Saturday 29 April 2023

An Otter on Arran 28th April 2023

After two weeks of sunshine the weather today, in this part of west Scotland, has reverted to a more typical greyness with a smirrr of rain that made venturing outside on foot with camera and bins questionable.

Undaunted I reverted to the car, using it as a mobile hide to check the seashore from the road that runs along the northwestern side of Arran where we are based. If you rise at six am there is little human activity evident in this part of the island until around eight thirty which gives a window of opportunity to drive slowly along the road, which is hardly ever more than twenty or so metres from the seashore.I am able to stop at will wherever and whenever I like without the fear of any vehicle coming up  behind me.It is the ideal solution for this kind of weather and for covering a more extensive part of the shoreline than would be possible on foot.

Specifically this early morning I was looking for Otters which, like me, prefer this time due to the absence of people and thus gives me a better chance to encounter them. It does not always work but sometimes it does.

Today I set off driving out of Catacol, the tiny collection of houses where we are staying, passing by prolific banks of head high gorse that even in dull weather glow unfeasibly golden. 

On one side of the road was the sea, the tide full and on the other rose small mountains, their tops invisible under a shroud of low cloud that occasionally dispensed a gentle rain.

I stopped at the bridge where the road  passes over the Catacol Burn, its crystal clear waters  tumbling noisily over and through the boulders and stones that mark its rocky course to the waiting sea. It is here, close to the burn's mouth, that Red breasted Mergansers like to tarry and, sure enough two, a male and female, were here this morning but I knew that to photograph them would need all my skill in stalking them. I parked the car off the road and slipped behind a huge stand of gorse. Judicious use of the gorse allowed me to approach fairly close and remain unseen.The birds are always very wary and would swim out to sea or fly away at the slightest intimation of my presence.

I had low expectations of success but managed to conceal myself behind the head high gorse almost as far as the riverbank and by standing on a large, moss covered stone look through a gap in the gorse flowers that gave me an uninterrupted view of the birds, still ever wary but remaining where they were. I stood silent and unmoving and eventually they relaxed and commenced to preen, each standing on a submerged rock in the shallow water.

I watched the mergansers for ten minutes and then retreated to the car, ensuring that they did not notice me leaving and thus remained undisturbed.

I drove on, checking the seashore and came to a stop at a place called Thunderguy which is no more than a group of five houses. I had noticed two Black Guillemots sat on a rock exceptionally close to the road.They breed here under huge boulders above the tideline and are usually confiding. This pair were no exception.Around here it is not an uncommon sight to see pairs of these birds sat or standing on a rock on the seashore. I have seen up to twelve together, the males uttering their high pitched seeeeee call as they courted females, a sound totally at odds with the usual grating calls of other auk species.

Ultimately they decided they were too close to the road and me too close to them to feel secure, so they flew back to the sea

I left them, drove on and after another few miles turned the car around and commenced to drive back  to our cottage, all the while checking the rocks which were now beginning to be exposed by the slowly falling tide. My intention was to check the rocks for any unusual outline as this can sometimes reveal an Otter.

Yesterday this was precisely what happened, when having driven past a particular rock on my drive out there was nothing to cause interest but on returning the same rock had acquired an extra dark shape on its top. It was an Otter asleep.I got out of the car and managed a couple of images before it became aware of me and unhurriedly slipped into the water and was gone.

I am slowly learning the ways of the Otters on Arran but for me they still remain unpredictable and tantalisingly elusive. Sometimes they opt to sleep in the open on rocks or seaweed but on other occasions swim in from the sea and disappear into the rocks. I have seen many Otters swimming and although the sighting of any Otter is something remarkable and exciting I much prefer to find them out of the water as you then see the whole animal and not just a head and tail. It is far more rewarding in my opinion.

Otters when awake spend most of their time hunting fish and crustaceans in the sea and often consume them there but if the victim is too large to cope with at sea or might escape the Otter will swim determinedly to the shore to deal with its prey.This has given me the best opportunities to see them out of the water and has resulted in some memorable encounters such as one that caught a large dogfish at Catacol and spent twenty minutes subduing and eating it and another by Brodick seafront that captured a lobster, both having to deal with their victim out of the water.

Now returning to today and, half way back to the cottage, I saw another strange shape on the top of a rock.Many of the rocks here have unusual contours so it does not always mean it is an Otter but it is always wise to check.

This however was the real thing. Unmistakeable in profile. An Otter!

I rapidly stopped the car, reversing back onto the verge to get level with the animal but remained in the car.The Otter was a young one and whistling quite audibly so obviously there was a mother nearby. The young Otter was finishing a meal of fish. I lowered the car window and took a few images of the Otter on the rock before it dropped down the side of the rock and into the sea.

It swam a little way out and joined another, presumably its mother and then there were three so I was now watching a mother and two cubs. Absolutely fantastic.They swam parallel with the shore and not very far out. I turned the car as they were swimming back and away from me.I planned to get well ahead of them which would allow me to leave the car without causing alarm. This achieved I dropped down some fifteen feet onto the shore where my profile would be concealed by a bank of rocks and vegetation behind me,

While scrambling down the bank I was careful ,in my haste, not to slip and do expensive damage to the camera or worse,myself. Believe me it has been a close call on a number of similar occasions to this!

Standing by some rocks almost at the sea's edge I could see the swimming Otters in the distance but no more than twenty or so metres offshore. Swimming Otters are distinctive with square head and nostrils tilted upwards, their back awash in the water with hindquarters and tail trailing on the surface.Once encountered it is a very recognisable profile, especially on such a morning as this when the sea was relatively calm and smooth.

With anxiety levels rising I waited as they progressed, diving and hunting fish as they approached, coming ever closer. It could go either way in the next few minutes.They might see or sense me and disappear or they could carry on coming towards me. To my immense relief their course never deviated but I could only see two, mother and a cub. Then they were opposite me and in no obvious hurry, messing around and swimming back towards some rocks to my right. 

Once more I heard the whistle of an Otter but it was not emanating from the two in the sea, it was coming from the rocks to my right but due to their uneveness I couldn't see the Otter making the whistling as it was in a fold of the rocks. I dared not move for if I did it would alert the Otters in the sea, now very close to me and also probably scare the Otter currently just metres away in the rocks.

I stood on the stony beach and hoped.There was nothing else I could do. I was willing the whistling Otter to make itself visible but so far nothing had happened apart from the whistling coming at regular intervals but then even the whistling ceased and I resigned myself to the fact there was to be no close encounter with an Otter.

For a minute or two I stood looking at the other two Otters in the sea. Not a sound apart from waves gently breaking on the shore. Then I was delighted to hear the whistling recommence and even closer to me but where was the Otter? Why could I not see it? Then came the slightest movement in the rocks and the young Otter revealed itself as it clambered up onto a rock above the sea

Literally metres away, hardly daring to breathe or move I pointed the camera and hoped. Surely it would see me? There was no time to check the camera settings as this encounter might be over in seconds. 

The young Otter continued its high pitched whistling and wandered around the rock.Its mother came to check if all was well and was obviously concerned that it was not following her and its sibling into the water.

For five maybe six minutes the young Otter was before me and then it left the rock with its mother and the three Otters swam a hundred metres further before coming to land and disappearing into an inaccessible  pile of rocks and not re-appearing. 

I assume this was where their holt was but it was impossible to get to and anyway I did not want to encroach on them further but rather, I was content to leave them in peace. I could hardly better what I had just experienced.

The weather was becoming ever more bleak, the greyness and declining visibility oppressive but there was light in my heart. Yet again Arran had produced an Otter encounter that will live long in my memory,

Sunday 23 April 2023

Great Northern Divers at Gigha 20th April 2023

It was Mrs U's birthday yesterday and as we are currently holidaying on The Isle of Arran we decided to celebrate at the Boathouse Restaurant on the nearby island of Gigha, the southernmost island in The Hebrides and which lies to the west of Arran, and for us required two short car ferry trips, one from Arran to Kintyre and the second from a place called Tayinloan on Kintyre over to Gigha.

Gigha is very  small, being only seven miles long and one and a half miles wide and since 2002 has been owned entirely by the island community..

The weather in Scotland is always a leap of faith but our trust has been duly rewarded with a week of glorious sunny weather that brought a breathtaking almost surreal beauty to the landscape around us. 

The Paps of Jura seen from Gigha

We stayed on Gigha overnight so we could take our time exploring the island and visit the world famous camellia and rhododendron garden at Achamore, once owned, along with the whole island, by the Horlick family. And no, they were nothing to do with the famous hot drink!

Everyone we met on the island were unfailingly friendly and welcoming and it made me proud to  be Scots.No head down from strangers and pretending you were invisible here. Quite the reverse.

The following morning was again sunny but with the same persistent easterly wind of yesterday as we walked along the only road on the island, to the southern end, which was no hardship as it was only about a mile. Here you could go no further but stand and look out to sea with the faintest blur on the horizon that was Ireland.Not a human sound of any sort disturbed the peace, just the crying of gulls and the excitable kirrick calls of Sandwich Terns, newly arrived from Africa and no doubt rejoicing in similar weather, although a mite cooler, than that they had left behind in Africa.

This deserted place beyond any human habitation was where one could feel truly alone, beautiful in the sunlight shimmering off the sea, casting a bright sealight that illuminated the space twixt sea and sky. Where the land shelved gently to the seashore on our right, its contour was marked by rich golden yellow gashes of gorse, as it curved around to a distant headland with the open sea beyond. 


On the other side of the bay lay two unoccupied islets, occupied solely by Common Gulls and Greylag Geese Safe there to nest and raise their young knowing they would be untroubled by any human presence. 

A concrete walkway extended from the shore out into the sea, a hundred or so metres long and joined at the far end to a jetty  where the Gigha ferry was moored overnight. A storage shed of weather beaten concrete stood on the jetty, with lobster pots, ropes, nets, flotation buoys and other fishing paraphernalia lying in a guddle along its side. A bright red life buoy clung to the rust stained wall and a large sign proclaimed this was GIGHA in case you were in any doubt. This seemingly abandoned structure and its cohort of fishing gear only served to enhance the sense of isolation. 

I scanned the bay with my bins and saw a Great Northern Diver very close to the jetty. These impressive birds, in large numbers, spend the winter all around the west coast of Scotland and its islands, remaining here until May before moving to Iceland to breed. Opposite our rented cottage on Arran up to five are currently still present in the bay at Catacol and we see them every morning, now rapidly moulting into their smart black and white breeding plumage.

We walked out to the jetty, the strong wind catching at us. Turnng at the end we walked alongside the shed to its end and turning once again slipped into a small walkway between it and the end of the jetty. Here we were out of the wind and stood looking out over the bay. It was an ideal viewpoint. 

There was no sign of the diver I had seen a few minutes earlier but I sensed it would return and in the meantime, looking out across the bay with its ever changing blue and green sea shadows, the waves gently lapping at the jetty supports and the calling of gulls coming to us on the wind, we settled to let the spirit of this lonely deserted place assert itself. 

For one used to a more hectic existence in an ever more crowded part of Britain I had by sheer chance found a place that was truly peaceful and the encounter became almost spiritual. So unusual a feeling it at first took me by surprise, engendering a benign anxiety but soon resolving itself into something that felt entirely natural and uplifting.

I looked again, out and over the bay and found four Great Northerns idling the time away asleep, while my wife checking all around, counted no less than ten scattered randomly round and about us on the sea. Most were in various transitional stages from dull winter greys to a summer plumage of black profusely patterned with spots and squares of white on their upperparts. Like us the divers obviously found this bay much to their liking but for differing reasons, for us it was the peace and tranquillity, for the divers shelter and food.

I cannot be certain how long we stood enjoying this simple pleasure, not long for sure before a diver surfaced just off the jetty. It was well advanced into summer breeding dress but its head was salted with white where the black  feathering had yet to assert itself. As its head turned the sun caught its eye and it gleamed ruby red.To see this large bird so close is not an everyday occurence, least of all in almost full summer plumage.

Chance had brought us here and as often happens it was the unexpected nature of the encounter that made it so thrilling to experience. I had left my camera in the car a mile back at our accommodation. Now I was torn between prolonging this experience or going back for the camera. 

The diver submerged and I took this as a cue to go and get the camera.Twenty minutes and I was back with the car. Would the diver still be here? Very much on edge I rejoined my wife who advised it was still around  but currently underwater. It re-surfaced but further out. We waited and after several dives it was back near to the jetty.

I took the chance and fired off many images with my new camera. I particularly liked the ones where the diver was being carried on the crest of a breaking wave. the white water a coat of froth as it slalomed down the wave into a trough of blue and green.

Watching, the diver seemed to become one with the sea, its natural home for most of the year, Its body almost awash and viewed from above was broad and laterally compressed, a natural submarine, its legs and huge paddle feet almost at the extreme end of its body. For someone used to only seeing these divers on inland reservoirs in their dull winter plumage this was such a treat.

The diver moved further out into the bay. But surely if there were ten earlier there must be others nearby? For a while we stood but saw little. A pair of Shelducks flew past and more Sandwich Terns, dazzlingly white in the sun, flew in from the sea.

I reflected that it really did not matter if no other diver came near, the experience of just minutes ago was more than enough but even that was transcended by the sense of calm engendered by nothing more than a combination sea and sun at this unremarkable location

My wife nudged me back to reality. Another diver was right in front of us having surfaced from seemingly nowhere.

Was it our friend back again? No, it most certainly was not. Here before us was a Great Northern in full summer plumage.I struggle for the words to describe the sheer elation at seeing such a beautiful bird so very close. People wait days, months, even years to capture such a sight, for these birds migrate to Iceland to breed and it is only a very short window of weeks to catch one in this plumage in Britain.Here by sheer serendipity was the chance of a lifetime.

The diver rose once more from the depths to float low in the water, A marvel of black and white patterning, chequered squares of white on its back, a neck collar of white and black piping separated from similar on its breast sides by a broad neck band of iridescent verdite green. The impressive head, silky black with eyes that were no more than wine red studs.A massive bill of black carried by its large head. I drank it all in as this wonderful bird sat in the sunshine on a blue sea.Who could ask for more?

The diver was in no hurry and after a dive re-surfaced once more to idle and look around.Regularly it would snorkle with half submerged head as if looking for its next victim.

For the next half an hour we enjoyed the company of this spectacular creature.Sometimes close sometimes distant.

I said to my wife we  should come back tomorrow as the weather was predicted to remain the same but I knew in my heart that it would not be the same as today.It never is.This was a one off although it was tempting to think otherwise. 

The divers were further out now anyway, as the tide ebbed and it was time for us to go to catch the hourly ferry back to the mainland.

The sun shone, the sea lapped at the jetty and gulls cried as the heart stopping scenery stretched away for an eternity all around us. Life felt so very good.