Friday 7 December 2018

November In The Highlands

This year, prior to going to Mull for the Otter Photography Tours, I drove up to stay with Andy and Lyndsey, initially for a Hallowe'en Party at a mutual friend's house, but also to spend some time with them both, and help Andy with preparing his crested tit and red squirrel sites, ready for the winter workshops.

But with Andy still on Mull when I arrived, I spent the first day alone with the red squirrels, which is never a bad thing. They're such charming creatures to watch, as they scurry around the woodland, collecting nuts to nibble on, or cache for the colder months ahead.

And after the recent success with the Super Squirrel images in the press, I took advantage of their acrobatics again.

The party was an absolute hoot, especially watching Andy apply his vampire make-up. After Lyndsey had spent a good while making him look rather suave with delicately applied tones and shades, he then transformed his look to something akin to one of the muppets, using a thick black crayon much like an infant would do with a discarded lipstick! Was funny though, and that was how the evening continued.

Back with the squirrels after the party, we tried out some new props introduced to the site. Being so inquisitive, the squirrels investigate anything new that is brought into their woodland, almost immediately. Getting them to sit for the perfect pose is a bit trickier, but they're a delight to observe anyway.

With reports of waxwings being spotted north of Inverness, Andy suggested we spend a day exploring some areas he's found to be attractive to these winter visitors, in previous years, and after just half an hour of looking around some suitable sites, we spotted some. Perched atop a tall tree, in suburbia, the waxwings were digesting a recent meal of berries, before dropping down in the safety of a flock, to berry trees nearby.

And safety in numbers was wise. We saw at least two sparrowhawks actively targeting the flocks of winter thrushes, including fieldfares and redwings too.

Then, whilst watching the waxwing flock later, a crow appeared to spook them into fleeing, but the crow landed elsewhere, and a small brown falcon perched up. Sparrowhawk was my initial thought, then kestrel... then, and Andy laughed as he heard me thinking out loud, merlin!

In suburbia! What a cracking little bird to see. Suddenly the absent waxwings didn't matter...

Later that day, we headed east, primarily to arrive in time for Andy to do a talk, but along the way we stopped off near RAF Lossiemouth, to watch the Typhoons coming back in from a flight. I have always loved seeing and hearing jets, usually from occasional visits to airshows. Standing, probably unwisely, at the end of the runway, the jets were flying in, directly over our heads, and ludicrously low at times too! Andy actually hit the deck at one point, for fear of being too close. I was crouching down, to get images of the jets as they touched down on the tarmac, against a setting sun.

The following weekend, Andy was swamped with work, so just Lyndsey and I headed out, again looking for the waxwings. When we struggled to find them, we called over to a small loch that Lyndsey had wanted to visit for some time, and were surprised to find a pair of dippers on a man-made drainage channel leading from it. Too dark for images, but they were a welcome sight, and the walk round the loch was lovely too, a red squirrel peering down at us from a tree being the highlight.

Back to the thrushes, and I ended up playing the guide. With a stressful job, Lyndsey doesn't get out as much with her camera as she might, so I was quite happy to position the car in spots where she could photograph the redwings. These are gorgeous birds that are often overlooked by folks wanting to see waxwings, but in the right light, these winter thrushes are just as beautiful.

Then later on, we tried the harbours, in the vain hope that the winter wildfowl might have started to use them again. In years gone by, we would see eiders, long-tailed ducks, mergansers, scoters and divers visiting and feeding from these man-made sheltered spots, but we believe they have been dredged to ensure the boats are safe, and as a result, the birds remain out at sea.

Near the harbour, on some rocks being washed over by the waves, were some waders, and one stood out as being a "purp". I've hardly any images of purple sandpipers, but alas by the time we had got anywhere near close enough for photos, the light had gone. One for next time, perhaps.

With fair weather forecast, Lyndsey, Andy and I were joined by a retired friend for a walk up the Cairngorms, to look for ptarmigan. The thing with mountain forecasts though, is that they're subject to change, and by the time we were nearing the area we wanted to be, it had been steadily raining for some time, and was quite breezy. Rain, sleet and snow aren't much of a problem for ptarmigan, but wind is, and they tend to be very wary in such conditions, making approach at times difficult.

And so it proved to be, when we found a small group beside a pool. Most seemed comfortable with us inching closer, but a male, perhaps the "look-out" for the group was ultra alert, and seemed nervous. Armed only with 400mm of reach, I wasn't quite as close as I'd have liked when he decided he didn't like the look of us, and flew, taking all the others with him... right up the side of the mountain.

Lyndsey and I decided to follow, and climbed up the steep slope to where we'd seen them land, but they were playing hard to get, and when Andy heard rocks falling nearby, he signalled to us to come back down. And as it happened, he'd found a lone female bird to photograph there anyway! We paused before heading back, to admire the view, both down and up, the latter looked very much like something from Lord Of The Rings, or perhaps Game Of Thrones... just needed a dragon draped over one of the black rocks.

By the time we'd got some images of the female ptarmigan as well, the rain was really coming down, and stupidly I'd not taken waterproof trousers with me. Getting cold up there isn't wise, so we all hoofed it down the slope, and into the cafe for hot drinks.

A day with the mountain hares followed, which was also damp and chilly. The individual we approached stayed put, which was great, but wasn't the most active. The most action we saw was the taking of a pellet or two, and a few amusing expressions.

We left the hare as we'd found it, which is always the best result.

Later that week I spent some time chasing the winter thrushes, alone this time. The redwings were easy to locate, being in the same spots as before, but this time the waxwings were also around, and would occasionally drop in to feed from the same areas.

I spent some time trying to get a vibrant autumnal background to shots featuring the redwings, especially when they perched on a fence.

The waxwings seemed to generally drop en-masse to the ground, so picking off individuals wasn't that simple.

The end to the week saw Andy and I take a stroll around Fort George, watching winter ducks flying past, although from afar. Then over to check on the crested tits. It seemed to be a bit on the mild side for us to get images, but three individuals showed pretty well, and we came away with enough shots to encourage us for another visit the following day.

The bright, vibrant colours of larch trees at this time of year make for stunning backdrops.

Then later on, used shards or pockets of light through the canopy, for an array of images with these magical little birds.

In what felt like the blink of an eye, the fortnight was over and we were packing the cars to head to Mull...

I will be running workshops in the Scottish Highlands during February for many of the subjects featured in this blog post. Please drop me an email if you're interested in photographing any, or visit my website for more information, and how to book a session.

Monday 3 December 2018

Mull Otter Photography Tours - A Tale Of Two Weeks

Much like the old football saying, this year's Mull Otter Photography trip was very much a game of two halves. Favourable tides, bright, dry and breezy conditions made finding and approaching the otters in the first week fairly easy, whereas the second week was almost the polar opposite. Gales, rain, sleet and hail at times, gusts strong enough to blow us over, water spouts on the lochs and low light, rough seas and very treacherous conditions made our job as guides extremely challenging.

But our schedules mean we can only run these tours in late November, so we have to make the best of it regardless, and our clients all left happy.

As usual, Lyndsey kindly spent an evening cooking up some of the meals we would serve to our clients, before freezing them ready to be transported to Mull, this time in my car, as I had spent a fortnight in the Highlands prior to the tours this year. Andy and I travelled down in convoy as far as Fort William, where our paths separated, with me heading on to Mull, and him down to Oban for a book signing event in the branch of Waterstones. He was supposed to join me later that evening, but his ferry was cancelled, and he ended up having to stay over, texting me to say that he was watching an otter from his hotel window, fishing in Oban harbour - perhaps a good omen for the trip!

Last time I went to Mull, I managed to see a white-tailed eagle within a few minutes of the ferry arriving. This time, I watched one flying over the hills near Lochaline, whilst waiting to take the ferry over to Fishnish. Amusingly I spotted Neil McIntyre driving off the ferry after completing his otter tours, though sadly we hadn't time to chat, and after I'd arrived at the farmhouse, unloaded the car, packed the fridge and freezer with everything, I found myself standing staring skywards, admiring the stars visible in such dark skies, plus enjoying the added treat of shooting stars - the Leonid meteor shower was around that night.

With Andy having been on Mull merely a week before the tours, and me holidaying there just over a month before that, we were both well aware of where to locate the otters, and on our "afternoon off" before the clients arrived, we headed out to dust off our cameras. It should have been a full day, but Andy was late arriving. Still, within minutes of meeting up, we were creeping towards a family of otters, and lapped up the sight of two cubs play-fighting, whilst their mother was out fishing nearby.

Grooming, fishing, munching on prey, larking about. It was just the sort of encounter we hoped would present itself to our clients that week, and with the fair weather seemingly set in place, the following morning, we all set off, as usual in two groups, one guide with two clients each.

We sell the tours mainly to photographers, but we do get people coming along just for the experience of seeing these wonderful creatures. That said, when one such guest was offered the chance to use Andy's Canon 7D mk2 with his 100-400mm mk2 lens, she jumped at the chance. This of course involved us setting the camera up for her, but it was then down to her to get the shots, and boy did she ever. At the end of the week, whilst reviewing her images, Andy spotted one that made all our jaws drop - she'd managed to get a shot of two otters raised up, facing each other in a brief spat. Quite possibly the shot of the whole trip! Not bad for someone who had never used a D-SLR before in her life...

With such favourable conditions during the first week, our clients captured images of otters fishing, grooming, play-fighting, fighting for real and of course sleeping. Mostly in decent light, though there are areas of the lochs where the sun simply cannot reach at that time of year, so are always in shade. Personally I like such light, as the otters look fabulous against dark backgrounds.

Each day, we would see perhaps upwards of ten different individuals, which was quite a change from the summer, when we struggled to find any in the hot weather. And one group was fortunate to see four otters together, not once, but twice during their tour. Remarkable given that I have only seen such a group twice before, in all the years I have visited the island. From what I could tell, there were two mothers, presumably siblings, each with a cub. Being friendly to one another, they left their cubs to play in the shallows, while they went out fishing together.

As with much of wildlife photography, there are key elements that need to go your way for a special encounter. Is the breeze in the right direction? Is there decent light available? Will the otter need to bring its catch ashore? Even then, the otter might perhaps catch a fish, bring it ashore but choose to eat it behind a rock, or with its back to you. Or perhaps another otter might arrive, and affect the outcome, which was what happened at the start of one amazing day that week.

Early morning, my two clients and I were watching a young female otter happily fishing near the shore of the loch, bringing her catch on to a small seaweed-covered rock, before grooming and sleeping briefly.

Then from our left, swam in another otter, carrying a fish it had caught. The young female approached and initially we wondered if they knew one another. Seconds later it was apparent that they weren't happy, and a full on fight exploded out of the calm water.

Lots of splashing, squeaking and wrestling, and in the blink of an eye is was over, with the youngster we had been watching retreating away, leaving the other to rue a lost fish, and then also swimming away.

The remainder of the day was spent watching two pairs of otters, both consisting of a mother and cub. We were treated to them fishing, play-fighting, grooming and snoozing. Unlike last year, the cubs were that bit more mature, and definitely more alert, more so than their mothers, so we had to be ultra careful when approaching, and conservative with taking images - otters have fantastic hearing and can be spooked by the sound of the camera's shutter firing.

One moment to treasure from that day came when the mother began to groom her cub. It was lying on its back, stretched out, and she groomed under its chin. As we watched, we noticed that its back leg would twitch, almost as if it were trying to scratch itself. It was hilarious, and it was a job not to laugh out loud at it.

The first tour was over in what felt like no time at all, and the fine weather continued for the day off Andy and I had between it and the second one. Again we found a family of otters to photograph, pretty much right from first light.

After views of the family catching and eating prey, they headed out into the loch, and we had to relocate to watch them. I chose a lofty position on some rocks, whereas Andy dropped down to water-level. A cub caught us pretty much on the hop, bringing in a fish right below me, and started to play with it in a small rock pool. Far too busy with that to notice me watching from above... unlike the dog otter that arrived without warning. He spotted me immediately, and paused as he approached the cub, presumably to steal its catch. That pause was enough for the cub to realise what was going on, and call out to its mother.

It was intriguing to watch the scene unfold. The dog otter was undecided whether to continue towards the cub, for the easy steal, but was obviously wary of me. I couldn't move, as I would have spooked both otters. I looked up, peering around the side of my camera, and saw the mother and other cub, heading towards the shore like a pair of torpedoes.

The dog looked at them, then at me, at the cub, then at the approaching protective mother again, and decided it was wise to leave! Seconds later the cub was joined by its mother and sibling, and could continue eating the fish it had caught, with the dog otter appearing briefly nearby on the shore for a last look back, before vanishing out of sight.

The start of the second tour continued as the first had left off, with good weather and plenty of otter sightings. However, our weather apps on our phones were already flashing warnings of high winds, rain and stormy conditions for the rest of the week, and despite crossing all our fingers and toes, they proved to be right.

Of course when there are dark clouds overhead, the available light each day was dramatically reduced, shortening each day significantly. The choppy water and spray from the waves and winds whipping up the surf, made spotting otters out in the lochs tricky, and in such conditions, the mothers were leaving their cubs on dry land whilst they fished for them.

On one of the days mid-week, we tried to track an otter fishing offshore, but were caught up in a severe squall - winds rushing down the hills created a localised gust that lifted me off my feet, and I was thrown into the back of one client, the other was kneeling on the ground, trying not to also be blown along! Add to that horizontal rain, sleet and at times hail, we watched the water in the lochs and out in the bays get lifted up, sometimes forming spouts, spinning like tornadoes before dissipating once more. It was wild out there!

Late that day, we met up with Andy's group who had been perhaps wisely photographing a pair of otters from their car, and we were gifted the chance to photograph them. As we were already dripping wet from the weather, we crept down to the rocks, and braved the elements to get some images for the day. I chose to test the image stabilisation on the new 100-400mm, coupled with my 7D mk2, and slowed the shutter down to 1/125th or slower, hand-held to make the rain streak. Not an easy thing to do when the wind is trying to rip the camera from your hands.

Of course with such rain falling, the streams leading into the lochs were bursting, and residents were forced out into the open. We enjoyed some remarkable views of a dipper fishing beside the shore one morning, which made a change from the otters.

And high over the hills was a pair of golden eagles, the male displaying to the larger female nearby, by soaring skywards, then going into a steep, stooping dive, skimming the canopy of the woods, before going back up once more. Spectacular to watch, albeit somewhat distant to photograph.

With one of the clients booked on to a ferry mid-afternoon on the final day, I offered to do the drive, as Andy's car is more spacious, and on my return from Craignure, I continued to help look for otters for the remaining group. After spotting a lone otter nearby, Andy then picked up on a mother with two cubs, and they headed down to the shore in the gloom for a final encounter. I stayed back, both to help watch the otters from afar (Andy and I have radios to communicate over) and also to limit the number of folks viewing. The smiles on the clients' faces when they arrived back at the house later spoke volumes. A final encounter that Andy described as beautiful - he was just watching, and at times acting as a support for the clients' lenses!

It was a funny couple of weeks. There were times during the first where I wondered if it was actually late November, given how warm and pleasant it was, and couldn't help but smile to myself at what we were watching. Conversely I questioned my sanity in the second week, when clinging to rocks, being battered by hailstones and struggling to keep the cameras dry, in light levels pushing the ISO way over what would normally be acceptable to use.

But that's otter photography for you. Come rain or shine, they're working their magic out there, and it's always fun to try to capture it on camera...