Sunday 18 April 2021

Return Of Spring Migrants And Hope

I'm not a massive flower fan, but I can't help but smile at the daffodils around the garden here on Mull, as they shine in the morning sunshine. Even on dull days, they lift my spirits, and they've had to endure some wintery weather over the last few weeks, including sleet, hail and several dustings of snow.

We're in April already, it's my first Birthday here on Mull, and the weather has been somewhat typical of the month. Sun one day, snowing the next. In fact, on some days this month, we've seen four seasons in an hour, let alone a day. But most recently, we've enjoyed some warm sunny days and it amazes me how quickly the island dries out. I've even had to water some of the potted plants.

There are signs of spring everywhere, with buds on almost all the plants, some blossom flowering and adding much needed colour to the hills, and of course migrant birds are returning to Mull with every passing day.

In March, I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever see a wheatear, envious of those down south reporting sightings, and posting images on social media. Then a familiar flash of white on a small bird flying beside Loch Na Keal stole my gaze, and I realised they'd arrived.

By the time the calendar flipped over to show the dates of April, I'd seen dozens of these striking little birds, perched beside the road, on rocks or grassy mounds, anywhere that gave them a vantage point to dart over to pick off an insect.

After seeing a lone sand martin weeks ago, it was lovely to see small flocks of these aerial masters, hawking insects over the freshwater lochs, joined by their cousins, house martins. I feel the need to stop and scan such groups of birds at the moment, in the hope of seeing a swallow among their numbers, and this paid dividends just a few days ago, when half a dozen swallows fluttered down to perch on an overhead line.

Another bird that contributes to the sound track of Mull during the warmer months is the common sandpiper. Whilst trundling round Loch Na Keal a few days back, looking for wheatears, movement beside one of the stone bridges caught my eye. I was driving, so slowed to a crawl, and watched the sandpiper poke around the structure of the bridge, before dropping out of sight, to the stream below.

Then just a day ago, I heard that familiar call, when exploring a new area of the loch we now live near, and saw another one, searching seaweed on the shore of a small sandy beach, for food. I had just enough time to line the camera up for a record shot before it took flight, skimming the water as it crossed the entrance of the loch, to continue feeding on the rocks on the other side of the channel.

Perhaps the final piece of the springtime jigsaw of seasonal birds arrived at Grasspoint recently, when I heard a cuckoo shouting his name out repeatedly. He flew off before I could line up the camera, but they're back now too. Fab!

I'm not really familiar with the north end of Mull, having spent most of my time on the isle during holidays and more recently guiding, either down the south end at Pennyghael or around the centre, focusing on Loch Na Keal and the surrounding area. So I'm exploring the area around home as much as possible, and trying to make a mental note of what species are around, and where, and in the case of migrants, when to start looking out for them.

The edge of the loch where it meets the river flowing from the glen, seems to be a fantastic area to watch waders, especially red and greenshank, oystercatchers and snipe. Curlew are also here, and their bubbling call carries up to our house day and night, such a haunting call, and one sadly fading from the rest of the UK. With snipe being around too, I've also spent time standing in near darkness in the garden, listening to that distinctive whirring sound, made by their tail feathers as they perform their courtship flights. I just need to work out the best place to get some photographs of these birds, as they're nervous and will take flight if I attempt to creep down the shore towards them.

Understandable though, with the birds of prey around the island. While the white-tailed eagles will put everything up from the water, the local buzzards seem to panic the gulls and smaller waders each time they circle overhead, and the sparrowhawks seem to get a thrill from zipping past everything like a feathery missile, scaring them into a frenzy, only to ignore them, targeting birds in residents' gardens across the loch, instead.

Having had a taste of the sky dance of another raptor in March, I have been spending a great deal of time watching areas around here for hen harriers, hoping to see some more action. As with past attempts at watching these shy birds, I've had varying fortunes, seeing almost nothing on some days, and constant action on others. There doesn't seem to be a pattern, but I think there are at least three pairs in the area, based on the males I've photographed. One appears to be in full adult colours, another has traces of his juvenile plumage and the third is very much midway through the transition from juvenile to adult.

I've seen food being taken to perhaps a waiting female, hopefully on eggs, and also other females out hunting for themselves.

The hen harriers are also increasingly becoming aggressive to other birds that stray too close to presumably the potential or actual nest sites, and I've seen them chasing hooded crows, ravens and buzzards away.

When the weather has been forecast to be fair, we have been heading further afield, and at the start of the month, drove all the way to the southern tip of Mull, taking a leisurely stroll along the white sands of Fidden Beach. Such a tranquil spot, with stunning views across to Iona, with turquoise waters, and pink granite around the shore. While the majority of the birds on show were gulls, I did see oystercatchers, wheatears, pipits (lots of meadow pipits back now too), wagtails and the ever-amusing Frankie Howerd call of an eider gave its location away, as it soaked up some sunshine on a small rock out in the bay, shared with a number of common or harbour seals.

Passing through Pennyghael on the way home, always reminds me of Dad, and I half expect to see him standing in the doorway of the cottage we used to rent, taking in that glorious view across Loch Scridain. Such memories are still difficult, as they remind me of those wonderful, happy days spent there, but also gut-wrenchingly sad, that he's no longer with us.

As it was when he first left us, wildlife always provides a welcome distraction from the grief, and we paused on our journey back, to grab some images of an otter, feeding on a scorpion fish at the edge of the loch.

And at last, we have some dates for when some sort of normality might begin to drip in. Tourists from Scotland can visit later this month, and I believe the pubs might actually open their garden gates for business. By the time our July tours are operating, I'd hope that most of the restrictions will have been lifted, and I can enjoy showing clients around this wonderful island again.

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