Sunday 3 April 2022

March, Frog-Eating Otters And Awesome Raptors

I had barely had time to unpack from my Highlands trip before I was back running workshops for otters here on Mull. Those run at the beginning of the month went well, but while I was out walking on a day off, I spotted the dreaded frogspawn. Why is it so feared? Well, this indicates the start of what we otter guides call "Frogging Fortnight" and refers to a period of time, usually around two weeks, where the frogs spawn.

Most otters that visit the sea lochs here on Mull, do so via quite a hike from their holts, which might be a couple of miles from the shore. As they scamper along, they will pass through meadows, woods and through bodies of freshwater, and if they encounter something else they can eat along the way, then they'll not bother going all that way to the loch. So, imagine their delight when they spot a pool of frolicking frogs, effectively a soup of frogs for them to gorge themselves on.

I've seen signs of it at a pool not far from home, where otter spraints are abundant as are entrails and bits of frogs left from the attacks. Great for the otters. Rubbish if you're trying to find some for photography! But we made the best of it, and I was happy to have Andy staying with us for a week early in the month, while he ran a workshop himself. It made the evenings far more enjoyable when we could dine out and have a good laugh about things, discussing sightings and where might be best for finding and photographing otters.
So when I wasn't running workshops, I targeted something else, something I moved to Mull to watch and photograph. Raptors.

Having invested in a new RF 100-500mm lens for my mirrorless camera, I felt more comfortable going for long walks with just that in the bag. Before, with the 100-400mm lens, I always felt like I might miss out with an encounter, by being short by a few mm's reach. This meant I could scramble up the hills in search of harriers and eagles, and not fear for my safety when lugging around the big prime lens. It was great, and I was rewarded pretty quickly.

I hadn't actually gone looking for eagles. I was exploring an area where I thought might be good for adders, slow-worms and lizards, but my eyes soon drifted from the vegetation skywards when I spotted a golden eagle hunting along the ridgeline above me. After it drifted out of sight, I climbed the hillside, and crouched between some boulders, hoping it might return. It did. And flew right over my head.


It even came back again, although it was against the sun, so the images didn't really work, but what an encounter.

A raptor that has teased me for years now is the hen harrier. Every holiday I spent here on Mull would see me spending hours, dawn and late evening, waiting at harrier hotspots, hoping to get a close encounter, and I can count the number of those I enjoyed on one hand.

When I spotted several harriers circling over some hills, I decided it was high time I put in some serious time with them, and with perfect conditions for a few days, I set up in a meadow, sitting beside a rock for a bit of cover, in a load of (probably tick-infested) dead bracken, and waited.

My goodness was it worth it. I watched up to ten harriers at a time hunting, circling and at times performing their stunning sky-dances. I had males "giggling" overhead, then swooping and soaring, against perfect blue sky.

Battles between males and females, and between rivals of both genders.

And chases between birds when one returned with a meal.

And it wasn't just hen harriers around. There were white-tailed and golden eagles, kestrels and buzzards, and for me, an absolute highlight, short-eared owls.

It was late in the day and not a great deal had happened for a few hours. Everything was distant, so I had considered leaving. But I figured I ought to see the day out and sit tight, and boy was that a good move. One of the raptors hunting not far off was different, and I soon recognised the flight of a short-eared owl. It perched up on a fence post, and as it was so quiet, I decided to try to squeak it. As is often the case, it seemed to ignore the sound I was making.

I glanced away from it, to see if any of the harriers were flying nearby. Then looked back and realised the owl had flown off. Where though?

I looked down the side of my lens and realised it was flying right at me. Thank goodness the camera locked on, and because the R5 is silent, didn't spook the owl as it virtually flew down the lens.

It realised at the last second that I wasn't a meal, and flew over my head. But I'd nailed some cracking shots by then.

And as it flew by later, it gave me one of those stares that only they can do. I just love them.

The end of the month saw my dear friend Lyndsey arrive for a week's holiday, staying with us, here in Dervaig. I don't think she's ever visited Mull in March before, so it was going to be new, and fun, and thankfully the great weather I'd enjoyed during the week before she came, remained in place.

Needless to say, after seeing my shots of hen harriers and short-eared owls, some of her time was spent in the same spot as I'd used, and while we didn't get a ludicrously close encounter with the short-eared owls, we did see some breathtaking sky-dances from the harriers, which put a smile on her face that only special wildlife encounters can do. That expression of unbridled joy from friends and clients alike, at seeing something magical like the sky-dance of hen harriers, never grows old.

We had encounters with otters, including one which we spotted when driving along, and I selflessly used the car to distract the otter's attention, while Lyndsey crept down the shore nearby, to get her shots. And it was lovely to see a mother with a fairly grown-up cub on another day.

The breeze that had kept the heat haze away the previous week had all but died off, so we focused on subjects that were close, and were really fortunate to find (Lyndsey spotted them) two neonate adders basking out in the open. These tiny brown adders would have been born last August or September, and she amusingly named them Baldrick and Blackadder.

She also managed to nail a shot I've been after for years, with just the eyes of a toad protruding from the water of a small pool. I had been trying for the same shot earlier but each time they surfaced, they would face side on, or swim off. When she lay down, one popped up, then swam towards her for a better shot. Unbelievable, if somewhat amusing...

But her break wasn't just for wildlife, so with the forecast set for a warm, sunny day, we travelled the length of Mull, down to visit the Isle Of Iona. It's difficult to describe, but Mull itself doesn't really feel like a seaside, holiday location to me, even though there are loads of beautiful beaches. But Iona has a different feel to it, and strolling along with ice-creams, it felt like being on holiday. We needn't have taken the cameras, as we spent the time admiring the views and scanning the shoreline for cowrie shells, with one beach proving to be a real hotspot for them. We found hundreds!

Visits to other beaches here on Mull yielded great sessions with ringed plovers and other birds, such as pied-wagtails.

I love having friends come to visit me here on Mull, and while I tried to savour every second of the week, it was over in the blink of an eye, and we were into April. I bid farewell to Lyndsey after we'd enjoyed a morning of watching lapwings do their thing in mid-air, testing the capabilities of both the R5 and the R3 (Andy had kindly lent Lyndsey his new toy), and the new 100-500mm lenses. Both fared well, it would appear.

(Wildlife)Kate is here soon, but in the meantime, I need to turn my attention back to running workshops, and hope those amorous frogs and toads have finished, and the otters are back to normal. Fingers crossed...