Mull, November 2011.

21st November 2011
I recently spent two weeks on the Isle of Mull for an autumn break to watch and photograph the native wildlife. Mull is a haven for wildlife offering an opportunity to see first hand, species which are rare and elusive elsewhere in the UK. Most people visit Mull to see the Eagles and Otters which are some of our most charismatic native animals. Travelling in November the peak season for tourism was well and truly over and the island, and in particular the single track roads, were far less busy than when I visited in the summer.
Taking the ferry from Oban, we were greeted with wonderful sunshine upon our arrival which by some miracle lasted for nearly the full two weeks, and temperatures exceeded 13c every day (with a couple of exceptions).

We were based in Tobermory for our stay, but we were keen to get close to the Otters and Eagles along with Hen Harriers and Divers which spend the winter around the coast so travelled around much of the island. Our tactic was to take advantage of the quiet roads and drive slow, regularly pulling into the many passing places where there was room to scan the coast and horizons.

We went three days before seeing our first Otter, but were spoiled with amazing views of this very approachable individual at Croggan on our fourth day.

From this point on, Otters became an almost daily sight (Amazing considering how difficult they can be to find in the rest of the UK). We quickly developed our technique to get close to the Otters and photograph them, without disturbing them in any way. When an Otter was spotted we would determine the direction which the animal was hunting the shoreline, and aim to get ahead of it and into cover. We found camouflage was not an absolute requirement, but keeping silent was a must. Any noise seemed to attract attention and waterproof trousers became a source of great frustration. The otters we encountered would readily feed in the water, only coming to land to tackle larger or trickier prey such as crabs or Scorpion Fish.

We found the end of Loch Scridain just beyond Croggan to be the most reliable site for Otters during our stay on Mull, and we saw them every time we visited this area of the island. We also encountered Otters all along Loch Na Keal and Loch Scridain and also saw single animals at Grasspoint and along the coast between Craignure and Salen.

Three Sleeping Otters

Hidden Otter

Craignure Otter

Whilst we struggled with Otters at first, Golden Eagles were seen almost daily with three seen on our first full day on Mull. We regularly saw an adult female and juvenile (identified by the white patches on the underwings) around Loch Spelvie.

The Golden Eagles came far closer than I expected and viewing through binoculars was fantastic, and showed incredible detail. The eagles we saw were commonly being mobbed by Hooded Crows, Ravens and Buzzards which really give a clear view of the size. (Hopefully the photographs below go some way to give a true appreciation of just how big these animals are!). We found this adult perched high up on a hill along the north edge Loch Na Keal on the road from Calgary

For the first week of the trip White Tailed Sea Eagles proved far more difficult to see than I had anticipated, with only one brief and distant view at Grasspoint under our belt. We had counted on going on the sea eagle boat trip, however these had finished for the season so were left in something of a dilemma. After a tip off, we headed over to Loch Na Keal and were instantly rewarded with the sight of this adult female bird perched on the shingle beach near the campsite.

This individual flew off and landed in some nearby trees where they commonly wait for long periods. We watched the Sea Eagle and noticed this second adult bird, its mate, in the same patch of trees!

Satisfied with our first proper sightings knowing the often lazy nature of these birds we decided to move on in search of other wildlife. We spotted an Otter fishing along the shore some distance away. We approached slowly and quietly on foot, and were sat still when the Gulls and Grey Heron stood nearby took to the air and gave alarm calls. We were confident we hadn''t spooked the birds and it quickly became apparent what had. One of the adult White Tailed Eagles we were watching before flew overhead, seemingly curious to what we and the otter were doing.

It glided low in front of us, circling the otter then gliding close over our heads before heading off to the other side of the Loch. This was a once in a lifetime experience and showed the true size of Britain''s largest bird of prey, which completely dwarfed the fleeing Heron.

As we travelled around the island scanning the coastline, Divers (A bird I was desperate to see) became more and more common as the trip went on. We saw individuals in many different stages of plumage from almost complete summer colouration to individuals completely changed for winter. This mixed group below regularly called to each other, an eerie sound.

Most of the Divers we saw were Great Northern Divers, however, on two occasions we did come across some Red Throated Divers. These were easily distinguished by their upturned bills and smaller size.

Seeing Divers from the car and photographing them turned out to be two completely different challenges. They appeared shy of people and when approached would swim at a slow but steady pace well away from the shore. This obviously presented some problems however, after two weeks of trying we eventually got lucky. We spotted a pair in close to the shore of Loch Scridain, approximately five metres from the rocks. We had on previous occasion managed to get close by waiting for the birds to dive before trying to move close and get into cover. The Divers regularly dive for over a minute and this can give ample time to get near. On many occasions the birds would resurface in a completely different area, some distance away, however this time they remained close to the shore allowing the following photographs.

Another key species we aimed to see on the trip were Hen Harriers. Although I have seen these a few times at Parkgate and Burton Mere RSPBs I had never managed close views. That was definitely going to change by the end of this trip. On our drive from the ferry to Tobermory we saw our first Harrier after only being on Mull for 15 minutes. They became an almost daily occurrence in particular through Glen More, Grasspoint and the Ross of Mull.
This individual flew close to the road and I managed some fairly distant, but half decent shots after watching it fly closer and closer.

When they drop into the grass to catch prey they become almost invisible, as the picture below shows.

Perhaps my best opportunity to photograph a Hen Harrier was on the road to Bunessan, when a female appeared to the side of the road from nowhere. I was able to quickly park the car and fire off a few quick shots before she disappeared behind a hill and out of site. Unfortunately in the rush to grab my camera, i must have knocked the program dial around and set it to shutter priority. In bright daylight the speed of only 1/500th of a second let me down, and an aperture of 32 meant that most of the quality was lost too! I was gutted as to get that close to a Hen Harrier is a very very rare thing. Here is one of the better photographs, although this opportunity was definitely "the one that got away".

As the focus of the trip was to photograph British wildlife that is either difficult to see or none existent in my local area, Mountain Hares were another species I wanted to try to see. When i was researching Mull it became apparent that the population there was fairly unusual. They were often found at low altitudes and a tip off had us driving to the beach at Fidden. Our first visit didnt yield any results however, a second visit whilst on a "wild about Mull" tour gave great results with this pair spotted on the beach.

However, on approach they ran away, covering the ground at tremendous speed without seemingly touching the floor! Incredible speed and agility for what had, at first, appeared like a chubby ball of fluff sheltering from the wind. They made their way up the rocky outcrops with no effort at all and were soon staring down at us from a high vantage point. I managed to knock the mode dial of my camera yet again so those photographs are a write off. We decided we would definitely pay the Hares another visit or two....
We werent so lucky with our weather on our return, but the Hares were proving a lot easier to see! Typical! Using the car as a mobile hide, we were able to get incredibly close to one individual and sat and watched it for several minutes before it had had enough and crossed the road into cover.

Walking around the site we encountered huge numbers of Hare, some more approachable than others. It was incredible to see how easily they scaled huge rocky outcrops, reaching the top in seconds (something most people would struggle to do in minutes!). Of all the shots i managed to get of them running only a few showed their feet on the ground.

Unfortunately whilst we were at Fidden, we also came across this rather sad sight....

I have only ever seen Mink at a distance, and brief views as they move across waterways and from one patch of cover to another. This was entirely different. Mink have caused substantial ecological damage in the UK and they need to be controlled, but seeing one first hand and close up you really get an appreciation for this beautiful creature. They are simply gorgeous, but unfortunately they don't belong. It's a very sad thing to see, but ultimately its for the best. We let the farmer know and decided to move on in search of other wildlife.
It seems Mink have invaded much of the UK now, and I had no idea they were a problem on Mull. However, the very next day we encountered this individual hunting around a cattle grid at Grasspoint.

We stopped the car and watched it disappear and resurface from under the cattle grid several times, it was like watching a real live version of whack-a-mole! I decided to get out and approach on foot. The complete lack of fear was incredible and totally unexpected. I think it is this boldness and curiosity that makes Mink so adaptable and able to find food as escapees in the UK, they are ferocious predators. There was nothing we could do, but watch it move to a drainage ditch and swim back past the car, one of our last animal sightings of the trip.


Photo comment By Kate: Absolutly wonderful photos
Photo comment By Dennis Buchan: I just had a look and read through your "report" and thought it was superb. you did all you wanted to do and you made a job of it. Well done, much appreciated..................Dennis.
Photo comment By George MacDonald: Just back from a scorching week in Mull. Saw one otter while driving, but though our day at Croggan yielded loads of otter tracks, alas no actual sightings. A nosy and persistent bird announced our presence to all wildlife. But lots of other creatures to see, and such scenery!

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