Friday, 3 February 2017

Mull, A Winter's Visit

Going to Mull in January doesn't strike you as an obvious choice, and to be honest, I had thought long and hard about it. Late in 2016 I had been asked if I could provide some guiding for seeing otters on Mull, and I worked out that altering dates for the Highlands trip allowed me to divert to Mull on the way home.

The idea depended on whether I could find some suitable digs that meant the trip would mostly be covered by the fee for the guiding. Even when I found something in the correct price bracket, I wondered if it was wise. Until I remembered why I had left my old life behind and started afresh. Grab any opportunity that comes your way; live for now. Within reason, of course. I'm not mad...

So in the pouring rain, splashing through melted floodwater puddles across roads, I made my way along the shore of Loch Ness, calling into Fort William for some supplies, and then via the Corran ferry, I dashed across the hills leading to Lochaline, and was surprised how quickly I reached the ferry terminal. Unfortunately I hadn't figured for it being a winter timetable... on a Sunday. D'oh! I had over 2 hours to wait for the next ferry over to Fishnish.

Had it not have been pouring down, I'd have gone back up into the hills, but instead I sat in the car and watched the birds around the shore, with the usual suspects such as oystercatchers and curlews featuring, plus a rather unexpected view of a kingfisher, perhaps forced to relocate from higher ground after the recent fall of snow.

Eventually I rolled off the ferry and was on Mull again, though I had a long drive ahead of me (still in monsoon conditions) down to the cottage near Bunessan, in the south of the island. I took it steady as my headlights were lighting up huge red deer stags beside the roads, and both woodcock and snipe would burst from ditches, the latter often resembling pale bats as they fluttered across the beams at speed.

Bed, breakfast and a brief stroll around the area where I was based. It was still raining, so I headed back to the shelter of the car, and headed north.

As usual, I was trundling along slowly, taking my time to scan the shore when beside a loch, the rocks nearby, and hills, posts, moors... basically looking at everything. Plenty around, but the first thing to warrant a photo was a kestrel, sheltering amongst the exposed rocks on a hillside.

With the rain driving in through the car window, I soon moved on again, and spotted a huge bird perched some distance from the road, and before I'd found somewhere safe to park, I knew it was a white-tailed eagle. As I climbed out of the car, with nowhere to provide any cover for me, I wondered if I could get any closer. The eagle turned its head in my direction. That's a no then, I thought. So I got back in the car, as it was drier!

Parking up for lunch, shortly after, I had just taken a bite from my apple when I saw a flick of a tail amongst the seaweed in front of me, and seconds later, an otter emerged, munching on something small. I ate the apple as quickly as possible, donned my camo jacket and scurried down towards the shore. Hiding in some rocks, I watched the otter as it fished off the shore. Then I became aware of a voice some way behind me; a man shouting at his dog to come back to him. I sighed, expecting the disturbance to scare off the otter. Then, as I turned my attention back to the otter, I realised a second one had been present further along the shore, and had been spooked by the dog walker, and it paused for a moment on a rock very close to me, to leave a spraint!

Then it scampered off into the seaweed and joined the other one, as it fished. As is often the case on Mull, the otters were finding plenty to eat, and after having their fill, turned to play-fighting one another. Being fairly close to me, I resisted the urge to use the high-speed shutter mode on my camera, and remained with the single shot, silent option, hoping to time a shot as the otters broke the surface to breathe.

Great fun to watch, even if I was being rained on, still. With the low cloud and time of year, it was almost dark before the clock struck 4pm, so I returned to the cottage, to dry out and review the day's images. Not a bad start, I thought.

A similar scene presented itself to me on the second day, with rain falling and calm conditions. It was surprisingly mild though - not what I had expected in January. A brief sighting of an otter early on, along with plenty of views of the wintering divers around the shores kept me entertained as I drove along. Then I clocked another eagle sat near the shore, and after pointing my bins at it, I realised there were four birds sat close to each other. I decided to go for a look, and used what little cover I had to get closer. Problem was, I had to take such a detour around the area to get such cover, by the time I popped my head over the hillock for a better view, all but one of the eagles had left!

I also saw a huge white-winged gull in the area, but the dreadful weather, and my lack of interest in gulls led me to ignore it. Silly, as it was probably a glaucous gull, given the size compared to the black-backs also in the area.

More otter antics followed, but mostly in dreadful light, and as with the previous day, it was dark by 4pm. If only the clouds would lift a little, I mused. As I turned the car round, a distant bird hunting caught my eye. A hen harrier. Too dark to bother with photos, but I made a mental note of where I'd seen it.

The otter guiding was towards the end of the week, and I had planned to find locations for otters prior to then. I had of course already done that, and quite a few of them, so fancied a change of scenery. I'd seen white-tailed eagles, but no golden ones yet. That had to change!

Knowing Mull like I do, means I know where to look for golden eagles, and within seconds of arriving in the area where I hoped to see one, I did. Two, in fact, hunting the hillsides. For such a massive bird, they have an uncanny ability to blend into their surroundings, and as soon as they pass in front of a hillside, instead of the sky, tracking them becomes a real challenge. Given the speed at which they can reach in a dive, I parked up and scanned all around me, when I lost them from view.

Wise move, as a third approached from behind me!

I watched through my bins as the three came together briefly over the hills, before the newcomer left again, and the original pair vanished over the top. Again, from past experience, I had an idea where I might see them, and my luck appeared to be in when I caught up with them hunting elsewhere.

They really are something special to see. And I always try to absorb the moment as much as I can, to recall on dull days at home with little to look at.

By mid afternoon, the overcast skies had started to clear, and I guessed I might get a bit longer to play before night drew in, so thought about heading over to some marshes where I had seen hen harriers roosting in years gone by. But the memory of that ringtail from 24 hours earlier persuaded me to remain where I was, and it proved another wise move.

The light had almost faded when I spotted her quartering the shoreline, that white band visible with the naked eye. She was ahead of me, and after grabbing some shots from where I had parked to watch for otters, I "made time" along the road to get ahead of her. It was a gamble, as I parked over a ridge and waited. Usually hen harriers vanish if I am prepared for taking a shot, so I was very surprised (and pleased) when she appeared on the horizon, and briefly hovered over a clump of grass.

I didn't need to be in silent mode this time, and the 1DX went into full machine gun mode.

What a gorgeous raptor, elegant, lightweight and almost delicate in her flight. How anyone can shoot these birds still saddens me - they must be lacking any sort of a soul; sad, pathetic, little people. But thankfully on Mull, these stunning birds of prey are safe from such threats, and just deal with whatever Mother Nature throws at them.

What a fine end to a great day of raptor watching. My evening meal tasted extra special that night.

The following morning led to yet more otter fun, and I managed to get really good views of one as he slept, then groomed beside the loch.

I had thought as he headed out into the loch, that he was going to return to a holt, but instead of skulking low up a stream, he paused, and drank for about half a minute from the freshwater flowing into the loch, before turning tail, and going off fishing once more. Nature never fails to surprise.

The day ended with me filming a mother otter and her cub, fishing at playing along the shore from me. At one point, the mother swam off, leaving the cub to eat something she'd caught, but once eaten, the cub immediately realised she wasn't close, and started calling to her. She was well down the loch, and I wondered if she'd hear the squeaking sound, until the cub made the call in my direction, and I realised just how loud the sound was. She had heard it, and she collected her cub, before heading off into the darkness together.

Having focused on otters so much, I hadn't driven through the glens much, so chose to do so one morning, but the low cloud meant little was visible, aside from buzzards drying off on posts. I went to another location where I have enjoyed success with golden eagles, but failed to see any, and as I was trundling slowly away, spotted an otter near the shore. Initially I parked up, but could see the otter watching me, so I moved the car away, with the intention of getting out and approaching on foot. That didn't happen, when unexpectedly the otter surfaced with a vibrantly coloured scorpion fish, and swam right over to where I'd just parked up again, to deal with it. I couldn't get out, but had a glorious view anyway.

The otter was still aware of the car being there - it wasn't hidden, but it wasn't bothered, and munched through the rubbery-looking fish, right in front of me.

Then, before heading off fishing again, the otter seemed to pose on some rocks for me. Fantastic.

Once he'd gone fishing along the shore again, I was able to get out, and creep closer, hiding either amongst rocks or tall grasses, or within whatever bushes were growing beside the water. The otter then brought ashore some sort of flatfish.

More glorious views as this was consumed in front of me.

And, later that day, I encountered a family group of otters; a mother and two cubs. Magic.

Aside from the wildlife on Mull, I was also pleased to catch up with Martin, Judith and Alex, who are the family behind the Mull Charters boat trip success. Of course the Lady Jayne was away in dry dock for the winter, so I spent a rather chilly half hour watching waders at the end of Loch Na Keal, laughing at Martin's cursed tripod; every time he gets it out, the weather turns for the worse, and he's forced to put it away again. Certainly was the case that day, when we were blasted with icy winds and cloud, only to see the clouds part in the rear-view mirror of the car, as we headed back to their B&B in Salen for a coffee! Seeing so many otters during the week put me in good stead for the guiding, which went well - no problem finding otters, or putting the client close to them. In fact I had more issue with equipment, as the client had damaged his gear prior to meeting me (loch-side rocks are like ice, so be careful readers!), and I ended up lending him my camera and big lens. This limited my options during the guiding, but the client has to come first.

And so another week on Mull ended. I had contemplated getting the early ferry away from the island, to get home in time for the family trip to the country pub, but a message from my sister arrived in time, to say no-one was going, and allowed me to spend a couple of extra hours exploring.

Revisiting the spot where I'd seen that otter so closely earlier in the week proved to be yet another great move, though originally, when I was sat in the rain watching nothing but gulls beside the loch, I did wonder if I'd made a mistake.

Then a v-shaped wake appeared on the water, and I saw an otter with a fish swimming towards me. Out the car, and into hiding. Unfortunately the otter did the same (though not out of a car, of course) and ate the fish out of sight. But it did appear eventually to groom, and I got more great views.

So an otter was the last thing to be seen and photographed on Mull? No. The sound of a goose honking as it flew over distracted me for a second from the otter, and I saw a huge eagle spiral down from the skies, giving up on the faster-flying goose. It landed down the shore from me. I backed away from the otter, making sure I didn't spook it, and set off in the car towards where I thought the eagle had landed.

Not one, but two white-tailed eagles were perched on the shore. Awesome. With room to go off-road somewhat, and having a car capable of doing so, I was able to park as close as I dared, to get some shots.

People often ask me what the lure of Mull is, and moments like this help me answer. Being sat a short distance from two magnificent eagles as they scanned the shore for food, on a morning that I'd probably normally be reading the sports reports from the Saturday football matches.

Eventually they flew off by their own accord - presumably nothing appetising left by the ebbing tide. And I dragged myself away, back to Craignure, on to the ferry, and back home again. Have I mentioned how much I love Mull?

If you fancy joining me on Mull for such an adventure, drop me an email, or sign up for one of the Otter Tours I am co-running later this year. I can bleat on and on about how fabulous this place is for wildlife, but until you witness it for yourself, you'll always just be wondering...

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Highlands For January...

As well as taking photographs of wildlife, an element of my new career as a professional wildlife photographer is to use my experience, knowledge and fieldcraft to help other photographers to get great images of species around the UK. As such, I am now offering workshops and tours around the UK either alone or with my friend and fellow professional photographer, Andy Howard.

At this time of year wildlife photographers generally look north, and are hoping to photograph some of the creatures that call the Scottish Highlands, home. The main targets are mountain hares, ptarmigan, crested tits and red squirrels, with perhaps red deer and red grouse thrown in for good measure.

After many visits to the Highlands, I am well versed with where to locate all of the above, and by working in conjunction with Andy, I have access to the sites he has set up specifically for some species.

However, I can't just turn up one day and expect to take people out the next. I have to put in some preparation, which is why I travelled up to the Scottish Highlands early in January, to remind myself of the locations, the effort involved to reach some of them, the equipment needed to ensure I can take clients along with me and also to help Andy prepare some of the more specific sites so they were ready for the first clients of the winter season.

First of all we headed up to see the mountain hares, and without any snow on the ground, the white blobs around the hills were pretty easy to spot. I still needed binoculars as some of the rocks there are also white, and like the hares, don't move.

Having Andy alongside was a help too, as he'd already visited the area and had a good idea of which hares were likely to sit still, and I made a mental note as we wandered along.

It was also nice to have Lyndsey accompanying us, as she rarely joins us for such days out, and she was as excited as I was to approach the hares, and take some images.

There were very good numbers of hares around; some that ran off if we just glanced at them, and others that didn't mind us being within a few yards of them, talking and walking around! NB, this requires the normal approach - you can't just walk up to one and expect it to stay still...

On the way back Andy bumped into a couple (Carol and Tony Dilger) he knew, who kindly invited us into their warm mobile home for a cuppa, choccie biscuits and a good natter - always welcome after a cold day on the hills. It was a lovely end to a productive day - many thanks for your hospitality!

The next couple of days were spent at the new red squirrel site, sorting out some jobs on the wooden hide Andy has installed, and then later, ensuring the feeders at the crestie site were topped up, and that the stars were still visiting.

They were, and in good numbers still. Plenty of perches around and angles to make use of any pockets of light on offer.

By midweek, Andy had to take a client out, so I had the day to myself, and with the forecast of stormy conditions, I drove east to Burghead harbour in hope of seeing some winter sea ducks, that were sheltering in the harbour. I was rather surprised when I parked up on the harbour, to find the seas so stormy that the waves were crashing over the wall and the water spraying halfway down the parking area. With a risk of pebbles in the water, I retreated to a safer spot, and headed round to the area above the harbour to take some shots of the dramatic seas.

As the tide ebbed away, the waves calmed a little, so I could return, and enjoyed great views of eiders fishing for crabs and langoustines.

Plus a lone long-tailed duck also finding plenty to eat in the harbour.

As the temperature started to drop, as forecast, the rain that was periodically falling started to freeze, and by the time I was parking back at Andy's house, it was snowing.

By morning there was a decent covering and we shot over to the red squirrel site, with the aim of getting some portrait images.

Halfway through the session, we were supposed to be collecting Kate from the airport, but I ended up staying put, using the excuse of "looking after the gear"; I know, selfish! I half expected the squirrels to vanish but they didn't, and I enjoyed some awesome entertainment as they leapt across to the feeding station, over and over again, and sometimes even jumped back to the launch-log.

Using my 100-400mm lens also allowed me to vary the shots, and capture not only close-in images of the squirrels in the air, but also some wider shots, showing their habitat too.

As soon as Kate rocked up, we all settled back into the hide and continued the shooting, with yet more individuals arriving on scene. It was interesting to note the different behaviour of each; they definitely had differing agendas!

More snow fell overnight, and we decided to give the squirrels another go, as we all have many images of hares in the snow already, and while I have quite a few images of red squirrels in the snow too, neither Andy nor Kate did.

Andy and I used the session to work out angles for shots for clients, modifying / pruning backgrounds to make them cleaner, and tried to note where the light beamed in from, during the morning.

By mid-afternoon we were all pretty cold and thought a trip over to see the crested tits might be wise, if only to warm up in the car! What a difference over there though, as it's on slightly higher ground and the snow was really deep.

As we climbed out of Andy's car, the sun was already starting to sink and for some daft reason, I chose to only take my 500mm lens to the site. Cue a glorious, vibrant sunset and no lens, other than my iPhone to capture it with. Muppet.

Knowing the conditions there, the next day's choice of venue was easy, and I made sure I had my 24-105mm for the return visit (even if the sunset failed to materialise that day).

The trees laden with snow all looked so magical, so beautiful. And with blue skies overhead and sunshine, it was a winter wonderland.

So you'd think getting images of the crested tits would be easy? Well yes, if we were after simple portrait shots, but we wanted backlit or wide-angle images, and that meant chasing pockets and shards of light, and with the sun's angle at this time of year, it was actually pretty tricky to get anything right.

Just as the sun lit up the perch, or provided the desired lighting behind, the crested tit would go missing, choosing to land just after the light had gone. I suppose it could have been frustrating had it not been for the location, the weather and what we were doing. Hardly a chore!

The final day ended with a great evening of pizza, drinks and good company, as we were joined by Neil and his partner Jackie. I always treasure moments catching up with friends in Scotland; it's one of many reasons behind my many visits up there.

The week had flown by, but I had taken as much from it as I could, and as I bid farewell to Andy, Lyndsey and Kate (who was flying back later that day), I was already starting to look forward to the trip in February, when I would be taking clients out to see the same wildlife delights I had enjoyed all week.

Next stop, Mull. Well, it'd be a shame to drive back and not pop over...

Saturday, 24 December 2016

End Of Year Recap...

Fear not, readers of this blog, I have not abandoned it though I am guilty of neglect. Since Mull, I have visited a few of my favourite haunts, such as RSPB Otmoor and even Upton Warren, where a hen harrier continued with my usual form with them, and, after giving everyone else fine views, decided to hunt elsewhere when I arrived!

It's been a funny sort of year. Some of the usual targets for me just haven't really materialised, such as short-eared owls and hobbies. The latter failed to show in any great numbers in spring, and the local reserves that often attract juveniles at the end of the summer failed to do so too.

I saw some short-eared owls in Worcestershire at the end of the winter, but their hunting grounds were far more extensive than at other sites, so images taken in flight were generally more distant. I did have some luck with one perching up, but nothing like those from Northants, Lincs or the Cotswolds. Maybe next year...

Otmoor did give me a fleeting glimpse of a bittern though, which was good to see after Upton Warren's lack of them of late.

I've no idea why we don't get them each year as the team who manage the reserve seem to have created the perfect habitat for them with their continued hard work. Again, fingers crossed for next year on this.

And on one trip I managed to see a purple heron. It's always memorable to see something new, and we had some fine views as it flew across the marshes.

With numbers of waxwings sweeping in across Scotland and the east coast, I had hoped to see some of these locally, but as yet, nothing. There are plenty of winter thrushes around though, and they've been making the most of the bounty of berries on the trees and hedges. Getting images of them though has been somewhat amusing, in that I have tried a few times and ended up being distracted by other subjects.

On my first outing it was a group of peregrine falcons, and one female circled pretty close overhead, lit up in the late afternoon sunshine. That was a glorious sight.

And on another trip I found myself tempted away to watch a female green woodpecker, who was so busy feeding she provided me with fantastic views for over an hour.

She'd feast on the ants from the grassy areas for ages, then fly over to a fall of apples, and presumably get some fluids down her after the dusty meal of the ants. Was fascinating to watch and photograph her for such a long period.

Of course the majority of this year, aside from my time spent in Scotland, has been following the ups and downs of a family of little owls on a local farm. On returning from Mull, I had expected the young owl to have left the nest area, but it hadn't, and as it had effectively grown up with me being present, it was so used to me, that it would perch just a few feet from me, even when I wasn't hiding in the car.

It eventually left mid-October and I really miss seeing it. The adult continued to come down for food for a few weeks after, but now as we approach Christmas Day, I've not had any joy with it for a couple of weeks. I trust this warm weather is providing plenty of natural food so no need for my additional meals. Which is a good thing.

I will be keeping an eye on the site over the coming weeks to see if there are any signs of activity, such as a partner arriving on the scene for next year's brood.

Followers of me on Social Media will know that I am running several tours in Mull next year, as well as a number of day tours in the Scottish Highlands, during the winter. I hope to be able to add to this blog as I do these, maybe to keep it more up to date!

All that remains is for me to wish you all a very Happy Christmas, and a wildlife-filled New Year. Cheers!

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Mull, Late Summer Break

It hardly felt like I'd left Mull when I drove off of the ferry and turned right to head towards Salen and on to Loch Na Keal. The trip in July for the inaugural Photo Tour on the island had been a roaring success both in terms of capturing images of the wildlife promised on the itinery and also for everyone who had gone along, who we had become firm friends with.

This fortnight was mostly going to be a break though, and having been on Mull so recently, I already had a very good idea of where the wildlife would be. That said, at the usual layby for watching the white-tailed eagles on Loch Na Keal, there were none in the trees. One was however, across the water being divebombed by a black-backed gull, as it fed on something washed up on the shore.

Further along the road, I caught sight of something of a disturbance in the calm surface of the water, parked up and realised quickly that there was an otter fishing there. Within moments I had donned my camo jacket, attached the monopod to my camera and was hot-footing it across the uneven ground to where I'd seen it surface. With a more careful approach closer to the otter, both for the sake of spooking it and for me not slipping over on the seaweed, I was soon as close as I thought I needed to be, and as well hidden as possible amongst the rocks. Silent Mode activated on the camera, and it was time to wait.

The otter was in front of me, mooching around in a pool of seaweed, almost cut off from the main creek. Every so often it would surface, and look around. The pool must have been shallow, as I could see the otter lifting the weed as it searched the area for food, until it burst up pretty close. I took a couple of shots, and in the calm conditions, it was clear the sound of the camera had carried, when the otter froze and looked in my direction.

I froze too, and after a few seconds, the otter seemed to relax and continued looking for its dinner.

Eventually it climbed out of the water and I could see that it had quite some bulk to its back; pregnant, I assumed.

The otter then spent quite some time rolling around in the seaweed on some rocks, drying her fur and grooming. With her busy with such activity I was able to take more images, before I decided to leave her be, and quietly creep away again. She was still snoozing on the rock when I arrived back at the car.

Heading south again, we didn't see anything much worth stopping for, apart from our neighbour for the fortnight, a friend from Birmingham who had been tempted to see what Mull had to offer after seeing my images all the time in the local country pub!

The evening seemed to be drawing to a close when a gap between the cloud and the horizon let the sunlight flood through, and we all emerged from the cottages and hotel to watch the sunset.

My friend Reg, walks his dog very early each morning at home, so it was no surprise to me to find I wasn't first out of the cottage car park on the first morning. After waving at him as I drove around to the marshes, I clocked something out of place on the top of a hillside, and soon realised it was a white-tailed eagle. I waited for the sun to reach it, but really it was a bit too high up for anything worthwhile.

Autumn was already starting to show with the hawthorn trees laden with berries, gratefully received by the local hooded crows.

Calm conditions again meant it was easy to spot otters fishing, and I found another along the road, fishing just off shore. Once again, I scuttled out, and followed it along the lochside. When I realised it had finished fishing, and was heading ashore, I managed to get ahead of it, and tucked myself into some rocks, near where I thought the otter would come out, and head into a holt. All seemed to be going well when it scrambled out of the water, just out of sight for a shot, along the beach area. Then it headed back in again, and vanished from sight. Was it going past me? Damn, I thought. Then I heard a crunching sound from next to me.

Bearing in mind my lens has a minimum focusing distance of about 5 metres, it wasn't much help when I found myself staring at a similarly surprised otter, only about 4 feet from me, in the rocks I had chose to hide in! There was a moment of both of us looking at each other in bewilderment, before the otter turned tail and shot off back into the water! If only I'd been wearing some sort of head-cam.

After collecting Dad from the digs, we continued on a tour around the area, and I soon spotted another otter, dragging something large ashore to feed upon. By now the sun was strong and I noticed that there was quite some shimmer between me and the otter. Annoying, as it seemed to be eating a huge lobster!

I crept as close as I dared, but being in an exposed spot meant I soon attracted a crowd, and the sound of car stereos and doors slamming, soon disturbed the otter, which vanished out into the seaweed-covered water. I've lost count of the number of otters I have seen spooked by people who don't realise they need to be quiet in such situations, and attempt to be discreet when viewing. But such is life, and the otter had eaten most of the lobster before it decided to leave.

The first full day ended with me watching distant hen harriers hunting over the marshes. I truly believe I am cursed when it comes to getting something really good of these birds, and this was proved during the week when Reg, out walking his dog, managed to get some full-frame images of a ringtail. I spent hours in the same area later that week and failed to see anything.

The Monday was slightly unusual for me, in that one of the clients from the July tour was also on the island, and had asked if I minded guiding her for a half day. I didn't, but it meant a very early start to reach her digs on the other side of Mull. I really should have stopped along the way, as the sight, and colours of the sunrise over the Sound Of Mull and later over the entrance to Loch Na Keal was jaw-droppingly beautiful. What a place.

After enjoying a great trip out with Martin on the eagle trip, my client was keen to see some otters, and hopefully add to her image collection from the July tour. It didn't take long to spot one, but it was fishing way off shore, and I couldn't see an easy way to get close, without being too exposed.

I chose to head to another spot where I had seen some the day before. As we drove closer, it was clear that another photographer was already working that patch, so I parked up some distance away, and we carefully approached the area, where we had both seen an otter fishing. I don't like treading on other photographer's toes, so to speak, so I suggested we watch from a sensible distance and see what happened. The otter headed ashore near where the other guy was hiding, I had to admit I felt envious.

But we chose to be patient, and it soon became clear that perhaps the envy was based on the wrong assumption that he'd got a great view. Maybe he had initially, but suddenly we saw the otter scampering over the rocks towards us, whilst looking over its shoulder, back at something. The photographer had perhaps lost sight of the otter, and had climbed up for a better view. We both grabbed a couple of shots of the otter before it dived back into the water.

I guessed that it would head towards where we'd parked, so we made our way along the shore, found a good viewing spot that provided some good cover, and waited.

Result, the otter came out of the water right next to us. I took a couple of shots, but I was acutely aware of the sound of my camera, even on Silent Mode, and made sure I paused if the otter looked at where we were hiding. My client's 7D Mark2 was on Silent Mode too, but that actually is silent, so she happily snapped away.

Back out into the water, and fishing for a while longer, we followed it further along the shore, where it again came out, this time to groom and dry off. It was far enough away not to be concerned about the sound of the cameras too.

The half-day had to be ended (probably well over the half-day in terms of time) as my client needed to get to the ferry to leave. Another successful guiding session on Mull, and long may it continue.

Back to my holiday for the remainder of the trip and a trip out to Croggan yielded some good views of a pair of golden eagles, and a family of spotted flycatchers near one of the cottages.

No otters again on that loch - I think Andy cursed it when he said it had provided him with a 100% success rate for seeing them, and we have not seen one there since!

As is usual for Mull, buzzards seem to be everywhere, and while some might choose to ignore them, I love to take advantage of the chances for images of them, especially on natural perches. There's even a very pale individual that has been around for some years now, that posed one morning for me. Gorgeous.

Our first trip out with Martin on Mull Charters came mid-week, and I had my doubts about the forecast. Reg also came along, though he admitted he didn't really have sea-legs. Needn't have worried for the start of the sailing, as it was reasonably calm, and we had a white-tailed eagle come over almost as soon as we'd left the new jetty.

Unfortunately the "take" was facing away from us, and as the trip progressed, the weather deteriorated, ending with most of us crammed in the cabin to shelter from the driving rain. Reg amused us, as he repeatedly banged his head on the door frame when turning to talk to us. I don't think he was quite as amused as I was though.

The following day brought another otter sighting, and I managed to get a few more shots. Plus we encountered a most obliging buzzard, perched on the top of a roadsign. Even when we drove up to it, it remained perched. I reversed back, and took some shots, only seeing the bird spooked when another driver came towards us, and pushed the bird off to another post.

Having spent many an hour touring around the far side of the loch each morning, and even over to the next one, I was amused to spot a pair of otters almost within walking distance of the cottage. They had climbed out on to some rocks and were so absorbed with whatever one was eating, they didn't notice me approaching from the road. Tucking myself into a cleft in the rocky shore, I ensured I was in a position close enough, but not too close to risk missing shots of the pair if they moved apart slightly.

It was great to watch the pair finding plenty to eat in the loch, and then feeding on the catches on the rocks. One even started to explore the area which brought it much closer to me.

The day ended sharing a meal and a few drinks in Reg and Yvonne's cottage, though it was interrupted when the ever-changing light on Mull coaxed us outside for a few shots of the unusual sunset.

The following morning was dead calm, and while we both drove around the marshes and on to the loch, I caught sight of a young common seal lying just out of the water. Unfortunately, as Reg parked up behind, the seal slid back into the water. Watching from our cars, we saw it soon clamber back out, and we spent the next hour or so photographing it, as it dried out on some rocks.

Initially it was a touch too far really, but the calm weather meant the loch was like a mirror.

Then, while we watched from the cover amongst the bracken and heather on the shore, the seal relocated back to the same closer rock once more, and we were able to get some lovely images.

I moved around quietly to ensure the water, and hence reflections were dark, which made for a good contrast with the seal, which was gradually becoming paler as it dried off.

The day ended with me receiving some broken voicemail messages from Reg. He'd found a young hedgehog wandering around in the road, and had taken it back to the cottage nearby, to relocate it somewhere safer. I'd missed this, and also when he offered it a plate of dog food, which it apparently scoffed down! Putting out a second plate, on a track beside the car park, he'd hoped it might have found its way off away from the road.

I was initially gutted, especially when I got back to find Dad had photographed it, and didn't know where it had gone. I've not had the chance to photograph a hedgehog since I bought my DSLR gear back in 2006! I used to have some visit my garden but they, like so many others, have vanished.

Thankfully, I spotted Reg whilst driving out again, and he explained where to look and sure enough, there was the 'hog, pottering along a nearby track.

Amusingly, after hoping it would vanish into the woodland nearby, it chose to climb back into the garden, and we watched it scuttle about the lawn, searching around the plant pots for more to eat. How it could be hungry after two plates of dog food is anyone's guess.

It eventually skulked off into some bushes, and we hoped it would be ok. It was rather small, and I worried about it being large enough at this time of year. But I wasn't sure if there were any facilities on Mull for looking after hedgehogs, so it would have to rely on nature looking after it.

A thoroughly miserable day followed, with pouring rain. I still forced myself out and was initially rewarded with a fine double rainbow over the marshes.

And then on the way back, I spotted the pair of otters again, and grabbed some shots as they ran over the rocks together.

When the rain finally eased, Dad and I parked up where the otters had been, hoping for a view. Whilst waiting, I was aware of several ravens calling, and my Spider-Sense tingled. Sure enough, I was right to be alert, as Fingal, the local white-tailed eagle soared into view, just skimming the tree tops behind us.

I thought that it was about time we had some memorable encounters with one of the eagles, as we had on so many previous trips, but that didn't happen until the following morning. Across the loch, I noticed something sat on the rocks some distance away, and both Reg and I parked up to look. A white-tailed eagle.

Just then, another flew overhead, and perched in a tree across a field from where we'd parked. Reg went for a closer look, whilst I watched on. It soon took off, circled over us and headed towards where we had seen the other. Reg went one way, I chose to go look for the original one on the rocks, and as I did, I heard a horrible cry from a grey heron. Like the sound they make when fighting... or being killed by an eagle, in this case.

I can't be absolutely sure as the kill was made out of sight, but soon the two eagles had become four, and after abandoning my idea of approaching the one on the rocks, Reg joined me on the headland, where we watched the four flying overhead.

Two of them, sub-adults from what we could tell, were unhappy with one another and briefly fought in the skies, before circling, chasing each other, right over our heads.

It was fantastic to see, and way too close at times to keep both in the shot.

The adults from the nearby nest had also come down for a feed, and we saw both leaving the area shortly after.

By the time I'd returned back to the cottage to collect Dad, the skies had cleared and it was a glorious day. We both thought it warranted a drive south, to look across at Iona. That stretch of water is so beautiful, especially on a day like we saw it.

Time was flying by and our second trip on the Lady Jayne had arrived. Again it was overcast, but dry at least, and the light wasn't at all bad. And we were treated to a number of takes from the eagles, at two of the nest sites Martin and Alex sail out to.

As in the summer, the preferred combo of Canon 1DX and my old original 100-400mm zoom lens worked perfectly, tracking the eagles as they circled, descended and grabbed the fish.

And the drive home was productive when we encountered another otter.

Yet another miserable wet day followed, with gusty winds and monsoon-like rain. I just sat in the car and watched the wildlife close to the cottage, including grey and pied wagtails, and a small band on dunlins and ringed plover feeding from the shore.

And so arrived the last day. After seeing the local otters on my drive back to the cottage, I collected Dad and we returned to watch. I didn't hold much hope of getting any shots given the number of observers at the site, all of which were standing on the road or just off it, in plain sight of everything, including the otters. Needless to say, the otters kept away, and when a boat moored up right beside them, dropping out some lobster pots, the otters vanished completely, along with the crowds.

I drove down the road, and waited, and, after making sure everyone had gone, we returned, and waited some more. It was a good move, as one of the otters had obviously been hiding amongst the rocks, and once the audience and boat had left, it came back out to fish, and by then, I was kneeling close to the water's edge, in a swamp... so glamorous!

But worth it, when the otter climbed out to clean and groom, only a few yards from me.

Back into the water soon after, and then it seemed to head back up a small stream. I lost sight of it, and was about to return to the car when I saw it in the water near me still. Time to freeze, and move once it had dived again. It caught quite a large crab and needed to be ashore to handle it. Thankfully I was just able to get to a spot to photograph it from, but I was also aware that two people who had left before, were now back, and as before, were standing like beacons on the edge of the road.

The otter could plainly see them, and left some of the crab lunch to head back to the water again.

The beacons then left once more and after a while, the otter approached the edge of the loch, climbing out with yet another crab to eat. I relocated, and while not as close, still enjoyed the sight and sound of the otter crunching through the catch.

A pair of hooded crows pestered the otter, and even stole some of the food. This pushed the otter back into the shallows, and for a moment I thought I was going to get a second close encounter of the otter kind. But the traffic on the nearby road kept the otter at bay, and I could see it watching from beneath the cover of the seaweed.

The break was pretty much over. Two weeks spent on this gem of an island, and we would be getting a ferry mid-morning for the drive south. Reg and Yvonne had left at the crack of dawn, as they'd booked the first ferry, but I just had enough time for one last drive around the loch. Was so worth it, with a pair of golden eagles attracting my attention first...

Followed by yet another otter encounter shortly afterwards. To be crouched watching the otter fishing in a calm loch, in sunny, mild weather was heavenly, and I felt sick to have to drag myself away to drive home. Even the pouring rain that had arrived as we waited in the queue for the ferry didn't wash away the feeling.

I am considering returning maybe in November, if I can get any interest from clients wanting guiding for otters. Hope so, as I am already missing the isle. Please email me if you're interested...