Feathered Friends

Driving along Glengorm’s access road is something that I do daily. As a commute, it takes a bit of beating – and not just because of the scenery.

On Mull, being a birdwatcher with a driving licence really puts your peripheral vision to the test. There are few things more frustrating [and potentially life-threatening] than spotting choice birds behind the wheel.

Clearly, safety has to be the priority here… but that doesn’t mean we have to like it!

Some of my best encounters with birds of prey have taken place on the Glengorm track. Happily, this stretch of road is quiet – so pulling over isn’t often a problem.

Yesterday I was treated to an outstanding view of a peregrine falcon, resting on a sun-warmed outcrop.

This is not a bird to be passed up – ever – so I carefully wound down the window.

His glossy head bobbed up and down menacingly. Around it, small birds fizzed and tweeted in an agitated satellite belt.

I have a couple of peregrine wing feathers at home. They are boldly zigzagged in black and white – everything about them is sharp and precise, just like their owner.

On other days it might be a hen harrier or even a tiny merlin that I stop to watch. The open expanse of heather surrounding the road is a magnet for upland species.

But my favourites, without doubt or hesitation, are the resident pair of golden eagles. The wind has to be just right to keep them near to the track, so seeing them on my commute is always a treat.

The female is the loveliest – perhaps due in part to her larger and more impressive size.

The feathers around her nape have that special silky quality that you sometimes get on cockerels. When the sun catches them just right, they shine like plate armour; slipping seamlessly layer by layer as she turns her head.

Just by looking at them, you know that they would be impossibly soft and cool to the touch.

When I see the eagles close to the road they tend to keep their distance; higher up, they will sometimes circle low and tilt their heads down.

I wonder if they recognise me – they certainly don’t come across many other people wandering through their lonely hills.

Invariably, I will be grinning like an idiot and teetering about on my tip-toes to try and get a better view… they’re probably expecting me to keel over and die at any moment! This behaviour must seem very strange from their perspective.

Unfortunately, they have not been successful in rearing young since my arrival on Glengorm. I’m hoping against hope that this year will be different.

Seeing this pair with chicks would surely make for a blue-sky kind of day.

Stephanie Cope

Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), Falconer's bird perched on ground (controlled), Southern Scotland, February
Thumb & main image credit: Laurie Campbell  – www.lauriecampbell.com




The Darling Buds of… January?

Opportunities to complain about Mull being too warm are infrequent. If complaints must be made, one certainly wouldn’t expect to be making them in winter.

All around Glengorm the 5,000 daffodil bulbs that Valerie planted in autumn are budding – some have broken into flower already.

My garden boasts more than a few roses; indeed, they haven’t stopped blooming since last spring. I cut a yellow one on Christmas day.

So far, we’ve only had one serious night of frost. Those clear, bright mornings that break up the seemingly endless fog of rain have been few and far between.

The unseasonably warm weather is due, in part, to a weather cycle in the equatorial Pacific.

Here, fluctuations in the temperature of ocean and atmosphere can influence weather on a global scale. Currently we are enjoying the fall out from El Niño – the so called warm phase of this cycle.

You could be forgiven for thinking that warmer weather at this time of year is a good thing.  Sadly, that is not always the case.

In the rush to get growing, plants are duped into expending their energy too early.

A cold snap – which we are likely to experience soon – will annihilate Val’s 5,000 daffodils. Any that have budded or flowered won’t be able to recover themselves for a second attempt this year. That’s bad enough for cultivated plants – but what about the wild ones?

Nature often depends on things happening at the right time. If the flowers are open too early, their pollinators won’t be around to help them reproduce and they also run the risk of frost bite. Later on when the pollinators emerge, they won’t have as many flowers to visit and feed from. This means bad business for both parties.

For larger animals such as birds, it’s a bit of a mixed platter:

Warm weather can make foraging easier for longer – so, we might expect to see fewer winter migrants around and fewer birds relying on artificial feeding stations. But, warm weather also encourages disease to persist; a particular concern for garden visitors, who feed and defecate in unnaturally close proximity to one another. [So remember to disinfect your feeding equipment regularly!]

For species that prey on small mammals, the mild temperatures could tempt out rodents that would otherwise remain hidden at this time of year. But, hunting in 80-mph winds and lashing rain is probably not an attractive prospect. The bedraggled Hen harriers of Glengorm, whose sodden wanderings are often seen from the access road, would probably confirm this.

Around the shores of Britain, exhausted seabirds appear in the wake of winter gales. Little auks visit our waters in small numbers annually – mostly around the Northern Isles and east into the North Sea. This year, there have already been several sightings of these tiny creatures on sealochs around Mull. As noted by Prince, it’s probably a sign of the times.

Foraging must also be difficult for coastal Otters when the rain, winds and waves are lashing – though, they do at least have the option to spend more of their active period inland.

Glengorm’s biological rhythm seems rather out of step already, so who knows how many unexpected performers might crop up? 

I await spring and summer with interest.

Stephanie Cope