Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The All-New ‘Terror of Tobermory’

A lean and mean killing machine is currently scaring the daylights out of every bird in Tobermory, having taken up temporary residence in a former church building on Main Street. In the shape of a pair of blood thirsty Peregrine Falcons, the Isle of Mull has a contender to rival the White-tailed Eagle for the title of the island’s predator-in-chief. If the island’s eagles are the Rolls-Royce among British birds, then the Peregrine’s strength, beauty and speed mark it out as something of a Ferrari.

The burden of celebrity weighs easily on the muscular shoulders of these majestic falcons, as Peregrines have been something of a cause celebre since their super-recovery from organo-chlorine pollution in the 1950’s and ’60’s. Threatened with extinction, this large and powerful raptor is, once again, widespread as a breeding species throughout much of Britain. However, despite huge areas of suitable habitat on Mull and with food availability not an issue, the Peregrine remains a rare local breeder on the island.

The town’s Feral Pigeons are not the most popular of the island’s rich assortment of birds, but they are very much to the liking of Mull’s Gruesome Twosome, who expend a lot of their energy in hot pursuit of these tasty Tobermory takeaways. Feral Pigeons are prolific breeders and already they will have young squabs in dusty recesses of the former Free Church, thus ensuring a continuing supply of future quarry for the town’s avian street fighters.

Birds as small as the tiny Goldcrest (9 cm/7 g), and as large as Mallard (62 cm/1500 g) make up the range of a Peregrine’s diet, although medium-sized birds, like pigeons, tend to be favoured. The Tobermory birds have even taken to harassing passing White-tailed Eagles! Primarily a diurnal hunter, fresh evidence has found that Peregrines are also adept at seeking out their prey under the light of Mull’s silvery moon, as highlighted on a recent BBC 'AutumnWatch' programme. One keen-eyed observer on the island witnessed one of these apex predators chasing bats at night and it seems that Peregrines will turn their hunting skills to plucking other nocturnal feeders, as well as migrating birds, as they overfly the island.

The Peregrine is regarded as the fastest moving bird on the planet, apparently capable of reaching anything up to 220 m.p.h. (depending on which author you believe!) during one of it’s death-defying stoops after prey. Special baffles on the bird’s nostrils allow Peregrines to breath when diving at such speed. We have a penchant on the Isle of Mull for anthropomorphising our wildlife, but, as far as we know, none of Tobermory’s pigeons are called Usain Bolt or, even, Allan Wells!

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Angel of the Stones

The numerous settings of Standing Stones on the Isle of Mull all share one thing in common, the unknown. Very little is known as to what they really represent and it is only speculation that suggests what they may or may not have signified. The island’s megaliths appear to be appointed in a NNW to SSE alignment that would suggest compatability with the movement of the sun and/or the stellar hemisphere and that they may have been a calendar for Mull’s prehistoric settlers.

Today, these Standing Stones are visited by many people, of shared religion or none, who are in awe of their creation. People show their respect to the stones in a variety of ways. The simple willingness to visit such places of the past is respect enough for most, but others are compelled to offer ‘gifts’ to the stones as a mark of personal appreciation. It is not unusual to see coins, locks of hair and food items placed on a convenient ledge or hollow in a stone. On our recent walking tours to Lochbuie, we were interested to find this metal angel resting in a cleft on one of the stones outlying the Stone Circle. We couldn’t help but ponder its significance. Was it left by a sympathiser of the pagan ways of the past or is it someone’s attempt to purge those beliefs by introducing Christianity to the stones?

The Isle of Mull’s population of Red Deer have been putting on a good show for our early season walkers. With hinds midway through their gestation period, late Winter is a difficult time for these animals, as they have to find sufficient nourishment to keep their condition and build for the arrival of their calves. Stags, too, are feeding avidly on any source of fresh greenery that is sprouting among the bare hill ground, in order to offset any reserves that have been lost during the Winter months. They will be dropping their old and worn antlers soon and will require the necessary energy to replace them with a view to the Autumn rut.

The unusually mild temperatures (around 12 degrees celsius) that the Isle of Mull has enjoyed in recent days has transported March into June on the island and resulted in a spurt of growing activity among plants, both in the garden and in the countryside. The semi-natural woodlands on Mull have sparked into life overnight and soon will be carpeted with the yellow stars of Lesser Celandine flowers. In some sheltered spots on the island, these floral harbingers of Spring have been in bloom since mid-February, but it is only now that the rest of the celandine community is beginning to shake off the lacklustre of Winter.

Seasonal fungi are in short supply during the Winter on the Isle of Mull. Not surprising, as the warm, humid conditions required for the development of these fruiting bodies have long gone and will not be returning any day soon. That said, we have been pleasantly surprised to find a few mycological gems on our travels around the island recently, whose colours have helped brighten up the gloomiest of days. The folded and flabby Yellow Brain fruits are gelantinous to the touch and turn orange and shrivelled when dry.

The Scarlet Elf Cap is another whose English name aptly describes it. A bit of an attention seeker, this fungus jumps out at you among the dead and decaying fallen wood, twigs and leaves that it inhabits, such is its rather startling colour.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Dipping Toes In A Spring Tide

Water may cover approximately 70% of the surface of the Earth, yet it only accounts for around 15% of all the different species of birds, plants and animals found on the planet. Even then, only 2% of these creatures exist in the open ocean. The sea around the Isle of Mull’s 305 miles of coastline is particularly biodiverse, yet only a fraction of its wildlife is ever seen by the thousands of eco-tourists that visit the island every year. A recent walk that we enjoyed in North Mull coincided with the advent of the ‘Super Moon’, with its extra-high perigean tides, and helped bring Mull’s marine environment sharply in to focus.

Even during the calmest of days, the sea around the Isle of Mull is constantly moving, as the gravitational pull of the sun and moon acts upon the tidal range of the island. At the time of the ‘Super Moon’, this pull was enhanced, as the sun and moon aligned with each other to produce exceptionally high ‘Spring’ tides. Unfortunately, with a cloud coverage measuring the full eight oktas, the overcast conditions meant that, here in Tobermory, we weren’t able to enjoy the 14% larger and 30% brighter ‘Super Moon’ this time around and may have to wait another 18 years to do so!

The sea around Mull may appear quiet and devoid of much in the way of marine life at present, yet in a few short weeks the same body of water will support returning populations of seabirds, Minke Whales and Basking Sharks. The Isle of Mull’s oceanic environment is heating up, as indicated by changes that are being noted in the status and distribution of the island’s apex sea predators. The warming of the sea off the island has resulted in cold water plankton being replaced by the arrival of less nutritious micro-organisms, which are having any adverse effect on the small fish that seabirds and Minke Whales (baleen plates pictured below) rely on. Increasing numbers of Basking Sharks appear to be the main benefactors, as they follow these warm water plankton blooms in Spring and it may well be that these cartilaginous fish are becoming the new Minke Whales for boat trip operators on Mull.

The higher than usual tides have provided an added bonus for wildlife watchers on the island, pushing shorebirds much closer to roads that fringe many of the island’s sea lochs. Views of several waders that have only recently returned to Mull at the onset of another breeding season have been quite exceptional. Displaying Lapwings have been particularly demonstrative as they tumbled through the air, forever accompanying their aerial contortions with the sound of their wheezy, plaintive voices. To many simply a black and white bird, the light refracted on the upperparts of this female shows the true (and beautiful) iridescent purple and green sheen of their plumage to wonderful effect.

The smell of seaweed cast up on the shores of Mull’s coast is something that is taken for granted today by those that live their everyday lives by the sea. In the past, seaweed played a vital role in the domestic economy of the island, providing food for humans, fodder for cattle and sheep and ‘green’ manure for crops. Some were eaten raw or cooked in stews, soups and puddings and the ash extracted from burnt seaweed formed the basis of the kelp industry on the island during the 19th Century. Many marvel at the colours, textures and shapes of the many varieties of seaweed that the tide throws on to Mull’s shores on a twice-daily basis, yet few could possibly imagine the hardship and suffering that the gathering of algae caused to the island’s earlier residents when the once prosperous kelp industry collapsed.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Every Picture Tells A Story

Glen Cannel and Glen Clachaig meet as neighbours at the head of Loch Ba, near the very heart of a landscape that has been moulded over the millennia in to what we now lovingly call home: the Isle of Mull. Once fertile straths, where communities of up to 800 souls lived and worked the land, the greed of 19th Century landowners cleansed these parts in favour of sheep. Today, all that remains of the lives once lived among this dark and brooding landscape are memories. As we walk among the hills, faces from the past etch themselves in the crags and the mournful bubbling of the Curlew carries the voices of those betrayed to the ears of a new day.

The Isle of Mull’s ‘Singing Shepherd’, Iain Thomson, has written a song about the effect of the Clearances on the population of Glen Cannel folk. It appears on his album ‘Fields of Dreams’ and serves as yet another poignant reminder of the island’s less glorious past. In fields adjacent to the Cannel River, crops of hay would have been grown and it is said that the workers used to inscribe their names on the bark of a Holly tree that still grows there. Like the Rowan and Elder, which were planted alongside crofts and homesteads, the Holly has been bestowed with magical properties and considered protective against evil.

Being an evergreen gave this prickly species even greater supernatural powers. It was considered something special to be able to withstand the onslaught of a Scottish Winter when all other trees had shed their leaves and gone into temporary hibernation. The trunk of this Holly tree, growing in the petrified woodland that flanks the shore of Loch Ba, reminded us of an aerial view of a crater, perhaps similar to that of a volcano. We thought this somewhat apposite seeing that Beinn Chaisgidle, site of the now collapsed Mull Volcano, overlooks the ruined settlement in Glen Cannel.

There were no names of folk, past or present, carved on the bark of this tree, but closer inspection revealed that Mother Nature had left her signature in the form of a colony of Common Script Lichen. This lichen is commonly encountered on smooth-barked trees, such as Rowan and Hazel, as well as Holly, on the Isle of Mull. Few lichens have a universally accepted English name, so it is possible for the same species to have more than one name in regular use. The scribbles of this distinctive organism are similar to the scrawls made by children, hence the vernacular name of Pencilmark Lichen, which we think describes it perfectly.

Common Toads have recently emerged from their Winter shutdown and are actively seeking suitable ponds in which to lay their long string of eggs (not clumps, like frogs). We were amazed to learn that Toads may live up to 12 years in the wild, somewhat miraculous when you consider the extreme distances these amphibians will travel to find the right breeding location. Of course, the handling of toads will not afflict you with the wart virus, although these creatures do secrete toxins which are poisonous to other animals. Special glands behind each ear and on their backs produce chemicals which serve as an irritant and deterrent to would-be predators. As if their lumpy, warty appearance wasn’t enough!

Thursday, 10 March 2011

A Yesterday Of Long Ago

There is an aura of spiritual belonging and a pervasive sense of history that hangs thick in the air on the Isle of Mull. There are places on the island that haunt the very fibre of mankind and send shivers of the unknown down the length of your spine. Loch Ba, located in a glacial trench in the centre of the island and Mull’s second largest freshwater body, is one such place: a state of petrified stillness which evokes those arcane déjà vu moments of rekindled thoughts that you’ve been there before, even when you haven’t.

The Oak woodlands that tattoo the northern shore of the loch are eerily decrepit, having been wizened and worn out by the winds of time and the poor quality of soil in which they are rooted. These stands of dead and decaying timber, however, possess a certain beauty of their own, a sort of arboreal architecture. Each tree is unique, their contorted and displaced branches twisting back upon themselves, like an old man bent and struggling against the wind. Ghost-like of character, the bare bones of these once proud trees remain to haunt a hillside that has been privy to turbulent changes in a yesterday of long ago.

Dead branches litter the woodland floor like the cast antlers of the Red Deer that roam this aboriginal landscape. Bark lies strewn on the grass, a reminder of the life that once flowed in these corky skeletons. The tough, outer layer of a tree’s ‘skin’ is made up of dead cells, which form a protective barrier against the worst of weather and attack from fungi and animals keen to exploit it’s sugar-rich sap. The multiple inner layers of bark are where the tree’s engine room is, pumping essential water, sugars and minerals from the roots to the leaves during the growing season.

As remote and desolate as it seems today, the Loch Ba trench of river, mountain and moor was previously a site of much igneous creation and destruction, dating back to the time of the Mull Volcano 60 million years ago. Weather and the impact of glacial erosion have cut the island’s massif down to a more manageable size for today’s hillwalkers! It is a hostile environment, where only the fittest survive from one year to the next. Like Red Deer, domestic breeds of sheep, like Scottish Blackface, and Highland Cattle are among the hardiest of animals and capable of seeing out the worst of the Isle of Mull’s climate. However, the Winter months take their toll on the sick and injured, whose carcasses often provide food for the island’s scavenging White-tailed and Golden Eagles, Buzzards, Ravens and Hooded Crows.

March is a time when Spring often pops it’s head around the corner to say ‘hello’, here on the Isle of Mull. Our capricious weather usually means that it soon retracts it’s head fairly quickly, however! The waterlogged ditches and puddles that threatened to wet our feet on our walk were suddenly brim full of activity, as Common Frogs came out of their Winter hibernation to seek traditional wetlands in which to lay their masses of gelatinous spawn. The jelly both protects and keeps warm the developing embryo until the tadpoles emerge to run the gauntlet of Spring drought and bird’s beaks. That some do survive to continue this perennial saga is a miracle in itself!

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The Haunted Look of Desolation

The landscapes of the Isle of Mull conceal the happiness and despair of passing time. This is nowhere more apparent nor the feelings more palpable than in the many hill glens on the island that were once home to hundreds of people prior to ‘The Clearances’ of the early nineteenth century. These everyday folk of Mull were often thrown to the wolves of society in favour of a new-found fortune with a black face: sheep. Our recent walk to the head of Loch Ba and the little-known graveyard near Gortenbuie, set in the foothills of Glen Cannel, proved to be a hauntingly emotive experience. An experience where the eyes of the past follow one's every tread on the sodden ground and the voice of despair cries out from the ruins of a landscape, 200 years on, that has, ironically, been cleansed of sheep.

Glen Cannel is a quiet and rather forbidding place in Winter, devoid of the stirring sight and sound of a variety of breeding waders that make their home there in the Spring. The early signs that Winter may be relinquishing its grip on the Isle of Mull can be seen when the first of these birds return to the upland glens during late February. The marshes at the head of Loch Ba are particularly favourable for Curlews, Lapwings and Oystercatchers, the vanguard of which had already arrived in prospect of another nesting season. The Oystercatcher is a noisy and argumentative character, which is afforded iconic status among a few discerning birdwatchers. It is, after all, the emblem of the Isle of Mull Bird Club, an organisation that celebrates its 10th anniversary later this year.

The steep-sided mountains that surround the Loch Ba trench are flanked by ancient woodlands of Downy Birch and Hazel that have survived generations of wind blast, which has resulted in their characteristic appearance and often stunted shape and form. These trees are host to a myriad of mosses, lichens and fungi. Indeed, the lichen communities present in these woodlands are of particular importance. Being an island, Mull is afforded the benefit of a cool, maritime climate. The pure air and humid conditions provide the ideal conditions for a number of important lichens to thrive. Very few fungi, however, are noticeable at this time of year, but the Many-Zoned Polypore is a type of bracket fungi that may be seen all-year-round. The concentric rings of colour make them an attractive subject to photograph on a fallen or decayed log.

It is hard to imagine the sodden former sheep pasture, marshland and moorland fringe to be anything other than the waterlogged environment that it represents for much of the year today. However, the soil around the Glencannel river previously yielded good crops and it is estimated that as many as 800 people worked the land and resided in settlements along Glen Cannel and adjacent Glen Forsa prior to the de-populating Clearances. The time of more recent inhabitants at Gortenbuie has also come and gone, depicting the hardship of life that must have been prevalent. The glen has now been left for the Golden and White-tailed Sea Eagles to roam and to govern.

Our main purpose was to ford the fast-flowing Glencannel river and access the ancient burial ground that lies within striking distance of Ben Talaidh, the island’s third highest mountain. The site of a former chapel, the graveyard contains five uninscribed and largely displaced slabs of unknown date that, along with the ruinous buildings, offer a solemn glimpse of a once healthy community that formerly lived there. The walls of the sheep fank and an assortment of trees helped disguise the wrong-doings of a landlord bitten by the greed of human failing. On a grey Winter’s day, Loch Ba can be an austere and desolate place to be. At other times, it is this haunting desolation that colours a perceived sense of injustice, born of an eerie silence and carried forward on the mists of time.