TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT

Islay

October – 4 November 2004


Leaders:
Peter Roberts



Trip Diary


Day 1, Saturday 30th October
:

The group arrived on time on Islay on the morning flight at 9.45am. The weather was superb and remained so all day: bright sunny, calm, mild and dry.
We set off on our way towards the Port Charlotte Hotel to drop the luggage off, but the birding around the shores of Loch Indaal past Bowmore delayed us until nearly lunch time. We stopped at various pull-offs to begin sampling the island's birding potential: I was especially keen to take advantage of the good calm weather to 'scope for water birds on the flat sea. Various ducks and waders were noted offshore, including Eider, Goldeneye, Curlew, Oystercatcher, Redshank and the first of many Barnacle Geese. In addition were several family groups of migrant Whooper Swans, and great looks at a flock of Greater Scaup close inshore. Tucked in amongst these were several Slavonian Grebes and a fine little Long-tailed Duck.
We stopped off in Bruichladdich to order some sandwiches to be made up for our picnic (picking them up on our way back through later), then proceeded to the Port Charlotte Hotel and checked into rooms. Then out again to take advantage of the super sunny afternoon. Checking Loch Indaal off the pier at Bruichladdich we were surprised to see a lone Manx Shearwater winging and gliding its way up into the loch – the first I’d seen in Loch Indaal since I moved here 5 years ago, though there are often plenty offshore earlier in the season. A little further up were a group of Purple Sandpipers on the rocks with Turnstones, Curlews and Ringed Plovers. After picking up our picnic we came across a lot of feeding activity further up the loch. Masses of gulls were joined very close inshore by many Guillemots, Razorbills, Red-throated and Great Northern Divers and a couple of late juvenile terns – one Arctic and one Common!
Then off around to Machir Bay, to eat our late lunch before opting for a good walk around the machair dunes and back along the lovely expanse of sandy beach. Before arriving here we were treated to some perched and flight views of Merlins and a female Hen Harrier. The walk was very pleasant in the mild dry and sunny afternoon, and enhanced by finding a pair or two of Choughs and a perched Peregrine up on the hills above us, where several of many Common Buzzards seen today soared. A circuit around Loch Gorm found us further groups of fine Whooper Swans feeding on the stubbles, Common Stonechats on the gorse and expansive views across to Mull, Colonsay and Oronsay from Sanaigmore. By this time light was failing and time to call it a very productive first day of the tour.

Day 2, Sunday 31st October:
We met up at the hotel at 9am – a good breakfast inside and another calm, dry, but overcast day outside!
We headed straight off towards Finlaggan this morning, but stopped at intervals along Loch Indaal on the way to Bridgend. The feeding gulls, divers and auks were still concentrated and present, as were the Scaup (with their Long-tailed Duck) a little further along. At Finlaggan we had a fascinating visit to this small, insignificant-looking, yet very important historical site. The booklets and information boards dotted around helped in explaining the historical importance of the site as the seat of the Clan MacDonald and “Lords of the Isles” as we walked out over the ruins to the island itself.
From here (after a coffee break) we went further north to look out over to the very different, rugged island of Jura from the side road to Bunnahabhain. Here was a well-known site for Otters and whiskey. After much peering and searching I picked out a single rather distant Otter feeding inshore. It was around long enough for everyone to watch its antics – but all hoped for closer views later in the trip. Back to Bridgend now, where I’d arranged for soup and sandwiches at 1pm – but not without a stop or two to check for oddities amongst the thousands of roadside geese.
With lunch finished at 2pm and the clocks gone back last night, there was precious little daylight left – even less with the overcast conditions, so we zipped down to Loch Gruinart for a first visit for the remainder of the day. We scanned and admired many more thousands of wonderfully close geese in flocks scattered over fields and out on the loch and mudflats itself: an inspiring sight and sound. We continued up the east side of the Loch 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. Waders such as Bar-tailed Godwit and Golden Plover plus wildfowl such as Wigeon, Red-breasted Merganser and Goldeneye were seen. At the end of the road, the exposed sandbanks on the sea loch produced our first loafing Common Seals. Returning back via Loch Gorm, we reached the Hotel by 4.45pm in fast failing light.

Day 3, Monday 1st November: It was another overcast but calm day, giving way to occasional very light drizzle at times.
Meeting up at about 8.45am, we first looked offshore at the hotel finding a group of 7 Purple Sandpipers on the rocks and a splendid pair of winter-plumaged Black Guillemots not too far out in Loch Indaal. After this we drove a circuit of the Rinns of Islay from Port Charlotte and back. First down to Port Wemys and Portnahaven where the expected Grey Seals were loitering. Out on the lighthouse island of Orsay we were surprised to find a group of 5 Roe Deer; I’d not seen these on the island before. We went down to admire the whining and whooshing concrete block that is the unique Wave-powered Electricity Generator. We got there ahead of the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alastair Darling, who was scheduled to do a day visit to Islay today and make this one of his stop-offs. Up to Kilchiaran pausing to photograph it unique 19th century semi-circular cattle steadings, then back over through the plantation forestry to Port Charlotte. By now it was late morning and beginning to drizzle, so we made a welcome indoor stop at the Museum Of Islay Life - full of fascinating “stuff” relating to past times on the island from the Stone Age right up to the 20th century.
After selecting some food for a picnic lunch we continued on towards the RSPB Visitor Centre at Loch Gruinart for the afternoon’s birdwatching activities. We’d only got a short distance out of Bruichladdich when Brook noticed a Manx Shearwater close offshore which circled around and landed in a feeding melee’ of gulls, shags and auks. This must surely be the same bird as two days ago? It gave wonderful close views on the sea and in the air – and underwater as it hunted for fish in the shallows with all the other thronging birds. We ate our lunch in the Visitor Centre before venturing up to Ardnave and its lonely loch. Here were further Whooper Swans side-by-side with Mutes. Also Tufted Duck and Pochard, with two pairs of Goldeneye. With the weather holding dry (there was even a couple of tiny patches of blue sky) we made a short walk here in the hope of locating some Twite. We did – albeit just a single bird – but a very obliging one, giving close-range views of its salient features (ie. the yellow bill!). Then back down to the RSPB Hide overlooking the floods on Gruinart. It was not the sunny back-lit afternoon viewing I’d hoped for, but we went anyway, scoping all the massed Wigeon and Teal, plus finding a few Shoveler and Pintail, and feeding Snipe too.
By 4pm the overcast had resumed into drizzle and the light was very poor. We made for home, trying, but failing to call in Red Grouse on the way. It seemed early to be calling it a day, so we called in to the Bruichladdich Distillery to raid the shop. We were given a wonderfully warm welcome, including free tots of 10 year-old single malt, which encouraged a bout of retail therapy before returning to the hotel by 5.30pm.

Day 4, Tuesday 2nd November: The weather was dry again. A little windier this morning, eventually blowing the overcast conditions away into some brief patches of sunny weather by late afternoon.
We worked our way around Loch Indaal to Bowmore for a 10am Distillery Tour. On the way we had time to stop and admire the Scaup flock – now in fact two flocks totalling 600 birds. At Bridgend, a look for Dippers on the bridge over the River Sorn gave a brief fly-by view of one bird for me only. The tide was just right for wader watching and we paused at Bridgend to scope the masses of birds feeding on the mudflats: Dunlin, Knot, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Oystercatcher, Golden and Ringed Plover.
A very informative hour and a half was taken up with the tour at Bowmore, and of course a whisky tasting and a few purchases to remember the place by! From here we continued eastwards and down to Kintra to check goose flocks for oddities. There were none amongst the many hundreds of Barnacle and Greenland White-fronted Geese, so we retraced our steps and drove on to Port Ellen where we paused by The Maltings and harbour to check in case any Iceland or Glaucous Gulls were about. From here we continued towards the end of the road at Ardtalla, passing Laphroaig and Lagavulin Distilleries (plus a stop off to look at Dunyveg Castle) to reach Ardbeg for lunch and a browse in their shop.
Onwards again passing the lovely sheltered wooded bays up towards Claggain Bay itself on the Ardtalla Estate. We of course stopped at Kildalton to admire the fine early Christian Celtic Cross, plus impressive high-relief 16th-17th century grave slabs. We finished with a stroll along the water’s edge at Claggain before returning back towards Port Charlotte. The return was punctuated with brief stops to look at the Iron Age Fort of Dunosebridge followed by a coffee-stop at the top of Loch Indaal at Bridgend where the Barnacle Geese were gathering to roost in their thousands.

Day 5, Wednesday 3rd November: The group decision on whether to go to Jura or not today was made for us by the temporary breakdown of the minibus this morning. This delayed my getting to pick everyone up at the hotel until 10am and it was agreed it would be unwise to go over to Jura in the time available. So we set off directly to the Mull of Oa to take the walk on the RSPB Upper Killeyan Reserve.
We arrived in dry, cool, slightly breezy and cloudy weather and hiked straight out to the American Monument, dedicated to several hundred US troops who drowned in two troop ships sunk off Islay in the First World War. The scenery here is very good with tall and steep sea cliffs dropping away from sweeping moorland and peat bog. This walk was as much for the exercise and scenery as for birds: just as well, as our target of finding Golden Eagle evaded us. There are two successful pairs in the area and we put in plenty of time scanning and searching to no avail. Plenty of Common Buzzards and Ravens put in appearances to keep us on our toes, but never the real thing. However, the walk was pleasant and on our return we found good mixed finch flocks in the farm stubbles – Linnet, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Reed Bunting and Twite all mixed in together.
We ate our picnic overlooking further “good” (but vacant!) eagle territory of the new RSPB acquisitions on the Oa, before returning all the way back across Islay to the Woollen Mill near Bridgend. We watched long and hard for Dipper here, but again birds were not being co-operative today. The informal tour around the mill by the owner was welcomed and we spent a while admiring the fine tweed and tartan clothes and making some early Christmas present purchases before heading on to squeeze in some late afternoon birding in the failing light. Loch Skerrols was visited briefly, with Coal, Blue and Great Tits seen plus some impressively huge numbers of Barnacle Geese flighting over in endless loose skeins to roost: a good memory of Islay to take away.
Next stop was Islay House Square to admire the huge array of old Estate buildings reflecting a former hey-day when the wealthy owners employed hundreds of staff to run their affairs. The buildings are now being converted into good workshops and artisan outlets offering last chances for souvenir purchases! The newly opened Islay Fine Ales Micro-Brewery was appreciated – especially the free samples. We finished here with a twilight pass by the immense “white elephant” of Islay House, before returning to the hotel by 5.30pm.

Day 6, Thursday 4th November:
I picked the group up at 8am to start our return around Loch Indaal, and on to the Airport for an 8.30am check-in. Brook and Heather who were going on the afternoon flight had hired a car and were going off to Jura for the day – I hope they had a great time. The plane was on time and I said my farewells to the group – as the fantastic lucky streak of dry weather we’d had this week began to deteriorate into intermittent cloud, wind and rain between perfect sunny patches – typical Islay weather! In our short tour on Islay we’d travelled just about every road, got to most corners of the island and sampled its other cultural delights – whisky, history, tartans, good food and accommodation, friendly locals and extraordinarily good weather. The birds weren’t bad either! We notched up a respectable list of 95 species, with highlights perhaps being the goose spectacle along with the fine looks at all those waders, ducks, divers and auks.

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 { } = dead!.


 

SPECIES

SCIENTIFIC NAME

30

31

1

2

3

Divers

Gaviidae

 

 

 

 

 

1

Red-throated Diver Gavia stellata

30

15

40

*

 

2

Black-throated-Diver Gavia arctica

 

1

5

 

 

3

Great Northern Diver Gavia immer

8

6

 

*

 

Grebes

Podicipedidae

 

 

 

 

 

4

Slavonian Grebe Podiceps auritus

8

4

6

 

 

5

Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis

 

1

 

1

3

Shearwaters & Petrels

Procellariidae

 

 

 

 

 

6

Manx Shearwater Puffinus puffinus

1

  1    

Gannets & Boobies

Sulidae

 

 

 

 

 

7

Northern Gannet Sula bassana

 

 

 

3

 

Cormorants

Phalacrocoracidae

 

 

 

 

 

8

Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo

5

6

5

2

4

9

European Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis

*

*

*

*

*

Herons, Egrets & Bitterns

Ardeidae

 

 

 

 

 

10

Grey Heron Ardea cinerea

4

10

6

6

4

Ducks, Geese & Swans

Anatidae

 

 

 

 

 

11

Mute Swan Cygnus olor

6

6

6

6

4

12

Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus

30

 

30

8

 

13

Greylag Goose Anser anser

 

 

20

20

 

14

Pink-footed Goose Anser brachyrhynchus

 

1

 

 

 

15

White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons

*

*

*

*

*

16

Barnacle Goose Branta leucopsis

*

*

*

*

*

17

Brent Goose Branta bernicla

2

1

 

 

 

18

Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna

 

10

2

25

10

19

Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope

*

*

*

*

*

20

Eurasian Teal Anas crecca

10

 

*

20

25

21

Mallard Anas platyrhynchos

*

*

*

*

*

22

Northern Pintail Anas acuta

 

 

2

 

 

23

Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata

 

 

10

 

 

24

Common Pochard Aythya ferina

 

 

6

 

 

25

Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula

 

 

10

 

4

26

Greater Scaup Aythya marila

100

360

 

600

 

27

Common Eider Somateria mollissima

*

25

25

25

15

28

Common Scoter Melanitta nigra

10

 

 

 

 

29

Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis

1

1

 

 

 

30

Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula

 

3

4

 

1

31

Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator

*

*

*

*

*

Hawks, Eagles & Kites

Accipitridae

 

 

 

 

 

32

Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus

1

 

1

 

 

33

Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus

 

 

2

1

 

34

Common Buzzard Buteo buteo

20

12

8

12

12

Falcons & Caracaras

Falconidae

 

 

 

 

 

35

Eurasian Kestrel Falco tinnunculus

1

1 1 3 3

36

Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus

1

 

 

 

 

37

Merlin Falco columbarius

2

 

1

 

 

Pheasants & Partridges

Phasianidae

 

 

 

 

 

38

Red-legged Partridge Alectoris rufa

 

[1]

 

 

 

39

Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus

*

*

*

*

*

Rails, Gallinules & Coots

Rallidae

 

 

 

 

 

40

Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus

 

 

3

 

1

Oystercatchers

Haematopodidae

 

 

 

 

 

41

Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus

*

*

*

*

*

Plovers & Lapwings

Charadriidae

 

 

 

 

 

42

Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus

20

 

*

10

 

43

European Golden-Plover Pluvialis apricaria

50

60

 

250

50

44

Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula

10

10

6

*

*

Sandpipers & Allies

Scolopacidae

 

 

 

 

 

45

Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica

30

10

 

75

 

46

Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata

5

10

5

*

*

47

Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago

 

 

2

 

 

48

Common Redshank Tringa totanus

15

10

2

6

1

49

Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres

30

30

10

20

20

50

Red Knot Calidris canutus

25

 

 

30

 

51

Dunlin Calidris alpina

 

 

 

*

*

52

Purple Sandpiper Calidris maritima

3

 

7

 

 

Gulls

Laridae

 

 

 

 

 

53

Common (Mew) Gull Larus canus

*

*

*

*

*

54

Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus

1

5

 

10

5

55

Herring Gull Larus argentatus

*

*

*

*

*

56

Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus

*

*

*

*

*

Terns

Sternidae

 

 

 

 

 

57

Common Tern Sterna hirundo 1        

58

Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea 1        

Auks, Murres & Puffins

Alcidae

 

 

 

 

 

59

Razorbill Alca torda

20

15

10

5

 

60

Common Guillemot Uria aalge

40

30

20

10

 

61

Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle

2

2

2

 

 

Pigeons & Doves

Columbidae

 

 

 

 

 

62

Rock Dove Columba livia

40

*

15

*

 

63

Eurasian Collared-Dove Streptopelia decaocto

1

3

 

 

2

Wagtails & Pipits

Motacillidae

 

 

 

 

 

64

Pied Wagtail Motacilla alba

6

6

6

6

5

65

Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea

1

 

 

1

 

66

Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis

 

5

5

5

10

67

Rock Pipit Anthus petrosus

1

2

2

10

4

Kinglets

Regulidae

 

 

 

 

 

68

Goldcrest Regulus regulus

 

3

 

 

 

Wrens

Troglodytidae

 

 

 

 

 

69

Winter Wren Troglodytes troglodytes

4

5

4

5

4

Accentors

Prunellidae

 

 

 

 

 

70

Dunnock Prunella modularis

 

 

h

 

1

Thrushes & Allies

Turdidae

 

 

 

 

 

71

Blackbird Turdus merula

*

*

*

*

*

72

Song Thrush Turdus philomelos

4

 

2

 

2

73

Redwing Turdus iliacus

250

*

*

*

*

74

Fieldfare Turdus pilaris

200

*

*

*

*

75

Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus

 

 

2

2

 

Old World Flycatchers

Muscicapidae

 

 

 

 

 

76

European Robin Erithacus rubecula

5

3

3

4

6

77

Common Stonechat Saxicola rubicola

3

2

3

1

1

Long-tailed Tits

Aegithalidae

 

 

 

 

 

78

Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus

 

3

 

 

 

Chickadees & Tits

Paridae

 

 

 

 

 

79

Coal Tit Periparus ater

 

 

 

 

3

80

Great Tit Parus major

 

 

 

1

2

81

Blue Tit Cyanistes caeruleus

 

 

2

 

2

Crows, Jays & Magpies

Corvidae

 

 

 

 

 

82

Eurasian Jackdaw Corvus monedula

*

*

*

*

*

83

Rook Corvus frugilegus

*

*

*

*

*

84

Hooded Crow Corvus cornix

*

*

*

*

*

85

Common Raven Corvus corax

10

12

12

30

20

86

Red-billed Chough Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax

6

2

2

 

 

Starlings

Sturnidae

 

 

 

 

 

87

European Starling Sturnus vulgaris

*

*

*

*

*

Old World Sparrows

Passeridae

 

 

 

 

 

88

House Sparrow Passer domesticus

*

*

*

*

*

Siskins, Crossbills etc.

Fringillidae

 

 

 

 

 

89

Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs

10

5

4

6

25

90

European Greenfinch Carduelis chloris

6

2

4

6

10

91

European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis

1

1

 

 

2

92

Linnet Carduelis cannabina

 

 

 

 

25

93

Twite Carduelis flavirostris

 

 

1

 

20

Buntings & Sparrows

Emberizidae

 

 

 

 

 

94

Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella

 

2

 

 

 

95

Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus

 

 

 

 

5

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MAMMALS

SCIENTIFIC NAME

 

 

 

 

 

1

Brown Hare Lepus europaeus

4

2

5

 

 

2

Rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus

*

*

*

*

 

3

Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus

 

12

12

 

 

4

Red Deer Cervus elephaus

 

20

 

2

1

5

Common Seal Phoca vitulina

 

2

 

20

 

6

Grey Seal Halichoerus grypus

 

3

20

 

 

7

Otter Lutra lutra

 

1

 

 

 


© The Travelling Naturalist 2004