Puffin Therapy - Isle of Mull

P1100028 - Puffin, Lunga
Imagine Skomer on steroids and you still won’t get close to envisioning quite how good the Puffins on Lunga are. From rafts numbering hundreds of birds on your approach things only get better, culminating in you sitting on the cliffs surrounded by these curious looking creatures as thousands more circulate above and below. They are so completely fearless that we merely become another obstacle to be negotiated allowing intimate observations that simply beggar belief. And I’m writing this having visited several times previously but each time I return I’m completely bowled over anew.

P1090840 - Lunga

The story of this particular trip is even more special than most but that can wait. Here I want to simply focus on the Puffins, Razorbills, Guillemots and Shags which call this island home. It won’t surprise you to hear that I completely flattened my camera battery thus were the photographic opportunities, perhaps a saving grace from untold hours spent in edit. I literally didn’t know which way to look next.

P1100028 - Puffin, Lunga

P1090820 - Puffin, Lunga

P1090819 - Puffin, Lunga

P1090837 - Puffin, Lunga

P1090848 - Puffin, Lunga

P1090814 - Puffin, Lunga

P1090878 - Puffin, Lunga

P1090896 - Puffin, Lunga

P1090929 - Puffin, Lunga

P1100047 - Puffin, Lunga

P1090953 - Razorbill, Lunga

P1090887 - Razorbill, Lunga

P1090860 - Shag, Lunga

P1090891 - Shag, Lunga

P1090982 - Shag, Lunga

P1090946 - Guillemots, Lunga

P1090948 - Guillemots, Lunga

Words and photos alone can’t do justice to quite how spectacular Lunga is. It’s one of those places which just has to be experienced first hand to truly appreciate. What I can do though is tell you a little more about our day, what else we saw and how we came to be marooned on the island with just eight other souls. It’s a pretty epic tail.

Dolphin and Otter Extravaganza - Isle of Mull

P1090745_2 - Otter, Isle of Mull
Originally written 09/07/2017

When we woke on Sunday morning the little burn running alongside our house had doubled in width and now resembled more a raging torrent than the gentle babbling brook to which we’d bid good night. Gone too were the expansive open views to be replaced with low cloud and drizzle. This was all feeling a little too Welsh for my liking. Thankfully conditions had improved slightly by the time we dragged ourselves downstairs, thoroughly well rested and raring to go. We didn’t even need to discuss our plans as by tradition the first day on Mull, regardless of weather, is spent walking to Treshnish. Personally this is my favourite route on the island and manages to sum up Mull in a single eight mile loop. Big skies, dramatic coastlines, volcanic geology, raised beaches, caves, illicit whisky stills, fantastic birds and more often than not a few surprises along the way. What would be on the agenda today? Only time would tell.

Setting off we retraced our footsteps from the day before and almost immediately came across the Whinchat family. This time though they were a lot closer and after working my way through the waist high Bracken I finally got some decent shots.

P1090700 - Whinchat, Isle of Mull

P1090702 - Whinchat, Isle of Mull

P1090691 - Whinchat, Isle of Mull

Here too were the Stonechats and Whitethroats but with conditions so dull we left them in peace and continued on to the coast. Fluffy juvenile Wheatears abounded and it was good to see that their parents had passed on the instinct to flee from my camera at the earliest opportunity. Not to worry as I had eyes on a more scaly prize and was pleased to find two of yesterdays Adders sunning themselves in exactly the same spot. From as best I could tell they were the largest female and one of the males and with drizzle starting to fall once again looked anything but amused. Feeling a little more confident this time around having become familiar with their movements and abilities I leant in closer to maximise my shallow depth of field.

P1090712 - Adder, Isle of Mull

Feeling emboldened I pushed things a little too far and in a flash both animals were slinking off into a tangle of Heather for cover, a departing ill tempered hiss to let me know exactly what they thought of I and the weather.

Arriving at Crackaig they may have had a point. It was dull, dreary and lent the strange atmosphere that surrounds this abandoned settlement an even greater sense of melancholy than usual. It’s a lot harder to romanticise the lives of the people who once lived here on days such as this. Still, there was beauty to be found and I couldn’t resist a rare plant photo thanks to Stonecrop which seemed to be growing just about everywhere.

P1090720 - Stonecrop, Isle of Mull

Having not been up here in the summer for a number of years I’d managed to forget just how busy the island can get. Granted we’re not talking Snowdon levels of absurdity but seeing more than one other person around here deserves comment. Thankfully the first gentleman we encountered was very friendly and we stopped to chat about the weather, his nearing of the summit (for we were now on our way down the steep path from Crackaig) and various other typically British small talk. Then he happened to mention that he’d seen a couple of Dolphins out in the bay and as if on cue two dorsal fins broke the surface below. Immediately I knew they were Bottle-nosed Dolphins, their size and jizz giving them away as easily as if they’d been labelled. Then came a third before one of the largest animals took four clear leaps free from the water, each time twisting so as to cause maximum splash once gravity went to work. Simply spectacular. Keen to get a little closer we bade our new companion farewell and hurried down the remaining path where we again saw a leap clear of the water before the pod calmed down and began working their way up Loch Tuath. Settling down for some lunch we watched their progress with keen interest, occasionally distracted by a passing Manx Shearwater or Gannet. Black Guillemots also made a reappearance with three off the cliffs, though significantly harder to get to than those in Oban.

Our choice of vantage point was clearly popular as a dining destination if the two large fish skeletons there were anything to go by. White-tailed Sea Eagle the most likely culprit.

P1090731 - Sea Eagle Meal, Isle of Mull

With the Dolphins seemingly lost to view and our appetites silenced we set off once more. The coastline here is simply stunning and even on a dreary day such as this can’t fail to take your breath away.

P1090735 - Isle of Mull

Then all of a sudden they were back. Two, three then finally six dorsal fins breaking the surface in quick succession, racing their way back in the same direction as us. There were clearly two pairs of animals sticking close together, surfacing in pure synchronicity and, judging by size, mother and calve. A passing yacht provided an immediate distraction for the Dolphins as a couple broke off to go and bow ride providing the occupants with enviable views. Having been there myself on many an occasion I couldn’t help but smile on their behalf and hoped that they realised what a privileged moment they were sharing.

P1090737 - Bottle-nosed Dolphin, Isle of Mull

As the yacht sailed further the Dolphins appeared to grow weary of their fun, or perhaps just had other plans. Regrouping they set a more determined pace now heading in the direction of Treshnish headland, a pace which gave us no end of difficulty in matching. Unlike our aquatic friends we had headlands, inlets and rough terrain to contend with so it was no real surprise when we eventually lost contact. Even so we’d spent at least an hour in their company and how often can you get to say that?

This magnificent stretch of coast had one last surprise in store however. I’d been keeping a keen eye on the various rock pools beneath us in the hope of spotting an Otter, so when a mother and two cubs popped up I very nearly had to do a double take. Thankfully Emma got onto them quickly as they looked to be in playful mood, constantly scrapping and moving along at pace. They clambered from one pool to the next before entering open water and vanishing around the next headland. Racing around after them we thought we’d lost contact until they reappeared on an outcrop of wave washed rock. It all looked a bit perilous and indeed proved to be as a large breaker ripped their grip free, casting the three into a cauldron of churning water. I couldn’t help but feel a moment of panic but I needn’t have worried. These hardy mammals are built for the rough and tumble of this environment and were soon hauling themselves back out.

P1090745_2 - Otter, Isle of Mull

Things surely couldn’t get better than that. And they didn’t.

But of course this is Mull so one must evaluate everything on a different scale. Anywhere else and watching a Golden Eagle perched on the hillside in late evening sunshine would have been a heart stopping, life defining moment. Here however it’s become almost the norm but I still savour every one of these encounters. Watching a bird as big as this soar just meters off the ground, its shadow racing along beneath and sun glinting from that golden crown as it turns its head to look at you is, and will always be, out of this world.

P1090753 - Isle of Mull

Adders, Eagles and Black Guillemots - Isle of Mull

P1090608 - Black Guillemot, Oban
Originally written 08/07/2017

I’ll admit that lying on the pavement at five in the morning trying to explain to a trio of last night’s revellers that the black and white birds I was desperately trying to photograph were in fact Black Guillemots may, to some at least, appear a little odd. On any normal morning hell, I’d have probably agreed with them, but this was by no means a normal morning. Instead of the sound of slamming car doors and fretful children the first rays of light seeping across the sky were met with a deep grumble as giant slumbering diesel engines were slowly coaxed into life. Their acrid fumes seemed in sharp contrast to the fine rigging of a schooner at berth nearby, the high tide lapping gently at her sides as along the shoreline just beneath where I lay. It all seemed a million miles away from our everyday lives and yet at the same time familiar, like an old friend whose re-acquaintance we were just beginning to make. And in many ways that was true for the town of Oban is one which I have visited numerous times over the years, our arrival here the final hop on a long journey taking us away from the stresses and worries of our lives back home and on to a place where time loses almost all meaning save for the rise and set of the sun each day. The hours between are ours to do with as we please. No one judging, no one demanding. A true sense of freedom let loose on the Hebridean wilderness where Golden Eagles display over breakfast and the views appear almost endless. And of the magical vessel which was to take us to this special place? Well she, the MV Isle of Mull, was beginning to stir.

P1090617 - Oban

Which brings us back to the pavement, my new drunken acquaintances and those Black Guillemots. Despite my emphasis I’m still not entirely sure that I got the message across that these weren’t to be confused with your standard run of the mill Guillemots but they at least left happy. To be honest that could have had more to do with the booze and less to do with my imparted ornithological wisdom. Either way I was once more left in peace and could continue the battle which had been raging for the last half hour between said birds, a distinct lack of light and my desire to get these fabulous creatures on film. And trust me they are delightful company to keep. Tame beyond belief thanks to the constant passing of human traffic they are perfectly content to go about their business with barely a seconds thought to this odd mammal and his curious antics. Given the early hour they still seemed to be in wake up mode, up to ten individuals lined up along the sea wall calling in a high pitched voice to their comrades out on the water or those peeking out of nest holes in the wall below. On any other day this kind of spectacle would have been draw dropping but up here it’s almost normal, still completely mind boggling but an accepted every day occurrence in what is still the most wildlife rich environment I’ve ever visited.

P1090611 - Black Guillemot, Oban

P1090608 - Black Guillemot, Oban

P1090572 - Black Guillemot, Oban

P1090600 - Black Guillemot, Oban

P1090569 - Black Guillemot, Oban

Our journey here had begun late afternoon the previous day followed by ten hours of driving across five motorways until we rolled into Oban a little after one the following morning. With the town asleep we’d managed to find a spare parking space at the end of the promenade and there had enjoyed a couple of hours fitful sleep, most of which was spent trying to find a comfortable place to rest my head. Dawn breaking was almost welcome relief.

Our last minute run for supplies was scuppered by a certain well known supermarket changing its opening hours (Tesco) but we could at least fuel up before boarding and waiting for the off. A Grey Seal searching for an opportunistic meal looked as hungry as we felt though I’d have taken our bacon and sausage rolls over whatever it was having any day. They were delicious. Stomach lined it was up on deck just in time for us to cast off and wave a fond farewell to the mainland. Up ahead the Isle of Mull was already beckoning and I willed us on with greater pace, partly because I was eager to explore its treasures and partly because it was absolutely freezing up on deck. Lack of sleep and a stiff breeze combined to remind us that although this was summer we were still in Scotland after all. Not to worry as I kept myself distracted by watching the Gannets and Guillemots on our way out to Lismore along with the occasional passing Kittiwake.

P1090622 - Lismore Lighthouse

Before we knew it Duart Castle was sweeping by on our starboard side followed by the campsite at Craignure and the message to return to our vehicles. This was it. I still get the same sense of anticipation sitting behind those closed doors as I did on my first trip up here over a decade ago along with the well of excitement as they slowly open and we are finally released onto the island. Everything from here on is familiar. The right turn, sweeping views over the Sound of Mull and the inevitable tourist who isn’t the least bit prepared for the roads which now face them. Single tracked and bumpy they are to be taken with care and it takes a concious effort to focus on them and our destination alone and not the vast array of bird species which are already vying for attention. But it’s so difficult to resist when one moment you’re being confronted by a raft of Red-breasted Mergansers and the next a White-tailed Sea Eagle gliding right above the car. Even after so many years of visiting these flying barn doors are simply spectacular, wings spanning up to two and a half meters and a silhouette that is all but unmistakeable. Having watched it disappear over the brow of a hill we were once more on the move, the last few miles to our base for the next fortnight.

Now our exact location will remain undisclosed for hopefully obvious reasons except to say that it’s basic yet everything we could ever wish for. Miles from the nearest neighbour, no TV, internet or mobile signal yet with views to die for and a plethora of wildlife which we aimed to get reacquainted with as soon as possible. Before that though we desperately needed some kip so having unpacked settled down for a nap. Warmed by the sun I could have stayed their for hours, and probably would have too had a knock at the door not startled me awake. And who should we find there? None other than pro wildlife photographers Andy Howard and Pete Walkden. It’s a small world you know. I think I just about carried off my barely awake greeting before we settled down for a good catch-up. Talk inevitably turned to wildlife and we were soon out hunting for Adders. We were under good authority from previous guests that at least one individual was almost guaranteed but we couldn’t find it having to make do with our first sighting of one of the resident Golden Eagles instead. Oh the hardship! Well if the Adders weren’t going to play ball we may as well try for Eagles instead but we’d barely set off in its rough general direction before we were distracted once again in a way that only Mull can conjure up. Sitting atop the Bracken were four Whinchat, two adults and two juveniles and all in fine voice. Not wanting to disturb them we kept our distance so a record shot only for now, but what cracking birds for our first few hours here.

P1090625 - Whinchat, Isle of Mull

In the same area we also turned up families of Whitethroat, Stonechat and Meadow Pipit before what at first appeared to be a bird of prey popped into view. Landing briefly it was soon mobbed by smaller birds and we quickly realised that it was in fact a Cuckoo. Not top of anyone's guest list around here it was quickly chased out of sight. This was shaping up to be an excellent outing and was about to get even better.

P1090676 - Meadow Pipit, Isle of Mull

Emma was first to spot the Adder basking in full view, a large female we think and the largest individual I’d yet come across. Creeping in we all managed to get some photos, I with considerable lens envy it has to be said, before we realised that there was a second Adder less than a meter away. Intricately beautiful up close they are remarkably good at blending in as we enjoyed spending the next hour or so with these fabulous creatures.

P1090680 - Adder, Isle of Mull

P1090683 - Adder, Isle of Mull

P1090666 - Adder, Isle of Mull

P1090643 - Adder, Isle of Mull

By the time we dragged ourselves away we reckoned we’d seen four different Adders, two males and two females and all as brilliant as each other. At times they’d been moving within a few inches of our prone bodies, a simply breathtaking experience that has to be experienced to be fully understood. Even better was that they appeared very site loyal, returning time after time to the same sunning spots. This bodes well for repeat visits during our stay and we shall certainly be popping by regularly.

And that wasn’t all. Insects abounded with the most impressive being a Four-spotted Chaser and the most annoying the midges of which I feel we’ll be getting much better acquainted over the coming days. This plethora of life was one of the reasons we were eager to visit during summer this year instead of our more recent October jaunts, not the ideal time to see butterflies by any stretch of the imagination. If the numerous Little Heaths and Dark Green Fritillary were anything to go by there should be good things ahead.

P1090627 - Dark Green Fritillary, Isle of Mull

And that was our first day on Mull. With virtually no effort we’d seen both White-tailed and Golden Eagles and had an intimate encounter with Adders. I couldn’t wait to discover what else lay ahead.

Butterflies of Bryn Lliw Grasslands

Remember when I wrote that we'd only ever seen Marbled White's in England prior to our discovery at Whiteford? Lies all lies. Due to what I can only blame on old age it had completely slipped my mind that last year we'd stumbled across loads of the things literally just down the road. As we were on a long cycle ride the plan had been to return with the camera at a later date and do a proper explore but, well you know what happens to best laid plans. Still, there's no time like the present for righting a wrong so a couple of weeks ago we returned and virtually from the get go couldn't help but stumble over Marbled White's such were their number. Of course that doesn't mean they were necessarily playing ball when it came to photography but after an hour or so toiling in the heat I finally got the result I was after.

P1090407 - Marbled White

So where then is this place? Well if you'd been driving through Swansea in 1996 you very likely had it to blame for the closure of the M4 as that was the year the old colliery tip here caught fire. Left idle since the closure of Brynlliw it continued to burn for an astonishing three years until a legal case finally forced the Coal Authority to act. In the meantime residents were left to endure acrid fumes and thick layers of dust coating their properties. There's a fascinating article on BBC news here from the time. Reading that it's hard to believe we're talking about the same place but it's remarkable what a lot of landscaping and mother nature can achieve. Just look at it now.

P1090476 - Bryn Lliw Grasslands

The lush meadows were alive with insect life with yet more Six-spot Burnet moths and umpteen other day flying species which I didn't get chance to identify. Overhead we had both Red Kite and Buzzard at close range whilst the scrubby vegetation held a Garden Warbler, Chiffchaff and several Stonechats. We also caught sight of what we believe was a juvenile Green Woodpecker but it disappeared before we could get a better view. In such surroundings I decided that a challenge was in order and set ourselves the relatively ambitious target of seeing and photographing ten butterfly species before the heat forced us to retreat. How did we do? Judge for yourself.

P1090474 - Green-veined White
Green-veined White

P1090468 - Small Skipper
Small Skipper

P1090454 - Comma

P1090444 - Common Blue
Common Blue

P1090421 - Meadow Brown
Meadow Brown

P1090400 - Ringlet

P1090395 - Large Skipper
Large Skipper

For anyone numerically challenged I can confirm that there are only eight species there and of them the Common Blue barely counts given its sorry state. I'm amazed it could still fly. Even so not a bad haul but what did surprise me was a complete lack of Speckled Woods along the wooded boundaries. All that's done however is encourage me to try again. Indeed having read up a little on some of the other butterfly species which can be found in our local area I'm beginning to think that 2018 may even see us going for a year list. Now there's something I never thought I'd be saying!
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