Thursday 24 March 2022

Winter On Mull And A Return To The Highlands

With the house move, self-isolation and then lockdowns, last winter was anything but normal. I had hoped to take time out for myself over this January and some of February for my own photography here on Mull, but aside from a couple of days early in the new year, the weather was dire. When we moved here, the winter weather would alternate between a fortnight of wet and windy conditions, to being calm and sunny for the next couple of weeks. Not this past winter, when it seemed to be raining almost all the time.

So when the sun did put in an appearance, I was out and about, checking in on the otter families and individuals I've come to know, and always on the look-out for something to point my camera at, especially the white-tailed eagles, that often look for food around the shores of the lochs early morning.

I'm hoping next winter sees a few more workshops during January and early February, as the island is quiet in terms of visitors, and while the days are short and the weather can be challenging, the amount of encounters I enjoyed with otters was incredible. And I had them to myself.

I also took a few walks around areas of Mull that I'd not really explored before, such as Loch Ba. This is a large freshwater loch behind the Knock Estate, and while it didn't yield an enormous amount of wildlife for photos, I did see a few goldeneye on the dark waters, plus a white-tailed eagle, as I was strolling along.

Other birds seen during the winter included whooper swans, this time on the Mish lochs, and on a lovely calm day, when the waters looked black. The sound of them calling echoed through the glens - it was magical.

A bird I'd never seen on Mull before also put in a brief appearance; a kingfisher. He was fishing on the tidal river near Lochdon from the large boulders that litter the shore.

Birds of prey were one of the original reasons why I visited Mull, and I love having them around locally. I managed a couple of half-decent encounters with hen harriers during the winter, and a walk on the tops of the hills also resulted in watching a pair of golden eagles flying past me, pretty much at eye-level. Wonderful.

Traditionally February sees me heading north to the Highlands for workshops, but this year I was very much limited in duration by workshops here on Mull, either side of the trip. Most of my time in the Highlands would be spent running workshops, leaving only a couple of days to spend time with Andy and Lyndsey.

My main concern for the sessions was an apparent lack of mountain hares. A location we have used for years has suffered a population crash, from a combination of rewilding, poor weather for breeding and a lack of visitors to the area from the lockdowns. Prior to the workshops beginning, Lyndsey and I went for a wander around the site, and it was clear that with the absence of people, the local golden eagles had been enjoying a larger area to hunt in, and we watched a young eagle spend the best part of an hour flying back and forth along the ridges of the hills, in search of the hares.

The other worry was the weather. Andy had been tearing his hair out with the mild conditions during his workshops throughout the winter, which led to some of the stars not performing as expected. Andy is of course experienced enough to ensure clients have a great experience even when things aren't going to plan. Crested tits though, as an example, will feed on insects if they're flying around, which is what happens is it's warm enough and the ground hasn't frozen.

I needn't have worried, as I timed my visit with a cold snap, and for the most part, the workshops were run in almost perfect winter weather, with snow and ice, and decent light too. And that meant the crested tits weren't able to find insects, so visited the feeders, making my job a lot easier.

The workshops at the crested tit site were magical. At times the birds were almost landing on us, they were so close. And as I'd invested in the RF 100-500mm lens for my camera, they were a great subject to test it on.

We also went looking for red deer, red grouse, red squirrels (at Andy's site), snow buntings and even called into some of the harbours for the waders and wildfowl around at that time of year.

And, having spoken with Andy and Lyndsey about possible alternative sites for the mountain hares, I was chuffed to find one for myself (and my client who was overjoyed with the encounter) on one of the days, based on the ideas they'd suggested.

The trip ended with a weekend spent with Andy and Lyndsey, enjoying some wildlife local to them. We visited the red kite feeding station at Tollie, which was fun, and where we bumped into Karen Miller, a friend I've not seen for ages (I could say that about many friends, what with the lockdowns and our move to Mull).

Plus we called over to some coastal locations in search of waders again. We didn't enjoy the same fortune I'd had with purple sandpipers on a workshop, but we did see dunlins, sanderlings and some wintering ducks.

I'm considering running some additional Highlands-based workshops perhaps in December and January if I get enough interest from people. Please drop me an email or complete the contact form on my website if this would interest you.

Then it was back home, which didn't mean a day's driving down to the Midlands, but a trundle through breathtaking scenery leading to Mull again. Not a bad place to return to!

Friday 11 March 2022

End Of 2021 And Our First Year On Mull

It's mid-March and I'm still catching up with what I did last year. I'll try to be brief so I can get back to the latest events.

The end of the summer saw me running workshops, mainly for otters because a lot of the other subjects, such as the puffins had left for the winter. It's really noticeable when birds like the common sandpipers, swallows and martins leave, as the soundtrack to the island fades away, and it's really quiet.

Andy was on the island for a few days whilst running a WTE masterclass, and invited me aboard for one of the sessions. That led to an unbelievable experience later that day, when the two of us were invited by Martin and Alex to sail out at night, on the Lady Jayne looking for something unusual... bioluminescence.

We sailed out of Ulva Ferry and headed to the area where we had seen a pod of common dolphins earlier in the day. Conditions were perfect, as it turned out, with overcast skies and calm water. Martin suddenly got excited and called us to look at the toilet. We initially declined - why would you go look at a toilet!? When he'd convinced us it was for something being seen, and not smelled, we took a look, and could see small sparks of light in the water being pumped from outside through the system.

Alex then grabbed a broom from the deck, and thrust the handle into the water beside the boat. Moving it around, it resembled a magic wand, with a glow around the handle, and sparks of light trailing off of it. Magic.

Then the real magic happened. A dolphin approached. Normally, during the day, you're hard pushed to see them until they surface or go beneath the boat. We could see the outline of it glowing below the surface from about 50 metres away, and it appeared to surge by like some sort of glowing torpedo. Taking it in turns, we would sit on the bow of the boat and watch as the dolphins rode the bow-wave in front. It was jaw-dropping. Like something from Avatar.

Could it get any better?

Well yes. A shoal of mackerel surfaced and chased along in front of the boat at speed. We could see each individual fish, as a shimmering shape, glowing in the darkness. And as a dolphin raced in, the shoal reacted to it, surging in directions away from the it, creating more light and more gasps of delight from the four of us.

Annoyingly though, with four photographers on board, none of us had good enough equipment with us to capture the sight of it, so unfortunately it's one for us to remember and smile about, and for you the reader, to try to imagine.

With fewer people around into the autumn, the otter workshops were generally great fun, though often in challenging conditions. On some of the wetter days I chose to leave my camera in the car, as it has a habit of misting up (the viewfinder) in wet weather, and I didn't want to make it any worse.

What is great for me, is to hear back from clients after workshops, that they've gone out, armed with what they have learned, and put it into good practice and seen the rewards from it, enjoying encounters with otters by themselves.

October saw the Mull Rally return, and with it a hoard of spectators. I didn't bother taking bookings for those days, as it would have been nigh on impossible to drive around Mull looking for wildlife, with so many roads closed and so many people around. I did however, stay local, and enjoy the event with a friend, who'd driven up from the Midlands for the experience. And was it just that!

Some of the stages were at night, and the sound of the crackling and popping engines as they thrashed their way round the twisty roads at ridiculous speeds, echoed through the glens. For a petrol-head like me, it was awesome. We had one of the teams using our drive as their service centre and hoped they would do well in the event. Alas it wasn't to be, and a jump, skid and large rock put an end to their adventure. Maybe next time.

To be standing outside the local pub, at about 3am, watching works rally cars hurtling past, was fantastic. I'm not sure Rob enjoyed it quite so much, as he was working ridiculous hours in the pub each day, and saw very little of the rally, or his friend who was up to see it.

One of the highlights late in the year for me, to satisfy my "birder" urges, was the sighting of a red-backed shrike near Aros. I got wind of it about a day after it had been spotted, and went for a look. Unlike the shrike seen back in Sutton Park before I left for Scotland, this one had just two birders already looking for it, who were then joined by me, to help locate it. We did, and after seeing it, I was left to watch it alone.

I got some images, but hoped it might stick around for another go, and with favourable conditions the next day, I returned, and had the place to myself. As with most shrikes I've watched, this one had a circuit where it would fly around, hunting for insects. And a larder area where it would impale food, close to where it disappeared for some down-time too. Then it was a case of looking for the best place to photograph it, on that circuit. It took a couple of hours, but I got some incredible views, and left with some lovely images.

For November and the start of December, Andy was again on Mull, though for much of it, staying at the accommodation he uses for hosting his clients. But it did allow us to meet up when neither of us were working.

The wet weather has some advantages, one being it fills the streams up and forces some of the dippers that normally feed in them, out to the shores of the lochs instead, and that allowed me to get up close and personal with one. Amusingly, as I was photographing it, an otter wandered by, spooking the dipper.

With the pandemic still affecting events, we ended the first year on Mull at home, with friends over for the festivities. I really enjoyed Christmas Day, and the food we ate was perfect. After so many sad Christmasses of late, it was great to experience such a fun one. Maybe next time, other family members from down south might choose to visit.

And so ended the first year spent living on Mull. It had been stressful, eventful, fun, enjoyable and successful. It still doesn't quite feel like "home" for me, but that's starting to change with each passing day. And the view from the windows never gets tiring, even if it does tend to rain quite a bit here. And as for the wildlife, well, that speaks for itself through my images...