Islay Birdwatching Tour  23rd February – 2nd March 2023

Participants:-  Chris Brock, Caroline Cattermole, Sally Leach, Jane Kenney,  Rob Lewis, Luke & Nick Marriner.

Tour Guide for Norfolk Birding – Chris Mills

This was a 6 day winter tour to Islay, off the west coast of Scotland in Argyll.

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 Hen harrier, flocks of Whooper Swans, Chough, Twite, fantastic numbers of Great Northern Diver wintering sea duck such as Long-tailed Duck and Slavonian Grebes! We also caught up with Cackling Goose, Red-breasted Goose and Surf Scoter.

We stayed in the beautiful, warm and comfortably refurbished Edwardian property at Kichoman, we took 7 rooms with 5 of them en-suite, the others with 2 shared bathrooms. Choughs were visible and a daily occurrence from the grounds and we also saw several Golden & White-tailed Eagles!

The trip will be long remembered for the amazing weather, the numbers of raptors and the mazing Northern Lights!

Eiders at Tarbert harbour
Black Guillemots at Tarbert harbour
Our first White-tailed Eagle at Kennacraig ferry port
Golden Eagle near Kilchoman, not even reached the accommodation yet!

Day Three Saturday 25th February 2023

The weather was superb this morning, blue, cloudless skies with barely a breeze. 

It was an obvious decision to head to the head of Loch Indaal where we were soon feasting our eyes on a super mix of seabirds! First up we’re two close stunning Long-tailed Ducks, soon joined by four morealso calling and some display! Several close Great Northern Diver and several Red-throated Divers a little further out.

It was the perfect morning for picking out the diminutive Slavonian Grebes and we counted around twenty in the bay. We had a short walk along the shoreline and there was a group of Dunlin and Ringed Plover.

We then headed around towards Bowmore and scanned from the Gaelic Centre, where the light was fantastic, there were c100 Wigeon, but I couldn’t see anything amongst them. There was a single Knot on one of the islands with Oystercatchers.

We then headed to Bowmore Pier, where we could now a get a slightly improved view of a raft c100 Common Scoter, and I set about scanning through them. About halfway through them I was alerted to a bird with a distinctive face pattern, I also got the impression of a big slab bill. I got Luke and some of the others on to it, and although it was on the limit of range, you could see it was clearly the female Surf Scoter, They took flight, fortunately Luke could pick it out in flight and it wasn’t too difficult to relocate again once they landed and now in a smaller group of 40 Common Scoter.

We also had Goldeneye, a winter plumage Black Guillemot and Rock Pipit, off the pier plus more Great Northern Divers, Red-breasted Mergansers and Curlew.

We next headed to Gruinart area, via the Coullabus road, we were short way along when a superb male Merlin perched up on to a fence post just in front of the minibus at point blank range! Amazing views of this superb little raptor, he even let me drop the window and grab some pictures!

 At Gruinart there was several Barnacle Geese flocks, that had a few days ago held the  Red-breasted Goose, but despite searching for a couple of hours  Sadly it had yet again disappeared. We had lunch up at the RSPB centre and continued our search and visited the viewing platform. There was a vast flock of c1500 Golden Plover. Plus lots of Teal, some Wigeon, Shelduck, plus c70 Pintail, c30 Shoveler, SnipeRedshank, and Curlew

From the South side of the reserve at Craigens looking back North we watched a Golden and White-tailed Eagle soaring above the hillside. We then took the route up towards the back of Gruinart and headed along towards Sanaigmore and were eventually rewarded with a super hunting male Hen Harrier. 

We had a late afternoon cup of tea and rounded the afternoon off with a search along the Ballinaby area but it was relatively quiet along here.

We had a nice evening meal at the Port Charlotte Community Centre.

Day Four Sunday 26th February 2023

We headed out towards Bunnhabhain with a few stops planned along the way. First stop was for the Glaucous Gull which was still present along the shore of Indaal at Uiskentie, it was showing well in the wonderful light along with a small raft of Eider, plus a Red-breasted Merganser, very close inshore Slavonian Grebe & Great Northern Diver.

We then headed East past Bridgend and took one of the minor roads off and on to the edge of the moors. We had an amazing couple of hours scanning from here, starting off with a perched White-tailed Eagle, then followed by 2 ringtail Hen Harriers hunting, with a Sparrowhawk circling above them! Next a pair of Golden Eagles appeared above the ridge, before both of them swept low down into a small wooded area. These Golden Eagles then showed well intermittently, through scopes we watched them mate and carry nesting material, a wonderful experience. We hadn’t quite finished with raptors though, as a Peregrine swept across the horizon, and 3 Buzzards started circling up! Also a flyover Lesser Redpoll and a nice flock of 30 Skylark.

Feeling very satisfied, we headed on to Bunnhahabhain, we had a couple of hours here including our lunch. Plenty to keep us occupied, including another Golden & White-tailed Eagle. On the water several Black Guillemot, Great Northern Diver, Shag and a single Otter sadly just seen by Luke. The more regular Otter refused to put in an appearance! 

We then stopped off at Loch Finlaggan, but failed to see or hear any Crossbills, though we did have two more White-tailed Eagles

We next had a walk at the Bridgend Wollen Mill, where we scored with Treecreeper, but couldn’t find any Dipper despite a good walk along the river. Opposite the Mill there was yet another White-tailed Eagle! This one feeding on a dead Barnacle Goose, there was also 4-5000 Barnacle Geese in the area, but they unfortunately took flight before we had chance to thoroughly check them.

We rounded the day off with another quick check off Bowmore harbour, we couldn’t see the Surf Scoter, but there was a similar nice selection similar to yesterday.  We picked up food for the evening and ate at the accommodation tonight and the day was superbly rounded off with amazing views of the Northern lights!

Amazing views of the Aurora from the accommodation!

Day Five – Monday 27th February 2023

We headed for Gruinat East shore, but diverted on the way towards the Sanaigmore road. Along the Sanaigmore road there was plenty of Redwing, and a nice group of Fieldfare, plus a small group of Skylark. Just as we were reached the end, a superb male Hen Harrier took flight from the hedge and we had lovely views as it worked the moorland. We decided to stop and scan from here for a while, after a bit of scanning, Nick brilliantly picked out a perched Golden Eagle low down in the distance it was an adult and was shortly joined by another Golden Eagle, clearly it’s mate. We decided we could move a bit closer and watched then for over an hour, with them being occasionally mobbed by Hoodies! We were also rather privileged to see them copulating  as well! As we headed off a White-tailed Eagle flew over our heads. 

We now headed to Gruinart East shore where the tide was dropping nicely. There was hundreds of Teal, lots of Wigeon, Shelduck, plus Pintail, Shoveler and Red-breasted Mergansers. Hundreds of Dunlin, numerous Lapwing, c150 Sanderling, c500 Bar-tailed Godwit, a few Red Knot, plus good numbers of Redshank, TurnstoneCurlew and a single Greenshank. We eventually spotted 3 White-tailed Eagles sat out on the mud! There was hundreds of Teal, lots of Wigeon, Shelduck, plus c70 Pintail, c30 Shoveler and Red-breasted Mergansers. Hundreds of Dunlin, Lapwing, c150 Sanderling, c350 Knot, c500 Bar-tailed Godwit, plus good numbers of Redshank, Turnstone and Curlew. There was also a few Great Northern Divers, Red-breasted Mergansers and a single Long-tailed Duck. We also picked out a Greenshank and we eventually spotted three possibly four White-tailed Eagles sat out on the mud! 

We then headed back towards Gruinart RSPB centre for lunch, but stopped off near the junction to scan through a large flock of Barnacle Geese that we’re feeding there. After a few scans Nick and Luke had found the Red-breasted Goose we had been looking for and slowly we managed to get everyone in the group on to it, as played hide and seek amongst the mass of Barnacles, appearing then disappearing!

Fortunately everyone had seen it, just as a White-tailed Eagle came over and there was a mass exodus as the flock took flight! 

We lunched then headed to Ardnave Point where we walked out to the shoreline, there was a nice group of Fieldfare on the way, quite a few Skylark. After a short walk we reached the beautiful bay at the Northern end of Ardnave point.

There was several Purple Sandpipers showing very well amongst the pools, along with Dunlin, Sanderling and Ringed Plover. Plus just below we had 2 Twite showing beautifully feeding on weeds, with several Rock Pipits nearby also giving lovely views. Plus Black Guillemot and Great Northern Diver out on the sea.

We ate in again at the accommodation, but sadly, there was no repeat of the Northern Lights tonight.

Day Six – Tuesday 28th February

Nick managed to flush 29 Common Snipe and a Jack Snipe on his pre-breakfast walk from a nice boggy area near Kilchoman and the beach. 

Our destination today was down to the Southern end of the island to explore The Oa & the SEA corner. We had hardly left the accommodation at Kilchoman before Luke had the minibus screeching to a halt, he had spotted a Merlin perched low in the stubble field, a great spot considering the light and distance. It eventually flew and landed up on the fence posts where we managed to get close enough in the minibus to get some pictures. 

We stopped off on the way to The Oa a couple of times, first it at Loch Indaal, there was Dunlin Ringed Plover, Oystercatcher and Curlew. Plus usual Great Northern Divers, Slavonian Grebes, Eider and Red-breasted Merganser

We then drove in South along the B road to Port Ellen! we stopped off in the harbour, where again several Great Northern Divers, plus Black Guillemot.
We next headed to The Oa and Kinnabus, where it was grey, and very chilly in the NE breeze today! There was a superb flock of 95 Twite at The Oa car park on the feeders there, showing brilliantly down to 5m! A White-tailed Eagle passed over and there was plenty of feral Mountain Goats and some royal looking Red Deer on the mountain tops. Out at sea we managed to add Gannet to the list, plus a few Razorbills past by.

We then headed up the minor road to Artellen, making several stops, beautiful scenery and little rocky coves and beaches. We had many more Great Northern Divers, Red-breasted Mergansers and Shags also at the last bay there were several smart breeding plumage Red-throated Divers, plus Razorbills and Black Guillemots. Plus lots of Common Seals but we couldn’t find any Otters! We checked several Barnacle Goose flocks but couldn’t add anything out of the ordinary. Though scanning the Geese did eventually pay dividends when I picked out a lone Pink-footed Goose in amongst the Grey-lag Goose flock at Ardbeg harbour, another addition to our trip list.

We ate out this evening at The Lochside in Bowmore

Brown Hares were very numerous on Islay
This stunning male Merlin gave point blank views!
The beautiful Greenland White-fronted Geese
The 2cy Glaucous Gull with Eider Loch Indaal
A White-tailed Eagle on a Barnacle Goose kill!
A superb male Hen Harrier flashes past us hunting
This stunning Chough poses for the camera
There’s a Red-breasted Goose in amongst the Barnies if you look carefully!
The lovely monochrome Pale-bellied Brent Geese at indaal
This lovely Twite was amongst a super flock of 95 down on The Oa
Some of the Twite flock at the feed area

Day Seven – Wednesday 1st March

We started off with a quick look at Loch Indaal bay as we were passing, there was the usual seaduck & again we had fine views of Long-tailed Duck. We then started to head East towards Bunnhahabain, but stopped just East of Bridgend as the barley stubble had a large flock of some c3000 Barnacle Geese. We hadn’t been scanning through them very long art all, when Luke declared he had “A Cackler”! Sure enough and conveniently right in the front rows of the flock was indeed a Cackling Canada Goose, these are true wild Canada Geese, caught up with the Barnacle Goose flocks presumably at the very West end of their range and are the same size as Barnacles, in fact this individual if anything looked like slightly smaller.

We got everyone on to the Cackling Canada Goose and we also managed to get some images too! Great start to the last full day on Islay!

We next continued to Bunnahabhain, we had a lovely couple of hours in more blue skies and sunshine, but we still couldn’t pull an Otter out. Though beautiful, stunning views of Black Guillemots, which came in close and were displaying, something I had never witnessed before. They pirouetted and head bowed in symmetry, wonderful to watch. We had lots of nice views of Shags, Red-breasted mergansers, Great Northern Divers and a distant soaring Golden Eagle.

We then headed to Loch Finlaggan, whilst having lunch we scanned and watched 3 Golden & White-tailed Eagles, plus a Peregrine shot along the ridge, Lesser Redpolls & Siskin were evidence, and eventually 3 Crossbills flew over head landed briefly, taking off again and disappearing back in to the confifer plantation! At last we had managed a Crossbill to add to the trip list!

Now is back to Bridgemnd Woollen Mill, to see if our luck would continue!? A walk around the Mill itself, produced Treecreeper and Long-tailed Tit again but no Dipper. So we walked upstream, I was about to give up when first one Dipper appeared on the last stretch of suitable water, shortly followed by a second Dipper – excellent! We all had lovely views as the Dippers perched and fed, doing what Dippers do!

We had a walk around Islay House, lots of Treecreepers, at least 5, but couldn’t dig out a Bullfinch, this species stubbornly staying off the trip list!

We were about to leave when 3 White-tailed Eagles soared up above the trees – this week had truly been unbelievable for eagles, with multiple sightings of both Golden & White-tailed on almost a daily basis.

We headed round to Bowmore for a coffee and a quick look off the harbour, we soon find the Common Scoter flock and after a bit of searching located the female Surf Scoter, it was better views with the light softer and birds slightly closer.

We rounded off the birding on the the island in the evening with a lovely final meal in The Peatzeria restaurant & 2 Tawny Owls calling on the way back to the accommodation!

Day Eight – Thursday 2nd March

We had a nice hour to kill at Port Ellen harbour, before leaving Islay on the ferry at 10am. The highlight was watching 2 adult and a young Whooper Swan migrating North, the birds slowly circling gaining heaight and then heading North high over The Oa mountains.

The crossing was similar in numbers and species as the outward crossing, with a couple of nice exceptions. Firstly, a super migrating female Hen harrier, crossing high across the sea from the North ern hills to the Southern mainland, across around 6 miles of open sea. Next was a superb count of 72 Great Northern Divers.

At last!! After much searching the Cackling Canada Goose!
The Black Guillemots were displaying in stunning light!
This young White-tailed eagle was up close and personal!
Great Northern Divers were seen daily and 72 counted from the return ferry!

Systematic List of Birds recorded

1Red-throated Diver 50Grey Plover 
2Great Northern Diver 51Lapwing 
3Little Grebe 52Knot 
4Red-necked Grebe 53Sanderling 
5Slavonian Grebe 54Purple Sandpiper
6Northern Gannet55Dunlin 
7Great Cormorant56Jack Snipe
9Little Egret58Bar-tailed Godwit
10Grey Heron 59Curlew 
11Mute Swan 60Redshank
12Whooper Swan 61Greenshank
13Pink-footed Goose62Turnstone 
14Greenland White-fronted Goose63Black-headed Gull
15Greylag Goose 64Common Gull
16Greater Canada Goose 65Herring Gull
17Barnacle Goose66Glaucous Gull
18Pale-bellied Brent Goose67Great Black-backed Gull 
19Cackling Canada Goose68Lesser Black-backed Gull
20Red-breasted Goose69Kittiwake
22Eurasian Wigeon71Razorbill 
23Gadwall 72Black Guillemot
24Eurasian Teal73Rock Dove 
25Mallard 74Woodpigeon
26Pintail 75Collared Dove 
27Shoveler 76Barn Owl 
28Tufted Duck77Tawny Owl 
29Common Eider78Kingfisher
30Long-tailed Duck79Skylark 
31Common Scoter 80Meadow Pipit 
32Surf Scoter81Rock Pipit 
33Goldeneye82Grey Wagtail
34Red-breasted Merganser83Pied Wagtail
35White-tailed Eagle84Dipper 
36Golden Eagle 85Wren 
37Marsh harrier86Dunnock 
38Hen Harrier 87Robin
39Sparrowhawk 88Stonechat 
40Buzzard 89Blackbird 
41Kestrel 90Fieldfare
42Merlin 91Song Thrush
43Peregrine 92Redwing 
44Pheasant 93Mistle Thrush 
45Moorhen 94Goldcrest 
46Water Rail95Long-tailed Tit 
47Oystercatcher96Coal Tit 
48Ringed Plover 97Blue Tit 
49Golden Plover 98Great Tit 
101Red billed Chough 
104Carrion Crow  
105Hooded Crow  
107Common Starling  
108House Sparrow 
109Common Chaffinch  
115Lesser Redpoll  
116Common Crossbill  
118Reed Bunting 
 Mammals recorded
1Common Seal
3Roe Deer
4Red Deer
5Mountain Goat
6Brown Hare

This tour will run again in February 2024

For further details contact:-

Norfolk Birding

Chris Mills

07876 357677