Thursday, 24 June 2010

Drought on a Rain-swept Island

Many people were perplexed when Mull Magic started conveying to the wider world what tremendous weather the island has been enjoying. A lack of rainfall isn’t something that most would associate with the Isle of Mull, yet the island is starting to, quite literally, pay the price for the months of dry weather that have bamboozled and delighted in equal measure. Private water tanks may be running dangerously low, yet, thankfully, the marvellous wildlife experiences that we encounter on our walks show no sign of drying up. Even our local birdlife are getting in on the act of chilling out and soaking up some sunshine. This male Blackbird was oblivious to our approach as it sunbathed, the ultraviolet rays helping to convert the preen oil on the bird’s feathers in to valuable Vitamin D. Or, maybe, it was simply topping up its tan!

Cold-blooded insects, like butterflies, are most active during warm, sunny days, so it was no surprise when a Small Pearl-Bordered Fritillary glided past, fast and low, before alighting on vegetation close to the path that we were walking along in North Mull. These orange and black butterflies are exceptionally attractive inhabitants of woodland clearings on the Isle of Mull, where it is far more likely to be encountered than its rarer relative, the Pearl-bordered Fritillary.

The same damp wooded areas are home at this time of year to the beautiful flowers of Water Avens, which we always stop to admire. Held on long stalks, the peach-infused petals are supported by purple sepals, which give this plant a certain aristocratic grace, as the flowers nod in the Summer breeze. The feathery seed heads are burr-like, which aids their distribution, as they often get caught in the coats of passing animals. This is a plant that we have a particular fondness for.

Considering the ‘arid’ conditions, we were surprised to come across our first Russula fungi of the season, tucked away in the woodland leaf litter. Past its best, the olive-green cap suggested that it was a variety of the Charcoal Burner, which although common and edible is a highly variable mushroom. Without wishing our lives away, it won’t be long before we will be back in these self-same North Mull woods searching for even greater culinary treats, in the delicious forms of Chanterelle and Horn of Plenty!

The emerging clusters of the funnel-shaped, pinkish-white flowers of Common Valerian are proving to be ‘heaven scent’ to hoverflies. Several large and very attractive Pellucid Hoverflies allowed us a very close approach. So much so, we were able to tell the sexes apart, just by looking at the insects’ eyes: males have larger compound eyes, which almost touch each other in the middle. The Pellucid Hoverfly is a bumblebee mimic and extremely visually aesthetic to us humans. Makes a change from some flies less than endearing habit of feeding by vomiting the contents of their stomach and sucking the liquid back up again. Yeuch!

Monday, 21 June 2010

In Flagrante Delicto

Where have the past six months gone? Here we are celebrating the Summer Solstice and contemplating the relentless march of time. And, the fact that none of us are getting any younger, irrespective of the restorative powers of the magic Mull mud! Afforded a huge slice of luck, thanks to some beautiful weather, our recent walks have provided us with a wealth of wonderful wildlife memories to re-live as conversation pieces during the long, dark nights of Winter.

The Slender Scotch Burnet moth is found at a handful of locations on Mull and Ulva, where adults are on the wing for a few short weeks in June and July. We were concerned on a recent walk that we may have been too early to view this marvellously confiding day flying moth. Thankfully, our fears were quickly dispelled when we began searching the grassland where we had enjoyed such wonderful experiences with this rare and beautiful insect last year. Not only that, an individual took an obvious fancy to the pink fleece one of the ladies in our group was wearing and promptly settled on her arm, providing her with what was truly a once in a lifetime’s experience!

The grass verges that flank ‘Mull’s Motorway’ are a riot of colour at present. These wildflower strips are not only aesthetically pleasing to the human eye, but assume the role of a life-giving nectar cafĂ© for many of the marvellous moths and butterflies that inhabit the island. The roadsides are ablaze with Ox-eye Daisies, Red and White Clover and Bird’s Foot Trefoil, within whose ranks we found a solitary Greater Butterfly Orchid. Highly scented, this exquisite and delicate plant relies on long-tongued night-flying moths to aid its pollination. As the insect sips nectar from the orchid’s flower, pollen glues itself to the moth's eyes, in another fascinating example of how the eyes of Mull’s wildlife remain open, long after we humans have turned in for the night!

Walking amongst the carpets of Heath Spotted Orchids that had sprung up almost overnight on the island’s moors, we were suddenly stopped dead in our tracks by a fast moving caterpillar. Looking more Porcupine than the alluring Garden Tiger Moth that it was destined to become, this ‘Woolly Bear’ certainly lived up to its nickname. Seeming out of habitat, it wasn’t for hanging around and stayed just long enough to pose for our camera before making good its escape to the sanctuary of the bogland heather.

Some of our most cherished wildlife moments are not necessarily those that are shared with the rare and unusual birds and beasts of this wondrous isle. A male Large Red Damselfly had caught sight of an unsuspecting female and had carried her off in tandem to mate on a secluded grass stem. In flagrante delicto! It seems that nothing is sacred, however, as lifting the courting couple on to a finger provided our guests with the most incredible and voyeuristic experience of their trip. It appears that nothing else matters when you are caught in the throes of passion. Ooh, er, missus!

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Wildlife Welfare Comes First

Having been off-island for the past week, it has been disappointing on our return to view the negative publicity that has been generated in the local media regarding “concerns at walkers disturbing wildlife” (The Oban Times, 10th and 17th June).

Late May and early June are particularly stressful times for the shorebirds that breed around the Isle of Mull’s 305 miles of coastline. This tends to be a delicate time in the breeding cycles of most of the island’s ducks, geese, gulls and waders that choose to nest above the high water mark on Mull’s beaches. Many of the nests will have eggs that are very close to hatching and some birds will already be tending young on the ground.

Many of these coastal areas are also attractive to humans, who enjoy the relaxation of walking along sandy beaches, beachcombing and exercising their dogs. Inadvertently, in doing so, any birds that are nesting in the area are likely to be disturbed. Unfortunately, not everyone that enjoys spending time on Mull’s beaches is conscious of the wildlife that their actions may be distressing.

It is a difficult and perennial problem that can only be properly addressed by education. Some birds are more easily disturbed than others and most will return to their nests as soon as the cause of disturbance has gone. When eggs and young are exposed for long periods, particularly during inclement weather, is when nests and broods are in greatest danger of succumbing to the elements or predators.

At Mull Magic, many of our daily walks take us in to areas where shorebirds are nesting. Disturbance is, at times, inevitable, although we always try to keep any distress to these birds to a minimum, preferring to take a quick photograph before retreating to watch from a safe distance. The welfare of the bird must always come first and we would be extremely upset if we thought that our behaviour was causing any bird unnecessary harm.

Wildlife enthusiasts have to tolerate that people visit Mull’s coastline for all number of reasons and not only birdwatching. However, an acceptance of this fact needs to be reciprocated by the greater responsibility of others, particularly dog owners, when birds are nesting in Spring. Increased awareness of this problem may help to alleviate such concerns in the future. As a dog owner, Mull Magic believes that responsibility is the key to unlocking a situation that is neither new nor is likely to go away.

Heads in the Clouds, Eyes on the Ground!

The month of June has been a whirlwind few weeks for Mull Magic. A hectic walking schedule, coupled with the making and baking of our gourmet packed lunches, has meant that we have had little opportunity (or energy!) to sit down and keep up to date with our Mull Magic blog. However, now that we are sat in front of the computer screen, it could be that catching up will be akin to feast or famine!

Our recent Mull Magic Wildlife Walking Week was a rip-roaring success. Blessed with glorious weather all week, we were able to show all our visitors the very best that the Isle of Mull has to offer: splendid scenery, landscapes and seascapes to die for and, of course, the island’s uniquely fantastic wildlife.

One of our guests had never seen a Crossbill before and hoped that a visit to Mull might allow her to achieve this long held ambition. This chunky, enigmatic finch has enjoyed a good breeding season in the island’s spruce plantations and family parties are now roaming the local countryside in feeding forays. Highly nomadic, these noisy, miniature parrots can be difficult to pin down, as they flit among the tree tops. Amazingly, as if to know of our wishes, a pair alighted on the upper branches of a nearby spruce. Disturbed by a singing cock Siskin on the same branch, the Crossbills flew off, only to re-alight in a tree that was even closer to us, providing one lucky lady with the thrill of a lifetime!

As we walked through the coastal grassland, we were surprised and delighted to obtain close encounters with two rather special, yet very different, Isle of Mull moths. Resting in the long grass, we came across a strikingly beautiful Buff-tip moth. We may never have found this had it been relaxing in a manner more accustomed to its cryptic markings. This large moth bears a remarkable resemblance to the broken twigs of several deciduous trees, in which it can normally be found, as you can see for yourself - the moth is on the left!

The fuchsia-pink and olive-green colours of the Elephant Hawk Moth make it a stand-out amongst the island’s moth population. Extending its range in Scotland, this beautiful moth is shaped like a jet fighter and gets its name from the caterpillar’s apparent resemblance to an elephant’s trunk. Like the Buff-tip, we stumbled across one of these attractive insects as it rested, low down on grass stems, very close to the path that we were walking along. Despite its stunning appearance, it would have been missed had it not been for the eagle-eyed in our group, searching at ground level for flowering plants. Our heads may have been in the clouds after the wonderful sightings during the day but some of us definitely had our eyes closer to the ground!

Friday, 11 June 2010

Those Life-Affirming Moments

It has been an exceptionally busy time for Mull Magic recently. Barely have we had time to draw our breath, such has been the intensity of our current walking schedule. Luckily, this busy spell has coincided with some of the best weather that the Isle of Mull has enjoyed so far this year. Our Wildlife Walks this week exceeded our expectations and those of our visitors to the Isle of Mull, with rare butterflies and moths out in force – along with the SPF30! Some of our guests admitted that they didn’t quite know what to expect of the island prior to their visit. However, by the time of their departure, all were in raptures regarding the wondrous wildlife and scintillating scenery that provided them with a whole host of life-affirming moments to take back to their respective homes.

Shaped like a battleship, protecting the western approaches to Mull, the Isle of Lunga is the largest island in the Treshnish archipelago. Our visitors were attracted by the not-to-be-missed opportunity of having lunch with the 2,000-plus pairs of Puffins that breed on the island’s plateau of short turf. The popularity of this ‘Puffin Therapy’, where we sat within a few feet of these iconic little Sea Parrots, remains as prevalent as ever.

Mull Magic has never known the Lunga Puffin population look so healthy, but our local birds’ good fortune isn’t mirrored at some other colonies around the coast of the British Isles. Indeed, declining numbers elsewhere have prompted scientists to fit high-tec ‘Sat Nav’ devices on to the feathers of these comical little birds, in the hope of finding an answer to this mystery. With concerns regarding reduced fish stocks and global warming, it is refreshing to know that these avian ambassadors to Mull and Iona are bucking a trend and increasing in number!

The warm sunshine of recent days had prompted many more of the island’s butterflies and moths to put in an appearance. While walking in North-West Mull, we took the opportunity to search the South-facing, herb-rich grassland for the rare Slender Scotch Burnet Moth and were thrilled to find several on the wing. This crimson and black coloured moth is often mistaken for a butterfly, due to its highly attractive colours and day flying habits. Our guests were amazed at its beauty and intrigued to learn that it is only known from a handful of sites on the Isle of Mull and our neighbouring island of Ulva.

Walking along the grass verge that skirts the main road in to the island’s ‘capital’, Tobermory, we stopped to admire the striking magenta-coloured flower spikes of a colony of Northern Marsh Orchids. Recognisable by its deep colour, compact flower head and diamond-shaped lip, these orchids made a vivid statement among the more usual buttercups and daisies.

Our attention was grabbed by a small butterfly that was feeding on one such buttercup. Its checkerboard pattern of orange, black, brown and cream was unmistakeable. It was a Marsh Fritillary, one of the rarest butterflies to be seen on the Isle of Mull. Here we were, crouched, within inches of an insect whose Scottish distribution is restricted to Argyll and the Isles. And, here it was, adjacent to a busy housing development and only a few metres from the Tobermory to Craignure highway! Prone to population booms and slumps, the Marsh Fritillary has to be resilient to survive. In many parts of their former British range they are now extinct. Increased sightings in North Mull in recent days give us hope that 2010 may be a good year for this gorgeous little butterfly.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Big isn’t always Best!

No matter how many times we visit the same area, we always know that each new day will bring with it a whole clutch of fresh experiences and surprises. We are privileged to call the Isle of Mull our home and never take the wonderful wildlife and landscapes of the island for granted. As you will know, at Mull Magic,humble and inconspicuous is just as important as big and 'in your face' when it comes to our appreciation of Mull’s flora and fauna. Having said that, if anything, we tend to come down on the side of the underdog!

A male Common Heath Moth, displaying it’s feathery antennae, was feeding on the flower spike of a Heath Spotted Orchid, next to the sheep path that we were walking along in North Mull today. Some species of orchid readily dupe insects into thinking that their colourful, patterned flowers are a heady source of nectar. However, the flowers of the Heath Spotted Orchid, that are so widespread on the moors of Mull at present, are not deceitful in this way, so the moth would have enjoyed it’s sugary snack on this occasion!

The flowers of the Early Purple Orchid have no nectar, so offer scant reward to any prospective pollinator. A little further along our coastal walk, we came across a small colony of these beautiful plants, in whose ranks appeared several white-flowered variants. Closer inspection revealed that these aberrant-coloured flowers had purple spots at the base of their lips. A freak of pigmentation (or the lack of), we were interested to find that these white-flowered varieties are rather scarce and that the spotted form is even more unusual!

The acidic and waterlogged soil of Mull’s moorland is an inhospitable place in which to live. In order to survive, many of the plants found in this environment have evolved special adaptations. Our walk today allowed us to get up close and personal with a few of these special plants, including the Common Butterwort, whose funnel-shaped, lilac flowers are borne on a slender, delicate stalk. The Butterwort family is carnivorous in nature. It’s sticky rosette of leaves trap unsuspecting small insects and exude enzymes which break down their bodies, providing this attractive bog plant with the nourishment it needs.

Another insectivorous plant that we encountered was the Round-leaved Sundew. These are highly specialised inhabitants of boggy ground on the Isle of Mull. Their round leaves have tentacles which are coated in a gel-like substance, which ensnares passing insects that are subsequently digested in a similar manner to the Butterwort.

Thousands of wildlife enthusiasts visit the Isle of Mull each year to view our ‘celebrity’ birds and animals. Here, at Mull Magic, we derive as much pleasure from the common, everyday species as we do from the rare and unusual. Too many people walk past quite unbelievable wildlife that frequent their doorstep in search of something more elusive… not Mull Magic!

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Damsels and Dragons

Our May Bank Holiday walk saw us return to the North-West coast of Mull which has brought us so much pleasure in recent weeks. With temperatures soaring into the sizzling sixties, we found that our previously ‘private’ beaches had become somewhat public, as visitors to the island headed to the Costa del Mull for some fun in the sun.

The rising Mercury in local thermometers provided the necessary impetus for a fresh emergence of beautiful, but short lived Large Red Damselflies. With their distinctive red and black markings, this is usually the earliest damselfly on Mull to be on the wing in Spring. The damselflies that flew ahead of us as we walked down the track to the beach will probably live no longer than 7 days. Such a lot of living has to be packed in to such a short time when you’re a damselfly!

The Four-Spotted Chaser is a chunky, medium-sized dragonfly that gets it’s name from the number of spot marks on it’s paired wings. The adults emerge from their two year life cycle in May and we watched as sexually aggressive males patrolled their territorial ponds and ditches with a certain degree of intent. Dragonflies change colour with age and we located an amber-coloured immature as it perched on nearby vegetation. Dragonflies are fearsome predators and, although they are harmless to humans, many people find them rather scary.

Like dragonflies, butterflies are the essence of Summer. The cool temperatures on the Isle of Mull this Spring have meant that these exquisite day flying insects have been in short supply. The Speckled Wood is one of the first butterflies to be seen on the island in Spring and has a very long flight season, with tired looking individuals not uncommon during sunny early October days. Fiercely territorial, a male rose at our feet to intercept an intruder, as we wandered through a dappled grove of Hazel trees. Preferring the sticky honey-dew of aphids, the Speckled Wood is a butterfly with a difference, as it is not a true sun worshipper or an ardent flower seeker.

The warm sunshine that encouraged day trippers to visit the normally deserted beaches and coves of North-West Mull presented problems for the shore nesting birds that usually have such places all to themselves. The eggs of many of the local breeding Common Gulls, Oystercatchers and Ringed Plovers have only recently hatched or are about to do so. It is a particularly stressful time for these birds and the Bank Holiday weather brought with it added concerns. Having followed their fortunes over these past few weeks, Mull Magic has it's fingers well and truly crossed that all their dedication will have the happiest of outcomes.