Friday, May 22, 2009

Mull 2009, Days 3 & 4: Owling in an 'Owling Wind

Day 3 started with a visit to Loch Frisa, home to a pair of White-tailed-Telly Star-Eagles - the ornithological equivalent of 'Richard & Judy'. OK, it's not the coolest place to go and see WTEs but, after last year's eagle dipathon in Speyside/Gruinard Bay, we weren't taking any chances and had already booked our visit to the loch where WTEs are guaranteed. (01680 300640 - Adults £4, children (16 and under) £2, family (2 adults and 2 children) £10).

As the Forestry Commission Ranger was regaling all the visitors (at length) about the history of these two birds, the only people actually looking out of the hide were the 4 of us and so we were the first to see a WTE flying in to the (hidden) nest. Within a couple of minutes it, or its partner, perched up on top of a tree where it remained for about 20 minutes. Yes, the hide was nice and warm, but the large glass window prevented you from focussing properly on the bird. (Ring any bells?). So out we piled into the freezing cold wind to view it properly while dozens of Sand Martins and Siskins flew overhead.

We were the first to move off - our next destination was a return visit to Loch na Keal. There was no sign of the 'Cagey Birder No 2' but within 10 minutes we'd found the WTE nest - in a tree about a mile away on the hillside. To be honest, it was so far away, the views were crap, but a moment or two later a large shadow fell over us. Looking skywards Wayne was the first to call "Eagle!" It flew over us heading towards the nest, banking a few hundred metres away from it to get a better landing angle - it was like watching a Boeing 747 turning in to land at Rhoose Airport!

Over the next few hours we re-traced the Day 2 route, only in reverse. We saw another couple of Golden Eagles as we travelled south on the B8035. A summer plumaged Great Northern Diver was at the western end of Loch Na Keal. We stopped again north of Loch Scridain where we had the best views of the trip of a WTE soaring above our head (see Jeff's photos/video clips below).

With the afternoon wearing on we had only one target remaining for the trip - Short-eared Owls. On the basis of information gleaned from Mick from 'Mull Wildlife Tours' we stopped off at Glen More and lazily scanned the area around the 'Three Lochs' from the comfort of the car (it was flippin' windy and very cold).

The Three Lochs (Glen More): Loch Airde Glais, Loch Sguabain and Lochs an Eilein. (Photo: Wayne).

By the time we'd left the Glen we'd seen 5 Short-eared Owls and another on our journey back to Craignure.

Short-eared Owl at Glen More (Phot: Jeff).

In order to make sure that we didn't become too cocky about our success we called in at Grasspoint again on our way home to score another 'Big O' at this site.

The evening was spent being entertained by a superb band 'Vortex' at the Craignure Inn. Their set included everything from Lionel Richie (Jeff's favourite) to Snow Patrol. Highly recommended if you're looking for some wedding night entertainment and you can afford their air-fare from Scotland. The evening was topped off nicely by the attention of a pair of amorous Australians (female) and Jeff's minor altercation with one of the local lads. (You can take the man out of Maesteg . . . . etc). It was lucky that this youngster's girlfriend was there to drag him away or it we could have had another Ricky Hatton/Manny Pacquiao missmatch on our hands.

Despite the late night/beer consumed we were up early on Day 4. We needen't have bothered - it was blowing a gale and pouring with rain. Despite a trip to Tobermory (where we dipped on Iceland Gull and the Les Routiers fish & chip van was closed) and a dash to Dervaig for waders (there were none) the only two additions to our trip list were 2 Sedge Warblers and a Reed Bunting. But, on the the ferry to Oban, as we began our journey home, we did add Manx Shearwater and some Black Guillemots. 8 hours later we touched down at Bristol Airport with a bag each of Duty Free perfume and/or chocolate "so that we can go next time again!".

Our trip list total was only 80. If you want to do Scotland and have more variety of birds I would suggest a trip to Speyside, but you'll be struggling there to have such fantastic views of both species of Eagle as we had on Mull - and you can forget about Corncrake. Our list on Mull would have been much higher if we'd made the effort to search the high moors and pools for Red Grouse and Red-throated Diver, the tops for Ptarmigan and the woods for the woodland birds - but to be honest we didn't make that effort. We went to Mull for Eagles and Corncrake, Harriers and Owls, magificent scenery and some good craic - and we had 'em all!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mull 2009 : White Tailed Eagles

What can I add that Dan hasn't already said,great location,wonderful birds,brilliant company,awesome scenery,good digs,food and beer,our annual early May trip just gets better and better-I know I'll add a couple of video clips.
Whilst we were blessed with mainly dry and sunny weather (well apart from the last day!) it was always very windy so photography (ie digi-scoping) was always difficult as the birds were inevitably quite distant and the scope had to be set to the highest mag on the zoom.
I keep forgetting that most digital cameras have video mode and although not of the highest quality quite adequate for a record clip most of the time and particularly useful when it's windy.
I'd seen my first WT Eagle on Mull in 2005 when myself and Teresa visited at Easter that year and was totally knocked out by my first sighting of one in flight coming in off the sea at Lochbuie,it was one of 3 that I saw on that morning.
My next encounter with these incredible raptors was in Norway in 2006 when we went on an Orca Watching Day Trip for Teresa's 50th birthday,don't mention bloody Orcas as we "dipped" dramatically on them,that's nature I suppose,it's not like visiting a zoo and nothing is guaranteed !!
However,the WT Eagle encounters that day somewhat made up for the Orca disappointment and although I didn't keep a tally we must have seen between 50-60 individuals,they were everywhere!!
The first bird we saw when getting off the plane at the remote airport high in the arctic circle was a WTE and there were at least a dozen sat in the conifers bordering the small harbour that our whalewatching boat sailed from !!
I was therefore really looking forward to another encounter with these "flying barn doors" and we were not to be disappointed with pairs at Loch Frisa (of Springwatch fame),Loch na Keal and Loch Scridain.
One of a nesting pair perched openly on a distant conifer before taking to the air :-

Moments later after changing over at the nest the other bird took to the air flying across the valley and circling right over our vantage point on the edge of the "main" road giving incredible flight views (apologies for the shaky image it was very windy as well as trying to film a moving bird !!) :-

We enjoyed one of those magical 10 minutes or so that you get in birding from time to time (too infrequently unfortunately!!) when the bird you are lucky enough to be watching "does everything it says on the tin" and that was one of those special moments,although Corncrake on Iona was a long awaited "lifer" this all too brief encounter with this wonderful raptor was the highlight of the trip for me.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mull 2009, Day 2: The Joy of Crex

Thank God, unlike Speyside, there aren't any Capercaille watches and 5am starts on Mull. Eagles aren't early risers either so it was with a clear conscience that it was as late as 9am by the time we left Craignure on Day 2 of our trip. The plan for the day was to tank over to Iona, a small island off the south western tip of Mull, bag ourselves a Corncrake before heading back to tick off both species of eagles. Easy!
When we were within a couple of miles of Fionnphort, the tiny port from where the ferry sails to Iona, we slowed down and opened the windows of the car - partly to try and hear the rasping calls of Corncrakes which are now spreading out from their stronghold on Iona onto Mull itself, and partly to release the fumes created by the excessive 'rasping' made by some of the occupants of the car. At times, our trip resembled the cowboy/baked bean scene from the 'Blazing Saddles' film!

The island of Iona and its famous Abbey

At Fionnphort we had some time to kill before the departure of the next ferry and so we headed off, no more than a kilometre south, for a brief visit to Fidden. Here we found one of our target birds - Twite, along with White Wagtail, plenty of Lapwings and Curlew, some more proper Greylags and a Brown Hare. We should have returned to Fidden after leaving Iona because this is one of the better areas for waders on Mull. Surprisingly, we struggled to find many waders on the rest of the trip.

A short hop on the ferry (£4.20 - no need to book in advance) and we were soon on Iona. We had been reliably informed by Jeff's octoganerian oracle that Corncrakes were already "all over the place" on Iona and that they could be found within a short distance of the harbour. All the same, it took us a frustrating half an hour and a kilometre walk before we heard one. It was distant and only called intermittedly. We soon gave up on it and doubled back to the harbour. On the way we came upon a couple of good candidates for genuine Rock Dove. We tried our best to get excited by them . . . but failed.

Just off shore we enjoyed our first (almost) summer plumaged Great Northern Diver of the trip, as well as some Gannets, Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Razorbills. Next a couple of Sandwich Terns flew past, closely followed by some Arctic Terns and, on the road behind us, a nonagenerian cyclist. Being closest in age to the cyclist, we sent Jeff to tap him up for some local knowledge. He told us to try behind the fire station or the Bishop's House. We drew a blank at the fire station (although the sound of a local resident scraping some rubbish outside his house with a spade did fool two members of BiB into thinking there was a Corncrake nearby).

We had more luck at the Bishop's House. We immediately heard the rasping call of a Corncrake, and it appeared to be very near. But, we were being fooled. A local came out of his house to say that the bird was not in the field but over a wall and completely out of view in a hotel garden. "Curse that Corncrake" (we didn't want to swear just in case the bishop was in). We were about to move off when Wayne found the bird walking along the top of the wall!!

"Over here you daft buggers . . . on the wall! "(Photo: Jeff)

Panic ensued but, pulses racing, everybody got 'scope views of the Corncrake. It wasn't the one calling so there must be a pair in the hotel garden. Lifers for 3 of the 4 BiB. We spoke to several birders later on our trip who'd been on Iona for hours and failed to see any Corncrakes - we tried our best not to appear too smug.

Right, job done - shall we visit the famous medieval abbey? Nope. Eagles next.

Relaxing on the quayside on Iona - that's a Corncrake under Kev's coat (Photo: Jeff)

Back on Mull we travelled immediately to Loch Beg (which is basically the eastern end of Loch Scridain). We pulled over behind a Mull Wildlife Tours vehicle. Mick, the tour guide, was very generous in sharing his knowledge about where to find birds on Mull - particularly as we weren't paying customers. Good bloke!

A very distant speck on the horizon was generally thought to be another Golden Eagle. Almost as far away was something that looked like a dirty brown fur coat laid out on a distant little islet. Mick told us it was an Otter. It never moved and, without the aid of the Hubble Telescope, we had to take his word for it. Sadly, despite constant searching, this was to be our only 'view' of an Otter throughout the trip.

Eider at Loch Scridain (Phot: Jeff)

We moved on and, within a couple of miles of the north shore of Loch Scridain (along the B8035), we pulled in at our first White-tailed Eagle (WTE) nest site. And there it was! Piece of cake.

White-tailed Eagle near Loch Scridain (Photo: Jeff)

Having filled our boots on the WTE we drove further north along the B8035. The scenery along this road is absolutely stunning - and it's eagle habitat the whole way. Seeing some birders parked up on the side of the road, we pulled over to see what they were looking at. It was a Golden Eagle nest and within a couple of minutes of our arrival a Goldie flew in, collected some foliage from the mountainside and flew up with it to the nest. Spectacular!

The Golden Eagle nest site was somewhere on this mountain. Loch Na Keal in the foreground.(Photo: Wayne).

A few miles further north east we stopped on the shore of Loch Na Keal at another WTE nest site. It's here that we met our second cagey birder of the trip. "All I can tell you is that the nest is over there somewhere" he said, sweeping his arm in the direction of about 5,000 acres of wooded hillside. Thanks mate. With none up in the air and with no idea precisely where the nest was we dipped on WTE at this site. But we would be back! We sought solace 'scoping the loch shore where we found Greenshank, Redshank, Ringed Plover, a pair of Common Sandpiper (they're everyhwere on Mull) and a couple of Whimbrel.

A quick visit to Grasspoint on our way home, just to confirm that there was bugger all there, rounded off Day 2 of our stay on Mull. With both eagles and Corncrake already on the list, even with two days left, it was very 'much mission accomplished'.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mull 2009, Day 1: It's Good to Talk

So to the birds . . . . .

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!"

A Goldie looking at us looking at him. (Photo: Jeff)

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.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Mull, Scotland: May 1st - 4th, 2009

I'll break this trip report into two or three parts. Before recounting which birds we saw and where we saw them here's how we got there and back, where we stayed, where we ate and roughly how much it all cost.

Dramatis personae (left to right): Dan, Kev, Jeff and Wayne in front of the Abbey at Iona. (The car in the background wasn't part of our group!). Tim couldn't make the trip because of the joys of looking after little daughter Rosie and so Kev became an honorary member of Birders in Boxers for the second year running on our trip to Scotland.

How we got there: We travelled by easyJet from Bristol Airport to Glasgow, parking our car at Ye Olde Airport Tavern, which cost us a total of £21 for 4 days - a saving of £18 on what we would have paid if we'd parked in the official airport car park. We departed Bristol at 7.15am and arrived at Glasgow an hour later, where we picked up a hire car for the trip. The return flight and a share of the hire of the car cost us £90 each.

The drive from the airport to the port at Oban took us roughly two hours where we caught the midday Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Craignure (Mull). The sailing takes 45 minutes to get to Mull. This cost us a total of £21.50 each (car + 4 passengers). We left Cardiff at 4am and were birding on Mull at 1pm!

Where we stayed, ate and drank: We stayed at the Craignure Inn at, funnily enough, Craignure.

The Craignure Inn

This pub is only a couple of hundred metres away from the small ferry terminal. It's not the cheapest accommodation on the island (£39pppn including breakfast) but is ideally located as a base to travel both the north and south of the island. The staff there were really welcoming and the breakfasts were excellent - catering for both veggies and carnivores and using local produce. We had a couple of evening meals at the Inn too. I think the general consensus was that the food there was OK - and no more than that. Unfortunately, there's not that much choice of alternative places to go in Craignure, but we did spend one evening at MacGregors Bar where the food was better.

Mull is a large island with few villages and when you're out and about birding all day there aren't many places where you can stop and get some grub. So we stocked up on food at the Craignure Spar to keep us going through the day.

Back at the Craignure Inn the beer was not bad. Plenty of choice if you like lager, but less on offer if you like (proper) bitter. We ended up drinking a variety of bottled ales brewed on the island at Tobermory. The Guinness wasn't bad either. There was of course an enormous choice of malt whiskies - but we were too chicken to get stuck into them.

Finally, Sunday night is 'Live Music Night' at the Craignure Inn and we had a cracking evening (fuelled by a few beers) listening to a band called 'Vortex' - their music was much, much better than their name!

So, all flights, ferries, accommodation, car hire and fuel came to roughly £250 each.

That's the technicalities of the trip done. What we actually saw will follow soon.