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BIRDING AND DRAGONFLY TRIP REPORT:

Scotland: Isles of Arran and Mull

6  - 20 July 2014

By Stephen Burch, England

Introduction
This is a report on a two week holiday to the islands of Arran and Mull in western Scotland. My main targets were two boat trips on Mull to try to connect with close up White-tailed Eagles and Puffins. I wasn't expecting much on Arran but in this I was pleasantly surprised and helped by the good weather we were favoured with. Dragonflies were also on the agenda, with a possible site for Northern Emerald in a remote location on Ardnamurchan - which I realised in advance could be reached by a day trip back to the mainland from Mull.

Overall however this was more of a relaxing holiday than a full on nature trip, and as such was almost the complete opposite to my recent solo short trip to Poland and Brandenburg!

General
Getting there and back
As this was to be a two week trip, and somewhat further south than our previous recent Scottish trips, we decided to drive instead of flying. We spent nights en-route both ways to break the journey - the return journey from Mull to Oxfordshire being over 500 miles.

In the event heading north starting at lunchtime on Friday was not a wise decision with very heavy traffic on the M6 but thereafter there were no real problems. Having stayed overnight at the acceptable Southport Premier Inn the journey further north was much easier apart from a caravan jack-knifing just in front of us on a quiet stretch of the M6 near Shapp! Arriving early afternoon at Ardrossan we managed to catch an earlier ferry than the  one were booked on which avoided a tedious wait.

A week later, we caught the mid morning small ferry from Lochranza to Claonaig and then drove up the Mull of Kintyre to reach Oban for the ferry to Mull - a very easy drive. The return route from Oban the following Saturday took us down past Loch Lomond (never a good road), through Glasgow in a deluge to our overnight stop in Yorkshire, leaving us a mere 200miles to travel the next day to get home. Over the whole holiday we drove over 1500 miles, which was a fair distance as neither of us enjoy long drives.

Birding information
There are two websites providing some information on birds on Arran, although nothing very site specific - Arran birding and Arran Wildlife. Most of the site info for Mull seems to be by word of mouth between the plentiful birders you come across when there. We didn't see any other birders on Arran! 

Weather
Unlike last year, we were favoured with much better weather, particularly on Arran when most days were pleasantly warm and sunny. On Mull conditions were more mixed with some days of rain but fortunately both key boat trips were blessed with pretty good sunny conditions which certainly helped with the photography.

Photos
All the pics shown below were taken with my DSLR equipment - Canon EOS 7D with either my EF400mm/f4 DO  or EF4000mm/f5.6 lenses. All pics were taken in RAW format, and I use NeatImage for noise suppression, with PhotoShop Elements 9 for subsequent processing. For further details see the equipment and image processing pages elsewhere on this website.

Arran

I don't think that Arran features highly on itineraries of most birders these days, and I wasn't expecting much in the way of birds or dragonflies. However, as described below this compact island did have its moments. Raptors included Golden Eagle, Peregrine and Hen Harrier, while Red-breasted Mergansers, Gannets and Black Guillemots could be seen on or over the sea. Notable smaller birds comprised Stonechat, Whinchat, Redstart and Spotted Flycatcher. We also had brief views of a few Red Squirrels - generally running across the road in front of the car.  Dragonflies were showing well in the sunny warm conditions, with Golden Ringed particularly numerous. One site also held Keeled Skimmers.

1. Lochranza
Lochranza is at the northern tip of Arran and the distillery car park is a well known site for watching for Golden Eagles so I can't see there is any harm in mentioning it again here. It worked out well for me in that, while my wife did the extended tour of the premises in the middle of the afternoon, I had a good hour to watch for these great raptors soaring over the hills behind. I was fortunate with distant views of both adults but the photography was of the record shot variety only. I may well have been quite fortunate with these sightings - judging by the Mull birds, I suspect the birds can go missing for hours at a time. At the end of this visit, an obliging Mistle Thrush appeared on the grass in front of me - most unlike the birds in Oxon that are so wary.

On another visit to this village, we did a pleasant walk NE along the coast to Fairy Dell which produced plenty of Golden Ringed Dragonflies, Keeled Skimmers and a few Large Red Damsels. One the return, slightly inland, we had more of these dragonflies along the track and also a Redstart near the shop in the middle of nowhere. In the early evening, Red Deer were also plentiful and very tame all around the golf course area.

Golden Eagle, Lochranza Golden Eagle, Lochranza 
Mega distant Golden Eagles!
Mistle Thrush Lochranza
An obliging Mistle Thrush

2. Corrie Pier
Corrie is on the east coast of Arran north of Brodick. On our final day, heading towards the Lochranza ferry, I was delighted to find several Black Guillemots on the small pier in this village. In my experience this is a bird difficult to photograph but by staying in the car, I was able to get very close indeed to them for a brief 1/4hr photo session before needing to head off to catch the ferry. I don't know if this a regular gathering spot for them - we didn't notice them here previously when we passed by somewhat later in the day, but we could have missed them.

Incidentally, prior to this holiday, I had seen information suggesting they nest on Brodick pier, so I checked this out briefly. With the ferry coming & going with associated huge amounts of disturbance, this seemed a most unlikely spot, and I didn't see any sign of them, although others have seen them there in 2014 - even directly from the ferry.

Black Guillemot Black Guillemot
Black Guillemot (click right to enlarge)

3. Machrie Moor/Standing Stones
The standing stones at Machrie Moor are a fairly popular tourist attraction. They are reached by walking from the car park along a track for over a mile. I am mentioning this here because near the far point by the stones, I saw a ringtail Hen Harrier - our only one of the holiday. There were also Curlew around.

4. Whiting Bay
Our self catering cottage was in Whiting Bay so we gained some knowledge of the local wildlife. The bay held fishing Gannets from time to time, Red-breasted Mergansers and Eiders. There was a little headland at the southern edge of the village where I spent some time trying to get Gannet pics, as they occasionally came fairly close in. There was also a Rock Pipit nesting here that didn't appreciate my presence!

Gannet Gannet
Gannet Gannet
Gannets (click top left to enlarge)
Oystercatcher Rock Pipit
Oystercatcher Rock Pipit waiting to feed its young

Mull
Our second week of the holiday on Mull was rather different from the Arran week. For one thing, the weather was poorer with plenty of rain on some days. Also there were loads of other birders around, unlike Arran! Our birding interest was very much centred on the two boat trips described below, and apart from briefly visiting the Golden Eagle site on the southern shore of Loch Na Keal (which produced extremely poor views of one juvenile and no adults) we didn't see very much of interest in casual birding around the island.  It would have been good to visit Iona for Corncrakes, but we ran out of time in the available good days for that. Also it would have been a long drive from Salen where we were staying.

1. Mull Charters Boat trip
Mull Charters provide a great opportunity to get close up photos of White-tailed Eagles coming in to fish thrown out for them from a boat, which departs from Ulva Ferry. Weather permitting, they run two standard trips a day and also much more expensive longer trips for dedicated photographers. We chose the standard trip and booked well in advance for early in our week on Mull. This turned out to be a prudent move as the day in question was a write-off with heavy rain and strong winds. Fortunately, they were able to fit us onto the morning sailing the next day which was much better weather wise. These trips are limited to 12 passengers, but our sailing had several other keen photographers sporting a huge range of optics. There was then a certain amount of jockeying for position to get the best spot for a clear view of the action - I suspect the afternoon trips are easier from this point of view being probably less populated by keen photographers. They are said to be just as good for the eagles.

The general pattern of these 3hr trips appears to be that, once on "station", you get 3-4 close approaches by one or more eagles, separated by half an hour or more. The action when it comes it all over very quickly and the birds can be very close indeed. A 300mm lens is probably ideal for a typical approach. For the first three approaches my 400mm lens proved to be problematic - most of my shots showed only part of the bird and I missed completely any "fish shots".

White-tailed Eagle White-tailed Eagle
Best shot with my 400mm DO showing the whole bird and a head crop in the early stages of a fish "run" (click right to enlarge)

One of the other birders (who had at least 3 lenses with him from 600mm downwards!) then kindly offered me his Canon 70-200mm zoom, which I accepted after some indecision. So for the next (and it turned out last) approach I had no problems at all keeping the bird in the frame. Moreover the angle and position of the dive down to get the fish was much better relative to the boat than previously. I was quite pleased with the results shown in the animation sequence below. These were quite heavily cropped though and a longer lens would have probably given even better results, if I had been able to keep it on the bird. Note that the elapsed time between the first & last shot in this sequence was no more than 2 seconds! So a successful trip, albeit in somewhat contrived conditions for a re-introduced species.

 

White-tailed Eagle off Mull collecting its fish!

2. Staffa and Lunga boat trip
Several years ago, well before my bird photography started, we had had a good family holiday on Mull during which we went on a standard tourist boat trip to Staffa and Lunga. I remember this being very good for Puffins on Lunga. So, not having any good Puffins photos to date, I was keen to revisit Lunga to remedy this. The standard trip to Lunga has some drawbacks for the photographer - you get crammed into a rather uncomfortable boat with too many other passengers, have to waste time visiting Staffa first, and you only get a short 2hrs on Lunga. However the alternatives seemed to be difficult to arrange and appeared to involve spending all day on Lunga which seemed too long, especially for the wife!

So we went on the standard Turus Mara trip, which again departed from Ulva Ferry, on a day in which the weather steadily improved. On Staffa, instead of visiting the cave, we walked to the opposite end of the island, where there were plenty of Puffins and Black Guillemots on the water but not in photographic locations. We were however rewarded with a fly over Great Skua.

By the time we got to Lunga there was pretty well full sun all the time. Note that getting ashore from the boat involves some awkward scrambling over large rocks and boulders, about which I don't think there was any prior warning.  There is then a short but steep climb up to a little plateau on which there are numerous very tame Puffins nesting in burrows at the edge, as well the odd Razorbill and Shag. I spent the whole time here, and never had time to explore the rest of the island which holds more Shags and auks. As with the eagle, I again found my 400mm DO almost too long for the Puffins! I spent some time trying for flight shots but found them almost impossible. The birds on the ground were however easier:

Puffin Puffins
Puffin Puffin
Puffin Puffin
Puffins galore! (click top left and bottom left to enlarge)
Shag
Shag: Whole bird & head crop (click left to enlarge)
Herring Gull
Herring Gull on Staffa People & Puffins on Lunga!

3. Ardnamurchan dragonfly quest
Prior to this trip, I had obtained some information about a promising sounding site for Northern Emeralds on Ardnamurchan where large numbers had been reported in June 2013. Needing a better photo than my current record shot of this elusive species, I checked out the feasibility of getting there from Mull. This involved taking the ferry from Tobermory to Kilchoan (or alternatively the Fishnish to Lochaline ferry might have been better according the SatNav). The weather is always a complicating factor with dragonfly hunts, and with the forecast for a very mixed week ahead, and two important boat trip to fit in, the forecast for Sunday looked just about promising enough to give this excursion a go.

After the short ferry crossing there was then a c. 45min drive along winding, single track roads, to the point at which a track departs from the A861 north of Salen in the Claish Moss area (56.727742, -5.777026). Unfortunately arriving here around noon, the weather was pretty marginal for dragonflies, and only improved much later in the day, well after we had needed to head back to catch the last return ferry (earlier on a Sunday than a weekday). Nevertheless in about 3hrs walking slowly along this track and back, we managed to locate a good range of species, including Common Hawker, Four-spotted Chaser, Common Darter as well as Emerald and Large Red Damselflies. But of the elusive Northern Emerald there was unfortunately no sign - so rather a wasted trip.

Common Hawker Grayling
Common Hawker, Claish Moss, Ardnamurchan
Grayling - Holy Island, Arran
Holy Island, Arran
View of the northern Arran mountains from the summit of Holy Island

Accommodation Details

Place Comment
Whiting Bay We stayed in a rather uninspiring modern cottage on a small housing estate at the southern end of Whiting Bay which I can't really recommend, so no details given.
Seaview Cottage, Salen, Mull A much better comfortable cottage with WIFI in a peaceful location outside Salen. Nice garden with bird feeders attracting Siskin and a flock of remarking pure looking Rock Doves/feral pigeons. Well equipped and imaginatively extended. Otters nearby! Recommended.

All pictures copyright Stephen Burch 

 
 

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