots.
Steve soon joined me, but we never managed to get close to it again, and were about to give up when we saw one elsewhere on the shore, but in full summer plumage! What a gorgeous little wader, although Dad did comment on its resemblance to a judge. Problem was, as before, between us and the bird was a load of water and deep, slimey mud. 

Try as we might, there just didn't seem to be a route to it, and eventually Steve said he'd leave it for another day. I was in agreement, but part of me nagged, reminding me that it might not be there another day, or the weather might deteriorate. I had also by now already got wet feet (leaky boots) so I said to Steve that I was going for it, and splodged off through the mud, across a very gooey mussel bed, towards the bird. Steve encouraged me onwards (probably laughing at me sinking in the mud) but it paid off, when I found the bird not to be flighty at all, and just like the golden variety seen on Shetland, this black and white version inquisitively and slightly cautiously, approached me!
I couldn't believe my luck, and took a hatful of shots of this unusual wader. At times, I had to switch to portrait mode to give the bird enough space in the picture.
The problem (perhaps just with me?) is when I'm getting such shots, I feel guilty that people with me aren't, so I was chuffed to look over to my left and see Steve, who had found a less muddy way to the bird, and was busy getting as many different images of it as he could.
In the end, we walked off to leave the bird where it was feeding, both of us grinning from ear to ear with the images achieved. I was less pleased when the coldness and dampness of my boots registered on the hike back, but they started to dry out when we watched the barn owl again on the evening, and the gas fire in the caravan dried them in time for the next day. 

Another bright start on Sunday tempted me back to the beach, to try to emulate the sort of fantastic flight shots Steve had managed whilst I was messing about in the mud after plovers, though the weather wasn't quite so good, as typically, the birds wouldn't perform as they had done for Steve. Wrong aftershave perhaps?
The grey plover was around again, though even less accessible than before, so I took a few shots, only when it ventured close to a channel of water, so I got reflections. Persistance paid off though, and I managed some flight shots of curlew, oystercatchers and small flocks of waders as they flew past me. 

The day ended as brightly as it had begun, and whilst waiting for the barn owl to show, a young marsh harrier kindly circled above us, as it banked, catching the amber sunshine of the sunset.
I was more pleased with this than the barn owl shots later, I think!
Norfolk and September were being very kind to us, as Monday brought yet more sunshine. It also brought us a very, very long wait for the tide to retreat, so we were waiting around on the beach for hours, hoping the flocks of waders would move and start to feed. Occasionally we'd get a small band of sanderlings scurry by, or the occasional flock of other waders go by, but mainly it was rather quiet. I can't say dull, as being stood on Titchwell beach in fine weather is fab, even without anything to photo.
And after a brief meeting the afternoon before, Di Stone had joined us, so was pottering around the beach with us, hoping for some waders to approach, and like us, trying to avoid looking at the moon...
Eventually the feeding grounds were revealed, and the birds came over in their hundred. Sadly by now, the clouds had also decided to make an entrance, so getting shots of flying subjects was trickier than usual. Still, managed a few and occasionally in sunshine too. Once more, the day ended stood looking for owls, but the windy conditions meant the owl didn't come out to play, and we left with just a few shots of a low-flying typhoon. 

Suddenly Tuesday was upon us, our last day. A visit to Thornham failed to provide any close shots of the grey partridges Steve and Ann had seen before, and I was between minds whether to head home in the gloomy conditions. Steve suggested Stiffkey marshes, an area I'd not been to before. Technically I had, as it is along the coast from Wells, and I'd walked into it years ago on a hike with my 100-400mm lens. Anyway, the area looked barren, apart from some very, very distant seals on a sand-bar. I thought it was worth a walk through the marshes anyway, and it didn't take much persuasion to get the others to tag along. By the time we had reached the shore, Steve had got it in his head that it was worth waiting for the tide to go out, to see if we could get any closer to the seals. 

Ann and Dad chose to head back to the shelter of the car and a nice warm cup of coffee, whilst us two idiots stood in the shallow water watching the water move away from us, providing a sand bank to approach the small seal colony. It took ages, but was very worthwhile. We spotted another bar of sand exposed, and by walking round on that, got us close enough for some half decent shots, though we were being watched by a couple of the parent seals, from the channel of water between us.
They were mostly youngsters and looked so relaxed on the sand, despite the gale and cloud. The sun made a brief appearance, allowing us to get some more colourful shots, before Di arrived too, to join in the fun, though it was short-lived, as the seals opted to go for a swim, probably knowing what weather was approaching... we saw it too, but were about a mile away from the cars! Once again, I managed to soak my boots and feet, so the hike back was rather vile. 

As is always the case with breaks, we didn't want to leave, but with work again in the morning, I had to. Steve and Ann had been wonderful hosts, keeping us both amused with their antics and humour, not to mention well fed with the cracking breakfasts. And Norfolk hadn't been unkind with its wildlife stars either!

Thursday 8 September 2011

Magical Mull

Last year's trip to Mull, after the excitement of Uist and drama of Rothiemurchus, was actually a bit of a disappointment on the birding front. The otters made up for it, but the midges threatened to put a downer even on that experience. However, Ian had told me that his annual trips later in the year were always better, so I had high hopes for this week on Mull.

The drive up was ok until we reached Glasgow, when there was a horrendous electrical storm, and it poured down. The roads were awash and the wipers on full speed. Dad was glad to be a passenger for once after driving Mum all those years! We had opted to stay near Oban for the night before the ferry crossing, and Ian and his family joined us later at the same hotel.

A trip to Tescos in the morning, and a fill up, and we were soon stood on the top deck of the ferry, sailing over the calm waters to Mull. It was a treat for the start of the trip, to be able to enjoy the full crossing in the open air, getting views of juvenile black guillemots in the water below, and seeing Duart Castle from the water as we approached Craignure.

I had before the trip, promised Dad that he'd see eagles on Mull, but with wildlife, you just never know. It took less than an hour on the isle to break his duck on these awesome birds, seeing a huge white-tailed eagle sat in her tree, beside the loch. On closer inspection, we noticed others in surrounding trees!

Heading away from the eagles, we took in the scenery of Mull, which is stunning. You really run out of superlatives to use for the place, especially when the sun comes out, which it did on that very first day. Calm too, making the lochs into mirrors, reflecting the beauty around them.

Reaching the loch beside which we were to stay, Ian spotted an otter right beside the shore, feeding on a crab on the seaweed. As quickly became the norm, we found somewhere safe to park up out of the way, and dived out to get some shots of the furry fella. And close up he was! Scampering around the roadside, when the otter was submerged, i found myself very close to him as it surfaced in a small rocky cove, to eat the crab. I could hear him crunching through it.

Then I suspect the otter spotted / smelt us nearby, and performed the usual vanishing act. They submerge, but never seem to come back up! Amazing creatures.

The cottages were lovely. Sat on the lochside, with a small shore and single track road between us and the water. To the left was a view to the open sea, to the right marshes and hills, and in front, Ben More, and surrounding summits. Inside was spacious and we had everything we needed for a comfortable stay.

The first morning we awoke on the island, the weather had deteriorated, but our moods were lifted by firstly seeing an adult white-tailed eagle flying powerfully across the loch, from the sea towards the hills, and then moments later, seeing 2 more battling the strong winds, high up over the cottage. It got better still, when the pair was mobbed by a golden eagle!

With only one event planned during the week, we generally spent each day, driving around areas, hoping to encounter wildlife. And generally we did! Again, using the radios between cars meant Ian's amazing eye-sight could yield dividends for everyone else, as he'd spot something, and we'd pull over to photo.

Seeing eagles and otters were a daily event, and in addition, we found hot spots for hen harriers and short-eared owls (though these remained very much at a distance). Other attractions included ravens, hooded crows, buzzards, swallows, pipits (rock and meadow), stonechats, golden plovers and other waders on the shorelines, such as curlews, oystercatchers and of course, masses of grey herons. We even saw the occasional merlin chasing birds, but never perched up, plus kestrels hovering over the fields and sparrowhawks circling the trees.

Finding the hen harrier location provided an early morning target each day, though success was never guaranteed. The males would tend to belt along at speed, following water channels whereas the females (ring-tail) could appear from anywhere, and never seemed to fly towards you, despite being hidden (sort of) in the car.

Our boat trip was rearranged due to the tides, but as we headed out on it, both Ian and I had crossed fingers, as the last time we'd done the same trip, one of the eagles had brought a hare back to the nest, and neither of the adults came down to see us. This time it was different and my word was it good. Both adults came out, and did so a couple of times. To see them so close was incredible and as before on Skye, you were hard pressed to choose between watching and trying for shots.

The male on one instance gave us no choice, as he swooped down, so fast, making a whooshing sound to grab the fish in a split second, before powering off back to the juveniles. The female was less confident, and circled several times before taking the food. Made it easier to photograph though!

We were also treated to see both come out together, following the boat like perhaps something off a prehistoric movie - they really are massive. Flying barn-doors!

Not wanting to over-feed them, we soon made off, for a tour around the loch and surrounding bays. We saw seals lazing on rocks and also large flocks of shags swimming in the sea together. Most unusual, like it was an organised swimming class!

Thinking the day couldn't get any better, as we drove back from the trip, I spotted a very large dark shadow of a bird, moving low across the field next to the road. Braking to grab my bins, I suddenly realised it was a golden eagle! Panic stations ensued, parking up, alerting the others and trying to get the gear out to get shots.

I've seen golden eagles before, on Uist, in the Highlands, but from a distance. This one was much, much closer, and was either circling the fields low, or landing in amongst the ferns. On closer inspection, we spotted a second bird higher up the hillside, seemingly watching the antics of the other.

According to a passing local, the pair have been at the site for a very long time (50 years he reckoned) and the grey "eye brows" on the one bird certainly gave it an elderly look! Not that it mattered, as the birds still had the magic for me. I am still smiling now, thinking about the moments.

Eventually the pair were both circling in the skies, and gained altitude quickly, flying off into the distance over the loch. Another memorable encounter on this fabulous island.

The remaining days consisted of early starts (and late finishes) for the hen harriers, timing the tides for the otters, and visiting the white-tailed and golden eagle sites whenever possible. The fine meals in the Craignure Inn served us well, as did a treat from the fish & chip van on Tobermory quay one afternoon.

We encountered the golden eagles again, this time Ian spotting them, when we'd split up one afternoon. A mad drive around to meet up ended in apparent disappointment, when Ian was buzzing from bagging shots of the pair hunting, but had just seen them fly off over a ridge. Undeterred, I headed after them, albeit by road, and was amazed to spot one of the birds peering over the top of the hill. It flew off when it saw the "bazooka" appear, but we caught up again round the next corner, and I managed to get a distant shot of one carrying a freshly caught mountain hare. A big crop, but who cares?

Visiting the WTE nest site when the boat trip is on, is worth a go, as we watched one of the birds eventually fly out to the boat (only once, which was a shame for the trippers), get the fish and then battle against the wind, to return to the trees. Gave us a few seconds of shooting as the bird approached us across the water.

As with all single week holidays, the end arrived far too quickly. On the last day, I finally managed a few half decent flight shots of a hen harrier hunting in some sunshine, although she refused to face me for the shot. More otter action of course, in usual and unusual locations, and before we knew it, we were on the ferry heading back to the mainland.

If I had to sum up Mull with one word, it would have to be "magical". What a place. We saw more than we could ever have hoped for, and got photos and memories to make us smile for years to come.