Isle of Mull - A Winter Spectacle

This year I decided to go away for Christmas and New Year, and where better than Mull.  With the recent storms, I was expecting to spend a night or two in Oban waiting for the waters to calm.  Each stop on the journey I'd check the Calmac website, and each time it was amber; disrupted service.  But half an hour before Oban, it turned green; normal service.  A few hours later, I was on the island, what a relief!

I wasn't sure what to expect from Mull in Winter.  My gut told me a lot of rain and cloudy skies.  But the island was more alive than ever, with it's wild weather, superb wildlife, and dramatic landscapes.  The sun bathed the land in it's golden glow, the rains lashed down, the snow settled high upon the mountains, and the wind howled, we saw it all.

Mull is home to some of the most exciting wildlife in the UK, as well as those just staying for the Winter.  Scanning the lochs with the binoculars you can see Red Breasted Mergansers, Cormorants, Great Northern Divers, Red Throated Divers, and even Little Auk.  The shores are a hive of activity with Herons, Rock Pipits, Robins, Curlews, Oystercatchers, Redshank, and Bar Tailed Godwits.  On one morning, a gorgeous male Hen Harrier was flying up  the middle of Loch Scridain, pursued by gulls.  The higher ground and rough grassland are home to the Red Deer which is such an iconic species in Scotland.

Scarisdale Rocks is a great place to watch White Tailed Eagles.  One afternoon my luck was in as one landed on the rocks, endlessly mobbed by gulls it made several small flights to scare them off.  The stubborn gulls persisted, at which point the Eagle took off and headed for the Seals basking on the rocks, making several low passes until they all dived into the water.  After the rocks were cleared of Seals, the Eagle landed.  Seems harsh, but worth it to be free of harassing gulls!  After a good rest, the Eagle made a sweeping pass over the shoreline (and over me!) before flying up the loch, only to be joined by two more Eagles; what a treat!

The two animals that keep me coming back to Mull are Eagles and Otters.  I'd been hoping to have a close encounter with an Otter for years, and this time I got two incredible encounters!  The first was on Loch Scridain.  I was driving near the end of the loch one evening and spotted a mother and two cubs fishing below me.  My heart begins to beat a little faster.  I keep driving at a steady pace and get a few hundred metres ahead of the them.  I grab the camera and head down the rocky beach to the waters edge and find an outcrop to tuck into.  I'm downwind at this point (Otters have an amazing sense of smell, and will often flee upon smelling humans).  I peer round the rocks and see all three Otters swim straight toward me.  My heart beats faster again.  When they submerge, I make a final adjustment to my body and get behind the viewfinder.  The Otters surface and the camera won't focus.  They are inside minimum focus distance!  Otters may have atrocious eyesight, but they will see a big lens being repositioned, so I say to myself, forget the picture and enjoy the moment.  When they submerge again, I roll onto my backside and get comfy.  Just then, a head pops out the water; an Otter is at my feet!  One of the cubs is checking out the seaweed covered rocks.  Ten seconds later hes back in the water, then the other cub jumps up.  He makes a snorting sound, a warning.  My heart is pounding.  They know I'm there, but not sure where.  I stay frozen, the last thing I want to do is scare them.  The cub jumps back in the water, and the three continue fishing.  I remain motionless whilst they swim to the next bay.  I feel a massive grin across my face!  As exciting as this was, it is not something I aim for.  As a naturalist and photographer, I want to see behaviour without disturbing the subject.

The second encounter, it all came together.  We spotted an Otter washing on a rock just off the shore.  We watch for ten minutes, as the Otter preens, scratches, and catches the odd fish, bringing them back to the same rock.  When the Otter goes back in the water, I start my approach down the beach, always staying downwind and moving only when the Otter submerges.  I get into position, and the Otter hauls a crab out the water.  The Otter makes quick work of the crab and is soon back in the water.  Two more fish follow.  At this point a car pulls up on the road behind me, watching the Otter, and who wouldn't want to watch this superb animal!  The car then moves on up the road and then stops and the voice in my head is shouting "don't get out the car!", but its too late.  Within seconds, the Otter raises his nose and smells them and quickly swims away.  I can't stress the importance of being downwind in order to see these magnificent Mustelids up close.

So there you go, two of the most thrilling and rewarding encounters I've ever experienced.  It makes all the travel and hours spent waiting worth while.  Mull is an incredible place, so full of intrigue and excitement.  I have already started planning my next visit.

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