Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Islay, November 2014

Myself and my dad went to the inner Hebridean island of Islay on the 15th November for a week. I was to assist John with journalism and wildlife tourism promotional work. Could the location famous for its whisky also be as famous for its natural heritage in the future? 

Islay is the southern most Hebridean island and has a population of over 3000 inhabitants. A major industry is the eight active distilleries which are the isles second largest employer after agriculture. In 1779 there was 23 distilleries in operation on Islay!
Tourism is also integral to the island with over 40,000 visitors a year with the main attractions being wildlife, landscapes and rural isolation. 
The isle is also known for its renewable energy options with the first wave power station in the world on its exposed west coast. The Sound of Islay has also been designated to be the largest tidal array in the world with 10 tidal turbines planned, to harness the eight knots of tide which drives in between Islay and Jura. 
Unique varied geology can be seen all around the island which is the pattern of all the Hebrides beautifully varied isles. Notably there is a fault line passing through Loch Gruniart and Loch Indaal which was formed along a branch of the Great Glen Fault called the Loch Gruniart Fault. Lewisian Gneiss outcrops are exposed on the shoreline and a stunning sea stack can be seen in the SW of the isle called Soldiers rock due named due to the linear quartz intrusions which band all the way round it.

Day one - 22nd Nov

The afternoon ferry from Kennacraig produced a raft of 18 GN diver, 15 plus RB mergansers, 100 plus wigeon, a hurry of 40 kittiwakes, 2 razorbills, 6 guillemots, goldeneye, imm gannet and a single black guillemot. As we approached Port Askaig in the Sound of Islay we saw two golden eagles over the mountainous east side of Islay and also two adult white-tailed eagles over the village with one bird dropping down in an unsuccessful attempt at fishing! 

We arrived at Coillabus Cottage at dusk, which was located in stunning isolation on the Oa peninsula in the SW of Islay - http://www.coillabus-cottage.co.uk/

Top left - Red Deer stag, Top right - Rubha Mhail Lighthouse, Bottom left - Loch Indaal, Bottom right - Chough in flight
Day two

Wonderful sunshine throughout the day as we headed up to the north east part of the isle parking at Bunnahabhian and walking a coastal route to the NE point. The first record was a brambling calling in a nearby garden. A 4.5 mile walk to the north coastline rewarded us with 2 BT divers, an imm WT eagle and a minke whale! We had lunch by Rubha Mhail lighthouse and had a chat with the lady that had lived their for over twenty years in amazing isolation. On the drive back home on the evening we encountered a finch flock with a solitary cock yellowhammer all feeding on stubble. We checked the head of Loch Indaal on the way home and had wonderful views of a male merlin hunting a meadow pipit and a kingfisher calling nearby.

Day three

The settled weather continued and we covered areas local to where we were staying on the Oa peninsula. A nice circular walk started with a male peregrine overhead followed by a small flock of snow buntings also in flight as we reached the south coastline. Fulmars occupying territories along with birds gliding with gannets just off the coastline and a pair of curious ravens nearby. As we were on the board walk a jenny wren kept appearing from below it as we drove it further along, but one attempt to get out failed as it got stuck in between the two panels for a second or two!
Working our way back east we got more snow buntings, small flocks of twite and three golden eagles cresting the distant skyline.
We went round to Laggan bay in the afa and on route we spotted a leucistic reed bunting, clean white showing very well roadside. When we arrived at the bay we accidentally flushed three chouch feeding on invertebrates on the exposed weed on the spring lines. Dad spotted three LT duck out on the bay and a solitary sanderling on the beach as we admired the varied geological shoreline. 6-8 bottlenose dolphins and a female peregrine were other highlights in the area. 
Clear skies on the night so I did some dark sky spots of the cottage and the surrounding area which I will donate to the cottages owner.

Day four

Setting off at first light again we headed north to the RSPB reserve of Loch Gruniart and on route we had a slav grebe north of Bowmore. A male hen harrier was the first record on the north side of Loch Gruniart and as we walked the beach on low water we saw a single dunlin resting and sheltering by a clump of kelp. groups of twite and rock doves were seen as we went to check a deserved building for owl pellets to no avail.
On the reserve itself we had a male merlin flyby over the farm and also a female merlin hunting dunlin in spectacular fashion pushing them to a great height. Large number of geese and waders which included around 50 golden plover. 
We went further north to Ardnave point where we watched big gatherings of choughs and also a juv female peregrine in flight. Two snow buntings calling along the coast and a solitary purple sandpiper and turnstone. Looking north to Nave island we had a WT eagle perched on the west side. 

Top left -Barnies on loch Indaal, Top Right - Oa, Bottom Left - Coillabus cottage, Bottom Right - GWF geese and barnies.
 Day five

We covered the SW of the isle in the morning driving along the Ardbeg road and on route the highlight was a juv golden eagle holding metres above the car and continuing to show well afterwards! We did a woodland walk around Islay estate in the afternoon and I learnt two new species of fern in maidenhair and hart's tounge fern. Also amazing seeing polypody on a mature sycamore and admired the non native Turkey oak which is host to the gall wasp Andricus quercuscalicis, whose larvae damage the acorns of native British oaks. In 1998, the Ministry of Defence ordered the felling of all Turkey Oaks on its UK bases!
We moved onto Loch Skerrols where we got a kingfisher performing its classic illusive nature. 
As we arrived back at the cottage at dusk we could not believe our eyes as two golden eagles were soaring a metre above the building as they slowly moved off and worked the surrounding agricultural land targeting rabbits in low light. 

Day six

At first light two golden eagles right by the house again working low targeting rabbits again! As we left to the NW of the isle we had a juv golden eagle just down the lane metres above the car...ridiculous! 
Dad got onto a female LT duck north of Bowmore and as we arrived at Sanaigmore bay we saw 2 adult GN divers, female sp-hawk and countless chough with lovely views of two adults preening each other. 
We moved round to Loch Gorm where we saw a juv female hen harrier working the rough grass. We did a small walk at the third RSPB reserve of Saligo where we saw an adult female peregrine, a solitary golden plover and six bottlenose dolphins heading north just off the coast. 
Our last stop was Machair bay where John heard a water rail and we recorded 28 curlew on the beach along with a flyby of a tiercel peregrine targeting starlings. 
On the way back we scooped up a brown hare which was dead on the road and left it on a nearby backing by the cottage to see what it would entice.
At dusk dad and I watched on from the window as an adult golden eagle flew past, metres away at level hight! It was getting ridiculous! 

Day seven 

I stayed local on day seven to observe the golden eagles hunting in the surrounding area. At around lunchtime I had short walk around the field and managed to observe and film two adult golden eagles riding the strong easterly wind. The video can be seen below...

Dad arrived back in the afternoon as we watched hooded crows and ravens feeding on the hare carrion with a buzzard making a brief appearance. The hoodys did a large number of caches nearby. A male hen harrier flew past the garden fence as we were watching the feeding and also two adult choughs feeding just outside the boundary fence.   

Day eight 

Hoodys and ravens continued to feed on the hare at first light with WF geese grazing nearby. On the Port Ellan - Kennacraig ferry we got two bottlenose dolphins just out of the bay and two porpoise off Gigha Isle. Dad spotted 2/3 otters on the mainland side and another highlight was 18 GN divers in a tight raft.  
We called into Knapdale to see beaver evidence on the way back, admiring the dam construction, gnawed stumps and flooded birch woodlands.

A wonderful week, thanks very much to dad for everything. 

If anyone is interested in visiting the isle of Islay I can highly recommend this cottage, in particular for the potential of life changing views of golden eagles -

Thanks for looking....

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Wild Scotland Guest Blog - Ewan Miles

Published here - http://www.wildlifewatchscotland.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/wild-scotland-guest-blog-ewan-miles.html

The Wild Scotland conference in Perth will be held on the 26th November 2014 and this event brings together people working in the wildlife tourism sector to share ideas and learn new ways to enhance their business in a highly dynamic industry. Workshops and guest speakers aim to inspire you to improve your existing business or start-up as a new operator.

At this time of the year a lot of our species like geese, waders and passerines will flock together in large groups as 'strength in numbers' can help decrease the chance of predation for individuals and also increase their chance of finding food source, benefiting the species as a whole. What a great chance for tourism operators to do the same at this time of the year by performing a communal gathering and benefiting themselves and their company through engaging with fellow professionals and working together to survive and to thrive in the sector. Just like all ecosystems rely on the interconnections to make it complete, I think an integral part for tourism operators is engaging with related businesses, attending workshops and corporate events to help evolve your business and it could be the missing link to your set-up. 

Working together for everyone's benefit

Visitor spending in Scotland is around 4 billion pounds annually and 1.4 billion of that is nature-based spending which works out at 40% of all tourism spending in the country. This means that anyone working in the industry has an important role to play in representing the country in a large part of its economy. By attending events like the Wild Scotland Industry Conference it can help you reach these high levels and keep up with the rising standards in the 21st century. 

Sustainable wildlife and adventure tourism can be achieved for the benefit of businesses, wildlife, customers and our natural heritage.
One of the benefits of joining Wild Scotland is to strengthen your marketing and advertising reach through the website, E-Newsletter and social media pages. Business support is also available for members through workshops and an on-line members section on the website. Wild Scotland is increasing its membership tally and on a broader spectrum this represents Scotland's outdoor tourism sector in a positive manner with a large variety of different operators available, showing a sign of a healthy expanding industry.

Below is a list of the guest speakers and workshops which will take place at the annual Wild Scotland Industry Conference on the 26th November 2014. I hope to see you there!

  • Fantastic speaker line-up with an International guest speaker and internationally-recognised British Paralympian and Adventurer, Karen Darke.

  • Chance for industry to input to the national Adventure Tourism research exercise that has been commissioned by  Highlands and Islands Enterprise in partnership with VisitScotland, Scottish Enterprise, the Scottish Tourism Alliance and Scottish Development International.

  • A wide range of workshops including ‘Professionalising the Sector’.  We have included this workshop as Wild Scotland has been commissioned to develop the existing Wilderness Guide Training scheme into a full-blown structured accredited Art of Guiding Programme. As Wild Scotland is at the start of the development process, industry input into the structure and focus of the Programme is invaluable!

  • Leading into the Year of Food and Drink, we will also have a few success stories of businesses which have incorporated Scottish food & drink into their current package and have seen bottom line results of giving visitors a quality food and drink experience.

Book Now: http://www.wild-scotland.org.uk/about-us/wild-scotland-annual-industry-conference-2014/

Join Now: http://www.wild-scotland.org.uk/about-us/join-us/

Ewan Miles

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Humpback whale - the Skyes the limit

Myself and Rachel twitched a 15 metre, 40 ton marine mammal at the end of October. It was a humpback whale off Skye and only the second record of this species in the Hebrides this year so it was a mouth watering prospect to go and try and see this iconic cetacean. We had a 24 hour window on the Wednesday where we both were free and the weather forecast was promising enough to increase our chances. 
So after a late night shift of stargazing/photography we were up for the first ferry off the isle at 0725 to travel the four hour journey north with an ETA target of around noon. Wonderful crisp morning light along with highland autumnal colours meant a few short stops on the way as we arrived at the Skye bridge at 1130 and onto our first perseverance point of Braes.

Within minutes of been at our vantage point looking over the Sound of Rasaay...BLOW! A humpback whale performed a surface sequence finishing off with that sublime fluke of the tail! We watched the animal for about half an hour before losing it but persevered until about 1500 as we got onto the 'humpy' again along with two minke whales all feeding in close proximity. At one point I had all three animals surface in the same field of view in my binoculars! A solitary breech was made metres from a creel boat as Rachel and I just got the huge splash. Brian Wells on the vessel got a great photo that can be seen below. A wonderful experience and made extra special as it was in British waters. Another memory that will stick with me for life.

Top left - humpback fluking, top right - Rach scanning the Sound of Rassay, Bottom left - Eilean Donan caslte, Bottom right - Creel fishermans amazing capture
For the last hour of light we decided to see a bit of the isle so headed to Portree for a forage then back south so see what was going on. We covered the south west side of the isle, having a wee drive to take in the sights. Impressive dramatic peaks of the red (granite) and black (gabbro) Cullins providing impressive geology on the isle known as 'Dinosaur Island' because of its fossil records. 

We headed back east at dusk and arrived at Fort William where we had fish and chips in a busy town on bonfire night. I try not to moan and be negative but firework displays boil me up a little bit. The fact that hundreds of folk can congregate to watch a noisy artificial display of the same old nonsense and I have spent countless evenings watching northern lights, meteor showers and the general wonders of the night sky with no one in sight! We also saw a Chinese lantern being released into the sky, which is something that baffles me as well? You can observe thousands of bright things called stars in the night sky along with everything else to provide endless learning, fascination and curiosity. This is before talking about the environmental damage they cause, as 90% end up in the sea and can be consumed by filter feeding species like whales and can lead to fatality. So it's time to get rid of every single one of them, and I don't care if there is tradition involved either....if we want to talk about tradition, our natural heritage has been performing for 4.6 billion years so let's start taking notice of that a bit more. 

Anyway we headed back to the east along the district of Morvern and sightings of interest were two roadside woodcock and a pair of barn owls looking down on us from a young ash. We made it to Lochaline at around 2300 and after struggling to find a dark area because of street lights we finally managed a dark lay-by to settle for the night and target the first ferry in the morning as Rach was working at 9am. The weather turned right on cue in the middle of the night with a force 7-8 south wind and heavy rain but the ferry was on and we made it back to the promised land on the 0700 ferry as planned!

A wonderful adventurous 24 hours and thanks to Rachel who I shared it with. What a way to spend a day, watching some wonderful marine life and a huge variety of inspiring wildscapes in the progress. The best bonfire night ever!

Monday, 3 November 2014

October review...

Early on in the month I did a couple of local school visits representing Sea Life Surveys. The first school I visited was Dervaig primary on the 3rd. I spoke to a class of about 30 children all about the marine life around the island. After about half an hour of the kids telling me about all the animals they have seen around Mull's coastline I talked about my observations and learnings in the last five years around our waters and gave them an introduction of some of the species which can be seen. After a short break we did a playground activity exemplifying the dominance of sound in the ocean and finished off with an activity sheet with them stating why we need to look after the seas and watching some youtube videos of Kasey and Knobble the minke whales! 

On the Monday (6th) I went down to Bunessan primary to talk about the pre-school class first and then the p2-p4 class. Another great experience to share our wildlife encounters, discoveries and research with the children and see such huge enthusiasm and curiosity in return. 

Dervaig primary school...

beach clean...
Wednesday 8th and Andrew Jake and I decided to head to the north west side of the island and tidy up a small stretch of the coastline which tends to have a higher concentration of marine litter due to been exposed to the Atlantic. We did a couple of hours and managed four bin liners full of smaller stuff and a lot of larger debris as well. Fascinating to see jetsam that has travelled across from the other side of the ocean with American branding. Its always an occasion of mixed feelings but overall a very rewarding thing to do, out in the fresh air, good exercise and surrounded by beautiful wildlife and seascapes....what could be better!

On the evening I lead a dark sky photography workshop with Mull camera club (MTTL). It has held at Glengorm and we had clear spells to work with throughout the evening, which was great in giving us all the opportunity to capture some starscapes. Sixteen people attended the event and it was a great success with a variety of photos captured and even a weak auroral arc to the north later on by the persistent Martin Jones. 

MTTL dark sky event

Later on in the week there was a charity event held at Garmony to raise funds for Marie Curie cancer fund-raising group and my MullRally dark sky star/traffic trail photo was auctioned off for £320. Thanks to Cheryl and MTTL for their involvement in that. Photography can be a very rewarding thing to do for your own benefit but can be powerful in other ways as well through charitable donations, kindness through gifts and also inspirational when you see an image which ignites the senses. 

On Saturday 18th I was contacted by a Country Life magazine journalist through other sources on Mull, to give him an introduction of the wildlife around the island. We met in Tobermory in mid-morning and headed south to some of the most productive raptor/otter locations on the island. Our first highlight was a male hen harrier quartering the rough grass close to the road. After a few minutes it dropped down and came up with a vole in his talons, which it took further up the hillside to feed on. 
We saw a juv (ringtail) harrier a bit later on down at Pennyghael junction and then classic skyline golden eagles going through Glen More. We approached the turn-off for Lochbuie and I told Nick that it is a sensational area down there, so we took a right turn and headed down that stretch. Within minutes we had two golden eagles metres above our head before an adult white-tailed eagle came past triggering vocal yelping from the goldies! An incredible aerial dispute as we watched on from below. 
Some wonderful sightings around raptor island and thanks to Nick for who I shared those great sightings with. He will be doing an article in Country life about sustainable scallop diving around the island and hopefully he will be inspired by those raptor encounters to do a piece on the value and belonging of birds of prey in our countryside. 

Tuesday 28th and after the worst 10 days of weather I have ever experienced in the Hebrides, there was a small window of clear skies and settled weather so I headed out to cover some mountain ecology in a central part of the island. Great to spend half a day having a whole mountain range to yourself and sightings included a single mistle thrush on the scree during the ascent and two golden eagles in flight to the north. Working the summit I had a skein of thirty pink foots overhead and around 15 whoopers flying in a SW direction. A small number of meadow pipits and a solitary wheatear briefly seen as well. As darkness started to arrive I attempted a starscape at 2000ft of hight but a lot of cloud rolled in so I gave up and headed down back to the car.
I did a short video blog post while on the summit, which can be viewed below. I am trying to keep moving forward and evolving my blog, improving it all the time, never standing still.

Beinn a Ghraig ready for the stars...

I called into Salen pier on the way home to attempt a star sequence for my MULLatNIGHT video and managed about 200 frames looking N/NW from the old pier. Later that night I did Glengorm castle (150 frames) and a traffic trail on Tobermory main street (250 frames). 

Salen old pier star-trail 60 frames complied using Starstax software
For the remainder of the month I have been keeping my self occupied with my part time Open University course as I am currently studying a module in Geology. Five further modules would reward me with an honours degree in Natural Sciences but the main reason I am doing it is because of a hunger and curiosity to learn. I never want to stop learning about the natural world and as long as that sticks I will be delighted.

Thanks for looking :)