A week on Mull – eagles aplenty

A curlew on Mull

A curlew on Mull

Cigarette-end box used as nesting box by a blue tit

Cigarette-end box used as nesting box by a blue tit

The blue tit chicks in the unusual cigarette-end nest box

The blue tit chicks in the unusual cigarette-end nest box

What a lovely week my wife and I had on Mull. As well as walking Molly the dog on Calgary beach, looking at the fabulous shops in Tobermory and visiting probably half of the cafes on the island, we were keen to see some of the wildlife. This was our fourth visit to Mull so we know our way around by now.

Despite the fact that a lot can be learnt from the many wildlife tours, I am not really one for that type of viewing of birds and mammals. I don’t consider myself a bird watcher in the proper sense of the term; more a wildlife observer. I like to see Scotland’s wildlife in the normal course of my day’s activity, whether that is through walking, fishing or driving slowly around Hebridean roads. Unlike most bird watchers I have no interest in rarities that are blown off course and spend some time on our shores before moving on, though an exception might be a snowy owl, which I saw several years ago on North Uist.

I was amazed at the number of meadow pipits and wheatears on Mull. I don’t know if last year was a good breeding season for them or if the mild winter allowed more to survive, but they seemed to be everywhere. I was also pleased to see the high number of curlews, their plaintive call being one of my favourite moorland sounds. There were very few lapwings compared to the Outer Hebrides, but maybe I wasn’t visiting the right place. Still on smaller birds, I was surprised to find a small nesting colony of sand martins beside Calgary beach.  There were about 20 nest holes no more than two feet from ground level and a regular procession of sand martins entering to feed chicks inside.

I was lucky enough to see two golden eagles on the east side of the island between Salen and Tobermory. The first was being harassed by a raven as it flew over my head. It was yelping in annoyance and several times turned over on its back in flight showing its talons to the raven, which seemed unperturbed by this show of strength.  The next golden eagle was almost in the same place a couple of days later and may well have been the same bird. It was gliding in to land and as it turned its back on me immediately before touching down the golden feathers on the back of its head and neck shone in the sun.

There is a white-tailed eagle nest in the trees not too far from the roadside on the road towards the Ulva ferry. Any time we passed there were several cars and tour operators present, and a myriad of telescopes, all parallel to each other and pointing towards the nest. I didn’t stop, but saw one of the birds flying along the hillside making for the nest. It would have reached the trees by the time I had drawn up and got my binoculars out of the window, even though they sat on the dashboard throughout the week. Two days later, coming the opposite way on that road, an adult white-tailed eagle flew almost alongside us as I drove down Loch na Keal. It was a closer view than many tourists would have had waiting at a nest and I just wondered if anyone else saw it.

The last white-tailed eagle sighting was from the CalMac ferry Isle of Mull not long after we had left Craignure to return home. The bird was circling near to Duart Bay and was a great finale to a very pleasant week. All of these sightings were without particularly looking for these birds, but just by being observant. I’m sure lots of other visitors to the island had similar experiences.

The breeding success of white-tailed eagles on Mull is in part thanks to Mull Eagle Watch and my late friend Finlay Christine, for many years one of the police officers on Mull. Finlay was the wildlife crime officer for Mull and organised a large proportion of the islanders to take part in a watch over known golden and white-tailed eagle nests on Mull. Those taking part were encouraged to be particularly observant and report any suspicious persons or suspicious vehicles to the police.  Prior to Mull Eagle Watch there had been a series of raids on nests by egg thieves, usually in late March or early April and invariably by people who were well known to me as the administrator of the UK-wide Operation Easter. This local operation on Mull was successful in catching egg thieves in its first couple of years and effectively put a stop to egg thieving on the island. I see little excitement in looking at eggshells in a box. To see or hear birds, large or small, in their natural environment is a completely different experience.

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