Friday 21 May 2021

Crewing And Guiding

Looking through the windows of the Lady Jayne as she chugged into Loch Na Keal, on a blissfully calm day, could have been any other trip with Mull Charters, but this was different. I was sitting in the "driving seat" steering her as she headed down the loch in search of white-tailed eagles, and anything else that might be around.

Admittedly I didn't move to Mull to be a part of the team that is Mull Charters, but after Martin asked if I'd be interested in helping out from time to time, I jumped at the chance, and it wasn't long before I was called upon to act as a part of the crew.

Alex was the skipper for the day, and it's a role he's clearly good at, not only for being great with all things technical aboard the boat and of course informing the punters of what they're seeing and what might be around that day, but also at helping a novice like me with getting the basics sorted.

Needless to say, the eagles made the job easier, by coming out to the boat several times on each trip, and we enjoyed some cracking views.

While the trips this past week were my first as a crew member, I'd already been out aboard the Lady Jayne this year, both with family and friends, and also with clients.

The R5 does seem to struggle to identify the head and eye of the eagles as they approach, often picking up the wing tips or the tail, though to be fair on it, that's still a massive improvement on the older cameras I've used, that would focus on the sky, water or hillsides.

The images from the trips haven't disappointed though.

I've also been out for my first puffin-fix of the year, visiting the Treshnish Isles of Staffa and Lunga. The latter being the favourite location for seeing the charismatic characters themselves.

Here, the R5 was jaw-droppingly good. It picked up flying seabirds from a long way off, and maintained focus on them constantly, regardless of the background, or how good or in most cases, bad I was at tracking them, and keeping them in the preferable part of the frame.

I can't wait to get back out there to play some more.

Aside from trips, I've been looking out for great northern divers, as they're in splendid breeding plumage at this time of year, just as they fly off north to breed.

They're not easy to get close to, and serenely drift away from the shore if they spot you approaching.

Of course the otters are still around, and I was pleased to catch up with one of the families I'd been watching during the lockdown period, and the mother still has both cubs in tow. They were busy hunting one rainly afternoon, hauling out fish, crabs and even lobsters!

Not quite the incredible view I had just over a year ago with one, but great to watch and photograph, and interesting to see how they handle such potentially dangerous prey.

Mull is now feeling more like its old self again, with plenty of visitors, businesses back open again, pubs and restaurants operating almost normally, trips to see wildlife all up and running and some of the sounds of the island, such as the chattering of barn swallows, filling the air again. Let's hope some of it remains that way.

Sunday 18 April 2021

Return Of Spring Migrants And Hope

I'm not a massive flower fan, but I can't help but smile at the daffodils around the garden here on Mull, as they shine in the morning sunshine. Even on dull days, they lift my spirits, and they've had to endure some wintery weather over the last few weeks, including sleet, hail and several dustings of snow.

We're in April already, it's my first Birthday here on Mull, and the weather has been somewhat typical of the month. Sun one day, snowing the next. In fact, on some days this month, we've seen four seasons in an hour, let alone a day. But most recently, we've enjoyed some warm sunny days and it amazes me how quickly the island dries out. I've even had to water some of the potted plants.

There are signs of spring everywhere, with buds on almost all the plants, some blossom flowering and adding much needed colour to the hills, and of course migrant birds are returning to Mull with every passing day.

In March, I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever see a wheatear, envious of those down south reporting sightings, and posting images on social media. Then a familiar flash of white on a small bird flying beside Loch Na Keal stole my gaze, and I realised they'd arrived.

By the time the calendar flipped over to show the dates of April, I'd seen dozens of these striking little birds, perched beside the road, on rocks or grassy mounds, anywhere that gave them a vantage point to dart over to pick off an insect.

After seeing a lone sand martin weeks ago, it was lovely to see small flocks of these aerial masters, hawking insects over the freshwater lochs, joined by their cousins, house martins. I feel the need to stop and scan such groups of birds at the moment, in the hope of seeing a swallow among their numbers, and this paid dividends just a few days ago, when half a dozen swallows fluttered down to perch on an overhead line.

Another bird that contributes to the sound track of Mull during the warmer months is the common sandpiper. Whilst trundling round Loch Na Keal a few days back, looking for wheatears, movement beside one of the stone bridges caught my eye. I was driving, so slowed to a crawl, and watched the sandpiper poke around the structure of the bridge, before dropping out of sight, to the stream below.

Then just a day ago, I heard that familiar call, when exploring a new area of the loch we now live near, and saw another one, searching seaweed on the shore of a small sandy beach, for food. I had just enough time to line the camera up for a record shot before it took flight, skimming the water as it crossed the entrance of the loch, to continue feeding on the rocks on the other side of the channel.

Perhaps the final piece of the springtime jigsaw of seasonal birds arrived at Grasspoint recently, when I heard a cuckoo shouting his name out repeatedly. He flew off before I could line up the camera, but they're back now too. Fab!

I'm not really familiar with the north end of Mull, having spent most of my time on the isle during holidays and more recently guiding, either down the south end at Pennyghael or around the centre, focusing on Loch Na Keal and the surrounding area. So I'm exploring the area around home as much as possible, and trying to make a mental note of what species are around, and where, and in the case of migrants, when to start looking out for them.

The edge of the loch where it meets the river flowing from the glen, seems to be a fantastic area to watch waders, especially red and greenshank, oystercatchers and snipe. Curlew are also here, and their bubbling call carries up to our house day and night, such a haunting call, and one sadly fading from the rest of the UK. With snipe being around too, I've also spent time standing in near darkness in the garden, listening to that distinctive whirring sound, made by their tail feathers as they perform their courtship flights. I just need to work out the best place to get some photographs of these birds, as they're nervous and will take flight if I attempt to creep down the shore towards them.

Understandable though, with the birds of prey around the island. While the white-tailed eagles will put everything up from the water, the local buzzards seem to panic the gulls and smaller waders each time they circle overhead, and the sparrowhawks seem to get a thrill from zipping past everything like a feathery missile, scaring them into a frenzy, only to ignore them, targeting birds in residents' gardens across the loch, instead.

Having had a taste of the sky dance of another raptor in March, I have been spending a great deal of time watching areas around here for hen harriers, hoping to see some more action. As with past attempts at watching these shy birds, I've had varying fortunes, seeing almost nothing on some days, and constant action on others. There doesn't seem to be a pattern, but I think there are at least three pairs in the area, based on the males I've photographed. One appears to be in full adult colours, another has traces of his juvenile plumage and the third is very much midway through the transition from juvenile to adult.

I've seen food being taken to perhaps a waiting female, hopefully on eggs, and also other females out hunting for themselves.

The hen harriers are also increasingly becoming aggressive to other birds that stray too close to presumably the potential or actual nest sites, and I've seen them chasing hooded crows, ravens and buzzards away.

When the weather has been forecast to be fair, we have been heading further afield, and at the start of the month, drove all the way to the southern tip of Mull, taking a leisurely stroll along the white sands of Fidden Beach. Such a tranquil spot, with stunning views across to Iona, with turquoise waters, and pink granite around the shore. While the majority of the birds on show were gulls, I did see oystercatchers, wheatears, pipits (lots of meadow pipits back now too), wagtails and the ever-amusing Frankie Howerd call of an eider gave its location away, as it soaked up some sunshine on a small rock out in the bay, shared with a number of common or harbour seals.

Passing through Pennyghael on the way home, always reminds me of Dad, and I half expect to see him standing in the doorway of the cottage we used to rent, taking in that glorious view across Loch Scridain. Such memories are still difficult, as they remind me of those wonderful, happy days spent there, but also gut-wrenchingly sad, that he's no longer with us.

As it was when he first left us, wildlife always provides a welcome distraction from the grief, and we paused on our journey back, to grab some images of an otter, feeding on a scorpion fish at the edge of the loch.

And at last, we have some dates for when some sort of normality might begin to drip in. Tourists from Scotland can visit later this month, and I believe the pubs might actually open their garden gates for business. By the time our July tours are operating, I'd hope that most of the restrictions will have been lifted, and I can enjoy showing clients around this wonderful island again.

Monday 29 March 2021

Sky Dances With Hen Harriers And A Golden Couple

March arrived like a lamb, and it appears to be sticking with tradition, going out like a lion with gales and heavy rain. In fact, the last few days have seen hail, sleet and even snow falling here.

The weather might not seem very spring-like, but the wildlife is definitely showing signs of it. Our walks along the forestry tracks, once remarkably silent are now accompanied by bird song. I heard goldcrest, chaffinch, robin and even crossbills calling earlier.

But one of the sights I had hoped to see during spring was that of hen harriers sky-dancing. This is where the male and female court in some spectacular displays in the air, with the male soaring high, then diving down in steep swoops, before rising again, to repeat the "dance".

A male caught my attention as he hunted beside the road I was driving along. With his grey and black plumage, and flash of white on the base of his tail, he's hard to miss, but annoyingly flew away over the hills before I could park up for a shot. But knowing he was around encouraged me to spend some time in that area, and that resulted in some incredible views of two pairs dancing.

Initially I watched from the car, and at a distance too far off for anything worthwhile on the camera. But returning the following day, I walked into the hills, and tucked myself away behind a large rock, and waited.

It wasn't the sight of the male that alerted me, but their call. I knew one was around, and scanned the slopes with my bins.

A male and female, and they were flying close together.

As the male flew over her, she flipped over, like harriers do when they do their food pass, but not quite touching talons. Amazing to watch, and close enough for my long lens to capture.

She dropped down low, and he headed up the hill, gaining height, before angling back down, zipping back to meet her in the air.

Being so close to each other, allowed me to see the physical size difference between the genders. She is considerably larger.

The dance continued, with the female doing the chasing.

When they separated, he soared to the top of the hills and circled for a while, before she headed back into the sheltered area below, and again he dropped in to meet her.

I stayed there for hours, and enjoyed numerous sightings of the harriers, only realising later on, when a male and female flew over, followed immediately by another male, that I had been watching at least two pairs.

Rather than me waffling on about the sight, I'll let the pictures do the talking...

Wonderful to observe such behaviour and to be able to capture some of it with the camera.

I have to say, I thought this encounter would serve me well for this latest blog entry, but having had a taste of the action from the harriers, I of course, tried several times more to see the same thing. I even scaled one of the nearby hills to see if I could get a different angle, but instead, I got blown off my feet in gales, and saw almost nothing.

I say "almost", as I did see another raptor in the distance. A golden eagle, and when the harriers failed to show on yet another visit, I saw that there was a pair of golden eagles hunting over some moorland. Annoyingly, given the lack of people on Mull at the moment, when I tried to race to a spot where I could be close enough for a decent image of them hunting low over the ground, three cars materialised out of nowhere, and I had to wait, by which time the eagles had moved on.

But I tried again, on another day, and after watching several white-tailed eagles soar over the hills, I spotted the pair of golden eagles circling high, and they started to head in my direction. My imagination, for what might be a magical encounter, is pretty creative, so you can guess how I felt when one of the eagles read my mind, folded back its wings, and went into a stooping dive, right down towards me.

It was a very breezy day, and the wind was blowing right up the hillside towards them, allowing them to use it, to simply hang in the air. But a flick of those enormous wings, and they accelerated away, higher and out of sight over the ridge.

I was buzzing, and wondered if they'd return. Moments later, one appeared high in the sky again, quickly joined by the other, and together, as if choreographed by some wonderful force, they began to descend down the hillside once more.

Initially I tried to keep both in shot, but when they drifted too far apart, I focused on the closer one, and watched as it slowly approached, before lowering its landing gear, and vanishing behind the ridge.

I wondered if the other one would join it, and perhaps give me the chance of more shots of them together?

It did, but then one popped out into view again, scouring the side of the hill for movement, with no sign of its partner. I didn't mind too much, I mean, how can you, when there's a golden eagle flying around in front of you?

But then suddenly there were two again, albeit that bit far apart to get both in some sort of focus. Which to focus on? I favoured the closer one, until it dropped from view.

Again they separated, and I wondered if the moment had passed, but they appeared over the ridge, this time much lower down, and much closer together. My heart was racing.

I had no problem getting both in the same shot, and they got so close to one another, it appeared as though their wings had touched (they hadn't!).

For a few moments, I had a pair of majestic golden eagles, hanging in the breeze, and in the same shot. If a certain lager company did wildlife sights, this was probably one of the best I've ever had.

After they inevitably parted, I had some fabulous views of them individually, as they drifted this way and that, along the hillside.

The light was changeable, with the strong breeze and clouds, some rather ominous-looking, coming and going.

Bright sunshine one moment, gloomy the next. But I didn't mind. I was just trying to control the stupid grin behind the camera.

They were scanning every square centimetre of the hillside, craning their necks to look for any signs of prey below, sometimes almost going into a hover, but with those massive wings, they didn't need to do anything more than open them up to the wind to gain lift.

After one last pass of the hillside, together and separately, the eagles must have sensed that the weather was about to take a turn for the worse, and they soared off high into the sky, effortlessly, and drifted away along the ridge.

I waited for the rain, sleet and hail to pass over, but the skies remained grey, and the eagles didn't return. It was a shame that they failed to find anything to eat, but they look so healthy, I can't imagine it would be long before they did find a meal somewhere.

I think it's safe to say that I'm enjoying living on Mull, and can't wait to share some of its treasures with clients coming to join me here, when allowed to do so.