Islay Birding Tour February 1st-8th 2020

Chough at Ardnave Point – © Chris Mills Norfolk Birding

Participants:- Chris Brock, Jane Kenney, Sally Leach, David Miller, Derek Pittman & Barbara York

Tour Guide for Norfolk Birding – Chris Mills & Ryan Irvine

OVERVIEW OF THE TOUR – This was a seven day winter tour to Islay, off the west coast of Scotland in Argyll. However, due to Strom Ciara and the prediction of gale force winds and ferry issues we left on the night of Thursday 6th February. However, we had seen the majority of the islands iconic species and had a good week, so everyone was happy. –

The tour offered a great opportunity to see iconic species such as Golden and White-tailed eagles, vast flocks of Barnacle & Greenland White-fronted Geese, plus daily Hen harriers, several Merlin numerous Whooper Swans, Chough, Twite and good numbers of divers, wintering sea duck and grebes! We also caught up with a Green-winged Teal.

We stay in the beautiful, warm and comfortably refurbished Edwardian property at Kichoman, we took 7 rooms with 5 of them ensuite, the others with 2 shared bathrooms. Choughs are visible from the grounds and Golden eagle is a definite possibility!

All images in this report © Chris Mills

Friday 31st January – Norfolk to Glasgow

I drove from Norfolk collecting some of the clients on the way. We met up with the others in Glasgow, Premier Inn, at North Stepps. We had a nice evening meal in the adjoining restaurant and retired early ready for an early morning start on Saturday.

Overnight in the Premier Inn, at North Stepps.

Saturday 1st February – Kennacraig harbour & ferry crossing.

We left Glasgow at 0700 & arrived. As we travelled quite a few birds were noted from the windows of the minibus, including our first Hooded Crows, Raven, Buzzard, Grey Heron, Oystercatcher, Shag, Red-breasted Merganser and Curlew and of the trip.

En-route we stopped near Lochgilphead and there was a nice group of Eider and Red-breasted Merganser plus a Great Northern Diver, a nice group of Eider, distant Black Guillemot. Close by the bushes also produced Long-tailed Tit, Treecreeper and Goldcrest.

Despite wet conditions and a route diversion, it was a good journey and we arrived at Tarbet, just short of the Kennacraig ferry with plenty of time to spare. After a hearty full Scots breakfast, we met up with Ryan Irvine, who helped co-guide this tour. We then had a walk around the harbour, it was now drier and a reasonable morning. We had some good birding with good views of Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, Shag, Oystercatcher, Curlew, Redshank, Hooded Crow, Buzzard, Rock Pipit and stunning point blank views of the lovely iconic Black Guillemot.

We boarded the ferry for the crossing shortly after midday and took our position for birding during the crossing on the rear deck of the Finlaggan. It’s a nice new modern boat, but lacks the port and starboard covered areas of the older boats so less birder friendly!

Around the ferry terminal at Kennacraig we had a couple more Black Guillemot, Red-throated and Great Northern Diver, plus Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, Goldeneye, Common Guillemot and Greenshank.

The crossing was choppy but we still had a good cross section of wintering seabirds.  Several Red-throated Diver, Great Northern Diver. There was also lots of Shag, Red-breasted Merganser, Wigeon, Common Guillemot, a few Kittiwake, Gannet, Slavonian Grebe, Goldeneye and

As we arrived in the Sound of Jura, the first Red Deer were noted on the hillsides and 2 White-tailed Eagles  were located soaring high over Jura’s paps!

We arrived late afternoon at Port Ascraig and decided to head for the accommodation, via the Supermarket at Bowmore. The COOP at Bowmore is very well stocked these days and we got all our food provisions for the next few days.

We stopped off several times for the flocks of Barnacle & Greenland White-fronted Geese, plus the first real head turner a superb male Hen harrier shot past the minibus!

By the time we were heading for the accommodation it was a lovely fine evening and we took the chance to scan Loch Indaal bay, in relatively windless conditions. There was a great mix of birds with 20 Pale-bellied Brents along the shoreline, Shelduck, 7 Greater Scaup, 55 Common Scoter, 4 Long-tailed Duck, 4 Red-breated Merganser, Red-throated Diver, Great Northern Diver plus a nice flock of 30 Dunlin and 14 Ringed Plover.

We arrived just as it got dark and we settled into the lovely warm and comfortable accommodation at Kilchoman. We had an evening meal in the Bowmore Pizzeria which was good. It was now a nice still and starlit calm evening – we stared alongside the verges and were soon rewarded on the outskirts of Bowmore when we found a Barn owl peched on posts in the car headlights! Further reward came with a beautiful Tawny Owl, perched in a roadside tree along the Bridgend road, a tricky species to see on the island.

Overnight Kilchoman House

Black Guillemot seen in small numbers throughout the tour – © Chris Mills Norfolk Birding

Sunday 2nd February Loch Gruinart RSPB Reserve, Sanaigmore & Ardnave Point

Breakfast was arranged for 8.15am and we were all in the minibus & on our way by 9.15am. It was a cool grey morning, windy with occasional showers making birding a little tricky, but the weather improved as the day went on.

Not far from the accommodation a nice surprise was 6 Pink-footed Geese, a scarcity on the island, amongst the more numerous Barnacles and Greenland White-fronted geese.

As we headed out along the lanes to the famous and magnificent Islay RSPB reserve we were very quickly looking at spectacular flocks of 1000+ Barnacle Geese  & 100+ Greenland White-fronted Geese. We scanned hard through the flocks, but unfortunately we didn’t find any Lesser Canada Goose on this occasion. I took the circular road to the NW areas of Ballinaby. We stopped just near the NW corner as a ringtail Hen Harrier flashed past us, the nearby wet fields held a nice flock of 16 Ringed Plover, 50 Rock Dove, Song Thrush, Pied Wagtail, Redwing and 9 Reed Bunting

We headed on towards the Gruinart RSPB reserve and from the platform we were treated a bountiful spread of birds!  The masses contained c4000 Barnacle Geese, 500 Greenland White-fronted Geese, 5 Red-breasted Merganser, Little Grebe, c30 Wigeon, 7 Shoveler, 200+ Teal, 15 Pintail, 19 Shelduck, c250 Lapwing, c3000 Golden Plover, 2 Little Egrets, 2 rt Hen harriers, Sparrowhawk, 500 Starling, Stonechat and Linnet also 6 Whooper Swans. Scanning the Teal, paid dividends and David’s sharp eyes picked out the Green-winged Teal.

It was also good to find 3 Greenshank a scarce winter resident, plus 2 Snipe, more waders were out on the saltmarsh, with 9 Grey Plover, Oystercatcher, 45 Curlew and 125 Curlew. Overhead Raven, Buzzard and Hooded Crows.

We then warmed up in the Visitor centre, enjoyed our packed lunches and hot drinks and then we set off up towards Ardnave.

The sun had come out and it was a now a nice day, we decided to try and head to a good Eagle watchpoint. We were spoilt on the way there, with 2 male Hen harriers gracing us, followed by a Peregrine! We set up for a vigil scanning the cliffs, and we soon located an adult Golden Eagle perched on a cliff face. The first Golden Eagle was soon joined by another and they both took off and circled over the cliffs, before one drifted off, and the other perched again this time atop the cliffs, providing nice scope views!

Elated with the raptor fest we headed towards Ardnave. We soon located a nice flock of Chough, though initially they disappeared, after standing still for a while they started to arrive back in their favoured feeding area giving us nice close views. A total of 36 Chough ambling and flying overhead we enjoyed the spectacle. This was only interrupted by a flock of 40 Twite, that eventually settled and allowed good scope views and some photography, 4 Reed Bunting also just below our feet. We also spied 2 Great Northern Divers out on the sea, and then whilst watching 7 Goldeneye out on the Loch we were suddenly aware of an Otter! It was feeding regularly and then proceeded to put on a great performance for the next 30 minutes.

The day hadn’t quite finished and a final highlight came when a Merlin appeared, rocketed past us after a Meadow Pipit, it disappeared and was then relocated sat on a fencepost!

A fantastic first day on the island!

Overnight Kilchoman House

Barnacle Geese Loch Indaal, Bridgend – © Chris Mills Norfolk Birding
Greenalnd White-fronted Goose – © Chris Mills Norfolk Birding
Chough Ardnave Point – © Chris Mills Norfolk Birding
Red-breasted Merganser seen daily – © Chris Mills Norfolk Birding

Monday 3rd February Loch Gorm area, Bruichladdich, Gartbeck, Loch Indaal & Kilchoman distillery

The fine weather from yesterday evening had melted away overnight, and we were back with grey skies and a gusting wind!

As we left and not far from the accommodation an Eagle was spotted drifting along the ridge, we pulled over and got nice views, it was a young Golden Eagle.

We then headed to the rocky shoreline and bay in front of the Bruichladdich distillery, a favoured haunt of the wintering Purple Sandpipers. It didn’t take too long to find them, there were 2 Purple sandpipers, plus several Redshank, Ringed Plover, Turnstone and Rock pipit. Offshore there was also a nice group of Eider, 2 Great Northern Divers showing very well and Red-breasted merganser. There was also 18 Pale-bellied Brent Geese showing well close along the shoreline. We then headed towards Bowmore, but stopped  to check out an eagle this time it was a White-tailed Eagle!

We stopped off today for lunch in the gaelic centre and warmed through over a nice lunch.

After lunch we headed to Gartbeck, to lopok a the shoreline and the tip for gulls. The tip was disappointing with few gulls, especially larger gulls and no sign of any white-wingers. There was good flocks of Barnacle Geese, but despite intensive searching we couldn’t find any ‘Canada types” amongst them.

We next scoped the Gartbeck bay from several vantage points & had reasonable views of Slavonian Grebe, Eider, Shag, Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Teal and Wigeon. A good selection of waders sheltering from the wind, 24 Oystercatcher, 20 Redshank, 4 Dunlin. 35 Turnstone, 9 Curlew, 16 Ringed Plover, 9 Curlew, 30 Lapwing, 6 Red Knot and 3 Purple Sandpiper.

By mid-afternoon the wind was now strong and gusting so we dropped back to Kilchoman and the group enjoyed an hours tour around the Kilchoman distillery!

Overnight Kilchoman House

Tuesday 4th February – Gruinart Craigens,  Loch Indaal, Loch Skerrols, Bunnahabhain, Loch Finlaggan, Bridgend back road, Blackrock bay.

We headed towards Gruinart and the Craigens area, just north of the reserve we had stunningly close views of a ringtail Hen harrier hunting, right alongside the minibus. We then headed on to the Craigens area. Barbara pointed out 3 Red-legged partridge, new for the trip ans then we were into some nice flocks of geese, c2000 Barnacle Geese were all inspected carefully, still no ‘Canada Geese’! I took the road over the top, which was quiet save a few Ravens and Buzzards. We then stopped off at the head of Loch Indaal near Bridgend. The big lump out on the shoreline proved to be a superb adult White-tailed Eagle, it eventually took off and we watched as the ‘barn door’ moved off. Just behind us 2 Treecreepers and Long-tailed Tits were flitting around, neither guaranteed to be seen in a few days on Islay!

We next stopped off at Loch Skerrols, the Loch was quiet save a handful of Mallard, but the walk produced Great Spotted Woodpecker, 2 flyover Crossbill plus several Lesser Redpoll.

Also interesting was a plucking post of a Sparrowhawk and the remnants of it’s last kill a Snipe! We did also see 2 fully fit Snipe flying over

We then headed to Bunnahabhain, this location near the distillery has produced eagles and Otters, but today was quiet on that front. We had lunch and did have another Common Crossbill perched briefly, and the bay held the usual Great Northern Diver, Grey Heron, Red-breasted Merganser and Black Guillemot.

We next headed to Loch Finlaggan, and we had a brilliant hour here enjoying great views of 3 family groups of Crossbills, including them on the ground and on top of a wall.

The weather was quite bright now, if a bit breezy, it was a little late but ideal conditions mid afternoon for raptors, so we took the back road out of Ballygrant and did a loop through the Eastern hills and farmland. This proved a good decision with initially one Golden Eagle briefly displaying, followed by a pair of Golden eagles at another territory.

We reached Loch Indaal on the way back with about 30 minutes of light left, the wind had dropped and it was now a crisp pleasant evening, so we took the opportunity to scan from Blackrock. We had a lovely half hour with with best views of 12 Great Northern Diver, 4 Red-throated Diver, 8+ Slavonian Grebe, 6 Red-breasted merganser, Common Scoter, Eider,  Greater Scaup plus 2 Long-tailed Ducks.

Overnight Kilchoman House

Immature Golden Eagle for the first time these were outnumbered in sightings by White-tailed Eagles
 © Chris Mills Norfolk Birding
Superb adult male Hen Harrier seen almost daily this year – © Chris Mills Norfolk Birding
Stonechat – © Chris Mills Norfolk Birding
Pink-footed Geese these six were nice surprise near Kilchoman –
© Chris Mills Norfolk Birding
Purple Sandpiper again in front of Bruichladdich distillery –
© Chris Mills Norfolk Birding
Pale-bellied Brent Geese up to 50+ around Indaal shoreline – © Chris Mills Norfolk Birding
Eider up to 60+ Loch Indaal bay- © Chris Mills Norfolk Birding

Wednesday 5th February – Loch Gorm,Loch Indaal, The Oa, Kintail road

First stop today was a scan over Loch Gorm, which usually has little wildfowl, but a group of 21 Tufted Duck were rewarding and new for the trip, nearby the 6 Pink-footed Geese were in fields and still present. As we headed West along the lane yet another Merlin flashed past us, definitely the best year I’ve ever had for this cracking pocket rocket raptor!

We stopped off at the West shoreline of Loch Indaal for a few minutes, Great Northern Diver 60+ Eider, Common Scoter, Goldeneye and 8 Slavonian Grebe were the pick of the birds.

We then headed to The Oa stopping off to look carefully through the 6500+ Barnacle Geese, we found a Pale-bellied Brent amongst them but still no sign of the ‘Canadas’. Once at The Oa, we headed to Kinnabus, where we soon find the flock of about 150 Twite and we enjoyed great views.

We then walked out towards the coastline and crags of The Oa, a Golden Eagle was sat perched and it sat surveying its domain for a good 45 minutes before taking off and was joined by a second Golden Eagle.  Then one of the birds soared up high and came rushing down, it started displaying, a roller coaster ride!

Amazing to watch these magnificent birds with 2.5m wingspans performing such aerial acrobatics. We also enjoyed a nice male Hen Harrier that flew through the valley,  also in evidence 5-6 Ravens, 2 Chough and several Hooded Crow.

We next headed East and out along the pretty SE corner of the island. We stopped off for luncvh and coffee at Ardbeg distillery, very pleasant!

We then headed East exploring the beautiful rocky sheltered bays, not Otters as yet but

views of Shag, Red-breasted Merganser and Great Northern Diver.

We then continued East, stopped off at an area I had found last year and were soon watching  two superb adult White-tailed Eagle sat in the top of the treeline. Wee scoped and enjoyed these for a while and then headed on.

We were then stopping off again for some game feeders I had visited many times before! As expected this gave us our first Yellowhammers of the trip, at least 7-8 feeding and sitting near the seed hopper.

As we headed further East we came across a big flock of Barnacles, checked again but still no luck! We stopped off in a beautiful sandy bay and enjoyed the views, plus some displaying Red-breasted merganser, also Black Guillemot, Great Northern Diver and Gannet.

 As we headed back towards Port Ellen we stopped again at one of the rocky bays, after some scanning I picked up an Otter distantly but it disappeared. Ryan then relocated further along the coastline and we all joined him to watch it, came out on rocks and we enjoyed nice scope views. It then swam towards us and we stood very quietly as it got closer, it was about to get out on the rocks below us when it caught our scent on the wind and it then headed back out, still a lovely experience! Overnight Kilchoman House

Thursday 6th February – Loch Grom, Loch Gruinart, Gruinart East shore, Islay woollen mill, Ballimartin and Gartbeck

There was still 12 Tufted Duck on Loch Gorm this morning, plus a group of 3 Stonechat nearby. On the way to Gruinart we stopped off for 3 Fieldfare, new birds for the trip and the only ones seen.

We next stopped off at RSPB Gruinart, where the WWT team were catching and ringing Greenland White-fronted Geese. Kane Brides and his staff kindly invited the group come and watch the ringing and the group were given a great overview of these beautiful birds. Some lucky people even got to handle one! Also nearby there was 9 Whooper Swans and 4 Redwing and unusually a Hen Harrier ringtail feeding on a hare carcass.

Sally with one of the Greenland White-fronted Geese

We next headed along the East shore of Gruinart looking out over the fields and shallow bay. There was plenty to look through, initially at least 5000 Barnacle Geese, 400 Greenland White-fronted Geese 400 Wigeon, 200 Teal and 30 Shelduck. Further along, there was many waders with 1500 Golden Plover, 2 Grey Plover, 200 Lapwing, 32 Curlew, 180 Bar-tailked Godwit, 32 Ringed Plover, 45 Turnstone, 50 Red Knot,130 Sanderling, 15 Dunlin, 2 Greenshank, 20 Redshank and 2 Little Egret.

Raptors were also well represented 2 White-tailed Eagles seen previously were also present again as was a distant Golden eagle.

We then headed to the Woollen mill to see if we could pull out a Dipper, but the water level was a bit high and we couldn’t find them, though the feeder area was busy with Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Chaffinch, Siskin, Robin, Dunnock, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Coal Tit and Collared Dove all in attendance, plus a Crossbill nearby.

On the way back we rounded off with yet another Merlin, they had become an almost daily occurrence!

Whilst we had been enjoying the birding over the last couple of days a problem had been emerging, namely Storm Ciara! The forecast for Saturday now looking like the ferry could well be cancelled. I had been trying to get us off the Friday morning, but this was already fully booked, as people started a rush to get off. Eventually after some help from Ian Brooke we were offered the Thursday evening ferry and after a quick chat we all agreed that getting off and not being stuck for potentially several days was a the right decision.

We left on the ferry on Thursday evening at 8.15pm arrived on the mainland at 10.30pm and arrived at Paisley Premier Inn at 1am where I had managed to get rooms for everyone.

Crossbills 3 family  groups wowed us with great views near Finlaggan 
© Chris Mills Norfolk Birding
Crossbills 3 family  groups wowed us with great views near Finlaggan 
© Chris Mills Norfolk Birding
Twite © Chris Mills Norfolk Birding
Twite 150 at least down on The Oa – © Chris Mills Norfolk Birding

Friday 2nd February – Travel back to Norfolk

After breakfast we said our goodbyes and three of us set of for Norfolk leaving the rest to board trains and aeroplanes. The journey back was uneventful thankfully and we were all back in Norfolk around 6pm.


Overall we had a successful trip, recording 110 species of birds our best total for the island.

The weather was challenging at time but with so many continual observations of quality species and good views of many scarcer species we had a really enjoyable trip. Cumulative sightings over the week produced – 10 Golden Eagles, 12 White-tailed Eagles,  30+ Great Northern Diver, 20+ Slavonian Grebe, 60+ Chough, 12 Hen Harriers,  Peregrine, 4 Merlin,  Black Guillemot, Long-tailed Duck, 150+ Twite.

Added to this were the great views of Brown hares and the prolonged observation of the Otters.

Systematic list of species recorded

Systematic list of species recorded during the trip

1 Red-throated Diver
2 Great Northern Diver 
3 Little Grebe 
4 Great Crested Grebe 
5 Slavonian Grebe 
6 Northern Gannet
7 Great Cormorant
8 Shag
9 Little Egret
10 Grey Heron 
11 Mute Swan 
12 Whooper Swan 
13 Pink-footed Goose
14 Greenland White-fronted Goose
15 Greylag Goose 
16 Barnacle Goose
17 Pale-bellied Brent Goose
18 Shelduck
19 Eurasian Wigeon
20 Eurasian Teal
21 Green-winged Teal 
22 Mallard 
23 Pintail 
24 Shoveler 
25 Tufted Duck
26 Greater Scaup 
27 Common Eider
28 Long-tailed Duck
29 Common Scoter 
30 Goldeneye
31 Red-breasted Merganser
32 White-tailed Eagle
33 Hen Harrier 
34 Sparrowhawk 
35 Buzzard 
36 Golden Eagle 
37 Kestrel 
38 Merlin 
39 Peregrine 
40 Pheasant 
41 Red-legged Partridge
42 Oystercatcher
43 Ringed Plover 
44 Golden Plover 
45 Grey Plover 
46 Lapwing 
47 Knot 
48 Sanderling 
49 Purple Sandpiper
50 Dunlin 
51 Snipe 
52 Bar-tailed Godwit
53 Curlew 
54 Redshank
55 Greenshank
56 Turnstone 
57 Black-headed Gull
58 Common Gull
59 Herring Gull
60 Great Black-backed Gull 
61 Lesser Black-backed Gull
62 Kittiwake
63 Guillemot 
64 Razorbill 
65 Black Guillemot
66 Rock Dove 
67 Woodpigeon
68 Collared Dove 
69 Barn Owl 
70 Tawny Owl 
71 Great Spotted Woodpecker
72 Skylark 
73 Meadow Pipit 
74 Rock Pipit 
75 Grey Wagtail
76 Pied Wagtail
77 Wren 
78 Dunnock 
79 Robin
80 Stonechat 
81 Blackbird 
82 Fieldfare
83 Song Thrush
84 Redwing 
85 Mistle Thrush 
86 Goldcrest 
87 Long-tailed Tit 
88 Coal Tit 
89 Blue Tit 
90 Great Tit 
91 Treecreeper 
92 Chough
93 Jackdaw
94 Rook 
95 Carrion Crow 
96 Hooded Crow 
97 Raven 
98 Common Starling 
99 House Sparrow
100 Common Chaffinch 
101 Greenfinch
102 Goldfinch
103 Siskin 
104 Linnet 
105 Twite
106 Lesser Redpoll 
107 Common Crossbill 
108 Common Bullfinch 
109 Yellowhammer 
110 Reed Bunting
  Red Deer
  Roe Deer
  Fallow Deer
  Mountain Goat
  Brown Hare
  Common Seal
  Grey Seal

Food – Breakfast & sandwich provisions were bought from the Supermarket in Bowmore, evening meals were eaten at The Pizzeria and The Lochside hotel, lunches on 2 days were taken at Ardbeg distillery and The Gaelic Centre, Bowmore – both very good!

This tour will run again in March 2021

For further details contact:- Norfolk Birding Chris Mills