White Tailed Eagles on Mull – a tale of two tours

We’ve just returned from Mull after running our first tour focused exclusively on photographing White Tailed Eagle’s in Scotland. On the trip we were joined by four guests who were enjoyable company throughout – thanks to John, Angie, David and Pui Hang. In total we witnessed nine White Tailed Eagle dives (six on our private charters) and we also came across five Otters – a couple of which we were able to photograph at close quarters. I look forward to seeing their images when they are processed!

On Sunday it became clear that the weather was going to change with frequent Atlantic lows and strong Westerlies whipping through the island so we spoke with our prospective clients and chose to postpone the second scheduled trip. Not an easy decision to make, but we felt it best to be clear that the chances of getting the boat out and therefore photographing Eagles would be slim. We felt this was a better option that would avoid any disappointment. We look forward to seeing you on our next trip.

Many thanks to Martin and Judith (and Alex!) of Mull Charters who have just been awarded No 2 in World’s 10 great wildlife tours by Trip Adviser

If you would like to come please let us know you can see more about the planned tours on the ebirder website

 

A strange addiction

For the past year or so I have been wondering why I keep photographing Red Grouse. I was looking into my key-wording and I must have nearly 2000 images of these smashing, but somewhat in my opinion comical, birds and so to the  other day when the light was bringing out the reds, pinks and oranges on the moor, I thought to myself I know I will go and check out some new habitat that looks good fro Grouse. It was then that I questioned myself and thought “why surely its time for something else”.

It wasn’t and off I went to get some more Red Grouse shots. What can I say? Maybe I just wanted my regular fix of quizzical grouse behaviour. Either way I took some shots and returned home happy. Sometimes its just that simple.

Just a Coot

I was out and about the other day when another photographer stopped and asked me what I was photographing. I pointed out the water birds and the light reflecting onto the loch. The other snapper shrugged and said “Ah, that’s just a Coot” and walked off. Okay, so its not a Lion or a Golden Eagle, but photography can’t always be about the same, ‘premier’ subjects.

On reflection, getting out and looking for common often underrated subjects can be far more rewarding and gives much more satisfaction than another shot of that sought after but often over photographed species.

I’ve been neglecting the Jackdaws and Hoodies in the garden for far too long…

Watching and waiting

I recently visited my buddy Mark’s, Kingfisher hide to photograph what is probably the most photographed bird in the British Isles. I spent several hours watching the Kingfishers feeding, preening and at times interacting with each other. What struck me most was that as a photographer we get remarkable insights into the range of activities that our subjects go through everyday. To observe an animal from dawn until dusk, watching every moment, creates a unique perspective that you don’t get from ten minutes in a hide at a nature reserve or a walk through the woods. I often wonder how to pass the time in hides – I recently asked fellow photographers on Twitter what they do – reading, googling and even sleeping were the most common tweets. Spending hours in an uncomfortable hide isn’t for everyone – I still have aches in some funny places – but being able to witness behaviour so intimately is reward in itself. I still have a few thousand images to go through, but with or without images the experience was worth the discomfort

April to June on Mull

Mull is one of those places that always offers something new, something different, and this year has been no different. Whatever happens Mull is always memorable. We’ve been running trips to Mull for wildlife and bird photographers for the last four years, always picking May as the month for the best weather, newly arrived spring migrants, and reasonable dawn starts (5am is bearable!).

This year, due to demand, we kicked off earlier in April running our first White Tailed Eagle Photography private trips We charter the boat exclusively for our clients to make the most of space and so we can head out when the light is best. In April we got off to a flying start in glorious sunshine with Artur a Polish photographer and all round top guy, to photograph these magnificent birds with a few days in the highlands added just for good measure. Artur had a tight schedule and a mammoth target list, but we got through it and had great fun along the way. We were delighted to hear that Artur has already achieved recognition with his fabulous diving White Tailed Eagle (and what a shot!!) .

“Just back from 5 days bird watching/photo trip with Marcus Conway in Scotland. Marcus was a master in finding sites with great birds.  Those were fabulous days packed with a lot of birds, excellent weather and impeccably arranged tour. What a fantastic experience to spend the night on the moor and wake up together with the Black Grouse. Photographing this spectacular bird of prey was a fantastic finish to the week.” Artur

Copyright Artur Stankiewic z

After the glorious sunshine of April most of May was spent dodging showers and strong winds (did I mention strong winds!) as we kicked off our annual Mull week long tours. Yet again the wildlife on Mull did not fail to provide us with some wonderful opportunities.

“I much enjoyed the tour. Lots of opportunities to see and photograph birds” Nigel 

We were joined on week one by Nigel, Carola, Gary and Bob, and, after travelling a long way, all were eager to make an early start the next morning. Our first target were the ultra confiding Black Guillemots that, in spite of some grey weather, put on a fantastic show. At one point a pigeon tried to enter the nesting hole of the guillemots and all hell broke loose – eventually the Black Guillemot chasing the Pigeon high, inland over the buildings!

This shot by Gary from the very first morning featured on BBC Springwatch on 14 June 2011 (well done!)

Copyright Gary Faulkner

One of the several highlights of the week were incredible encounters with Otters. One area where the weather definitely helped! We spent several morning, afternoons and evenings watching Otters and some days seeing two or three Otters was not unusual. By being able to watch Otters for long periods of time it became possible to predict what they may do next and this enabled the group to get into position to get some high quality images and memorable close encounters. Check these fab images from our week one clients taken in torrential rain (did I mention the rain?).

Copyright Bob Sharples

Copyright Gary Faulkner

Copyright Bob Sharples

Despite the weather we continued to find and watch fantastic species including Common Sandpiper, Hooded Crow and Oystercatcher. We were out at all hours and this enabled us to get some nice views of Grasshopper Warbler and Willow Warbler. I really can’t question the enthusiasm and all round positivity of the photographers!

“All perfect. Food was superb. I hadn’t given much thought to the accommodation/food before going bu tit is one of the reasons I will come back. Excellent.  Advice was really helpful and certainly made me challenge my approach. Probably the most productive 5 days I have had in the UK” Gary 

Of course one of the highlight of the tour is the time spent on the boat. The weather was too rough to head out for Puffins which meant we got a double whammy of Eagle action – and boy did the Eagle’s put on a great show for us. Not only that we were treated to great views of Great Northern Diver in sparkling summer plumage. The windy weather also brought its bonuses as we spotted the third Sabines Gull for Mull (but more Sabines Gulls and windier weather was still to come!)

“I would recommend this tour to anyone, you can only be truly amazed at the wildlife Mull has to offer” Bob – check out Bob’s website for more great pictures

Copyright Gary Faulkner

Copyright Bob Sharples

And this beautiful Diver photographed by Bob Sharples (much better trip report on Bob’s site)

Copyright Bob Sharples

On our trip to the Western side of the island we were rewarded with some of our best views of a confiding group of Mountain Hare in a variety of pelts. It was great to be able to watch these animals enjoying the sun.

Copyright Gary Faulkner

“Seeing new things – The eagles, otters, hares, divers. The highlights were the unexpected though like the grasshopper warbler and sabines gull. And the food! I loved the thorough and preparation that had gone in to every aspect from the rooms, reading material, etc etc. Also Marcus’s obvious knowledge and enthusiasm for it all” Gary 

It’s not just unusual birds on Mull that make is such a favourite for photographers there is also a wealth of commoner birds. These wonderful compositions from Nigel (you can see more great images on his website).

Copyright Nigel Symington

Copyright Nigel Symington

As our first group were leaving we received news that some unprecedented weather was coming. We thought we knew what to expect but the maelstrom that hit Mull in May 2011 will live long in the memory. Early signs of what was coming was the cancelling of the Calmac ferries on the generally benign crossing to Oban. By the end of the afternoon trees were down, boulders had tumbled onto the roads and getting anywhere around the island was tricky and dangerous. We decided to sit it out and at this point we received a call  that a Sabines Gull had been spotted nearby so we went to check it out. On the way we passed a wheelbarrow stuck in the fence and all burst out laughing – this is meant to be spring on Mull!

(below taken on google phone)

Blown a long way!

Copyright Tony Coombs

We arrived at a windswept bay in 80mph winds, barely able to stand, and found the Sabines Gull almost immediately.

Copyright Tony Coombs

Better was to follow! As we were enjoying the Sabines Gull a small wader appeared. Initial thoughts were that it may be a Red Necked Phalarope and after a frustrating 15 minutes of searching this dapper wader put in an appearance. The group carefully made their way to the shore and we all achieved stunning views of this diminutive wader – check out Tony’s image below! To see more of Tony’s fantastic images (and there are plenty) please visit his website.

Copyright Tony Coombs

The rest of the week settled down into a more regular pattern and we were occasionally treated to some amazing light as we photographed diving Gannets from a secluded sandy bay – where we also watched yet another Sabines Gull. Knowing where to go to enjoy the light available can make all the difference when good weather is limited.

Copyright Brian and Helen Burnett

The other thing about bad weather – it has to stop! And when it does many species that have not been able to feed put in an appearance. The highlight in both weeks was Short Eared Owls, which we watched daily hunting in their favoured spots – sometimes up to 5 on the wing – one night joined by a ghost like male Hen Harrier.

“This was the most enjoyable photography holiday I have taken.  The small group size meant all were more involved and able to “get good opportunities” with the subjects. Super that everyone hit it off so well and I believe all are still in contact.” Tony

Phil, Brian and Tony all managed to capture a beautiful Short Eared Owl resting near a remote location.

Copyright Tony Coombs

Copyright Phil Hampson

However, all the wildlife memories were upstaged by a certain ‘driving incident’ whilst Otter spotting – fortunately a Landrover full of photographers failed to capture the moment – Helen have you stopped laughing yet?! Of course we saw more Eagles from our private charters – on just about the only slot on the whole week when weather was calm enough.

Copyright Phil Hampson

On Iona we heard several Corncrakes, but the wind made things too tricky so I recommended we called in at one of my favourite, remote locations. On Iona we did the Hebridean form of the Song Thrush.

Copyright Brian and Helen Burnett

I suggested we may find some summer plumage waders; 1 or 2 Dunlin or Sanderling. As we neared the shore it became apparent that there were hundreds of waders sheltering on the beach. Approximately 400 Sanderling and 100 Dunlin (and some Whimbrel for Brian!) gave ridiculously views in wonderful light. One of those moments that lives in the mind forever.

Copyright Tony Coombs

“Thanks for a tremendous few days on Mull, I enjoyed all aspects of the 
trip. The accommodation and food were excellent” Phil

We continued our trips into June with earlier starts and later finishes. The Eagles being the obvious star of the show. However, thee highlight one evening for our clients – these fabulous, breaching Bottle Nosed Dolphins.

click for larger view

Thanks to all our guests this Spring for joining us (not just on Mull!) and making every event so memorable and particular thanks to Tony, Brian, Helen, Bob, Phil, Artur and Gary for sharing their fabulous images – there’s simply not enough space to comment on all the wonderful memories in one post!

If you are interested in what you have seen please have a look at out Mull Wildlife Photography Tours and our White Tailed Eagle Bird Photography Workshops

How long?

How long to wait for a shot? That’s a question I seem to ask myself a lot when sat in my hide waiting for something to happen – or even just turn up. Recently I was leading a group on Mull where on the first fay we found a reeling Grasshopper Warbler in a nice location. Of the group all but one of us were pleased with the shots we had and moved on to focus on Short Eared Owls. One of my clients was determined to improve his shot and spent most mornings looking and listening for this elusive bird. Finally he was rewarded with stunning views of the Grasshopper Warbler singing in the morning sunshine.

When time is limited, and there is always something else that you think you should be photographing, the question is how long to wait for a shot? I learnt from Gary, over the course of a week, that persistence pays off. Well that’s what I kept telling myself.

In between showers

We’ve had some almighty thunder storms in the past few days, which has meant some wet days in the field. On the flip side when the light comes it is cleaner and brighter as all the dust and other detritus in the air has been cleaned away. This has meant that even some of the more common species can be photographed in lovely golden light – such as the often overlooked Oystercather and this Brown Hare with the sun is back lighting the grasses and flowers.

Good news on the home front too as we now have fledged Tree Sparrows and Swallows feeding in the fields.