At first, it looks like there’s a dust speck on my binoculars. A small, dark blob in the sky, east of the wooded hillslope. I wipe the lenses and look again. The shape is larger. Now I’m transfixed.
Scarcely daring to move my head, and hoping my eyes don’t water, I hold the angle of vision. Larger and larger, the bird is heading in my direction, gliding with scarcely a tremor.
Enough detail is visible now to make out the dark brown, mottled plumage and to see that the wings, held out stiffly from its body, are huge. It’s a young white-tailed eagle, perhaps two or three years old. No other flying bird in Britain can match it for size.
And no other place in these islands can match the Isle of Mull for seeing one – or more – of these feathered giants. The island is a hub for breeding pairs. Add the highest density of nesting golden eagles in Europe, plus hen harriers, buzzards and short-eared owls to the mix, and it’s easy to see why Mull is now a top choice for people wanting to see birds with hooked beaks and attitude.
The golden eagle (left) is the UK’s second-largest bird of prey. It often soars with its long, broad wings held in a shallow ‘V’ shape. The white-tailed eagle’s wingspan is half-a-metre longer than a golden eagle’s and its silhouette is more rectangular. Adult white-tailed eagles have pale heads and white tails, younger birds are darker.
You can encounter an eagle (of either species) almost anywhere on this isle; the second largest of the Inner Hebrides. The glen that carries the road from Craignure to Iona is one possibility, but it can be busy in summer, as thousands of visitors travel the pilgrimage route to the sainted isle.
I prefer the north, which has roads less travelled and holds the island’s only town, Tobermory. The place is something of a star, in any case. Famed as the location for the children’s TV series Balamory, nowhere else in Scotland has such a flamboyant approach to the colours of buildings. Hot pinks and vibrant yellows contrast with jet blacks and maroons here, as if Gaugin had come ashore on a fishing boat and given styling tips to the locals.
Cycle the island
There are many places to stay and eat out in Tobermory, and if you haven’t brought your bike, you can hire one at the Youth Hostel or from the ironmongers on Main Street.
North Mull is good biking country – some steep hills, but plenty of long straights and fairly quiet, single-track roads. Travelling by bike also means that you can keep a better lookout for eagles, other birds of prey and day-flying owls, such as the short-eared.
Heading west from town, the B8073 passes the three Mishnish Lochs a few miles down the road, which are a prime spot for catching brown trout. The lochs are a good place to scan the skies for golden eagles or look for hen harriers flying low over the wooded ground and grassland near the water.
Beyond here, the village of Dervaig, home of the Mull Little Theatre (one of the country’s smallest companies) is an attractive proposition for refreshments. Continuing on for about 10 miles to the Loch Frisa forestry track, if you’ve pre-arranged a ranger-led walk (see useful info), you can rendezvous with your guide here and go to the Mull Eagle Watch hide. This is a superb way to learn more about eagles from a resident expert. The hide is also well placed to watch for other birds of prey and red deer.
Have a wee dram
Returning to the main road, another nine miles of pedalling will take you back to Tobermory. Time for a well-earned meal of local seafood and a celebratory dram – the town has its own malt whisky. And if you’ve seen both white-tailed and golden eagles during the long day, make that a double.
HOW TO GET THERE
The principal access to Mull is on the Caledonian Macbrayne’s car ferry from Oban to Craignure. There are also smaller ferries from Lochaline to Fishnish and Tobermory to Kilchoan, on the Ardnamurchan peninsula.
FIND OUT MORE
For information about Mull eagles and the Loch Frisa hide, visit
forestry.gov.uk/mullseaeagles or www.rspb.org.uk/datewithnature/sites/mull/index.asp. To book ranger-led trips, call 07920 817362.
Main Street, Tobermory, Isle of Mull PA75 6NU
This pub, hotel and ‘Mishdish’ restaurant (try the oysters) has long been a focus of Tobermory nightlife, and is a good choice for visitors seeking a lively venue.
The Tobermory Hotel
Main Street, Tobermory, Isle of Mull PA75 6NT
This hotel on Main Street overlooks the busy harbour (some bedrooms have window seats) and serves local produce (seafood is a speciality) in its Water’s Edge Restaurant.
Visit Dervaig for its fortnightly local produce market, museum and Mull Little Theatre. There are prehistoric standing stones just outside the village.