Monday, 28 February 2011

(Merry) Dances with the Winds

Like his illustrious predecessor, Jean Sibelius, contemporary Finnish composer, Einojuhani Rautavaara (b.1928) draws inspiration for his work from the natural world. His Flute Concerto, for instance, is subtitled ‘Dances with the Winds’ and that is precisely what we felt we were doing when we braved the gusto of Mother Nature’s lungs during a recent ascent of Beinn a’ Ghraig (the croaking mountain) in Mull’s Central Highlands. The ‘croaking’ aspect of this mountain’s Gaelic name is interesting and we wonder if it, indeed, refers to the vocal rattling of that most mythical of the Isle of Mull’s birdlife, the Ptarmigan. Having had a tip-off that a pair of these White Grouse had been seen recently on the summit of this mini-mountain, the Mull Magic obsession with these incredible birds kicked in…

Beinn a’ Ghraig at a mere 591 metres (1938 ft) may fall some way short of its more lofty and renowned neighbour, Ben More (966 m or 3,169 ft), yet it represents a steep ascent from its base at the mouth of the Scarisdale River. However, the slog over boulder and heather was worth every aching limb and sinew, as we mounted the scree-screwn plateau that lies below the summit. This was another world and one that we couldn’t have imagined as we looked up at the mountain from 1,800 feet below when we parked the Mull Magic (Auto)Mobile on the southern shore of Loch na Keal. The hill mist that rolled around us may have reduced visibility to almost dangerous levels at times, yet we were enraptured to know that we were the only people in the world (out of a near 8 billion) to be doing what we were doing: dipping out in our search for Mull’s elusive White Grouse!

Beinn a’ Ghraig represents a wonderful microcosm of subalpine life and besides being perfect habitat for Ptarmigan (at least from a human’s perspective)! the boulders and scree make tremendous natural containers for Mother Nature’s rock garden, full of the architecture, colours and textures of various mosses and lichens. The forked, grey-white ‘antlers’ of Cladonia uncialis (above) poked their branches through the moss and soil-filled hollows were populated by the upright stems of Fir Clubmoss, whose yellow-green stems contrasted with the cobalt staining lichens that encrusted the parent rocks. We would challenge even the most creatively verbose to adequately describe the beauty and wildness that we experienced. It is that indescribable quality that will lure us back up this mountain, time and time again!

Living in close association with fungi present in the soil, clubmosses represent an ancient group of plants that, along with mosses and lichens, are among the oldest organisms known to mankind. The crimson leaves of Sphagnum capillifolium made an eye-catching display, nestling as they did below the dormant sprigs of heather as we made our way down off the hill. The mountain landscape of the Isle of Mull is a primeval environment that represents a timeline linking the past with the present. With the imminent threat of global warming, it is to these mountains that conservationists, scientists and naturalists will look to in order to assess the likely impact of climate change. The plants and animals of the mountain are highly specialised and will act as natural barometers to the changes that will, inevitably, take place in the future.

We may have missed out on an opportunity to finally catch up with the island’s isolated population of Ptarmigan, but the faecal evidence of their whereabouts was to be found in latrines that littered the summit. Living on a dry diet of plant seeds and stems, Ptarmigan have to try to conserve as much water in their bodies as possible. Consequently, they produce equally dry, fibrous stools and recycle around 80% of their water intake. This is just another way which these montane birds have evolved to be able to survive in one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth.

Finding Ptarmigan on the Isle of Mull could best be described as the ornithological equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack. Regardless of the enormity of the task we have set ourselves, we are very much up to the challenge of our obsession and would be only too happy to continue to be led a merry dance before setting eyes on these marvellous birds. It feels like we already have! Each of Mull’s mountains has an individuality of character of its own. The exhilaration and freedom that comes with the invitation to explore this uniqueness is something Mull Magic could never forget or grow tired of, regardless of whether we ever see a Ptarmigan!

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Gems In A Gold-Encrusted Crown

Our most recent Mull Magic Wildlife Walks have taken us to remote Loch Buie, the beautiful and fertile ‘Garden of Mull’, which separates the Ross of Mull from the island’s mountainous interior. Located on the South-easterly fringe of the island, Loch Buie may only be eight  road miles from the main Craignure to Fionnphort highway, yet it retains a palpable aura of seclusion and detachment. This out-of-the-way feeling is further exemplified by the approachable nature of it’s wildlife and the fact that the hamlet of Lochbuie is home to the Isle of Mull’s only Standing Stone Circle. Set against the stunning backdrop of Ben Buie and the rhododendrons of the local estate, this long-standing relic of megalithic culture may have met the religious needs of local Bronze Age inhabitants, as well as providing them with a social calendar, calibrated by the seasonal movements of the sun, moon and stars.

This ‘Cult of the Dead’ that specialised in the erection of stone monuments probably had its source in the Middle East and North Africa, where another of Lochbuie’s attractions, the Fallow Deer originated from. One of only two herds of this charming small deer to be found on the island, we were fortunate to locate a small party hiding in the vegetation in a field adjacent to the Standing Stones. Unlike the more abundant Red Deer on the island, these cute, Disney-like characters vary widely in colour. Most are of the white-spotted variety, although both creamy-white and dark brown forms are encountered on the Isle of Mull. The latter type likes to court confusion as a small Red Deer, save for the tell-tale black stripe that runs down the centre of it’s tail.
The isolation of Mull’s South-eastern corner makes it an ideal venue in which to search for some of the island’s most sought after wildlife. With around 120 individuals in residency around the Isle of Mull’s coastline, the Otter is a regular feature in the day of the island’s wildlife spotters. Having not fallen victim to the persecution and pollution that drove their mainland counterparts to the verge of extinction, the Isle of Mull boasts a quite exceptional population of Otters. Away from the relative hussle and hassle of the main road artery on Mull, the peace and tranquillity of life at Lochbuie seems to suit this adorable animal to perfection. Our patience has been rewarded recently with some of the best- ever encounters that Mull Magic has had with these marvellous mammals, as they hunted among the shoreline seaweed in search of small fish and crabs.
One of the most common sights around the Mull coast in Winter is the imposing frame of Great Northern Divers. These large waterfowl arrive in Autumn from their breeding haunts in Greenland and Iceland and immediately set about patrolling the island’s many sea lochs like a protective battleship. Loch Buie is always a good spot to look for these bulky, bull-necked birds and we were able to observe several indulging in a bit of snorkeling. Their bulbous foreheads immersed in the surface water of the loch, these birds were on the lookout for any unsuspecting fish or crabs that had, no doubt, previously escaped the attentions of the local Otters!

Lochbuie is steeped in history and we always try to make a point of calling in to one of the area’s greatest treasures, a small Episcopal church built in 1876 and consecrated to St Kilda. The building may not look like anything special from the outside and we are sure that many visitors miss out on its charm on their way to 15th Century Moy Castle, which continues to disappoint with its (necessary) mask of scaffolding. Juxtaposed with its near neighbour, the Lochbuie Stone Circle, the Chancel in the Church of St Kilda houses a wonderfully impressive Crucifix, carved by Joseph Mayer, who played the role of the Saviour in the Oberammergau passion play. When it’s creator died on the 1st December 1903, the late Murdoch Maclaine of Lochbuie purchased the Crucifix and had it housed in its present position. Regardless of your religion or none, this little church, with its colourful stained glass depictions of Saints, is but another gem in the already gold-encrusted crown of this ‘far-away’ part of our island home.

Monday, 21 February 2011

The Colour of Cold (A Blog Without Words)

The German composer of the 19th Century, Felix Mendelssohn, toured Scotland in 1829, where suitably inspired by Fingal’s Cave during a visit to the Isle of Staffa he famously wrote his ‘Hebrides Overture’. Mendelssohn’s time on the island continues to be celebrated in the 21st Century with the annual ‘Mendelssohn on Mull’ music festival.

Around the time that Mendelssohn was in Scotland, he commenced work on his eight books of Lieder ohne Worte (Songs Without Words) for piano. Inspired by the colour of cold, engrained in the recent frosted Winter landscapes of the island, I thought to compose my very own ‘Blog Without Words’, hoping that these images of snow and frost would speak for themselves!

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Ugg Boots and Crampons!

Fragmented and isolated on the very fringe of their breeding range in Scotland, the few pairs of Ptarmigan that are suspected to prevail on the highest tops of the Isle of Mull really are very special in nature. Unlikely to be encountered below 2,000 feet, it is only the hardiest birdwatcher and earnest hillwalker that are likely to catch a glimpse of one of the island’s population of White Grouse. As a consequence of their remoteness to the average birdwatcher, Ptarmigan are rarely seen and those that are (by hillwalkers) are not necessarily reported. Not everyone who ascends the summits of Mull’s hills are birdwatchers and, even then, not every birdwatcher is aware of the significance a sighting of a Ptarmigan on the island may hold.

There are an estimated 10,000 pairs of these Mountain Grouse scattered among the high peaks and summits of Scottish mountains, with the greatest density being in the Cairngorms. Small numbers cling on in the Inner Hebrides (on Skye and Mull) and, perhaps, still on the Isle of Arran. These island communities are, indeed, out on a limb and, with the species’ well-documented cyclic fluctuations, could be in imminent risk of local extinction. Indeed, Ornithologists in the late 19th Century predicted that Ptarmigan on the Isle of Mull would soon be a thing of the past. However, these are not Britain’s hardiest birds for nothing and a small population has successfully managed to maintain a toe-hold on the island for the past 100 years.

At Mull Magic, Ptarmigan have become a bit of an obsession and we would very much like to get to grips with Mull’s population. Whenever we can, we like nothing better than to head to the hills, in the hope that we may encounter what we often lovingly refer to as Mull’s Mythical White Grouse. We know that they are out there and just waiting to be seen! If anybody reading this blog has seen Ptarmigan on the island, we would be delighted to hear from you. That way, we will greatly increase our chances of catching up with Mull’s birds before, as climate change insists, they do become a part of the island’s natural HISTORY! That’s if the expanding number of local White-tailed Eagles don’t get them first. Normally thought of as potential prey for Golden Eagles, it seems that the Isle of Mull’s White-tailed Eagles are also partial to Ptarmigan for tea and are getting in on the act!

We find Ptarmigan (with a silent ‘P’) to be absolutely fascinating, if normally shy and secretive birds. For this, they rely heavily on their cryptically camouflaged plumage, which the birds moult seasonally to blend in with the changes in their Arctic-Alpine hill top environment. As the landscape of the mountain changes, so does the birds’ colour! The grey plumage of this Spring male (below) is splashed with white feathering, which will allow it to merge almost seamlessly in to a background of lichen-stained boulders and patches of unmelted snow. Late snowfall is not usually a problem on the Isle of Mull, so it would be interesting to note whether the island’s Ptarmigan population have an earlier moult sequence compared to those birds that are resident on higher mainland hills.

Living all-year-round in what can be an extremely cold and hostile environment, Ptarmigan have evolved several adaptations in order to cope with life on top of Scotland’s highest mountains. Like the comical Puffin, that lives out it's life at or close to sea level, the montane Ptarmigan sheds it's beak seasonally. Whereas the Puffin’s elaborate adornment is used for courtship purposes, perhaps the grouse does so in order to take advantage of seasonally available food. As well as having a densely-packed layer of insulating feathers, which protects their bodies from the harsh reality of inclement weather , these Mountain Grouse also have feathered feet and toes. These avian snowshoes, not only keep the bird’s toes warm, but also allow them to walk more steadily on the snow and ice. If you can imagine a pair of sheep’s wool-lined Ugg boots crossed with a set of crampons then we think you’ll get the idea!

Thursday, 3 February 2011

The Exhilaration of Standing Still

There are very few people who won’t be familiar with the saying that ‘time and tide wait for no-one’ or the fact that time never stands still. However, that’s just what we attempted to make happen during our recent walk to the Bronze Age setting of standing stones at Baliscate, on the outskirts of Tobermory. The two upright and one recumbent stones have dominated their surroundings for (perhaps) thousands of years and their watchful gaze has encountered a whole lot of local history down through the ages. Most notable has been the coming of Christianity to a previously pagan land, with the arrival of the Irish missionary monk, St Columba, to the shores of the Isle of Mull and Iona in the 6th Century A.D.

Aided by the detective work of two members of the Mull Archaeological and Historical Society, Channel 4’s ‘Time Team’ has recently unearthed a chapel and the human remains of a ‘Tobermory Saint’ in nearby woodland, dating back to the time of St Columba, some 1,400 years ago. As we paused a while to review the astro-archaeological significance of these Mull megaliths, we were made acutely aware of our place in the island’s history of time and space. From the ancient settlement of Baliscate, where an earlier community had raised these great hulks of rock, we now overlooked colourful and picturesque Tobermory, a mere infant in history’s eyes at a little over 200 years old. The Isle of Mull continues to evolve and new houses, both private and rented, are being erected that will change the island’s landscape further. Today, the Baliscate Stones provided us with a very instructive lesson on Mull’s social history: past, present and future!

The air around the Stones, during the warmer days of Summer, can be filled with the delicate aroma of coconut, as the breeze blows the scent from nearby gorse bushes. Not so on the chill days of Winter, however, and we had to make do with what our memories reminded us of the smell on this occasion! The cold of a Mull Winter soon dispelled any thoughts of Malibu drinks and Caribbean beaches, but we were pleased to note that our local gorse bushes were still in flower. It is an old adage that is not exclusive to the Isle of Mull or, indeed, Scotland, that whenever the gorse is not in flower, kissing will be out of fashion. Needless to say, we are a passionate lot on Mull and the romance of kissing will never die (gorse being in bloom or not!)

Primitive ‘plants’, like lichens, are all-too-often overlooked and thought of as unimportant in the great scheme of human life and existence. Few give their colour, shape and texture a second glance or thought, which is a shame because they bring a fascinating natural art to our everyday lives. It is not necessary or important to have to attach a name to something for it to convey its beauty. Being an island, off the West coast of Scotland, bestows an importance on the Isle of Mull as far as lichens are concerned. Mull’s pure, damp air is home to several species that thrive in the island’s oceanic climate. To acknowledge the existence of lichens, like those that have been growing for centuries on the Baliscate Stones is the first step in appreciating the role they play in the bigger picture. Those initial steps may not lead you to become a lichenologist, but they will ensure that you have a better understanding of the overall biodiversity that is life on Mull. Some people get a buzz out of driving fast cars, but at Mull Magic we find that simply standing still can be quite exhilarating!