Eagle Island: Tracking Wildlife on Mull
The Hebridean island of Mull is renowned for its wildlife, offering sightings of everything from eagles and otters to whales and basking sharks – if you're lucky.
You have to feel sorry for the buzzards on Mull. They perch on fence posts right beside the road, they soar gracefully on finger-tipped wings and embody the very soul of Scottish wildness with their plaintive, mewing cries. But no matter how hard a buzzard tries it will always leave you wanting on an island where eagles rule the roost.
Third largest of the Hebridean islands, Mull is one of the wettest places in Britain. Not that I’m complaining. Tourists on Mull arrive with binoculars and waterproofs, not beach towels and sunblock. And on a day-long safari, you soon learn that wildlife watching on Mull is all about the weather.
“You’ve got to think about wind direction,” explained my guide, as we clambered out of the minibus into a needling barrage of horizontal drizzle. “Today I think they’ll be breaking the skyline right to left.” I followed the sweep of his outstretched arm, from the rocky ramparts of a cloud-smudged ridge on 700m Corra-bheinn to the deep gouge of Glen More. This wild mountain valley, at the heart of Mull, is one of the best places in the world to see golden eagles. Several territories converge here.
I tried to imagining one hunkered down on a mountain ledge, staring west, waiting for a subtle shift in the weather before spreading its wings and taking flight. You couldn’t help but sense eagles – even if you never saw them.
I tried to imagining one hunkered down on a mountain ledge, staring west, waiting for a subtle shift in the weather before spreading its wings and taking flight.
I was happy enough, though, with a kestrel hanging on the wind, a marsh harrier quartering the ochre moorland and, of course, buzzards by the bucketload. Leaving Glen More, we tried our luck with sea eagles down by Loch Scridain. These mighty birds of prey (larger even than golden eagles) once bred throughout north and west Britain. Shooting and poisoning, however, decimated the population and in 1916 the last two birds were shot on Skye. In 1975, a reintroduction programme helped the sea eagle regain its former Scottish haunts, with Mull becoming a stronghold.
But, like the ‘goldies’, sea eagles proved elusive. This time, though, compensation came in the form of a fleeting glimpse of an otter, slip-sliding along the kelp-wrapped shore in search of crab and butterfish. By the end of the day we had also spotted short-eared owl and sparrowhawk, but I gained far more than a ticklist. I had been shown that it took more than binoculars to track down Mull’s wildlife and the next day I was keen to put my new-found tracking skills to the test. I now knew, for example, that you could tell a seal from an otter by the way the latter always flicked its tail in the air before diving underwater. And otter prints have four pad marks, whereas dogs have five. Or was it the other way round?
Dawn had barely seeped through the sodden flysheet of my tent before I was fumbling for the zip, gingerly lifting a corner and peering out across the Sound of Mull. Located on a grassy bluff above Craignure, Sheilings campsite is perfectly located for wildlife watching. With luck, you can spot otters, seals and porpoises without even leaving your sleeping bag. Unfortunately, however, the wind had dropped during the night and one of Mull’s less endearing critters began stealing the show. A sea eagle could perch on your ridgepole and it wouldn’t be enough to distract you from a full-scale assault by Scottish midges.
Bolting for the car, I drove towards Salen where a road straddles Mull’s pinched waist to emerge on the shores of Loch na Keal. I began crawling along in second gear, nose pressed to the windscreen. A cormorant was diving for fish close offshore, but I did a double-take just to be sure that it wasn’t a ‘flick of the tail.’ I even parked the car and stood in the rain, checking the wind direction and trying to imagine what I’d be doing if I was an eagle or an otter. Suddenly there was a splash and my heart leapt. But it just a seal with an apologetic face.
There was time for a quick squint at Ben More, Mull’s highest peak, rising 966m above the sea loch, before a squall drew a grey veil across the mountain, snuffing out any chance of eagle sightings. Further north at Calgary Bay, a rising tide nuzzled rocks drizzled with honey-coloured seaweed and laced with the promise of otters. Each rhythmic swell chuckled through heaped piles of kelp, massaging them to life until they were twitching, swirling and cavorting with the sea – playing otter-tricks with my mind.
Each rhythmic swell chuckled through heaped piles of kelp, massaging them to life until they were twitching, swirling and cavorting with the sea – playing otter-tricks with my mind.
By the time I reached Tobermory, I decided I needed more help from the experts. The UK’s first whale-watching operator, Sea Life Surveys has been running wildlife cruises around Mull since 1982, notching up some 24 species of whale and dolphin. If eagles and otters were playing hard to get, perhaps minke whales would be more obliging.
The following day, the 30-passenger Sula Beag had barely left the Sound of Mull before her skipper spotted gannets hurling themselves like white spears into the lumpy hide of the sea. It had to be a feeding frenzy – minke whales pursuing fish to the surface and attracting hungry seabirds. For a second I thought I glimpsed something black rolling through the waves, but the commotion subsided as quickly as it had started. By the time we reached the spot, the gannets were bobbing on the surface looking all innocent.
Then something appeared, quite literally, out of the blue. A basking shark – all five sinuous metres of it – came sidling up to us, tacking back and forth, its mouth agape as it strained plankton. It was an encounter that buoyed my spirits all the way back to Tobermory. As we entered the harbour, I caught sight of the Mishnish and my thoughts turned, quite naturally, to a celebratory dram or two. Of course, when someone cried, “Otter!” I just laughed and kept my eyes locked on the pub. It was only after a jab in the arm and some emphatic pointing that I realized there was, indeed, an otter playing with the mooring buoy of a nearby yacht. My luck was definitely changing. So too, perhaps, was the wind. Malt whiskies forgotten (at least for the moment) I jumped into the car and headed south where Ben More loomed above Loch na Keal, full of mystery and the promise of golden eagles.
Find out more:
Mull wildlife tours are available with Island Encounters.
Whale watching trips are run by Sea Life Surveys
For information on planning a trip to the Isle of Mull, Visit Scotland has a directory of accommodation and places to eat etc