Thursday, 8 September 2011

Magical Mull

Last year's trip to Mull, after the excitement of Uist and drama of Rothiemurchus, was actually a bit of a disappointment on the birding front. The otters made up for it, but the midges threatened to put a downer even on that experience. However, Ian had told me that his annual trips later in the year were always better, so I had high hopes for this week on Mull.

The drive up was ok until we reached Glasgow, when there was a horrendous electrical storm, and it poured down. The roads were awash and the wipers on full speed. Dad was glad to be a passenger for once after driving Mum all those years! We had opted to stay near Oban for the night before the ferry crossing, and Ian and his family joined us later at the same hotel.

A trip to Tescos in the morning, and a fill up, and we were soon stood on the top deck of the ferry, sailing over the calm waters to Mull. It was a treat for the start of the trip, to be able to enjoy the full crossing in the open air, getting views of juvenile black guillemots in the water below, and seeing Duart Castle from the water as we approached Craignure.

I had before the trip, promised Dad that he'd see eagles on Mull, but with wildlife, you just never know. It took less than an hour on the isle to break his duck on these awesome birds, seeing a huge white-tailed eagle sat in her tree, beside the loch. On closer inspection, we noticed others in surrounding trees!

Heading away from the eagles, we took in the scenery of Mull, which is stunning. You really run out of superlatives to use for the place, especially when the sun comes out, which it did on that very first day. Calm too, making the lochs into mirrors, reflecting the beauty around them.

Reaching the loch beside which we were to stay, Ian spotted an otter right beside the shore, feeding on a crab on the seaweed. As quickly became the norm, we found somewhere safe to park up out of the way, and dived out to get some shots of the furry fella. And close up he was! Scampering around the roadside, when the otter was submerged, i found myself very close to him as it surfaced in a small rocky cove, to eat the crab. I could hear him crunching through it.

Then I suspect the otter spotted / smelt us nearby, and performed the usual vanishing act. They submerge, but never seem to come back up! Amazing creatures.

The cottages were lovely. Sat on the lochside, with a small shore and single track road between us and the water. To the left was a view to the open sea, to the right marshes and hills, and in front, Ben More, and surrounding summits. Inside was spacious and we had everything we needed for a comfortable stay.

The first morning we awoke on the island, the weather had deteriorated, but our moods were lifted by firstly seeing an adult white-tailed eagle flying powerfully across the loch, from the sea towards the hills, and then moments later, seeing 2 more battling the strong winds, high up over the cottage. It got better still, when the pair was mobbed by a golden eagle!

With only one event planned during the week, we generally spent each day, driving around areas, hoping to encounter wildlife. And generally we did! Again, using the radios between cars meant Ian's amazing eye-sight could yield dividends for everyone else, as he'd spot something, and we'd pull over to photo.

Seeing eagles and otters were a daily event, and in addition, we found hot spots for hen harriers and short-eared owls (though these remained very much at a distance). Other attractions included ravens, hooded crows, buzzards, swallows, pipits (rock and meadow), stonechats, golden plovers and other waders on the shorelines, such as curlews, oystercatchers and of course, masses of grey herons. We even saw the occasional merlin chasing birds, but never perched up, plus kestrels hovering over the fields and sparrowhawks circling the trees.

Finding the hen harrier location provided an early morning target each day, though success was never guaranteed. The males would tend to belt along at speed, following water channels whereas the females (ring-tail) could appear from anywhere, and never seemed to fly towards you, despite being hidden (sort of) in the car.

Our boat trip was rearranged due to the tides, but as we headed out on it, both Ian and I had crossed fingers, as the last time we'd done the same trip, one of the eagles had brought a hare back to the nest, and neither of the adults came down to see us. This time it was different and my word was it good. Both adults came out, and did so a couple of times. To see them so close was incredible and as before on Skye, you were hard pressed to choose between watching and trying for shots.

The male on one instance gave us no choice, as he swooped down, so fast, making a whooshing sound to grab the fish in a split second, before powering off back to the juveniles. The female was less confident, and circled several times before taking the food. Made it easier to photograph though!

We were also treated to see both come out together, following the boat like perhaps something off a prehistoric movie - they really are massive. Flying barn-doors!

Not wanting to over-feed them, we soon made off, for a tour around the loch and surrounding bays. We saw seals lazing on rocks and also large flocks of shags swimming in the sea together. Most unusual, like it was an organised swimming class!

Thinking the day couldn't get any better, as we drove back from the trip, I spotted a very large dark shadow of a bird, moving low across the field next to the road. Braking to grab my bins, I suddenly realised it was a golden eagle! Panic stations ensued, parking up, alerting the others and trying to get the gear out to get shots.

I've seen golden eagles before, on Uist, in the Highlands, but from a distance. This one was much, much closer, and was either circling the fields low, or landing in amongst the ferns. On closer inspection, we spotted a second bird higher up the hillside, seemingly watching the antics of the other.

According to a passing local, the pair have been at the site for a very long time (50 years he reckoned) and the grey "eye brows" on the one bird certainly gave it an elderly look! Not that it mattered, as the birds still had the magic for me. I am still smiling now, thinking about the moments.

Eventually the pair were both circling in the skies, and gained altitude quickly, flying off into the distance over the loch. Another memorable encounter on this fabulous island.

The remaining days consisted of early starts (and late finishes) for the hen harriers, timing the tides for the otters, and visiting the white-tailed and golden eagle sites whenever possible. The fine meals in the Craignure Inn served us well, as did a treat from the fish & chip van on Tobermory quay one afternoon.

We encountered the golden eagles again, this time Ian spotting them, when we'd split up one afternoon. A mad drive around to meet up ended in apparent disappointment, when Ian was buzzing from bagging shots of the pair hunting, but had just seen them fly off over a ridge. Undeterred, I headed after them, albeit by road, and was amazed to spot one of the birds peering over the top of the hill. It flew off when it saw the "bazooka" appear, but we caught up again round the next corner, and I managed to get a distant shot of one carrying a freshly caught mountain hare. A big crop, but who cares?

Visiting the WTE nest site when the boat trip is on, is worth a go, as we watched one of the birds eventually fly out to the boat (only once, which was a shame for the trippers), get the fish and then battle against the wind, to return to the trees. Gave us a few seconds of shooting as the bird approached us across the water.

As with all single week holidays, the end arrived far too quickly. On the last day, I finally managed a few half decent flight shots of a hen harrier hunting in some sunshine, although she refused to face me for the shot. More otter action of course, in usual and unusual locations, and before we knew it, we were on the ferry heading back to the mainland.

If I had to sum up Mull with one word, it would have to be "magical". What a place. We saw more than we could ever have hoped for, and got photos and memories to make us smile for years to come.


Max Silverman said...

Super stuff Pete.

Anonymous said...

Great account... and photos of course.... don't leave me behind next time! :o)

Christian said...

The Sea Eagle with the fish is sensationally good. It must have given you an immense thrill to see that in the viewer. Amazing. I agree - who cares about cropping when you've got a Golden Eagle with a Mountain Hare!