Monday, 17 October 2011

For Whom That Has The Eyes To See…

The Isle of Mull has an unyielding capacity to bombard the senses from any and every possible angle.

Rust Never Sleeps
The gloriously translucent light of that one day of Indian Summer that the Isle of Mull enjoyed in late September, as reflected in the colours and shadows cast on this Bramble leaf – 28/09/11

When Death Becomes You
The decaying fruiting body of this Russula toadstool provides the sustenance necessary for the emergence and development of the parasitic fungus Asterophora parasitica. Like many fungi, this organism has, so far, been spared the moniker of a universally accepted common name. We call it the Violet Necro-fungus, for its capacity to sustain life when all around it has called it a day! – 28/09/11

A Hidden Agenda
It is hard to imagine that an army of tiny Gall Wasps will emerge from the cluster of Silk Button Spangle Galls littered on the underside of these oak leaves. Yet, having endured the Winter among the leaf litter and assorted detritus on the woodland floor that’s exactly what will happen next Spring. Around 90 different species of minute Gall Wasps inhabit Britain’s parks and woodlands, yet very few human beings ever get the opportunity to see them. Indeed, if life was but a game of hide and seek, then these little insects may never be found! – 13/09/11

Candy-Striped Cling-Ons
As light travels through the sea water that immerses these Purple Topshells, the attractive lime green and deep purple colours of this grazing mollusc’s protective coat shimmer and dazzle, like a child’s spinning top. To overturn a rock at the tide-line on the Isle of Mull will often reveal a myriad of previously hidden marine life, of which a variety of periwinkles and topshells may be most obvious, not to mention colourful – 27/09/11

Mare Serenitatis
Regardless of your religious leaning (or none), it is impossible not to visit the white shell sand beaches and aquamarine waters of the sacred Isle of Iona without being affected by a pervading sense of peace and calm. Yet, Iona has had to endure many natural and man-made storms during its history; storms that created the flower-rich machair of the West coast and sacked the early monastery during a time of Viking rule. Today, even a day visit to this wonderful little island offers a very tangible unburdening of everyday stresses accumulated by many visitor’s mainland lives – 06/07/11

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

This Heterogeneous Isle

A dictionary definition of heterogeneity: composed of diverse elements, e.g. the Isle of Mull.

Mullogeneity, although not yet adopted by the Oxford English Dictionary, is a word that is unique to the Isle of Mull, describing a miscellany of wildlife and landscape the like of which cannot be found elsewhere.

From Little Fissures do Great Volcanoes Grow
Characterised by frost-shattered summits, that rise high above the floor of deeply-gouged glens, the mountains that make up Mull’s central highlands speak eloquently of the island landscapes turbulent past. Overshadowing the former farmstead at Gortenbuie and the Cannel River floodplain, the height of Ben Talaidh (Mull’s third highest ascent at 761 metres) sits astride a great volcano, whose lava pile helped spawn the island as we know it today – 03/05/11

Glitzy and Glamorous
The damp woodlands on Mull represent ideal growing conditions for a variety of fascinating plants that simply merge into the environment and are, thus, overlooked. The flat-lobed and leafy liverworts fit neatly into this category, living out their simple lives in a way that doesn’t draw attention to themselves, unless you happen to be a practising Bryologist! They may lack the film star looks of orchids or possess the catwalk scents of garden roses, yet their less flamboyant, self-deprecating manner has a certain appeal of its own. Has it not? – 22/07/11

Effervescent yet Evanescent
The cock Yellowhammer is one of the Isle of Mull’s most striking birds. A rather localised breeding species on the island, no doubt due to the general scarcity of the starch-rich grass and cereal seeds that it relies upon, small parties can be relied upon to brighten up island gardens from time to time. Having suffered a near catastrophic slump in their mainland fortunes, this sparkling bunting can still be heard delivering its characteristic ‘a-little-bit-of-bread, but-no-chee-eese’ ditty from atop wires and gorse bushes in several parts of the island – 07/09/11

Mull’s Jam Butty Mines
The Broad-leaved Helleborine’s
rather understated magnificence is somewhat soured by the knowledge that it is the most common of its kind to be encountered in Britain. Nor does it emit a deliciously seductive scent to tantalise any passing insects and potential pollinators. That said, the glistening pot of purple nectar ‘jam’ that lies in wait for any wasps fortunate enough to stumble across this easily overlooked woodland orchid should be ample reward. Toast, anyone? – 26/07/11

An Araldite Anemone
Encouraged by the water of an incoming tide, this crimson Beadlet Anemone has emerged to resume feeding within the rocky crevice of its upper shore home. Protected from drying out during periods of low tide by a sticky membrane of mucous, this attractive and noticeable inhabitant of Mull’s rocky coastline quickly retracts its two hundred tentacles when disturbed. Super-glued to rocks, the anemone’s lower margin is a striking violet-blue colour, making it one of the most vibrantly coloured of the island’s coastline environment and an easy find for holidaying rock-poolers – 25/09/11

Friday, 7 October 2011

The Wild Vitality of Life

(aka The Vitality of Wildlife)

Eco-therapy : the psychology of nature. Wildlife watching as a remedy for the stresses of everyday life. Even on the Isle of Mull there are stresses and strains to be fought and overcome, but of a different nature!

Batteries Included!
Late Summer sees small parties of comical Sanderling drop in to the island’s sandy beaches, en route from their breeding grounds in the High Arctic tundra. With almost manic endurance, these extreme long distance migrant waders never do things by halves. Their speeded up surges, in chase of exposed tide-line invertebrates, is like watching children’s clockwork toys of the past. Only, this time, batteries most certainly have been included! – 08/08/11

A Floral Bodyguard
The delicate beauty of the lavender-coloured flowers of Butterwort gently disguise the magical properties that are held within. On an island where the everyday air is heavy with myth and magic, this insectivorous plant is held in great esteem for the immunity it engenders against witches and bad fairies. That we should still require its protection in the 21st century may be open to debate and ridicule, but you wouldn’t want to chance getting on the wrong side of Mull’s bad fairies, would you? – 01/06/11

A ‘Fish’ Out of Water
The purity of air on the Isle of Mull make the island a wonderland for lichens, many of which are indicators of the ancient stands of woodland that previously clothed much of the local landscape. The lobes of the Sticta lichens are particular favourites of Mull Magic and greatly appeal to our wickedly perverse (at times!) sense of humour. Growing on many oak trees throughout the island, a quick sniff of the leafy thallus will provide you with an unforgettable experience. These lichens are notoriously aromatic, smelling of rotten fish. No wonder they’re referred to as Stinky Stictas! – 18/08/11

Standing Out in a Crowd of None
Towered over by an 1800 feet cliff-face, these little, red-roofed properties cut a colourful, if rather incongruous, dash on the south shore of Loch na Keal. To many, the majestic, boulder-strewn landscapes of the Gribun epitomise the stark and rugged beauty of the Isle of Mull. It is an environment that is withheld from many of the island’s visitors, especially those that arrive by public transport, as it is not an area of the island served by the local bus service. With mesmerising views out over Inch Kenneth, to Ulva, Little Colonsay and the ‘Pillar Island’ of Staffa beyond, these are properties where the curtains need never be drawn! – 19/03/11

Beguiling and Bejewelled
Like a myriad of tiny, distant stars, bejewelled in the darkness of space, the granulated caps of the Glistening Inkcap certainly live up to their name. Found at the base of rotting wood, these pleated, egg-shaped toadstools are always a welcome find, even if only to look at, as they are inedible. Like others in their family, the gills assume a mushy, inky black with age, as this ‘star’ mushroom develops its own nursery before dying. – 05/09/11

Monday, 3 October 2011

Biodiversity: In Glorious Technicolour

Wildlife: the grouping of animals and plants collectively. With Mull Magic that means anything from the tiniest spore attached to the gills of a mushroom to the cleaver-like beak of a White-tailed Eagle and everything in-between.

Scotland’s National Plant?
We contest that Sphagnum in all its glorious colours be the true ‘Flower of Scotland’, on account of its wide ranging household and medicinal purposes down through the ages. A natural antibiotic and antiseptic, this prolific moss has seen use as a wound dressing (as recently as World War II) and was the original toilet paper, sanitary towel and disposable nappy. In lieu of the humid climate on Mull, one of its greatest redeeming qualities, due to its marvellous absorbency, was to minimise leaks and to increase insulation in buildings. It could be said that, without it, the Isle of Mull would be populated by drips! – 18/05/11

Sensitive and Sexy
The club-shaped antennae of this Small Pearl-Bordered Fritillary butterfly are the insect’s primary organ of smell. Packed with extra-sensory nerve receptors, which can detect minute dilutions of scent, antennae on females home in on the scent given off by prospective mates. Special scent-releasing glands on some of the scales of a male butterfly produce powerful pheromones that induce a sexual frenzy among those females that become overwhelmed. That great smell of Brut doesn’t quite have the desired effect! – 04/06/11

Yummy and Scrummy
With the blackberry picking season now upon us, our fingers will soon be dyed rich purple-red with the sumptuous fruits of this wildlife-friendly plant. We will be able to look forward to spreading delicious Mull Magic bramble jelly on our morning toast and to imbibing on a blackberry wine as a toast of a different sort to this amazing plant. Honey Bees, Bumblebees, Drone Flies and Hoverflies all take advantage of the nectar-rich flowers, which have a very long season here on Mull – 14/09/11

The Prototype for the Caribbean
Much of the 305 miles of Mull’s coastline consists of rocky shores yet, particularly in the North-west and South of the island, the almost white sand beaches are a rival to those in warmer parts of the world. Indeed, beaches on the Isle of Mull are often said to resemble those in the Caribbean or the Greek Islands. There is only one thing wrong in that assertion: it is the beaches on Barbados and Corfu that look like those at Calgary Bay and Langamull. The Isle of Mull may only be a young island, but we were definitely here first! – 29/04/11

Mother Nature’s Water Pistols
The earliest human settlers on Mull would have made good use of the many different kinds of seaweed that thrive along the coast of the island. Indeed, wrack was an essential commodity in the lives of the islanders far into the 20th Century, as animal fodder, green manure, to be eaten raw or included in stews, soups and puddings. The largest bladders of the most common seaweeds were often collected by children, who’d bite off one end and immerse it in water. Once filled, the children had a ready-made water pistol to greatly annoy their friends and parents with! – 08/03/11

Friday, 30 September 2011

The Colour of Biodiversity

Biodiversity : the existence of a wide variety of species in their natural environment, i.e. The Isle of Mull.

The problem (if there can be one) with living on such a rich island is that biodiversity means everything to some but, unfortunately, nothing to many!

Approachable Without Menace
Among the most welcome of insects, this Hoverfly (Episyrphus balteatus) is nectaring on a St. John’s Wort flower. They are beautiful and harmless, flapping their wings several hundred times per second just to remain stationary in the air, the insect world’s equivalent of a Kestrel. Despite the fact that they are stingless, hoverflies choose to mimic bees and wasps in their colouration to avoid predation – 09/09/11

Luscious and Inviting?
The main driveway into the centre of Aros Park in Tobermory is bedecked with the dark fruits of the leafy shrub Gaultheria shallon. Initially planted as cover for Pheasants and other game birds in the heyday of the shooting estate in the 19th Century, these shrubs now form dense thickets of growth, often to the detriment of other plants. Uniquely flavoured, the berries are edible and have been used as an appetite suppressant in the past. We suspect that the uniqueness of the flavour tells you all you need to know regarding their taste! – 04/09/11

Lunar Lichen
Encrusted on the trunks of many of the island’s majestic oaks is a remarkable organism that is part algae and part fungus. The Cudbear lichen enjoys a symbiotic relationship that ensures its survival among a myriad of other lichens and mosses on Mull’s grandest trees. Look closely and the pale margins of the caramel-tinted reproductive discs take on a new life, as the rims of meteor-blasted craters on a lunar landscape. Perhaps it was here that Apollo 11 made good the first moon landing all those years ago, stoking the fires of conspiracy as it did? – 19/03/11

Consistent and Dependable
The Isle of Mull is currently enjoying its best-ever year for birds, based on the large number of unusual sightings that have been reported. Yet, ‘best-ever’ and ‘unusual’ are relative terms and should never take away from the common-place and everyday enjoyment and fascination that we derive from the frequent and usual birdlife that lives on the island. We know of so many people who forego the pleasures of what’s on their doorstep to chase after something deemed more interesting and exciting. At Mull Magic, the Meadow Pipit is the new White-tailed Eagle and the Robin is the Roller! – 10/04/11

The Bay Bolete epitomises the way that Mull’s landscapes and wildlife bombard your senses: it looks simply amazing, it has a wonderfully spongy texture, smells pleasant and tastes good into the bargain! When bruised or exposed to the air, this incredibly eye-catching toadstool stains blue, while the reticulated red-brown stem is yellow at its apex, just like the colour of its pores. An altogether super-colourful treat that we spotted on a recent foray through a woodland in North Mull – 15/09/11

Saturday, 24 September 2011

A Fairytale World of Fantastic Fungi

Auto-Digest and Deliquesce

More than 3,000 species of gilled fungi alone have been recorded in North-west Europe, many of which are found on the Isle of Mull. The humid conditions that generally prevail on the island during the Autumn months provide ideal conditions for the various fruiting bodies to appear above ground. The fertile caps of these Common Inkcaps are over-ripe. The bronze bonnets shelter the decaying and deliquescing gills which store the next generation of this remarkable fungi.

Perfect and Purple

From familiar toadstools with a distinctive cap and stem to very different and unusual fungal forms with spines, tubes, pores and wrinkles, the Isle of Mull provides a breeding ground for them all. One of the most attractive gilled mushrooms on Mull is the violet-coloured Amethyst Deceiver. Not only is it a delight to look at, it is also highly edible and is known to stain omelettes purple. We knew of the Goose that laid the Golden Egg, but were previously unaware that on Mull we had the Hen that lays the Purple Eggs!

Spiny yet Soft

Widespread within both broad-leaved and coniferous woodland on Mull are two highly distinctive fungi that have soft and brittle quills instead of gills below their caps. Both Wood and Terracotta Hedgehog fungus are highly prized by mushroom gourmets and are a treasure to stumble across on a fungal foray. The smaller Terracotta Hedgehog is orange in colour, whose spiny underside resembles a mouth overcrowded with teeth.

Pseudo-Baleen and Bolete

Some of the most remarkable of all Mull’s fungi belong to a large group of organisms referred to as ‘Boletes’. These toadstools have a strong mycorrhizal relationship with particular trees and do not possess gills. Instead, like this Brown Birch Bolete, the underside is soft, spongy and porous. The spore-producing layer is contained in tubes, which resemble the baleen plates that hang from the upper jaws of plankton- eating whales, such as the Minke Whale. However, that’s where any resemblance begins and ends.

Honeycombed and Squeezable

The pores of the Larch Bolete, a sticky-capped fungi with an obvious tree association, are reminiscent of a certain honeycomb-centred chocolate bar. However, instead of being crunchy, these pores have a soft and bouncy texture that is satisfying to squeeze and is less likely to give you toothache! The spores that ripen in the tubes drop out of these pores and fall on to the ground or are dispersed by the wind.

Fecund and Fitful

Like the cavernous crater of a mini-volcano, the top of this Common Puffball has burst open, revealing a mass of fertile, olive-coloured spores. Produced in the upper body of the fungus, these spores are released through a vent which develops at the top. The fruitbody relies on rainfall to generate this. When raindrops hit the top of the fungus, spores puff out of the opening, like ash and dust spewing from a volcano, albeit massively reduced in size!

Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Mull Magic Mantra : Acknowledge, Appreciate, Respect and Enjoy

(Admittedly, it isn’t always that easy!!!)

Putrefaction Guaranteed

As one fly once said to another, “I’m a Bluebottle, what’s that you’re reading?” In typical Spike Milligan fashion, back came the reply : “A fly paper”. Cringe all you like, but it may be the only funny thing there is to know about these blow flies. Although they may also be found enjoying more acceptable insect past-times, such as sourcing nectar and pollen from a variety of wild flowers, Bluebottles have a distinct penchant for dead and putrefying tissue and, as such, are unwelcome visitors to most households – 09/09/11

Sloth and Slimy

Of nearly 30 different species found in Britain, the large Black Slug is the most likely to be encountered on the Isle of Mull. A garden pest of decorative flower beds and cultivated vegetables, we conveniently overlook the vital job that these ‘naked snails’ undertake in keeping our environment detritus free. As enthusiastic recyclers of garden waste and animal excrement, we should give our thanks the next time we pass a slug on the path. If it were not for the army of slugs in the countryside, we may well be up to our knees in… Yeuch! – 20/08/11

Ambivalence and Astringency

Apart from Bracken, few plants have caused such mixed emotions among farmers on the island than the Common Ragwort. Love or loathe, it is a flower of great beauty and charm, and a plant whose juice has long been used to help relieve sore throats and to take the inflammation out of insect bites. It is, however, a great enemy of horse owners and other grazing animals, who will contract an insidious and irreversible cirrhosis of the liver should they eat it. It is probably best that they do not! – 27/08/11

Aesthetic and Arresting

The Isle of Mull’s humid climate is ideal for fungi, whose fruiting bodies are currently sprouting up all over the island. From a purely aesthetic point of view, fungi are quite wonderful organisms, presenting in all manner of colours, shapes, textures, tastes and smells. This Oyster Mushroom is one of very many edible fungi that can be found in woodlands throughout Mull. The gills on the underside of this individual fungus made for an arresting subject for the Mull Magic Macro lens – 09/09/11

Scrawls and Squiggles

Like a human fingerprint, the markings on these Oystercatcher eggs are unique to the bird that laid them. Not only that, but no two eggs possess the same blotches, scrawls and squiggles. These eggs had been laid in a simple scrape, a depression in the stones of the upper shore, above the high tide mark on a local sea loch. This scrape is often decorated with the cast shells that litter many of Mull’s shores. The egg colour provides marvellous camouflage and protection for a clutch that can be left drastically exposed to the elements and predation if the incubating bird is disturbed – 04/05/11