Tuesday, 30 March 2010

In Like A Lamb, Out Like A Lion …!

What a difference a day makes! It may only have been “24 little hours”, to quote the song, yet the contrast in the weather, here on the island, has been of chalk and cheese proportions. The idiom of March coming in like a lion, going out like a lamb looks as if it will be turned on its head this year, as Mull has received a snowy reminder that Winter hasn’t finished with the island just yet!

It is difficult to imagine, but up to the time of the infamous Highland Clearances and potato famine, the Isle of Mull supported a population of over 12,000 inhabitants. Today’s appointment with the past took us to the rough, exposed coastline of the North-west of the island where, in the 19th Century, cattle from the Small Isles, Coll and Tiree were landed to begin their long drove to markets on the mainland.

Huddled for shelter behind the ruins of the clachan at Ardantairbh, we pondered the inhumanity and injustice served upon families by bullying landowners who preferred to put sheep before people. Such clearance evictions, in the early half of the 19th Century, have become a brutal indictment of Mull’s history, foretelling the destruction of a previous way of life.

Clambering over rocks, blackened with tar lichen, we arrived at an impressive remnant of the island’s volcanic past. Moulded some 55 million years ago, the cast of an ancient tree’s rootball and trunk has been preserved on the shore. Having only been discovered as recently as 1984, this ‘fossil tree’ has largely escaped the ravages of time and the attentions of man. Thankfully, not being a true fossil, it will be safeguarded from the hammers of collectors, allowing visitors to marvel at its creation for some time to come.

Before returning to base, we made the short and not too steep climb towards the grassy plateau of one of several Iron Age fortifications that are found in the area. The wind’s icy blast dictated that we did not, on this occasion, make the final ascent to the top and the (quite literally) breathtaking panorama it affords. The views to Skye, the Small Isles, Ardnamurchan Point, Coll and Tiree are life-affirmingly spectacular on a good day. As this is one of our favourite walks, we know that those good photo days are just around the corner!

Friday, 26 March 2010

A Wallace and Gromit Trilogy

Faced with the prospect of an empty page in the Mull Magic diary, we thought we’d do something a bit different with our free day. Hard as we tried, we couldn’t think of anything we would rather do, so we laced up our boots and headed out into the wonderful Mull countryside for A Grand Day Out!

Spring tends to stir late in the hills and glens of Mull and having just endured the most severe Winter in living memory the local countryside has been somewhat reluctant to shake off the shackles of its enforced hibernation. Today’s walk, through the hostile environment of wet, boggy moorland, led us to the foot of one of the island’s highest summits, Ben Talaidh (2,300 ft), where we paid our respects to the victims of a tragic wartime accident.

Birds, plants and animals have to be rather special to cope with the bleak and unforgiving conditions that exist in the uplands of Mull. The small groups of Red Deer stags that we encountered may be used to surviving on the meagre rations doled out on the hill, but the long weeks of snow and ice this Winter have taken their toll. Many of the stags, some of which were beginning to shed their antlers, looked thin and scruffy and in need of a pick-me-up that only the fresh growth of Spring can provide.

A fine herd of Highland Cattle were feeding at the edge of the track as we passed by on our route up the valley. There were many young, suckling calves within the group and we were keen not to cause their mothers any distress with our presence. Highland Cattle may be hefty, long-horned animals, yet they are remarkably docile in temperament – normally! One calf-less cow had obviously taken on a matriarchal role within the group and showed its displeasure at our presence. In doing so, it incited a frightening reaction from other members of the herd and, before we knew it, we were surrounded by an angry horde of baying animals, keen to protect their offspring. Having experienced A Close Shave, this was an experience that we didn’t wish to repeat, so we gave the beasts an even wider berth on our return!

With both respiration and acceleration rates quickened, we soon reached our lunch stop at the memorial cairn which commemorates the night of 1st February 1945, when a disorientated Dakota Mk IV aircraft crashed into the Ben Talaidh hillside. The mournful, bubbling call of a Curlew took on the role of a lone piper’s lament, evoking poignant memories of the passengers that perished on that fateful night.

The Wrong Trousers need no explanation but, all in all, it was A Grand Day Out!

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Deluded Seal Tries To Bite Off More Than It Can Chew!

Trash or treasure? Canada Geese may be regarded as pests throughout much of their British range, but, here on the Isle of Mull, they are still something of a novelty. Their numbers are steadily increasing on the island, yet they were unheard of as a breeding species locally as recent as a decade ago!

Common Seals are marvellous creatures, supremely adapted to their waterworld existence. As well as having an attractive cuteness that endears them to most, they also have a rogue-like side to their nature that has brought them into conflict with man in the West Highlands. They may be generalised fish-eaters, but Common Seals are opportunistic hunters and not averse to varying their diet with the occasional water bird.

As we descended from our walk today to the shore of the sea loch, our attention was aroused by an inquisitive seal that appeared to be stalking a pair of Canada Geese. Canada Geese are among the largest and heaviest of British birds, weighing in at a hefty 5 kg. Known to catch and dismember birds as large as Eider (2.5 kg), this seal may have been thinking of biting off more than it could chew.

Becoming increasingly agitated by the presence of this mammal, the geese weren’t for taking any chances and, rather wisely, decided not to hang around for any post mortem!

Monday, 22 March 2010

A Step Back in Time

A Buzzard mewed, as the mist swirled and shrouded the hilltop, in a way befitting the mystery and intrigue of a place that once held far greater importance than it does today. A short walk from the pot-holed Salen to Tobermory highway had brought us to one of the most important prehistoric sites on the Isle of Mull, where a large number of Bronze Age sites can be explored in a small area.

Only one stone remains erect today, where once would have stood two sets of three impressive Standing Stones. It is interesting to note that the recumbent rocks may have been an act of early Christian vandalism, in an effort to hide the pagan stones. These stones would have been an important focus for the community of early Muileachs that once lived here. We speculated as to what their significance may have been in earlier times, during religious festivals or as primitive calendars.

The views along the Sound of Mull were commanding, where to the East, the characteristic outline of Ben Talaidh, Mull’s third highest summit, dominates the skyline on a clear day (but, not today)!

The wild, evocative music of a cock Mistle Thrush entered in to defiant battle with the elements as we made our way across the fields to an impressive kerb cairn, one of several early burial sites found in the area. When the rain relented, Skylarks, returning to their breeding grounds, were quick to seize the opportunity to mesmerise us with their towering song flights of pure, liquid sunshine. Hail to thee, Blithe Spirit!

We wandered towards the coast to the dilapidated stone walls of one of only two brochs that are known on the Isle of Mull. Iron Age duns and forts are common features on the island, but brochs were structures rarely built as far south as Mull. Little remains of what must have been an impressive building and we are left to wonder of a time that we can only ever return to in our imagination.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Keeping in Touch with Old Friends

Our walk today gave us the chance to catch up with some old friends, the Isle of Mull’s most famous birds, the White-tailed Eagles at Loch Frisa. It is a fractious time of year for the island’s celebrity eagles, as well as for the mini-army of personnel, both professional and voluntary, that help to ensure their continued well-being. We dropped in to see how the most famous pair of White-tailed Eagles on the planet are getting on and were pleased to learn that they have settled down to nest after what has been an exceptionally cold Winter.

As we watched, the head of the incubating bird rose above the nest turret. It was obviously aware of something that we weren’t. Some way distant of the nest, we spotted another White-tailed Eagle, high in the sky. Soaring effortlessly on its huge, flat wings, it appeared to be showing no intention of coming anywhere near the nest site. Perhaps it was an adult bird from a nearby territory or simply one of several immature eagles that are occasionally seen in the area?

In what seemed seconds, the distant bird dropped from its lofty position in the clouds and glided towards the direction of the nest. Surely, this was the partner of the bird that was on nest duty?

The flight path to the nest was not without obstacles and a further few languid flaps of those enormous wings brought the eagle into the territory of a prospecting pair of Buzzards. Unannounced, the male Buzzard exploded from its perch and, with talons outstretched, clattered an almighty thump on the back of the passing eagle. Ouch! The hawk, tiny by comparison, rose quickly and made good to repeat its offensive. This time, the White-tailed Eagle had its wits about it and, with a deft shrug of its shoulder, managed to avoid being stung a second time. Talk about once bitten, twice shy!

The Buzzard, realising that the element of surprise had passed, retreated to its perch. The White-tailed Eagle continued on its way towards the nest tree but, instead of initiating a possible change-over with its mate, flew to a tall Spruce tree, where it was able to compose itself after its ordeal with its anti-social neighbour.

Birds of prey are continually being mobbed by smaller birds during their everyday lives. To most, it is a mere inconvenience, being little more than nuisance value. It has been likened to a human being bothered by midges on a warm, damp Summer evening on Mull. However, knowing the strength of a bird the size of a Buzzard and just how sharp its talons are, we don’t doubt for a second that, on this occasion, the White-tailed Eagle will have genuinely felt the presence of its smaller relative!

Mull Magic never fail to be impressed by these magnificent raptors and are fully supportive of all the effort that is made to ensure the continued well-being of the White-tailed Eagles at Loch Frisa and elsewhere on the Isle of Mull. Good luck to everyone involved with this year’s ‘Eaglewatch’ and not least to the great birds themselves!

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Mull's Myths and Magic

There was a bluster about today that we’d forgotten this Winter.
Not only was it pelting down with rain, but the wind had regained some of its lost vigour. We have been spoiled this Winter, as little rain has fallen for the past three months and it has seemed that Mother Nature’s bellows had run out of puff.

Mighty Oaks sheltered us on our walk to the Iron Age fort, in the hills above Salen. The trees were festooned with the natural art of a myriad of mosses and lichens, fascinating organisms that are among the oldest life forms known to man on Mull. We stopped to appreciate the colour, shape and texture of several species and to marvel at the ways that these versatile plants have been put to use by man for their purgative and astringent properties.

The climb to the fort is not arduous and the vistas are usually quite spectacular on a clear day, with views to Mull’s only Munro, Ben More, as well as Loch Frisa, the largest freshwater loch on the island. Today, the low, murky cloud shrouded our view back to the Sound of Mull and Aros Castle.

The full story of Mull’s human and natural history can be explored from the hill fort’s rocky terraces. Today, aided by the elements, the fort tried not to reveal its secrets, nor the surrounding landscape its magnificent splendour. However, the power of imagination should never be underestimated, for it often holds a key that will unlock such hidden treasures. We may not have seen all that we may have liked, yet in our mind’s eye we missed nothing. That is the myth and magic of Mull!

Today hasn’t been a day for taking photographs, but, in timeless Blue Peter fashion, please let us show you a couple that we made earlier. And, surprise, surprise there’s not a piece of sticky-backed plastic anywhere to be seen!

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Feisty and Vibrant Showstoppers

My boots are on, but the laces untied....

I haven’t had to walk very far to get my daily ‘fix’ of the wildlife that abounds on this wonderful island. As I write, I am absolutely transfixed by the manic mayhem that is taking place around the niger seed dispensers that are situated barely a few metres from my sitting room window, here in my Tobermory garden.

Today, there is a record number of Siskins fighting for their share of these power-packed little seeds. It is difficult to be sure, but I have counted 40 of these feisty and vibrant showstoppers, as they come and go. They seem to spend more time trying to prevent other birds from gaining access to an energy-rich snack than they do feeding themselves!

I feel sorry for the buzzy and even more exotic little Goldfinch that finds itself outnumbered, as it tries to sneak a beakful of goodies when the quarrelsome Siskins let their guard down.
It doesn’t stand a chance, and probably wastes more energy trying to fight its corner than it derives benefit from what food it manages to gulp down.

It is fantastic entertainment and what colour and noise. I find it difficult to know where to look, as my senses are bombarded with the vivid yellow aggressive display flashes of the cock Siskin’s wings and tail and the incessant chattering of birds that sit in the nearby cherry tree awaiting their turn.

It is amazing to think that the Siskin would have been very much rarer in these parts only a few decades ago when the prospect of sharing space with forty of these tiny and highly attractive finches would have been unheard of.

Time I got those laces tied!