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TRAVELLING NATURALIST TRIP REPORT
20 - 25 March 2004
Day 1, Saturday 20th March:
Joanna & Angela arrived via the Ferry at Port Ellen in stormy weather, cloudy skies and rain showers. I picked them up and went directly to the airport where Richard, Helen, Brian and Janet had just landed from the Glasgow flight. The owner of the Port Charlotte Hotel was meeting guests too, so we gave him some of the luggage to take to the hotel while we spent the day travelling around part of the island. The weather was blustery and quickly changing from wind and rain to wind and sunshine and back again in moments. I'd checked that Bowmore Distillery were doing tours this morning as I came in to meet the group, and this proved a good contingency for the dodgy weather.
A useful and informative tour was given taking us up to early lunch, which we did as a picnic taken at the RSPB Visitor Centre at Loch Gruinart. As we drove there we began seeing our first scattered groups and flocks of both Greenland White-fronted and Barnacle Geese. On our way around Loch Indaal we stopped at various pull-offs to begin sampling the island's birding potential but the high tide and strong wind. deterred us - and the birds. Closer to the Visitor Centre however, we got lucky and a bright patch of sunshine and dry weather illuminated a large flock of Barnacle Geese nicely. We stopped to admire them and Hey Presto! There was the Red-breasted Goose, now in it's 3rd winter on Islay. This was a splendid start to the trip.
After our indoor picnic we continued to the end of the Gruinart road at Ardnave Loch, where we saw a few Whooper Swans, and some fleeting Choughs in strengthening winds. Despite the weather we took a brief walk to the shoreline easy going with the wind, but a battle on the return! Then to the RSPB Hide, where we whiled away a pleasantly sheltered hour sorting through the assembled wildfowl Shoveler, Teal, Wigeon and Pintail mainly. One bird caught our attention and was clearly a male hybrid American/European Wigeon with a bright white forehead blaze and bold green stripe on the head, which was otherwise typically žEuropeanÓ and orange-coloured! A ring-tail Hen Harrier wandered by, but no other raptors as yet. Thereafter we wended our way towards Port Charlotte, to check into the hotel by about 5pm.
Day 2, Sunday 21st March:
It was an odd start to the day, with a fairly unusual storm of hail leaving a very wintry scene after breakfast at the hotel. Despite this, we took a look offshore in a lull in the weather to find our first Great Northern Divers before heading south to do a driving circuit of the Rinns of Islay to Port Wemyss and Portnahaven.
The morning's weather was pretty foul: rain showers, cold and cloudy for much of the time. We stopped here and there, braved the elements and dodged the worst of the weather until a return to the Port Charlotte Hotel for soup and sandwiches at lunchtime. At Portnahaven the Grey Seals were loafing about close by giving great views. A Razorbill in the harbour and many Eiders in their finery on the beaches were welcome sights. We hiked down to the concrete block that is the unique Wave-powered Electricity Generator and looked south offshore towards the coast of Northern Ireland, invisible in the gloom. A few Fulmars and Gannets passed by, but we were back in the bus and warming up again with tea and coffee before long. Towards the end of the morning skies brightened and the rain fizzled out, leaving a good clear spell for us to wait and watch for raptors on the hills above the village. We were rewarded with brief looks at a fine male Hen Harrier and a distant Kestrel, plus various smaller species Mistle Thrushes, Dunnocks and Reed Buntings included.
After lunch, we were out again up towards Bruichladdich, first dodging further rain to scan a now calm Loch Indaal for seabirds and waders. We found further divers both Red-throated and Great Northern, plus Black Guillemot and several good looks at Purple Sandpipers. Then off to Machir Bay, finding a single Pink-footed Goose amongst thousands of Barnacle and White-fronted Geese along the way. On Loch Gorm a splendid group of 16 adult Whooper Swans, plus a couple of Greylag Geese were a very welcome find.
At Machir Bay we were lucky, as the weather broke, became stormy, but dry and sunny. We took advantage of this to do the full circular walk through the sand dunes and fields and back along the wide expanse of sandy beach. The birding was good. Choughs performed well and towards the end of the day a flock of 18 twirled around together enjoying the blustery weather to show off the aerial skills. A Peregrine dashed by and several Eurasian Buzzards put in appearances. Returning via the glorious wide sandy beach to the minibus some of the group got lucky with a nice sighting of an Otter coming out of the sea, up the beach and into hiding. When we got to the spot where it had been, we could follow its tracks in the sand right up the steep dune system into the dense grass above.
We returned via the žcircular routeÓ round Loch Gorm checking further lovely goose flocks before returning to the hotel by 5.45pm with time to catch up on the bird list and talk about tomorrow's programme of weather-dependent activities.
Day 3, Monday 22nd March:
The weather was a little kinder to us today, with a much higher proportion of dry sunny blue skies to the intermittent rainy squalls. We headed north up past Bridgend first, passing the faded grandeur of the immense Islay House and Islay House Square to pop into the Woollen Mill for an informal guided tour. We were told a little about weaving fine tweeds and tartans and some even bought a sample or two. Outside, the bird feeders produced close-up Coal, Great and Blue Tits along with our first Siskins. We watched the river for Dippers but had no luck, though a pair of fine Grey Wagtails were a reasonable consolation prize.
Our schedule then took us further on to Finlaggan, where we wandered about and discussed this remarkable historic site. Despite rain showers, this was a worthwhile visit, with a wander down to the site with its interpretative signs explaining the historical importance of the site as the seat of the Clan MacDonald and žLords of the IslesÓ for a couple of hundred years in the 13th-15th centuries. From here we went to the end of the road at Port Askaig and looked over to the very different, rugged island of Jura with distant Red Deer and 1-2 Black Guillemots offshore. Then down the side road to Bunnahabhain where the road dead-ends at another Whisky Distillery. The hoped for Glaucous or Iceland Gulls didn't materialise but the views looking out over the heather uplands and Sound of Islay, with Jura in the background were worth the drive and several Yellowhammers at a bird-feeder were new for the list. We returned to Bridgend for lunch in the warm and welcoming hotel there, then drove out for some more mixed birdwatching and history with a walk to the Iron Age Fort at Dunosebridge. This large fortified hill is an impressive site dating back to maybe 100BC a relic of a very different Islay. All along the way there were flocks of Barnacle and White-fronted Geese, which were dutifully checked for oddities none appeared. Now it was mid-afternoon and time to keep our appointment at the otherwise closed Museum of Islay Life. They kindly allow us in for a private viewing of this fascinating hotch-potch collection of artefacts from the Mesolithic up to the 1960s! This kept us happily occupied until 5pm, when we spent a short while in the increasingly bright sunny evening weather scanning for raptors on the hills above Port Charlotte (no luck, but Stonechat and Moorhen were new sightings) before a return to the hotel by 5.45pm.
Day 4, Tuesday 23rd March:
We awoke to fine weather, with a day of dry sunny conditions, if a little windy at times. We took advantage of this to go directly to the Mull of Oa and take a walk around the RSPB Upper Killeyan Reserve for about an hour and a half. The cliff scenery was spectacular as ever, and the walk invigorating though the birds remained a bit elusive in the blustery conditions. Our main hope was Golden Eagle, and we did see a bird twice but fairly distantly soaring over the heather moorland on the horizon. From here we returned to drive the road down to Kintra where the green roadside fields were chock-a-block with geese. After a bit of searching in this delightfully lit setting we managed to find a small, wild Canada Goose amongst the Barnacles, but no Snow Goose with the White-fronts. Then on to Port Ellen (built by William Campbell in the early 1800s and named after his wife just as Port Charlotte was built and named after his mother!). Here a quick look in the harbour for odd gulls produced good looks at Black Guillemot and the first Common Seals.
After passing 14th century Dunyveg Castle and the Laphraoig and Lagavulin Distilleries we stopped for lunch at the Ardbeg Distillery with its excellent café. A while later, (myself full of Clootie Dumpling!) we continued up the dead-end road towards Ardtalla. Some fine Red Deer stags were loitering by the roadside here, and in the pretty wooded bays were many loafing seals, but no further Otters. A stop at Kildalton allowed us to wander in the old churchyard and admire the ancient and superbly preserved early Christian Kildalton Cross before going all the way to Claggain Bay. Here a look offshore for some and another chance for a walk for others more or less finished off the day. Sea-watching produced a first Black-throated Diver as the highlight, but one which spent more time below sea-level than on it.
Our return to Port Charlotte was punctuated by stops for final goose flock checks and looks offshore in Loch Indaal where close inshore Red-throated Divers showed well. Some of the group took an early supper and walked over to the Islay Wildlife Centre to listen to a talk on Islay's Barnacle Geese given by researcher Stephen Percival.
Day 5, Wednesday 24th March:
A second day of generally decent dry weather was welcomed and taken full advantage of. We set off at the usual 8.45-9am and had a quick look over Loch Indaal from the hotel. Here were the usual odd divers, Razorbill and a distant group of Common Scoter. Then we drove directly to the Killinallan side of Loch Gruinart where we had the sun behind us, but the tide quite high and fewer waders than anticipated. However, we saw plenty of Turnstones and good looks at last of Rock Pipits and genuinely wild Rock Doves. As usual the fields were full of Hares in typical žmad-MarchÓ poses. A coffee and loo break at the RSPB visitor centre was followed by a return towards Bridgend, checking geese along the way (Joanna finding a close Pink-footed Goose for us).
A short diversion to Liz Syke's Batik Studio was welcomed by most for a quick burst of žretail therapyÓ, before heading off towards Bowmore for our lunch appointment at the Harbour Inn. On the way, with sea conditions a little calmer today, we checked for waterbirds and found a full summer plumaged Red-throated Diver and a near-summer-plumaged Slavonian Grebe. After lunch (and a little more shopping) we opted for a mix of birding and a walk for our last afternoon on Islay. I zipped off to Loch Skerrols first, where the loch itself held a group of 4 Scaup, which had eluded us on Loch Indaal. In the mixed woodland edge we did well for other birds, with great looks at Long-tailed Tit, Treecreeper and fleeting views of Goldcrest. Finally, a drive up to Ardnave, with Richard keenly spotting a first Merlin on the way, which gave us time to set up the scope and have a reasonable look. We then took a walk for just over an hour and a half around Ardnave Point on a žTwite-QuestÓ which ultimately turned into a žTwite-FestÓ. After a good long hike around the flat dunes, marsh and cattle pasture, flushing Snipe and Barnacle Geese in our wake, we came across a very obliging group of Twite 13 in all again allowing excellent close looks always useful when looking at such an LBJ ! It was now approaching 5.30pm time for home, but not before a quick try for Red Grouse at a spot I'd had luck before. A brief play of the species weird žgo-back, go-backÓ call had an immediate response with a male flying in, eventually right up to us and landing in the road! Brilliant views all round and an excellent finale' to the day's events.
Day 6, Thursday 25th 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 a shame to be leaving in fantastic sunny weather but all (hopefully) good things come to an end. We had seen/heard over 90 species on our short time touring Islay driven just about every road (326 miles to be precise), got to most corners of the island and sampled its other cultural delights whisky, history, wool-spinning, good food, friendly locals and a classic mix of Islay weather!
Note: The following Checklist gives details of the bird and mammal species seen on the tour. Numbers are approximate only. ž*Ó indicates a species seen commonly, but not counted, žhÓ indicates a species heard but not seen. Bird names given are the žfull / InternationalÓ names.