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Green Adventures July 2016

sea eagle

Wild

island

Wildlife tourism in Scotland is thriving. Penny Bunting visits the Isle of Mull to seek out one of the country's most spectacular birds


Above: white tailed sea eagle © Martin Keivers Mull Charters

Wildlife tourism is booming in Scotland, with over one million trips each year taken by visitors who specifically want to enjoy the country's remarkable wildlife.


Scotland's spectacular, wild and diverse landscapes encompass mountains, forests, lochs and thousands of miles of coastline, and are home to a wide range of different mammal, bird and insect species – some of which are rarely or never seen in other parts of the UK.


Choosing one individual region of the country for a wildlife trip is hard – but one of our favourite Scottish wildlife destinations is the beautiful island of Mull. Just 45 minutes from the mainland (catch the ferry from Oban), it's an easily accessible pocket of wilderness that supports an extraordinary variety of wildlife on land, in the sky and in the sea.

buzzards
Loch Frisa
Glen More
Highland cattle, Mull

On land, look out for red deer and otters. Golden eagles, white-tailed eagles and buzzards can be seen soaring over the island's peaks and lochs, and the waters surrounding the island support Atlantic grey and common seals, minke whales, dolphins and basking sharks.


Sea Eagle Adventure

Often referred to as 'Eagle Island', Mull is well known as one of the best places in the world to see sea eagles (also known as white-tailed eagles). With a wingspan of well over two metres, this enormous bird – the fourth largest eagle in the world – is a spectacular sight.


Once extinct in Britain, a successful reintroduction programme has led to sea eagles being resident in Scotland once more – although numbers are still very low. These birds have no natural predators, but are at risk from human activity and loss of habitat and food sources.

Above, clockwise from top left: buzzards; Glen More; Loch Frisa; highland cattle near Ulva Ferry

sea eagle

Above: white tailed sea eagle © Martin Keivers Mull Charters

There is hope for these magnificent birds though. Mull Eagle Watch is a partnership between RSPB, Forestry Commission Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Mull and Iona Community Trust and Police Scotland, and offers protection to sea eagles nesting on the island.


The partnership also arranges ranger-led walking tours. Running from April to September and lasting around two hours, these tours give visitors a chance to view sea eagles – and as you're guided by an expert who knows all the birds' current perching spots, you're in with a good chance of spotting them.


For an excellent chance of getting a close up view of a sea eagle, take a boat trip with Mull Charters. The company's Sea Eagle Adventure lasts for three hours and leaves from the tiny harbour at Ulva Ferry.


This is an exhilarating trip. For a start, there is the most spectacular scenery to enjoy from onboard the Lady Jayne – a small vessel that carries just 12 passengers, meaning there's no crowding and a brilliant view for everyone on board. The route taken can vary according to weather conditions – but expert local knowledge from skipper Martin Keivers ensures the best chances of wildlife sightings whatever the route.

sea eagle

Above: white tailed sea eagle © Martin Keivers Mull Charters

On the day we took the trip the sun was shining, the sky was blue and the water was calm – but high winds and heavy rains had been forecast, so we followed a sheltered route, along lovely Loch na Keal and past the tiny, uninhabited island of Eorsa. There are sea eagles nesting in the trees alongside the loch, so everyone on board was optimistic about seeing the birds. Along the way we were given a fascinating commentary by first mate Alex, with information about the geology, history and wildlife of the area.


It's important to remember that sightings on any wildlife trip cannot be guaranteed. These are wild creatures, after all – and their behaviour on any given day can be fickle or unpredictable. However, Mull Charters has an excellent success rate for sea eagle sightings. On each trip a small quanitity of fish is offered – just enough to allow the birds to associate the boat with a tasty treat, without them becoming reliant on the Lady Jayne as a source of food.


Sometimes a sea eagle collects the fish from the surface of the water as close as 25 metres from the boat – making for an excellent photo opportunity for all on board (the photograhs of sea eagles in this article were all taken by Martin during his trips).


So, with cameras at the ready we scanned the skies. As we approached the area near where the birds were nesting, anticipation began to increase. There was a lot of bird activity around us already, with dozens of gulls following the Lady Jayne – and we also had a pretty good sighting of a magnificent golden eagle, riding the air currents high above the boat.

But there was no sign of the sea eagles. By now, just as the forecast had predicted, the wind had begun to whip the loch into choppy waves and fat raindrops began to fall. So we headed into a sheltered bay for a coffee break – feeling a little disappointed and unlucky that we hadn't seen the sea eagles.


After the break, Martin decided to head back into the loch for another try. Once again, the boat was surrounded by gulls. Then suddenly a male sea eagle was amongst them, dwarfing the smaller birds with its huge form and flying close to the boat. For a moment, time seemed to stand still as we took in the immensity of this creature. We had a superb view of its fan-shaped tail, huge talons and unmistakable profile, with sharp, hook-like beak and bright eyes.


Almost in slow motion, the sea eagle circled around the back of us to fly alongside the boat on the other side, before swooping down dramatically to take a fish from the surface of the water right next to us. Then it was up and away, flying gracefully across the loch and out of sight.


It was a magical moment, and well worth waiting for – proving that patience pays off, especially when watching wildlife!

sea eagle

Above: sea eagle taking a fish © Martin Keivers Mull Charters

Where to stay

The Isle of Mull Hotel and Spa sits in an excellent location on the edge of Craignure Bay, just a few minutes from the ferry terminal. Rooms are pleasantly decorated in neutral tones with Highland tartan accessories and extremely comfortable beds. Many of the rooms have superb views across the water to the mountains of the Scottish mainland. Tea and coffee making facilities – with Scottish shortbread – and complimentary toiletries are provided in all rooms.


Breakfast was very good. Freshly cooked bacon, black pudding, haggis, sausage, eggs and potato scones – along with vegetarian options and a selection of cereals, fruit and yoghurt – are served in a spacious dining room that has large picture windows overlooking the bay. The service was friendly and helpful.


What makes this hotel truly enticing, though, is the spa. Consisting of a 17m heated, indoor pool – with more floor to ceiling picture windows – sauna, steam room and hot/cold foot spa, there is a range of treatments available. There's also an outdoor hot tub – a perfect place to enjoy those wonderful views and soothe tired, aching muscles after a day's hiking or wildlife watching.


The Isle of Mull Hotel and Spa supports Mull Eagle Watch.

Isle of Mull Hotel and Spa
Room at Isle of Mull Hotel and Spa
Pool at Isle of Mull Hotel and Spa

Wildlife on Mull