Saturday, September 29, 2018

Eagle Island - Mull

In the months leading up to our week on the Isle of Mull, we joined the Facebook group "Scotland from the Roadside." Members there post beautiful photos from all over Scotland - scenery, wildlife, crowded or early morning city streets, mountains, waterfalls, and birds of prey. The folks and their photos have been an inspiration to us, and we had visions of capturing wild birds with our DSLR cameras and fancy lenses.

posted with permission
Photos like the above are what I had in mind - a Seeadler (White-tailed eagle) having just caught his dinner! This is not one of our photos, however. Ryan Wemyss is a talented photographer who frequently posts photos of beautiful Rotmilane (Red kites) and Seeadler - the latter from Mull!

Or how about this one? Again a Seeadler soaring majestically in uncertain skies...

posted with permission
Here's my first attempt. It's not an eagle, but a Mäusebussard (common buzzard).

Nailed it!
Uhm, so...yeah. Not quite what I had in mind. Undeterred, we set out as often as we could, content with buzzards but hoping we'd see eagles. Mull is called "Eagle Island," after all!

To give you an idea of the wing span of these Greifvögel (birds of prey), we include this photo from inside Glengorm's Nature Center (next to the coffee shop). The Seeadler's wingspan is longer than mine and longer than M is tall! And when you compare the size of the Seeadler and the Mäusebussard, it's hard to imagine mixing up the two when you see them - but when they're soaring in the sky it's hard to judge how large they are.

I also picked up some new books and a laminated pamphlet in the bookshop in Tobermory to take on our walks to help us identify the birds we hoped to see.

We ventured out to Glengorm's nature hide on Loch Mingary, a sea loch in the north of Mull. Not long after we got settled, M noticed a large bird fly into the trees. I grabbed my binoculars and he set up the tripod. Sure enough, two white-tailed eagles were sitting together on the same branch! They were at such a distance that we weren't sure at first they were eagles, but when they flew off - about an hour later - it was clear.

I was rather pleased that we were able to see eagles on our own rather than on a tour with a local and/or wildlife expert pointing them out to us. We did book an outing with Mull Eagle Watch, which we enjoyed. We were actually further from the birds than on Loch Mingary, so I won't include the photos we have. We did learn quite a bit from the ranger, Meryl, and we were glad to have the opportunity to visit their hide as well. She had a good scope, so we were able to see the two eagles, Hope and Star, clearly.

But seriously, how do we get photos like Ryan's?? We could retire, move to the island, and spend every day on the coastline of Loch Na Keal, where some of the eagles hunt. Not realistic. We could buy wellies and wetsuits and try to get closer to the birds when we see them at Loch Mingary, but we do not want to disturb them! So also no. We could spend €13,000 on a more powerful lens, but I wouldn't be able to lift it, and if I fell with it into a bog I'd be lost forever.

I eventually found the answer. I contacted Ryan to ask what camera equipment he uses (and to get his permission to use a photo or two for this post). It's not all that different from ours. I also found out from the Facebook group that we can book a boat tour ("Oh no, not again") with Martin Keivers of Mull Charters. He knows where the eagles spend some of their time, and it is possible, if the tour is timed right, that we might see the eagles hunting for fish rather than just sitting in trees. Sounds good!

I really, really don't like boats. Next to airplanes, they're my least favorite method of transportation. I like my feet on firm and solid ground. Even a bog will do if it must, but water or air, no thank you! If you want to fully explore the beauty of the Scottish islands, however, you need to get your ass on a boat. I've been to Iona, Staffa, and Lunga on two different trips and survived. So, next year we'll do this. To see the eagles more closely and to get the photos that I have in my mind.

On our last day on the island we returned to the hide on Loch Mingary. Skipping to the third of our nearly three hours there (we are very patient when we know what we want), I spied a suspicious lump out near the coast. Here:

That is basically what I saw with my naked eye, but my binoculars helped. There was clearly a large bird, and as another flew in we were able to see that there were actually four there! I don't think adult eagles hang out together, so we guessed they were a family.

No kidding, one by one three of them flew from the coast, pretty much right over the hide. I was breathless. The first two were clearly - by now we're such experts... - juveniles. We'd learned from Meryl that juvenile white-tailed eagles don't have white tails (and juvenile golden eagles DO!).

juvenile White-tailed eagle
Then one of the adults flew overhead as well, and circled a few times. This is what I meant in an earlier post when I said that Scotland and its wildlife will reward those who are patient. You can't expect to spend 10 minutes in a hide and expect to see the beauty and wonder of this place.

adult White-tailed eagle

If he looks a bit shabby, it's most likely because he's in the Mauser
I am so lucky that M has always been interested in photography and that his interest in Greifvögel has grown with mine. We have been to Mull six times including last year and have photographed many bits of the northern part, but we were never even slightly interested in birds of prey until this year. Yet he is willing to tromp through forests, bogs, and rivers carrying his fully-laden camera backpack and tripod just in case we'll see an eagle, a Turmfalke (kestrel), or even buzzards.

Our photos may not yet be at the quality of Ryan's, but we're not dissatisified with our efforts, especially since we saw them alone without help from a wildlife expert. And M is looking forward to a boat trip next year to get even closer to these beautiful birds. I know I'll enjoy it as well, once I get over the whole "being on a boat in the ocean" thing.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Falconry Experience

"Es wird immer Menschen geben, die der Faszination anhängen, wilde Geschöpfe an sich zu binden, um ihnen immer wieder die Freiheit zu geben." ~Horst Stern

("There will always be people who cherish the fascination of taming wild creatures, in order to give them their freedom again and again." ~Horst Stern)

One of the many highlights during our recent trip to Scotland was an afternoon with Paul Finnigan of Finn Falconry. Readers who have been with me for the last year know of my growing interest in Greifvögel (birds of prey) and Eulen (owls), especially Steinkäuze. The more I learn, the more interested I become. M is equally fascinated by these majestic creatures, and since we're also both into hobby photography, the two combine well into activities we enjoy together. An upcoming post will feature the wild birds we saw on our own while on Mull.

Freya, the Gyr-Saker Falcon
Paul is based in Oban, but he offers Hawk Walks, a 2- or 3-hour Falconry Experience, and much more from the Inverawe Country Park. We signed on for the 3-hour experience, and are ever so glad we did.

During the first two hours Paul gave us loads of information about falconry and his birds while handling them and allowing us to handle and photograph them as well. He's got eight birds and owls, and the three who accompanied him that day were Freya, a Gyr-Saker falcon (pictured above), Khalifa, a Barbary falcon, and Albus, a Harris hawk.

For anyone who thinks a bird is a bird and they don't have personalities, I challenge you to spend a few hours with these three characters - and their human.

Freya is young (ca. 8 months), is new to Paul's team, and is still learning the drill, so after she flies around, egged on by the Federspiel (lure), and lands on it, she "mantels" and can only be enticed off the lure by Paul. Manteln is what a bird does when its kill is threatened - she spreads her wings over it as if to say, "MINE!! Mine-mine-mine-MINE!!" Fair enough - she's the one who had to work for it! She hasn't learned yet that her kill is safe because we humans really don't want the raw quail she's devouring.

Here you see her doing the Manteln.
And here she's spitting out the quail feathers she didn't want to swallow.
She's also a very messy eater, getting blood all over her chest and feet and spitting feathers everywhere, but she's a ham for the camera and absolutely beautiful.

"You know you're supposed to focus on my eyes, right?"
(Yes, she has her head on backwards here.)
Paul told us that falcons can swivel their heads around similarly to owls - roughly 270°, as Freya is demonstrating above so nicely.

She's a hybrid, a cross between a Gyrfalcon and a Saker falcon. I've read that Gyrfalcons are testy and unforgiving - make a mistake with them and they hold a grudge for weeks - but by mixing the breeds it's possible that the offspring takes on the positive qualities of both types. Paul indicated this seemed to be the case for Freya.
Freya in flight
Then there's Khalifa. He's older and more experienced than Freya, so after he flies he's ok being called back to the glove by one of us silly tourists. Paul handed me a raw chicken leg from Lidl, and after some coaxing, Khalifa left the Federspiel and flew up to my glove to tear apart the tidbit I held onto tightly. He's strong for such a little bugger!

still on the Federspiel
Khalifa is a Barbary falcon, which is a bit smaller than a Wanderfalke (peregrine). He flew swiftly and gracefully and was hard to capture on film in flight! Naturally I spent my time playing with the birds, having even left my camera in the car, while M caught what he could. He's better with the camera anyway - and took hundreds of photos that afternoon!

We spent the last hour of the afternoon with Albus the Harris hawk. Perhaps because we spent the most time with him, he was my favorite (in the way that you have three children you adore, but that one bakes you pie and calls you once a week). He is rather fresh to this job, having spent the first 2.5 years of his life with his family unit, even helping to raise and feed his younger siblings! Harris hawks live in family groups, which is unique in the world of Greifvögel. Albus had only been doing this "hawk walk" business for a week when we arrived, so we were treated to both "newbie" mistakes and veteran moves. I love this gorgeous bird!

Albus doing his fruit bat impersonation.
He tried to land on a branch that was too thin and got all twisted. A rookie mistake...

...but he recovered marvelously!

He kept a close watch on Paul. The human (sometimes with the help of a dog)
flushes out the prey, and the hawk kills it.
We walked through a wood and around a wee loch, and it rained on and off the whole time. Harris Hawks (called Wüstenbussarde in German) aren't waterproof, and when they get soaked through, they don't fly well or happily. They're native to Arizona and the hot and dry regions south of there, and they soak up rain like a sponge. What this meant was that I got to carry him for the last 10 minutes of our "Hawk Walk," after he was rewarded with a Lidl chicken leg. I loved it. The hawk walk, not the chicken leg.

Generally when a Greifvogel rests on one leg with the other tucked in,
it means he's content with the world and relaxed.
It does not mean he's injured!

Albus is wearing his anti-panic hood.
I need one of those for when M is driving in Scotland...
Paul gave us a different answer to the question "Why do the birds come back to you, when they are free to fly wherever they want to?" than we have heard from other Falkner. He said the birds don't need him for food - they are perfectly capable of hunting for themselves. In fact one of his Harris hawks did fly off and was gone for several weeks! She returned every now and then to their station at the Inverawe Country Park to see what they were up to, but she came back on her own terms after she presumably got tired of the wild life. He tries to create a bond with the birds, spending time with and flying them every day (when they're not in the Mauser - molting - which makes them vulnerable). It's the Verbindung - connection - and partnership to the Falkner that returns them to the glove, Federspiel, Sprenkel, etc. It's not just about the raw quail or chicken buffet. From what I have seen with the Falkner in our area, it seems quite believable that this is the case. They clearly care about their birds, and I like to think the birds feel a bond with them as well.

We booked our falconer experience back in March, and we learned at the start of the month that he was booked all through September - so it was good we'd planned ahead! If you think you'd be interested in a few hours with Paul and his beautiful Greifvögel, and trust me - it's an unforgettable experience! - plan ahead and book early.

Thanks, Paul! Truly.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Random Thoughts about Scotland

We recently returned from our 6th trip together to Scotland, and I really wasn't sure where I wanted to start with blog posts. I've written quite a lot about our travels to Scotland and the Isle of Mull, after all, and some of what we do and experience there is not new. Then I came across this post from fellow expat travel blogger, Camila, who lives in Scotland but traveled recently to Germany! She collected her random observations about her time in Germany, and I thought that would be a good way to start about our trip. Thanks for the idea, Camila!

Standing Stones at Glengorm, Isle of Mull

So here we go with my random observations, thoughts, and lessons learned from our most recent trip to Scotland!

  • Scotland is beautiful, scenic, majestic and mysterious, regardless of the weather.

  • The Scots - at least the ones we encountered - are friendly, helpful, sincere, warm, and hardy.

  • The Scots are also well aware of how special their land is.

  • During two weeks in west Scotland, one learns to appreciate patches of blue sky.

  • Snickers make for great hiking snacks. Carrot sticks do not. On Monday I ate a Snickers mid-walk and felt a burst of energy. On Tuesday during a longer walk I'd brought carrot sticks, thinking that was a healthier option. I ate those mid-walk and just felt sad.

  • One can never be fully confident that the toilet one has just used will flush effectively. In one particular incident in a pub in Tobermory, I exited the stall having tried three times and said to the woman waiting, "I'm sorry, it doesn't seem to be flushing." She said - in what sounded to me like a local accent - "Oh, don't worry about it, Luv." I guess one gets used to this?

  • The wildlife on Mull is fabulous and - occasionally - cooperative. We finally saw our first wild otters! They were just swimming and diving, so our photos aren't impressive, but we saw them! Then there were sea eagles, buzzards, Kestrels, and a seal. No haggis, though...

  • I wanted some nice photos of us and of me, but I have two looks or styles in Scotland: Windswept & Red-faced and Drowned Rat. So we returned with no nice photos of us or me.

  • Scotland will reward you - if you are patient. We often set out in sketchy weather or walked into a downpour, but it seemed when we showed Mother Nature we were undaunted, she begrudgingly showed her best side.
  • Tea is just not as satisfying to me, especially in the morning, as a good cup of coffee.

  • I am very glad M is willing to do all the driving in Scotland!

  • Single-track roads are somehow better than two-lane roads when we're driving on the "wrong" side.

  • My Meindl hiking boots are the hammer! (When something is really, really great, in German one says it is "der Hammer".) I walked across boggy fields, up hills, along muddy paths, and even through a small river, and my feet stayed dry the entire time! The river was deeper than the top of my boots, and still only my ankle got a little wet. They are also very comfortable and feel great on long hikes.

  • There is more to Scotland than Outlander! Apparently tour groups are bussed around the country stopping at filming locations like this one in East Linton, which is 5 foot-minutes from our relatives' home:
Preston Mill, East Linton
  • The ideal photographs I had pictured in my mind's eye before our trip did not include solid gray clouds, which is what we had much of the time we were out hiking.
Kilchurn Castle
  • Highland coos can be assholes. Near the end of one of our walks we were ambling down a road dodging poo pies. Then we came to the pooing coos. They were just standing there eating as usual, but they had a calf with them. He was standing closest to the road, and his mum and aunties with their big horns faced and watched us. We paused, they stared. We took a few steps back, they stopped chewing and kept staring. One moved slightly so she was clearly facing us head-on. We fled from the road up the hill and through the soggy bracken, giving wide berth to the stupid toddler. We've heard they are docile, except when they feel their offspring is threatened - understandably. And since we were planning to turn one of their former relatives into Gulasch that very evening, we decided to take the high road and let them have their space.
These are actually not the beasts we encountered on the walk.
I took this from the safety of our car.
  • Pub meals are delicious! We had steak pie, wild game pie, various burgers, tomato soup, neeps and tatties! We didn't try haggis this time, but I'm determined to order it on our next trip.

  • Not sure which would be more complicated to travel with - small children, or dogs. We are glad we have neither. (Sorry if that makes us sound like jerks.) None of the children being carried around in Kraxen looked or sounded happy to be there. In one pub there were two Springers at a table near us, which the servers had to keep stepping over and around. Before we left one of the servers crouched down to pet them, which was really sweet...except for the "scratch-and-sniff" effect. Good my lord, they were ripe...

  • The Scots have a clever sense of humor.
Outside a pub in Linlithgow.
Can you read the fine print?

  • One week on the Isle of Mull isn't really enough. We're already talking about returning next year for two weeks. Update: We've booked two weeks on Mull for 2019.
Tobermory in the evening
Admittedly we do like to travel to familiar places, which is why we keep returning to Mull and Glengorm. We have enjoyed other areas of Scotland - parts of the highlands, Glencoe, Edinburgh, the Trossachs, Loch Ness, the Jacobite steam train to Mallaig - but somehow we always end up saying to each other, "Well, it wasn't Mull, but it was very nice." So I think we'll keep returning until we have seen all we want to see and walked all the walks we can on the island. So far we've got the north fairly well covered, and after a few more walks there we'll explore central Mull a bit more.

Is there a place you keep returning to for holidays, or do you prefer to seek out new and unfamiliar places?

Any random thoughts on Scotland?

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Packing for Scotland

I've been absent for a while for (once again) no good reason, though I have been substitute teaching an Integrationskurs for the last week. It's actually an Alphabetisierungskurs, which means the students started the course not being able to read or write, at least not with our alphabet. This class has advanced to the A1 niveau, and they are a fun and interesting group!

Next week we'll be leaving on another trip to Scotland - our sixth together in 12 years. We'll be staying on the Isle of Mull for a week at Glengorm Castle in one of their self-catering flats, followed by three days at a B&B near Tyndrum where we stayed last year with the kids, and finally a few days near Edinburgh. This time M and I are going alone, and we're hoping to avoid the rental car problems we had last year - which I never ended up writing about. Hm.

Since the plan for this weekend is packing for Scotland, I thought I'd write a quick blog post about that! I know people who prefer to vacation at beaches and hotels with big pools where it is warm and sunny, but  - especially after a hot and dry summer like we've just had - we bundle up and head for cooler, wetter climes.

We each have our own packing list, and I'm mainly going to cover mine. M takes care of all the technical and electronic stuff, charging cords, batteries, etc., though I am in charge of my own camera batteries and memory cards.

So then, what do I pack for a trip to wet and windy Scotland? This is a start:

Most important for us are the hiking gear and photography equipment. We are by no means serious hikers, in part because we lack the fitness for it, but we love to go for long walks looking for pretty views and interesting wildlife. The wildlife on Mull has been doing its honest best to elude us, though this year we're hoping to be able to at least observe, if not photograph, some of the island's birds of prey.

Hiking Gear

I pack my hiking boots, a backpack designed for hiking, and a rain jacket that folds up and stuffs into its own pocket, making for easy storage. That's what the lobster is sitting on - more on him later. Shown in the photo are two of my four pairs of hiking pants. I have one for when it might be wet, one for when it's fairly wet, and one for when it's really, really wet. The Wisconsin shirt is one of only two t-shirts I'll bring; I rarely need short-sleeves and pack mainly long-sleeve or 3/4-length sleeve shirts. I bought the green Craghopper fleece last year, and it's super cuddly! Of course I am packing my Poldi the Steinkauz (owl) shirt.

We also have the all-important OS (Ordinance Survey) maps and a compass, though I should admit that we usually rely on M's GPS thingy to guide us during the actual hikes. It handles the rain better.

The Olympus binoculars are important for spotting wildlife as it runs, slithers, or swims to places we are not, and for identifying large birds. We'll be bringing two flashlights because we're planning to do the Whisky Cave walk, which unsurprisingly involves a cave.

We don't go anywhere without Avon's Skin-so-Soft® to fend off the midges (affectionately referred to by locals as "those fecking demons" and other colorful pet names), and this year we're also bringing Smidge® at the advice of the good people in the Scotland from the Roadside Facebook group. There's also a mosquito face net, though I've never needed it before.

We'll each have a Swiss Army knife, because who would go hiking without one? Same with the Snickers! 

Last but certainly not least: our mini-pharmacy: Band-aids, blister pads, adhesive tape, gauze, Fenistil for bug bites, Bepanthen for cuts and scratches, and Ibuprofen, Imodium, and cold medicine - not all of which is pictured.

Photography Equipment

I'm bringing my new camera, which is M's "old" Canon EOS 70D. We decided he should probably have a new camera to better capture the birds of prey in flight (we have high hopes), and the 70D can do things my 40D cannot. I'm looking forward to getting acquainted with it.

My lens of choice is the EF-S 18-135mm, not that I know what any of that means.

I'll have the monopod, while M will haul a tripod on his backpack. 

We'll have extra batteries and memory cards, and M will have several different lenses so that he can be in the middle of switching them when the Steinadler (golden eagle) flies overhead.

Self-Catering Needs

Center front you see the all-important knife sharpener. We cannot stand dull knives, but we seem to be alone in this. We bring a knife sharpener everywhere we travel - I even bring one when I travel to my parents' house. This little one isn't M's favorite, but it works in a pinch, and his whetstones would be too cumbersome to pack.

We also bring one good kitchen knife - again, I never travel without it when I know I will be doing some cooking. M made a sheath for it before my last trip to Wisconsin, with a warning mainly to protect the airport security guys rummaging through my suitcase.

We pack our vegetable peeler because I don't like using anything else, and mini packets of spices for the recipes we're bringing - lamb stew and Gulasch. We buy the lamb and beef from Glengorm and the vegetables from their gardens - it doesn't get more local than that!

Sorry, I couldn't resist.

I always pack a kitchen cloth as well, because usually it's a washcloth that is provided for doing dishes and wiping the counters, and I prefer the ones we use at home. I probably sound a little looney.


I bring two or three books and buy more while traveling. For Scotland I always bring a book about Scottish history, and for Mull I bring the little book about walks to take on the island, which I picked up a few years ago. 

I like to keep a journal to record the fun, funny, and frustrating moments and basically what we did each day.

There are other things on our packing list, but what I've pictured and mentioned above are the most important. Ha! I just realized I didn't think to put my tablet, keyboard, or smart phone in the picture. I will surely bring the tablet for checking emails occasionally and the mobile phone for summoning island rescue if one of us runs into very bad luck, but M will have his laptop, and if there's any posting of pictures being done, I'll use that. 

What do I buy??

What kinds of things do I buy when we go to Mull and other parts of Scotland? I'm not much for shopping, really, but I love the little shops in Tobermory. This is what I bought last year (two of the books were gifts from the kids):

The Craghopper fleece, Jacobs Cream Crackers (we both go mad for these!), books, books, and more books, a Mull calendar to hold us through the next year, something showing Mull - last year two slate coasters - a Mull heather scented candle, a bar of Mull soap, and a mini bottle of Tobermory whisky. Island Wife was written by a woman who lived and ran a B&B on Mull with her husband for a number of years, and the History of Glengorm was published last year and written by the mother of Tom Nelson, who has owned and run the Glengorm estate since he took over from his parents.

Why the lobster?

The lobster has become somewhat of a mascot for us, due to a book we're both reading which was written by a clinical psychologist from Canada who has been making quite some waves during the last year or so. Funnily enough, I bought this little finger puppet on our trip to New Hampshire & Maine as a souvenir quite a few years ago. He's been living in my "teaching props" bag since then, but lately he hangs out in our living room.

Scotland, here we come!

North Mull, view from Glengorm Castle

a burn on Mull

Loch Na Keal, Isle of Mull