A Life of Crime

Mull has a larger-than-average quota of celebrity species. Indeed, there are days when I can scarcely keep up with all the A-List eagle action. Nevertheless, my top wildlife moments have come from more mundane quarters this week.

Around our shores, herons are very much like streetlights: they’re tall, grey and stationed reliably every fifty meters. I’m the first to admit that my heart doesn’t do exactly somersaults when I see them. However, herons have revealed a side previously unknown to me – a side that is darkly criminal, calculating and [interestingly] buoyant.

I’ve been spending most of my outdoor time at the hide. Hot tea, biscuits and a stove are just part of its great appeal during Mull’s monsoon season. These afternoons had been uneventful [save for a hunting peregrine] until the otter showed up.

She was working the weedy margins of Loch Mingary with a single cub; old enough to dive, but still quite small. I hadn’t knowingly seen this otter before. Our regular girl has a large scar, so is easily identifiable.

The newcomer seemed wary – I was worried that she might catch my scent as she swam towards the hide. She passed without incident, but shortly afterwards a heron flopped down onto the rocks beside her. The cub slipped away, but the female kept hold of her butterfish and remained where she was. Her back arched aggressively, and I could hear her whickering at the heron.

The bird tilted its head, bent forward and took another step. Its expression was comparable to that of a Velociraptor: the kind one wears before it jumps Bob Peck.

Like lightening, it lunged forward just as the otter opened her mouth. She missed a nose piercing by bare millimetres, and there was an audible click as her teeth clattered against the bony beak.

The heron shambled off with its prize like a broken umbrella; the defeated otter sank miserably into the bladder wrack.

Days later, I returned. There was a good fishing tide: shags, cormorants, divers and mergansers were all busy hunting the loch. The herons, of course, waited patiently along the shore. One in particular was paying close attention.

Eventually, a cormorant surfaced with a mullet. The fish was side-on and lively, so the bird didn’t notice the heron take off – I assumed it was simply heading to a new spot.

Instead, the heron bombed into the water astride the cormorant and wrestled it for the fish. For the briefest of moments, a surprised and horrified head peered out of the pirate’s breast feathers, before disappearing.

Swimming is not a big part of the heron skill-set. It jerked about like a mutant swan, right in the middle of the loch. The mullet slapped it crisply in the face and returned forthwith to the wild. Fishless and adrift, the heron finally went airborne with the combined strength of front-crawl and willpower. Who knows what sinister deeds it might be contemplating next?

Stephanie Cope

Glengorm Wildlife Steward

Defeated: the female Otter swims off to search for more food… 

Otter [swimming]

The Rain of Terror

As those of you who live on Mull will know, it has scarcely stopped raining for the last two months.

The road that leads past the Coffee Shop and to our house is now an attractive drive-thru burn […and the brakes on my car have never been so well lubricated].

This new water feature continues along the Flat Rock track, takes forty winks in the Cattle Pond, before making its way merrily on down to the sea. The cattle have no use for their spa at present: they are quite cold and wet enough without it!

In their absence, this pool has been populated by Mallards and an occasional pair of Grey wagtails. These latter are really beautiful little birds, with chests of lemon yellow and an endearing way of bobbing their striped tails.

At the shore, Ardnamurchan’s rocky finger points through the emptiness of rolling sea mist. The gulls have once again formed their spiralling winter flocks, and they rotate slowly and constantly over the sodden fields. The female Otter with the scar across her face has been seen again with two small cubs – from the description, they seem younger than the ones I saw her with a few months ago. I hope this doesn’t mean that she lost them.

I actually started drafting this blog on the morning of the Glengorm Christmas Party [December 23rd]. Mysteriously, it was days before I felt able to continue with it. I’m not one to jump to conclusions… but I can’t help wondering if this was – in some way – connected to the half-empty bottle of Sambuca, touring the room with Mr Angus MacColl?

I should add that I’ve tried to find a snap from the party where we all look respectable enough for the blog, and regrettably, no such photograph exists.

The weekend prior to the party, Glengorm hosted the annual Cross at the Castle cycling competition. If you’re keen on bicycles, mud and Lycra-clad men – then this, dear reader, is the event for you. The weather was absolutely appalling, to the extent that quite a few competitors were physically blown off their bikes! Thankfully, there were no major injuries, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves – especially the kids! Talk about hardy…

I would like to thank everyone who took the trouble to leave their self catering accommodation so lovely and clean. I know this can’t have been easy given the quantity of mud involved, but myself and Val really appreciated it.

I would also like to thank everyone for their patience and good humour in the Coffee Shop – it was an extremely busy couple of days [not helped by Mariah Carey, George Michael and Slade; who were all on fast-rotate].

With other duties around Glengorm – and the less than clement conditions – my time out and about has been somewhat limited. The best morning allowed me to get a few pictures of this stag, as many of you on Facebook will have seen.

This particular individual and his friend live in the woodland at Bluebell Valley. The other stag only has one eye – which I assume is the result of a fighting injury. When they hear the quadbike engine, they appear on the brow of a knoll, ready to sneak down for some of the cattle feed.

Lovely though it is to see them, this behaviour is not likely to precipitate a long and happy life: stags like this eat huge quantities of the cattle mix, and encourage others to follow them down. Before you know it, there are more deer than cattle at the feeding station.

Flea the dog is in charge of chasing them off – so let’s hope they get the message sooner rather than later!

Elsewhere, major work is being undertaken in the castle. A good portion of the flooring has been lifted to install the plumbing for our new Biofuel heating system.

As you can imagine, the age of the building adds a certain amount of pressure (!) I doubt this floor has been fiddled with so extensively since Margaret Lithgow started her own improvements in 1911.


Tom is carrying this work out himself, with the assistance of Calgary’s Tom Reid. I have to say, so far, they’re doing a fantastic job and we’re right on schedule!

This is great news for the ongoing Biofuel and Sorne Woodland projects.

Meanwhile, Val and I have been busy spring cleaning the self catering properties and John has taken delivery of his vegetable seeds ready for the season ahead [yum].

I was recently shown some incredible pictures of the walled garden as it was in Margaret Lithgow’s era, so watch this space for a dedicated Glengorm Gardens blog over the next few days!

We’ve even got a photograph of her alleged Italian lover on a motorbike… with a snowman… and a very creepy lady feeding chickens.

Bet you can’t wait?

Wishing all our readers the very best for the New Year,

Stephanie Cope

Glengorm Wildlife Steward

This photograph shows a reflection in the water of the cattle pond as the animals came over to drinkReflected HIghland Cow

Fowl Weather

It’s been a busy few days here on Glengorm.  When I first moved to Mull, March had seemed eons away; a distant and hazy mirage of the Wildlife Project and what we hoped to achieve. Now, a month later, time seems to have squashed together like an accordion.

Between diligent hours spent tip-tapping on my laptop, I try to cover as much of the estate on foot as possible. Up until today, the week’s weather has been against me.  Saturday was by far the worst; I spent four hours trudging through miserable drizzle and high winds with only the gulls for company. The weather was so atrocious, that as I huddled in a rocky cleft, it took me several minutes to realise that a female harrier was also seeking shelter. She was reluctant to leave, and I felt guilty when a pair of raven (attracted by my presence) spied her and drove her out.

Monday was more encouraging. The heavy rain had attracted huge numbers of both buzzards and gulls to the sheep pasture. The gulls are often to be seen in a sort of vortex over the Standing Stones. The bowl created by the rocky outcrops here seems to favour them, and the result is a spiralling column of around one hundred and fifty individuals. The rain brought them down, and many could be seen ‘puddling’ the ground for worms (this is a comical pattering of the feet – thought to simulate rainfall – that draws the worms to the surface). Many buzzards were also prospecting for worms, and standing in one place I counted six separate individuals.

I walked down to Mingary, having not been over that way for a week or so. The herons, as usual, minced around for a while before finally settling back on gangly legs to feed. They seem less alarmed by my presence now than they were, and have stopped their wildlife-busting ‘gronking’.  A common seal was fishing Laorin Bay, and its quaint little head periodically popped up along the spit to check what I was up to. The common seals are more delicate than the greys, who have a Roman countenance and darker pelts. I noticed that the sea birds all seemed to be congregating on the shore rather than on their usual rocky island. I later learned that a white-tailed eagle had been perched there; perhaps, as the eagles are known to take sea birds, they were playing it safe.

In Mingary bay, a distant otter was busily diving along the weed margins, and a lone great northern diver (just where I always see one – wonder if it’s the same bird?) was preening contentedly. I didn’t see the stonechat pair that usually terrorise me on my visits, and this was a bit of a disappointment. I quite look forward to their scolding and love the way their tiny bellies are thrust forward in portly indignation.

Others were on hand to make me feel unwelcome. Small green sausagey turds littered the spit. They are of that special, annoyingly skiddy variety… unique to geese. I had seen skeins of twenty to thirty birds passing over, but here was a single pair of greylags. Their squalling honks must have travelled for miles, and the gander rushed about his goose with wings outstretched and syrinx visibly heaving with outrage.  I’m fond of geese, having kept them as a child, and so could only smile at the commotion. There is an excellent book by Konrad Lorenz (Title: “Here I am, where are you?”) that explores the social behaviour of greylags – I thoroughly recommend it, and you will love them thereafter (green turds inclusive).

As I stood watching the waves break on Laorin point, a hollow whipping noise cut through the sonic crashes. Three beautiful shelducks passed low over my head before turning to land in the next bay. This is one of my favourite species of duck; they are big and dapper in patches of chestnut, teal and white. They also have a prominent cherry-red ‘shield’ that rises from their bill and onto their forehead. I’ve never seen them flying so close before:  they are incredibly fast.

A small group of turnstones scurried up and down the tide line searching for invertebrates in the seaweed. These energetic birds look like clockwork toys; their dainty legs move so fast, you can almost hear them whirring! I also spied a winter plumage adult kittiwake mixed in among the common gulls loafing about on land. These can be easily identified by the neat triangle of pure black at the tip of each wing. Kittiwakes have a kinder look about them than most members of the gull family and are normally quite maritime during winter. A few oystercatchers were snoozing close by, which makes a change from their usual cantankerous squabbling.

It was as I watched the kittiwake that I first heard the unusual noise. It seemed to be a soft moaning, and I almost dismissed it as a seal (who’s soulful ‘yar-ooo’ing can often be heard around the bays on Mull).  The second time I heard it, the noise was more of a howl. It had me thinking of those Alaskan vistas you sometimes see in films or documentaries. Still, cold lakes. Loons. Divers.

Quickly I headed back along the point. Two great northern divers were feeding together and calling softly. I’ve never heard this before; it is an eerie sound. I couldn’t help but think of the other diver, who was still in the other bay and clearly missing the party. I like to think that the birds were relaxed in my presence; I didn’t have a hide, and was clearly visible sitting quietly on the shore.  They actually seemed interested more than anything, and continued to drift closer between periods of preening and diving for fish.

It was a very special moment, and I will be sad when they leave us for their summer breeding grounds.

Stephanie Cope

Glengorm Wildlife Steward

‘Twas the Season to be Jolly

Well, dear readers, it’s over for another year.

I hope all of you had a lovely festive season and Hogmanay. Indeed, for some members of the Glengorm community, the festive period was potentially a little too lovely… I, for one, am still experiencing a certain aversion to loud noises and intoxicating liquors (!)

Happily, the wildlife was always on hand to coax me from my darkened room. It’s been a real treat to see groups of visitors out to enjoy festive (if rainy) walks on the estate. It has also been a pleasure to spend time outdoors with my own friends and colleagues.

Perhaps the most memorable day was our very blustery trip down to the Bathing Pool. If you haven’t been before, the bathing pool is a neatly excavated square of shore in which a former owner of Glengorm – Lady Lithgow – enjoyed constitutional swims. The pool is filled by the tide, and otters can sometimes be seen practicing their strokes. One of my friends on the estate tells me that she found herself swimming with an otter here, and only realised when they got out together to dry off!

However, on this particular day, I don’t think any quantity of otters could have induced me to take a dip; just look at that sky.

As our party huddled behind large rocks to escape the wind, oystercatchers flashed past in  smears of red, white and black. Their loud ‘piping’ calls could only just be heard above the crashing waves, and I was almost certain that they would be dashed on the rocks as they crossed the bay.  Further out in the surf, seals could be seen bobbing like fat corks as the foamy water boiled around them.

It was certainly a bracing walk, but no less enjoyable for it. We even got a tiny bit of sunshine on the way home…

I’m pleased to inform you that this year’s events program is already starting to come together nicely (can I tell you more? Ooooh, I couldn’t possibly!) and that we have also started the design process for our new Glengorm Nature Lab, which will be located next to the Coffee Shop (ie. within easy reach of Gail’s scrumptious cakes…)

The Nature Lab will include information and activities for both adults and children, as well as being a base for the wildlife project. If anyone has any nice photographs of wildlife taken here on Glengorm , then please do get in touch; we are currently looking for display materials and images to help furnish the building.

More news coming soon,

Happy New Year to everyone!

Stephanie Cope

Glengorm Wildlife Steward