I may have written two blogs about the Ardnamurchan area already (the first in 2015 and another in 2016), but the area keeps drawing me back. I'll never tire of the place...
The journey is dramatic enough - from the domineering vista of Loch Lomond and the surrounding hills, to the one my favourite views in the UK; Glencoe, it's worth stopping a few times en route. Then crossing the Corran ferry towards Strontian, the landscape demands your attention. I can't help but be distracted at the view, particularly as I reach Loch Sunart. I've been lucky on every visit so far that the weather has been calm, and there's a stillness about the place with water as smooth as glass reflecting the towering hills above.
That's before I've even reached the cottage I'd rented for the week and the reason for travelling to the area - Pine Marten. Ardnamurchan is a stronghold for these "weasels' on steroids". It's also a haven for much more wildlife and, combine that with the Isle of Mull not being far away, you've got a world-class wildlife destination.
If you'd like to see the full gallery of images - click here.
Here's the story of my trip there in 2018...
The trip up north to Glasgow was long as per usual and uneventful. However, once you're past Glasgow and travelling north the view takes my mind off the long journey. I get lost in my thoughts of the area, and how lucky I am to be able to drive there.
We reached our meeting point in Fort William by mid-afternoon, did the week's food shop and were on our way in convoy...
Back towards the Corran ferry and onwards to Strontian. Once I've crossed the Corran ferry I always get a sense that we've already arrived despite it being another hour to get to the cottage.
There was also a large wooden stump in the garden which presumably had been used by previous guests to lure the Pine Marten in with food.
On dumping the mammoth amount of kit we'd brought with us in the cottage and unpacking the food, we immediately took to getting the area primed for, hopefully, Pine Marten visits later that evening. A mixture of natural honey, peanuts and raisins was the dinner provided. Oh, and the occasional egg.
On putting small amounts around the garden I was keen to see whether they used the forest behind the cottage as well. There's a small river running adjacent to the cottage's access track, and behind that is a beautiful primeval forest - perfect for camera trapping!
It was already early evening so my mind wandered to the first camera trap idea...
The last time I had visited the area I'd had my first success setting up a DSLR camera trap across this river, but I wanted to try and better it. So seeing as there was a larger fallen tree stretching the whole way it seemed like a good start.
It took us a while messing about with camera angles and lighting position before we were happy. It took four flashes to light the scene, two on the fallen tree and two on the other side of the river to light up the background. By the time we'd finished setting up we both had a cloud of midges to call unwelcome friends, and we were itching (literally!) to get back inside and away from them!
All that was left was to leave a little food out to entice the Pine Marten, and we were set...
I was even more surprised to find that all the food we had put out, both in the garden and across the river, had gone. I retrieved the trail cameras to see who the culprits were - although I strongly guessed it would the same Pine Marten!
It's one of the things I love about camera trapping - you can do as much as possible to get the camera and lighting set to how you want it to look, but you never really know what you'll get until you review the camera. I'm like a kid at Christmas every time!
Obviously I was buzzing after the success of the DSLR camera trap and was keen to see what the trail cameras showed of the night's activity.
Sure enough, Pine Marten were the main species that featured, but another surprise came in the form of a Badger. Fantastic!
On top of that the trail camera had picked up Pine Marten behaviour I'd not seen before - they were using a large mound of moss to scent mark their territory.
My mind wondered to all the other possibilities for camera trapping through the week...
Each evening I'd stay up for as long as possible on the lookout for Pine Marten. I'm afraid to say I didn't managed to stay up late much, the longest I was awake was till 1.30am. Still, apparently I found this far too tiring and went to sleep during the day for an hour or so.
So when not trying to catch up on sleep during the day I had a little explore of the area. The place is saturated in water with moss and lichen abound. While this created prime conditions for midges (or little buggers as I will call them from now on), it's also fantastic habitat for frogs and toads.
This tiny little toadlet was found wandering around the garden. A couple of photos and I left it be.
Again, I left it be after this one photo.
On the first night we opted just to watch from the windows of the cottage, and we didn't have to wait long before the first Pine Marten showed up, around 8pm. What followed was around an hour and a half's worth of entertainment as one Pine Marten became three; a mother and her two kits. The two kits proceeded to chase each other around the garden and were hilarious to watch while mum kept a close eye on them.
After that the rest of the setup was relatively simple - put some honey and peanuts on the branch to attract the Pine Marten, and position flashes to light the scene in the way we wanted.
Fortunately the cottage owner has now installed a small floodlight which illuminates part of the garden. It doesn't bother the wildlife at all, and means watching from the living room is even easier! We'd seen a mother and two kits wandering around the garden picking up food from the first night, and this set a hope alight that we could get a shot of the three of them on this branch.
This was the closest port for a ferry crossing over to the Isle of Mull.
The ferry crossing only takes about 15 minutes, and in fact on our first trip there it was so smooth we hadn't actually realised the ferry had left Lochaline and arrived on Mull - we got very lucky with the weather and sea conditions!
On my first trip to Mull back in March 2017 focussing on Otters, I'd had the pleasure of meeting Alex Keivers. He and his dad Martin run Mull Charters (www.mullcharters.com), offering fantastic opportunities to see these magnificent sea birds up close.
A few different species of gull were the first to arrive at the boat to check out any opportunities for food. It gave a good practice run for photographing birds in flight before the eagles arrived.
I really like 'small in the frame' images of wildlife. For me, it puts the animal in the context of it's environment and therefore tells more of a story than a frame filling image. Both have their place in wildlife photography, and the two combined make a powerful portfolio.
So with that in mind I wanted to use the opportunity of taking photos of the eagles as they approached the boat. Having some 'interest' in the background, whether it be a hillside or dramatic clouds in the sky, is key. For me, images of birds in flight with a monotone background don't work as well.
It was difficult to contain my excitement of seeing them so close and concentrating on the photography. Ensuring they remained in frame was a challenge - not from a bumpy swell, in fact the water couldn't have been calmer, but from my excitement of seeing them.
We had plenty of time to get back to the cottage for the Pine Marten that evening, so it seemed rude not to at least try.
Having had little success for the first three days the first time I visited Mull I wasn't going to get my hopes up, content with the idea that if we saw one through the binoculars I'd be happy.
So we travelled along the north side of Loch na Keal from the Ulva ferry terminal stopping where we could to look - no joy.
It was a lot busier than the last time I'd visited in March. We were at the back of the summer season after all and there were still some camper vans parked along the sides of the road. I've not visited in the height of summer, but have been warned it can be incredibly busy - not great for trying to photograph otters and remaining out of sight.
We watched this Otter for what felt like half an hour as it travelled along the loch. In truth I've no idea how long we'd been watching - I have little concept of time when it comes to wildlife!
The legs and claws turned out to be a poor lobster, but quite the catch for the Otter!
We had picked a good spot and managed to watch the Otter devour it's catch for around 20 - 30 minutes (I think!).
During that time I was able to move very slowly and carefully to a better vantage point.
The photos you see above and below are all from the same series.
In the space of two trips to Mull we had some amazing experiences with the Sea Eagles on Mull Charters in beautiful weather, and then one of the best Otter encounters I've had with the first Otter we found - not bad at all I'd say!
I was keen to get images of the forest area across from the river. As you can see from the photos below it was carpeted in thick moss and the whole area was like walking on a sponge.
The vibrant green is what drew me to it and in a couple of places, a mound of the stuff and a fallen log, seemed like good places to try the trap.
Each took a few nights to get it right but I think the photos are worth it. The setup with the mound required four flashes, two positioned to light up the foreground, one as partial backlight and a final one for the background.
It does show how they're able to move around the forest floor and create tracks through the foliage so as not to be seen.