Friday 3 February 2017

Mull, A Winter's Visit

Going to Mull in January doesn't strike you as an obvious choice, and to be honest, I had thought long and hard about it. Late in 2016 I had been asked if I could provide some guiding for seeing otters on Mull, and I worked out that altering dates for the Highlands trip allowed me to divert to Mull on the way home.

The idea depended on whether I could find some suitable digs that meant the trip would mostly be covered by the fee for the guiding. Even when I found something in the correct price bracket, I wondered if it was wise. Until I remembered why I had left my old life behind and started afresh. Grab any opportunity that comes your way; live for now. Within reason, of course. I'm not mad...

So in the pouring rain, splashing through melted floodwater puddles across roads, I made my way along the shore of Loch Ness, calling into Fort William for some supplies, and then via the Corran ferry, I dashed across the hills leading to Lochaline, and was surprised how quickly I reached the ferry terminal. Unfortunately I hadn't figured for it being a winter timetable... on a Sunday. D'oh! I had over 2 hours to wait for the next ferry over to Fishnish.

Had it not have been pouring down, I'd have gone back up into the hills, but instead I sat in the car and watched the birds around the shore, with the usual suspects such as oystercatchers and curlews featuring, plus a rather unexpected view of a kingfisher, perhaps forced to relocate from higher ground after the recent fall of snow.

Eventually I rolled off the ferry and was on Mull again, though I had a long drive ahead of me (still in monsoon conditions) down to the cottage near Bunessan, in the south of the island. I took it steady as my headlights were lighting up huge red deer stags beside the roads, and both woodcock and snipe would burst from ditches, the latter often resembling pale bats as they fluttered across the beams at speed.

Bed, breakfast and a brief stroll around the area where I was based. It was still raining, so I headed back to the shelter of the car, and headed north.

As usual, I was trundling along slowly, taking my time to scan the shore when beside a loch, the rocks nearby, and hills, posts, moors... basically looking at everything. Plenty around, but the first thing to warrant a photo was a kestrel, sheltering amongst the exposed rocks on a hillside.

With the rain driving in through the car window, I soon moved on again, and spotted a huge bird perched some distance from the road, and before I'd found somewhere safe to park, I knew it was a white-tailed eagle. As I climbed out of the car, with nowhere to provide any cover for me, I wondered if I could get any closer. The eagle turned its head in my direction. That's a no then, I thought. So I got back in the car, as it was drier!

Parking up for lunch, shortly after, I had just taken a bite from my apple when I saw a flick of a tail amongst the seaweed in front of me, and seconds later, an otter emerged, munching on something small. I ate the apple as quickly as possible, donned my camo jacket and scurried down towards the shore. Hiding in some rocks, I watched the otter as it fished off the shore. Then I became aware of a voice some way behind me; a man shouting at his dog to come back to him. I sighed, expecting the disturbance to scare off the otter. Then, as I turned my attention back to the otter, I realised a second one had been present further along the shore, and had been spooked by the dog walker, and it paused for a moment on a rock very close to me, to leave a spraint!

Then it scampered off into the seaweed and joined the other one, as it fished. As is often the case on Mull, the otters were finding plenty to eat, and after having their fill, turned to play-fighting one another. Being fairly close to me, I resisted the urge to use the high-speed shutter mode on my camera, and remained with the single shot, silent option, hoping to time a shot as the otters broke the surface to breathe.

Great fun to watch, even if I was being rained on, still. With the low cloud and time of year, it was almost dark before the clock struck 4pm, so I returned to the cottage, to dry out and review the day's images. Not a bad start, I thought.

A similar scene presented itself to me on the second day, with rain falling and calm conditions. It was surprisingly mild though - not what I had expected in January. A brief sighting of an otter early on, along with plenty of views of the wintering divers around the shores kept me entertained as I drove along. Then I clocked another eagle sat near the shore, and after pointing my bins at it, I realised there were four birds sat close to each other. I decided to go for a look, and used what little cover I had to get closer. Problem was, I had to take such a detour around the area to get such cover, by the time I popped my head over the hillock for a better view, all but one of the eagles had left!

I also saw a huge white-winged gull in the area, but the dreadful weather, and my lack of interest in gulls led me to ignore it. Silly, as it was probably a glaucous gull, given the size compared to the black-backs also in the area.

More otter antics followed, but mostly in dreadful light, and as with the previous day, it was dark by 4pm. If only the clouds would lift a little, I mused. As I turned the car round, a distant bird hunting caught my eye. A hen harrier. Too dark to bother with photos, but I made a mental note of where I'd seen it.

The otter guiding was towards the end of the week, and I had planned to find locations for otters prior to then. I had of course already done that, and quite a few of them, so fancied a change of scenery. I'd seen white-tailed eagles, but no golden ones yet. That had to change!

Knowing Mull like I do, means I know where to look for golden eagles, and within seconds of arriving in the area where I hoped to see one, I did. Two, in fact, hunting the hillsides. For such a massive bird, they have an uncanny ability to blend into their surroundings, and as soon as they pass in front of a hillside, instead of the sky, tracking them becomes a real challenge. Given the speed at which they can reach in a dive, I parked up and scanned all around me, when I lost them from view.

Wise move, as a third approached from behind me!

I watched through my bins as the three came together briefly over the hills, before the newcomer left again, and the original pair vanished over the top. Again, from past experience, I had an idea where I might see them, and my luck appeared to be in when I caught up with them hunting elsewhere.

They really are something special to see. And I always try to absorb the moment as much as I can, to recall on dull days at home with little to look at.

By mid afternoon, the overcast skies had started to clear, and I guessed I might get a bit longer to play before night drew in, so thought about heading over to some marshes where I had seen hen harriers roosting in years gone by. But the memory of that ringtail from 24 hours earlier persuaded me to remain where I was, and it proved another wise move.

The light had almost faded when I spotted her quartering the shoreline, that white band visible with the naked eye. She was ahead of me, and after grabbing some shots from where I had parked to watch for otters, I "made time" along the road to get ahead of her. It was a gamble, as I parked over a ridge and waited. Usually hen harriers vanish if I am prepared for taking a shot, so I was very surprised (and pleased) when she appeared on the horizon, and briefly hovered over a clump of grass.

I didn't need to be in silent mode this time, and the 1DX went into full machine gun mode.

What a gorgeous raptor, elegant, lightweight and almost delicate in her flight. How anyone can shoot these birds still saddens me - they must be lacking any sort of a soul; sad, pathetic, little people. But thankfully on Mull, these stunning birds of prey are safe from such threats, and just deal with whatever Mother Nature throws at them.

What a fine end to a great day of raptor watching. My evening meal tasted extra special that night.

The following morning led to yet more otter fun, and I managed to get really good views of one as he slept, then groomed beside the loch.

I had thought as he headed out into the loch, that he was going to return to a holt, but instead of skulking low up a stream, he paused, and drank for about half a minute from the freshwater flowing into the loch, before turning tail, and going off fishing once more. Nature never fails to surprise.

The day ended with me filming a mother otter and her cub, fishing at playing along the shore from me. At one point, the mother swam off, leaving the cub to eat something she'd caught, but once eaten, the cub immediately realised she wasn't close, and started calling to her. She was well down the loch, and I wondered if she'd hear the squeaking sound, until the cub made the call in my direction, and I realised just how loud the sound was. She had heard it, and she collected her cub, before heading off into the darkness together.

Having focused on otters so much, I hadn't driven through the glens much, so chose to do so one morning, but the low cloud meant little was visible, aside from buzzards drying off on posts. I went to another location where I have enjoyed success with golden eagles, but failed to see any, and as I was trundling slowly away, spotted an otter near the shore. Initially I parked up, but could see the otter watching me, so I moved the car away, with the intention of getting out and approaching on foot. That didn't happen, when unexpectedly the otter surfaced with a vibrantly coloured scorpion fish, and swam right over to where I'd just parked up again, to deal with it. I couldn't get out, but had a glorious view anyway.

The otter was still aware of the car being there - it wasn't hidden, but it wasn't bothered, and munched through the rubbery-looking fish, right in front of me.

Then, before heading off fishing again, the otter seemed to pose on some rocks for me. Fantastic.

Once he'd gone fishing along the shore again, I was able to get out, and creep closer, hiding either amongst rocks or tall grasses, or within whatever bushes were growing beside the water. The otter then brought ashore some sort of flatfish.

More glorious views as this was consumed in front of me.

And, later that day, I encountered a family group of otters; a mother and two cubs. Magic.

Aside from the wildlife on Mull, I was also pleased to catch up with Martin, Judith and Alex, who are the family behind the Mull Charters boat trip success. Of course the Lady Jayne was away in dry dock for the winter, so I spent a rather chilly half hour watching waders at the end of Loch Na Keal, laughing at Martin's cursed tripod; every time he gets it out, the weather turns for the worse, and he's forced to put it away again. Certainly was the case that day, when we were blasted with icy winds and cloud, only to see the clouds part in the rear-view mirror of the car, as we headed back to their B&B in Salen for a coffee! Seeing so many otters during the week put me in good stead for the guiding, which went well - no problem finding otters, or putting the client close to them. In fact I had more issue with equipment, as the client had damaged his gear prior to meeting me (loch-side rocks are like ice, so be careful readers!), and I ended up lending him my camera and big lens. This limited my options during the guiding, but the client has to come first.

And so another week on Mull ended. I had contemplated getting the early ferry away from the island, to get home in time for the family trip to the country pub, but a message from my sister arrived in time, to say no-one was going, and allowed me to spend a couple of extra hours exploring.

Revisiting the spot where I'd seen that otter so closely earlier in the week proved to be yet another great move, though originally, when I was sat in the rain watching nothing but gulls beside the loch, I did wonder if I'd made a mistake.

Then a v-shaped wake appeared on the water, and I saw an otter with a fish swimming towards me. Out the car, and into hiding. Unfortunately the otter did the same (though not out of a car, of course) and ate the fish out of sight. But it did appear eventually to groom, and I got more great views.

So an otter was the last thing to be seen and photographed on Mull? No. The sound of a goose honking as it flew over distracted me for a second from the otter, and I saw a huge eagle spiral down from the skies, giving up on the faster-flying goose. It landed down the shore from me. I backed away from the otter, making sure I didn't spook it, and set off in the car towards where I thought the eagle had landed.

Not one, but two white-tailed eagles were perched on the shore. Awesome. With room to go off-road somewhat, and having a car capable of doing so, I was able to park as close as I dared, to get some shots.

People often ask me what the lure of Mull is, and moments like this help me answer. Being sat a short distance from two magnificent eagles as they scanned the shore for food, on a morning that I'd probably normally be reading the sports reports from the Saturday football matches.

Eventually they flew off by their own accord - presumably nothing appetising left by the ebbing tide. And I dragged myself away, back to Craignure, on to the ferry, and back home again. Have I mentioned how much I love Mull?

If you fancy joining me on Mull for such an adventure, drop me an email, or sign up for one of the Otter Tours I am co-running later this year. I can bleat on and on about how fabulous this place is for wildlife, but until you witness it for yourself, you'll always just be wondering...

Thursday 2 February 2017

Highlands For January...

As well as taking photographs of wildlife, an element of my new career as a professional wildlife photographer is to use my experience, knowledge and fieldcraft to help other photographers to get great images of species around the UK. As such, I am now offering workshops and tours around the UK either alone or with my friend and fellow professional photographer, Andy Howard.

At this time of year wildlife photographers generally look north, and are hoping to photograph some of the creatures that call the Scottish Highlands, home. The main targets are mountain hares, ptarmigan, crested tits and red squirrels, with perhaps red deer and red grouse thrown in for good measure.

After many visits to the Highlands, I am well versed with where to locate all of the above, and by working in conjunction with Andy, I have access to the sites he has set up specifically for some species.

However, I can't just turn up one day and expect to take people out the next. I have to put in some preparation, which is why I travelled up to the Scottish Highlands early in January, to remind myself of the locations, the effort involved to reach some of them, the equipment needed to ensure I can take clients along with me and also to help Andy prepare some of the more specific sites so they were ready for the first clients of the winter season.

First of all we headed up to see the mountain hares, and without any snow on the ground, the white blobs around the hills were pretty easy to spot. I still needed binoculars as some of the rocks there are also white, and like the hares, don't move.

Having Andy alongside was a help too, as he'd already visited the area and had a good idea of which hares were likely to sit still, and I made a mental note as we wandered along.

It was also nice to have Lyndsey accompanying us, as she rarely joins us for such days out, and she was as excited as I was to approach the hares, and take some images.

There were very good numbers of hares around; some that ran off if we just glanced at them, and others that didn't mind us being within a few yards of them, talking and walking around! NB, this requires the normal approach - you can't just walk up to one and expect it to stay still...

On the way back Andy bumped into a couple (Carol and Tony Dilger) he knew, who kindly invited us into their warm mobile home for a cuppa, choccie biscuits and a good natter - always welcome after a cold day on the hills. It was a lovely end to a productive day - many thanks for your hospitality!

The next couple of days were spent at the new red squirrel site, sorting out some jobs on the wooden hide Andy has installed, and then later, ensuring the feeders at the crestie site were topped up, and that the stars were still visiting.

They were, and in good numbers still. Plenty of perches around and angles to make use of any pockets of light on offer.

By midweek, Andy had to take a client out, so I had the day to myself, and with the forecast of stormy conditions, I drove east to Burghead harbour in hope of seeing some winter sea ducks, that were sheltering in the harbour. I was rather surprised when I parked up on the harbour, to find the seas so stormy that the waves were crashing over the wall and the water spraying halfway down the parking area. With a risk of pebbles in the water, I retreated to a safer spot, and headed round to the area above the harbour to take some shots of the dramatic seas.

As the tide ebbed away, the waves calmed a little, so I could return, and enjoyed great views of eiders fishing for crabs and langoustines.

Plus a lone long-tailed duck also finding plenty to eat in the harbour.

As the temperature started to drop, as forecast, the rain that was periodically falling started to freeze, and by the time I was parking back at Andy's house, it was snowing.

By morning there was a decent covering and we shot over to the red squirrel site, with the aim of getting some portrait images.

Halfway through the session, we were supposed to be collecting Kate from the airport, but I ended up staying put, using the excuse of "looking after the gear"; I know, selfish! I half expected the squirrels to vanish but they didn't, and I enjoyed some awesome entertainment as they leapt across to the feeding station, over and over again, and sometimes even jumped back to the launch-log.

Using my 100-400mm lens also allowed me to vary the shots, and capture not only close-in images of the squirrels in the air, but also some wider shots, showing their habitat too.

As soon as Kate rocked up, we all settled back into the hide and continued the shooting, with yet more individuals arriving on scene. It was interesting to note the different behaviour of each; they definitely had differing agendas!

More snow fell overnight, and we decided to give the squirrels another go, as we all have many images of hares in the snow already, and while I have quite a few images of red squirrels in the snow too, neither Andy nor Kate did.

Andy and I used the session to work out angles for shots for clients, modifying / pruning backgrounds to make them cleaner, and tried to note where the light beamed in from, during the morning.

By mid-afternoon we were all pretty cold and thought a trip over to see the crested tits might be wise, if only to warm up in the car! What a difference over there though, as it's on slightly higher ground and the snow was really deep.

As we climbed out of Andy's car, the sun was already starting to sink and for some daft reason, I chose to only take my 500mm lens to the site. Cue a glorious, vibrant sunset and no lens, other than my iPhone to capture it with. Muppet.

Knowing the conditions there, the next day's choice of venue was easy, and I made sure I had my 24-105mm for the return visit (even if the sunset failed to materialise that day).

The trees laden with snow all looked so magical, so beautiful. And with blue skies overhead and sunshine, it was a winter wonderland.

So you'd think getting images of the crested tits would be easy? Well yes, if we were after simple portrait shots, but we wanted backlit or wide-angle images, and that meant chasing pockets and shards of light, and with the sun's angle at this time of year, it was actually pretty tricky to get anything right.

Just as the sun lit up the perch, or provided the desired lighting behind, the crested tit would go missing, choosing to land just after the light had gone. I suppose it could have been frustrating had it not been for the location, the weather and what we were doing. Hardly a chore!

The final day ended with a great evening of pizza, drinks and good company, as we were joined by Neil and his partner Jackie. I always treasure moments catching up with friends in Scotland; it's one of many reasons behind my many visits up there.

The week had flown by, but I had taken as much from it as I could, and as I bid farewell to Andy, Lyndsey and Kate (who was flying back later that day), I was already starting to look forward to the trip in February, when I would be taking clients out to see the same wildlife delights I had enjoyed all week.

Next stop, Mull. Well, it'd be a shame to drive back and not pop over...