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.