Monday, 22 July 2013

One Day in Humid Haweswater

This weekend was WARM. On Mull we had missed most of the sweltering mainland weather, so I was completely unprepared for my smash and grab run to the lakes this weekend.

I had hoped to take a short run up to the RSPB reserve at Haweswater in order to see England's only resident golden eagle, and the small population of ring ouzel. For readers less into their birds, ring ouzel essentially look like blackbirds with a dirtier bill and a white bib.

Here's a picture I shamelessly pinched from the RSPB website

Although seen yearly on passage, they breed in only a handful of places in Britian. They like upland regions, and eek out a living on earthworms, grubs and beetles - much like our more familiar blackbird. This year The Rigg at Haweswater has had 5 pairs, I saw none of them.

Lets face it folks, this weekend was a mini holiday, and I had the Matt and the 'rents with me. I hadn't had breakfast by 10, and by the time we made it to Haweswater the place was rammed and it was far too hot to climb The Rigg with scope/camera etc. Next time I'll bag one for you I promise. Heading round to the RSPB hut/hide there was no sign of the resident goldie either. Undergoing his end of season moult, he was probably sulking somewhere amongst the crags.

Other birdlife was vocal, but near invisible. Meadow pippits and skylarks were both heard, by the lake common sandpiper were calling, and chaffinches chipped overhead. In the plantation on the shoreline the high song of goldcrest was near constant. On the lake itself greylag and Canada geese were waiting out their own moult, and Ravens repeatedly broke the ridge line, giving momentary hopes for something bigger.

Heading back to the camp we made another dash down toward Ullswater, a reservoir the great Wainright was none to fond of for its detrimental effect on the valley. We too the opportunity to walk the Aira Force, enjoying the much needed shade.

This decision was soon regretted in the oppressive humidity of the climb back up the hill, so we headed for cold ginger beer and chips at the van.

Low flow at Aira Force
Playing with shutter speeds

Looking down into Ullswater

Thousands of feet and years of rain have erroded the soil and polished the bark of these Oak roots

If you're taking a caravan trip to the Ullswater area, try the Troutbeck Heck CC site. Take pitch 71, you have a great view out over the hills and only one neighbouring pitch. Take antihistamines, there are enough cleggs for a small airforce, but at least there are entertaining visits from the 20 odd horses at Rookin House. The only problem will be jealousy of the quad biking, clay pigeon shooting, pony trekking visitors that will be your main distraction over the fence - that said, its a nice quiet sight, ideally placed of the a66.

So long to Mull...

This year was my final working trip to Mull. It was graced with some truly awful drizzly weather, swell just high enough to make sightings near impossible, and one frustratingly unreliable boat operator.

I often wondered if my experience of the boats at Cardigan Bay is enough to qualify me to demonstrate on the marine mammal course - I would joke that I was bought along solely to be cheerful in the rain and point at stuff. Well this trip I was damned cheerful, and I bloody well pointed.

I raved about the black guillemots and shouted out the passing petrels, I "awww"ed at the new born porpoises and explained about reintroduction of the white-tailed eagle. I mimed all the things I'd like to do to the inconsiderate tourists on Lunga, and finally made the short walk round Staffa's basalt columns to Fingal's Cave. I shared out the biscuits.  Thankfully, in response, many of the student were cheerful, some of them even pointed too; so did the other punters on the boats. Then came "The Pointing".

An oyster catcher sees off a greater black back on Staffa


Juv WTE...


For week one most of "The Pointing" had been in the direction of eagles and seals. During the land tour - interesting castles and rocks, and one out of place great crested grebe... The second week looked to be panning out the same - although I finally did get to wander around Staffa on the 14th. Then came the 15th. Nat and Claire's magical mystery land tour.

I had a feeling it was going to be a good one when, at our first stop, we had an WT eagle ripping up a rabbit for its oversized, chocolate brown "chick". Stopping to take a look at a passing golden eagle, Claire and I spotted an otter on the far side of one of the islands in Loch na Keal, then another flying WTE, followed by another otter at the mouth of Loch Scridden, followed by cake. Excellent.

The 16th was my final boat trip, and the luck continued.
     10 minutes out - harbour porpoise.
     30 minutes out I shouted Ewen to verify something bottlenosey that I'd seen on the horizon.
     34 mins out - I'm ready to admit I was imagining things.
     35 mins out - 15 BN dolphins around the boat at varying distances and an WTE overhead.
    About 130 mins out -  I'm gazing lazily over the stern to "pick up anything we miss" when a minke surfaces right behind the tender. The animal is seen on two further occasions in a combined 12 minutes.

Bottlenose dolphins in dreich weather.

Aside form a storm petrel whipping past at about 240 mins out, the rest of the trip is uneventful, no one cares. The sight of the only whale this trip has buoyed everyone, and the students diligently carry on their seabird transects.

Allowing them to go off effort half way into the sound of Mull, they were rewarded with one of the best views of porpoise I have ever seen, with one individual coming alongside and rolling to take a look at us. There are more WTE's in the tree's behind us as the porpoise's circle, and I'm not sure which way to look. Steaming back to Tobermory is quiet. As we leave I'm presented with my prize for spotting the first whale, the Mars bar I wanted 2 years previously.

Mull for me was 3 years, 6 visits, 14 boats trips (over 4 different boats), and 4 land tours; 5 slices of Duart Castle cake, 30 odd Tunnock's wafer biscuits, and one hard earned Mars bar. I have met over 150 students, and only around 2% have been seasick in my general vicinity. I've been out in wind whipped rain and swell so high that I was soaked to the skin and STILL managed to get sunburn. I've seen porpoises, common dolphin, bottlenosed dolphin, minke whales, basking shark and even a dead risso's dolphin.  I've ticked off white-tailed eagle, puffin and storm petrel. I've snacked with photographers in blazing heat off the Treshnish Isles, and shivered with students on Lunga. I've even hummed Mendelssohn in Fingal's Cave. I never did make it to that tearoom on Muck, but I can keep that as a future goal.

The truth of it, is that I'm not quite sure how to say goodbye to this place, the people, and the two weeks that have been the highlight of every year throughout my PhD. Despite always visiting with around 30 people, the trips have always been a very personal experience for me. It was never a holiday (and often no picnic), but it was refreshing. Two defined weeks away from my life, not to relax, but to focus entirely on something else. I can't imagine a year without it now.

For those of you thinking of a trip to Mull, I can whole heartedly recommend a trip aboard Sula Baeg with Sealife Surveys - their excellent guides and 40 odd years of local knowledge are worth anyone's money. If you fancy an island hop (and your safety info in Gaelic), jump aboard Turus Mara, leaving from the Ulva ferry slip, but arrive early and boost for the top deck for the best views. For otters, take a picnic to Loch Na Keal and Loch Scridden, sit quiet and hope. For eagles of all kinds, look up. If you see a blonde girl with a camera and a blissed out look, offer her a wafer biscuit.