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.