Tuesday and Wednesday of the week on Mull were at least as exciting is the first two days. On Tuesday we had a visit first to Calgary beach on the west of the island to exercise our wee dog Molly. She had fun chasing a ball along the sand until we were all tired out. We had a couple of bits of shopping to get in Tobermory, then headed back towards Salen. A golden eagle was gliding across the road near to Ardnacross, which was almost the same place as I saw an eagle on the last visit in 2014. On that occasion it was its call that alerted my attention and made me look up; little more than a soft whistle, which is a weak sound for such a large bird. It was being pursued by either a raven or hooded crow, I can’t remember which now. Both these sighting were a bit more unusual than the normal views of a golden eagle as they were over farmland rather than the open hill.
From Salen we headed west to Loch na Keal as I was keen to see if either of the pair of eagles I had seen there the day before were around. There was a good chance, especially as their nest was within sight (through a scope or binoculars) of the single track road. Sure enough one was circling above the nest, which made our short trip from the holiday cottage well worthwhile. This nest site is well known and there is always a group of bird-watchers or a tour guide with his entourage parked at the roadside with telescopes trained on the nest to watch any feeding activity. I always worry about the nesting sites of rare birds which are well known to the public because of the (lessening) threat of egg thieves or the more real threat now of one or two photographers whose main interest is getting a photo rather than the interests of the birds. The police now probably investigate as many cases of reckless or intentional disturbance of nesting Schedule I birds as they do egg theft. In the Loch na Keal eagle case the very fact it is watched almost continuously prevents any illegal activity.
There was a very pleasant start to Wednesday morning as we had coffee in the Salen Hotel with Dave Sexton, the RSPB officer for the Isle of Mull. Dave must have one of the best jobs in the RSPB and has a tremendous knowledge of the numbers and nesting locations of vulnerable birds on Mull, particularly golden and white-tailed eagles.
From Salen we continued on to Duart Castle in the south east of the island. Near the castle I watched a white-tailed eagle circling above a wood, which after five minutes was joined by a second bird. The sun was out and reflected off their pure white tails, confirming them both as adults. It’s a real pleasure seeing live eagles of either species since many of those I saw during my working days in Tayside were dead, either from being shot or poisoned. The Duart visit was completed by a cuckoo flying almost parallel with the car and landing all-too-briefly on a telephone wire. This is the fourth cuckoo we have seen in the four days so far of the holiday, yet have still to hear one.
Leaving Duart we drove through Glenmore, looking out for hunting hen harriers and golden eagles which are known to be in that glen, but without success this time. We turned right up the shore of Loch Scridain, until I stopped at the side of single-track road having spotted what I initially thought was a great northern diver. When I put the binoculars on the bird it turned out to be a red-breasted merganser, a bird not too common in Perthshire. I managed a few long-distance photos of the merganser, and also one of a heron that was neatly framed by the overhanging branch of a tree. Other sea birds on the loch were cormorants and a single black guillemot but in most cases well out from the shore.
We drove from Loch Scridain to Loch na Keal, passing many crags and cliffs that I am sure could hold nesting peregrines. At one point I thought I saw a peregrine lifting off a crag but a few seconds later it was a hooded crow that came into view, so I suspect this would be the same bird. Hooded crows abound on Mull, yet there are probably as many birds as anywhere that would be considered their prey species so far as eggs and chicks are concerned. I thought also to earlier holidays in Brittany, where I saw countless small birds, yet there were hundreds of at least three species of corvid. It makes me wonder about the value in trying to control crows as they certainly appear to have little impact on bird numbers either in Brittany or the Western Isles. Predators and prey have co-existed for millennia and the solution to any perceived problems with over-predation should be in improving or maintaining the habitat.
Returning to the small birds, I have seen hundreds on Mull: criss-crossing the single-track roads, in woodlands, on the hill and on rocky shores. Many are meadow pipits, with a smattering of skylarks some of which rose high into the air and even sang – a sound I had not heard for ages. I just wish that some of the others had sat still long enough for identification. One that did pose for a photograph was a lovely male wheatear. It was resplendent in its grey and black livery and sat on a rock, up to its full height in typical wheatear style – until I was about to press the button on my wee camera, at which point it flew off!