Having dumped our suitcases at the Craignure Inn we headed west on the A849 towards Grasspoint. This is supposed to be one of the best areas for White-tailed Eagle (WTE) on the island. Yeah right! Although we visited this site daily during our stay we didn't have a sniff of an eagle and we soon christened the area 'What's the Point?' In four visits there we only managed to find Cuckoo, Whinchat, Grasshopper and Willow Warbler, Wheatear, Meadow Pipit and some real (?) Greylag Geese. That's a pathetically short list of birds no matter how you look at it.
It was at Grasspoint that we came across one of only two birders on the island who were a bit cagey about giving us some gen. When we asked whether the WTEs were still in the area we were told that they had moved on because their nest had been disturbed last year. So what was he doing standing there scanning the ridges? I don't suppose you can blame him with signs like this all over the island.
He must have thought that four dodgy looking Welshman piling out of a car with Leicas and Swarovskis round our necks must have been up to no good. We were told later that the WTEs at Grasspoint had indeed been disturbed last year but that they were still in the area. They had changed the location of their nest and several birders we spoke to were lucky enough to have seen them there during our stay.
But, the truth is, the locations of eagle nest sites is the worst kept secret on the island. I'm not going to reveal pinpoint sites on this blog but all you have to do when your on the island is ask the other birders you bump into where the nests are and the vast majority of them are happy to share the latest information. It'll save you a hell of a lot of time finding eagles I can tell you. But, on that first day, we didn't meet any other birders and so we had to find our eagles the hard way.
Our next destination was the minor road through the glen to Lochbuie, past Loch Spelve and Loch Uisg. I say 'minor road' - almost all the roads on Mull can be described as 'minor'. They're mostly single track with regular passing points. This is very bad news for birding drivers. You will quite naturally be scanning the ridges for eagles as you drive which puts you at risk of a). driving your car into a ditch b). annoying other drivers by not pulling over to let them through. Top tip: lorries and buses don't stop so make sure you get out of their way. Oh, and make sure you thank everybody with a 'wave' as you pass!
I can honestly say that wherever we stopped on Mull the first bird we always heard was a Willow Warbler. I hope that their numbers are equally good across the country this year. There were plenty of Willow Warblers along the road to Lochbuie but no flippin' eagles. Jeff's tale of having seen two Golden Eagles together here a couple of years ago didn't ease the tension at all! We demcamped beside Loch Spelve for a while and waited, and waited. There were Red-breasted Mergansers on the water but little else. We stopped as we drove along to check every distant speck in the sky, which always turned out to be either Buzzards or Ravens.
At one stop we picked up a displaying Tree Pipit and then, suddenly, excitement! A male Hen Harrier drifted past. We were to see 7 in total during our stay on Mull - 4 males and 3 ringtails - and they quite literally can be found anywhere on the island.
It was getting late in the day and four weary Welshman (we'd been up since 3am) were getting worried. On our trip to Speyside/Gruinard Bay last year we picked up everything . . . apart from any eagles. Eagles on Mull are supposed to be easy.
We doubled back and decided to try one other location where Jeff had seen eagles previously. (That didn't exactly fill us with confidence!). We drove up a forest track at Ceann Chnocain in the Gleann Lean area and scoured the mountainsides for any sign of life. We were about to give up and get into the car when the call came "Eagle . . . straight ahead!"
In the far distance a Golden Eagle flew across the glen carrying a large item of prey. Too soon it disappeared from view behind a mountain. Distant views but at least we'd finally nailed an eagle. Suddenly, it, or another eagle (minus prey) came round a mountain flying towards us, over Beinn Bhearnach. An adult bird, as it got nearer we watched it soar and then tumble through the air. Top banana!
On our way back to Craignure we stopped in a layby to enjoy another male Hen Harrier. Jeff fancied the look of an octoganerian woman parked nearby in her car and off he went to chat her up. As the rest of us sniggered and made fun of him behind his back Jeff 'Sociable' Slocombe turned up trumps. She turned out to be a birder who'd already been on the island for a fortnight and proved to be a mine of information. Armed with the gen she gave us our next two days birding on Mull were to prove much, much easier.