The alarm clock split the early morning silence with its harsh electronic beats, and was quickly extinguished by a groping hand. Normally a four o’clock wakeup call would be met with cries of protest and a quick retreat back under the covers. But this wasn’t just any morning; this was the start of our annual adventure up to the Isle of Mull.
The Isle of Mull lies off the west coast of Scotland and measures just 24 by 26 miles, and yet boasts a coastline of over 300 miles in length. Its varied geology, ancient history, stunning landscapes and outstanding wildlife make it my favourite place anywhere in the UK. Our family is fortunate to have a modest holiday house on the island with views across the sea to the Isles of Gometra, Staffa and Iona. All around us there is nothing but miles upon miles of unspoilt countryside filled with Eagles, Deer and everything in between. It is these draws that have me pining for the island long after we have left and have me rising from my slumbers at an unearthly hour every year.
The long drive north was thankfully uneventful though we were subject to rain for its entirety. It was only as we made our final approach to Oban (the port from which the ferry to Mull sails) that the rain finally ceased and the grey clouds lifted ever so slightly. We picked up our tickets and left the car in the queue to spend the hour or so before departure walking the promenade. Our first sighting of the holiday was of a single Black Guillemot fishing out in the harbour, closely followed by a pair of Hooded Crows on the small beach.
This same beach also regularly holds a decent sized flock of Gulls which I always scan through with the hope of stumbling across a rare vagrant. Looking through the assembled Herring and Lesser Blacked Backs my heart skipped a beat as I spotted a smaller Gull with what appeared to be a much larger and more down curved beak than I am used to seeing. I moved in closer to get a record shot for identification purposes, only to realise that the bird in question seemed to be nothing more than a Herring Gull with a mutated beak.
Standing literally only a few meters away was another odd Herring Gull, this time with more well developed adult plumage and sporting a rather snazzy black eye patch on only one side of its head. It seems that if you want to see abnormal Gulls then Oban is definitely the place for you.
The crossing to Mull was over in no time, undoubtedly helped by the constant stream of wildlife. Common Terns, Kittiwakes, Gannets, Guillemots, Common Gulls and even the odd Seal or two ushered us across. An hour’s more driving once on the island and we were finally edging our way along the dirt track that leads to the house. Straight away we were met by a Twite and a family of recently fledged Wheatears while all around Skylarks and Meadow Pipits called. It was about all we could do to unload the car and open up the house before sleep started to beckon, but not before a stupendous male Hen Harrier wafted its way past us on the way up the valley. We had definitely arrived.
The next day (Sunday) was almost a complete wash out with the exception of a couple of hours in the middle of the afternoon. Not to worry though as the bird feeders had been filled and were delivering the goods. A male Yellowhammer and a pair of Chaffinches had already found them, no doubt to be joined later in the week by many other species as news of an easy meal spread. Down in the valley there were yet more Wheatear fledglings as well as a couple of young Stonechats and Pied Wagtails, whilst over the sound of the wind and the rain a Cuckoo could be heard calling which no amount of searching could locate.
Thankfully we woke on Monday to sun and blue sky, and for the first time since our arrival the vista from the sun porch finally opened up to us.
The Yellowhammer at the feeders had now been joined by both a female and a juvenile (presumably the same family), whilst the Chaffinches had more than doubled in number to five and had been joined by at least two Willow Warblers and a pair of Great Tits. It never ceases to amaze me how these birds find the feeders in such a vast unpopulated area, but somehow they always do.
The days walk took us along the coast to Treshnish, first passing through the abandoned village of Crackaig. This was once a thriving community that was uprooted and shipped abroad against their will as part of the Scottish clearances, leaving in their place a tangle of ruins and a sense of great loss. When humans abandon a place nature is often just one step behind waiting to retake it, and this place is no different. Upon the wall of what would have once been a family’s home sat a juvenile Cuckoo, calling its heart out for all it was worth and being fed by its surrogate Meadow Pipit parents. The breeding habits of this species are utterly fascinating and despite the size difference between the Cuckoo and the Pipit being almost comical, it is a partnership (albeit one that is very one-sided) that has clearly stood the test of time.
To detail everything that we saw during the day would be to make this post even longer than it already is, so for those of you still with me I will be very brief. We saw a family of five Twite, a couple of Seals hauled out on the rocks far beneath us, Fulmars enjoying the breeze off Treshnish Point, a Curlew noisily defending its territory, Sand Martins hunting a moorland stream along which a Common Sandpiper was also feeding, a pair of Snipe flying overhead and more Wheatears than I care to count. All this and we had only walked a couple of miles from the house! There is the rest of the island out there to explore yet.