Ian says …. After stopping off at the caravan for a night on the way down from our West Coast trip we arrived home on the Sunday afternoon. By tea-time Pauline had acted on Chas’s info and phoned the hotel for availability of the cottage and booked it for two weeks! Unfortunately we were going to have to wait four weeks for it to be free! Thinking back - while we were watching otters in Shieldaig Bay Chas was probably at the cottage photographing martens in daylight – less than 400 meters away – if only we had seen him disappearing off up the track with a big lens! Luckily as Pauline has already mentioned, we bumped into him a couple of weeks later on Mull. We owe Chas big thanks for letting us in on this!
We set off on Saturday 7th September at 6.00am and at 4.20pm we arrived at Shieldaig – 9 hours and 10 minutes traveling time – a distance of 439 miles. The journey up seemed so easy (in the car with power steering and cruise control instead of the old campervan!) The last 50 miles or so we had just missed a really heavy down pour, judging by the amount of water coming down the hill sides and lying on the road. We got the key to the cottage from the hotel and made our way up the rough track – 4 wheel drive and good clearance underneath required especially with a fully laden vehicle. At this point it’s worth saying Chas had warned us that the cottage was basic but we were not prepared for what was about to greet us. This description has not been exaggerated at all!
After problems with the midges at various times on Mull we did not expect to be troubled by them in September but boy were they out in force and even though it had turned into a pleasant evening weather wise, yet again we found our selves just wanting to be inside away from those irritating insects. Access is via the back door that is covered by a lean-to adjoining a wood shed. As soon as we stepped under the lean-to the damp musty smell was overpowering and sickening. This was due to the holes in the roof allowing things to get wet unless carefully placed and worst of all a full rubbish bin that didn’t look like it had been emptied for some time. We opened the door and in front was the bathroom with water dripping in through the ceiling - several steps later and we were in the kitchen/ dining area – the damp feel and musty smell continued - it was so dark that the first thing we did was to switch the lights on but the two energy saving bulbs hardly produced enough light to see what we were doing. The whole cottage had a damp feel to it but we were there and we had to unpack before it went dark outside as well – midges or no midges. With the car unpacked it was time to put some food out for the martens – and with the outside lights not working and after a quick read of the visitors book it seemed like most people just put food on the window ledge, so we did the same, but no martens visited that evening.
In the morning the smell inside didn’t seem to be quite as bad – we were probably just getting used to it though we had moved the rubbish bin away from the back door. Unfortunately all the marten food was still there so we decided to put food out all around the cottage hoping when one did eventually pass by again it would find it and realise the chuck wagon had arrived! I found an old tree stump and also an old section of telegraph post that I dug into the ground and both proved useful for the martens. I attached a ‘mammal feeder’ full of peanuts to one of the stumps at ground level, put up a small bird table with a branch leading up to it and also hung a couple of bird feeders and a sunflower fat candle in the big pine tree. Over the two weeks we tried an assortment of food some with great success, some surprisingly totally ignored– it really does depend on the individual animal. Apples and peanut butter that have worked well elsewhere were a total failure, as was marmalade, cooked chicken and fresh minced beef. Peanuts that are usually taken readily were only taken occasionally and both tinned cat food and bananas were ignored. Eggs, jam and sultanas all worked, as did the sunflower fat candle. Sunday evening and no marten appeared at the window and so it was off to bed.
At 4.00am and still dark we got up – some of the food had gone off the window ledge and also from out back. When we shone a torch over the rushy part of the garden we saw several red deer so at least we had some visitors – if only we had had a trail-cam we would have known what had eaten the food and when. We knew that we needed some light in the back garden so we hung our 150w MV bulb from the large pine tree in the middle of the garden and that evening as it went dark we sat in the car at the corner of the house and waited. About 9.45pm it started raining – this made it difficult to see through the side windows so at 10.00pm we gave up and went inside. We checked the window ledge and all the food was still there so no visitors yet. The kettle didn’t have time to boil when I glanced back at the window and a pine marten was eating on the sill next to the glass - at last we had seen our first marten of the trip!
Tuesday morning we were up at 5.00am and although still dark we checked outside – food had gone off both stumps and the bird table so it/they certainly were about. From then on either both of us, or occasionally just one of us, sat out in the car as it went dark. That evening it appeared at 11.15pm staying less than a minute eating the sultanas and jam off the bird table, but ignoring both stumps. Before we went to bed we topped up with more jam and sultanas and also put out an unbroken egg – and we left the MV bulb on.
The following morning we were up again at 5.00am and all the sultanas and jam had gone as well as a full egg from the table, but all the food remained on the stumps. The light was switched off and it was back to bed. Wednesday evening and we decided to try a bit of photography. Pauline stayed in the kitchen and at 9.45 she warned via our two-way radios that there was a marten on the kitchen window ledge. It was soon round the back and up on to the small stump quickly eating the jam before it seemed to get spooked by something and it disappeared back round to the front of the cottage. Within a couple of minutes I saw a marten in the pine tree – I suspected a second animal. It came down onto the stump and I waited until it was eating confidently before taking a shot. The flash made it wary but it didn’t run – it continued to eat for several minutes before disappearing off into the darkness. Looking at the back of the camera we knew the pics were not good enough – we would have to rethink. The food was topped up and we watched the bats for 5 minutes, which were eating the insects round the MV bulb!
Thursday night and Pauline again stayed in the kitchen but this time we had placed a branch on the window ledge leading to the top part of the window, which was open. I went out in the car again, but with out the camera. At 9.15pm a marten appeared on the window ledge and ate the few sultanas – it then climbed up the branch onto the open window frame to a small bird table we had placed inside the frame – its head was now in the room and it was looking straight down at Pauline who was sat less than 6 feet away! It ate some of the food and left. Pauline warned again via two radio that it was close but it only appeared round the back at 9.40pm eating the sultanas and jam before disappearing with an egg. Another visit at 10.15pm but this time it didn’t feed – something disturbed it. I sat out until 11.20pm before deciding to call it done. The food was topped up and it was off to bed.
Friday morning and a lot of the food had disappeared. Friday evening and again the kitchen window was opened and the table positioned and again at 9.15 a marten was up the branch and jumped onto the open frame – balancing delicately while eating all the food! Pauline was sat in the chair less than 5ft off this time! I sat out back in the car till 1.00 am – nothing at all – time to give in.
Saturday evening had brought very strong winds and the MV bulb was swinging around quite violently – but surprisingly the first marten appearance was at 8.45pm - it came from the pine tree and made its way cautiously towards the back door before something scared it and it bolted - straight towards me and under the car as that was the nearest cover. It soon emerged and went across to the bird table to feed before disappearing into some vegetation. At 9.20pm a marten was again in the pine tree looking towards the back door and wood shed – it wasn’t happy about something leaving without feeding. This was the first evening with out a single bat flying under the light – too windy and possibly too cold for its prey. We finally gave in at 11.15pm.
Sunday evening and after a re think we decided to have another go with the camera. Pauline was to have the first go so everything was carefully set up. A marten appeared at 9.24pm and started to feed on the stump but then froze and stared into the darkness. With a motionless animal Pauline steadily took a few shots - the marten was not concerned about the flash being fired, it had spotted a badger in front of the car that was eating sunflower seeds I had thrown out for the chaffinches earlier in the day. The marten relaxed and ate before leaving us – we now had to wait for the badger to leave before we could check what images we had managed to get. We love watching badgers but this one was too close to the front of the car for us to see for most of the time – 50 minutes – yes 50 minutes later it had eaten enough and left allowing us to top up with jam and sultanas and an egg before we could go in for a brew , the loo and to see what we had got. As Pauline wanted to start editing her pics I went back out and at 11.50pm a marten came and took the unbroken egg – I should have removed that egg until I was giving in for the night, as that was the only visit before I did call it done at 12.35am.
Monday evening and it was my turn with the flash – Pauline stayed in the kitchen and I was set up and sitting comfortably for 8.00pm after removing all the food except for some sultanas and jam carefully placed on an oak log. A marten appeared just after 9.00pm heading straight for the stumps – finding them empty it was soon on the log and eating. I took 9 shots before it ran down the oak log and up into the pine tree straight to the branch where the fat candle was hung. It had obviously sussed this food supply out previously and proceeded to eat the candle while dangling by its back feet from the branch. Something spooked it and it pulled itself back onto the branch. A second marten then appeared and started eating bits of sunflower seed from under the bird feeders less than 15 feet away from the one above it either unconcerned or unaware! After a short while the first marten continued to eat the fat candle for several minutes before going back up the branch towards the trunk where it started to clean its feet thoroughly. Several minutes later it went down to the ground and ran off into the darkness. The other marten continued to feed for a further few minutes before it also left. This gave me the opportunity to check the camera, top the log up and remove the fat candle. I was sat quiet again by 9.35pm. No more martens that night but at 1.40am a badger came into the garden but was spooked and ran. About 20 minutes later it was back but again ran after something spooked it. At 2.15am I gave in and put some food on the stumps before heading to bed.
Tuesday morning and we were up at 8.00am. The mammal feeder was empty and had been dislodged from the stump - the work of a powerful badger. That evening not sure why I ended up with the flash again – just one visit by a marten at 9.30pm and another 10 images in the camera. A badger visited just after midnight feeding for 10 minutes from the mammal feeder that had been re-secured to the stump. At 12.30am it was time to call it a night.
Wednesday morning and we noticed the fat candle had disappeared – a marten must have swung on it dragging it to the ground. After a search I finally found it in the long grass about 10 yards away. That evening it was Pauline using the flash – after several visits by a marten we had more pics and at 1.30am had a break for the loo and a brew. Back out at 1.45am but with nothing by 3.00am it was time to give in.
Thursday it was my turn again – nothing had shown by 11.00pm and Pauline went in having had enough. With just two nights remaining I decided to sit out a bit longer and at 11.35pm was rewarded with a badger. After walking round the garden for 15 minutes or so it finally ended up eating from the mammal feeder for about 10 minutes. Over the next 2 hours it visited a further four times eating from the feeder on each occasion. Just after 2.00am with the badger hopefully out of earshot after its last visit, I nipped in and got a coffee, some grapes and a lump of cheese to hopefully keep me awake for a bit longer. Less than 5 minutes and I was back out in the car. There were frequent visits by the badger – in fact it hardly seemed to have gone before it was back. The first marten visit was at 4.45am and another at 5.35am but with more pics it was worth staying up for. It was strange - for someone who usually needs sleep I wasn’t tired and as it came light I watched the bats return to their roost in the cottage. Later in the day I had an hours lie down around dinner time!
Friday evening – our last opportunity to watch martens and what a show we had! Pauline had the camera set up on one of the stumps with the fat candle dangling down from the pine tree. We had previously watched the marten stand upright as it approached our set up and thought that it would make a good pic if it could be tempted to reach up and with the candle as bait it could work. It didn’t take long before a marten appeared and we were treated to 40 minutes of non-stop action. It soon ate the food that we had left on the stump but didn’t seem to notice the fat candle above its head – I find it difficult to believe that it didn’t know it was there but we think it could smell it and knew what it tasted like from the previous one! It came down off the stump and up the tree and straight across the branch to where the first candle had been. Not finding it – it then started to search almost every branch – going right to the ends - even as they started to droop sharply with what little weight there is in a marten. As it worked its way up the tree and away from the light we occasionally lost sight of it but when it didn’t find food it soon worked its way back in to the light. Every so often it would stop and have a good look round sometimes peering towards the stump with the candle above it but it didn’t immediately rush down to check. When it did go back to ground level it first searched the other stump and logs before finally going back on the baited stump. Finally it sat down and looked up – at the fat candle – and was probably trying to work out if it could reach! It stood up and reached up but with the candle dangling on rope it just swung away as the marten touched it. It kept trying until it finally managed to get both front paws onto it but it was still too high for it to eat so in desperation it just leapt up and hung on. It tried to eat but with the candle swinging so much this proved difficult and it slid and fell off in a shower of fat bits, landing like a cat right side up on all four feet! The poor marten was covered in beef dripping and sunflower bits and had to clean itself. Pauline had taken a few shots so after the marten left it was time to call it done for this trip as we had an early start in the morning to pack, do our usual tidy up and head home.
So far I have only mentioned the evenings – so what did we do during the day? Not a lot I suppose. The weather wasn’t very kind to us. Pauline spent quite a bit of time on the lappy either editing images at the cottage, (she also found time to read 4 novels!) and when she needed internet, it was a case of going to the hotel as there wasn’t any reception in the valley – in fact there wasn’t much mobile reception in the area. We either had to walk for some distance up the valley or drive to find reception. This wasn’t difficult – as we drove back towards the main road our phones would suddenly start pinging as all texts and voice mail alerts sounded! I spent quite a bit of time just roaming about the moor and woodlands. We made visits to the supermarket and butchers and several visits to Loch Maree to look for fungi but the rain and midges kept putting a halt to this. Pauline in desperation decided to have a walk on one of the nature trails round Ben Eighe while I stayed with the car guarding the camera gear. She managed the mile trail but it began raining half way round and she was none too pleased! The rain was washing the insect repellant off!
And so the cottage - after the initial shock we soon grew accustomed to it and managed okay. The cooker and fridge were fine – Pauline even made a steak and kidney pie with crust. She says the big table was just begging to be used for rolling pastry! There was no TV or radio – not a problem at all but no landline telephone could be a problem in an emergency. There was no gas to the cottage so everything was electric and we were careful with the heating as we didn’t want to run up a large fuel bill for ourselves at the end. This meant we had to wear lots of clothing in the cottage - even in bed! Thinking about it we should have warmed the cottage up and just accepted the cost, rather than being on the cold side most of the time. If no one had been staying in the cottage after us I would have stayed another week as it’s not often you get the opportunity to see pine martens so close in the wild.
What did we do as soon as we got home? You guessed it - we booked the cottage for a fortnight next summer! Lets hope the martens are still about - it would be great to photograph them in day light ….