Birding Tour of Islay – 24th February – 3rd March 2022
Participants:- Paul Bascombe, Chris Brock, Rosemary Buckland, Peter Leach, Paul & Wendy Scarborough & Andrew Slack
Tour Guide for Norfolk Birding – Chris Mills
OVERVIEW OF THE TOUR
This was a 6 day winter tour to Islay, off the west coast of Scotland in Argyll. Due to ferry issues we left on the night of Wednesday 2nd March, around 12 hours prior to our scheduled departure on Thursday morning, fortunately 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 Hen harrier, several numerous Whooper Swans, Chough, Twite, fantastic numbers of Great Northern Diver wintering sea duck and grebes! We also caught up with Cackling Goose and Lesser Scaup.
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 are visible and daily occurrence from the grounds and we did also see Peregrine & White-tailed Eagle!
A big thank you to Adrian Bradley for most of the images in this report.
Day One 25th February 2022
After collecting several of the group on the journey North we met up with the remaining clients at the Premier Inn Glasgow East. We had a good evening meal and then an earthy breakfast at 630am the next morning before heading to Kennacraig ferry. There was lying snow but the roads were clear and the snow covered mountains set against clear blue skies was a picture postcard scene!
We stopped off at Tarbert harbour just short of the ferry and did out first proper birding. We started with a superb little flock of Eider l, mainly drakes, in their full regalia, stunning in the sunshine. Also several very obliging, 3 Black Guillemots, three head bobbing in display, also in crisp full black summer plumage, brilliant red legs and gapes.
Lots of other nice wildfowl with Red-breasted Mergansers, Goldeneye, Little Grebe, Mute Swan, Shag & Cormorant. There were several smart Hooded Crows and as well as commoner garden birds a nice flock of c20 Lesser Redpoll appeared.
At Kennacraig harbour we had time for a bit more birding before boarding the ferry. There were at least 2 Great Northern Divers, a single Red-throated Diver, 2 Goldeneye, 12 Red-breasted Merganser, 2 Black Guillemot, Curlew, Oystercatcher, Redshank and a single Greenshank.
The crossing produced excellent numbers with 35+ Great Northern Divers, 5 Slavonian Grebe, 2 Red-throated Divers, a Common Scoter, 19 Kittiwake, 5 Razorbill, 10 Guillemot & 12 Black Guillemot.
Just as we were reaching Port Ascaig we got on to 3 distant, high White-tailed Eagles, they steadily soared East over Jura’s mountains.
Just before leaving the ferry at Port Asciag a 2cy Glaucous Gull was found amongst a bunch of Herring Gulls. Once on the island we stopped off to take in several flocks of Barnacle & Greenland White-fronted Geese.
Final stop of the day on the way to the accommodation was at Blackrock as two super pale 3cy Iceland Gulls wheeled around along the shoreline, eventually dropping on to the sea to allow good scope views.
A pleasant evening meal in the Lochside Hotel, Bowmore and a visit to the Co-op supermarket for breakfast and packed lunch provisions.
Day Two – 26th February 2022
We headed out after breakfast to the North of Kilchoman, we were soon watching our fist flocks of Barnacle & Greenland White-fronted Geese, inspecting each flock carefully! As we headed along the top minor lane, there was a nice flock of Lapwing, closer looks revealed some 5 Ringed Plover & a group of 40+ Skylarks, several Reed Bunting, plus 3-4 Stonechats. Just a little further along a small group of finches shot up from the verge, they looked distinctly like Twite and a quick relocation found them on the stubble feeding with all the other birds, indeed they were 15 Twite, nice to find a few away from The Oa! A little further in we stopped off to watch a group of 20+ Ravens wheeling around, plus 2 Chough appears and everyone got their first ‘proper’ views of these delightful corvids.
We next headed to Gruinart, a short stop mainly to scan the fields of Geese from the height of the Visitor centre CP. Lots more Barnacles & Greenland White-fronts, also 15+ Whooper Swans, Teal, lots of Lapwing and several Redshank.
As I was scanning with bino’s I suddenly noticed a large ‘lump’ in the distance fields being seemingly mobbed! I traced the scope on to it, brilliant, a White-tailed Eagle with remains of a Goose, with Hooded Crow & Great black-backed Gull in attendance for titbits! We watched it for some time, before it took off….incredibly it flew 20m and dropped straight on to another Barnacle Goose, we watched on as it made short work of killing it & then plucking it!!
We had news that the Lesser Scaup were still present at Loch Skerrols so we headed over to there. En-route we had nice views of another White-tailed Eagle in the air this time. it was nicely out the nagging wind here and didn’t take too long to find an adult drake Lesser Scaup and duck swimming together, great to see both sexes of this scarce American vagrant. Also several Tufted Duck, Goldeneye & Teal on the Loch. The fields belong also hosted a nice flock of c100 Fieldfare. The wall along the woodland also gave us a nice flock of c40 Lesser Redpoll a few Siskin, Treecreeper & Goldcrest.
We next fit news that the Cackling Canada Goose was still present at West end of the island, so lunch was postponed! We noted an Iceland Gull again at Blackrock and Chris & Adrian were fortunate to pick up a Merlin as it raced past the minibus. We arrived at the Barnacle Goose flock and after a few scans Adrian picked out the Cackling Goose & after a few minutes eventually everyone had seen it, we then had good scope views and everyone was able to fully appreciate all the detail.
Amazingly we had a late lunch lunch watching two more White-tailed Eagles, plus 2 Buzzards displaying.
We rounded the day off with more Geese and incredible sea views of breakers along the shoreline in the now very strong gusting winds!
Day Three – 27th February 2022
It was a tricky weather day with strong gusty winds reaching 40 mph by the afternoon but at least it stayed dry!
As we headed along the shore of Loch Indaal, there was a nice group of 15 Pale-bellied Brents, along with Wigeon and Red-breasted Merganser, plus a small number of Ringed Plover and Turnstones. Also one of the 2cy Iceland Gulls was sat on the beach with Herring Gulls. We then took the road from Ballygrant up into the hills in the NE side of the island, heading South apart from several flocks of Barnacle Geese & Russian White-fronts it was fairly quiet save a few Raven, Hooded Crows and some nice fully antlered Red Deer!
I decided to double back, and as we rose back up into the higher areas a distant dot was steady, moving low along the ridge. It looked good for an Eagle, so I quickly sped the minibus up to the area, fortunately with the Eagle staying in view. Eventually we were pretty close and we had nice views of a young, perhaps 3cy Golden Eagle, it drifted just behind some low conifers, but just a few minutes later reappeared and then came right past us and over our heads giving superb close views, we watched as it steadily flew low over the moorland, wonderful!
Very satisfied we headed next to Loch Finlaggan, where I knew there would be some shelter from the wind, plus hills to scan for more raptors. We had only just arrived when 2 adult White-tailed Eagles appeared distantly over the ridge, with reasonable scope views, they appeared again a while later but no closer. Also Ravens and a Buzzard here too, plus a Siskin flew overhead and nearby Fieldfare, Redwing and Mistle Thrush were seen in the ground.
We headed to Bunnhabhain next where again I knew there would be shelter from the now nagging wind!
We had a nice couple of hours here, with a very close Red-throated Diver along the shore, several Shag, 2 Great Northern Divers, several Common Seals were hauled out on to the rocks. Scanning the hills gave us our second Golden Eagle of the day albeit a little more distant this time.
Mid-afternoon we tried another track off to the North and managed another distant White-tailed Eagle, but the wind was now in full force and we decided to head to Bowmore for coffee and some provisions for tonight’s evening meal.
We stopped on the way in as the bay at Bowmore was slightly sheltered and picked off some nice birds, a Greater Scaup and 2 super nice and close Long-tailed Ducks and a very close inshore Great Northern Diver.
Coffee in the Lochside hotel, complete with binoculars and scope proved a great move! There was a very close Slavonian Grebe, a raft of Common Scoter, more Great Northern Divers, Goldeneye, Red-breasted Mergansers & Wigeon.
After coffee and a visit to the Coop we headed back along Indaal, there was plenty of Curlew, plus several Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin and Ringed Plover. Towards Blackrock we were treated to three Iceland Gulls, 2 2nd cal year & a 3rd cal year, with two dancing in the wind back and forth just 15m away from the minibus. Another great days birding on Islay despite the challenging windy conditions.
Evening meal at the accommodation.
Day Four – 28th February 2022
Our destination today was down to the Southern end of the island to explore The Oa & the SEA corner. We stopped off on the way a couple of times, first it at Loch Indaal, there was 100 Dunlin on the shore plus 30 Bar-tailed Godwit, Ringed Plover, Oystercatcher and Curlew. A good flock of 35 Common Scoter just off Bowmore, plenty of Great Northern Divers and Red-breasted Merganser.
We then drove in South along the B road to Port Ellen, I noticed a very large lump on top of a dead tree and we pulled up and were soon watching a stunningly close adult White-tailed Eagle, it then flew a short way and was joined by its mate, 2 White-tailed Eagles both sat together at very short range, we had superb views and got some good pictures too!
We then continued to Port Ellen, we stopped off in the harbour, where again there was at least 12+ Great Northern Divers, one nice and close. After a while scanning, I noticed a small wader out distantly walking on the isolated rocks, of course, it was a Purple Sandpiper, nice to find one away from their usual haunts in Islay.
We next headed to The Oa and Kinnabus,before we got there, we had nice views of a Golden Eagle circling along one of the hills. At Kinnabus, there was 2 Whooper Swans on the Loch and after a bit of scanning I found a Golden Eagle perched up on the ridge, before it eventually took to the air.
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, Mergansers and Shags also at the last bay there were several smart breeding plumage Red-throated Divers, plus Razorbills, Black Guillemot, Common Guillemot & 3 Kittiwakes.
We then headed back to Kilchoman and popped over to see Margaret Brooke, We had a brilliant 30 minutes at Margaret’s & that wasn’t just the homemade shortbread! 2 White-tailed Eagles mobbed by a Peregrine over the ridge, Sparrowhawk through the garden, 12 Chough and displaying Ravens.
The day hadn’t quite finished there either with 2 Barn Owls & 4 Woodcock seen during the journey from Kilchoman to Bowmore tonight. The first Barn Owl was one of Margarets, sitting on the gravestones at the old Kirk!
Day Five – 1st March 2022
Today was by far the best weather day, with virtually unbroken sunshine and light winds.
We headed out a little earlier and checked the Barnacle Geese flock that the Red-breasted Goose had been seen amongst the evening before. Sadly it had yet again disappeared, though scanning through the flock did produce a lone Pink-footed Goose and nearby there was a vast flock of c1500 Golden Plover. We then headed along the the East shore of Gruinart Sea loch, the tide was dropping and low, the light superb and the shallow bay stuffed with thousands of birds! 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. Chris Brock picked out a Greenshank and between the group we eventually spotted three possibly four White-tailed Eagles sat out on the mud!
Around lunch we headed up to the visitor Centre and had lunch there. James How the RSPB reserve manager came over and had a chat with the group about the birds and the reserve.
We then headed down to Ardnave point, here we had our best views of 25 Chough the flock of 25 came wheeling over in the sky, doing their bouncing display flight. Also nearby was a group of 30 Twite and out on the Loch there was 14 Whooper Swans, 5 Goldeneye and Little Grebe. We also scanned the mouth of the Loch and there was the now expected Great Northern Diver, plus more views of waders.
We then headed back to RSPB Gruinart and spent a couple of hours watching from the raised viewing platform and the hide.
We had our first perched views of feeding Snipe, as several appeared late afternoon from the vegetated islands and eventually a ringtail Hen Harrier passed by, lots more Teal and lovely views of the Golden Plover again as they glowed in the late afternoon light! Several skeins of both Barnacles and White-fronted Geese dropped in and the sights and sounds from here in the glorious weather made for a lovely end to the day.
We had dinner at the accommodation tonight along with wine, beers and lively conversation!
Day Six – 1st March 2022
Today was our last day on the island and the weather was in stark contrast to the previous day! It was grey, overcast with a cold gusty wind! We set out around the Northern end of the island, it was fairly quiet along the stubble fields, save the usual flocks of Geese. We headed towards Saniagmore and whilst no Eagles were to be seen, there was a nice group of 12 Chough, they appeared to be playing on the breeze, and we had great views from the minibus as they rolled up and down and eventually two landed to feed. We then headed past the fields where the Red-breasted Goose yesterday, but the Barnacle flock there was absent, we did check several other flocks nearby but with no joy.
We next headed to Bridgend Woollen Mill, where the feeders were heaving with Chaffinches and Tits, plus Siskin. A nice short walk along the river, gave us good views of a pair of Dippers, plus a Grey Wagtail and several Treecreeper. The group then headed into the Woollen Mill, the chance to see the traditional warping machines in action or to buy some locally made woollen gifts. We then headed over to the Islay Estate and did a short walk around the grounds, the weather was slowly deteriorating and the highlights were 3 male Bullfinches on the ground and 2-3 more Treecreepers, plus singing Mistle Thrush, Song Thrush and a few Redwing.
We visited the Gin shop and people were able to buy a few gifts and with it now drizzling it was an opportune time for the group to do the Kilchoman Whisky distillery tour.
Finally our travel plans were suddenly changed early afternoon by Calmac ferries after they cancelled our 7am ferry for the next morning, which was both surprising and disappointing as the wind wasn’t that strong and sea state was flat!?
They were then unable to couldn’t guarantee anything on the next sailing on Friday morning and we were told to turn up and hope we got on via standby. After I made three phone calls and explained our situation we were offered a slot on the 8pm crossing this evening, with no other definite options for the Friday I decided we must leave this evening, which wasn’t too much of an issue other than sorting out everyone’s travel plans.
I dropped four of the group at Hotels in Glasgow at 1-130am and drove the other four client’s home with several stops for much needed caffeine!
Overall we had a successful trip, recording 111 species of birds our best total for the island.
The weather was very gog for the this time fo the year, probably my driest ever trip! There were 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 – 2 Lesser Scaup, 1 Cacking Goose, 5 Golden Eagles, 15 White-tailed Eagles, 30+ Great Northern Diver, Iceland and Glaucous Gull, Red-throated Diver, 20+ Slavonian Grebe, 20 Whooper Swan, Long-tailed Duck, Purple Sandpiper, Greenshank, Woodcock, 40+ Chough, Hen Harrier, Peregrine, Merlin, Black Guillemot, Barn Owl & Twite.
Systematic list of species recorded
|2||Great Northern Diver|
|13||Greenland White-fronted Goose|
|16||Pale-bellied Brent Goose|
|62||Great Black-backed Gull|
|63||Lesser Black-backed Gull|
Also a Peacock butterfly was on the wing in the sunshine on Arnave dunes on March 1st
This tour will run again in February/March 2022.