A Wild(life) Weekend in the East

I took advantage of the late May Bank Holiday weekend to visit my parents in East Lothian and for the first time since he entered my life, I left my dog Murphy behind, allowing a bit more freedom and a bark-free drive through to the East (bliss!)

I left Glasgow on Friday evening with the car telling me it was 21.5 degrees C outside and thought to myself how great it was to finally be going away without having to pack winter clothing as the weekend forecast was brilliant.  Unfortunately I (and the online weather apps) forgot to take into account the East Coast haar (fog) – 10 degrees when I arrived in Athelstaneford less than two hours later, and I immediately regretted leaving those warm clothes behind!  Still… I’m actually a little allergic to sun so I told myself it was for the best…

The haar was still hanging around on Saturday morning, but we headed down the coast towards the Scottish Borders nonetheless.

I had hoped to find some brown hares and wasn’t disappointed as my eagle-eyed Mum spotted two in one of the fields close enough for photographs.  So we stopped the car and watched them for a while. Beautiful animals, I’d really like to spend more time observing and photographing them.

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We popped into Smeaton Nursery Gardens and Tearoom  for a coffee and watched their gorgeous Ryeland Sheep (they look like teddy bears) and their lambs.

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Next stop was Dunbar Harbour.  I make a point of visiting this location every summer I’m in East Lothian so that I can check in with the kittiwakes, my favourite member of the gull family.  They nest in the wall of the old castle in the harbour and can be heard making their “kittiwake” calls.  This year it was concerning to see that there were far fewer birds than in previous years and, even more worrying, very few had nests – their numbers are declining everywhere and they are now on the red list of UK birds facing risk of global extinction so I suppose this shouldn’t have been a surprise.  I don’t know if they are just running late this year due to the crazy weather, but you’d think they’d all be here by now.

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St Abbs Head is home to a large number of seabirds, especially guillemots, so that was our next stop.  The mist had cleared so we had great views of the birds nesting on their precarious ledges and thousands bobbing about in the sea below.  Too far really for decent images though without hanging over the edge of the cliff & I’m not crazy enough to do that!

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I’d hoped the eiders at Eyemouth might have had their young, but I couldn’t find any birds and therefore I presume they were still nesting. So this was a very short stop especially as the haar was making a bit of a comeback.

We drove home via the Lammermuir Hills.  Last time I was there at Christmas they were covered in snow

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– they look entirely different now!  The sun was shining here though and it was a beautiful afternoon. We watched some curlews from the car as they had chicks so didn’t want to disturb.  My photographs were dismal unfortunately as all the grass and heather made focussing almost impossible at that angle.  Great to see so many though as curlews are now endangered in many parts of the UK.  I did photograph this red grouse and little bird (pipit I think, but I’m not going to try and say which one!).

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Later that evening we returned to the Lammermuirs to search for mountain hares.  I wrote a blog about my attempts to locate them in December (took three days but I found a few eventually), and was keen to try again, hoping they might be more visible now the snow was gone.  We walked along a track with many more curlews flying and calling overhead.  I was pleased to see quite a few hares  in the distance and running away.

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Given that the Lammermuirs don’t have a great reputation when it comes to preserving wildlife, any hare spotted is a bonus.  I wasn’t really expecting to get close enough to photograph any of them except as a wide shot as they are understandably flighty around people, but I came across one having a lie down close to the track.  I was pretty sure it would run, so crept slowly closer taking photographs as I went.  It eventually moved, but rather than immediately running away, it raised itself up on its hind legs for about 30 secs looking in the direction of my parents. I’ve never actually witnessed a mountain hare doing this.  Only times I’ve seen them on two legs they’ve been boxing. Then it ran! But I had a few close images which was brilliant.   Soon after this we saw the haar rolling in so headed for home as the mist swirled around us.

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Sunday we were up early to drive to Argaty Red Kites who have just opened a wildlife hide.  The haar followed us up the coast, but fortunately as we headed inland we found ourselves in beautiful sunshine although it was a tad windy.  The hide is in a lovely location across a field of sheep with their young lambs.  It sits just inside some woodland and fits 3 (or maybe 4 at a push) people.  One good thing is that it has two openings at ground level which are great for eye-balling the red squirrels.  Not the most comfortable position to lie in mind you, I had my legs sticking up in the air behind me but few hides I’ve visited have this option so I didn’t mind the discomfort.  The light was challenging all morning due partly to the trees with their summer foliage and the bright sunshine creating a lot of contrast.  There are quite a few perches and peanut butter (or something similar) has been put in crevices in the trees and tree stumps which attracted a couple of great spotted woodpeckers – an adult male and a juvenile – they visited throughout the morning.  Sadly we weren’t visited by nuthatch, jay or treecreeper which apparently have all been seen there fairly regularly.

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At least three red squirrels made appearances.  One was small and nervous – it was much darker than the others and never stopped in one place for more than a second – very tricky to photograph especially with the difficult lighting!  Very entertaining to watch though – we nick-named that one Speedy.

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Another spent most of its time at one peanut feeder working its way through huge quantities of nuts.  It rarely went anywhere else sadly and feeder shots weren’t what I was looking for.  It only really moved when it spotted Speedy – as it would always chase him away.

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The third appeared less often but was easily the most photogenic as it did sometimes move away from a feeder and pause for a moment or two.  The best shots of the day were when it sat on a branch with gorgeous new green leaves surrounding it.   It did, however, favour going completely inside the feeder to eat!

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None of the squirrels really spent much time sitting on the perches and stumps provided which would have given more opportunities for photographs which was a shame, but that’s wildlife for you – you can’t guarantee where it will go!  It was great though to watch the squirrels as they fed and zipped about.

In the afternoon we went up to the red kite hide.  There were quite a few birds circling above the farm all day – beautiful birds and quite possibly my favourite bird of prey.  I’ve visited Argaty for the kites a few times, but never before have I seen them start diving for the food before the guy putting it out has left the field.  It was all over in a blink of an eye.  Exhilarating to watch but I think these were my poorest ever kite images which is strange given that I had a high shutter speed and am normally pretty good at flying birds.   Still… it was an enjoyable afternoon as always and I came away with a few photographs.

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I had intended to rise early on Monday and go find some brown/mountain hares, but yet again the garden was shrouded in thick mist so I returned to bed.  I was due to go out to the Isle of May with the Scottish Seabird Centre to (hopefully) see some puffins having missed that opportunity on Mull due to the cancellation 3 times of my trip out to Lunga.  Seeing the weather in North Berwick I feared the worst – visibility was very poor, but the boat set sail anyway.

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My boat leaving the harbour, © Margaret Miller

It’s now a covered rib which is much warmer than the old one.  It was a strange, spooky journey out to the Island as we couldn’t see anything other than the odd seabird appearing out of the mist every so often.

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The Bass Rock was nowhere to be seen.  Simon, our guide, said this might mean more puffins were on shore rather than out at sea and I was looking forward to taking some atmospheric images though the haar.

However, just as we arrived at the Isle of May the mist cleared and for the afternoon I enjoyed beautiful warm and sunny conditions.  Unfortunately what this meant was that the puffins were few and far between.  This is the third largest puffin colony in the UK, and based on my experiences at this time of year (and a month earlier than this on Lunga on a couple of occasions) I’d have expected the birds to be on land sorting out their nests or even beginning to feed their young.  But no…  I believe they are running late this year due to the weather, and also, it seems, behave a bit differently from the other places I’ve been.  It may partly be due to the fact that visitors to the island are very restricted in where they can go to protect the burrows, and that the puffins are choosing to land in places that aren’t visible, or that they prefer to leave when we arrive, but I struggled to find anywhere I could photograph them. (Apparently there were a lot on land on Saturday when it was quite windy).

Eventually I spotted 3 perched on the cliff and moved into a better position

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In doing so I found a couple more sitting on the rocks just below me and much closer!  Phew!  I photographed these two until they flew off.

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And another close by.  It was standing with orange lichen covered rocks in both the fore and background which gave the images a lovely, almost sunrise-like glow.

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And that was it on the puffin front.  Quite disappointing as I witnessed none of the behaviours that make puffins special, but, fingers-crossed, I’ll have a day on Lunga in July which should reap rewards if we make it there!

There were plenty of other seabirds to enjoy though:

Guillemots

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Razorbills

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Fulmars

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Kittiwakes

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(other) Gulls

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Arctic terns who have only just started to nest so hadn’t yet got to the attacking passers-by stage yet, but who would all take off as one and fly around the harbour which was amazing to watch.

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And a lot of rabbits!

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On departing the Isle of May we did a slow circuit of the Bass Rock to see the gannets.  I love these birds and the landing trip I did last year was at the very top of my highlights, quite an awesome experience.  On this occasion the birds were all around and above us, searching for nesting materials.

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as well as crowding every available space on the island.

 

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Worrying to see one bird with a piece of plastic in its mouth and although these birds unlike many other seabirds are a success story right now, man is still doing its best to cause problems!

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Strangely I came away with more decent images of these, taken from a slow moving boat, than I did of the red kites!

So all in all a very enjoyable weekend in the East in which I packed a lot in. Next weekend I’m off on my travels again, this time to Perthshire for a weekend hopefully watching beavers and yet more red squirrels, more on that on my next blog.

 

 

 

A Week on Mull

This was my first visit to Mull since 2014 where it didn’t snow! Mind you we had (one day of) warm glorious sunshine then strong winds, heavy rain or drizzle and even hail stones, so weather-wise it wasn’t the best of weeks… Still… I was equipped for the conditions and although a little frustrating at times (especially when my puffin trip was cancelled 3 times and I never made it to Lunga) I made the most of my week on the island, and even if I didn’t return with nearly as many photographs as I would have expected it was an enjoyable stay.

Monday was the day of warm, glorious, sunshine – I’ve never been warm on Mull before! Everything looked wonderful, really clear and crisp. My parents and I were booked on Martin Keiver’s Mull Charters white-tailed sea eagle trip and as we left Ulva Ferry the water was like a mirror reflecting the mountains and gulls as they flew overhead.

The eagles came thick and fast. The first, a male, missed his fish entirely, and was quickly followed by his mate who had no trouble scooping it out of the water with her magnificent talons, they were pretty distant though. The third bird had a red-tinged tail…

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More came giving better and better views as they collected the fish.

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Great to get some images against the sky & hillsides too:

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The eagles were mobbed by both gulls and ravens – this raven was kind enough to fly side-by-side with a white-tail to demonstrate the similarities in their shape and difference in size.

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The strong sunlight had both advantages and disadvantages. I was using my Nikon D500 with Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 lens. Due to the speed of the birds and variation in the light depending on whether the birds were shot against blue sky, hillside or water, I was in aperture priority mode (f7.1) with some negative exposure compensation. My shutter speed at times reached 1/5000! Therefore the vast majority of my images are sharp. However, I had to expose for the highlights (the birds heads/tails) and this combined with the harsh light meant that the feathers were dark and lacking any real colour. I’ve managed to improve on these in lightroom but a slightly cloudier day or lower sun would have been better. That said, the number of drops, and gorgeous day definitely compensated for any of these issues! Best (of 5) trips I’ve had out with Martin. We spotted an otter on the way back in too which was nice bonus, plus a stag silhouetted against the sky on a mountain top.

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Back in November I spent a week on Mull with Andy Howard and Pete Walkden photographing the otters. You can read all about it on this blog, but suffice to say it was a great week with many many wonderful otter encounters.

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So when I returned I had a good idea where to go looking for them. I found a mum and cub at the spot where, in November, there’d been a mum with two young cubs (see below).

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I don’t know whether one didn’t survive the winter (it was a bit of a wimp) or whether the more confident of the two had left home – I’ve heard differing reports. However great to see them. After one relatively brief and image-less encounter as they were finishing up and going home, I spent a fab couple of hours with the pair on the Wednesday. I spotted them as they came ashore on a little island. Here they groomed for a bit before heading back into the sea and fishing quite far out from the shore.

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Eventually they swam towards land and I got myself in position.

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The otters then spent at least an hour fishing, feeding, grooming and relaxing in the same area. Mum was eating kelp not fish.

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I think they must have sussed that I was there as both looked in my direction on a number of occasions but I stayed still and they returned to the same spot on the rocks again and again.

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At times though they were obviously completely relaxed and snoozed.

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Otters

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I’m pretty sure I said this in my November blog, but watching otter families is one of my absolute favourite pastimes. Yes, I think I enjoy photographing mountain hares more and the resulting pictures of the hares are without a doubt better, but sitting in the company of otters is an absolute joy (in rain, wind, snow or sunshine!). The interactions between family members are lovely. These two spent a lot of time entwined, or with the cub resting its head on mum’s back.

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Otters

The other great thing about this pair is that they were hidden from view of other otter-spotters so we weren’t bothered by anyone else. What was lovely about November was the small number of photographers/tourists on the island, that was not the case in May! Cars crawled along the lochside and whenever I spotted an otter and stopped the car, others would pull in to see what was there. The otters, for the most part, stayed away from the shore, preferring to fish further out and if they needed to land went onto the little islands that appeared at lower tides.

You can’t really blame them… I know of (at least one) photographer who is quite vocal in his opinion that folk shouldn’t go to Mull for otters, but instead should visit the other islands (or rivers) where there are fewer people and plenty of wildlife – the same can (and is) said about the location where I, and many others, photograph mountain hares. I agree completely. However… not everyone has the time to find and then work these other places. I’d love nothing more than to find my own private otter / hare spot as I much prefer having the animals to myself, but with only 6 weeks annual leave, a dog who doesn’t travel, 2 radio shows and other interests, I can’t do it at present. But, believe me, if my plans to relocate North ever come to fruition it is top of my list to find new locations. In the meantime though, if I want to spend time with these animals that I love then I have little choice but to go to the tried and tested places. I do respect the wildlife though and do everything in my power not to stress them unlike some others.

Anyway… back to my week on Mull. Those were the only two occasions where I did much in the way of photography. Tuesday was miserable, heavy rain and strong winds all day so we spent much of it in the car. I did manage a few images though, mostly of the garden birds plus a lamb and skylark.

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Male Siskin

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and finally a strange rainbow over the far bank of the loch which turned everything a little psychedelic!

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I went out early on the Wednesday morning which was lovely. The roads were quiet and the sun was shining. I photographed a male reed bunting singing its heart out, a great northern diver (of which there were many on Mull but mostly distant), a wheatear and common sandpiper

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Great Northern Diver

Male wheatear

Common Sandpiper

and then a white-tail flew down over the loch, it looked as though it was fishing but I don’t think it caught anything. It flew through some trees, presumably to the nest. Then either it, or its mate appeared and also flew down over the loch before returning, flying overhead, then perching in the same trees. Not the same standard of images as those from the boat, but great to get some which didn’t involve baiting.

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I returned to Salen and noticed that the light on the bird feeders was lovely, so spent some time photographing the siskin, goldfinch and greenfinch.

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After our trip out with Mull Charters on the Monday we briefly visited Grass Point. Not a whole lot going on, but nice to see some Highland cows and a chiffchaff.

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After the otter encounter we went to Carsaig, one of my favourite places on Mull. Sadly the feral goats were mostly quite distant although we bumped into one coming towards us on the same narrow path – not sure who was most surprised! I did photograph a one-legged ringed plover. It didn’t seem overly bothered by the lack of an appendage, but did have to hop rather than run.

Feral Goat

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We went to Croggan on the Friday and stopped off at Garmony Point en route where it was almost sunny although there was a storm close by.

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Storm Coming In

At Croggan there were some super-cute young lambs plus lots of little birds including ringed plover, warblers, song thrush and a cuckoo, but I couldn’t find it! Unfortunately the weather closed in around us when we reached the beach and the magnificent views were nowhere to be seen, but I enjoyed watching the plovers as they scuttled along the shore.

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Song Thrush

Ringed Plover

Ringed Plover

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My parents departed on a morning ferry and I stuck around for a few more hours. I watched two fishing otters, neither of which came near land, and walked down to Loch Ba which was beautiful. Lots of cows and a wheatear.

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I had a look for the dippers at Knock Bridge but the water level was so high they’d disappeared. I did spot a black cap, but it was gone before I had the camera ready.

So that’s it. Really wish I’d made it out to Lunga, and that the weather had been a tad better, but it was a lovely relaxing week with some great wildlife encounters.