Monday, 21 September 2015

Mull, Late Summer - Week Two

Our second week on Mull started with the sort of weather predicted for the first. Grim and wet. My early morning potter around the area yielded nowt but a few bedraggled-looking buzzards, and not close enough to bother photographing. We saw the family of white-tailed eagles as usual, though I don't think I could ever get used to seeing such huge birds on a daily basis, and round at Loch Na Keal, we spotted an otter dozing on the shore. Alas, the weather closed in while I waiting for it to do something, and during the subsequent deluge, the otter swam off!

The day ended with a pretty high tide, swamping the area I normally watch the small waders on, and in the gloom, I found interest with the swallows buzzing around, in particular the fledglings being fed by their attentive and energetic parents.

Not quite the same light as I enjoyed a similar scene over in Lincolnshire some time back, but something at least from the day.

Another wet morning followed, though I had more luck, and spent some time with a young buzzard that sat on a rock, oblivious of me nearby.

The sight of a male hen harrier brightened the gloom. Never really close, but I had good enough views to see the plumage on him, and guessed he might be a young male, starting to get those ghostly colours of an adult at last, but with traces of his juvenile colours still showing on his back.

With each visit, we pick up on the populations of birds. Some years have seen masses of chaffinches, others stonechats, and I think the pied wagtails were most noticeable last time. This year it was apparent that the hooded crows had enjoyed a bumper year, perhaps as a result of the golden eagles suffering a poor breeding season? With them all around, it would have been rude to ignore any opportunites to get images...

A couple of cars parked up alerted us to something, and peering over the rocks beside the loch we saw what was being looked at. One of the adult white-tailed eagles had delivered a food parcel to the juvenile. She was sat on the shore tearing into whatever was handed over, while the adult sat close by, on a small island. After a while she flew further along the loch, and the adult followed shortly after. Thankfully the weather improved and by late afternoon, the sun was out, allowing us to watch the high tide on the marshes.

The rising water must have forced the numerous rodents in the marsh to swim to dry land, and this made things easy for the local birds. We watched as the hen harriers, crows and even the gulls picked off the unfortunate creatures. Also caught out by the tide were a group of sheep, and they eventually had to make a swim for it. Most were capable, but we were concerned for a small lamb at the back as it struggled against the currents. Thankfully it scrambled to shore and they all trudged past where we were parked, looking well, sheepish!

As dusk fell, the harriers strayed closer. But with the clouds of midges in the still conditions, I couldn't sit with the car windows open. I managed some shots as one ringtail flew past, but it managed to do so at a level below a line of grass!

My morning drive initially began with disappointment, when I noticed a hen harrier sat on a fence post right next to the road, but it flew off before I could get close. On climbing over the rocks to see where it'd gone, I put it up again from a hidden perch, and it vanished off into the hills. Then as I drove along the back of the loch, I thought I had seen a shag sat beside the loch, facing away from me. But something didn't look quite right, and as I got closer, the bird turned its head. Not a shag... but the juvenile white-tailed eagle, and with enough momentum, I could turn off the ignition and rolled the car to a stand-still alongside. She didn't fly off, seemingly more interested in what the retreating tide might leave behind.

Holding the camera and lens across the passenger seat is tricky most times, due to the weight, but when excitement takes hold and the trembles begin, then it's even harder.

What a view! Just sat there, looking this way and that.

After a good five minutes, she took off, and I assumed she'd fly back to the nest area. She didn't. She landed again, only this time even closer to the road! I started the car and slowly approached, again turning the engine off to be as quiet as possible. I couldn't believe she was that close. Through my camera, I could barely fit her in the frame, so had to take the converter off for more space for a shot.

It's not every day that you have such a view from the side of the car, so I tried to absorb it as much as possible.

Failing to see anything again, she then flew along the loch and landed behind some trees beside the shore. I walked down and peered through the branches. There was no clear shot available, so I just stood and watched her for a few minutes. When you're that close, you really get a feel for how massive they are, even at such a young age.

My final views of her were when she relocated to a paddock, and I grabbed a few images with a better backdrop. The sound of a tractor approaching put her up, and she drifted out of sight over the hills. Wow. What a morning.

The remainder of the day was spent up in the hills towards Carsaig, where we watched both species of eagles, hen harriers and what I thought was a massive hoverfly on my car. Turned out to be a giant horsefly, so I'm glad that didn't decide to bite me! Would have needed A&E treatment.

After the excitement of seeing the eagle so close up, I had high hopes for the second week, but things went strangely quiet. I barely got a shot on one day, with some greenshank that I was about to photo being scared off by a farmer. I managed to get some otter shots the following day, but with it being very wet that day, Dad didn't accompany me so missed out.

The penultimate day was again lacking in opportunities. In the morning sunshine, I watched a peregrine pluck an unfortunate dove, but was a bit far off for anything more. Made me sad though, thinking of the family that I had been following locally, that were poisoned. At least the falcons up in Mull don't have to contend with such brain-dead imbeciles as those in England.

But with nothing much else to photo in the day, I tried testing the high ISO capabilities of the 7Dmk2, and as expected, at 10,000 the images were... terrible! Oh well. One last day on the island, what might be in store?

Well first off, we had our second trip on Mull Charters, and despite the low cloud and occasional spell of drizzle, the eagles were on fantastic form, coming out five times to us.

And it was remarkably calm too. The boat may as well have been in dry-dock, as there was barely a ripple, and this made things far easier to track the eagles as they descended.

I've said it before, but each trip with Martin seems to yield something new, and makes the boat trip hard to overlook when I'm on Mull.

As we climbed back on to the harbour wall, bid farewell to Martin and Alex, I had a look at the skies and suggested to Dad that we try for the golden eagles. Parking up, we kept an eye on the hills and hoped. It kept raining on and off, so the bags of sweets in the car took a hammering while we waited. Then over the hill tops I made out a shape. Too big for one of the buzzards around there, and following behind was another. Goldies!

Scanning the grassy slopes of the hills, the eagles were obviously out hunting, and after we relocated to a closer position, we got glorious views as the pair used the on-shore breeze to hang in the air, taking their time to study the ground below for movement.

Of course this gave us time to grab masses of images.

After they drifted away and over the hills, I turned to Dad and couldn't help but grin. What amazing views! I was tempted to leave, but something inside told me to hang on... Turning round, the eagles appeared again, only this time even closer.

Not quite frame-fillers, but close enough for me to get that buzz of excitement again.

They even appeared to study us for a few seconds, before continuing on their way.

The sun started to break through the low clouds, revealing some blue sky, which tempted the pair of eagles to soar upwards and in a few moments they were lost from view. My grin was making my face hurt.

Heading back for a meal at the pub for the last time, I glanced across Dad into the field beyond. It appeared to be a sparrowhawk at first glance, then I saw the white rump. Hen harrier! Thankfully, there was no other car on the road, and I could brake and jump out for some pics.

With the sun now shining, the ringtail looked stunning as it quartered the field.

What an incredible day. White-tailed and golden eagles, and now a hen harrier. Mull sure has a way of making amends for a quiet spell! The meal in the Craignure Inn tasted extra special that evening, but the next morning it was time to leave.

Sat in the car in the queue to the ferry was a strange affair. I never want to leave the island, and the fact that my friends Steve and Tracy were on the arriving ferry made it worse. Steve managed to briefly greet us as he arrived, and tried to persuade us to stay for another week, but we had to be back unfortunately. As usual, Mull had delivered the goods, and made me yearn to return as soon as possible.

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