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