Thursday 7 December 2017

Mull Otter Photography Tours

This is the last one for this year, I promise. No more Mull-based posts, after this, well until 2018 anyway. But it'd be wrong not to blog about a fortnight spent on the island in November, even if it was primarily about photographing otters.

I'd not visited Mull in November before, so I was interested to see what was about at that time of year, and after staying over in Oban on the way up, I chose to take a tour around the lochs on arrival.

But not before I'd had a bit of fun with the webcam at Craignure... My brother visited Mull back in April, and was somewhat envious that I was there again, so asked if I could park in front of the webcam near the ferry terminal so he could "see" me there. Simple, you might think, until I worked out that images are taken only every 30 seconds, and when I arrived, I also realised the area in front of the camera was a bit too small to park in. Plus the postal vehicles from the same ferry as I'd been on, were waiting behind me. I had to move on. So it was a real surprise to receive a text from my brother saying he'd seen me! Daft, I know.

Plenty of wildfowl on the water - teal, wigeon, mallard and good numbers of divers too, with all three main species in attendance. Herons everywhere, of course, along with the ever-present buzzards perched on posts or dead trees, and mobs of hoodies lurking, turning stones on the shore or flying up to drop shellfish on to the ground to break into the fleshy insides.

I needed to see an eagle though, so drove towards an area I have enjoyed success at before, and sure enough, within half an hour, a large shape appeared on the horizon. A golden eagle, and it was flapping to gain height, before swooping down like a missile, massive wings opening, and soaring skywards once more. Displaying, in November! Must be keen!

As I watched in awe, I spotted a second eagle approaching, and then remarkably, a third! One was clearly younger than the others, with the white markings on the wings and tail. Maybe a family group?

They went their separate ways, but I chose to hang around for more. The gulls, geese and waders on the shore nearby suddenly took flight, and I immediately scanned the skies again for eagles. Sure enough, there was one, only this time it was a white-tailed eagle, a sub-adult perhaps, and it was being mobbed by one of the local buzzards.

Surely a risky move, when the eagle is so much larger than the buzzard. But the plucky buzzard got away with it, and the eagle briefly perched on the nearby hillside, until one of the local golden eagles returned, as saw it off again. Not a bad start to the trip.

The downside to visits this late in the year is that the days are so brief, and by 3pm with the overcast conditions, it was all but dark! I headed over to the farmhouse to let myself in, and began to get things ready for the two photography tours, co-run with Andy Howard. Andy and Lyndsey arrived shortly afterwards, along with the first of the clients, who quickly settled in. Lyndsey had kindly visited for a night, to pre-cook the meals for the two tours - what a star she is.

Each tour lasts five days, and the aim for Andy and me, as guides, is to get them close enough to wild otters to leave with some great images, and also memories of the encounters. With just four clients, split into two pairs, we would take them out on alternate days, so each pair enjoyed time with each guide, and perhaps learned different things about the otters, and other wildlife on the isle.

Otter photography is as much about luck as it is skill. And my good luck during the first few days seemed to be in short supply. I would spot an otter, or family group, get the clients into a spot for getting images, and then something would go awry. I had a white-tailed eagle chase one otter away (admittedly in horrid weather), then another dominant otter chased off the otter we'd approached, later that day. Just as I thought my luck had changed, when we encountered two pairs of otters one morning, I heard the sound of an engine approaching, and a fishing boat managed to spook all four otters away. Patiently waiting to see if the otters would return, I breathed a sigh of relief when one pair swam back out to fish. Clients back into positions... only for the boat to return again, and spook the remaining pair away for a second time. I could have screamed!

And then late one afternoon, I watched an otter splashing around with what I assumed to be another otter, only to see it drag an enormous lumpsucker fish on to the rocks. Brilliant, it'll be there for ages eating that, I thought. Except as we crouched watching, the wind changed direction, and went from being side on, to blowing a gale from behind us. Bye-bye otter. I was as much upset for the otter abandoning the fish as I was for my clients that day, missing out on such a sight. My clients were getting images of otters, but not enjoying the same success as Andy seemed to be getting on his days out. I knew my luck would change, but I had to be patient.

And sure enough, it did. After a very quiet day where birds were the subject for my clients, I spotted a pair of otters coming ashore, and successfully tracked them along the rocks to somewhere we could hide effectively. There were actually three otters, and when one returned to the water to continue fishing, the remaining pair were totally absorbed with playing, so much so, we were able to get pretty close to enjoy the performance.

It was the encounter I'd hoped for, and one the pair of clients I had for the day, thoroughly enjoyed. I have to admit, I was mightily relieved too.

The first tour had been a success, and the clients left with many images of otters, other wildlife from around Mull, and also with the knowledge of how and when to approach and photograph these creatures. You'd think that after a week of intensive otter tracking, Andy and I would fancy a change of scene, but on our day off between tours, we found ourselves beside a loch, Andy on a bed of seaweed, and me slightly higher up, slumped on some rocks, waiting patiently for a mother and cub to stir from their slumber.

We had watched the pair bring food ashore earlier, and then curl up amongst the rocks, to snooze for a while. We hoped for views when they woke up, and our patience was rewarded when mum crept towards us to spraint, and the cub followed.

I know as a wildlife photographer I'm not supposed to express many emotions when capturing such images, but we both admitted afterwards that the cub was seriously cute!

After leaving their mark on the rocks, both went back into the loch, and we had to follow them along the shore, to where they brought out their catches. Mum seemed to be doing all the legwork, and simply passed the catch to the cub when she'd climbed ashore. With smaller teeth, the cub took a lot longer to make a meal of the fish than the adult otter.

It was wonderful to watch though, at such close quarters, and it was hard to drag ourselves away from the action, when the pair moved along the shore a bit more. We'd had our views though, and thought it was best to leave them be. Meeting up with Alex (son of Martin Keivers of Mull Charters) we found another otter that was bringing his catches out on the shore, and grabbed some more images before the light was lost. We all met up again later in Tobermory for a meal and a catch up.

The second tour began where the last left off, with my luck improved, and encounters with groups of otters being the theme for the five days. As well as getting images, I ensured my clients had the best possible view, so at times would keep further back myself, to limit any possible disturbance of the otters. This allowed me to watch the antics, and it was fascinating to observe interaction between otters and other wildlife.

Hooded crows would often crowd the otter cubs when they were trying to feed, hoping to steal the meal. Sometimes they'd get a beakful, and sometimes the otter would leave it all, but other times, the cub would show a bit of aggression, and despite being pecked at by the crows, would retain the meal, and scamper off with it.

On another occasion, a cub had been presented with a large fish, while mum went out fishing again. The rubbery skin of the fish made it hard work for the cub to get a meal from it, and mum noticed this. She promptly went out into the loch, and returned with something easier to eat, which was swapped with what the cub had been gnawing on! Didn't stop the cub from trying to steal back the fish again from mum, after it'd finished the smaller meal!

After enjoying a marvellous few hours with a mother and cub, we were heading back to base when I spotted another otter off the shore, and as we looked more closely, we realised there were two cubs present as well. Creeping into positions to view from, a fourth individual popped up! The four seemed at ease with one another, so perhaps the other adult was a sibling of the mother, or maybe offspring from a previous litter.

The adults were keen to get the youngsters out into the water for fishing, and while one cub duely followed, the other decided it didn't fancy the cold water, and headed back to the safety (and relative warmth) of the small island again, squeaking as it went. The other cub followed suit, and we watched them sitting and playing on the rocks, whilst waiting for food to be delivered. When the adults did return, it was more for fun, and grooming. We watched the mass of fur, paws and tails writhing around from our rapidly shrinking viewpoint.

Thankfully the otters posed in a line for a moment, giving us a shot to cherish, before I had to call time on the experience thus ensuring my clients didn't spend a few hours trapped on an island themselves!

The following day, we encountered the mother and two cubs once more, and octopus was on the menu. Presumably these creatures are easier for the cubs with their smaller teeth, to manage. Though it was still amusing to watch the pair of cubs squabble over one presented to them whilst they were out in the loch. One finally won the prize, but chose a spot just out of sight of us, to consume it.

The final day of the second tour had become a 1-to-1 as one of the clients had had to leave a day early for a family commitment. With the mother and cub pairing on one of the lochs proving to be so productive, we headed over, and found them quickly. Only this time, a third otter joined the group and for the best part of an hour, we watched the cub play with the adults both in the water, and on the seaweed-covered rocks. Leaping, diving, tumbling and squeaking.

It was comical at times, and I had to stifle my laughter at their antics.

Otter gold, as Andy had put it earlier in the week.

The tours were over, and both had been fantastic. Fun, exciting, productive and informative, not only for our clients, but also for us, as we observed new behaviour from the otters. Snow had fallen over the last couple of days, so while Andy was keen to head back up north and home, I chose to hang around on the island for a couple of hours, to enjoy the atmosphere in such wintery conditions.

For once, I wasn't chasing otters, and watched both golden and white-tailed eagles soaring over the hills. One of the latter was perched on some rocks just off shore - impossible to reach, so I chose to wait further back along the lochside, and hope for a view. And my fortune continued, when the eagle powered back over the water, giving me some images of it against the snow-covered mountains behind.

It was time to say farewell to Mull for 2017 - it has been a wonderful year for visits - and follow Andy north, for a week in the Scottish Highlands.

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