Sunday, September 13, 2015

Day 23 - Isle of Mull Wildlife Expeditions

We need to meet David Woodhouse of Isle of Mull Wildlife Expeditions in Craignure near the information centre at 10 am so brekky is again at 8 am and there’s nothing surprising about our choices. Hubby has the full Scottish which is very good here and he has a choice of chicken or duck egg. He goes for the duck. We’re the only people at breakfast too, which means no gasbagging and no delay for departure!
As we pass a couple of old wooden boats lying derelict and abandoned on the sand, I figure this is probably our best opportunity to take the photos we’ve been wanting of them.
In Craignure we get ourselves sorted with parking and keep an eye out for David’s arrival. It’s nice not being in a rush for a change and I have time to admire an usual shrub. I’ve never seen this at home.
There’s another couple equipped with binoculars hanging about but never really close to where we are and I guess they’re probably waiting for David as well.  In due course the liveried van pulls up and some birders hop out and make for the information centre. We head over to the van. Yep we’re definitely in the right place. Eventually we collect all the people coming along today including some who’ve come over on the ferry from Oban just as a day trip. been watching the ferry as it came in and the prow just lifts up out of the way of the cars.  Extraordinary.
We’re off. We start with a request from David what our target species are today. We don’t have anything particular everything is new for us, except maybe blackbirds and chaffinches! No-one else volunteers anything so David tells us what we should want to see here on mull. Not that other things aren’t brilliant, just these things we have here on Mull you will find harder to see elsewhere.
First up we head to have a look for otter along the Sound of Mull. We are very lucky today because some of our group are experienced people and very good at finding the wildlife and birds here on Mull. In no time one of them points out a pale spot of colour over on a little exposed rocky island in the sound, not that far from the shore. Scopes out. Yes that’s an otter. But we’re too far away here aren’t we. We move further along and pull off the road and climb out, walking in single file through a narrow track in the vegetation. The guys with scopes line up the otter and step back, generously inviting us newbies to come over and use their gear for a good look. The otter is lying curled up on a pad of seaweed. They don’t make these comfy beds, but they like them and take advantage of them. We watch for a while and the otter begins to stir, rolling over on its back, exposing more pale on its underside and wriggling back and forth in a luxuriant stretch. It’s taking its time waking up. The tide is rising and this island will go under so the otter is going to have to get up sooner or later. Luckily we don’t wait long and the otter get us goes and marks its territory… and goes and lays back down. Repeat this process and then its awake properly walks around a bit with that classic otter posture and then dives off into the water. Brilliant. David tells us that the down side of having found an otter within 15 mins of setting out is that it could give us the idea that they’re easy to see. They are not and we’ve just been incredibly lucky with that today. 
Now we’re off again hunting eagles and hen harriers. We’re heading for Grasspoint and we pull up to do a quick scan around some sand flats near a burn. Not a lot going on. There’s a few Hooded Crows hanging about. While scanning the hillside for sitting birds of prey a herd of Red Deer are spotted feeding. They are surprisingly difficult to see considering they are 1. Britain’s largest mammal and 2. Red. 3. Not that far away. Once we know they are there you can see the red in amongst the bright green of the bracken. Bins (Birder slang for binoculars) up I see one female clearly munching away. When you know where they are you can see them with the naked eye but they would be extremely easy to miss!
See that little strip of white on the sand? That's what we're looking at!
David points out a black headed gull flying past and tells me that they don’t have a black head at this time of year and that they are not a common bird on Mull. The gull flies of to our right. I’m actually more interested in small birds than big ones and I’m still finding the crows novel enough to allow them to take my attention. There’s a lot of noise they’re carrying on with. I turn my binoculars in their direction as far as I can from where I’m sitting just as David says “What’s the noise about” or words to that effect. He’s still looking elsewhere. I can’t see quite what’s going on but I report what I can see which is there is something white dead or dying on the ground and the crows appear to be having a go at it. The guy behind me is in a better position and he takes a look and excitedly announces that there’s a peregrine falcon just killed a gull. David looks and adds that it’s the black headed gull. Presumably it’s the one we were just looking at that’s been taken immediately we took our eye of it. What an absolutely bloody unreal thing to see! I’ve wanted to see a Peregrine for literally decades. We get them in Australia too, but they are not easy to see despite them living on high rise buildings around Sydney preying on the pigeons.  Back to our Peregrine here on Mull. As soon as it has the gull well and truly dead and the Hooded Crows have given up, the Peregrine sets about pulling out feathers and flinging them away in preparation for tearing into the flesh. I’m photographing and videoing and hoping both come out in reasonable quality. Even if they’re appalling quality so long as we can see the general drift of the proceedings I’m happy. I'm not worrying about looking through the bins at the moment. I'm photographing and videoing. I want to remember this and have stuff to show the family when we get back. Eventually I stop recording after numerous suggestions to have a look through the scope. It's very clear and close in the scope but it's pretty good through the back of the camera too!
Another car of bird watchers pulls up and everyone is in a tizz. None of us can believe what we’re seeing. 
Yep, my little camera has a powerful zoom on it, then I've cropped it a little bit so the picture quality could be better but I'm satisfied.
After a little while someone from the other car comes over and points out that another vehicle is in a hurry to get the ferry. David starts quickly moving the van away for them to get through. Next thing we know the guy who's in a hurry gets out of his car and hurries over to a scope to have a look at the falcon who is continuing to grow the feather carpet on the sand. 30 seconds and amazed looks and the man in a running back to his car and heading on his way. We watch the carnage before us for a little while then David suggests perhaps rather than watch forever we head along and try for the other birds we’re after. We continue out to Grasspoint, joking and enjoying David’s anecdotes along the way. Nearing the point we go through an area that David tells us is great Stone Chat country. Meadowsweet is in flower (ah, is that what those puffy creamy coloured flowers are). We pause briefly to observe. The Stone Chats perch on the flowering spikes of Purple loosestrife. As if responding to queue a pair of Stone Chats rise from within the long vegetation and do precisely what’s been described. They are striking and beautiful birds. Unfortunately I’m not in a position where I can take a photo. It looks like this window opens but I haven’t figured out how. Pointless photographing through the glass I think but having lost time procrastinating I snap a quite shot just as David is pulling away. Darn birds always look away or down just as you press the shutter. Frustrating.
We park up and walk the rest of the way down past the Drover’s Inn.  We all note what a prettily posed group of heilan coos that is out by the old drover’s inn. Heilan coos are not new for any of us, but there’s more than one of us wants to capture that image. Beautiful beasts standing in a field of flowers looking straight at us. That's a postcard shot, someone says. More than one of went home with this image!
David’s been telling us some interesting historical information about this place and for a moment I am almost fooled by the carved stone seal on the rocks.  Our scope masters have set up and are scanning the country across the water.  A real seal comes and hangs in the water over behind the group, having a look at us.  These seals are much more human-like in their faces than Australian or New Zealand Fur Seals. I can easily imagine that people may have attributed all sorts of human or superstitious qualities to them.  I’m moseying about having wandered a bit closer to look at the seal and watching my step I look down and spot an amphibian of some sort. I pick it up for a better look, glad that I don’t have smidge on my hands today and others quickly take a look and identify it as a young toad. It’s a lot better looking than the toads we get in Australia! Toady makes its way back into the grass and we carry on keeping an eye out for Hen Harriers and more particularly Osprey.
There's a few things about. I am shown a Red Throated Diver through the scope. Its really the shape that is clearest. I can't see the red throat.
We’ve been getting reports from birders David’s stopped to talk to as we’ve gone along that they’ve seen Osprey today. This is a surprise because they haven’t been seen for 5 days and it was looking like they’d gone for this season. They are a good bag for Mull if we can get them and we’ve had some conversation about the desirability of erecting attractive Osprey accommodation to encourage them to set up here on a more permanent basis.  With a good deal of looking, looking and scope magnification, one of our group gets an Osprey sitting on a post in his view. He’s not entirely certain of it and asks David to have a look. David does. Definitely that is an Osprey. I take a look. Yes, I can see the features they’re talking about. Just. Again we’re too far away. There’s not a lot else doing here so it is decided we'll go across to the other side to see if we can locate that post and take a lunch break at the same time.
We stop along the way and jump out briefly to check out some birds of prey another birder has got over on the fence posts across the way. He’s thinking they might be Hen Harrier – one of the key birds we’re after. A couple of the birds have flown. An exhalation of disappointment twinged with embarrassment from the guy who’d spotted them. Kestrels. Easy diagnosis once their shape and posture in the air can be seen. No, says David, good spotting.
Our hunt for the Osprey on the post continues and we head to the potential viewing point, everyone with binoculars at the ready for brief pauses along the way? We can see no sign of this bird. It may have flown but can we at least identify where it was sitting? Are we now too far in the other way. We have some discussion among the group about the other features of the landscape around the post.  We lunch.  Tasty vegetable soup and sandwiches made by David’s wife. They good. We’ve had some of her rock cakes with a cuppa earlier in the morning. They were good too.
Lunch concluded we’re still looking for that post as we head back along the route we came in on. People in the back begin to lose patience and the joking and teasing about this crazy goose chase begins. “Was it a Greater Spotted Post or a Lesser Spotted Post?” “Lesser Spotted Post, they’re rarer” another back seat wag replies. We laugh. This group is full of really funny people. I translated this birder humour for Hubby later – the joke is a play on the common names of woodpecker species, the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker being rarer than Greater Spotted Woodpecker. Ah.
Hint received loud and clear we abandon the search for the post with half serious suggestion that perhaps a project to map and colour code all posts in the area would be helpful when identifying which post to go for when viewed at a distance. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone was crazy enough to do such a thing! Haha.  I’m feeling very much at home among this group. I guess birders the world over find ways to amuse themselves when the spotting gets slow or frustrating. You need to be resilient and have patience and perseverance in the hunt for that magic moment. We can’t complain, we’ve had two of those magic moments this morning, so we’re doing OK. Some of my best times have been had in such circumstances as clever people come up with ways to amuse themselves.
Our next cry of success comes as a Hen Harrier is spotted as we drive along. I’m gobsmacked that these guys can actually see anything through their bins from a moving vehicle. This Hen Harrier must surely have been seen through bins to make the call. We stop and look. Yep. Male Hen Harrier. I know from the chat in the car they have an owley face for a harrier and are very beautiful birds. Aha. I can barely see this bird but can make out the features enough to say I saw it. Just.
We’re heading up to Glenmore now to look for those pesky eagles. The weather is fine and surprisingly, fine weather isn’t the ideal conditions. Passing showers is the ideal conditions as the birds hunker down and wait for the rain to pass then when it does, there’s a flurry of activity as they look for a meal. Passengers are scanning the skyline diligently as we travel along. I’m just as interested in the scenery. It’s all new to me and I’m quietly considering the relative merits of the scenery I’ve seen on Mull compared to that of Skye which is pretty silly really because I haven’t really seen Skye. From what I have seen though and from pictures I can use to supplement my knowledge, I guess Skye is a bit more dramatic and wild looking. Mull stands proud in the competition though. It’s a pretty scenic place too.
We stop at parking places here and there and David tells us he’s keen for us to see a good male Red Deer because people always seems to want to see them and despite them being around in pretty large numbers they are surprisingly difficult to see.  Once the hunting season opens they will run at any sign of man. Not hunting season yet and the deers know it.  We scan the hillsides. Scopes employed. Here’s one. I peer through the scope. Yep, clear set of antlers. I examine the surrounding landmarks and try to find the spot in my bins. Nope. I can’t find them. I am completely defeated. It’s amazing how these guys can use the scopes so effectively so quickly... and they are very good scopes too. Much bigger and better than mine at home.
We wander off the road down a secluded track for afternoon tea. Keeping our eyes peeled for eagles. I'm amusing myself looking at the flowers around about which are probably common as muck but still interesting for me.

There's plenty of buzzards around everywhere. No problem seeing buzzards at all. Which reminds me we saw a buzzard sitting not far away on our Eagle Watch yesterday as well.  
We move from stop to stop through the glens. Hoping a huge set of wings will come soaring over the peaks.. what was that I was saying about perseverance. When it comes it’s like an explosion of certainty. “White Tailed Sea Eagle!!!” The shout goes up. There it is. I raise my bins to it quickly. Yep, clear to see, it's close enough that I can see the white tail. David stands giving commentary everyone stands at attention bins to their faces.  “OK, you should should see the white tail ….ready…three, two, one.. now” the bird turns in the eye, flashing the light on its tail. We repeat this a couple of times as the bird circles.  Soon another cry goes up. “Golden Eagle!!” You can feel the group turn and confirm the identification of this next very large bird. There’s a clear difference in the shape I don’t get as good a look at the Golden Eagle because it’s a bit further away. I turn back to the sea eagle. Both the big ticks are circling. What a dilemma! who do you watch? I go for the White Tailed Sea Eagle it’s closer. It’s moving away and eventually it’s just the shape of the bird that betrays its identity. Tick. Tick. Not that I actually keep a list but I can feel David’s relief at having been able to deliver on sightings of both these raptors that people come so far to find. I’ve had a brilliant day. Hubby says he’s had a good time too. It was risky bringing him on something like this, he’s not a birder at all, lazy or otherwise. I’m relieved he’s enjoyed it.
It’s a pretty purposeful drive back in the main. There’s a pretty glen with a twin-set of lochs. There’s so much more to Mull we haven’t seen. I’d love to return here sometime.
It’s getting late and we’d better start heading back. Some people need to get the ferry, some are heading back to their accommodation and others are staying with David in the accommodation he also offers. We say our goodbyes back at Craignure. David gives me a warm handshake and says “Come back, but make it April or May.” 
Hubby heads off to use the facilities while I try to get a photo of the Oyster Catchers over on the shore. Oyster Catchers just don’t cooperate usually. It’s hard to complain when they fly off though, especially in a small flock. They are absolutely beautiful in flight with a strong black and white V on their backs.  I’m hoping that if they’ve settled here by the path they might be expecting humans to be about. I’m careful but they are also less skittish than usual. The four sitting lined up on the rock was really what I was hoping for but just as I’m ready to shoot, the little buggers have gone and tucked their bills under their wings and gone to sleep. Sigh. Reframe on one. That’ll do.
We have an hour to rest at “home” before we’re back down to Café Fish for dinner. I thought about cancelling our reservation as I wasn’t that keen on what I had the other day but a combination of apathy and reputation leads to us giving it another shot. Oh, and after the brilliant example we found at the Unicorn Inn I want to try the Café Fish version of pavlova.
It’s not as hot in here tonight. Thank goodness. We are down the other end of the restaurant and I’m quick to photograph the specials board and make a decision. Hubby’s going for the starter and I’m determined to have the dessert so the idea of cutting the eating time short goes out the window.
Hubby corn chowder and seafood linguine both off the specials menu. Followed by Belgian Waffles with maple syrup. He enjoyed his savoury courses and the Belgian waffles were “OK”
Moi: Crab Cakes and Fish Pie followed by Pavlova all from the regular menu. The crab cakes were heavily flavoured. OK, but I’m not a huge fan. In general I just don’t like my seafood inundated with competing flavours. Good seafood speaks for itself, but I suppose if you have seafood day in and day out you might like the variety of the sauces and herbs and spices. The fish pie is huge but seems to be mostly potato. I’m resolved to just eat what I want of it.  I’m having that pavlova.
So. The Pavlova arrives. It comes with cream of course and berry compote that has a lot of redcurrents and is fairly tart. That’s good. You don’t want the fruit on a pavlova to be too sweet. The tricky, well it isn’t tricky as in difficult, but tricky as in you have to get it right, is the meringue. Pavlova is basically a meringue to which a little bit of lemon juice or vinegar is added and a little bit of cornflour. The University of Otago did a study and found that adding the cornflour does precisely nothing but it’s traditional.  Now, the critical thing about the pavlova is that it is soft in the middle, which gives a slightly chewy effect to it when you’re eating it and different people have different likes in terms of the amount of mallowy centre. People often wonder how to make the centre mallowy and its commonly thought that the cornflour makes it so. It doesn’t. You just cook the pavlova less. The other important thing about the meringue is that it should be delicate. If you follow the incredibly simple recipe, that’s what you’ll get. A delicate, firm but easily broken soft centred meringue base. You let it cool in the oven and it’s NOT a problem if it cracks in the process especially on the top where it will be covered by cream and fruit. Different cooks shape it differently no rules about it.  OK. Now you’re armed with some information by which to interpret my assessment of the pavlova here at Café Fish.  It looks OK, but the meringue looks hard like a cake shop meringue. I test it with my spoon. Hmm. Too hard and it’s thick. I take a spoonful. The cream and fruit to level of sweet is OK. Maybe the fruit is a little extreme on tartness but it’s good, that’s not a problem. The meringue is a fail. It’s got way too much cornflour in it. Rather than melting away sweetly I’m getting a floury texture. I crack open the shell to see if there’s any softness inside. It’s not cooked entirely through, but it’s not soft either, just white instead of the creamy colour the outside has turned. That’s a shame. Yeah. Points for trying but needs work. Perhaps importantly whoever made this shell needs to be treated to real well made Pavlova. Take a trip down to the Unicorn Inn. They can show you how it’s done. Their pavlova meringue was perfect.
Our waiter comes over and makes a point of enquiring how I found the pavlova. I get the impression this restaurant seldom has anyone with anything critical to say. He looks very confident. I can’t lie. They are clearly trying with their pavlova, they deserve some constructive criticism.  It was nice, I say, but your meringue has too much cornflour in it”. He’s clearly shocked. He says it’s the chef’s great grandmother’s recipe. "Oh" I say. "Well it’s got too much cornflour in it." I know a thing or two about Pavlova.  Turns out the chef doesn’t make the pavlova, whoever has time makes the pavlova. That might be the problem on this occasion. Someone’s trying to make it good and mallowy and thinking heavy handed with the cornflour is the way. Back to first principles is my advice. If you have great granny’s recipe, bloody stick to it and don’t get cocky or if you want to experiment try leaving the cornflour out altogether. And don’t overbake it.

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