The Cairngorm national park in Scotland is a truly stunning, spectacular landscape with snow capped peaks and breathtaking scenery. Many areas of this pristine environment are untouched by the hand of man giving it that truly wild feel, and its home to some of the UK’s most specialist wildlife.
I’ve just returned from several days in the truly inspiring Cairngorm national park in Scotland. A vast area of mountains that covers an area of 4,528 km (1,748 sq mi). The Cairngorm Mountains are a spectacular landscape with snow capped peaks and breathtaking scenery
After a week on my own on the Shetland Isles which can be seen on my blog post below called Solitude my photo tour kicked off with some amazing weather and sightings. After picking my clients up from the airport and ferry port of Lerwick we headed to Sumburgh Head, the most southernly tip of Shetland. We spent the day with the Puffins there and they are just stunning and so beautiful and comical to watch and spend time with.
All my clients got some wonderful images of these stunning seabirds which are so funny to be around and spend time with. It was then back to our cottage and settle in for the week. Each night we have a home cooked three course meal cooked for us made from local ingredients made by my friend Anne, the wife of a good friend Iain who loves on Shetland.
The next day it was a return to one of my favourite places , Hermeness, the most northernly point of the UK and a remote and wild place. Its home to thousands of nesting Gannets and other seabirds, including one of my favourite the Puffin. After the walk out there we spent most of the day there with stunning weather, then it was two ferries and home once again.
We had an amazing day at Hermeness and all my clients got some great moments and loved the place. Our routine each night was the same so it was back for our home cooked meal after a full day out. The next day we had a trip to Noss again where I chartered a boat with my friend and D-day veteran Geordie.
A year ago this month I met a wonderful man who touched me with his life greatly. Over the last 12 months his wife has become ill and is now house bound he told me on this day. He doesn’t run his boat trips much now because of his wife who he has been married too for over 60 years. It was a very touching moment to no he put his trip on for me once more and my clients, leaving his wife for the day to run this trip. I was moved very moved and couldn’t wait to see him and gave him a hug.
Twelve months ago he told me about his time in the second world war, he drove the gun boats onto the beaches at D-Day, leaving dying soldiers as he reversed off the beeches to pick more soldiers on as the push to calm the beeches had to go on. On the last day I presented him with some images of him, his craft and the seals he feeds and looks after. We had an amazing day and all my clients got some great images and were blown away with the trip and Geordie.
During the trip I got time to sit with him and we had a chat and he told me his framed image from last year of him at the helm of his boat is pride of place in his home and the others he has but his daughter had pinched one.He’s 90 on the 31 July and I couldn’t believe he still drives his boat. Very humbling, very emotional as this man for me stands for everything that is great in life and his wisdom and kindness is just beautiful. If I had a dad or grandfather he’d be the best I could have ever wished for.
He was too busy to go to the 70th Annervesary of D-Day because his wife is ill but he was interviewed for the papers giving his account of the war. he fought through all the war and survived. He sat down and told me more about that day, a day my mum was born so June the 6th for me is a special day already. Collecting floating bodies a week on after the landings and more really moved me, I never asked , he just trusted me enough to tell me and I was moved very moved.
We had a great chat and I was sorry to leave him I will be sending him a photo and card for his 90th birthday next month. What a man, what a person and a lesson to us all in humility, Humbleness, respect, kindness and much more. he’s touched me and I feel blessed to have met him.
All my clients got some great images from this trip to the small island of Noss, below are a few of my own favourite from this amazing trip.
The rest of the week we really concentrated on finding and seeing Otters as most clients had come to Shetland with a real wish to see this amazing mammal. I know of many places on Shetland for Otters but the tide times are key along with luck. We got some nice images, and had some amazing encounters. I show real fieldcraft and how to stalk, move and find Otters so all clients put these skills to use over their time with me.
While we were going around the Shetland isles there is so much other wildlife and the following few images are some of those moments I captured alone with my clients too, Otters,Arctic Terns, Red-Throated Diver, Fulmars.
Our last day on Shetland turned out to be the very best for my clients with a male Otter coming close and all clients finishing a wonderful week with the best moments. The following images are some of my favourites showing him coming ashore, eating his fish, then smelling his scat or poo and then remarking his territory before heading back out to sea.
Otters are one of the hardest mammals to get near, they mark their territory often and always at the highest point so the tides dont remove their scat or poo. Look for this, build a picture, learn, watch, look, smell, and sit and with a pinch of luck things will happen.
Its been an amazing two weeks for me on Shetland, my first week alone camping at various places and seeing some beautiful wildlife.
The second week really followed the same path as I showed my clients the amazing wildlife these islands have to offer. I showed them all fieldcraft, photography and many other skills they will be able to take home with them and use within their own photography.
I’d like to thank all my clients for their company over the last week and to my good friends Anne and Iain Sloane who have helped me with my trip also. The dates and information for my 2015 trip to Shetland are now up on my website. Click here to see all these details and to book, should you have any questions or queries don’t hesitate to contact me many thanks.
I’ve just spent two days at Caerlaverock Wetland Centre, a spectacular 1,400 acre wild reserve situated on the north Solway coast of Scotland with clients. During our winter months this area becomes home to the whole Svalbard breeding population of Barnacle Geese, where some of the best views of this great wildlife spectacle can be seen from the hides within this beautiful place on the North West coast of the UK. On one of the morning we were treating to the most amazing sunrise where twenty minute or so before the sun actually came up the sky was turn bright red. The warm air meeting the cold air resulting in a beautiful dawn.
Nature offers you in most cases just the briefest of encounters in which to witness a moment you see with your eyes and if you are lucky enough with your camera, so that you can show others that special encounter you shared with nature. Nowhere is this more apparent than the beautiful island of Mull. The island lies on the west coast of Scotland and has a breathtaking coastline of 300 miles. The climate is a mixture of snow, rain and sunshine, and from the moment you step onto this beautiful island the wildlife is everywhere, and the scenery is stunning. With Mull’s famous own micro-climate the weather changes from clear skies to angry skies in a moment, pouring rain gives into calm, windless conditions, light you dream of as a photographer is replaced with almost zero visibility.
Having just returned from 4 days there, I again feel blessed with some of the close encounters I witnessed. A lot of the time the clouds afforded me no or little light, then in an instant rays of sunlight would pierce through momentarily lighting up this amazing landscape, giving the land beneath the clouds life.
The rain at times was heavy giving you poor visibility, so we just impravised and used our vehicle as a hide in order to still capture the wildlife that was around. Because of the vast size of Mull and the lochs, sometimes the best option for seeing the wildlife here is to drive around on the off chance you may see a silhouette of an Otter feeding or a certain bird feeding and so fourth.
I do love to work and stay in the same area. Sitting in a place that you become so tuned into, where every plop, every noise, every dive from a bird you hear, you immediately look with great excitement to see what made that noise. This for me is one of the best things about wildlife photography, the peacefulness of waiting, the minutes turning into hours, all the time waiting for just that briefest of encounters in which you get a view into a wild animals world, where the camera enables you to capture what you saw, capturing the beauty of the subject, preserving that moment forever.
During those 4 days the weather did break occasionally, affording me a little more light which in turn gave me more shutter speed should the wildlife show, and in a lot of cases the wildlife showed up during those briefest of spells to feed and clean, and in some cases have a nosy at me clicking away from the mobile hide in which the vehicle had turned into.
The camera settings and key drills I go through during those quiet times really pay off when nature spontaneously turns up, with an almost automatic routine of checking the shutter speed, iso levels and moving the focus spot etc. The hard part is to then second guess where your subject will go, as they will have an acute fear of man, giving you only seconds to take the shot.
There were some great encounters on the island, some close, others at a distance, but never the less still wonderful to witness. During my stay it was a case of juggling your time along with the weather. Once the cloud had broken and warmed the landscape the island was awash with colours and its beauty came alive making it a pure joy just watching for Otters, Eagles and the many other species of wildlife that live on Mull. One evening a female Hen Harrier chose to brave the weather and started hunting over the marshland only to disappear as quickly as she’d showed up.
My knowledge of Mull is something I rely on most of the time, the places I’ve found or discovered over many hours and days during my 2-3 trips to Mull each year.But often or not wildlife can pop up at anytime and those places I’ve worked at before were a little tougher in the weather during my time there. While waiting for your chosen subject or wildlife to show there is always a shot to be taken as I say. This arty,slow shutter speed image focusing at the heart of a pine forest, where the autumn leaves just offer a splash of colour to the image.
During high tides and when they start to retreat is a good time to watch for Otters, where in most cases unlike their counterparts they live in the UK’s rivers, these European Otters can been seen during day light hours, hunting, sleeping and generally lazing around. As with all wildlife though, great care must always be exercised when approaching wildlife in order to capture that briefest of encounter. I prefer to get into place under the cover of darkness and wait, on the off chance that my fieldcraft skills and knowledge of a certain areas pay off and the subject may just give me that brief glimpse into their life.
I’d had a fleeting encounter of a female Otter entering the water not far from her holt and as the clouds broke I chose to spend sometime there hoping she’d come back, but she didn’t. The tide times on Mull were early in the morning, so on the next day, after that brief encounter captured above, I returned to the same place where I’ve had some good luck during my past visits. Although nothing is ever guaranteed with wildlife, and she nor her young showed the following day, and with the weather changing from overcast to rainfall I was confined to the vehicle for the rest of that day, searching in vain for Otters and other wildlife.
And it always seems customary for me while waiting for a subject to turn up, a Stonechat always turns up in a lot of cases, gaining confidence and coming closer, in an almost curious manner to see what I am, which always makes me laugh. They are a stunning looking bird and very inquisitive in nature, with care and respect, and no fast movements from you, they’ll come quite close to you, sussing you out, whether you are friendly or not, or maybe this is just how I perceive this during the long hours of waiting, who knows.
I was hoping to see some if not all of the deer rut on Mull, but I feel I was just a little late this year. I never witnessed any stags at all, which would suggest that they were all off feeding and building up fat reserves in order to survive the impending cold weather, as during the rut stags dont feed, instead they protect their ladies and territory from would be opportunists. After the physicality of the rut they go off to feed, and as there was no sign of any majestic stags roaming around, I was just to late.
I did have some nice encounters with female Red Deers though and the shot of the trip were these four females all looking at me. I’ve called the image “game over” as literally it was game over as they’d spotted me and then moved but not before I got a couple of shots. the shot below being the better of those, capturing that moment and briefest of encounters when they saw me, heard me and knew I was there, nice try.
Amazing to see them in this beautiful sighting of Mull, so close and in stunning condition. I managed a few other sightings most of which were taken in dense woodlands where they love to hide, making it a harder prospect to photograph. This image below was taken in the early morning, showing such habitat. Soon after she disappeared, as though she was never there.
On the last day I had one last steady drive around the island. And among the choppy waters on that mornings hide tide was a dog Otter feeding and working the shore. I left the vehicle and tried to position myself where I thought the Otter would come past. I managed to capture just one image from the most briefest of encounters on that wet and faithful morning. The Otter was working the coastline looking for crabs and other food items.
Here he took a short cut over the coastal rocks instead of swimming around. I just got him with this image, a blink of the eye and he was gone. Some encounters though are too special and live on in your heart and this was one, but lucky for me I had just one image to remind me of the closest encounter with a wild Otter that I have ever had in my life, amazing.
I stayed, hoping he’d reappear but again it wasn’t meant to be so I moved on to another Otter spot on the island. Whenever home time is looming or your packing up I find the subjects appear from nowhere and in an act of almost defiance they teese you knowing your time is almost up. After a short drive south, there was another dog Otter, and he was cleaning and grooming himself. Again only the briefest of encounters that I captured, but another wonderful moment in the life of a wild Otter.
After lunch on the last day I saw a small bird feeding among the freshwater streams entering the loch, it was one of my favourite birds, the Dipper. It felt good to see them here and very different among the coastal waters of Mull. The light had gone at the time but you can just see the little fellow below on the sea edge.
During my time on Mull the weather was testing at times, but it also offered a great deal in terms of atmosphere, with the sun constantly battling to break through the dense clouds to warm the land with its rays. In the distance a large bird was sitting on some rocks, appearing to be looking for prey, the wind was strong so the bird seemed happy just to try and sit out the windy weather that would zap his energy should he take flight, it was a beautiful adult Buzzard in amazing conditon.
Slow movements in getting my lens up and out of the window, placing the beanbag down so slowly you didn’t want to look up just in case the bird had flown, in this case he hadn’t. One shot, two shots, relax and watch, I was saying to myself in my head, as Buzzards are very very shy in nature and one move to many and you’ll never see them again.
He took off, turned around and faced the wind, while jostling the strong winds, all the time looking below himself for food. The engine had been turned off at the first instance, the vehicle was on a slight bank which allowed the handbrake to be taken off and roll forward hoping to keep up with the Buzzard as he went from post to post looking for food.
He heard my camera, as captured above. It killed me to stop but I did for a few seconds hoping he’d settle and not be disturbed by my presence that was my vehicle with me shooting from the window. He carried on looking as the vehicle slowly rolled forward, enough to capture him full frame in all his glory with the image below. I couldn’t believe that I was capturing such a jumpy bird, with a clear background, fence line post and looking out to sea. He stayed for a minute or so before flying off, carried along on the wind and out of sight.
Soon after it was time for home and the long drive south once on the mainland. I am always amazed at the wildlife on Mull, the peace, the tranquilness of this place, where just sitting and watching wildlife live their lives around you is truly a wonderful thing to witness and be part of while on this island. Whether it rains or is baked in sunshine the wildlife always gives you the briefest of encounters into their lives, and if you capture them with your camera then thats great, if not they’ll always be in your heart and mind I say.
I run two trips to Mull each year, one in June and the other in October, our base will be the picturesque village of Tobermory, with its brightly painted buildings, overlooking the harbour of Tobermory and facing out to Calve Island and the sound of Mull. We stay in a great hotel overlooking the bay and I have 2 places left on each trip for next year so if you would like more information on them please click here to see my “Magic Of Mull” photo trip.
And before I go, I’m a guest expert in December’s issue of Practical Photography on sale now, a great magazine, full of advice, tips and gear reviews each month. One of my Barn Owl shots along with the tips and how I got the shot are included in this issue, carrying on my passion for showing how I work in the field at the same time helping others to take better photos.
Mull is a magical, raw, unplanned and thought provoking place where you can see and view beautiful wildlife. Red Deer roam the hills, Eagles soar over the skylines, Seals bask on exposed banks and Otters frequent the many bays and inlets along Mulls coastline. Almost every other telegraph pole there’s a lone Buzzard sitting, acting as a physical welcome to the island. Mull’s magic derives from its special blend of mountain and coastal landscape which forms such a tremendous variety of habitats that offer excellent opportunities for wildlife.
For me the most memorable aspect of being on this beautiful island is viewing the abundance of wildlife against the entrancing background of tranquil loch shores and beautiful woodlands, amongst the architecture of amazing mountains, with the mornings being the best to see this island awaken.
I’ve just returned from a wonderful week with clients on my twice yearly photo tour I call “Magic of Mull“. The Isle of Mull lies on the west coast of Scotland and has a breathtaking coastline of 300 miles. The climate is a mixture of rain and sunshine and from the moment you step onto this beautiful island the wildlife is everywhere and the scenery is stunning. Our base for our 6 day adventure was the picturesque village of Tobermory, made famous by the children’s BBC programme Balormory, with its brightly painted buildings. The hotel is overlooking the harbour of Tobermory and facing out to Calve Island and the sound of Mull, which can be seen in the below image, on one of the many sunny days we had there during our stay on Mull.
Mull’s climate is extremely unpredictable and at any time of year you should be prepared for a wide range of conditions. The weather during our time on the island was good and kind to use. There were days that were overcast where we had rain but on the whole the weather was good. After meeting everyone at the port of Oban, we took a short ferry ride over to Mull and then went on to our hotel that we were staying at for the week. We had coffee overlooking the harbour and headed straight out for the day.
The pattern of events for each day were consistant, ensuring that clients get the best out of their time on Mull. An Early start to get into place at one of the Otter sites and hopefully catch them as they wake and start to fish, head back to the hotel for our breakfast at around 8am,then collect our packed lunches and head out for the day. The wildlife on Mull is generally accessible with the few exceptions of specialized birds along with the rare and legally protected birds that are not to be disturbed or approached as they are very senstive to disturbance.
When I have worked alone on Mull in the past I have stayed in one place for some time, getting a feel of the place, getting contacted as I call it. But while leading a tour here for clients you have to juggle the need to see the wildlife along with the time constraints, as alot of the wildlife can be viewed only a short distance from the roads, which for me is ok but the way in which I work is working the land so to speak and this is something I was very keen to show the group.
As a group we covered both methods of approach this during our stay, where everyone enjoyed the fieldcraft tips and advice. I also demonstrated how rewarding it can be on many levels when you blend into the environment, leaving the safety of the car and try to become part of the subjects world, thinking about wind direction, movement, in readiness to take the shot if you come across a chance and other fieldcraft tips and examples I showed and demonstrated. On the first day everyone had seen and captured some lovely images including the very shy male “dog” Otter that would show every so often.
During our time on Mull I had organised two great trips on consecutive days, one was three hours watching White Tailed Sea Eagles on one the Lochs and the other was a full days trip to the Treshnish Isles, a designated site of special scientific interest.
On the White tailed Eagles trip we sailed into the territory of a pair of these magnificent birds. Due to the White tailed Eagle being so protected and looked after, close up views of these birds is almost impossible so this tip offers that chance. We had a Gull escort to the site as they dived for bits of bread that the crew threw out for them. There was no noise as the engine was stopped and a lone dead fish was thrown out. The first real sign the Eagle was coming the Gull’s behaviour changed and they disappeared knowing this beautiful, massive bird was coming our way.
The sheer size of these birds becomes apparent when they soar past you, with a ten foot wing span they were truly stunning to see so close. They soared past, then in a flash dived for the fish, the whole thing was over in seconds. The whole group loved the trip and seeing these birds so close was a wonderful experience for them all. The birds are truly wild and this trip has been passed by all the governing bodies that work to protect this bird with their ongoing work.
To see this behaviour without the fish placed out for them could take days of waiting around etc, so deep down for me from a wildlife photographers point of view it was too staged to pass the photographs off as a truly wild moment captured with my time and fieldcraft, but never the less a great way to see these birds and I can highly recommend the trip.
We visited the small islands of Staffa and Lunga the next day. Staffa is a beautiful, uninhabited island which is home to hundreds of seabirds and set within waters teeming with marine life. The island is best known for its magnificent columns of rock. The best place to see this is in Fingal’s Cave. Lunga is one of the best places in the UK to see Puffin’s and it is teeming with other birds too like Razorbill’s, Guillemots and Seals.
The name Staffa is thought to come from an old Norse word meaning wooden building staves, which look similar to the islands basalt columns. The name is a reminder of the region’s Viking history. People have marvelled at Staffa’s columns for centuries. As you approach the island from the sea, you can see these columns of rock and the very impressive cave known as Fingla’s Cave.
According to legend, Fingal was a Gaelic giant who fell out with a Ulster giant and in order to fight Fingal, the Ulster giant built a causeway between Ireland and Scotland. When the causeway was destroyed only the two ends remained, one at Staffa and the other at the giants causeway in Antrim. The columns you can see today are the remains of this causeway.
Fingla’s cave named after this giant is the most impressive site on this small island, as you enter the smell if excrement is very strong as nesting birds and bats litter the small ledge and over hangs as you slowly walk in using the path people have used for centuries. The shapes in the rocks formed by the sea over time are amazing, they look like they have been made by an experienced stone mason rather than the force of mothernature. A great place and one I would recommend a visit to.
One of the best places in the UK to see Puffin’s, and teeming with other birds too, Razorbill’s, Guillemots and Seals is Lunga the second small island we visited that day. It was a small journey to this stunning little island thats home to my favourite seabird the charismatic Puffin.
We spent over two hours on this lovely little island and from the moment you scale the landing steps and head up onto the flat top of the island the Puffins are not far from you. Their calls can be heard first before they show themselves from the burrows and vegetation hiding them away from view. We all got into place, settled and let the birds relax and over time if you sit still and don’t make too many movements the Puffins accept your presence and go about their lives around you which is wonderful to witness and watch.
As I was watching these birds and enjoying their interactions with each other this little fellow landed not far from me. I was handholding the 70-200mm lens as he was close, he seemed to enjoy the company before flying off and back out to sea. The noises in the background are the other birds nesting along this cliff, Fulmars and Razorbills.
I wanted to portray the habitat the Puffins were nesting in, at the same time capturing one in flight with a wide angled lens to give you a sense of the world they live in. The images below shows the cliff and this coastal habitat on Lunga.
It is one of the best places in the UK to see Puffins that’s for sure, close up views, Puffins going about their lives all in close proximity of you as long as you stay still and make little or no movement. Two great days and two very good day trips and the rest of the week flew by as we all concentrated on photographing Otters.
Each day we saw the Otters fishing far from shore among the different Lochs on Mull. The shot the group wanted was a close up of this beautiful mammal and towards the end of the week and even on the last day those wishes were granted with a mixture of luck and being in the right place at the right time. We were able to watch the same male Otter that had given us the slip most of the week, catch larger fish and come ashore not to far from where we were lying in wait.
He came ashore slightly higher up the beach at first, dispatching the fish he’d caught quickly then heading back out to sea to fish. We thought that would be it as once Otters have had a good feed they tend to lie up somewhere for a sleep and this was late afternoon. But lady luck came again and he came back to shore with a larger fish. He ate the fish and that was the last we saw of him but a perfect end to a great week, underlining the sentence “you only get out what you put in” and the whole group did very well all week with the early starts and long days.
We were all sad to leave the island on the Friday but everyone had some great memories of this magical island sculpted by nature. A big thank you to all the group for your company during our time on Mull. I hope I helped you all in seeing nature and learning more about her beauty while learning and showing you real and key camera skills that work on the ground.
I will be back on Mull in October during which time the Red Deer rut will be in full flow along with the amazing autumnal colours and snow capped mountains. I have a few places left so to see the trip or book please click here. We stay in the same hotel over looking the bay of Tobermory, I always try to get clients the best place in which to stay as after a long day in the field comfort and good food is key.
I have just returned from a wonderful week on the beautiful island of Mull in Scotland. The island lies on the west coast of Scotland and it has a breathtaking coastline of 300 miles. The climate is a mixture of rain and sunshine, and from the moment you step onto this beautiful island the wildlife is everywhere, and the scenery is stunning. The island is a wonderful place to see Golden Eagles, White-tailed Eagles, Otters, porpoises and a whole host of Hebridean Wildlife. My main aim was to capture through photographs the UK’s only species of Otter; the European Otter-Lutra lutra that live on this island.
Firstly, I spent two days at Caerlaverock Wetland Centre, a spectacular 1,400 acre wild reserve situated on the north Solway coast of Scotland with clients on one to one’s. During our winter months this area becomes home to the whole Svalbard breeding population of Barnacle Geese, where some of the best views of this great wildlife spectacle can be seen from the hides within this beautiful place on the north west coast of the UK.
The weather was a mixture of cloudy and sunny weather where both days the temperature struggled to pass freezing point, the pools that the birds use to drink from were frozen and many of the Geese were using neighbouring fields to feed from, the centre has two daily feeds. They feed the Whooper Swans and the many other species of birds with a supplement feed consisting of grain, seeds and potatoes. The Whoopers also spend their winters with us before heading back to their breeding grounds in eastern and western Iceland. Whooper Swans are highly vocal, with sonorous bugling calls, used during aggressive encounters, with softer “contact” noises used as communication between paired birds and families.
It was a great two days with lots of good sightings of Barnacle Geese, which were on our most wanted list to see. We had to travel a little away from the centre to catch up with them but were rewarded with a few shots of them feeding in the nearby fields before heading off to their over night roost sites on the Solway. After the two days I then headed north, tackling the 326 miles drive to the port of Oban ready for my morning crossing to the island of Mull.
As I set off for Oban the weather looked fine and I was looking forward my morning ferry to Mull. An hour from Oban and I drove into what was little snow at first, but as the miles counted down on my sat nav the snow became thicker and covered the road in front of me. However, I was so determined to reach my destination. It turned into a blizzard with inches of snow on the roads making driving harder, the ascent into Oban was hard with abandoned vehicles everywhere, motorists were stranded on all the main roads in and out of Oban.
The police were out helping to dig cars out and in general doing a great job in the absence of any gritters. I wanted to help the many people just walking around and stuck in their cars but the police just wanted the traffic to keep moving. In 2 hours, 7 inches of snow fell wreaking havoc and shutting all roads into Oban, I had just managed to get through and finally got to my hotel at around 10pm, a journey that was to take 3 hours and 10 minutes on my sat nav turned out to be over 5 hours. The cup of tea and free biscuits in my hotel room that night never tasted so good.
From the moment you leave the ferry at Craignure the vast space and amazing landscape of Mull is evident straight away. Vast, snowy peaks litter the sky line dwarfing the landscape below, a place I truly love.
The main subject I aimed to work on in the days ahead, was the European Otter, whos population in Britain suffered a significant decline from the late 1950s to the end of the 1970s. By then the Otter was absent throughout England, rare in Wales and was only found in numbers in the north and west of Scotland. The probable cause of this crash in numbers was because of the use of toxic agricultural chemicals which are now banned, this drained into rivers and accumulated in the bodies of the animals through their prey of fish.
In response to its fast decline the Otter was given full protection under UK law in 1978, recent studies have shown a significant recovery in numbers, where both government and voluntary organizations are involved with the protection of this species, which has now become a symbol of the great efforts from many conservation movements in saving this beautiful animal. I wanted to spend as much time as I could watching this animal and hopefully document their behaviours during my short trip to this magical island.
Because of the vast size of Mull and the lochs, sometimes the best option for seeing these very elusive animals is to drive around on the off chance you may see a silhouette of an Otter feeding or moving on the rocks. I have done this in the past but on this trip I wanted to find a place they where using and wait, using all my fieldcraft skills to become part of their landscape where their sense of smell and hearing is amazing. On my first day there I vistied two lochs that I know of, where I have previously witnessed Otters and cubs. I chose one of the sites and went back for the rest of the first day.
Whenever I visit a new or old place within nature I always just sit and watch, look for signs, droppings, ensuring that I’m out of site with no camera, no pressure, staying low, placing every foot print carefully so not to make a sound, testing the wind direction, breaking up my appearance with camouflaged clothing and with no white skin exposed, as this reflects light and gives you away, but for me the moment you break an animals horizon its game over, whatever you are wearing, so the need to stay low and present no silhouette is very important and key to my fieldcraft, without using a hide or car in the hope of trying to get a feel of a place.
I settled into a little inlet, where at high tide the sea came in really close and at low tide expose the lovely colourful seaweed covering the jet black rocks forming the coastline. I had seen signs of Otters, broken mussel shells with a single puncture hole and the meat taken cleanly out with great ease leaving the in tact shells littering a high vantage point. I know the Otters can hunt great distances but saw many black droppings and fish bones on this place telling me that I needed to stay here. So I did, getting myself into place before dawn each day, laying on the very slippery rocks for 7 hours a day without moving, my back was protected and covered by a line of rocks behind me, I had a great vantage point out onto the loch with the high tide water just touching my boots.
Tucked into the rocks, presenting the smallest target you could imagine, I waited, bending my frame to fill the steps and contours of the rocks, two days passed after which time you become so tuned into a place every plop, every noise, every dive from a bird you hear you immediately look with great excitement, this for me is one of the best things about wildlife photography, the peacefulness of waiting, the minutes turning into hours, all the time waiting for just that one moment in which you get a view into a wild animals world where the camera enables me to capture what I see, capturing the beauty of the subject, perserving the moment forever.
With every passing hour, sat motionless, you see so many other species of wildlife and over time you become accustomed to their presence and own individual behaviours, they become your friends, keeping you company, ready for the main event should they turn up. With Mull’s famous own micro-climate the weather changes from clear skies to angry skies in a moment, pouring rain gives in to calm, windless conditions, light you dream of as a photographer is replaced with almost zero visibility. I use a layers system when staying put in one place for some time, breathable under garments, covered with warm natural fibres finished of with rustle-free, waterproof clothing, this lets me take anything mother nature throws at me at the same time my camera and lens has two covers.
The first two days were long, traveling the 40 minutes from my accommodation to the loch on snow covered tracks. Great care was needed. Seeing this landscape awaken is so special with each day you witness these dawns really does make you feel alive. I got into place each morning as the new dawn was breaking. In the distance the massive peaks of the mountains looked down on me, the beautiful light choosing when and where it showed up that given day.
Two and a half days had passed when my luck changed, two Otters to my right breaking cover and feeding on something they had caught, slowly I moved my camera, a drill I had gone through many times before practising the turning arch of the tripod, assessing the ground to my front and what I could cover with the least movement as possible. The Otters could not smell me as there was no wind or ripples on the water. As they fed I waited, they dropped down behind a large rock they had come out on. I choose to stay put as chasing wildlife is never an option for me.
Then in a flash she was there, I let off two shots very slowly as not wanting to cause her any disturbance, she seemed to stand her ground for a moment, unable to make out what was making this slight noise made by my shutter. Then she got into the water and began swimming towards me, I could not believe what I was witnessing, two extremes, days with nothing then in a flash a wild European Otter coming towards me.
Never in my wildest dreams did I ever envision a wild Otter swimming towards me so boldly, checking out what I was, nestled into the rocks. She became almost too close too focus on with my long lens, right on the threshold of the minimal focusing distance. I turned to portrait when she popped up from a deep dive, coming up and standing in a real proud stance for a few seconds, smelling the air desperately trying to make out what was making this noise. When things happen this quick you react on pure instinct so my thoughts at the time was that I just wanted to capture something of this magical experience.
Seconds later she went back into the water and started to swim to my left, I followed the trail of bubbles as she dived deep, surfacing only for air. Seconds later she popped up, hanging onto rocks, forcing her body out of the water in a strong vertical line, again to see what I was, just amazing and again acting on pure adrenaline I slowly let off a few shots wanting to capture this moment but at the same time reading her behaviour and not wanting to spook her. This beautiful, sleek, silent hunter, moving with ease and grace through the water was suddenley out and crawling forward towards me on the rocks, just amazing.
My heart beat was bursting, I could feel the beats in my neck as she slowly moved up the rocks where I was able to compose her so that all images are full frame, she was that close. What seemed like minutes was in fact seconds and she ventured no further and went back into the water, heading off to fish, her distance trail of air bubbles leading my eyes off into the distance. I waited until almost darkness but I never saw her again that day. I returned the following day and again no sightings. I still could not believe what I had seen that day, this shy, mainly solitary animal coming this close to me.
Otters are mainly nocturnal and hunt in open, marshy places, rivers, lakes, seashores and estuaries. They will often travel a long way overland, from one river system to another, in search of food. They are strong, agile swimmers and catch fish by chasing them underwater, the European Otters that choose to live in and around our coastline are slightly bigger than their river dwelling ones and have adapted very well to this testing environment appearing bigger when you first see them but they are the same species. For the slightly smaller version that live in our rivers, streams they are mainly active at night which makes sightings of them harder, fishing in and around fish farms, campsites etc, clear evidence can be seen when you walk around and look at the water inlet areas where they regularly patrol their territory, marking it here and there with droppings called ‘spraints’. These have a scent which tells other Otters that the territory is already occupied.
As the days passed, looking and waiting to see Otters, I decided to change tack and the following day I went walking. I wanted to try and capture wild Red Deer as they are very hard to get near to outside of their park habitat where you can witness and see them during the year. The morning mist was heavy as I set off walking towards a few of the peaks that dominate this islands skyline. As I ascended further up the mist seem to become even more thicker I did however see a lone Red Deer Stag but he vanished as quick as he appeared.
I went into nearby woods hoping the mist would clear alittle and photographed the different sizes and shapes of the large majestic conifer trees, using a slow shutter speed capturing the different colours and patterns of the straight lines of countless trees all in rows.
Giving a very arty effect from a simply technique. The mist was clearing a little, so out came my OS map, and I carried on walking up on the path, now able to make it out again. With the thawing of the snow and the temperatures rising above freezing, there was a lot of water heading down bank causing waterfalls. I’d often come across many waterfalls bursting with rain water, their power and size truly inspiring within this landscape.
I could see a natural clearing in front of me, the light was really poor, so I decided to get my flask out and have a cup of tea, upon taking my bag off I heard a noise, so I got my camera out and just stopped and listened, tuned into the habitat, listening to any alarm calls from wildlife to tip me off to what was about. In the next breath this young male Red Deer appeared from the mist, standing there for a few seconds, making powerful eye contact with me, a couple of images and he was gone quicker than I could blink. I cannot see or make out where he had gone so carried on making the all important, morale boosting hot, sweet cup of tea and a kit-kat my treat for the walk.
Another beautiful encounter I had been privileged to see and come across. As the mist was clearing I carried on but found no more wildlife until I was descending, again coming a cross a lone Red Deer stag just below me, again a few shots in the poor light and this big fellow went and disappeared.
The week was almost over, time does fly and I would be sad to leave Mull so on the last day I spent 7 hours at the Otter site again. The trip was well worth all the effort for that one magical encounter I had. A special and magical moment I will never forget. I have many encounters with wildlife using my fieldcraft etc but this one will never be forgotten as my time on the island was coming to an end.
I will be returning to the island again before my Magic Of Mull photo tour in June with a second trip added in October for the autumnal colours and the Red Deer rut. Many thanks to the lovely people I met during my stay there and a big hello to you all.
As 2010 leaves us and a new year begins I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy and prosperous new year and all the best in the four coming year. Now that the holiday period is over and the snow has melted in most areas it was nice to get out with the camera to blow the cob webs of Christmas off at the same time break in my new walking boots I had received as a present. A walk around the Peak District in better conditions than before Christmas was the perfect taster for the trips and workshops coming up.
I love the vast open moorland and the views on a clear winters day are just stunning, and as ever the Red Grouse where out in numbers calling, patrolling their territories in the morning light, always on the look out for a female. Beautiful birds I love spending time with watching and listening to their calls.
I am heading to Scotland soon, to photograph some of the animals that live in and around this area over several days working the land, watching, listening, looking for clues using my skills and fieldcraft to capture wildlife in this amazing part of the UK. If and when I can I will update my blog before heading home.
I have had some great interest in the Sumatran Orangutans trip in September so thank you to all those interested in this very different trip which is more remote and totally different then its neighbour Borneo. Also my trip to Greenland- Arctic Adventure 2012 is almost ready where I have chartered a whole ex-racing yacht to head up to Greenland and Turner Island to see and photograph Polar bears, Whales and so much more living and operating from this ex-round the world racing yacht during our 14 day trip. It will be an amazing adventure and something very different where the wildlife will not hear our approach, add to this a lower point of view almost level with the sea making for a perfect platform for wildlife photography.
I have one place left on my Tigers trip in May- Tigers Of India, witness this amazing animal in the wild, and just a quick reminder that I have 3 limited edition Tigers prints where 50% of the profit goes directly to helping Tigers around the world through the charity 21 Century Tiger who spend every penny raised on helping this amazing animal survive around the globe.
There are a few places left on my Masia Mara Migration trip also so if these or any of my other trips, one day workshops interest you then just contact me here for more details. Big thanks to all those who have booked and I look forward to meeting you all in the coming weeks and months and helping you improve your wildlife photography at the same time learning you more about the wildlife around you and how to capture the things you see, so all the best and many thanks