I used to hear about Mull growing up, with its many eagles and its huge range of wildlife. Seeing documentaries on TV along with hearing things like ‘Europe’s premier wildlife location’ and ‘best place to see birds of prey in the UK’ encouraged me to go for the first time in spring 2009 with my friend Gary and see what all the fuss was about.
My first experiences of the island were its impressive rugged landscapes and vast remote wilderness areas. On our opening day on the island we racked up double figures on the eagle count with 6 Golden and 4 White-Tailed. More eagles along with great Hen Harrier and Short-eared Owl sightings in the couple of days to follow convinced me that Mull was a special place and I would be back.
The following summer I was looking to find work relating to wildlife and got a great opportunity to work on Mull for Sea Life Surveys (www.sealifesurveys.com) as a wildlife guide focusing on the marine life in the waters to the north of the island. I was delighted to be going to Mull again and to experience all the wildlife it has to offer.
All my free time on the island would consist of going out to explore the island and look for wildlife and in particular my greatest interest…birds of prey. One thing that strikes you on the island is the people’s mentality towards the eagles. During the breeding season they have ‘operation eagle watch’ where organizations on the island like RSPB, Forestry Commission, Strathclyde police along with Mull’s community work together to make sure the eagles are protected from any form of disturbance.
This work has huge importance to the economy on Mull as the latest survey in July 2011 revealed that the eagles bring in £5 million a year through tourism. According to VisitScotland, White-Tailed Eagles account for an estimated 50% of all their enquiries at the information centre in Craignure. A prime example of the locals looking out for the eagles was in 2010 when a farmer rescued an eight-month old White-Tailed Eagle which had injured itself tumbling from a tree and broken its wing and leg. The farmer handed it to the care of the Scottish SPCA and after spending four months in recovery it was released into the wild back on Mull.
The White-Tailed Eagle is generally the main attraction to the island and there are now 10-15 pairs on Mull. The most famous pair is at Loch Frisa and the celebrity birds are called Frisa and Skye who have nested there since 1998. There is a viewing hide open all year round with RSPB daily tours (http://www.forestry.gov.uk/website/recreation.nsf/LUWebDocsByKey/ScotlandArgyllandButeNoForestLochFrisawhitetailedseaeagle) providing information and also having a camera streaming footage to the hide to view the birds close up. This set up is hugely important because as well as giving people the opportunity to see and learn about the birds and bringing extra value to them it takes pressure away from the other pairs of eagles on the island.
Another eagle tourist operator runs on Loch Na Keal and it consists of throwing out fish for White-Tailed Eagles to come in and retrieve out of the water in their natural way. This is a big attraction especially for photographers and again it takes pressure off other eagles on the island as the trips give photographers a great opportunity to shoot these amazing predators at close range in hunting mode. The breeding pair by Loch Na Keal also successfully fledged two chicks this year for the first time, was it due to the more abundant food being available because of the charters? (http://www.mullcharters.com/popular.html)
When you drive around the island and look up at all the steep rugged terrain you instantly think…Golden Eagle. There are 20-25 pairs on Mull and most places on the island gives you a chance to see the majestic birds. On a breezy sunny day back in March I recorded 12 Golden Eagles in an afternoon. Mull has over 300 miles of coast line and the steep coastal terrain provides great nest sites for the birds as well which gave us some excellent views of Goldie’s during our boat trips. One of my highlights on Mull was in September 2011 when myself and Gary watched a Ringtail Harrier constantly mobbing a perched Golden Eagle on a fell side. My two favorite animals showing in one spotting scope!
The Hen Harrier does not get enough attention on Mull because the eagles hog all the limelight. There are 25-30 pairs on the island with one estate holding more pairs than the whole of England. No managed grouse moors on the island along with no foxes means Harriers flourish on the ‘full of life’ moors. Another personal highlight was in July 2011 with my friend Cain where I witnessed my first Hen Harrier food pass on a lovely summers evening.
A moment I will never forget is in Tobermory when I was queuing in Co-op and all I could hear outside the continually opening doors was ‘kek kek kek kek’ the sound of a Peregrine. They can be seen daily around the village taking advantage of the abundant feral Pigeon numbers. There is up to ten pairs on the island and seeing them harassing the soaring eagles is a joy. I recall one evening round of golf in the summer where I recorded Peregrine, White-Tailed Eagle and Hen Harrier before I had even reached the third hole!
I think you really start to realize how special Mull is for raptors when you experience similar remote wilderness and upland areas on the mainland and really see how much pressure the birds are under to survive. After losing our Eagle Owls on Geltsdale and not having breeding Harriers for several years it makes you understand how important Mull and the other Scottish islands are for providing hope for future breeding raptors on mainland Britain. Mull is also a great indicator to how other areas can make money out of birds of prey.
If you would like to look at my Mull wildlife encounters over the last couple of years as well as follow my progress for the up and coming season then you can view my blog at www.wildlifewarrior02.blogspot.com