Sunday, 8 November 2009

Islay and Jura Pt 1

The Atlantic from Port Wemyss, Islay
Port Wemyss, Islay

Cliffs at Oa, Islay.

American Monument at Oa, Islay.

Cliffs at Oa, Islay

29th Oct. After a train journey up the east coast in full sun where I spotted several skeins of geese, possibly Pink Footed Geese, I was met at Edinburgh by drizzling rain which continued off and on as I travelled onwards to Glasgow. We were soon heading past Loch Lomond, Loch Long and Loch Fyne on our way to catch the ferry from Kennacraig to Port Ellen, Islay. I had recorded my first Common Buzzards, Ravens and Hooded Crows on the journey from Glasgow and during a short stop at Loch Long the only Peregrine Falcon and Lesser Black Backed Gull of the trip. There was a number of variable hybrid Hooded and Carrion Crows on the shore here. The rain became heavier as we approached the west coast and darkness set in very early. Happily I managed to eat my scampi and chips and drink my red wine on the ferry before the waters became choppy, which made walking in a straight line impossible, and no, the red wine had no role in this. After the two+ hour crossing we were soon at out hotel at Bridgend on the island, and as my room was above the bar I was entertained until almost midnight by pop music, as I prayed for quietness and for drier weather for morning!

30th Oct. The morning was cloudy, but in the main dry. I was fully aware of Islay’s reputation of perhaps being the best place in Europe to see geese and I remembered Peter Scott’s comments about it, but I hadn’t been prepared to see quiet so many and this trip definitely provided my best ever geese watching by far, many of them at very close quarters. The Greenland Barnacle Geese (up to 40,000 on the island I believe), were of course the most numerous and we began to see large flocks of these within minutes of leaving the hotel as we travelled the edge of Loch Indaal. There were also a number of smaller flocks of Greenland White Fronted Geese and these again provided my best ever sighting of this species that I have only ever seen at distance at Loch Ken in Dumfries. Smaller numbers of Greylag Geese were also seen. Geese were to be seen in their thousands throughout the next three days on Islay.

We were making for the RSPB Reserve at Loch Gruinart and before arrival we began to see our first flocks of Redwing and Fieldfare, which again were to be seen in large numbers throughout the trip. Eider Duck were seen on the sea as were numbers of Red Breasted Merganser, another bird often seen over the few days we were on the islands. The reserve at Loch Gruinart provided us with some good sightings of more geese of course, but also Grey Heron, Shelduck, Wigeon, Mallard, Gadwall Pintail, Shoveller, Teal, Tufted Duck and Goldeneye. Our first small flock of Whooper Swans was also seen here. Around lunch time the rains returned so we sought shelter in the hide and the reserve centre which provides a good large window view across the reserve. Waders seen were Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Curlew and Snipe. I have to say, the trip as a whole did not bring sightings of too many waders. The rain became steadily heavier and some discussion took place about a visit to a distillery! I had already made it known I don’t like whisky unless mixed with dry ginger and that comment was met with some sniggering. I don’t know why! Anyway I opted to return to the area near our hotel for a walk in the woodland with some others whilst others couldn’t resist the pull of malt whisky.

In the event I never made it to the woodland as I was tempted by another guy to walk back to the hotel around the edge of Loch Indaal, a walk of four miles. As it happened I was easily tempted as I was feeling a bit tied to the vehicle and as the rain had eased it seemed a good idea at the time. Well, we all make mistakes and this turned out to be one of mine. No sooner had the vehicle left us and the rain came down heavily and never ceased to do so throughout the walk. It was being blown in off the sea and loch by strong winds and my face was stinging from the force of it. It wasn’t all bad though as I found a Slavonian Grebe on the Loch edge, the first of only two seen throughout the trip and we had the pleasure of walking close by flocks of Barnacle Geese as they lifted and flew over our heads. Snipe were seen also. I wasn’t so keen on the cattle I had to walk through although they seemed as cheesed off with the rain as I did! Four miles began to seem one hec of a long way, and was I pleased when our friends returned from the distillery and picked us up after three miles. I was soaked to the skin by a mix of rain and perspiration caused by my waterproofs. Young Sean, a staff member at the hotel took my clothes to the drying room. In fact it would have probably been easier just to peg me up in them so wet was I. Anyway I’m sure it will be an experience I shall look back on with fondness. I had a cappuccino before diving into a hot bath.

31st Oct. We had an early morning walk planned, but in fact stayed in the vehicle, as yes you’ve guessed, it was raining still. We drove along the edge of Loch Indaal again and watched the flocks of Barnacle Geese, White Fronted Geese and Greylag Geese and on return and over breakfast I spotted in the hotel grounds my first Song Thrush of the trip. One of our party was keen to find the two Richardson’s Canada Geese that were reported on the island. I couldn’t help feel he was going to require some luck! (We never did find them). The good news was that the forecast suggested that the rain was to come in the form of heavy showers today and that was how things turned out.

We were soon heading for the cliff top reserve at the Oa. On the journey birds included numbers of Raven, Common Buzzard, Stonechat, House Sparrow and Reed Bunting. At the start of the walk towards the American Monument (which commemorates American servicemen lost during the First World War) on the cliff top, we had a fleeting glimpse of our first Hen Harrier, a ringtail. There were many more Common Buzzards, Ravens and Hooded Crows throughout the walk, but none of the hoped for Choughs. The showers came as promised and conditions underfoot were wet in the extreme. There were large flocks of Redwing and Fieldfare about which were seen well, as were the large flocks of Twite which fed close to us. Linnets, Meadow Pipit and Rock Pipit were also about. The light was wonderful and the Antrim coast could be seen very faintly through cloud and mist. After taking in the excellent views from the clifftop we walked back to the vehicle and I managed to miss the first Merlin of the trip as I lagged behind talking to a guy who was visiting from Leeds. Despite the heavy shower this morning, this was to be the best day weather wise we had on Islay and at last we were seeing the island at its best.

After lunch we were to take the drive via Bridgend to the bay at Port Wemyss. The journey was to bring us some excitement and a great sighting. Over the hills to the east two large birds were seen and it didn’t take to long to realise these were Golden Eagles. It didn’t take long for us to jump from the vehicles and everyone had great sightings. They put on a fine display of circling over the hills as we watched for around ten minutes. They gave fine views. Red Deer, Roe Deer and Islay Brown Hare were seen on the journey and once at the bay both Grey Seal and Common Seal were found. It was a little disappointing that there were not the expected numbers of divers around, but we did have a fine close up sighting of Great Northern Diver. Other birds included Cormorant, Shag, Oystercatcher, Redshank, Curlew and Turnstone.

We returned to the RSPB Reserve at Loch Gruinart in the hope of seeing the geese come into roost, but the majority had beaten us to it. On inspection the fields were covered with thousand upon thousand of geese, of course in the main Barnacle Geese. This was an amazing sight in itself especially as the flocks occasionally lifted. A volunteer at the reserve advised us of Hen Harrier roost, but I felt we visited too late and nothing was seen but Common Buzzards, although our only Goldcrest of the trip was heard calling.
It was of course Halloween and the hotel was holding a party in the bar so my room was throbbing along with the music so I felt it best to stay downstairs for a drink myself. It was entertaining to say the least as I almost accosted by Miss Piggy, a member of staff in a Miss Piggy mask. I had earlier watched Miss Piggy slurping from a bottle of wine. Then Count Dracula joined us complete with blow up doll strategically strapped to his body, and the description I shall leave to your imagination. Thankfully the party moved on at 11.30pm and I could get some sleep!


  1. Nice trip report there KB. I've never been to Islay and would really fancy a visit...

  2. Cheers Stewart. I'll save part two for tomorrow. Brian.

  3. Sounds like you had fun in part 1, the weather is amazing on that island, I think dramatic is a good descriptive word.

  4. I think dramatic does sum things up very well Cain. :-) More drama to come. Some of the skies were amazing. Cheers Brian

  5. Sounds like you had a great time.

    "There were also a number of smaller flocks of Greenland White Fronted Geese and these again provided my best ever sighting of this species that I have only ever seen at distance at Loch Ken in Dumfries." That's the last time I let you look throug my scope! ;)

    Look forward to part 2.

  6. LOL The view through your scope was excellent Andrew:-) Cheers Brian.

  7. Excellent account of your trip.....look forward to part 2

  8. Cheers John. Pt 2 comming soon. Brian