Wildlife Photography Mull, trip report June 2012 Hearing that Mull is a wildlife paradise, I have been anxious to take a trip, camera in tow, to see for myself. June 2012 finally saw me working out how to fly my kit up to Glasgow (I live in the south east so didn’t fancy the drive). Flying early am, we (my wife and I) decided to park and stay at a Gatwick Hotel. If you think of doing this, do not stay at the Europa. Not exactly happy with our mouldy smelling room and the ratrun corridors but hey, it was only one night. I was quite worried about flying with my “big” lense (the Sigma 500mm) but I needn’t have been. I took the 500mm, a 180mm macro, my 18-105, a 1.4 converter and the camera body all in my hand luggage. I bought a hard style case that met hand baggage regulations and found that in their padded cases and with the camera body wrapped heavily in bubble wrap it was a near perfect fit. BA allow a 23KG one checked piece of luggage plus your hand baggage. They don’t put a weight limit on it but you are meant to be able to lift it unassisted into the overhead lockers. My tripod went in a main suitcase and the head (a Manfrotto 393) was wrapped in a bag hide and travelled in my wife’s hand luggage. Flight went without a hitch and we arrived safely, all gear intact. I do wonder how people travel with the Nikon / Canon 500/600 lenses as they seem a bit bigger. Maybe someone can confirm if they fit in the hand luggage sizes for me? We hired a car  to be collected at Glasgow airport and the drive to Oban up the side of Loch Lomond was a joy, the roads seem so quiet compared to the south. One small hitch was that we had chosen the one day that the olympic torch travelled part of that road so had a small delay. The drive takes about two and a half hours. Oban was easy to find and no problem getting through the town to the well signposted ferry terminal. We boarded the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Craignure on a beautiful sunny afternoon. We luckily squeezed in on an earlier than planned ferry - literally last car in and inches to spare. The sail across to Craignure takes around 45 minutes and the scenery is fantastic. Arriving at Craignure, we turned right and headed for our cottage for the week. Based near Salen, we stayed at Kate’s Cottage on the Glenaros estate. The cottage is at the back of a “working” farm although it was so peaceful we didn’t notice the work part other than the sheep that often were on the track to and from the property (get used to it, you need to be careful as they are often in the roads) The cottage has a good view of the sound of Mull, and the ruins of Aros castle. Often the only sounds were the sheep, the Siskins calling overhead, the twittering swallows that rested on the building and most days the cronk of ravens. There is literally nothing but rolling hills and mountains for miles behind the property. If just the sounds of nature are your cup of tea then this ticks the boxes. Here’s a few images to give you an idea - We found the cottage ideally placed for driving around Mull. It’s deceptively big. There is a spar shop and a few places to eat close by in Salen, along with a place to get fuel. Around 20 minutes north is Tobermory, the biggest town on the island. Plenty there of course and worth a visit. Lots of restuarants but only 1 mid size co-op if you are looking for supplies. Heading south from Salen brings you to Craignure after 25 minutes or so. Another spar there for a bit of shopping, fuel for the car and would recommend the Craignure Inn for good, straight forward, not too expensive food. The roads aren’t too bad but are mainly single track with lots of passing places (look for the black and white striped poles that show where the next one is) although sometimes you have to do a bit of reversing and careful driving. It’s polite to acknowledge when someone lets you pass. All images on this site are © Toby Houlton and must not be used without permission Interested in an image? Please contact me using the contact link on the navigation bar Return to main page From the moment you arrive on the island it’s clear why it’s paradise for wildlife. I found myself scanning the skies for birds of prey and the coast for otters. Our first few hours didn’t turn up anything too special but did see lots of lots of Siskins flying around the property along with a Spotted Flycatcher using the fenceposts to ambush it’s prey. The constant zip of the swallows flying around is always a joy to watch and we were often woken by their chattering as they rested on the building. The nearby trees often held hooded crows along with Ravens. We saw quite a few Buzzards flying over during the week and, when walking out the back towards the fort, I also spotted a male Hen Harrier. Our first full day saw us exploring the north of the island. The weather wasn’t so special with a fair bit of rain so mainly it was a drive to spot what we could. We once again got our timing perfect as there was a round island bike race for the weekend. Single track roads, cars, bikes and rain don’t mix so well so we often were held up a short while. No problem! it just meant we had time to admire the view. I should point out that although there are places to park, they weren’t as numerous as I had thought and I didn’t want to block a passing place for any time although a quick stop seemed ok as long as we were still at the car. We took the drive clockwise around from Aros in a complete circle. En route we spotted A Short Eared Owl, a Hen Harrier (at Ulva ferry area), and lots of Buzzards. There was a Great Spotted Woodpecker near Calgary (one of 3 sightings for the week) and, in no particular order, Great Tits, Goldfinch, Siskin, Oystercatchers on every piece of shoreline, Common Sandpiper, Linnet and House Martin. At Aros bay there was a small family of Eider and Loch Na Keal turned up trumps with a White Tailed Sea Eagle. I have to admit I’m more of a photographer than a birdwatcher and didn’t pay attention to many of the smaller birds that we saw along the way but there were so many Pipits they appeared to be everywhere you looked. Not to mention that I didn’t really check the families of geese and the gulls that were in the bay - mainly Common Gulls from memory. Monday saw a change of plans. Originally booked with Turus Mara to do the island trip, I switched the date to Tuesday as the forecast wasn’t great. Instead we got up really early and drove through Glen More. Fantastic views and a real sense of wilderness. I had two major “DOH!” moments here though. The first was getting out the car at a parking spot high up in the pass to admire the view, left the camera behind and then watched a pair of Hen Harriers circle up from the grass and glide majestically over me. Beautiful. We then drove down towards Loch Scridain and parked up near the river and stone bridge. I then had my second major “DOH!” moment when after scanning the moorland and riverside I took 20 paces from the car. At that point a Short Eared Owl flew past giving exceptional views as it was mobbed by the local Curlews. We spent some hours in this area. The Owl was hunting a large area and was giving us a wide berth as expected. I managed some (poor) flight shots but some better ones of the Curlews. After walking a little way down a track I heard something a bit more interesting. As the adult owl landed on a fence post I could hear something else close to it and there, well hidden in a clump of ferns, were three little faces peering out. I was some way off and the Owls were not concerned by my presence so I sat and watched the nest for a while. I took a few long distance record shots and left them to it, planning to return later in the week to try for some better shots of the adult(s). Tuesday was a day I’d been anticipating for some time. We were booked on the Turus Mara trip to visit the islands, Staffa and Lunga. For once we were lucky with the weather and as we motored further from the coast the clouds thinned and the sun shone making the journey spectacular. Staffa is famous for Fingals Cave, an impressive geological structure. There are also seabirds that nest on the islands along with many pipits. A tip here. Enjoy Staffa for the cave and don’t worry too much about photographing birds. You only have an hour and although there are puffins and I did see a Skua, it’s best to save your energy for Lunga. Be warned that there are some fairly steep steps up to the top but the boat landing is fairly easy on a pontoon. Look out for Shags nesting in a cave right where you land. Interesting though Staffa was, it was Lunga that I was chomping at the bit to get on to. As the boat gets close to the island(s) you can see birds zipping about everywhere, incoming puffins with beakfuls of silvery perfection, guillemots diving under the water and a buzz of birds around the cliffs. I did spot a Black Guillemot (no decent images) from the boat but to be honest once we landed and climbed to the top of the cliff it turned rather frantic. Another warning - the boat moors against a pontoon, unties it then motors into the shore with it. Although this was fine. you then have to cross a boulder strewn beach. In the dry it was ok if you are agile. In the wet it would be extremely treacherous. Follow the path up through the cliff face and the fun begins! The puffins nest right the way along and are very approachable. Just in case the skipper doesn’t mention it, or you don’t hear it, if you follow the path for about 15 minutes you come to the main stack. There is a large guillemot colony there opposite a lovely flat grassy point that faces the sea. It’s perfect. All the expected birds are here but in such numbers I barely knew where to point the camera! I was a kid in a candy shop. With about 2 hours ashore you have plenty of time to get some cracking images. I was surprised by just how close the birds allowed you to come. Please ensure as always that the birds welfare is put first. You don’t need to chase them about, just sit and let them do their magic. I started out with my Sigma 500mm on the tripod and grabbed plenty of shots. You’ll find that you don’t need any big lenses so don’t be put off if you don’t have one. I switched to a 180mm macro half way through and took some lovely close ups. I had a few shots I wanted in mind but these went out the window due to the sheer choice. I had a small window into how a predator may feel when confronted with a whirling flock. So confusing! The mass of birds coming and going reminded me of a massive aerial dogfight. I’m not ashamed to say at times I just sat and watched with a smile on my face. Curlew amongst the Cotton Grass Short Eared Owl in flight against the mountains Short Eared Owl chicks at the nest They say a picture is worth a thousand words so how about letting the pictures speak.... Puffin portrait A pair of Fulmars on the nest Razorbill portrait Puffins fighting Guillemot colony, Lunga, Treshnish Isles Puffin on clifftop looking out to sea Time for a nap, Puffin style A razorbill rests in the sun I could have spent days here but alas the two hours flew by and we boarded the boat the return to Ulva Ferry. We did get excellent views of Shag as we passed rocky outcrops and also Grey and Common Seals. A real treat was the White Tailed Sea Eagle on a small island that took flight as we slowly passed by. The cost of the trip was £50 per person and I would thoroughly recommend it, just make sure you go during the seabird breeding season. The weather stayed beautiful still and sunny for Wednesday and as agreed I went and did a few tourist things. We visited Duart castle, very impressive indeed built on an outcrop of rock and overlooking the sea. Plenty of history to check out and read about along with grounds you can walk around.  I just can’t help myself when a photo opportuniy arises so when the local and pretty tame sparrows and chaffinches joined us for tea and cake outside the tearoom it would just be rude not to share, despite my wife’s protests Male Chaffinch taking cake from my hand The grounds were alive with small birds flitting about. From swallows dipping and diving across the lawns to a couple of Song Thrushes collecting food (see photo), Meadow Pipits, nesting Willow Warblers and various Gulls. I wanted to check out the shore line so headed down well kept paths to a lovely natural meadow area that was buzzing with insects (including my first ever view of a Broad Bordered Bee-Hawkmoth) and naturally they supported a large population of birds. I don’t often see Rock pipits where I am in the South East of the country so attempted a few shots as they gathered food for their vocal young. A song Thrush with a beal full of food An alert Rock Pipit searches for insects Once again, and becoming a familiar theme, I could have stayed in this area for much longer but there were so many places to see! One place that had cropped up a few times was Grasspoint. I had heard that it’s a good viewpoint for Eagles so we headed over. Be warned that the road along to the point has the fewest passing places I had experienced, it’s lucky you probably won’t meet any traffic heading in the opposite direction. Instead of a point high up on a hill that I had imagined, I was pleasantly surprised when it actually turned out to be a coastal viewpoint. One note - there is a property at the end of the road. There is a sign on the gate welcoming walkers but asking for no cars so you need to turn round and head back to the “big” carpark back up the road. That’ll be the one that can maybe fit 4 cars so if you head here you need to stop at that point and walk. The view from here is stunning, endless sea and sky against a mountain backdrop. I just can’t do it justice from a photo but I’ll include one to give you a teaser. We headed off the road and took a path to a stunning little bay, gin clear water gently lapping against a clean sandy bay, framed by rugged rocks. I couldn’t believe our luck when the first thing we saw was an otter fishing at the mouth of the bay, diving effortlessly into the calm blue only to pop up 50 yards further along. I tried hard to get onto a peninsula and hoped it would come back into the bay but instead we could only watch as with each flick of it’s tail it fished further and further away. No photos but what an experience. I checked the area around the point and found lots of sign that the headland is used regularly by otters, not only for travelling but also to feed. Definitely a place to return when I manage to book a repeat trip to Mull. The left image is one of many sites with Otter spraint, the right is I believe the remains of an Otter meal. Otter spraint Shore crab that has been eaten by an otter On wednesday evening I decided I wanted to head back out to where we spotted the Short Eared owls on Monday but this time, instead of driving through Glen More, we would take the scenic route and drive round the southern side of Loch Na Keal. This would also allow us to scout ahead for the trip to the hide to watch the Sea Eagles I had planned for Friday. The road follows the southern coast of the loch fairly closely then cuts up over the peninsula through the hills, there was wildlife everywhere you looked from Pied Wagtails feeding on the cropped grass verges to families of Greylag Geese. There were also lots of sheep in the road so I had to be quite careful and had to pay attention to what I was doing, especially as some of the drops off the narrow road would have been a bit of a disaster. Next time I take this road I’ll make sure I’m in the passenger seat with the camera as I missed many opportunities. We passed the turning for the hide trip as we descended into the valley and within 10 minutes I was back at the site where we experienced the Short Eared Owls. Unfortunately, in the two days that had passed, the young Owls had all fledged so the adults were not hunting that area any more. Disappointing yes, but glimpsed views of the youngsters in flight meant that this family had been successful in rearing their family, something to warm the heart. As we drove back the way we had come the sun was starting to set and as we crested the top of the hills we were treated to a spectactular sunset over Loch Na Keal. Sunset over Loch Na Keal, Mull Thursday saw us exploring a little closer to the cottage. First was a trek along the river Aros, the mouth of which is near the bottom of the track to the cottage. We drove a little way up the road and parked, the area is marked on the OS map a little north of the Aros bridge on the A848. This turned out to be a wide path along the edge of the river but for the most part you couldn’t get to the waters edge due to deer fencing. We walked for about an hour and decided that it wasn’t quite what we were hoping for. We found one spot where a bridge crossed and that was the only place to actually get to the bank. I was really hoping to have a chance of spotting Dippers and Grey Wagtails but this wasn’t going to be. We doubled back and headed towards the remains of a chapel in the forest. This was a better path and if you are interested in smaller woodland birds then this would be a good walk. We saw lots of Goldcrests and Siskins amongst the more common woodland birds. I spent the afternoon walking out from the back of the cottage and headed towards the stone fort remains. I’m not sure what it is about me and cows but they just love to run at me, and as I round the bend I saw a herd of cattle across the path. Not only cows but I’m sure there was a bull in there too so decided to walk the long way round. Not taking any chances! The hike up to the ruins was hard going across the grass although there were plenty of pipits to keep me company and I did see a male Hen Harrier in the distance. The views from the stone circle where the fort stood were stunning. The walk back was so much easier following the path and thankfully the cows had moved away so no detours were needed. For friday we had booked a trip to see the White Tailed Sea Eagles at Glen Seilisdeir. This is a ranger led trip and needs to be pre booked. From memory the trip costs £6 per person. You are met in a car park by the ranger and after a few quick instructions are driven up the track to an information hut where we were given information about what to expect and how to behave. I’ll stress now this is by prebook only and you cannot head there alone. The info chat was really good and after a few minutes we were walking towards the “hide”, camera in hand with light rain in the air. The first surprise was that the hide was an area in the pines that had been cleared back a few feet and allowed everyone to be out of sight and out of the weather. In this area there were spotting scopes set up pointing towards the nest. These allowed everyone to get excellent views as the warden gave fact after fact about the birds. Incredibly interesting. The fact that I remember most was when she said that the nest is about the same size as a double bed!!! It was fairly difficult to gauge scale as we were around 300 metres from the nest. Even with a 500mm lense with a converter attached it was difficult to get any great images. That didn’t really matter to be honest, it was just excellent to have the priviledge of being able to see them this close. We were lucky that one of the adult birds was there perched up while we looked and even better was when the two chicks decided to stretch their fast developing wings. A White Tailed Sea Eagle above the nest White tailed Sea Eagle chicks exercise in the nest The trip lasted around two hours and was well worth the money. The guide was extremely knowledgeable and I was happy that we had managed to fit the trip in. A couple of small points. I had expected a wooden hide (there was one at Loch Frisa when the trips were there) but as we were outside it’s worth bearing in mind if you are bringing a large lense then don’t forget your tripod! It was the one time I didn’t put it in the car. The guide also asks photographers to stand at the back so the the gear doesn’t restrict views. This is perfectly fine and although there isn’t acres of room, you won’t struggle. There were also a couple of small stools at the back which help get above everyone’s heads. Only a small group can be accomodated, maybe 12 or so. Sadly we had little time left of our week. As a wildlife photographer I could happily live here. It’s a beautiful island and the opportunites for photographs are endless. I would certainly love to return at some point to visit the parts of the island we didn’t reach and to go on some of the trips we skipped. Highly recommended! Finally here’s a few things that may be of help - Our accomodation was booked through Isle Of Mull Cottages We visited Staffa and Lunga with Turus Mara and would highly recommend a boat trip out to the isles. We flew with British Airways and had no issues with taking my photography kit as hand luggage as it fitted into a hard suitcase that was within the size restrictions. The only hiccup was the interest that the head of my Manfrotto 393 caused at security on the way back, soon resolved once we took it out the bag and explained it’s use. We hired a car from Enterprise Rent a Car as they seemed to be well priced. We were able to pick it up at Glasgow airport on arrival  and dropped it back there at the end of the week. The drive from Glasgow to Oban was around 2 1/2 hours. The car ferry is run by Caledonian MacBrayne. There is a spar at Craignure and at Salen for picking up groceries. There is also a Co-op in Tobermorey. Unsurprisingly food is a little more expensive than on the mainland. Petrol Station - we used a little one at Salen village, it’s just round the corner from the village on the road you would take to Loch Na Keal. There is also one at Craignure - you need to go into the spar and ask them to unlock the pumps for you. I really wished we had gone on the boat trip to see Sea Eagles as they come down to grab fish from the water. Everyone I met said this was fantastic - one for next time! Lots of info about Mull can be found at the information centre which is right opposite where the ferry lands at Craignure. Thanks for reading, I hope you found something of interest in my report. View from Grasspoint, Mull Me enjoying the action on Lunga Me enjoying the action on Lunga