TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT
Monday 25 Saturday 30 March 2002
Day 1, Monday 25th March:
Two of the group had already arrived on Islay ahead of the tour, so we joined up and went to the airport to meet the other three coming in on the morning flight at 10.10am. There was a slight delay, but we were all on our way around Loch Indaal past Bowmore by 11.am. We stopped at various pull-offs to begin sampling the islands birding potential. Various ducks and waders were noted offshore, including Eider, Goldeneye, Curlew, Oystercatcher, Redshank and the first of many Barnacle Geese. We had a change of scene prior to lunch at the Bridgend Hotel, with a lovely walk in Bridgend woods, in good sunny weather. Here we found numerous regular woodland species such as Bullfinch, Coal Tit, Goldcrest, plus a Grey Wagtail on the river.
After lunch, we went straight to Port Charlotte and checked into our rooms. Then out again to take advantage of the super sunny afternoon. Looking offshore just by the hotel we found summer-plumaged Red-throated Divers, more wintry Great Northern Divers, plus Guillemot, Razorbill and two superb Purple Sandpipers, seen remarkably well in the scope. Then off around to Machir Bay, finding the resident Pink-footed Goose amongst thousands of Barnacle and White-fronted Geese. The regular immature Iceland Gull was in fields near Sunderland Farm, and a fine male Hen Harrier appeared in the distance. At Machir we did the full circular walk, through the sand dunes and fields, finding a pair of Peregrines and great looks at Twite, then returning via the glorious wide sandy beach to the minibus. A circuit around Loch Gorm found us two groups of fine Whooper Swans and many Greylag Geese. By this time it was approaching 6pm and time to call it a very productive first day of the tour.
Day 2, Tuesday 26th March:
We met up at the hotel at 8.45am a good breakfast inside and bright sunny weather outside! We headed straight off to the Loch Gruinart area and began scanning for anything "odd" amongst the scattered geese flocks. We continued up the east side of Loch Gruinart to watch along the Killinallan Road to it's end a beautiful stretch of sandy flats on one side and moorland/farmland on the other where we found good views of Rock Pipits, and waders such as Bar-tailed Godwit and Sanderling, plus Wigeon, Red-breasted Mergansers and Goldeneye. At the end of the road, the exposed sandbanks on the sea loch produced our first loafing Common Seals. Returning by mid-morning, we drove over the Coullabus road towards Bridgend, meeting up with another birding group who were watching a pair of distant but discernible Golden Eagles. We did the same!
A stop off in Bowmore was next for picnic supplies and a visit to the Tourist Information Centre, before continuing eastwards to Port Ellen, where we braved the cool but very sunny weather for an al fresco picnic by The Maltings. After eating we called in to the nearby harbour just in case the other winter-resident Iceland Gull was about. It was and gave brilliant close-up views flying about us pecking at a trawler's cast-offs in the water. From here we continued up to the end of the road at Ardtalla, passing the three Distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulin (plus a stop off to look at Dunyveg Castle) and Ardbeg. The later we stopped at good shop and a café with coffee and tea on the go. Then onwards passing the lovely sheltered wooded bays up towards Claggain Bay itself. We paused and looked at more seals, some very close groups of Red Deer including rutting stags then stopped at Kildalton to admire the fine early Christian Celtic Cross and finally took a stroll along the water's edge at Claggain before returning back towards Port Charlotte. The return was fairly direct except for a stop at the top of Loch Indaal at Bridgend where the Barnacle Geese had gathered to roost and with them a different Pink-footed Goose to yesterday's bird.
Day 3, Wednesday 27th March:
It was another dry and sunny day, with a cool easterly wind to start with. The morning was spent doing a driving circuit of the Rinns of Islay from Port Charlotte and back. Down at Port Wemyss and Portnahaven, the expected Grey Seals were loafing about and offshore there was a steady stream of Gannets passing west to east and with them a few Fulmars and Guillemots but nothing coming close enough to call a "good view". We admired the whining and whooshing concrete block that is the unique Wave-powered Electricity Generator doing good business in today's strong onshore swells. Further around we watched a fine male Hen Harrier before heading up to Kilchiaran and back over through the plantation forestry to Port Charlotte. We watched Moorhens and Whooper Swans on a mucky little pool just above the village and Stonechats from the viewpoint where we searched for raptors.
A brief stop was made at the Port Charlotte Hotel before continuing around Loch Indaal. We had the intention of going to Bridgend for lunch supplies to have a picnic at Loch Skerrols. At the shop at Bruichladdich the sandwiches were all gone, so I dropped Skerrols for Bowmore, but then quickly dropped that idea too when we were told of a large flock of Golden Plover just behind the shop where the Gyr Falcon had been seen and also of the "return" of the Red-breasted Goose around Mulindry! By this time Plan A had gone to at least J or K ! The Golden Plovers were in place at Bruichladdich a magnificent flock of 200+; many in superb breeding plumage. No falcon of course, so we continued into Bowmore, picked up food there and wandered the back-roads checking all Barnacle Goose flocks for the rare Red-breasted. Nothing doing here, but we were fired-up to continue birding and dropped the planned Distillery visit for another time. We returned back over to the Rinns (checking geese along the way) and arrived at the RSPB Visitor Centre by mid-afternoon. Here we discovered a note saying the Red-breasted Goose had been seen on the Reserve! We checked another couple of thousand Barnacles and went off to the hide overlooking the floods, full of Teal and Wigeon amongst other ducks all in beautiful backlit sunshine. On the way there THE BIRD showed up exactly 5 months to the day I had first found it, the Red-breasted Goose was back! At first it was elusive and flew back towards the Visitor Centre, but here we all finally had great looks at this most lovely of the geese. Then back to the hide to check out what else might be there, before having to get back to the hotel by 6pm, in order to take an early supper and attend the AGM of the Islay Wildlife Centre followed by a film on the island's wildlife by Gordon Yates.
Day 4, Thursday 28th March:
The weather was again basically bright, clear, sunny and, at times, quite mild. The group had decided against visiting Jura and were keen to try out a walk on the RSPB Upper Killeyan Reserve on the Mull of Oa. We set out at just before 9am around Loch Indaal, calling in to the wonderful Golden Plover flock just in case the Gyr Falcon was about it wasn't, but the plovers were splendid in bright sunlight. I checked in with Malcolm Ogilvie to see if there were any recent sightings of Otters, but just the usual places were mentioned along with the usual caveat that it is luck and patience rather than anything else that gets results! We continued to Loch Skerrols, where I've seen otters previously, but found instead the year's first Sand Martins, plus huge numbers of Barnacle Geese in adjacent fields accompanied by a couple of (genuinely wild) Canada Geese and a single Brent Goose. From there we continued to the Woollen Mill where we were given a guided tour of operations, then birded the bird-feeders and river outside. I'd seen a pair of Dippers here last week, but despite good effort, we "dipped" today. By now it was late morning. We zipped into Bowmore, finding a summer-plumaged Slavonian Grebe near to town. We grabbed a warming cup of coffee at the Harbour Inn, bought lunch items and went straight on to the Oa for our walk to the American Monument (dedicated to US soldiers lost at sea off Islay in the First World War) and around the cliffs. This was a much better walk than one I'd done in cloud and rain last Sunday! The weather was great, visibility good and it was a delight to be out. The coastal scenery is fairly spectacular here, made all the more so by 30 minutes of watching a super adult Golden Eagle soaring up and down the cliffs harried by Ravens, with several extremely close views of a pair of Peregrines dashing about the cliffs.
By mid afternoon we were back and heading for closer to home, with another Otter site to check out. We drove the pretty dead-end road down to Sanaigmore and walked the low cliffs, rocky inlets and sandy beaches for about an hour, seeing our first Black Guillemots, but still no otters.
Day 5, Friday 29th March:
Our final day (Good Friday) was blessed yet again with bright, sunny and increasingly calm and mild weather. We worked our way around Loch Indaal to Bowmore for about 10am, passing by Bruichladdich where the Golden Plover flock had dwindled to 3 stragglers. Near to Bowmore, with flat seas, we picked out a distant group of Common Scoter, plus usual Great Northern Divers, Eiders, Red-breasted Mergansers etc. We finally caught up with a Whisky Distillery visit at Bowmore. A very informative hour and a half was taken up with the tour, the short film and of course a whisky tasting and a few purchases to remember the place by! Picnic food was purchased and we zoomed back to a pretty little picnic site on the shore between Bruichladdich and Port Charlotte for a lunch looking out over a sunny calm sea. Then on for coffee at Port Charlotte and a visit to the great little Museum Of Islay Life -full of fascinating "stuff" relating to past times on the island. Then into the bus and up to the Woollen Mill. We didn't go inside this time, but just watched and waited until a Dipper zipped by downstream, giving short but reasonable views for most of us. Our "busy" schedule then took us north again to Finlaggan, where we met up with John Cameron who gave us an introductory chat about this remarkable historic site. This was a fascinating visit, with a great Visitor Centre and exhibits explaining the historical importance of the site as the seat of the Clan MacDonald and "Lords of the Isles", followed by a walk out over the site too. From here we went to the end of the road at Port Askaig and looked over to the very different, rugged island of Jura, turned about and went up the side road to Bunnahabhain. Here was yet another well-known site for otters (and Whisky!) that, on this occasion didn't produce the goods. Oh well - it was a lovely visit anyway! A gorgeous calm sunny early evening looking out over the heather uplands and Sound of Islay, with Jura in the background. Yellowhammers were new here and put on a good show. We took a very pleasant walk down to the shore and happily idled away our time before the return journey back to Port Charlotte by just after 6.30pm.
Day 6, Saturday 30th March: I picked the group up at 8.45am to start our return around Loch Indaal, and on to the Airport. The plane was on time and I said my farewells to the group as the fantastic lucky streak of sunny weather began to deteriorate into cloud and drizzle! We had seen/heard about 100 species on our short time touring Islay driven just about every road, got to most corners of the island and sampled its other cultural delights whisky, history, wool-spinning, good food, friendly locals and extraordinarily good weather.
Note: The following Checklist gives details of the bird and mammal species seen on the tour. Numbers are approximate only. "*" indicates a species seen commonly, but not counted, "h" indicates a species heard but not seen.