Thursday, 29 July 2010

Situated a short way inland and on the highest point of an otherwise sleepy hollow in North Mull lies An Sean Dun, one of the best preserved fortifications of its kind on the island and the focus of several of our recent walks. Dating back over 2,000 years, the fort would have been an integral part of a local community that lived in the area and practised farming and stock rearing.

Occupying a ridge overlooking the entrance to the Sound of Mull, with the Cuillins of Rum in the distance, this almost circular enclosure is easily overlooked, but provided us with wonderful views and immense satisfaction, once we had scrambled up its gentle, bracken-infested slopes. On account of its position, this is a structure that is best viewed from the air and, consequently, our photographs, including this one showing the eastern entrance to the dun, don’t do it justice.

Some superb aerial photographs of this site can be accessed by clicking on the following link

The nearby ruined settlement at Baliacrach was more recently occupied and remains to tell a very different story in relation to the area’s rich and, sometimes, chequered past. The entrance to one of the houses has some very attractive ‘graffiti’ etched on to one of the stones that make up the door frame. The outline of a sailing ship can be clearly seen on the yellow and grey lichen-stained rock and represents a fascinating and intricate piece of artistry from a forgotten time.

It's over 150 years since the first Mole appeared on Isle of Mull soil, being inadvertently introduced in soil ballast transported from nearby Lochaline on the Scottish mainland. Nowadays, evidence of their presence can be found throughout the island and, where mole hills are located near sites of historical importance, Mull Magic has got into the way of kicking over the disturbed top soil, in the hope of unearthing a rare antiquity.

Living in underground chambers, moles are very rarely seen above ground. They are industrious diggers or ‘dirt tossers’, as their name implies, being capable of excavating up to 20 metres in a day. They are little mammalian gymnasts that think nothing of travelling backwards or performing forward roles in their tunnels. The drought conditions earlier this year meant that local moles would have had to dig deep for their favourite meal of earthworms, which they paralyze with toxins excreted in their saliva. However, the recent wet weather has probably resulted in some very rich pickings for the island’s mole population!

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Four Seasons in Three Days! (3)

The portents hadn’t been good, as the weather on Mull this July has been atrocious, so St Swithen’s Day (15th) was approached with some trepidation. However, we have had at least one 24-hour period in the past ten days when it hasn’t rained, so we are safe from the curse of the 40 days of downpours for another year! When the sun has come out to play, the views that our walking guests have enjoyed of the North Mull coastline have been exhilarating, to say the least.

The solitary flowers of the Grass of Parnassus are another stunningly beautiful sight to behold on the wet moors of the island in July. Our guests were intoxicated by the smell given off by these exotic-looking flowers. The nectar in the flat, open flowers is easily accessible to insect pollinators, attracted by the sweet aroma of honey that this plant releases. This scent is strongest during sunny days on Mull, coinciding with the time that most potential pollinators are on the wing.

The skerries, inlets and seaweed-strewn bays that punctuate Mull’s North-West coast are a haven for otters. Despite the island’s healthy population, these creatures remain elusive to many visitors. We thought ourselves fortunate to have the company of a rather nonchalant individual that actively fed on an incoming tide while our group were also tucking in to their lunch. The state of the tide and the fact that the wind was blowing our scent away from the ultra-sensitive nostrils of this animal was a big factor in allowing us such prolonged views.

Our resident Greylag Geese appear to have had a profitable breeding season in the North of the island, as depicted by the number of crèches that we have encountered during our walks. Part of the only truly indigenous breeding stock in Britain, these hefty-looking and clamorous birds are very much an avian success story on the island, although they do have their detractors!

Part of this success is based on their ability to grub out the more nutritious subterranean parts of plants and not to be solely reliant on grass for a meal. Nonetheless, Greylag Geese eat a lot of grass and have evolved a highly effective digestive system that fast tracks the food that enters their stomach into the two-inch long cylinders of poo that they freely dispense with!

Monday, 26 July 2010

Four Seasons in Three Days! (2)

Founded on the late Scottish Baronial style of the mid-19th Century, the castle at Glengorm, in North Mull, may not be a ‘real’ castle, yet it cuts a rather dramatic and imposing outline when viewed from the sea. Wonderfully appointed, with superb sunsets to the west over the Isle of Coll, the castle and its environs are steeped in natural and social history. Nowadays, the castle pays its way as an upmarket Bed and Breakfast establishment.

The pastures, meadows and track-sides of North Mull are currently densely populated with the sweet smelling, lilac flower clusters of Creeping Thistle. The male and female flowers of this invasive and persistent perennial are borne on separate plants, with the scent of female flowers being particularly attractive to a variety of insects, including several species of butterfly.

The dark, restless shape of the Scotch Argus is a familiar feature of damp grassland on the Isle of Mull at the height of Summer. They are normally on the wing to coincide with the traditional Glasgow Fair Trades’ holiday fortnight, which commences in mid July. However, we had seen very few on our walks until this week, as the recent poor weather appears to have curtailed their emergence this year.

It is well known that our 'celebrity' White-tailed Eagles at Loch Frisa like to hunt along the coastline of North-West Mull. Nonetheless, it was a very pleasant surprise when, as we sat to enjoy lunch, an adult bird, its white tail gleaming and glinting in the sunshine, idled past in search of a snack of its own.

The creamy-yellow caps and stems of the Dung Roundhead are viscid and slimy to the touch. These toadstools are not unattractive and a common feature of local pastures where sheep and cattle are present. Readers will, no doubt, be pleased to learn that they are inedible, given their association with the evacuated contents of animal bowels!

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Four Seasons in Three Days! (1)

It’s rare for Mull Magic to tramp the same area on consecutive outings, let alone re-visit it three days on the trot. Yet, that was the situation we found ourselves in this past week and three very different days we experienced, largely thanks to the vagaries of the Isle of Mull’s Summer climate. The weather may not have quite been of the ‘Four Seasons in One Day’ variety, but the elements certainly combined to throw Spring, Summer and Autumn at us on our recent ventures into the countryside. It did not darken or sully our mood, however, and provided us with some memorable wildlife experiences, as well as being a test of the ability of our waterproofs to stand up to all that Mull’s weather could throw at us!

Built within a sheltered and fertile hollow, the ruined settlement at Baliacrach offered us an insight in to the area’s less auspicious past. The remains of the village command fantastic views across the Sound of Mull to Ardnamurchan and to the islands of Muck and Rum beyond. However, the peace and tranquillity of today’s landscape serves only to mask the anguish, fear and despair of the tenants who once lived there and were brutally evicted at the time of the infamous Highland Clearances.

Dotted throughout on our grassy walks, we encountered the nodding lilac-blue flowerheads of our ‘Scottish Bluebell’. The Harebell is a delicate plant, whose flowers hang on the flimsiest of stems, belying an inner strength that allows it to withstand the worst of Mull’s weather at the height of Summer. The Harebell is known to produce a seed bank, which it keeps topped up year upon year. This ensures that, in difficult times and given the appropriate signal, there are always seeds capable of germinating and replenishing the adult population.

With its fluttering flight and metallic sheen, it is not difficult to imagining the Beautiful Demoiselle being mistaken as a butterfly. This exotic-looking damselfly has a rather disjunct British population and exists in scattered locations on the Isle of Mull, thanks to the mild influence of the Gulf Stream. We were treated to quite marvellous views of this male, bejewelled in its tropical violet-blue-green finery on a day when the sun blessed us with an appearance.

As we climbed to the top of an ancient castle overlooking the Sound of Mull, we spotted an aptly named Antler Moth getting drunk on the nectar of a Hogweed. It allowed such a close approach that we were able to easily make out the white, antler-like branches that give this familiar Summertime moth its common name.

Wet weather and warm temperatures have prompted a spate of early toadstools to emerge. ‘The Blusher’ is one of twenty-four species in the genus Amanita that can be found in Britain, which includes the widely recognised Fly Agaric. ‘The Blusher’ is common in both deciduous and coniferous woodland on the island and is edible after cooking. It does, however, resemble other more poisonous species that could kill with one taste!

Sunday, 11 July 2010

The Lazy Hum of Summer

The dry weather of the past six months, that brought drought to the Isle of Mull, would appear to be a thing of the past. In time honoured tradition, the heavens opened over Tobermory at the beginning of the Scottish schools’ Summer holiday! Initially, the recent rain did little but darken the surface of the parched ground, but days of heavy, persistent wetting has penetrated deep in to the soil, ensuring the return of muddy footpaths across the island.

Warm sunshine, befitting of the season, has been at a premium, but when the sun has managed to shake off the grey rain clouds, the air has taken on the lazy hum of Summer. The ambient droning of honey bees, bumble-bees and hoverflies, along with the colourful sight of butterflies indulging themselves on sugar-rich flowers encapsulates the heady days of July on the Isle of Mull.

The long, arching branches of the bramble thickets that adorned the paths we followed during today’s walk in North Mull were festooned with flowers. Full of nectar, they are a honey trap for many species of insect, while the soft fruits that will develop later are beloved of Blackbirds. These fruits are delicious and have a high nutritional value, being rich in antioxidants, as well as Vitamin C and Folic Acid. You have to be quick to reap the true benefit of these luscious treats, however, as after the 29th September you should leave brambles well alone. Superstition has it that the devil takes possession of the fruit after this date and marks his property by urinating on the leaves!

Hoverflies are highly attractive insects that, despite their excellent mimicry of bees and wasps, are not harmful to humans. The bright warning colours and similar behaviour to unpalatable or poisonous insects offers this Striped Hoverfly protection, as it gets drunk on its nectar fix: ‘Look at me, I taste nasty, so keep away!’ Hoverflies, because of their resemblance to stinging insects, are greeted with a certain antipathy by the general public, which is a great shame, as they are among the most colourful and spectacular of flies.

Stopping off for a breather and a blether, we were amazed to find a Dark Green Fritillary feeding on a thistle head, only a few metres from where we were standing. This gorgeous orange and black butterfly was so engrossed in its nectaring duties that it appeared oblivious to our closer approach, when we were permitted as instructive a view of this species’ diagnostic underside markings as we could ever have wished. This was the best view that we have ever enjoyed of this fast flying insect and one that will live long in our memory.

The recent return to rain has provided the island’s population of Black Slugs with conditions more to their liking, much to the dismay of local gardeners. At Mull Magic, we are forever championing the role of the overlooked and hidden wildlife of the island and slugs fall in to that category. ‘Surely not!’, we can hear you cry, yet these slimy gastropods play a very important and undervalued role in gardens and woodlands on the Isle of Mull. Much of this mollusc’s time is spent recycling waste matter and helping improve garden and forest soils. They may eat some desirable garden plants, but they also have a taste for more unsavoury ‘treats’, helping get rid of unsightly cat and dog faeces, recycling it as more acceptable slug poo. A slug’s tongue has as many as 27,000 teeth on it. Ever wondered why you never see slugs kissing! Yeuch!

Mull Magic Back Home

We have returned home to the Isle of Mull with a severe dose of post-Cairngorm blues, feeling that we haven’t really been away! These feelings won’t last long, though, as we realise only too well how very privileged we are to breathe the life that we do, here on this marvellous island, surrounded by such fantastic scenery and wonderful wildlife. After all, it is always a pleasant journey that ends amongst old friends!

A week is a long time in wildlife terms at this time of the year, as different flowers fade and bloom and insects emerge to take advantage of the seasonally abundant nectar rush. The sweetly-scented flower clusters of Common Valerian that flanked our route through the damp, coastal woods of North Mull are proving a god-send to hoverflies and sawflies. The roots of this perennial have long been used in herbal medicine to reduce anxiety, to counteract insomnia and to relieve intestinal colic. As a sedative, it was used during the Second World War to help calm the nerves of civilians distressed by frequent air-raid activity and continues to be used in alternative stress-busting drugs today.

Among the various insects taking advantage of these honeyed flowers was a rather robust Club-horned Sawfly. Looking like it was wearing a coat of metallic green and gold armour plating, this insect is as distinctive as it is beautiful. Largely feeders of both nectar and pollen, it derives its common name from the club-shaped tips of its antennae, which can be clearly seen in this photograph.

The sawfly had better watch out, as sharing the same flight path through this woodland glade was a male Golden-ringed Dragonfly. A voracious predator of other insects, it cut an intimidating figure as it patrolled its highway in a rather automated fashion. This, our largest dragonfly to be commonly encountered on the island, is unmistakeable owing to its black and yellow banding and bulging green eyes. With those looks, it wouldn’t look out of place in a scary, sci-fi blockbuster or in an episode of Doctor Who!

Basking Sharks have been appearing close inshore around the North Mull coast earlier than usual this year, so it was with hopeful optimism that we scanned the open water of the bay. Our search didn’t take long and proved exceptionally fruitful when a huge, dark dorsal triangle broke the surface of the tranquil sea. These benign ‘monsters’ of the deep have become a huge draw for eco-tourists on local whale-watching trips, as they are easier to spot than similarly-sized Minke Whales and tend to hang around for a whole lot longer!

A pair of Wheatears had nested in the vicinity of the old settlement we visited, deserted at the time of the infamous Highland Clearances in the early half of the 19th Century. One of their fledged youngsters proved to be a bit of a poser and obligingly stayed still long enough for us to obtain some good photographs. It is a steep learning curve that this juvenile has started out on, one which will see it lay down sufficient stores of body fat over the next couple of months before it flies South to sub-Saharan Africa for the Winter. It’s great to be back home, again, on the Isle of Mull. As we said, its like we’ve never been away!

Friday, 9 July 2010

Preparation and Opportunity

What an amazing nest location the Dotterel had chosen: around 900 metres up on the Cairngorm massif and with a dizzy view over the Lairig Ghru. We only hope that the chicks have a good head for heights!

Following an ancient line of weakness in the granite, the Lairig Ghru , a mountain pass, with its origins in the last Ice Age, links Aviemore in the North with Braemar to the South. We stood overlooking the extensive debris flows, but have yet to walk in to the Lairig Ghru. The closest we have come was, during a previous visit to the area, when we walked through the Chalamain Gap, a boulder strewn ravine in nearby Glen More, where we caught glimpse of the only herd of Reindeer in Britain. Around fifty of these impressive Arctic mammals roam freely in the Cairngorm National Park.

A warming soup ‘n’ sarnies lunch was sufficient to re-energise our minds (and legs!) for what would be one heck of a long way back for a short cut on our return to the Ski Centre car park. With seemingly boundless reserves of energy, bordering manic proportions considering the truncated nature of our recent sleep patterns, we set off towards Cairn Lochan and a return to some of the most breathtaking scenery anywhere in the country.

We paused awhile to admire the vertical and horizontal nature of the granite joints at the cliff edge of Cairn Lochan before continuing on our merry (weary?) way along the headwall of Coire an t-Sneachda (Corrie of the Snow), at the end of which we faced a steep scramble up to the summit of Cairn Gorm. Negotiating a series of self-made switchbacks over the rocks and gravel proved to be a wise move and, in no time, having encountered little difficulty, we were back again on top of our little world. Cairn Gorm...twice in two days...deja vu!

En route down to the Ptarmigan Rest and our well-earned ride on the Cairn Gorm Mountain Railway, we thought to push our luck and attempt to relocate the pair of Ptarmigan that had accommodated us so well the previous day. After our fifteen minutes with the family of Dotterels prior to lunch, wildlife on the mountain had been at a premium, so our expectations weren’t high. Needless to say, the birds weren’t where we had found them the day before, but we didn’t have time to feel disconsolate about our luck changing, as another hen Ptarmigan was spotted on the other side of the path.

It was a ‘brown’ breeding-plumaged bird, quite different to the previous ‘grey’ pair and, what’s more, she had a brood of seven recently-hatched chicks in tow! For the umpteenth occasion on our trip to the Monadhliaths and Cairngorms we had been blessed with a huge stroke of good fortune. Yes, we thought that if we put in the leg work and climbed up to where these birds could be found, then we stood a good chance of seeing both Dotterel and Ptarmigan. Luck is, indeed, a crossroads where preparation and opportunity meet!

Thursday, 8 July 2010

With Privileged Gaze

We had really caught the Cairngorm bug and a particularly virulent strain it was too! We wanted to make the very most of our week off-island and, with the weather remaining kind to our aspirations, we couldn’t resist another venture on to the slopes of Cairn Gorm. This time, though, we thought to avoid the ‘crowds’ by traversing part of the moss heath plateau between Cairn Gorm and Ben MacDui, a well-known area for nesting Dotterel. Our hopes were high after the success of the previous day, but we never could have imagined topping our experiences of the day before. You know what? We did!

Our idea of trying to avoid the ‘crowds’ was excellent in principle but poor in reality, as we found that other likeminds had thought along the same lines. It so happened that many of these walkers were birdwatchers, who were on the mountain for the same reason as ourselves, so we all benefited from each other’s observational skills. The Cairngorm plateau is a large, wide expanse and can take a bit of searching. It can also absorb a lot of people, although, unlike our days on Creag Meagaidh, we never quite had the feeling that we had the place to ourselves!

Our intention was to follow the path towards Lurcher’s Gully and to roam the tundra-like environs overlooking the Lairig Ghru, before skirting the imposing cliff edge of Cairn Lochan and heading back to the summit of Cairn Gorm (then that promised ride down on the funicular!) It had the making of a long, yet, hopefully, profitable day to remember. The weather is capricious, to say the least, in the mountains, even in June and, despite it remaining dry and sunny, the wind had picked up and was blowing from a very chilly, northerly direction. Unlike the day before, we weren’t going to get away with wearing t-shirts for long!

Stopping every so often to scan the boulders and moss heath for potential sightings of Ptarmigan and Dotterel, we had drawn a blank and were contemplating huddling behind a small cairn to find some shelter from the cold wind, in order to have lunch. Then, as if out of nowhere, there it was, a male Dotterel! On seeing us, had it slipped off its nest unnoticed? We edged closer and closer, until we were at a discreet enough distance to view the bird well without disturbing it. Only then did we realise that this bird was tending three chicks, sufficiently small to have only recently hatched. It was difficult to curtail our excitement, but we did, and spent some fifteen minutes watching in wonder at a safe distance and with a privileged gaze.

It wasn’t that long ago that the British population of these role reversal (the dowdier-plumaged male undertakes the incubation duties and the caring for the young) mountain plovers was thought to be only 100 pairs. Recent studies have shown this figure to be nearer to 900 pairs in some years, but there can be considerable movement between breeding hills in Scotland and...Norway! Birds that have failed in their initial attempt to breed on Scottish mountains have been known to lay a replacement clutch in nests, not on an adjacent hill in Scotland, but across the North Sea in the Norwegian mountains.

Mull Magic in the Cairngorms

After our close encounters of the Ptarmigan kind, we rather elatedly picked out a granite slab on which to park up and have lunch in the sun-soaked, rarified atmosphere of the Cairn Gorm summit. Talk about feeling on top of the world! At that moment, there really was nowhere on this Earth that we would rather have been. Despite its popularity, the top of Cairn Gorm is a truly fascinating and spectacular place and we sat awe-struck by the majesty of the mountain scenery that was unfolding in front of our eyes.

To the immediate South, the dark shadows of the dramatic, ice-eroded cliffs of Stacan Dubha and Carn Etchachan stood prominent, with Loch Etchachan beyond. At 3,025 feet, this is the highest water body of any real size in the whole of Britain and remains frozen for nearly six months every year! This was a really wild, rugged and truly inspiring landscape which was calling out to us and, no doubt, the subject of a future adventure.

Over our shoulders and a little way to the North-East lay the tourist destination of Aviemore, beyond Loch Morlich and the wonderful, aromatic remnant Scots Pine woodlands of Rothiemurchus, with their understory of juniper and blaeberry. We had explored the native pine forests around Glen More and Loch an Eilean during a previous late Summer visit and have retained such fond memories that tell us that we will do it all again sometime...soon!

We could have chosen the easy option and a ride back down the mountain on the funicular railway, but our adrenalin was still pumping strongly after our chance meeting with the Ptarmigan, so we decided on the walk back to the car park. Cairn Gorm mountain is the most popular visitor attraction in the Cairngorms National Park and the volume of human traffic visiting the area outwith the skiing season, means that a Visitor Management System is in operation. This helps protect the summit area from erosion and its wildlife from unnecessary disturbance. Those who wish to ascend the mountain in Summer on the Cairn Gorm Railway are unable to access the wider summit area and have to return to the car park on the funicular. The 2 kilometre journey lasts only 8 minutes, but sounded like a whole lot of fun, so we decided that next time we would give it a go. Little did we realise that the next time would be the next day!!!

Back at the car park, after yet another day that words just couldn’t possibly describe, we found it difficult to take in that we had been watching Ptarmigan in t-shirt weather on top of the 6th highest mountain in Britain. Incredible when we recall that we were stood in the same car park less than four months previous watching a flock of Snow Buntings fly around the feet of skiers during the most severe Winter in living memory!

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

On Top of the World in a T-Shirt!

Undeterred and buoyed by the excitement of our time spent in the Monadhliaths, we now turned our attention to the Cairngorm massif, one of the most renowned and majestic of montane landscapes in the British Isles. A rather static looking cloud base had draped itself over the shoulders of Cairn Gorm (4,084 feet) on the day that we chose to walk to the top of Britain’s sixth highest mountain. However, we decided to trust the weather forecast and set off up the initially steep climb from the Ski Centre car park, hopeful that the sun was going to burn through the thin veil of cloud by the time we ventured nearer to the summit. And, as if by (Mull) magic, that’s exactly what did happen, with the last wisps of cloud dissipating in time for a lunch rendezvous that left us, quite literally, on top of the world!

Thousands upon thousands of people appear to want their little bit of the Cairngorms and arrive each year to walk, climb, ski...and birdwatch! This can put a whole lot of unwanted pressure on an already fragile environment, jam-packed with some of the most magnificent scenery in Scotland (outside of the Isle of Mull!) and of enormous importance for nature conservation.

Pink or red granite is the bed rock which has been shaped by monumental natural forces over hundreds of millions of years to form the present day Cairngorm mountains. The extreme climatic conditions that prevail on Cairn Gorm continue to shape the contours of this amazing landscape and influence the unique wildlife that resides there. Thin, poorly developed, acidic soils are common and, consequently, a highly specialised lower plant community of mosses and lichens exists in the Cairngorms. We found rather few plants in flower as we made our way up the mountain, but one that we did encounter was rather special. The Trailing Azalea is a mini-shrub that was festooned with a mass of beautiful pink flowers. Carpeting the gaps between the outcrops of granite boulders, it is well-adapted to the fierce winds and bitingly low temperatures that are often a feature of Cairn Gorm.

Late lying snow is not unusual near the summit of Cairn Gorm in mid-June, although we must have cut rather incongruous figures as we trudged through the snow in our t-shirts. The temperature was in the mid-50’s Fahrenheit and with little or no wind to mention it felt positively balmy at 3,700 feet! As predicted by our friends at the Met Office, the cloud on the tops really was ephemeral in nature and, by the time we had the weather station and summit cairn in our sights, it was sunshine and blue skies all the way.

We call the Ptarmigan Mull’s mythical white grouse, as the island appears to have little more than a relic population of this peculiar bird of the high tops and, try as we have, we never ever see them! With a British population of around 10,000 pairs they are not uncommon, it’s just that their choice of montane habitat rather restricts the opportunities that most birdwatchers have of seeing them on a regular basis. We didn’t think that a walk up the tourist track to the top of Cairn Gorm offered us the best chance to get to grips with this fabled bird, yet how wrong we were to be proved!

Close to the summit and even closer to the path, we saw an unmistakable head and neck sticking up between the cold, grey lichen boulders. Excitement took over and trying to keep our binoculars steady proved difficult, as we revelled in these views of a hen bird, still in what looked like the grey and white plumage of Spring. For the next 20 minutes, if not more, we were treated to the most amazing close-up views of a pair of these magical birds. The delicate grey, black and white plumage could not have been better camouflaged, as the birds fed among the similarly coloured rocks, barely 20 metres ahead of us. All this and we hadn’t even had our lunch yet!