Trip Report - Islay March 2015

By Helen Franklin

Twelve members of the Bird Club set off north on the morning of Friday, 20 March 2015 in order to break the 440 - 500 mile journey at various venues north of Glasgow in preparation for the 1.05pm ferry crossing from Kennacraig to Port Askaig on Islay the next day. For some their journey took in some birding on the way – at WWT Caerlaverock Wetland Centre – others motored on and timed their pit stops at a suitable venue to attempt a good view of the partial eclipse. This should have been possible all over the UK if the cloud-cover had allowed, but sadly none of us was able to get really good views or photos.

Day one – Saturday, 21 March

After an evening spent variously at hotels on the shores of Loch Lomond or Loch Long we woke to a stunning frosty morning the next day with clear blue skies and not a breath of wind to disturb the mirror image of the hills in the surface of the lochs. We wound our way west across to the ferry terminal at Kennacraig, birding on the water’s edge or scanning over the hills along the way, picking to find a corner sheltered from the biting wind in order to maximize the spotting opportunities for birds and, if we were lucky, mammals too. We did briefly glimpse some Harbour Porpoises much to my delight, longer would have been better, but some is better than none. There were also Grey and Common Seals on many of the rocks on the shore edge and the skerries that we passed. The sea state was calm and gave us a very smooth crossing.

Our accommodations on Islay were to be found on the shores of Lock Gruinart, some in the stunning, recently renovated self-catering Gruinart Farmhouse and three in the nearby B&B at Gruinart House. Both are surrounded by RSPB Loch Gruinart Reserve and having briefly stowed our bags in our rooms and grabbed a snack as necessary we elected to each spend the remainder of the afternoon exploring our environs - Richard put in a 16-mile run in preparation for his first marathon attempt in three weeks time, some of us took a stroll around the reserve to orientate themselves, while others relaxed with the final rugby games in this winter’s Six Nations Competition on the television. We became used to the local animals and birds around us – Barnacle Geese in their thousands, Greylags and the Greenland White-fronted Geese, Chough prospecting in the derelict barns next door to us, more Brown Hares than rabbits and deer in the field just over the wall.

Since we did not have much local knowledge of shops being open over the week-end we had booked dinner for the first two nights at the local Port Charlotte Hotel and found the choice from a nice varied menu very agreeable – not cheap, but good value for money with several local dishes and plenty of locally caught sea-food to choose from.

Hooded Crow

Day two - Sunday, 22 March

After a very leisurely start, when none of us made the proposed dawn trip out to see the geese fly in to the fields below the house, we slowly got ourselves organized and made a consensus that we should first be exploring the reserve around us and visiting the RSPB visitor center for the morning and decide over a scratch lunch at the house what to do in the afternoon when we were more sure what the weather would have in store for us. We were pleasantly surprised that the forecast had been wrong and we had more sunshine than promised and a fresh spring breeze for most of the afternoon and spent it driving south round the Rinns of Islay. By the end of the tour we had found a couple of stunning Hen Harriers – which unlike their experience in England – do very well on this island and we saw birds quartering the moors or fields on most days. They also have “real” Rock Doves – more true than the “maybe” birds which cross so readily with feral pigeons on the mainland.

The Port Charlotte Hotel has live music year round on Sunday evenings and a few of us stayed on after dinner – the rest retired to the farmhouse for a call-over and relaxation after a busy day!!

Highland cattle
Day three - Monday, 23 March

This day was spent travelling down the Oa peninsula to visit the RSPB reserve there in the hope of tracking down the resident Golden Eagles. We stopped on the way at the stream by the Woolen Mill in Bridgend in search of a Dipper, but were disappointed. However, across the road in a field which was being ploughed Neil spotted our first Iceland Gull of the day which was very encouraging (and a lifer for John). The farmer even stopped ploughing for 5 minutes to make sure he did not disturb it while we watched. We ended up seeing 3-4 of tghem by the day's end.

Travelling down through Bowmore we collected the provisions for a packed lunch at the excellent Co-op and continued south, stopping and starting as necessary to take in the views and anything worth checking in the fields and peat moorland. I was surprised to see plenty of evidence of peat cutting, some of it probably quite historic, but we also saw a couple of places where freshly cut peat was stacked to dry. It is a shame that this still goes on and that the habitat that a peat moor supports is not understood and conserved

The Oa reserve is a vast expanse of open landscape with few trees for cover, very exposed to the elements, so we were very happy to find that the weather forecast was again wrong and we had only the briefest of showers during the afternoon and although the wind was brisk it did not stop us taking the circular path at a leisurely pace. Here at the top of the point is the American Monument to their nationals who died in two ships which sank off the point – part of the convoys to supply UK in the First World War.

Undoubtedly the highlight to our afternoon was sitting watching a pair of Golden Eagles displaying over a crag to our east. They were probably a mile or more away, so they were never close, but they were visibly different sizes and we watched as they spent at least 20 minutes making their splendid loop-the-loop circuits, rather reminiscent of a roller-coaster up into a loop and then stooping vertically with folded wings only to glide out at the bottom and up again into a bow shaped climb to repeat the process.

Failing to discover a suitable venue for dinner (which I am sure does exist in the summer, but is less easy to find in March before the tourist season proper has started) we elected to cook at the farmhouse that night. This resulted in a slightly chaotic cooking session on an Aga with no thermostat, in a kitchen with a vast choice of cupboards in which to hide the pans and plates – but we did all get fed in the end, even if rather late!!

Day four - Tuesday, 24 March

We awoke next day to a very different scene, grey clouds, a strong wind and the threat of rain on every horizon. The early morning walk was again just a myth, however after breakfast, we all took a circular drive round Loch Gorm which is always actually better if you use a car as a hide (if there are any birds on the water that is), so we set off with all our layers and boots to brave the elements. The drive produced the now-familiar geese, skylarks and stonechats and eventually delivered us into a car park behind Machir Bay where lovely old sand dunes are now partially covered in rough grass to bind them into an interesting terrain of round mounds and deep valleys. Twite were almost the only birds found in amongst the dunes as we took a circular walk, but Rock Doves were scooting round the hummocks enjoying the wind whistling in from the west, and once again although the rain threatened to soak us, we escaped with only a buffeting and I for one took my promised “toe-in-the water” moment in honour of visiting the sea (the Irish Sea here). The beach would have done a surfer proud and a small flock of mixed gulls were enjoying the wind and the sun in totally gorgeous light for the photographers amongst us.

Since we were invited to visit the monthly Islay Bird Club gathering at the Gaelic Centre in the evening, we decided to eat in the Cottage Restaurant in Bowmoor High Street for our main meal of the day at lunch time to save the rush of trying to eat before the trip into town for 7.30pm. This little café is apparently the only restaurant/café which serves the local fish and chips we had thought should be an easy find on an island, but it appears there is no such thing as a traditional fish and chip shop here – although a mobile van operates normally – at least in the summer – but not this week!!

After lunch, searching for the elusive White-tailed Eagles and otters took us, under local advice, down to the ferry terminal at Askaig to check out the slipway and the bays on either side of the main terminal and then up the side roads to the north of the road into the island. Here we found two distilleries, but no eagles despite a lovely old dead sheep on the side of the road to attract them.

Members of the Islay Bird Club meets at the Gaelic Centre once a month to swap and record local sightings with each other and they always invite any visiting birders or groups of birders in our case to join them – they had even changed the week of the meeting in order so we could attend. Several other visitors were also present, although, unlike us it appeared that most of them come to visit the island regularly and maintain a close and lively interest in the island bird life. There was a lively debate over the controversial question of whether, and how, the geese population should be culled to support local farmers who sacrifice their winter grazing to their avian visitors. We were made to feel very welcome and much appreciated being given yet more tips of where eagles and otters might be seen around and about. They also gave us hope that the roaring wind which had blown us off our feet all day might have blown itself out by the morning.

American memorial
Day five - Wednesday, 25 March

Another sunny clear dawned today and the wind had thankfully dropped so that our planned trip to Jura might go ahead, the forecast for Thursday being suspiciously gloomy-looking, and not to be risked.  The little roll-on-roll-off ferry only takes 7 minutes to cross the straights between the islands, but the wake it leaves draws an interesting S-shaped curve through the water as it battles against the rip current that takes command down the center of the channel.

On arrival on Jura an hour was spent scanning back to the woodland on the hillside on the eastern shore of Islay as two or three White-tailed Eagles were briefly sighted testing the thermals over the trees to be joined at times by Common Buzzards and Ravens.  There is only one road up the length of Jura and very little traffic, so we wandered our way north, stopping to admire either the birds, or in my case the magnificent views of the Jura Quartzite outcrops (the three Paps of Jura being some of them).  My second hobby after birding is geology and sadly the story in the western side of Scotland is SO complicated it takes serious scholars to unravel the train of events which has led to this dramatic landscape.  I have no chance of getting to grips with it even with a book to hand, but the mixture of folding and tilting strata caused by massive continental collisions millions of years ago, intrusions by volcanic eruptions and more recently the influence of the Ice Age cutting the long deep valleys in which the lochs now lie have all formed the beautiful views we see today.  We scanned every bay the length of the road, but sadly failed to spot the otters we were assured live there.

Good views of Golden Eagles were again my personal highlight of the day.  Towards the north of the island we stopped and watched as a pair of eagles spent several minutes harassing 4 red deer on the hillside opposite us.  It would appear that they were attempting to cause the deer to bolt down the hillside with so little care that they would either fall in the attempt to evade the talons of the eagles or leap off a rocky outcrop and that either death or injury would deliver the birds their tasty meal.  The birds failed on this occasion, but the birds definitely connected with the back of at least one deer that must have received a nasty shock if not an actual wound.

Tea and scones or cake at the Jura Hotel (at Craighouse) fortified us mid-afternoon for the journey back to the ferry.  This, the only hotel on the island, would be a lovely place to stay for a quiet break away from it all – I would love to have had time to do some walking on the hills – and have added it to my list of places to revisit in the future.  Adjacent to the hotel is one of the 7 distilleries John managed to visit during the week to make sure he achieved the full set.

The head of Loch Indaal sports a substantial bird roost most evenings at this time of year and a brief check on the way home from the ferry added a flock of eleven Pale-bellied Brent Geese, about fifty Bar-tailed Godwits and thousands of Barnacle Geese plus another Iceland Gull to our growing bird list.

Dinner that night was taken at Yan’s Kitchen in Port Charlotte which specializes in locally caught fish and Argyll meats.  We were all tired and it was getting late by the time we arrived so we were very glad to have the place practically to ourselves and to find a place which could accommodate and cook for such a large group of people at such short notice.  They did us proud and we enjoyed a very nice meal.

Day six - Thursday, 26 March – our last full day on the island

For once the weather forecast was right, and we woke to a very, very windy day and some very sharp showers however we also experienced plenty of sunshine and the photographers were blessed with lovely clear light for their last pictures before we had to leave.

Each of the five cars elected to spend their last day on a different part of the island in the morning and John disappeared to finish off his tour of the distilleries, some returned to the Rinns for the a last look and Neil’s car returned to seek out the sheep’s carcass on the Persabus Pottery road in the hope that it might have attracted some eagles.  Sadly the farmer appeared to have cleared it away as there was not a trace left of it and no eagles to be found either.  The last venue to be covered by our tour was a drive later in the afternoon to the tip of Ardnave Point.  Here again the ancient dunes behind the raised beach are covered in a wonderful grassy sward which had attracted a large flock of 30-40 Chough and a couple of Wheatears – our first for the week and also the first evidence of the coming influx of summer migrants.  How they had made landfall against such a strong head wind who knows, even the people were having trouble standing upright in the strong wind.  As we turned for home a shower produced a perfect rainbow visible to the ground at both ends, which seemed a fitting finale to our walk and our visit.

We returned to the Farmhouse to do a little packing and tidying and, since cooking was not a good idea once the kitchen was clean, decided to order a take-away from the Chinese in Bowmore.  Thanks were due to Neil and John for venturing out in the rain at the end of a tiring day to collect it and feelings were mixed about the quality of the meal they had chosen – but it was definitely easier than cooking!!

Day seven – Friday, 27 March – the day we left

For logistical and tidal reasons, different ferry times leave Islay from different ports and our return to the mainland was to be from Port Ellen at 9.30am on the last morning of our visit.  So a hasty clear-up and a speedy car packing exercise was made in record time to leave Loch Gruinart by 8am to take the drive the length of the island for the 9.45am ferry.  The wind was still strong, and we were told by several people in the know, that with a strengthening wind forecast the boats the following day were likely to be cancelled, so feelings were mixed as we boarded the ferry – half wishing they could be marooned for longer and half feeling lucky that they would make the crossing before the weather closed in.  Despite the wind, the crossing proved even sunnier and calmer than the journey over and although we did not see any new birds, nor the elusive otters, a spell on the sunny deck was a fitting end to our trip and the last hours of relaxation for the drivers who faced the long haul back down the spine of the mainland to Northamptonshire (or Warwickshire in our case!!).

The members of the group were Neil McMahon, Sarah Gibbs, Barry Boswell, Stephen Aris, Tricia Wood, Richard Piner, Ken Scales, Roger Pringle, Diane Freeman, Margaret Earp and Helen & John Franklin.  We ended up seeing 98 species on Islay in less than a week and with plenty of birds from the ferry crossing and on the mainland it ended up being a very respectable total.

A relaxing moment

1 comment:

  1. Hi All
    It sounds as if you guys have very interesting birding tour destinations and have a balance between pure birding and interesting diversions! I met several people from your bird club on a trip out to Cape Town (South Africa) - most of the guys were called Bob!. The species you list in this trip report have contemporaries here in Africa but with some interesting exceptions like Dipper and Cough.

    Dalton Gibbs - Cape Town