Mothing on Mull

Tuesday, July 30, 2013 Adam Tilt 4 Comments

One thing we noticed this year on Mull were the sheer number and variety of moths flying both day and night, especially those which had a fascination with my head once I'd gone to bed. Most noticeable of course were the day flyers with Six-spot Burnets being far and away the commonest species along grassy coastal areas.

P1050298 - Six-spot Burnet, Isle of Mull

The mating pair above were found near Treshnish Farm which is a haven for wildlife thanks to careful management and conservation. What I really wanted to see though was the much rarer Slender Scotch Burnet so I was very pleased to find this pristine individual in the meadow behind Langamull beach.

P1050435 - Slender Scotch Burnet, Isle of Mull

Almost beating it for impact however were a trio of completely black moths in the same area. A quick check of the reference books has them identified as Chimney Sweepers, which to be honest is one of the best moth names I've yet to come across.

P1050440 - Chimney Sweeper, Isle of Mull

With such abundance it was a shame that I hadn't taken my moth trap up to the island but alas, space was at a premium and apparently clothes and food were more important. On our last evening though I happened to mention that I'd love to see a Magpie Moth mere moments before one fluttered right past the window. After wishing for something far more adventurous and seemingly having lost my powers we nipped out to try and grab a photo. Following much running around we had to admit defeat before a flash of inspiration struck. Why not use the old fashioned method of attracting moths using a white sheet and lamp?

P1050809 - Mothing, Isle of Mull

For a while the going was pretty quiet but about an hour after sunset we started to see some action. To my relief a Magpie Moth was first on the scene and it easily lived up expectations, quickly followed by a second and then a third. From seeing none all holiday we now seemed to be inundated thanks I believe to a large emergence of the species on that very day. This theory seems to corroborate with similar reports from a couple of valleys across where reports speak of "clouds of moths" while walking through fields. Talk about good timing.

P1050790 - Magpie Moth, Isle of Mull

Next up was a Drinker Moth which arrived with a clatter and set about bashing into the bulb, walls and even us (they're surprisingly heavy!). When it did finally settle down I managed to get a decent photo of what was to be our biggest species of the night. Having seen plenty of their caterpillars previously it was nice to finally find an adult.

P1050785 - Drinker Moth, Isle of Mull

The following two hours were filled with more comings and goings than we had chance to record at times, but in the end we identified at least ten species which I consider a pretty good haul considering our basic equipment. Photography was unsurprisingly quite tricky but between us we managed to capture the majority on camera.

P1060392 - True Lover's Knot, Isle of Mull
True Lover's Knot

P1060389 - Antler Moth, Isle of Mull
Antler Moth

P1060374 - Lynchis, Isle of Mull

P1060364 - Common Wainscot, Isle of Mull
Common Wainscot

P1060334 - Small Square Spot, Isle of Mull
Small Square Spot

P1050808 - Brimstone Moth, Isle of Mull
Brimstone Moth

Looking at that little lot you can probably guess that the moth trap will in future be an essential piece of kit when we head to Mull.


Please note that comments will not appear immediately as after a surprising amount of spam I have had to enable moderation.

Sea Life Surveys - Whalewatch Explorer

Monday, July 29, 2013 Adam Tilt 3 Comments

For the last few years I've been eyeing up Sea Life Surveys Whalewatch Explorer trip, a seven hour cruise that heads along the Sound of Mull and out to Coll in the hope of seeing cetaceans. This is by no means a cheap excursion and for that reason I've always held back for fear of seeing absolutely nothing. Even on Mull the wildlife is never guaranteed, a risk factor that only increases when you throw into the mix an entire ocean. With one eye towards a future on Mull however it seemed the right time to throw a few notes in the direction of this very worthwhile organisation and chance our fortunes on the waves. What followed was one of those life defining days that will live long in both heart and mind.

P1050471 - Tobermory, Isle of Mull
Unfortunately not our boat for the day
The trip got off to a fantastic start even before we'd boarded when an Otter turned up right next to the pontoon on which we were about to walk. It happily splashed around for a few minutes and as far as I know was still there as we untied and began to motor out of Tobermory harbour. Settling down into our seats we received a very informative talk by one of four experts on board covering which birds and mammals we were hoping to see, and what the main signs for each were. The main target was to be Minke Whales, a species which I'll admit I knew very little about. Due to their name I'd got it into my head that Minke's were a relatively small species, a misconception which was corrected within less than an hour. Still in the Sound of Mull a Minke broke the surface at some distance to our right with a gracefulness that both surprised and enthralled me. It surfaced another three or four times before what we quickly began to recognise as a deep dive took it beneath the surface for over ten minutes. Just as we were about to give up hope it reappeared even further away indicating that this was an animal feeding and travelling at speed. Apparently this is behaviour that has been noted more often this season than in years gone by and is perhaps an indication that food is scarce after the long, cold spring.

P1050478 - Minke Whale, Isle of Mull

P1050480 - Minke Whale, Isle of Mull

P1050481_2 - Minke Whale, Isle of Mull

P1050483_2 - Minke Whale, Isle of Mull

One thing you can probably tell from these photos is just how calm the sea was and considering the range they were taken at, the excellent visibility we were also treated to. Given that the previous and subsequent days were marred by thick fog I think you can safely say that we really hit the jackpot. Those superb conditions undoubtedly helped the spotters and by the end of the trip a further four or five Minke Whales were seen including local celebrity "Wrinkle". In my wildest dreams I could not have hoped for a better hit rate.

P1050526_2 - Minke Whale, Isle of Mull

P1050477 - Sea Life Surveys

From all the encounters there is one particular moment shared with the Minke's that stands out above the rest. We'd managed to find ourselves in close proximity to a whale that had recently taken a deep dive. As the minutes ticked by the captain shut off the engines and an eerie quiet descended on the thirty two of us aboard. With nothing but the gentle lapping of water against the hull and an occasional call from one of hundreds of gathered sea birds you could feel people tensing all around. All of a sudden that peace was shattered by the sound of a Minke breaking the surface and expelling its lungs. Even now I'm getting goosebumps just writing this so you can imagine how I felt at the time. The sound was so deep that you could literally feel it with your entire being, something that I'm unlikely to experience again.

Reading those words it's probably hard to imagine anything topping that, but better was to come as we neared the Cairns of Coll. Even from a distance we could pick out a gathering of thousands upon thousands of Manx Shearwaters and as we got closer the splashes from numerous Dolphins also became discernible. A few minutes later and we were watching the remarkable sight of at least sixty Common Dolphins feeding and playing right across our field of view. They were breaching repeatedly and often dove clear of the water in perfectly straight and synchronised lines consisting of at least ten individuals. Absolutely mind blowing.

P1050519_2 - Common Dolphin, Isle of Mull

P1050489 - Manx Shearwaters and Common Dolphins, Isle of Mull

Things got even better when a group of about forty spotted our boat approaching and decided to head directly towards us at phenomenal speed. In seconds we were surrounded with more leaping and bow riding animals than I ever dreamed possible, many visible both above and under the water such was its clarity. At times I just had to put the camera down and absorb the spectacle before me so apologies for not having as much of it to share as I would have liked.

P1050510 - Common Dolphin, Isle of Mull

P1050506 - Common Dolphin, Isle of Mull

P1050514 - Common Dolphin, Isle of Mull

This encounter lasted for at least twenty minutes before our course took us far enough away from their original feeding location for the Dolphins to leave. Even now I can scarcely believe it happened and consider those few minutes some of the best that I've ever lived.

You'd think just that would have been enough to make the trip worthwhile, and indeed it was, yet there was so much more to see. Large numbers of Grey and Common Seal also call the Cairns of Coll home before I even start on the birds. I've already mentioned the thousands of Manx Shearwaters that were either gliding past our boat or loafing about on the water, but there were also plenty of Guillemots, Puffins, Razorbills, Black Guillemots, Gannets, Kittiwakes, Common and Arctic Terns and Eider. Both Great and Arctic Skua were also seen exceptionally well not to mention a pair of White Tailed Sea Eagles with their newly fledged youngster. Best of all though was a single flock of fifteen Storm Petrels, a sight so unusual that it even got out experienced crew excited. Personally I've only ever seen two of these tiny birds previously, both at distance and in atrocious conditions, so to have these right in front of the boat was another classic Mull surprise.

P1050486_2 - Storm Petrels, Isle of Mull
Storm Petrels
P1050487 - Storm Petrels, Isle of Mull
Storm Petrels
P1050521 - Manx Shearwater, Isle of Mull
Manx Shearwater taking flight
Even while heading back to base we continued to gather more sightings including a playful group of Harbour Porpoise and the only Bridled Guillemot of the trip. Speaking of Porpoises I've barely even mentioned them here yet they were a constant presence throughout the day. Exact numbers are hard to come by but somewhere in the region of twenty animals is probably a reasonable estimate. Sadly they are a pain to try and catch on camera being so quick and this is the best that I got.

P1050476 - Harbour Porpoise, Isle of Mull

When we did eventually pull back into port over eight hours had passed and I was shattered. The ten percent discount voucher presented to us at the end was a nice gesture but almost redundant in my eyes. Of course I'll be back next year. After all, there's still the possibility of Orcas.


Please note that comments will not appear immediately as after a surprising amount of spam I have had to enable moderation.

Red Throated Divers, Red Grouse and Red Deer

Sunday, July 28, 2013 Adam Tilt 1 Comments

With a coastline stretching to almost three hundred miles in length and boasting some of the best scenery in the country, it's not hard to see why most visitors to the Isle of Mull spend their entire holiday along it. I've been guilty of this myself in the past so this year wanted to make a conscious effort to explore more of the inland areas of the island. From our position in the north we are really spoilt for choice when it comes to hill-walking with numerous peaks accessible, many of sufficient height to provide breathtaking views across large swathes of Mull. The only challenge really was choosing what to climb, a decision which for the purposes of this entry will have to remain concealed due to the sensitive nature of one of the species seen. Even so it shouldn't be too hard to work out from the photos included as this is after all a well publicised route.

P1050320_2 - The view, Isle of Mull

Setting off from the car I was immediately struck by a severe bout of hay fever, worse than I've ever experienced before. In hot conditions and with several hours of tough walking ahead this was far from ideal and almost brought an early halt to proceedings. Fortunately gaining height combined with the consumption of large quantities of Haribo eased my suffering until the birds managed to take my attention completely. A pair of Wood Pigeons (we don't tend to see many on the island) followed by a group of at least eight Mistle Thrushes were quickly upstaged by a soaring Golden Eagle which gave fantastic views against the Ben More range. I've often seen people watching this valley with telescopes but had previously never been lucky enough to see for myself what they were waiting for. Now at last I know and can add another Eagle haunt to my map of Mull.

P1050319 - Golden Eagle, Isle of Mull

As we climbed higher the Eagle remained a fairly constant feature on the landscape until finally it moved beyond our range of vision. Very quickly though the next treat was upon as we reached the first of our two peaks and heard an unusual call drifting across the landscape. Instinctively I knew it had to be a Golden Plover and indeed moments later a single bird flew into view. From its behaviour it was clear that we were somewhere near a nesting territory as any passing Hooded Crows or Ravens were met with a barrage of abuse. From a personal perspective this was excellent news as I've not previously managed to find evidence for Golden Plovers breeding on Mull, having only ever seen them passing through near Caliach Point. Sadly I couldn't spot any youngsters which would have really clinched the deal but it was still a delight to see this attractive bird in summer plumage.

P1050362_2 - Golden Plover, Isle of Mull

At least another three individuals were seen in the same area with a similar number on the next peak we visited, just over a mile away. It was while watching these that we spotted a large herd of Red Deer highlighted against the skyline to the east and numbering at least thirty animals. I'll admit to getting quite excited at this as I've never seen such a large gathering of these animals on Mull before and it was clear that several had an impressive set of antlers on display. Brief thoughts of stalking passed through my mind but it was obvious that even though we were a long distance away, we'd already been detected.

P1050348 - Red Deer, Isle of Mull

Leaving the Red Deer to their feeding we headed further along what had now developed into a gently sloping ridge with commanding views towards both the east and west flanks of Mull. In hindsight we should have been keeping our eyes closer to home perhaps as upon stepping onto an overhang I was startled to see two fully antlered Red Deer staring back at me, barely more than a couple of meters away. Cursing my clumsiness they bolted for cover almost immediately; another case of 'nearly but not quite' with these elusive creatures.

After that experience you'd think I'd learnt my lesson but no, scarcely ten minutes later another overhang but this time a pair of startled Red Grouse! In truth I'm not sure who was more surprised, the Grouse at having their peace disturbed in such a remote location or myself for having actually found them. Emma tells me that back when she was a child Red Grouse were a common sight near the house where we stay, but in recent years they have almost completely disappeared. The closest I've ever come to seeing one was a pile of droppings last year so for me this was a real treat. Thankfully Grouse are somewhat slower than Deer and I managed to fire off a couple of shots as they scurried away. Definitely find of the day.

P1050368_2 - Red Grouse, Isle of Mull

P1050366_2 - Red Grouse, Isle of Mull

By now the heat and unrelenting sunshine (how often do I get to type that!) were starting to take their toll, so we started our descent. Along the way we passed a small lochan that upon initial investigation appeared to be completely empty. Moments later though a Red Throated Diver emerged from the surrounding vegetation, quickly followed by a youngster! Seeing these normally ocean going birds high in the hills is always a slightly surreal experience but it's great news to find more evidence of successful breeding on the island. Needless to say we didn't approach any closer and quickly diverted to give the birds a wide birth. I just hope others that follow this route do the same.

P1050375 - Red Throated Diver, Isle of Mull

There was one final quality bird to be seen near the car in the shape of a Dipper. Always good to find and not a guaranteed species during our brief visits. All in all a very successful day with some real Mull rarities thrown in for good measure. After finally seeing Red Grouse I think that just leaves me with Ptarmigan on my 'must see' birds list for the island, and to tick that one off I'm going to have to head up Ben More. One for next year I think.


Please note that comments will not appear immediately as after a surprising amount of spam I have had to enable moderation.

Black Guillemots and Golden Eagles

Saturday, July 27, 2013 Adam Tilt 9 Comments

As I mentioned in my last entry here, we've just returned from another fantastic fortnight on the Isle of Mull. Regular readers will by now know of my love for this Scottish island and it literally pains me that we only get the opportunity to visit once a year. When that time does arrive however be in no doubt that we make every single second count. This time around has been no different and somehow Mull has once again managed to surprise, enthral, excite and amaze us just as much, if not more, than our first time ashore. My original plan had been to write a day by day diary of our experiences but on reflection that would likely have taken me until the end of next summer to complete. Instead the forthcoming entries will cover just a few stand out encounters and trips, all of which will hopefully show off this fantastic island at its best.

So where to start? In a glaring case of conformity right at the beginning I think, which when dealing with Mull usually means the often overlooked port of Oban. For many people this seaside town is simply a place to catch the ferry, but step away from the car and you'll find a host of wildlife just waiting to be discovered. Whether it be Eiders, Turnstones, Seals or even Hooded Crows, there is always something to be seen. My personal favourites however are the Black Guillemots and for the past couple of years I've been hoping to coincide with their nesting season. This time we hit the mark perfectly and it didn't take long before a flock of at least eight birds was spotted close to shore. Indeed they were much nearer than I've ever seen them before so I carefully crept onto the beach and crouched down against the seawall.

P1050211 - Black Guillemot, Oban

To my delight they all stayed put enabling me to get my first decent in-water shots of these fantastic little birds. A few minutes later though and they all took flight, seemingly bringing an end to the encounter. Instead of heading further away however they flew directly towards and over my head, straight into the wall behind. Turning slowly I looked up to see a line of small holes in the stonework, each one filled with a Black Guillemot! Quite unexpectedly I'd stumbled on this years nesting site and was in a prime position to watch proceedings. Fortunately my presence didn't seem to be causing any alarm and for the next quarter of an hour or so I was treated to the comings and goings of this colony at super close quarters.

P1050208 - Black Guillemot, Oban

P1050213 - Black Guillemot, Oban

P1050217 - Black Guillemot, Oban

P1050221 - Black Guillemot, Oban

When a lull in proceedings finally arrived I quietly left the area and headed back up off the beach. To my astonishment I found a small group of people gathered just above where I'd been stood with at least four Black Guillemots sat directly on the footpath. Clearly these birds are no strangers to humans which undoubtedly explains their accommodating nature.

P1050225 - Black Guillemot, Oban

Finally the time came to catch the ferry and I had to tear myself away with the consolation that even better was still to come. The rain and thick fog that greeted us on Mull couldn't dent that feeling and it was to a sunny and clear day that we awoke next morning. As per tradition we set out on a walk along the coast from our house and within less than half an hour spotted one of the local Golden Eagles. It was soon joined by its mate and they set about giving us a stunning display in for once superb lighting conditions. Usually they only seem to come close when its grey and overcast so this was a real bonus.

P1050247 - Golden Eagle, Isle of Mull

P1050248_2 - Golden Eagle, Isle of Mull

P1050250 - Golden Eagle, Isle of Mull

P1050252_2 - Golden Eagle, Isle of Mull

Eventually they both headed down onto the cliffs and out of sight, forcing us to make a long and hard diversion up the hill to avoid approaching any closer than necessary. Their sheer size is still staggering and I feel truly privileged to be able to not only witness this spectacle once, but on a regular and fairly reliable basis. What an island, and we've not even reached lunch on the first day yet!


Please note that comments will not appear immediately as after a surprising amount of spam I have had to enable moderation.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Sunday, July 21, 2013 Adam Tilt 3 Comments

It may have been a quiet few weeks on the blog but let me assure you that away from the interwebs things have been anything but. I've just returned from another fantastic fortnight on the Isle of Mull where the wildlife encounters once again managed to better anything I could have imagined. More on that across the next couple of weeks provided this heat doesn't finish me off first. For now though just a quick update on a local rarity that popped up during our time away and which has very kindly stuck around for our return. Such politeness cannot simply be ignored so I took a couple of hours out of the chores today to pop over to the WWT Llanelli reserve and say hello. It being a new life tick for me and the prospect of unpacking and washing played no part in the making of this decision.

Initially we headed to the NRA scrapes where a sleeping Spoonbill and four Black-tailed Godwits pretty much summed up the birds present. Glancing across to the Michael Powell hide it quickly became apparent that all the action was happening there however judging from the large flock of waders gathered for its viewing pleasure. A few minutes later we'd picked our way through a sizeable gathering of 77 Redshanks to finally spot the Lesser Yellowlegs. It was quite distant and into the sun but those legs were clear to see and it was a really neat looking thing. Despite the best will in the world though I couldn't get anything on camera worth sharing and indeed thought I never would as it took flight after about fifteen minutes of observation. Fortunately it didn't go far and was quickly relocated on the NRA scrapes where I finally got one of my world famous record shots.

Lesser Yellowlegs, WWT Llanelli

It's at times like these when the video mode on digital cameras really comes into its own as I set about recording feeding and other general behaviour. As a record these short clips serve as a much better reminder of events than a simple photo and I now record them as a rule when encountering any new species. On more than one occasion their watching has revealed several small details that I'd missed while out in the field. This is today's effort.

Of course a single bird in a large expanse of water is not the best way to judge size, so with much effort I managed to organise a comparison video featuring a Shelduck and Black-tailed Godwit. I'll let you be the judge as to who was trying to hog the limelight.

Another long staying visitor which I'd yet to catch up with was a male Ruff, so I was very happy to see it feeding amongst the aforementioned Redshanks. There was a fair amount of jostling going on amongst the group and I managed to capture one of the best attacks on camera. Keep an eye out around the twenty five second mark for the Ruff receiving a sharp shock. I still laugh watching it back now.

Hopefully both birds will stay around for a while longer and I may pop back again next weekend to try and improve on the photo that opened this entry. It would be nice to see the Spoonbill actually awake as well for a change as I missed its few seconds of activity today.


Please note that comments will not appear immediately as after a surprising amount of spam I have had to enable moderation.