WILDLIFE & LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY IN MULL: "I would walk 500 miles...!!"

25th November 2016
With apologies to The Proclaimers, it turned out I drove/walked, scrambled 1450 miles on this 7-8 day trek. With a 9 hour drive from my home in the south to Oban (then 45 minutes on the ferry to Craignure port on Mull) in North West Scotland it's not a trip I can do each month (sadly!!)
So why Mull? Iconic to so many wildlife photographers in the UK and from around the world. Home to under 3000 inhabitants on an island covering 875 sq kms. As a comparison the whole of Greater London covers an area double that (1572 sq kms) but with 8.6mn people. A place steeped with the sort of history that oozes from Scotland's pores, the usual clashes between clans of MacLean, Campbell and others, the brutal Highland Clearances of the 1800's where the population fell by 2/3rds and the advent of ecotourism in the 1990's turning around the island's economy. For me as well, I wanted to combine the wildlife with any potential landscape photography and while Mull isn't arguably as dramatic as Skye (see my blog from my trip last year) it has much to offer those whose preference is for a wide angle and graduated filter.
Having first met pro wildlife photographer Neil McIntyre a few years ago whilst photographing at his Red Squirrel site in the Highlands, I had always wanted to use his expertise for the Otters in Mull. Even though I have photographed them in the Shetlands, local knowledge can make such a difference and Neil has been travelling to Mull for over 15 years. With friends (and excellent and well travelled photographers) Peter and John also joining us, I knew, regardless of weather and sightings, the trip would be fun. I had also decided to stay on for a few days, after my three colleagues had headed home, to explore the island further.

So, to the trip. To break up the long journey north I decided to leave home at 0530am and stop overnight in the Lake District giving myself half a day to take a few images of the stunning colours that you get every year in October/November before tackling the 4-5 hour drive to Oban and my ferry the next morning. The problem of course with just 4 hours of light to play with is where to go. In the Lake District you really have two choices. Head for the high hills or get down by the water and I opted for the safer option of the latter and decided to try and capture the amazing autumnal colours. The river at Clappersgate Bridge a few miles from Windermere sits in a valley filled with oak, beech and larch trees and is awash with colour. Throw in the ancient drover's bridge and the river itself and, although my first visit to this spot, it seemed to offer what I was after.
Here are a couple of images I got before the drizzle finally forced me back to the car. The brown streaks are caused by the beech leaves being swept downstream combined with the 8 second long exposure.

Nikon D810,16-35mm at 22mm, iso50, f/16 for 8 secs.

The autumn colours were stunning even though probably just past their best.
D810, 24-70mm at 42mm, iso250, f/13 for 2.5 secs

An early rise next day to catch the forecast sunrise meant I had only about 30 minutes to capture anything else and I found a nice view overlooking Ullswater that rather summed up the relationship of the colours in the trees. water, hills and sky in the autumn. A couple of minutes of colour hitting the clouds was just enough to make it feel worth the reduced time I had allocated for my splendid cooked Lakeland breakfast.
D810, 70-200mm at 102mm, f/9 for 0.4sec. 0.9 hard grad filter.

Having refuelled both myself and the car, I joined the M6 and headed north. Having picked up Peter from Penrith railway station the journey went quickly as we managed to solve all the world's problems in the few hours drive!!
A quick lunch on Oban's seafront and despite a bitterly cold wind the weather was stunning as the Calmac ferry headed out of Oban harbour and the Isle of Mull beckoned from across the Firth of Lorn.

The 45 minute ferry passed quickly and landing at Craignure gave just a 10 minute drive to our cottage. Meeting up with John and Neil gave me the chance to unload, get the kettle on and have a look at the OS map of our planned itinerary for the next few days. I must confess to being an OS map addict but frustratingly the Ordinance Survey have drawn their lines of reference in such a way that to cover the whole of Mull you need THREE maps ! (Landrangers 47,48 and 49 for those who care!...me and about 4 others I suspect!) However they are a real help to find those smaller locations especially if you start using the smaller tracks that bisect the inner island. They also now include a mobile download option so well worth the £8 each. If you do forget yours I noticed they sell all of them in the small newsagents on board the ferry.
The next morning brought sunshine and not a bad view from our accommodation on Loch Don looking up to Ben Bhearnach (741m).

The plan of this trip was Otters. I visited the Shetlands last summer and Mull is the other location in the UK where a stable healthy population exists. Despite this, the danger of coming to Mull and allocating too little time is the very real danger of getting minimal or even zero sightings in a day. Two days is still a risk but the extended time scale had at least improved our chances.
The joy and beauty of the island though is the additional wildlife and scenery all around you. Combine that with the magical and ever changing light that you can get in the winter months in the Hebrides and it makes for a fascinating trip.
Unsurprisingly, in the 7-8 days I was on the island I experienced every season and conditions except blizzards (though the hilltops got a good coating of snow on day 2) but the first two days saw beautiful sunshine. This does create camera exposure metering problems but it's tough to complain too much!
The first 48 hours saw the first Otter encounters and at the end of the first full day we spent 20 minutes working our way into position to slowly watch a Mother and cub fishing and intermittently coming ashore. You could see the protective attitude she had to this still relatively young cub.
(n.b. All my wildlife images were taken on a Nikon D4 with a 500mm VRII with iso's varying from 400 to 6400)

The mother was teaching the youngster to fish and towards the end of the encounter she came ashore with a beautiful Scorpion fish.

The next day brought an overcast sky but we were lucky enough to see that rare sight of an Otter running down a beach into the sea. With just a fleeting glance of him out of the corner of my eye, I grabbed one shot before he disappeared into the waves but for me it illustrates the vast and often harsh environment they inhabit.

To give you an idea of the size of the beach, later in the week I took this image of some local farmers launching their boat as the storm clouds loomed behind them. Watching this scene unfold I couldn't help and contrast it with the endless rush and traffic that dominates large parts of my world of London and the south east of the UK.

With binoculars in hand, you're not just scanning the immediate shoreline but also the water maybe a hundreds metres offshore as well the smaller tucked away points onshore where an Otter may be lying up. At the end of each day you are well aware that you must have driven past resting or better hidden Otters numerous times but it's partly that challenge that makes Otters so magical. Of course there are the occasional exceptions but to get an intimate close sighting of an Otter needs you to understand their behaviour and you do come away with the (great) feeling that they have in someway allowed you in to their world rather than you enforcing your presence on them. Scrambling quickly over ankle-breaking slippery rocks (while they dive and can't see you) to try and get into position and praying that your thousands of pounds worth of equipment doesn't smash or disappear into a salty rockpool is not for everybody but it adds to the feeling that maybe (just maybe!) you've earned your chance of some success.

Not only is a car a necessity to cover the miles needed but it also acts as an excellent hide and gives you numerous other opportunities. If Herons and Buzzards are your thing then Mull is the place to come! I regularly see Buzzards around my home but they are incredibly wary and only through a permanent hide can you realistically expect close views.
Here is one of my favourites from the trip with the autumnal hillside colours making a nice diffused backdrop.

....nice to see a close view of their stunning colouration and interestingly I noticed this bird was also ringed on it's right leg.

As the sun continued to shine on the first two days it also highlighted the wonderful colours of lichens and mosses that are encouraged by Mull's damp and warm (warm being a relative word here!) climate. The density of Heron numbers is remarkably high on Mull, but of course they really only have the coastline to hunt on as inland would provide little suitable habitat. But they almost act as 100 metre marker posts they are so regular in certain locations!
I love this image both for the light and the colours but also as it shows the different habitat Mull's Herons frequent compared with a lot of their mainland cousins.

The changing light also gave me some opportunities for different images. One of the reasons I love doing landscape photography as well as wildlife is that it makes you think about light and composition and that always improves your wildlife images when it's possible to apply it. Not many people cross over successfully in both disciplines but if you want to see someone who does I suggest you have a look at Ross Hoddinott's work (http://www.rosshoddinott.co.uk/ ) or of course Neil who was one of my colleagues on this trip (http://www.neilmcintyre.com/)

Though a lot of the seabirds are summer visitors the coast provides a living for plenty of resident waders and similar. Here a ruffled Curlew battles against the wind and two Mergansers try body surfing.

Seeing Otters and getting into a position to take the best photos are of course very different things with location, wind direction, luck and numerous other factors playing their part. But the next good encounter involved another mother and cub. Beautiful to again see the interaction between the two.

The soft light and colours helped the image but also countered any big exposure range issues.

It was this female that gave me my closest physical encounter of the trip. As the cub relaxed and ate a distance away, the mother worked her way under and through a small bay full of thick seaweed. Surfacing at regular intervals she came eventually within about 4 metres and whilst trying to assess the camouflaged "blobs" tucked in among the rocks she seemed satisfied that there was no threat and returned to her cub.

Here the mother turned and helped the cub up the slippery rock face.

...before finally slipping into the sea and gliding past me.

This pair then worked their way down the loch and with the sun setting it threw some lovely warm light across the water as they moved further out and continued to feed in the distance.

One local resident who often keeps the Otters company is the Hooded Crow ("Hoodies"). Found only in NW Scotland and N Ireland in the UK (though also in Russia, Scandinavia etc) it's taken for granted in most scottish islands. Like all corvids it's an opportunist and happy to try and scrounge some scraps from an Otter's lunch!

In the right light it's rather a stunning bird. Lovely plumage !! (as Michael Palin once said !)

As the sun set on another day and with the weather forecast to change it was tough not to appreciate that on a day like this there are much worse places to be than Otter watching on Mull in November.

One small incident again highlighted the joys of the wilds versus the City. Peter had lost his front lens hood from his 200-400 Nikon zoom. Not overly expensive to replace but annoying and creates worry about protecting your expensive lens. Probably fallen out of the car on one of the numerous stops. 24 hours later as we drove along the same road a shout of "Stop the car!!" from the back and there it was !..not only had it been picked up but the same kind soul had placed it easily visible on a rusting piece of (quite photogenic!!) farm machinery. Faith in humanity restored we could move on !!

The final day of us being together as a group gave us (for me) the best encounter of the trip. After 30-40 minutes of first spotting the Otter and working our way across the rocks we all found ourselves tucked low down in a perfect spot with us below the level of rocks and seaweed behind us. Finally the Otter came ashore and after some indecision chose a seaweed covered rock that he obviously thought looked suitable for his purposes ! He then proceeded to clean, yawn, scowl, roll and sleep to varying degrees whilst I looked on. I have had to check my camera metatdata but even allowing for the images I deleted I can see that he (she) was in front of us for well over 25 minutes. Unstressed, unaware, relaxed and doing what Otters do...it's exactly what I want most from an encounter with any wild animal. Step into their world and leave no sign you were ever there. Of course it's not always possible but it's what we should always strive for. Here is just a small selection of the images I took.





Just a quick word re technique for all my Otter shots. I adopted the same method that I have used in the Shetlands. Scrambling across rocks does not lend itself to heavy equipment. Travel as light as possible and be flexible. I find you need 500mm (on a full frame camera) but that isn't the easiest to carry but a 300mm with a 1.4x convertor, especially if on a crop frame sensor, is a really good lightweight option giving you something like an effective 630mm focal length (that's the same as a 12x pair of binoculars for those non-photographers reading this). So no tripod, no monopod, no beanbag as they all are just a nuisance that distracts from the key issue of being hidden. Keep checking your histogram and images as a dark Otter on a light background that then moves into a dark area can play havoc with exposure settings sometimes and a quick check can save a lot of heartache later when you realise those stunning shots are all 2 stops underexposed (we have ALL done it!)
Also, lens and camera get bloody heavy if trying to handhold for any length of time even if like me you like to think you're staying fairly fit (trying being the operative word !!). So find good low sitting positions and balance the camera on your knees (or elbow which can then rest of your knees). If not possible, lie very low and place the camera on any convenient suitable rocks that act as a huge beanbag! Carry a spare battery and memory card in an easily accessible pocket. Equally there is no doubt that muted coloured (camouflaged ideally) clothing which doesn't rustle like a crisp packet makes a huge difference. Equally be waterproof and warm. Once you have been sitting somewhere for 20 minutes on soggy seaweed with a rising tide coming over your boots the fun can subside quite quickly if not prepared. (An earlier blog I wrote about winter photography on Skye has a few thoughts on clothing that apply equally here.) Then it's all about wind direction, tide times, moving at the right or wrong! time , patience and a fair degree of luck. Hope that all helps a little.

So with my colleagues gone I had 3 days to explore the island on my own. It adds a different dynamic to a trip and you can very much do your own thing. I had also wanted to take a few landscape images and as the weather deteriorated it actually lended itself to more of that.
It was while heading to a potential landscape location that of course I saw another Otter ! (you look all the time when driving along the lochs regardless of your mission!) In a new part of the island and with the sun still making appearances I managed to spend an hour with this dog (probable given his bigger size) Otter and whilst he never quite got as close as I had predicted it was still great to watch. I spent maybe 3 hours next to this loch and in that time saw 2 Otters, 2 humans, 6 Highland cows and two cars on the lochside road. Obviously I caught it in rush hour !

I'm not going to go into any great details on the landscapes, save putting the technical details as I know that interests some people, but the locations present themselves as you travel around the island. It isn't quite as dramatic as Skye (virtually nowhere is !!) but the light is equally amazing when conditions allow. Here are a small selection. (all taken on a Nikon D810)

24mm, 3 secs at f/16 at iso40. Stream coming off Ben More.

24mm, 1/3 sec at f/14, iso40. 0.6 soft grad filter

24mm, 1/200th at f/8, iso200, handheld as rainbows tend not to hang around that long!! Looking east on Loch Na Keal.

Start digging in that garden for a crock of gold!

When the wind blows on Mull it really blows. I had 60mph gusts while out in the last 2 days and more water seemed to be lifting off the lochs than feeding into them !

A magical very ancient oak woodland near one of the lochs very similar to the more famous one on Dartmoor.

I just followed this stream up into the hills for a short while and discovered this small pool. 20mm, 5 secs at f/12 at iso50.

This was very much about capturing the autumnal colours .

The heavy rain on two nights raised the small river level about two feet.

At one point I was worried I'd leave Mull without even seeing the iconic species of the island but early on Day 6 I got lucky. I saw a pair at a considerable distance initially on the low tide foreshore on one of the bigger lochs. 20 minutes of driving, scrambling and hiding resulted in getting close enough to watch one of the birds for c 15 minutes before the distant noise of a farmer's quad bike startled him. The photos can not start to give an impression of size but watching the wings of up to 8 feet(2.45 metres) in width open and lift the UK's biggest bird into the air is very special.

Earlier in the morning on the same very drizzly gloomy day I'd watched a different bird look somewhat miserable as he perused his surroundings and we both got wet .


There are a lot of Red Deer on the island but most are genuinely wild so none of your close up Richmond Park images style shots here but they are an integral part of the Highlands.

However I was also very lucky to catch a glimpse of one of the small herds of Fallow Deer that live in one part of the island and although very shy I managed to abandon the car and very quietly enter the edge of the woodland for this shot.

But even at this time of year, man has an impact. Both Deer and Otters main threat is from vehicles (excepting the Deer that are shot on the estates of course). Sadly we found this Red Deer hind newly killed by the road but she will prove an invaluable resource for the Hoodies, Buzzards and Golden Eagles during the coming weeks.

The photographic possibilities both for wildlife and landscape and general photographers are numerous on Mull. The colder months mean deserted roads and much better light and the shorter days give the Otters less time to get their vital calories on board so for those who go prepared for the conditions it's ideal.
It's not just about the coastline. The bleakness on a grey winter day on the high moors as seen here shows just how harsh an environment it is. This is the high road heading from the south down to Dervaig village.

...and there is always some wildlife watching you, as much as you are watching them....

..the key to survival?..ensure you stock up on all five main food groups !! (3 local beers, whisky and the iconic Tunnocks chocolate wafer biscuit!)

Hopefully you can by now tell that this blog is a whole hearted recommendation of Mull's attractions (or I'd better rewrite it !!) but I'll leave with one of my favourite images from this recent trip. A truly iconic and beautiful animal that, at least for a time, allowed me into their world.

A setting sun adds a dash of warmth to the water as a female Otter glides effortlessly through her territory, perfectly adapted for her habitat. Hopefully I'll see her again in the near future.

Finally, thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it and I really appreciate any comments or questions that you post here or via my email which is also under the contact details.


Photo comment By Dave Dimmock: Excellent photography and write up Nigel, sums up perfectly why I keep going back to the magical Isle of Mull.
Photo comment By grant: Superb !!!!! Very much enjoyed this and love the Otters :)
Photo comment By David Gibbon: Lovely images Nigel and a very well written blog
Photo comment By Nigel: Thanks David. Much appreciated. I know you're a fan of Mull as well.
Photo comment By Maria C: Hi Nigel, Thought your photos were fantastic. Are you considering doing more landscape photography? I loved the ancient woodland photo. And thanks for the informative and witty comments.
Photo comment By Nigel: Cheers Grant. Tough to beat a nice Otter. Appreciate your feedback and glad you enjoyed the blog.
Photo comment By Nigel: Thanks for taking the time to read the blog Dave. As you say, a magical place indeed ! Enjoy your next visit.
Photo comment By Nigel: Hello Maria. I'm glad you liked the blog. I do try and combine both landscape and wildlife genres as they offer different challenges so sure there'll be plenty more in the future
Photo comment By James M: Brilliant blog Nigel. Really generates an atmosphere of the location and the wildlife with some stunning photography and excellent narrative.
Photo comment By Nigel: Thanks for your kind comments James. I'm glad you enjoyed it.
Photo comment By Shelley Knight: Great blog Nigel!! On my list for 2017 fingers crossed!!!
Photo comment By Nigel: Thanks Shelley. Hope you manage to get there. If you do decide to go and need any additional information or ideas feel free to drop me an email or similar.
Photo comment By Vicky Sutherland: Amazing photographs Nigel! What a beautiful world we live in. If only I had more time I would be out with my camera every day. I love the Isle of Mull.
Photo comment By Nigel: Many thanks Vicky. Good luck with your photography and I hope you get to Mull one day soon.
Photo comment By Don Auderer: Researching my upcoming trip to Scotland. Your videos and blog are most informative. Thanks for sharing your experiences in Scotland. I will be in Mull, Skye, and Harris on a whirlwind tour next May with my wife but she promised I could stop to get some shots!
Photo comment By Nigel: Thanks for your feedback Don. Much appreciated and good to hear the vlogs and blogs have helped. I'm sure you'll have a great trip. If you need any more info nearer the time just drop me a line. Regards Nigel

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