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Issue 90 - Mull's got talon

Scotland Magazine Issue 90
December 2016


This article is 24 months old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Mull's got talon

Nic Davies gets up close and personal with Hebridean white-tailed eagles

The 12 guests aboard the boat watch as a fish arcs through the air and lands with a plop, flop and splash in the rippling saltwater of Loch na Keal on the stunning island of Mull. Western Scotland has never looked better: the sky is Saltire blue, crossed with an occasional fluffy bundle of white. The sea loch reflects the colours of the scene; blues, of course, but also the mixed greens, browns and basalt greys of the grass and bracken-covered volcanic hillsides surrounding us. A purple blush of blooming heather adds the final touch. It's almost as if this natural amphitheatre has been prepared for us.

"Quiet please everyone, not a sound," says the skipper's son, Alex, who has told us all about the birds we've come to see during our short boat journey out from the impossibly quaint enclave of Ulva Ferry, on the west coast of Mull. We now hang on his every word and instruction. An expectant hush descends on the intimate aft deck. Camera settings are checked, rechecked, adjusted. There’s a groan as someone realises a memory card is absent and, after some silent panic, it’s sorted. Eyes lift from digital screens to analogue reality.

Gulls of assorted species cackle and bicker as they wheel around the boat, each taking a turn to try and lift the Pollock that was skilfully cast into the water by Alex from the starboard side of Lady Jayne, our nautical home for the three-hour trip. Other gulls fly closer to the boat, enjoying the bread offerings being thrown from the cockpit window by Alex’s father, Martin, who is both skipper and owner of Mull Charters. My mind briefly wanders as I imagine a biblical scene – the noise of 5,000 gulls would be unbearable.

Martin has recently discovered the art of fish throwing and deployed it to good effect, a skill he has now shared with his son. "The knack is to place a fish of the right size just far enough away from the boat and to be up-sun from it," Martin explains. I’ve never heard the term; and it piques the interest of the photographers who make up the bulk of Martin's passenger list. Essentially, being up-sun of a subject is to ensure the sun is at your back, illuminating your intended subject to best effect. To capture keen-nosed wildlife, the ideal position is to be up-sun and downwind. Where human smell isn't an issue, up-sun is the sole aim.

"There! Look up there," someone calls out. Alex politely admonishes this understandable slip of boat etiquette. All eyes follow the shaky arm of the excited guest, still raised as if nobody else can see the vast creature heading straight for us.

Alex reminds us that silence is essential. Already shots are being taken; the machine gun staccato of modern digital SLR cameras, now such a common backdrop to wildlife tourism in the 21st Century, is the one anthropogenic noise tolerated on board during encounters.

Low to the water, the enormous bird glides effortlessly towards Lady Jayne, flapping occasionally and benignly menacing. Close to our boat now, the white-tailed eagle gainsa little height and circles above us, perhaps unsure of the scene unfolding below: frantic gulls; the silent vessel; and a collection
of strange irises staring straight back into its own super-sharp eyes, following its
every move.

Silent, we hold our breath. The eagle floats above us, buoyant on its enormous wings that stretch over eight feet from wingtip to broad wingtip. Colloquially known as the ‘flying barn door,’ the white-tailed eagle is the fourth largest eagle in the world and is a conservation success story here on Mull. At this moment, we're convinced it's the biggest, most magnificent bird we're ever likely to see. I hear someone mutter that they have the wrong lens on their camera – the eagle is far too close, but it’s too late to change.

Effortlessly, the eagle turns into the light wind. I flew gliders as a youngster and remember that both aircraft and birds gather air over their wings for an important manoeuvre. Gannets do exactly the same before their death-defying dives. I raise my camera. In less than a second the eagle twists, turning from horizontal to vertical, folding one wing then the other, its body spiralling in an exaggerated dive-bomber contortion that’s difficult to see, let alone describe. Even the subsequent photos seem to make nonsense of this master-class in the principles of flight. The photographers on board are now put to the test. To follow the bird as it plunges to the water; to keep it dead centre in the viewfinder; to maintain the pan as the eagle thrusts its talons forwards to snatch the fish from the water. The grab. The splash. The exit. Everything must be in focus in order to capture ‘that’ image. A small minority, overwhelmed by the majesty of the sight, simply choose to watch unencumbered.

Many have tried, but few succeed – at least first time round. Just as Mr Colman used to say that it was the mustard people didn't eat that made his fortune, so too perhaps Martin's continued commercial success rests partially in the photos his guests fail to take. The experience is addictive and guests return time after time, honing their technique. It's also a lot of fun.

For the first-timers on board, the jaw-dropping nature of the encounter leaves them speechless. Some immediately replay their images to see whether it's in there,
the shot they want. In my own case, it's the shots I need. I make half a living selling photos and I simply didn't have any eagle shots worth anyone else sending home. This encounter leaves me with one or two ‘keepers’ – as the modern photographic vernacular has it – but something worthy of a retail outlet? No, not yet.

Martin doesn't have to ask whether everyone's happy, or if anyone missed that. Instead he explains that we'll head up the loch to the vicinity of a known nest site, where he first started what appropriately is still called a fledgling business. As an angler, Martin had noticed how inquisitive sea eagles are and, in 2008, a casual conversation with Mull's ‘Mr Eagle,’ the RSPB's Dave Sexton, led Martin to consider the potential for boat trips to show visitors how extraordinary this species is. Within two years, Mull Charters had hit TripAdvisor's top 10 list of best wildlife experiences in the world.

The birds, often referred to as ‘sea eagles,’ were reintroduced from Norway to the Isle of Rùm in 1975, whereupon some flew to Mull of their own volition. It was on Mull where the major conservation effort subsequently took place and, following the birth of the island's first chick in 1985, numbers have grown to an estimated 20 breeding pairs, with 60 – 70 birds present during any one year. Many of the younger birds continue to spread out in search of new territories throughout the rest of Scotland, with occasional sightings in northern England and Ireland. Helping to mix up the gene pool are other eagles
from later release programmes in Wester Ross and Fife.

With the historic island of Inch Kenneth (burial site of Scottish kings and, more recently, home to the ill-starred Mitford family) at our stern, we pass the island of Eorsa. Here we find an eagle sitting on an elevated, prominent rock – exactly where even the most inexperienced bird watcher might expect to spot one. Although aware of our presence, the bird stays put. From here, it can keep a lookout for passing prey or its fellow eagles in the distance flying to a fallen deer on the hillside. White-tailed eagles much prefer to have the work done for them and a great deal of their diet is carrion. As with foxes, the accusation of widespread lamb slaughter by eagles is just as frequent, and just as false.

The low burbling growl of Lady Jayne's powerful engine provides the background to the banter as we motor further up the sea loch, the scene dominated by Ben More to our right. At just over 3000 feet (please don't kick any stones off the summit's windbreak cairn!) the mountain is Mull's only Munro. Some locals claim that since Skye has a bridge and is ‘therefore no longer an island,’ Ben More is the only Munro in the Western Isles!

We arrive adjacent to the nest site, strictly observing the RSPB's birdwatching guidelines. Close enough for the birds to see us, but far enough to avoid disturbance. Martin cuts the engine. A blissful quiet descends and the bread throwing resumes. The concept is simple: the bread attracts the gulls and feeding gulls attract the attention of eagles – who may be tempted to explore whether the activity means easy pickings.

These particular birds, the so-called 'Killiechronan pair,' first bred successfully in 2002 and have featured in Martin's trips since 2009. There are two youngsters to feed this year and Martin's meagre offerings are undoubtedly a welcome treat. However, the amount of food is carefully controlled to avoid the birds becoming reliant on such supplementary feeding.

Alex has spotted a couple of eagles sitting on the far shoreline and another spiralling on a thermal over the distant hills. But he judges that an imminent encounter looks unlikely so he switches roles and takes our orders for a very welcome cup of tea.

Honestly, it doesn't get much better than this: idyllic scenery, spectacular wildlife, interesting companions, calm(ish) waters and steaming hot cups of tea and coffee. Unfortunately, the Killiechronan pair aren't interested today and are keeping their council ashore. We finish our drinks and resume our journey, now heading west, back down the loch.

Passing Eorsa's stationary eagle once more, we head to the skerries surrounding Inch Kenneth. Seals abound in this area and we're treated to close views of both harbour seals and Atlantic greys. As we round one seal-laden reef, we're astounded to see six white-tailed eagles perched on the exposed rock. Most are the young from the past couple of years and a single adult keeps watch over them. The Lady Jayne circumnavigates the reef, giving everyone a chance to capture the spectacle, and Martin and Alex take the opportunity to guess which eagles from which nests might be present.

"We try to keep track of the success or otherwise of the birds that breed in this area," begins Martin. "We're fortunate that there are at least three active nest sites roughly equidistant from this point, hence the gathering we've got today. We're in the privileged position of being able to spot any early issues with the birds we encounter and can alert the RSPB to any problems," he adds, clearly conscious of the birds' wellbeing.

Reluctantly, we turn away and motor back towards Ulva Ferry. Packing up a camera is a mistake at any time on Mull and Martin reminds us to keep our eyes peeled for dolphins and otters. We concentrate on the water and, unannounced and seemingly from nowhere, an eagle appears above us. It gives us a last, brief, opportunity to marvel at the species close-up.

Wildlife filmaker Gordon Buchanan first coined the phrase ‘Eagle Island’ and gave one of his first BBC films that same title. It reflected the wonderful diversity of the birds of prey to be found on Mull, notably the golden and white-tailed eagles, but also virtually every other raptor extant elsewhere in the UK. Collectively, the rapturous acclaim for Mull's sea eagles brings in up to five million pounds annually from tourist income to the island. Some predation of livestock and wildlife is inevitable, but the benefits to the island's economy far outweigh these limited downsides. Farmers are adapting, helped by the innovative Sea Eagle Management Scheme, as the island's ecosystem returns to the historical situation where the eagles are the apex avian predators.

Local conservationists are rightly proud of the 190 eagle chicks fledged from Mull since 1985 and in 2015 the number of breeding pairs across Scotland topped 100 for the first time. Joining the returned birds are returning tourists, keen to renew their acquaintance with these magnificent creatures. For ourselves, we disembark and farewells are bidden. However, I can't be the only one who feels that this is a temporary parting as plans for the next eagle fix are already being shared excitedly. I was back within the week. Visitor Information Mull Charters runs eagle trips from Spring to Autumn. The boat leaves from Ulva Ferry once or twice per day, depending on demand. With a maximum of 12 guests, cost per person is £40 for adults and £25 for children. Booking is essential.

Mull Charters
Fascadail, Salen, Isle of Mull, PA72 6JB
+44 (0) 1680 302 444