Isle of Mull Part 3 - Corncrakes on Iona

Wednesday, July 13, 2011 Adam Tilt 5 Comments


I should have mentioned in my last post that on the Wednesday we also got to see our first Golden Eagle of the holiday, and whilst reading a book in the front porch of the house no less. Golden Eagles have been using the valley around the house for as long back as anyone in the family can remember, with the last couple of years being extremely productive. Each of our visits had been seeing progressively improving sightings right up until last year where every single day the Eagles spent much of their time around the house. I was half expecting them to have moved into another part of their territory this season and indeed that seems to have been the case. Therefore it was with great delight that we saw one of the birds soaring across the end of the valley as the sun was starting to set, flanked of course by its usual entourage of Ravens. A few minutes later and it came back the other way before slipping behind the headland once again.

With both Golden Eagles and White Tailed Sea Eagles already under our belt it was time to try for another Mull speciality, the Corncrake. These are now extremely rare birds in Britain with very localised populations, one of which spends the summer on the Isle of Iona just off the coast of Mull and numbers around thirty four calling males.

24546 - Iona Ferry

An hour’s drive and a short ferry trip soon had us walking down the main street of Iona towards the north of the island, past the abbey that has long made this a necessary visit for those following their faith. We were on a pilgrimage of a different kind however, one whose object was not to kneel before Christ but to clap eyes on our own version of the Holy Grail. We hadn’t gone far before the Corncrakes distinctive call, not dissimilar from someone continually raking their fingernail across the teeth of a comb, sprung up from an Iris bed to our left. We stopped to listen but it was clearly at some distance so we decided to move on. We had soon heard two more individuals but no amount of searching had revealed even the glimmer of their presence. After a scan of the sea that produced a passing flock of Manx Shearwater as well as a couple of Razorbills we retraced our steps and ended up on the edge of the large Iris beds behind the abbey. Here it was not the calls of Corncrakes that we were inundated with, but instead those of the Sedge Warbler that are surprisingly numerous on Iona.

24550 - Sedge Warbler, Iona

24549 - Sedge Warbler, Iona

A spot of lunch later and we were heading across the middle of the island, picking up another faint Corncrake call from behind the fire station as we went. It was as we were passing a house almost on the western shore though that we heard by far the loudest call of the day. Annoyingly the sound is one of those that I find very hard to pinpoint but we knew it had to be close given the calls sheer volume which was loud enough to echo off the nearby walls. We waited. We watched. We craned our necks to try and get a better vantage point, but it was all to no avail. The Corncrake called on and on and on, almost mocking us it felt like, but we still couldn’t catch a glimpse, a fate which has befallen many a hopeful visitor over the years. I did record a short clip of the call though as it really is very distinctive.


We were ready to give up when on a whim we decided to stop off at the fire station again on our way back to the ferry. The Corncrake from earlier was really belting out its call, just as Emma caught sight of something on the edge of the Irises. Fortunately I was on to it in a flash and had a few seconds view of the Corncrake before it moved back into cover. Brief though it had been you really couldn’t have asked for much more and it felt like a very satisfying conclusion to our time on Iona. As you can probably imagine I didn’t have chance to even attempt a photo, but I guess there’s always next year……..

24552 - Eider, Iona
One of the many families of Eider around the islands

The drive home was almost as exciting. We first picked up a Golden Eagle soaring high over the Pennyghael estate, then it was the turn of the Sea Eagle nest at Knockroy. Here a single chick that must be nearly at fledging age was standing up in the massive nest while one of its parents perched proudly atop the tree. Overhead the other parent was gamely shrugging off its collection of aggressors as it soared on the wind currents. New life on a smaller scale was also in evidence by the following Rock Pipit, one of this year’s brood.

24555 Rock Pipit, Isle of Mull

The following day was spent chilling around the house with a late afternoon walk out to the coast. Here we were treated to a superb fly over by one of the Golden Eagles.

24558 - Golden Eagle, Isle of Mull

You really can’t appreciate the sheer scale of these birds until they are up close, and it’s something that never ceases to amaze me. I once spent a whole two weeks holiday in Scotland as a child constantly on the lookout for an Eagle and not once coming close, even after a boat trip up a loch that listed such things as its raison d’etre. Therefore to be privilege to views such as this really is a childhood dream come true.

Back at the house the feeders had now managed to attract what looked to be a family group of six Greenfinches, which once again I have no idea how they ever managed to find us. We also had two completely new species for the valley list, both of them Hirundines. The first was a flock of four House Martins that spent ten minutes or so checking underneath the eaves, presumably as potential nesting spots though surely it’s too late in the year now? If they did decide to nest they would be in good company as a pair of Swallows is there most years. The second new addition was a single Swift that shot over the house and out to sea. These birds are scare passage migrants on the island so to see one was a real stroke of luck.

5 comments:

  1. i couldn't get the clip to play, but i'm guessing that's just my computer set-up. lovely shots. jealous of the eagles. :)

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  2. I was also lucky enough to hear corncrake, on Harris, but unlike you had to make do with the call as we had not one tiny glimpse.......
    oh well, perhaps I should try Iona!

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  3. A fantastic trip Adam I am so jealous...
    Was there anything you didn't see lol.
    Stunning images.

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  4. Have so enjoyed these three posts, Adam - and your beautiful photographs.

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  5. Sorry about that texwsgirl. Not sure why the clip isn't playing but glad you like the photos.

    MarkW - I think Iona is probably your best bet but even there it's a very tricky task.

    Andrew - Glad you're enjoying my posts. Looking back it is amazing what we saw and I'm not even finished yet! There is a lot more to come.

    Caroline - Thanks for your kind words. Glad you are enjoying them.

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