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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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

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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.

2017 Highlights (July – December)

What a year!  I’ve already written about the first 6 months, so I won’t repeat myself, but it’s fair to say that from a photographic/wildlife watching perspective 2017 has been brilliant. From the bucket list I’ve now landed on the Bass Rock amongst the gannets and photographed fishing ospreys – both unforgettable experiences.  I’ve learnt a lot: photographic techniques, field craft and wildlife behaviours.  My ambition for 2017 was to focus entirely (okay… so I did venture South of the border to the Farne Islands), on Scottish wildlife, learning as much as I could about a small number of locations and the animals living there.  Personally I don’t want to be the kind of photographer who just ticks species off, I want to get to know them intimately and in doing so take better images that capture the essence of the animal I’m photographing.  On top of all this I just love being out sharing airspace with these amazing creatures, it’s a real honour.  If anything my love of wildlife, Scotland, the outdoors and photography has increased during 2017.

August found me back in my spiritual home – the Scottish highlands.  Basing myself again in Tomatin I had a brilliant week.  It began with Aviemore Ospreys early on the Sunday morning.  I’ve wanted to experience the thrill of these magnificent birds fishing for as long as I can remember but I’ve never quite got my timings (or bank balance) right.  I only just made it this year as the birds were already packing their nests up to head South, but fortunately a few were still around and I was treated to a great show.  Admittedly it was a little on the dark side, but my D500 coped well (just as well as I bought it for this experience) and I’m pleased with the images I took in the conditions.  That said, I fully intend to return in summer 2018, earlier in the season to try again in better light.  This is a link to my blog about the ospreys & the D500.

I also spent a day in Neil McIntyre’s new red squirrel hide set in the magnificent Caledonian pine forest.  There was non-stop squirrel action from early morning until approx 4pm with 4 or 5 visiting continuously.  The setting is gorgeous and at that time of year it was carpeted in glorious pink and purple heather.  Beautiful.  Red squirrels are entertaining to watch, the time passed so quickly.  Definitely a highlight of 2017.

I made three visits to Chanonry Point to see the dolphins.   Chanonry Point itself isn’t one of my favourite places.  Personally I like being out alone with nature and you’re anything but alone here!  Still, if you want to see dolphins close to the shore this is still the place to be.  I was fortunate to see quite a lot of breaching, although sadly not on my evening visit when the light was glorious.  Not easy to photograph as it’s difficult to know exactly where or when breaching will occur, but I did pretty well, again I think the speed of the D500 helped a lot.

And, of course, I visited the mountain hares a couple of times. They aren’t nearly as active at this time of year as in March, but there’s still much to observe and photograph, plus quite a few sweet little leverets.  The heather was blooming up here too, and the midges for the most part stayed away.  I love little more than sitting on the mountainside in the company of a hare as it accepts my presence and gets on with the daily business of grazing, grooming, stretching and (mostly) snoozing.  Sitting in a hide is all very well, but the satisfaction of being out in the open with a wild animal where there’s no cover and no baiting really appeals to me.

It’s difficult for me to get away from Glasgow due partly to a full-time job, but also because I have a rescue dog who doesn’t travel and is a little complicated so I can’t just leave him with friends.  I have to plan weekends well in advance so I can book him in with his very popular dog sitter.  It’s hugely frustrating –  I love him but…   Anyway, I did plan a weekend down in Dumfries and Galloway although as luck would have it, it coincided with the tail end of two massive storms and the weather was pretty awful.  That however didn’t stop me from having two enjoyable days.   I visited the Bellymackhill Farm red kite feeding station en route down. My second time here and it’s a fabulous place to see these birds up close.  Challenging to photograph them diving for food though, because there are so many of them!  Beautiful birds and exhilarating to watch as they all suddenly decide it’s time to feed and swoop down.  Blink and you’ve missed it!

I also spent a day at the Scottish Photography Hides sparrowhawk hide as I’d never had a chance to really see or photograph sparrowhawks up close.  Great to see some red squirrels here too.  Sadly the male sparrowhawk was a no-show but I was treated to a juvenile female making a kill and pausing just long enough for me to rattle off a few frames.  I stuck around for the evening tawny owl visit too which was great.

My final big trip of the year was a return to Mull, this time on an organised otter workshop with Andy Howard and Pete Walkden.  I’ve only just recently written about this, but suffice to say I loved every minute of it, even lying on seaweed in torrential rain when it was too dark and wet to take photographs anymore.  Otters are my favourite mammal and wonderful to watch, especially when there’s a family unit – of which we saw many.  I was lucky to have 5 and a half great days of otter experiences many of which will stay with me for a long time.

So it’s been a fantastic year.  What’s next?  Well, I return to the Scottish Highlands for a week in March, and Mull in late April/early May, hopefully little owls (although I’ll have to cross the border for those!!), more ospreys and I’d like to spend a bit of time in Bamff with the beavers.  After that who knows.  On the wish list black grouse, ptarmigan and capercaillie.  However, my primary focus will be on the species I’ve spent time with this year – mountain hares, red squirrels and hopefully otters trying to work on locations and lighting to achieve better images using the techniques and experiences of 2017.   Stay tuned!

Prints and greeting cards are available via my website, or just email me with your requests.  Thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

Magical Moments with the Otters on Mull

I’ve waxed lyrical on this blog about my love of mountain hares, well, truth be told, although that is true, they actually come second in my affections, pipped at the post by the otter.

I’ve loved these playful, secretive mammals for as long as I can remember.  They have such wonderful personalities, and I can’t think of an animal I enjoy watching more primarily because not only do they genuinely seem to have fun with each other, but they also so obviously have deep family bonds.

Finding, and then photographing them though can be a challenge.  Earlier this year I was delighted to spend a day with the river otters in the Scottish Borders courtesy of Laurie Campbell.  This was a fantastic experience where we saw far more otters than I had expected including a little, ever-so-cute cub which sat in the undergrowth at the side of the river just long enough for us to take a few photos before it slipped into the water and disappeared.   This was the warmest day of the year so far with glorious blue skies – great for sitting and waiting for otters to appear, but not so great for photographing them!  Interesting to observe the different characteristics of the otters that dwell in rivers though – it’s the same species, but quite different in many respects.otters1

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It was back to sea otters in late April when I spent a week on Mull.  Unfortunately the tides weren’t in my favour and although I saw otters I had few opportunities to photograph them.

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On my return, frustrated both by this and some disappointing news, I had a look on Andy Howard’s website and noticed he had one place available on the second of his two inaugural November otter workshops – on a whim I dropped him an email to see if it was in fact still available and before I knew it I was booked for a week on Mull!  I first came across Andy after I had fallen for the mountain hares – he has spent many a day on the mountainside with the hares and has some wonderful images, but I also love Andy’s other photographs.  He’s great at bringing out the essence of his subject which is something I strive to do in my photography too, so I was looking forward to spending a week with him and fellow guide Pete Walkden.

I headed over to Mull on the 10am Sunday morning ferry planning to spend the day before the official start time of 5pm doing some otter-spotting of my own.  I headed for one of the lochs and was just getting myself organised when Andy and Pete pulled up and asked if I wanted to join them – minutes later we were crawling through the rocks to photograph a mother and cub curled up together on some seaweed – something I love to watch and saw many times over the course of the week.  Suffice to say after this experience my expectations were high for the week!

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I was paired with Brian, a retired head teacher from Northern Ireland who had been on a number of Andy’s previous highland tours.  We were both capable of navigating the slippy shore rocks which would hopefully provide us with more chance of getting close to the otters.  We rotated guides – 3 days with Pete and 2 with Andy.  I used my Nikon D500 mostly with the original Nikkor 300mm F4 lens and 1.4TC giving me a focal length of 630mm.  This is a much lighter (and cheaper!) combination than that of Andy, Pete and Brian who all sported Canon cameras and 500 or 600mm prime lenses – beyond my carrying capacity and budget.

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Brian and Andy on the very wet Tuesday

Over the course of the week we primarily photographed two pairs of otters – both mother and cub, and another mother with two young cubs.  There were other single otters too, but the family groups were more interesting – the interactions between the otters is so wonderful to witness.  Interestingly two of these otter families were each joined on occasion by another otter with whom they were affectionate and playful – we think in both cases these were older siblings, no longer with the mother but maintaining a strong bond.

Andy and Pete took time to explain the field craft required to spot and approach the otters and were helpful with camera settings too.  The biggest challenge by far all week was the weather.  Monday was drizzly rain which swirled around getting on the camera lens no matter how hard I tried to protect it.  Tuesday was miserable – I’ve never been so wet, and the images suffered from the lack of light and sheets of rain falling from the sky. Wednesday was the best day but there wasn’t much in the way of wind and then Thursday/Friday we had ice showers…!

Monday we spent time with the same otters as I’d photographed on Sunday, recognisable by the raw patch on mum’s nose.

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…as well as another mum and cub – this cub had the most adorable teddy bear face!

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Tuesday was miserable – I don’t think I’ve ever been so wet.  Fortunately my thermal/waterproof hunting trousers from Decathlon proved to be resilient as did my jacket so I stayed dry.  Both Brian and I had issues with our hats falling over our eyes though!  Rain covers on the cameras were more essential than usual, but it was a struggle as there was no light to speak of so camera ISO was higher than I’d have liked and as a result these aren’t the highest quality images you’ll ever see.  That said we still had plenty of otter encounters.

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This was a solo otter photographed in the morning which rolled around in the seaweed.
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My favourite pair of otters – mother with a dodgy eye and her adorable cub.

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By this point in the day there was no light and all the images I took look like mud.  Frustrating, because the cub was riding the loch waves very close at eye level which could have made for some wonderful photos…

Wednesday was SO much better, not exactly sunny and we still had some rain showers, but nothing like Tuesday.  That said, there was little wind to speak of and as such Pete, Brian and I were incredibly lucky to have two brilliant encounters.  Firstly with the mother and cub from Tuesday and then a mother with two cubs and an older sibling.

The mother and cub (my favourite squeaky fur ball) were initially quite a distance away allowing for these wider in the frame images (a kind of image I love).

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Then after a quick dip in the loch, they snuggled up together on the seaweed for a snooze.  Mum eventually left the cub to go fishing and it remained curled up…

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Mum returned with a fish which they shared – she then departed again and the wee cub was mobbed by some hooded crows – it held its own though.

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I have a shaky little video of the otter with the hoodies which can be watched here.

Driving back along the coastline Pete spotted the Mum with 2 little cubs.  We crawled as close as we could (still a fair way back) and suddenly realised there were 4 otters – we presume an older sibling was visiting.  The two cubs were very young, and one of them really wasn’t very enthusiastic about going in the water.  It would follow the other out for a metre or two, but would then turn around and head back to shore where it sat and squeaked until the others returned.  At one point both the cubs were entwined on the promontory – adorable…

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Thursday was cold but yet again we had a fantastic day, this time with Andy. First photograph I took wasn’t of an animal at all though but a stunning rainbow over the far shore…

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We came across the mother with the raw nose and her cub just before they returned to their holt.

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Then we photographed a dog otter. We tracked it along the shoreline and Andy correctly anticipated where it would come ashore.  Unfortunately yet again the mammal decided to hang out in a dip in the seaweed so although it rolled about we couldn’t get any clear images!

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We then located one-eyed mum and cub.  On one occasion she brought a fish on shore for the cub, seeing it was struggling, she disappeared and returned with a smaller, more palatable fish for it and took the other for herself – although when the cub had finished its meal it tried to steal the other one back!   Then Andy spotted that the mother had caught an octopus (or squid) and we quickly got ourselves in position lying on top of a large flat rock.  Unfortunately as is so often the case, a pesky boulder got in the way so I wasn’t able to get any good octopus images, this was the best I managed.

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However the cub treated us to some golden moments.  They were so close and we were all snapping away, but neither otter seemed remotely bothered – maybe because we smelt so strongly of the sea/seaweed by this time they didn’t have the faintest idea we were there!

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Our final experience with this pairing was the most enjoyable to watch – Pete and I (Brian had left early) had seen the two of them and were tracking them along the shore.  Suddenly there were three!  The mother and the new otter were very affectionate and the little one took great delight in playing with it in the sea diving and jumping – brilliant to watch but very difficult to photograph especially as the light was constantly changing.

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This looks as though the two on the left are laughing at a joke told by otter #3!

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Not as sharp as I’d have liked, but trying to photograph the otters jumping out the water was a bit like trying to capture dolphins breaching – ie more more splashes than actual action.

 

The week was all about otters, but I did photograph a few hooded crows as well as a buzzard that sat perched on a mound of grass in the pouring rain, seemingly oblivious to our car and the three snapping cameras.  Rain was running down its back and dripping off it’s beak.  Suddenly it leapt in the air and onto the ground, rising with a vole.  Annoyingly, although I was able to photograph the entire sequence my shutter speed was far too low.  You win some…  There were many many buzzards and herons.  We saw the odd white-tailed eagle, but I was never close enough to photograph (Andy and Michelle got some fantastic images of two white-tails mobbing an otter), and we also saw one distant golden eagle and hen harrier.

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It was a great week, every single day provided wonderful opportunities with the otters – helped by Andy and Pete’s knowledge of the island and its occupants and their ability to spot the otters where most would miss them.  I think the fact that Brian and I were mobile and able to crawl across slippy rocks and wet seaweed to get into a good position helped too.  I can see why the otters curl up on the seaweed – it was really comfortable to lie on!

Andy and Pete are running the November tours again in 2018, check out their facebook pages or websites for details, I can definitely recommend it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My kind of wildlife images

I spend a lot of time looking at photographs of wildlife – it’s a great way to learn more about the animals and the possibilities there are for capturing amazing images of them.  But nothing beats actually being out in the field observing them in the flesh.  My aspiration when it comes to wildlife photography is to stick to a few species and spend as much time as is possible watching them.  Not as easy as it might seem, none of my target species are close to home, so for the time-being I have to rely on vacation time, but as I love nothing more than sitting in the middle of nowhere for hours on end watching and photographing wildlife, there is no better way I can think of to use my precious holidays.

Over the past couple of years I have remained in Scotland (and Northumbria), focusing primarily on the Eastern Scottish Highlands, the Isle of Mull and East Lothian.   I don’t want to be one of those photographers who travels to far-flung places just to tick an animal off the list, not that there’s anything wrong with that.  For me, the thrill is observing animals natural behaviours and taking photographs that I find emotive and interesting. The more time you spend with them the greater the chance of achieving this.  Talking to other photographers is another great way to learn more, as is reading books on the subject.  I’ve just finished an excellent book by Marianne Taylor on hares “The Way of the Hare” which I’d highly recommend.

My target species are mountain hares, red squirrels, puffins, gannets and, my favourite animal of all, the otter. I’d also like to spend more time with beavers as I find them fascinating.

I’m going to let the photographs demonstrate what I’m trying to say.

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I spent a wonderful day in Neil McIntyre‘s new red squirrel hide on the Rothiemurchas Estate in the Cairngorms.  It’s set in Caledonian pine forest and when I was there in August the forest floor was covered in purple heather – stunning. I’m going to do a full blog on this soon, but in the meantime…   just as I was packing up I spotted this little squirrel lying on a distant branch, probably exhausted after all the hazelnuts it had eaten throughout the day!  I’d never seen this before and finally managed to find an angle unobstructed by other branches.  I haven’t come across too many similar images (although I’m sure they exist!). Neil, who I consider to be “the squirrel guy” told me he’s never successfully managed to photograph this behaviour.

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So many red squirrel photographs are close-ups of these adorable animals clutching a nut in their paws – I have hundreds of those.   But this is something a bit different, also from Neil’s hide.  This image instantly appealed to me.  I like the sense of scale and the light. The scots pine trees are huge and the red squirrels so small.

And finally, this red squirrel photo (yes, it does have a nut in its mouth) makes me smile!

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This next squirrel was photographed high up a tree at the RSPB Loch Garten Osprey Centre – the benefit of having a cropped frame camera with a 150-600mm lens giving me a focal distance of 900mm.  It’s the first time I have ever seen a red squirrel eating natural food, not nuts.

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My priority on my highland trips is to visit the mountain hares. I wrote a blog about this a while back, so I’ll try not to repeat myself, but ever since I was first introduced to them by Laurie Campbell on the Aigas photography masterclass week I’ve been smitten. In the past year I’ve been up the hill seven times and spent many wonderful hours sitting observing and photographing these gorgeous animals.  They are definitely most active in the winter months when I witnessed all sorts of behaviour.

After an extensive grooming session, this one had a snow bath…

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Here are a few of it grooming – again these always make me smile when I look at them.

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In August, again with the gorgeous purple heather carpeting the hillside, I was able to focus more on facial expressions.  I love the look on this animal’s face.

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I had hares yawning and sticking out their tongues…

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And finally this pair, having a snooze.

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Puffins are also fantastic to watch and photograph.  I’ve written about this year’s two trips already, but here are a couple of images to show the kind of pictures I like.

The first is so romantic, the way the puffin on the left is looking up to the one on the right is lovely.  The second is another one that makes me smile.  This puffin spent ages trying to detach these grasses for its nest, without a lot of success, but it did put a whole lot of effort into it!

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I haven’t yet really taken any photographs of otters that I’m 100% pleased with – but I’m on an otter workshop later this year so fingers crossed!  I did photograph this gorgeous otter cub in the Scottish Borders but the light wasn’t great.

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Finally, it is possible to find some species to photograph without leaving my bedroom!  During the spring I spent many enjoyable hours sitting at the window photographing garden birds in my neighbour’s cherry tree.  I can watch birds all day!

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For prints or greeting cards of any of my images please visit http://www.karenmillerphotography.co.uk or contact me karen@karenmillerphotography.co.uk

 

2017 Highlights (Jan-June)

I’m working on an episode of my americana radio show “The Miller Tells Her Tale”  featuring my favourites of the first six months of 2017 and it occurred to me I could do the same for photographic experiences.

I don’t get out an about as much as I’d like to – a full time job, two radio shows and a dog who doesn’t travel make it problematic to venture far from home except on holidays when I can pack the dog off to someone else to deal with.  However, I’ve been fortunate enough to go on 3 vacations so far this year (Scottish Highlands, Mull and East Lothian) and a few outings.

First highlight was without a doubt the 3 days I spent with mountain hares in the Scottish highlands in March.  You can read all about this on my mountain hare blog.  Spending time with these magnificent creatures was wonderful and I can’t wait to return in August.  The highland trip was also memorable for all the people I met, especially whilst hanging out in the RSPB Loch Garten carpark waiting, mostly fruitlessly, for crested tits to visit.  Wildlife photographers, for the most part, are a friendly bunch!

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In April I travelled down to the Borders for a day with Laurie Campbell to photograph river otters.  Otters are undoubtedly my favourite animal, there’s something really special about them and there’s little better than watching a family fish and cavort.  It was a fantastic day – the warmest and sunniest of the year so far (not necessarily ideal for photography, but good for sitting and waiting) – great company and plenty of otters.  We were much more successful in finding them than I could ever have hoped for, beginning with an otter cub we stumbled upon at the river bank.  Good to visit some of the locations photographed in Laurie & Anna Levin‘s “Otters – A Return to the River” book.   The day was rounded off with a quick visit in almost darkness to a badger set where I could just make out a family – the first I’ve seen. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to spend more time with the badgers in the future.

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I had a tip-off about a location in Glasgow where I could photograph fossorial water voles – these are water voles that don’t actually live on river banks, but instead reside in the east end of the city in undeveloped grassland and parks.  It was a surreal experience, visiting a city park and finding the voles.  They were adorable!  Once I got my eye in I spotted them everywhere popping in and out of their burrows munching on grass.  They have been very successful in this area, primarily because the reasons their numbers have declined so drastically on river banks are the american mink and the re-development of their habitat neither of which are such a major issue away from the rivers (and in fact the voles in areas being developed are being relocated).  Interestingly these voles were black not the normal brown.  I haven’t yet managed to locate any traditional water voles, but I’ll keep looking.

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In late April I travelled to Mull for a week.  I failed miserably to take any decent photographs on the Mull Charters Sea Eagle trip as I spent so much time ensuring one of my cameras was set up correctly for my Dad to borrow that I forgot to sort mine out!  Rookie mistake…  I was also less successful at finding otters than I’d have liked, tides weren’t in my favour although I did spend time with one on my final dayOtter07.

 

However, I was able to spend four wonderful hours on Lunga with the puffins.  More on that experience on my Lunga blog.

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My parents live in East Lothian, a great place for seabirds during the summer months.  I went to visit them for a week in late May, and had my most enjoyable time there yet.  Not only did I spend time photographing the kittiwakes in Dunbar Harbour…

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the puffins and other seabirds on the Farne Islands…

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and a brown hare near Fast Castle.

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But I also finally went on the Scottish Seabird Centre Bass Rock landing trip to spend 3 hours surrounded by the magnificent gannets – fantastic experience.  Again, more on this on an earlier blog.

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Aside from trips I’ve been published for the first time – four national newspapers and the mail online published images of a puffin being mobbed by a gull on The Farne Islands.

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I’ve had photographs chosen for BBC Pictures of the Week and a BBC Springwatch gallery (neither had anything to do with me being a BBC employee!) and I won a Gold Wildlife Award in the June The Societies members competition for this image of a mountain hare from my March trip (the light for the first hour that day was wonderful).

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So all in all, not a bad six months. I still have a lot to learn and experience so I’m looking forward to the second half of 2017. Already planned, ten days in the Scottish Highlands in August, an otter workshop in Mull with Andy Howard in November and hopefully my first proper beaver sightings in late July.  Stay posted for updates!

Books for Scottish Nature Lovers

This post isn’t exactly about photography, but it is connected.  As someone with a strong interest and love of nature photography I’ve made it my mission to learn more about Scotland’s wildlife, and this has pretty much dictated my reading, and some viewing choices.

After my first visit to Aigas in 2015 I purchased a couple of Sir John Lister Kaye‘s books “Song of the Rolling Earth – A Highland Odyssey” which is the autobiographical account of the Aigas Field Centre and “At The Water’s Edge – A Walk in the Wild” in which John shares some of  his experiences during a year of walking his estate, primarily around their stunning little loch.  John is a naturalist and conservationist who is passionate about the world around him and this comes across strongly in his writing.  When John describes his encounters with animals he has the ability to paint a wonderful picture bringing these moments to life.  There are far too many passages to mention here, but all have stayed with me – frozen wrens, mating adders, coming face to face with a wildcat, finding a stunned goshawk, stalking a stag – these are just a few examples, both books are full of them.  Being completely smitten with the Aigas Loch obviously enhances my enjoyment, I’ve been there, I can picture exactly where he is, but if you are at all interested in Scottish wildlife, I’d highly recommend these books.

Another author / photographer / film-maker / naturalist recommended to me by photographer Laurie Campbell was Mike Tomkies.   Mike has an interesting back-story. He was a Hollywood columnist, he sailed round the world, he served in the army… but his heart lay in the wilds of Canada, Spain and Scotland and he wrote a number of books about his time in these remote places.   It’s definitely worth reading his wikipedia page and there are a few documentaries on youtube too. Sadly he passed away in October 2016.

34557I’ve read a couple of his books so far, “A Last Wild Place“, in which he writes about his first years staying in a remote cottage, many miles from civilization with his German Shepherd Moobli, and “My Wilderness Wildcats”  – his attempt to rear and breed two wildcat kittens and the older fiesty Sylvesturr.  He was an entertaining and engaging author who combined his knowledge of the wildlife with personal observations and a knack for telling a good story.  His descriptions of the birds that visit his garden are wonderful – the cock chaffinches, heron, gulls etc. The wilds of Scotland are brought to life with his tales.

Another Laurie recommendation was Hugh Miles‘ documentary and accompanying book “Track of the Wild Otter” about otters on Shetland. He spent a number of years finding and familiarising himself with the wild otters around the coast, at a time when there were far fewer otters along British shorelines.  One female otter became so accustomed to his appearances that he was able to capture some lovely, uninhibited footage of her and her cubs.  The film also features beautiful shots of some of the other wildlife which frequents the shoreline.  It may be decades old now, but for me it’s one of the best I’ve seen in its genre, an intimate portrait of a wonderful animal.  The documentary is often shown on BBC Alba and for non-Gaelic speakers don’t worry it’s in English with Gaelic sub-titles!

515wez9h2bil-_sx258_bo1204203200_And, of course, there’s Laurie and Anna Levin’s otter book too “Otters: Return To The River“, some fabulous photographs taken over the years throughout Scotland of both fresh water and sea otters.

On the topic of otters, I think my favourite book on the subject is Dr Miriam Darlington‘s “Otter Country“.  I left my first copy at Aigas by accident, but was enjoying it so much I ordered a second.  It’s a joyful & informative read.  Miriam is passionate about otters and travels the lengths and breadths of the UK to find signs of them and learn more about these elusive animals from some of the experts in the field.

Finally, I’m looking forward to receiving my copy of Neil McIntyre‘s “The Red Squirrel: A future in the forest” in April.