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...

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