Kicking Our Heels


And with it, our first Highland calves of 2016!

For once, the weather has been kind to our youngsters. Though they are well prepared for the worst sort of Scottish spring, you can’t help but feel that it must be more… enjoyable… to be born on a sunny morning.

All around the castle and associated buildings, Val’s 5,000 daffodils are bobbing their rubbery heads. Though a few were scorched by the inevitable frost, their ranks haven’t been thinned too much. The smell – that light vanilla scent – is all the more pleasing because of the warm air.

The tree sap has also started to rise. Our willows are studded with silvery buds. Colourful bullfinches creep about in the thin branches, nipping the growing shoots off with stubby bills and their quiet, mewing call.

In short, we’re feeling good here on Glengorm; made all the better by news that we have secured a substantial grant to continue protecting our valuable habitats and biodiversity.

As the daffodils spread liquid gold over our lawn, it feels like our hard work from the year before has finally paid off.

Stephanie Cope
Farm Animals (52)

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  –




Owl Save You!

To people who work in outdoor jobs, boxes can be scary things. They are carried anxiously towards you, held at arm length to avoid jiggling the contents.  The faces bobbing above the box are filled with nervous excitement and concern – the mouth a pale “O” of part-formed accounts and explanations. Birds seem to cop for more box journeys than other taxa. Normally, the lid is lifted to reveal a fallen nestling or unfortunate adult that has struck a pane of glass. Sometimes, it is a rabbit hit by a car or a hedgehog that rose too early from its winter sleep.

On this occasion it was owls. My surprise was absolute. They looked like two very mouldy grapefruits; completely spherical and covered in flaky grey fuzz. They were rather wet – the smaller of the two also sported a layer of mud over its growing feathers. The owls did not look pleased to see me. At the back of their black eyes, a disapproving blue light swam. The largest of the pair clicked its beak. The younger owl seemed cold and disinterested.

It is not unusual to find tawny owlets on the ground – indeed, like many other species of bird they will depart the nest before they are fully qualified aeronauts. They often fall as they clamber flightless through the canopy. In the majority of situations, it is best to leave them where they are – or apply the same common sense that you would use with an ordinary garden bird. Tawny owlets are normally quite capable of getting up off the ground to safety. This pair was found at the edge of a mature plantation; they must have struggled to climb the smooth, tall trees in time to escape Mull’s infamous spring weather. I lifted each one to check its condition. They were chilled and lethargic, but otherwise well grown.

Once the owls had dried and been gently warmed, they peered myopically out of my laundry basket. Their posture had changed from a moribund slump to something more dignified. They were comically hostile; but not too proud to scoff the shreds of rabbit hide and mice that I dangled enticingly above their beaks. These latter would be swallowed whole right down to the tail, which then protruded from the corner of their gape like a Winston Churchill cigar.

Sadly, the smallest owl died on the second night. He didn’t seem to be digesting his meals like the other, and went downhill very quickly in the small hours. Finding another owl for the second chick to be reared with was of paramount importance. It is not good practice to rear young birds in isolation, since they become too familiar with their keeper and then cannot be released.

Happily, my friend Sue provided the perfect solution. The owlet is now safely installed in a large aviary at Corrie Meadows, with an adult tawny to reinforce his avian identity. Fingers crossed he will be gracing our night skies in a few weeks time!

Stephanie Cope

Glengorm Wildlife Steward

New Home: here we are just getting ready to drive to Corrie Meadows.

New Home!

A Whole Lot of Otter

Recently, I experienced a desire to know more about otters. For reasons unknown, their whiskery faces had bubbled up to a more prominent pool in my consciousness. Thumbing the instructions for a new trail cam and staring into the middle distance, I felt compelled to investigate.

Encounters with these animals have an arbitrary quality. I have never pursued them; simply enjoyed those occasions when our paths cross.  As such, otters have seemed mysterious to me. Capricious, even. So armed with freshly honed field skills, I packed my lunchbox and took off for the coast. The weather was fine and fair – the first bright morning following many days of rain.

I don’t generally like to fly my own kite (!) but I have become something of a dropping connoisseur. What was once a passing interest has pupated into an unusual and eccentric obsession. For this we can thank the Aigas Field Centre.

Otters use their spraints as a means of communication, so they are normally deposited in choice locations where the scent will carry and not be erased by the tide. Often, these parcels of fishy fertiliser cause local plants to thrive; sprainting sites will look unseasonably green during the cool months.

Fresh otter poo is dark and crispy, with a sweet musk smell that goes easy on the nose [you heard it here first]. Consistency and composition will vary based on what your otter has been eating. The sometimes-present shards of crab and lobster shell can induce a light clenching in the muscles of the casual observer; try not to let that put you off. If you’re really keen, there’s always anal mucous to look out for too…

I have spent a lot of time looking around our coastline. Once I learned to see, a hidden network of neat grass paths, soft couches among dry vegetation and feeding pools filled with the bloated skins of toads popped up like a picture book. I only had to half close my eyes to imagine a whisky-brown back bounding between the thrift, or turn the page to see it snoozing under a downy of sea campion.

Some days later I went back to check the trail cam. The first video started with a blank screen of reflected infrared and a series of peculiar rustling sounds. Confused, I flicked to the next file.

A bristle of delicate whiskers slid out of the whiteness, followed by the outline of spiky-wet fur and a glimpse of beetle black eyes. A five-toed foot slapped irritably at the camera housing.

The otter was practically glued to the lens.

The stage curtain had lifted, but the taste of victory was bittersweet. I had pried into the life of something wild, and in doing so, caused a piece of its glamour to fall away. Its haunts and habits were exposed, its cover blown. Unwittingly I had become a keeper of secrets.

After all, nothing makes a creature more vulnerable than a GPS map of where it goes to the toilet.

Stephanie Cope

Glengorm Wildlife Steward

OtterCam: fully installed and ready to record…