IT was at BSAVA congress in 2008, in a bar of course, that Richard Harvey and I were talking birds when he suggested a visit to the isle of Mull the following April to watch the white-tailed (sea) eagles.
These massive birds, the world’s fourth largest eagle, with a wingspan stretching eight feet across, became extinct in Britain in 1918, but laws were changed during the 1950s which helped pave the way for reintroduction in Scotland.
A full-scale reintroduction programme got underway on the island of Rum off the west coast of Scotland in 1975 with 82 birds taken from Norway. The birds were released over a 10-year period and the first breeding success was recorded in 1985. A further 58 young Norwegian eagles were released onto the Scottish mainland and the first of these began to breed in 1998.
Now, the population is thought to consist of around 80-90 individuals residing in 26 different territories, 11 pairs breeding on Mull itself. With the reintroduction programme now complete, Scottish sea eagles are entirely reliant upon Scottish-bred young to continue the population.
Two other veterinary colleagues, Mike Jessop and Trevor Whitbread, were also keen so the dates were set. After a minor hiccup with Mike who said it was a bit short notice and he would have to try to rearrange his schedule for something this important, it was all arranged for a long weekend in April this year!
As happens in life these days, the 12 months flew by in a few minutes so it seemed and we met as arranged on the Thursday morning at Glasgow Airport from where we were to obtain transport to the Isle of Mull. Discussion had flown around the ether as to how we should travel from there to Mull; initially the excitement of a sea plane seemed a great idea until we realised that the weather could prevent us landing and therefore arriving on Mull at all.
So we settled for the car hire option. This had the added advantage, apart from cost, of being able to choose our route to take in Loch Fyne and the Loch Fyne Brewery at the head of the loch established some six years ago by Jonny and Tuggy Delap.
Many will remember Jonny from his days as head of marketing at Spillers and he is now retired with Tuggy in a wonderful farmhouse in Glen Fyne where they farm Highland cattle, sheep, and also provide stalking and fishing on the glen which they mostly own.
Start a brewery!
After a salmon farm in the loch seemed to adversely affect the fishing on the river Fyne, Jonny and Tuggy had a think-tank meeting with their sons as to what to do next for income and one of the sons suggested that as the family enjoyed drinking, they should start up a brewery.
So they did, and Fyne Ales (www.fyneales.com) has already won bronze and gold medals with its real ales. Naturally we were given a guided tasting and tour of the brewery set in this picturesque glen and equally naturally purchased a case of this excellent ale for our delectation on Mull.
An hour later we found ourselves at Oban in glorious sunshine, boarded the ferry to Craignure on Mull, and settled down to watch the spectacular scenery all around us on the 40-minute crossing.
And spectacular it was as Mull and Duart Castle came into view on the port side with Ben More at 996 metres towering above the island with not a cloud in sight.
Would this weather last? Was it too early for midges? We were soon on the road to Tobermory, our base and I suppose the “capital” of Mull. Within 10 minutes, Richard spotted two large raptors soaring over the Sound of Mull, Trevor screeched to a halt, the four of us leapt out of the car, binoculars in hand and had very clear views of two white-tailed eagles soaring above the sound – one adult with a brilliant white tail, and the other an immature, probably last year’s.
What a start. In great spirits we completed the short journey to Tobermory, located our hotel (the Tobermory Hotel) which worryingly was located within 100 metres of the Tobermory Distillery, had a stroll along the quay, a pint of Mishmash local Mull ale, a fine meal in the hotel and an early night.
Friday dawned sunny and cloudless again so after an obligatory Scottish breakfast (with haggis) we set off to a pre-arranged visit to an RSPB hide on the inland Loch Frisa from where we would have views of a sea eagle’s nest. This is not available to the public without booking but Richard had done that.
The wrong end
Loch Frisa is a landlocked loch approached from either end by a gated and locked dirt track lane of a mile or so, and Richard had omitted to find out which end was the meeting place. We parked by a rather run-down red hatchback and waited.
It soon became apparent that we were at the wrong end of this locked lane when no one else had turned up within half an hour or so.
The problem was solved when one of those things that only happen in movies occurred. A local small bus stopped at the end of the lane and a solitary attractive young lady alighted, carrying a bag of shopping, walked towards us, smiled and opened the little red car.
She lived on the only farm by the RSPB hide, and having ensured we weren’t egg stealers, unlocked the gate and led us down this lane until we arrived at the hide to the consternation of the RSPB warden who had been expecting us half an hour earlier from the opposite direction.
Not to worry, we were there but had missed a nest exchange. The nest was a long way away, perhaps 500 metres, but we could see the bird on the nest in a tall conifer tree in a wood through a telescope. Not a patch on the views we had yesterday.
However, during the hour we were there we had great views of two golden eagles and two buzzards hunting down the valley, a mistle thrush in the field, and sandmartins beginning to nest in a nearby sandy quarry.
Soon it was time to move on and explore some of the rest of the island so we bought some sandwiches in a shop in the tiny village of Salen to go with our Fyne Ales, and drove west to Loch Na Keal where we drew up by the loch and settled on the grassy loch side to enjoy our lunch.
Within minutes, honestly before the first Fyne Ale had been consumed, an otter appeared in the swirling seaweed just in front of us, some 20 feet away. We watched fascinated as it dived and reappeared over a 10-minute period, eventually appearing with a small fish which it ate on the seaweed-covered rock nearby. We felt so privileged and managed to get some photographs of it too.
Shortly, the sharp-eyed Richard spotted another large raptor approaching at a height and this indeed turned out to be a beautiful adult whitetailed sea eagle. By now we had discovered that the best way to view them was lying flat on one’s back with binoculars while it circled lazily overhead on the thermals. Fabulous.
Loch Na Keal is a long loch that leads out to sea on the east of Mull and we drove along for a while until the island of Ulva appeared, just a stone’s throw off the east coast of Mull. This looked beautiful but would have to wait for another visit.
We wended our way back to Tobermory via Calgary, where there is a beautiful unspoilt white beach, and Dervaig, arriving in time for another pint of local ale and another good meal in the hotel.
No whales yet!
Saturday was the day of whale watching, pre-booked on a Sea Life Survey’s boat from Tobermory, and yet again the weather had held, the sun was out, the sea was like a millpond and no, there weren’t any midges all weekend.
We were told that they had not seen any whales yet this year but that last year the first sighting was on the same date as today – 18th April. We four were joined by a pleasant young Slovenian couple and four sharp-eyed crew members at 9.30am for a full day on the boat.
The Sea Life Survey company (www.sealifesurveys.com) surveys and keeps records as well as arranging days out so it was taken very seriously by this knowledgeable crew, who also knew their birds well. On the way out through the sound we had good views of harbour porpoises which are somewhat smaller than dolphins and a bit shyer, hardly coming up out of the water to breathe.
Out in the more open sea towards Coll, great excitement, we suddenly saw a whale surface and blow. It was a Minke whale, the commonest species here, and the first of the year. By the end of this exciting day we had seen three Minke whales, all at the same time so we knew there were three, many harbour porpoises, quite a few Atlantic grey seals, and some interesting bird life.
We saw many Manx shearwaters both gliding over the waves and floating in rafts on the sea. They apparently nest on the nearby isles of Rum and Eigg. Puffins, razorbills and guillemots were plentiful, and we saw a solitary Great Skua and three Great Northern Divers calling their mournful, evocative call which sounded like a cross between the call of humpback whales and wolves howling.
On approaching the Sound of Mull again, we were again to see a pair of white-tails suddenly appearing out of nowhere in the sky and landing close by in a pine forest on the cliffs.
The crew were convinced we had found another nest site as the female could be seen quite clearly on a platform in the tree.
Sea eagles every day – what a treat. Home tomorrow but one last treat awaited us if we got back in time from the sea: the Tobermory Distillery. Would you believe it – it was closed.
We tried the malt in the pub – not a patch on Talisker! A final and very fresh meal in the fish café on the quay at Tobermory and an early night as we had to catch the first ferry from Craignure to Oban and then home.
This was a truly excellent long weekend on this amazing island which is both totally wild yet with very civilised pockets. Tobermory is picturesque, quaint and tiny, yet has just enough of everything to a standard to make it thoroughly worth visiting.
The four of us are already wondering which Scottish island to inflict our presence on in two years’ time – Skye, Islay and the Orkneys all have distilleries!