Saturday, 29 May 2010

Iona's Rasping Rascal!

Lady Luck really was shining on Mull Magic’s walks on our neighbouring island of Iona this week. It may only be a hefty stone’s throw across the mile-long Sound of Iona, yet the cultural and spiritual ambience of a visit to the Holy Isle really is tangible, regardless of religious preference or none! The weather, like the island, was blessed. Having travelled from Tobermory in low cloud and rain, the dismal skies miraculously parted to reveal the Ionian port of Baile Mor bathed in glorious sunshine. Later, as the blue skies stretched to Mull, the view back to Ben More, peeking over ‘the wedding cake’ scenery of Ardmeanach was just heavenly.

Our lunch stop was at the idyllic The Bay at the Back of the Ocean on Iona’s West coast. This is one of Mull Magic’s favourite spots (yes, another one!), where contentment and relaxation are assured, far from the madding crowd. Here, over the last 8,000 years, wind and wave action have combined to produce a habitat that is extremely rare outwith the Hebrides. Built on the crushed shells of marine creatures, the fertile, low-growing, herb-rich grassland is known in Gaelic as machair and is home to a myriad of wildflowers in Spring and Summer.

The white, shell sand beach dazzled in the late May sunshine and provided a valuable staging post for many migratory waders en route to their Arctic breeding grounds. We enjoyed the intimacy of getting up close and personal with a mixed flock of Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Sanderling, as they re-fuelled before setting off on the next stage of their migrational journeys. We were enthralled by the activity of these little birds and marvelled at their ability to undertake such incredible feats of inter-continental navigation.

While walking along the strandline a member of our group found a Mermaid’s Purse, the casing that houses the fertilised eggs of a small shark, the Lesser Spotted Dogfish. Attached to seaweed by tendrils positioned at the corners, most egg cases washed ashore are empty, being doomed to perish after being dislodged from their anchorage.

The emerging sword-like leaves of the herbaceous Yellow Flag provide early cover in Iona’s wet meadows for the first returning Corncrakes in April. Sprouting irises in early Spring barely conceal these skulking land rails, yet, by the time of our visit in late May, this robust perennial is over two feet high and about to burst in to flower. Damp field margins and ditches on the island come alive with the colour of Yellow Flags in June and provide the perfect hideaway for Iona’s tenuous population of rasping ‘crakes.

Our group were hopeful of catching a glimpse of these rare and skulking birds, which have been in historical decline in the British Isles for over 150 years. Agricultural changes have banished this endearing and infuriating (in equal measure) land rail to breeding outposts in the Hebrides. The unmistakable, ratchet-like ‘song’ of a Corncrake assaulted our ears from within a patch of irises, yet, try as we might, could we see it? After much scanning with binoculars, our patience was finally rewarded when we caught sight of our target. Unbelievably, we were to enjoy watching this amazing little bird for fully 20 minutes through our telescope. Apparently, male Corncrakes can sing up to 500,000 times in a season. We reckon that our bird has only some 499,875 rasps to crake before it flies to Mozambique for the Winter!

Friday, 28 May 2010

The ‘Made On Mull’ Stamp of Excellence

Although we know that, sometimes, it is unfair to compare, it doesn’t stop us from doing so. It may come as a surprise to many of our followers to learn that the Isle of Mull is blessed with some of the most breathtakingly stunning white sand beaches that you could ever wish to see. What’s more, many of them are just far enough off the beaten track to deter most human visitors, guaranteeing the peace and solitude that would come with having your very own private beach.

Our walks this week in North-West Mull have allowed us to share some of our favourite sheltered coves and beaches with visitors making their first journey to our wonderful island. On encountering the shell sand beaches and aquamarine waters many have felt as if they had been transported to a Greek isle or some exotic paradise in the Caribbean Sea. However, Mull Magic has been quick to dispel any such lingering thoughts in their minds, as we know that beaches in Barbados, the Maldives and the Seychelles were created from a template that has ‘Made On Mull’ stamped on it!

Between beaches, we tramped across stretches of boggy coastal grassland and moor, where colonies of orchids were beginning to reveal themselves. The Heath Spotted Orchid is, probably, the most common member of this rather aristocratic family of flowers on the Isle of Mull. The first spikes of this prolific orchid open in late May and soon local moorlands will be carpeted with these aesthetically pleasing, if rather variable, white-pink flowers. Orchid enthusiasts on the island have identified no fewer than 18 different species. These are fascinating plants which rely on an intimate relationship with fungi in order to obtain the necessary nourishment to thrive in wet, nutrient deficient soil.

Smaller than hoped for numbers of butterflies have been on the wing this Spring on Mull. The cool, northerly winds that have been a feature of late on the island haven’t helped, so we were delighted to come across our first Small Heath of the season. This tiny butterfly, with its attractive orange-brown forewing, is common in grassy areas and heaths on Mull and may be seen flying in habitats that it shares with the Heath Spotted Orchid.

Nesting Common Gulls breed in isolation or in colonies around Mull’s coast. It is a stressful time for these noisy gulls, as parenthood beckons. The eggs in the gullery that we visited this week will soon hatch and parents will have the responsibility of trying to protect their offspring from marauding Buzzards and Ravens, as well as from other Common Gulls that have nested nearby!

The cooler, polar airstream provided one advantage. The temperatures may not have been suitable for deck chairs and ice cream, but the wind direction helped give our views across the sea to Rum, Eigg and Skye a greater clarity. The seascapes around the Isle of Mull, in every direction, are second to none and our walks this week have further emphasised what we already know, that ‘Made in Mull’ is best!

Friday, 21 May 2010

Mull's Musical Maverick

Here at Mull Magic, we believe birdsong to be one of Mother Nature’s greatest phenomena. We would simply be bereft without the free of charge musical accompaniment that emanates from every Tobermory garden each Springtime. Whether it be the simple, some say monotonous, song of a House Sparrow or the more complex and mellifluous refrain of a Blackbird, birdsong is something that we greatly enjoy and would never take for granted. It is beyond our comprehension to hear of people who conduct their lives oblivious to the various avian outpourings that assault our ears at this time of year.

‘International Dawn Chorus Day’, which was held on 2nd May this year, comes a little too early for the Isle of Mull, as many of our returning migrants have not yet put in an appearance, to help swell the sound of the island’s resident songsters. Mull Magic believes that setting your alarm for a pre-dawn awakening on a mid-May morning is something that every nature lover on Mull should do, at least once in a lifetime!

Our own Mull Magic alarm clock is administered by several male Blackbirds that compete for territorial rights in our Tobermory garden. The island’s ‘Dawn Chorus’ is like a huge avian orchestra. Resident Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Dunnocks, Robins and Song Thrushes commence their song cycles early in the year and use the weeks before the return of our Summer visitors to fine tune their performances in time for the start of the Proms season – bird style!

At Mull Magic, in case you didn’t know, we don’t play favourites. However, we do admit to having a soft spot for our resident male Song Thrush, who keeps us entertained with his vocal repetition. Not for him the flutey romanticism of his Blackbird neighbours. Rather, if our Song Thrush has something to say, he makes sure that the whole of Tobermory is going to know about it!

If the Blackbird is the Jean Sibelius of the Tobermory ‘Dawn Chorus’, then the Song Thrush is Igor Stravinsky. Something of a musical revolutionary, it’s rant is packed with stylistic diversity. The Isle of Mull’s equivalent of a Nightingale, the Song Thrush is said to have as many as 220 variations to it’s song. That makes the bird that is singing in the garden as we write this more prolific than Lennon and MacCartney. Some say that their songbook only contains 200 ditties. How pop-tastic is that?

Mull’s Ethereal and Exquisite Glamour

The Treshnish headland is a remote, wild and rugged region of North-West Mull, which offers fabulous walking all-year-round, with the added bonus that the views are simply to die for! The location for today’s walk is one of our favourites on the island and one that we never tire of. The drizzle and mist of yesterday had decided to hang around a little longer, yet this allowed us to view the Treshnish archipelago in all its ethereal beauty, which is something that only the most seasoned of walkers get the chance to appreciate.

On climbing up to the flat top of Dun Haunn, an Iron Age fortification, we had a bird’s eye view out over the sea. The dark hulk of Lunga, the principal member of the Treshnish group stood head and shoulders above the smaller Cairn na Burgh islands, which lie at its North-East fringe. Today, the larger island is home to thousands of nesting seabirds and is something of a ‘Puffin Central’ in these waters. Unlikely as it may seem today, Lunga previously housed a human population of around 20 residents, the last of whom departed the island in 1857. The remains of the black houses can still be seen and leave us to reflect on the life and times of a bygone age, when seabirds and their eggs would have been an important part of the islander’s diet.

Sitting in our lofty position within the fort allowed us to scan the stony beach below, where a pair of Oystercatchers and Ringed Plovers had chosen to nest, far above the high tide mark of decaying seaweed. The nests were little more than a shallow depression in the ground, which were decorated with broken shells. The background colour of the eggs of both species is similar and blends perfectly with the pebbly environment of the nest location. This cryptic camouflage greatly protects the nests from being found by potential predators.

The female Oystercatcher had laid three eggs in her clutch, whereas the Ringed Plover had four eggs in its scrape. Oystercatcher’s tend to lay two or three eggs, although complete clutches of four eggs can be found. After locating the nests, we were mindful not to outstay our welcome and paused only to take a photograph before leaving both pairs to continue with their incubation duties.

The orchid season has well-and-truly begun on Mull and we were delighted to come across a few small colonies of Early Purple Orchids as we walked among the coastal grassland at Treshnish. Orchids are our ‘celebrity’ flowers, here on the island, as each species has a particular beauty and glamour of its own.

These exquisite flowers are special to many and Mull Magic always experience a special delight when we come across these beautiful plants. The Early Purple is the first of our orchids to come into flower and, on the nearby moorland, we notice that it won’t be long before the Heath Spotted Orchid follows suit. Shortly, we won’t be able to walk far for fear of trampling on these most prolific of local orchids!

To share more wonderful photographic memories of our walk along the coastline at the Treshnish headland, click on the following link!/album.php?aid=170081&id=62130039800&ref=mf

Where have all the Stonechats gone?

Strange as it may sound, it has been raining here on the Isle of Mull these past couple of days. Nothing heavy, of course, but the gentle breeze has found it very difficult to shift the drizzle and accompanying scotch mist, which, on occasion, has reduced visibility to a premium. At Mull Magic we have been blessed with a rather fecund imagination. Not only can we see the sun on the cloudiest of days, our palette allows us to paint a vivid portrait of our island’s life-affirming sea and landscapes, even when they are shrouded in mist!

Our walk today had its origins in the picturesque village of Dervaig, located at the head of Loch Cuin, in the North-West of the island. Established in 1799 by MacLean of Coll, Laird of the nearby Quinish Estate, the village is dominated today by the white, pencil-shaped, steeple of Kilmore Church, which was built in 1905. Similarly shaped churches, though not uncommon in Ireland, are rare in Scotland.

Despite some earlier misgivings on account of the day’s weather, our extended walk through the estate to Quinish Point proved to be exceptionally fruitful, with over 60 species of birds recorded. While it is always more comfortable to watch wildlife in fine weather, sometimes it is the days when conditions seem less than ideal that provide you with the best sightings and experiences!

For its largest part, the Isle of Mull is an upland environment. Beginning to show itself on the local Quinish moorland were the pink and white flowerheads of the downy perennial, Mountain Everlasting. Considering its name, it is somewhat incongruous to think that this attractive member of the daisy clan should be found growing barely a stone’s throw from the sea, here on Mull!

Having emerged from their Winter hibernation in recent weeks, the large and attractive caterpillars of The Drinker moth are conspicuous on the island at present. Locally common in areas of rough grassland and moorland, it is hard to avoid these colourful larvae, such has been their widespread abundance. Named after the caterpillar’s supposed habit of drinking dew from a variety of its food plants, it is not until later in the Summer that the adult moths will be on the wing.

Local nature lovers have been lamenting the lack of sightings of one of Mull’s favourite small birds. One of a triumvirate of chats that breed on the island, the Stonechat is the only member of the trio that is resident all-year-round on Mull. Its close relatives, the Wheatear and Whinchat, both choose to migrate at the end of the breeding season to overwinter in warmer climes in Africa. Stonechats can be particularly susceptible to prolonged cold spells and their population can be decimated as a result. The Winter past has been officially recognised as being the most severe in living memory on the island and it seems that many of our local Stonechat population have paid the ultimate price for their sedentary lifestyle. We thought ourselves lucky to be able to get such good views of this delightful wee bird today and very much hope that our remaining Stonechats enjoy a successful season.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

When Best Kept Secrets Are For Sharing

Sometimes, here at Mull Magic, we are not very good at keeping secrets. Especially, when we feel that the ‘secret’ in question deserves to be shared with the rest of the world. One such ‘secret’ that we have found is the wonderful Drimnin Ferry, run by Ardnamurchan Charters, that operates twice weekly during its Summer timetable, enabling passengers from Tobermory to visit the nearby Scottish mainland on Morvern.

We often wondered just what ‘our’ island looked like from across the Sound of Mull. Being so used to living and walking on the Isle of Mull and gazing over to Auliston Point and the entrance to Loch Sunart, it has been fabulous to see our home from a fresh perspective and to enjoy the views in reverse!

The woodlands were alive with bird song as we stepped from the boat after our short sea crossing from Tobermory. The sound of newly arrived migrants, such as Wood Warbler and Blackcap, competed for airspace with the tunes of resident songsters, like Blackbird and Chaffinch. Jousting for the right to forecast the forthcoming Summer’s weather, the canopy of oak and ash was contemplating bursting into leaf, allowing light to penetrate to the woodland floor, which was carpeted with the flowers of Dog’s Mercury, Dog Violet, Lesser Celandine, Primrose, Wood Anemone and Wood Sorrel.

The well-known and often cited ‘Oak before Ash, in for a splash’ saying really bears no significance as to how much rainfall we can expect in the Summer months, here in Argyll and the Islands. Scientists maintain that, being more responsive to warmer temperatures than Ash, the Oak will normally come in to leaf sooner. At Mull Magic, we like to promote the wonderful weather that our little corner of the world enjoys and take with a large pinch of salt the findings of science, on this occasion!

Spring has brought some magnificent weather to these parts, although our most recent venture to Morvern was marked by a very chilly Northerly airflow. The cold wind decidedly took the edge off the temperature we could otherwise have hoped for, considering the glorious sunshine. Owing to its colour, the Green Hairstreak is a very distinctive butterfly that is usually on the wing in early May. Extracting whatever early nectar that they could find, the first two insects that we encountered must have got one heck of a shock when they emerged in the Arctic chill that has been masquerading as our Scottish Spring!

April is the month when Blackthorn hedgerows are at their blooming best in the West Highlands, yet the cooler conditions seem to have prolonged this prickly shrub's flowering well in to the fifth month and afforded us something of a ‘Blackthorn Winter’. With a long association of dispelling dark forces and malevolent spirits, various parts of the plant are used to make tea and other medicinal beverages. Mull Magic enjoys harvesting the bluish berries when ripe and delights in pleasantly absorbing the protection that drinking a glass of sloe gin can provide!

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Meeting Ourselves Coming Backwards

It is said that as history moves forward, our knowledge of it travels backwards. The past 10 days have been something of a whirlwind for Mull Magic and, in writing of our recent past, it really does feel like we have been meeting ourselves coming the other way!

Speinne Mor is the highest summit in North Mull. At 1,457 feet it is less than half the height of our island’s only Munro, Ben More (3,169 ft). Nonetheless, the 360 degree panorama that the ascent up to the cairn of this ‘half Munro’ affords is truly spectacular, with incomparable views as far as the eye and mind can see.

To the North, beyond the Isle of Mull’s principal town, Tobermory, lies the Ardnamurchan peninsula, where the Cuillin hills of Rum and Skye tower in the distance above the village of Kilchoan. Travelling clockwise, the eye is guided East along much of the length of the Sound of Mull, past the green and fertile island of Lismore, marking the entrance to Loch Linnhe. Beyond, the hills of the West Highlands dominate the skyline, stretching from the twin peaks of Ben Cruachan and culminating in the range of mountains that includes Britain’s biggest, Ben Nevis. Away to the South, the sandy beaches on the holy Isle of Iona glistened in the Spring sunshine - shame they did not do so on Thursday for our Corncrake Walk on the island. However, that’s another story!

The cairn on top of Speinne Mor is idiosyncratic, to say the least! Rather than the usual heap of stones, inserted in to the rock pile is none other than a broken mountain bike frame. This metalwork within the masonry commemorates the many gruelling hours that Tobermory mechanic, Steve MacInnes, put in over the years while training for major Cyclocross competitions. In all weather, Steve could be seen running up and down Speinne Mor with the bike frame on his back, in order to develop the necessary level of fitness required to compete at the highest level in his chosen sport.

Should anyone feel compelled to pack a few tools, handlebars and a couple of tyres in their rucksack, the descent down Mull’s mini-mountain would be interesting. Unfortunately, we had to carry lunches, soup, water, first aid kit, extra clothing etc. etc, so had to forego the bike ride home!

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

An Island Fit For Kings (and Hitler’s Groupies).

It’s not every day that you are party to a little piece of history in the making, but Sunday past was one such day for ‘Mull Magic’. The venue was the privately owned island of Inch Kenneth, which lies on the bottom lip at the mouth of Loch na Keal. The occasion was the first ever commercial landing to the island, organised by local company, ‘Mull Charters’, operated by husband and wife, Martin and Judith Keivers.

Very few of the world’s population of 6,818,700,000 have even heard of Inch Kenneth, never mind set foot on the island, so we really did feel very special to be among the chosen few on this inaugural visit.

Dominated by the forbidding hulk of the 200 metre high cliffs at Gribun on the nearby mainland of Mull, Inch Kenneth occupies a truly quintessential Hebridean setting. Only one mile in length and half that distance at its widest, the island provides easy walking surrounded by some of the most heart-stirring scenery on the Isle of Mull.

Composed of sedimentary conglomerates and limestones, Inch Kenneth is a fertile oasis amidst the volcanic lava flows that predominate much of Mull’s landscapes. The island’s fine, sandy soil promotes flower-rich grassland in Spring and Summer, while providing nourishment for a 200-strong herd of Barnacle Geese that arrive each Autumn from breeding grounds in Greenland.

Once regarded as second only to Iona in its ecclesiastical importance during Medieval times, Inch Kenneth has found a certain notoriety more recently which, no doubt, adds to the island’s allure. Once the home of the song writer and philanthropist, Sir Harold Bolton, who penned the lyrics to the ‘Skye Boat Song’, the island became (in)famous during the Second World War due to its connection with the Mitfords, a minor aristocratic English family, who purchased the 19th century mansion house in 1938.

One of six sisters, Unity Mitford was a staunch supporter of the Fascist movement and an admirer of Adolf Hitler, with whom she became a friend. Held back in her early life by her prettier and more clever sisters, Unity craved attention and developed a desire to shock. An exhibitionist, with a coarse sense of humour, Unity discovered that her love of Nazism allowed her to stand out from the crowd. Having attempted suicide, with a pistol given to her by the Fuhrer, when the Second World War was declared, Unity returned to Britain and spent her last years on Inch Kenneth. There she spent her time improvising religious services in the medieval chapel and planning her own funeral.

Unity was only one of a highly colourful family full of stylish ideals and controversial political alliance. The Mitford’s association with Inch Kenneth has given this idyllic little island a mystique that many would find hard to believe. However, there is much, much more to the beautiful and lush island of Inch Kenneth than the Mitfords and, having finally set foot on its hallowed turf, ‘Mull Magic’ can’t wait to go back on a further voyage of discovery and enlightenment! For more photographs of Inch Kenneth taken on this momentous occasion, go to the Mull Magic Facebook Page.