There is a plethora of things that the islands of Mull and Iona do well, In fact not just well, but to international standards. Be it Europe’s oldest geology, or the UK’s longest coastline, or being the cradle of Christianity or the northern hemisphere’s premier whale watching area, Mull and Iona are punching way above their combined weight.
However, if there is one area that these islands have truly been recognised as world class in it is the premier destination for watching birds of prey in their truly spectacular natural habitats. Bird watching, especially Raptors is so popular that VisitScotland puts its value to the Islands at over £6 million.
Mull and Iona have always had a wide range of birds of prey or Raptors but the worldwide reputation as a place to come and see these amazing creatures can be traced back to the introduction of the formally extinct White-tailed Sea Eagles back in 1983.
Sadly the first eggs failed to hatch, two years later, however, the first wild Scottish White-tailed Sea Eagle chick for more than seventy years fledged. Since then, the population has slowly expanded, bolstered by another west coast re-introduction phase between 1993 and 1998. Along the way territories have been occupied and then abandoned, breeding trios have occasionally been formed, clutches of eggs have been stolen by collectors, and sadly some birds have been illegally poisoned or shot. Nevertheless, due to the monitoring, protection and careful management by an army of workers, both professional and voluntary, the species has thrived on Mull and its surrounding Islands.
One of the driving forces in partnership with the RSPB and Scottish Natural Heritage was the then newly formed Mull and Iona Community Trust. The first thing the trust did was to create the ‘Egg Watch’ and ‘Nest Watch’ programs. To protect the nest sites from humans and the theft of eggs and young during the breeding season, volunteers would quite literally sleep under the nest sites. So popular was the program that visitors from all over the UK and beyond signed up to spend their holidays guarding the nests!
Following the arrival of a pair of nesting Sea Eagles at Forestry Commission Scotland’s Loch Frisa, plantation in 1998, organised viewing operated by RSPB Scotland, Mull and Iona Community Trust, Scottish Natural Heritage, Strathclyde Police and Forestry Commission Scotland Rangers has taken place from April-July each year. This allows thousands of people to observe the birds at the nest while minimising disturbance at this working plantation. To book a trip to see the Sea Eagles you can call 01688 302038. The Sea Eagles can also be seen in and around Loch Na Keal and Loch Scridain.
As the popularity of the Sea Eagles grew, so did pressure on the nest sites. In 1998 the WT Eagle partnership decided to build a fantastic viewing hide on the banks of Loch Frisa and place low profile high tech cameras close to the nest itself, with monitors in the hide. The income from paying Visitors to the hide became known locally as “Egg Money” when it was distributed to good causes all over the island.
Visitors may have initially come to the Islands because of the publicity gained from the White-tailed Sea Eagles, but it was not long before they discovered that this was an area rich in all types of raptors. From the massive ‘Flying Door’ Sea Eagles to the tiny Hobby which feeds off dragonflies and young swifts across the marshlands. Mull and Iona are the perfect environments for bird watchers and nature enthusiasts.
Award winning wildlife filmmakers like Gordon Buchanan, a Mull boy, have produced some incredible footage of Mull and Iona’s wildlife and introduced a worldwide audience to the astonishing biodiversity of these islands.
I remember regularly seeing upwards of a dozen Buzzards on the 9 miles journey from Dervaig to Tobermory….so common are these birds that the locals gave them the nickname “Tourist Eagles”.
The locals will tell you that the finest birds on the Island are the Golden Eagles that populate Ben More and the surrounding crags and these birds are indeed magnificent. They have lived on Mull for eons and survived well. The habitat of mountains and lochs and a sparse human population have all helped these masters of the sky survive and indeed thrive.
Mull and Iona are also home to the rare and heavily persecuted Hen Harrier. As a kid growing up in the wilds of the Scottish Borders, I was used to seeing these beautiful birds, often flying in pairs quartering a field hunting. Unfortunately their liking for game birds and habit of creating colonies often led to their persecution. When I moved to Mull, I was delighted to see these skilled hunters flying over Dervaig Hill. So common was it to see them it came as a shock to learn there were less than 700 breeding pairs in the whole of the United Kingdom.
Merlins and Hobbies are often seen on Iona and the Ross of Mull flying around the moorlands, and the cliffs and crags around the islands are home to the world’s fastest bird, the Peregrin Falcon. Watching one of these birds reach almost 400km per hour in a vertical dive after an unfortunate pigeon is a site to behold! Kestrels hover almost stationary over fields beside the roads looking for field voles and mice.
At night time, especially in Autumn, to a backdrop of roaring Red Deer Stags, the Owls come into their own. To hear these birds, masters of the dark, silent and deadly calling back and forwards to each other is a strangely comforting sound. Barn Owls, Tawny Owls and Long and Short-eared Owls all do incredibly well on Mull and keep the vermin population under control. Many times when walking home in the dark I have felt a slight ‘swoosh’ only to see the ghostly shape of a barn owl heading away from me. In the old woods near Loch Frisa, I have seen Little Owls nesting, a rare thing for a visiting species.
Mull and Iona are indeed special to bird watchers from all over the globe and the type of diverse un-spoilt habitat they provide is increasingly rare.
I once had a conversation with a Gordon Buchanan, who has made wildlife films in every part of the world; he gave me his take on what makes Raptor watching so successful on Mull and Iona. “ There are fjords with more White-tailed Sea Eagles than Mull, and there are mountain peaks with more Golden Eagles than Mull, but there is nowhere else in the world that you can simply open your car door and watch both species and much more. The visitor’s proximity to nature is what makes this place so special”.
Mull and Iona, the Eagle Isles… visit soon and bring your binoculars!