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Islay & Jura - Tour report, 27th Oct -3rd Nov 2001,
Our Hebridean adventure began in earnest as a pod of Porpoises broke the sunlit mirror of Loch Fyne, while our arrival on Islay was greeted by flocks of sedate Golden Plovers with Starlings, Fieldfares and Redwings sweeping restlessly across the pastures around the Machrie Hotel, in their hundreds. The winter thrushes remained in good numbers throughout the week but the plovers soon moved on to pastures new. The resident Stonechats here were always nice to see.
Spoilt for choice from seven whisky distilleries on Islay, we called in at Lagavulin for a 'wee dram', on the way to Kildalton and its 1200 year old standing stone cross. With Red-legged Partridges under our belts, we set off on a walk to the shore in the hope of Otters. Buzzards and Rock Doves were seen but increasingly heavy rain forced a retreat to the hotel for lunch and a chance to dry out. That afternoon, as the weather improved, a stroll around the hotel nature trail produced the first of several Hen Harriers and Hares for the week, and a chance to experience the full force of the Atlantic breakers which pound the beach here in Laggan Bay.
Another day dawned grey and wet, making the planned sea-watch on Loch Indaal quite difficult in the poor visibility, but as the mist steadily cleared we managed to pick out many Red-breasted Mergansers and Eiders, a few Goldeneye and a couple of Slavonian Grebes in their monochrome winter plumage, while the shoreline yielded Redshank, Turnstone, Ringed Plover and Song Thrush! In the shallows near Bridgend, we added Shelduck and two Bar-tailed Godwits among the many Curlews and Oystercatchers, plus a large gathering of Wigeon with smaller numbers of elegant Pintail.
At Ardnave we had lunch watching a group of some twenty-two Whooper Swans, newly arrived from Iceland, and a pair of resident Choughs. Our walk to Ardnave Point had to be cut short as the weather worsened, but not before we had bumped into a trio of Snow Buntings, a nice plus. On our way back to Gruinart, there must have been in excess of 10,000 Barnacle Geese grazing the fields alongside the Loch, where six pale bellied Brents were another good bonus. New birds for the trip from the reserve hide included Little Grebe, Shoveller and a single Ruff.
The weather perked up for the day trip to Jura, with no rain just a stiff breeze. As we landed I told the group to keep a careful look out along the shore, as this was a good place for Otters. "Yeah right" everyone scoffed. Literally within seconds, we spotted not one but two of these charismatic creatures! Jaws dropped in disbelief. I have never seen a group move so fast. Piling out of the minibus like it was on fire, we were able to watch the Otters frolicking together in the shallows and bringing fish after fish out onto the rocks to munch, oblivious to our presence not thirty yards away. This must have carried on for over half an hour, with fantastic views through the scopes. The excitement continued further along the road as a ringtail Hen Harrier put on a fine display of low flying aerobatics, its plumage as rusty as the autumn bracken. With plenty of Red Deer at close quarters we stopped for lunch on a stone jetty with one of many Rock Pipits. Glancing seaward a white neck alerted us to a diver in winter plumage. A closer look revealed another three Great Northern Divers still in breeding plumage with their magnificent black heads and sturdy bills. They were close enough in for us to hear them whistling their 'loony tunes', a classic sound of the lonely arctic.
On Thursday we headed south-west. Passing a small deciduous wood we were stopped by a small gathering of Siskins, feeding in the tops of alders, their typical winter food. While here we also notched up Blue, Great and Coal Tits, Goldfinch, Dunnock, Treecreeper and Goldcrest, followed by a passing Sparrowhawk. This was to be the first of an impressive selection of raptors seen as we explored The Oa, a rugged peninsula in the far south of Islay. Besides the omnipresent Buzzards, we had a Peregrine, riding effortlessly along the spectacular cliff tops on the up draughts, followed by a Merlin flying fast and low across the moorland. It vanished but then miraculously reappeared and was kind enough to pose on a nearby rock for all to admire in the scope, a touch of pure magic. That afternoon our rapturous day continued with a cock Hen Harrier and then the king of them all, a Golden Eagle made a brief but majestic appearance above the hilltop skyline.
Our final full day on Islay. We caught up with a small flock of Twite foraging among the seaweed on the beach beside the Bowmore distillery, while more sea-watching on Loch Indaal turned up a Black Guillemot in almost pure white winter plumage, a winter Red-throated Diver, several more Great Northern Divers and three Purple Sandpipers skulking among the rocks opposite the Bruichladdich distillery. Distilleries are obviously good places to hang around looking for birds. Perhaps the intoxicating aroma attracts them. After lunch on the beach at Port Charlotte, a walk from Kilchiaran in the extreme west of the island, took us along the sweeping sands of Machir Bay to Kilchoman, site of another ancient standing stone cross. This was also a hotspot for Choughs, where we watched several small groups of these agile corvids, bouncing on the fresh Atlantic air with their distinctive broad fingered wings and shrill "chuff chuff" calls. The fields hereabouts also proved to be the best site for the Greenland White-fronted Geese, grazing in their hundreds. By late afternoon there was just time to make a final call at the Gruinart reserve. In the fading light we enjoyed the marvellous wild spectacle of thousands of Barnacle Geese flying noisily across the sky on their way to roost.
Waiting at the ferry terminal in Port Ellen, several members of the group wandered off towards the shops, as they do whenever the chance arises. Incredibly they came back with claims of a Spoonbill on the shore within a stone's throw of the main street! Was this a wind up I wondered? With the ferry soon to depart there was no time to validate the tale though I would never doubt the word of such responsible members of our local RSPB group. The crossing from Islay proved productive with numerous Kittiwakes and Guillemots, several more Black Guillemots, a single Gannet, another seven Great Northern Divers and two Black-throated Divers, one still in breeding plumage, and all at quite close range, bringing the final group tally for the trip to 92 species. Not bad at all.
Where to Watch Birds in Scotland