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Monday, 18 February 2013

Islay Winter Birding Tour Report 8th-16th February 2013

Friday 8th February

We collected the clients from Nottingham & then headed north for Glasgow, where we collected the final member of the group in Glasgow. Overnight in the Premier Inn, at North Stepps.

Saturday 9th February - Kennacraig harbour & ferry crossing.

We left Glasgow at 0730 & arrived at the ferry crossing from Kennacraig to Islay in the late morning of Saturday 4th Feb. En-route we had seen our first Hooded Crows, Raven, Buzzards, Red-breasted Merganser & Eider. For those in the front of the vehicle there was also a very brief view of a Dipper!

We had breakfast or brunch as it was, by 11am & enjoyed a full Scottish, before finishing the final leg of the journey to Kennacraig harbour. We had around 30 minutes to spare & scanning the bay produced several Red-throated Diver & Black Guillemot.

We boarded the ferry for the crossing shortly after midday and took our position for birding during the crossing on the side deck.

The crossing as usual provided a good cross section of wintering seabirds.  Several Red-throated Diver, numerous c40 Great Northern Diver & a fantastic raft of 15 Black-throated Diver.

There was also lots of Shag, Red-breasted Merganser & Wigeon.  Also of note were several more Black Guillemot, Kittiwake, c10 Common Scoter plus a fly-by Velvet Scoter & Gannet

We arrived late afternoon at Port Ascraig and decided to head for the accommodation, via the Supermarket at Bowmore.

We stopped off several times for the big flocks of Barnacle & Greenland White-fronted Geese, we also scanned the Loch Indaal bay just from the outskirts of Bowmore, where we had nice scope views of some c40 Common Scoter, c12 Long-tailed Duck, 5 Slavonian Grebe, Eider & Goldneye.

We eventually dragged ourselves away, deciding that we really ought to make sure we secured our food provisions for the next few days! After shopping we did have wonderful views of around c7000 Barnacle Geese going to roost at the head of Loch Indaal.


Sunday 10th FebruaryLoch Gruinart RSPB Reserve & Ardnave Point

Breakfast was arranged for 7.30, and we were all in the van & on our way by 8.15am. It was cold grey morning, with a biting cold SE wind, plus occasional showers making birding difficult.

As we headed out along the lanes to the famous and magnificent Islay RSPB reserve we were very quickly looking at spectacular flocks of 500+ Barnacle Geese  & 100+ Greenland White-fronted Geese. We scanned hard through the flocks, but unfortunately we didn’t find the Lesser Canada Goose on this occasion.

I find a sheltered spot & we had just got out the minibus when a Barn Owl,  flew by a nice surprise!
We scanned the masses, & suddenly all the Lapwing were in the sky as a female Merlin flashed by & then popped up on to a gate post allowing nice scope views!

We then headed off to Ardnave Point eventually we convinced ourselves to head out, donning all our layers & waterproofs – it proved worthwhile! We eventually located a nice flock of 50 Chough, plus nearby a few minutes later a flock of c25 Twite also appeared & a pair of Stonechat appeared, suddenly the weather didn’t seem quite so bad!

The walk back produced lots of Raven & a scrutiny of Ardnave Loch produced 10 Whooper Swan, 2 Little Grebe,  c150 Teal plus Goldeneye & Tufted Duck.

Next stop was the RSPB Visitor centre where we treated ourselves to some warmth, lunch & a hot drink, the group were able to provided an educational talk by James How the RSPB Site Manager. James explained the history& importance of the reserve and we then headed off to the viewing platform. From here there was a mix of ducks & geese, Wigeon & Teal were in abundance, with a 64 Pintail amongst them. A single Snipe flew over providing fairly brief views for those wjo were quick enough!

We ended the day heading towards Saignamore, where we noted Fieldfare, Mistle Thrush & Redwing in the fields. But the best bird was late in the day as I fired the minibus up the track to get up closer to a superb juvenile soaring Golden Eagle,  a great way to end the first full day on the island.

Monday 11th FebruaryLoch Gruinart East Shore & Loch Gorm area

After breakfast we headed for the shores of Loch Indaal, as today was much calmer & brighter.

We scoped the bay from several vantage points & had good views of Great Northern Diver, c12 Slavonian Grebe, c50 Greater Scaup, 30 Eider, 12 Long-tailed Duck, c40 Common Scoter Shag, Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser & Wigeon. Once on the shoreline there were also large numbers of wildfowl & shorebirds, notable counts were 50 Shelduck, 100+ Oystercatcher, 100+ Teal, 200+ Bar-tailed Godwit, Redshank & a few Dunlin.

We then headed towards the Bridgend area of the estuary, a male Hen Harrier flew by but disappeared very quickly hunting low across the fields. As we headed back towards the head of the Loch, suddenly the skies were full of panicking geese, the culprit a low juvenile Golden Eagle, skimming across the tops of the woods. It disappeared over the trees, we jumped in the minibus & made a fortunate decision to head north, as we gunned the minibus out of the trees the Eagle appeared ahead of us. I sped alongside & we eventually jumped out & were able to watch as it soared above us – fantastic!

We stopped off along the Gruinart flats, there was a good number of Barnacle Geese today on the south  side of the road, so I checked them thoroughly. I didn’t take too long before I had located the Richardsons Canada Goose amongst them, we were all able to get good scope views

We then headed up to the Loch Gorm area where we located a confiding adult Iceland Gull feeding on a carcass & nearby the fields held c20 Twite, c10 Linnet, c10 Ringed Plover & c100 Lapwing.

Tuesday 12th February – The Oa & SE to Claggan Bay

Today was a challenging day with strong easterly winds ensuring that most of our birding was done from the minibus or in short stops, but never the less we still saw some new birds & Otter!

We started briefly in Port Ellen harbour and here we were treated to nice scope views of an Otter for around 20 minutes as it dived, fished and swam, climbing out on to the rocks each time with a new prey item!

We then headed to the Oa & walked out on to the sea cliffs, it was difficult conditions in strong winds & despite this being an excellent area for raptors, they clearly had decided to sit tight! We did note several Fulmar & Gannets though.

We then took the minor winding road from Ardbeg to Claggain bay in the south east corner of the island. In the various bays there were Red-breasted Merganser, Goldeneye, and Rock Pipit.

The scenery and rocky bays are wonderful along the south east stretch of coastline. After a couple of stops, we reached the pier 1 mile west of Ardbeg, and there was good numbers of Oystercatcher & Turnstone. Plus nice views of a group of Common Seals hauled out on the rocks.

We stopped off to look for woodland birds, but were interrupted as a Golden Eagle passed overhead, again we sped off after it, we managed to keep pace as it headed eastwards, but this bird eventually disappeared, but yet another great encounter with these wonderful birds!

We reached Claggan Bay & had lunch in this beautiful south eastern spot of the island, offshore several Great Northern Diver & Eider were noted.

I then stopped off at some feeders, which in the past have been very productive, but sadly they were empty & there was no sign of the scarce Yellowhammers I have seen here in the past.

Wednesday 13th February – Portnahaven

We had already noted the weather forecast for today with 40 – 50 mph winds & driving rain! Sadly the forecast was correct! We ventured out in the morning & watched the sea crashing on the shores, we took in some shorebirds & had very close views of c12 Pale-bellied Brent Geese.

We stopped off at the Wollen Mill & walked the river but couldn’t find the Dipper, there was a great selection of Chaffinch, Coal, Great & Blue Tits at the feeders there!

We settled in the afternoon for a visit to a couple of the islands Gift shops!

Thursday 14th February – Loch Indaal, Loch Skerrols, Bunnahabain & Bridgend Mill

The day dawned fine, with much lighter winds & we vowed to make up for the lost birding time of yesterday! A pair of Chough greeted us from the door of our accommodation calling as they flew over, plus c20 Reed Bunting were perched nearby. Angus & Isobel our accommodation provider also showed the group his new prize Bull – “George” whom seemed a pretty placid creature.

We started the day proper, with a visit to Loch Skerrols, it didn’t hold too much in the way of waterfowl, but 3 Treecreeper & one of the rare “commoner” birds a single Moorhen were worthwhile birds in the context of Islay birds! There were a few Teal, Wigeon, Tufted Duck, but little else of note. 

We then stopped off again at the woollen mill, before we had even left the minibus we were watching a single Dipper. This bird delighted everyone with 15 minutes of swimming & acrobatics just below the bridge providing great views!

We then headed off to Bunnahabain. We climbed the road in the minibus, stopping off for Buzzards & the lovely views. We arrived at the distillery & the usual adult Iceland Gull, was in residence showing very well, we then watched 2 Otters in the bay & just offshore Great Northern Diver, Red-breasted Merganser, Eider & 3 Black Guillemots were present in the bay.
This preceded an amazing next hour where we were able to watch fantastic views of 2 adult Golden Eagles firstly perched on the hillside, just some 500m away, followed by both birds soaring overhead! We lunched & also along with the eagles noted Kestrel, Buzzard & Raven.

I tried a couple of short visits to wooded areas, but couldn’t locate any Great
Spotted woodpecker or Long-tailed tit but we did note a nice flock of Fieldfare & a few  Redwing.

Friday 15th February –  East Shore of Gruinart,

A really good weather day, dry with some sunny spells.

We headed off down the east shore of Gruinart, this excellent area produced a good number of birds,  c8000 Barnacle Goose, 5 Great Northern Diver, 10 Goldeneye, 1 Goosander, 4 Eider, 6 Red-breasted Merganser,  great views of a hunting Merlin, 120 Wigeon, c300 Shelduck, 120 Oystercatcher, 100 Curlew, 500 Bar-tailed Godwit, 30 Turnstone, 14 Grey Plover, 20 Sanderling, c120 Dunlin, 25 Redshank, c40 Ringed Plover, 6 Rock Pipit, 6 Skylark, c15 Reed Bunting & flocks of 20, 40 & 60 Twite.

We lunched at the RSPB centre Gruinart & then headed off to Saignamore, halfway along the minor road a Barn Owl crossed the road ahead of us out hunting in the middle afternoon! Possibly due to the poor weather earlier in the week. Buzzards were everywhere, plus a Kestrel.

We were soon stopping again as a good flock of finches lifted out ofan adjacent field. A good scan showed a really nice mixed flock of c250 birds – c200 Chaffinch, c20 Linnet, Skylark & real star birds c10 Brambling. I had an inspired moment as I suggested a Merlin might pass by if we sat & waited……30 seconds later a Merlin came hurtling through. It gave close pursuit & disappeared down the road weaving between the bushes!

We eventually reached the bay & decided that on a short walk in the beautiful sunny blue skies. As we walked out a raptor appeared moving along the ridge, a Golden Eagle plus a 2nd bird, 7th & 8th sightings of the trip! The beach was beautiful & we didn’t see another soul, scattered along the beach were Ringed Plover, Oystercatcher & Turnstone.

We finished the day with a drive around Loch Gorm, c240 Teal were on the loch plus a few Tufted Duck & Mallard. A Pair of Stonechat showed nicely & we finished off with a hunting ringtail Hen Harrier crossing the road in front of us.

Saturday 16th February – Port Ascraig harbour & ferry crossing to Kennacraig

We headed down after breakfast to Port Ascraig said our farewells and were aboard the ferry heading back to the mainland by 9.30am.

The crossing provided a good selection of birds to finish the trip, c15 Great Northern Diver, 5 Red-throated Diver, 5 Kittiwake, 1 Razorbill , several Black Guillemot & Common Scoter.


Overall we had a successful trip, recording 104 species of birds.

The number of species was just half the story, the continual observations of quality species, with good views of many scarcer species was one of the really enjoyable factors, cumulative sightings over the week produced – 8 Golden Eagles, 100 + Great Northern Diver, 20+ Slavonian Grebe, , 60+ Chough, 5 Hen Harriers, 3 Merlin,  Black Guillemot, Long-tailed Duck, 150+ Twite, plus the Small race Canada Goose amongst the vast numbers of Barnacle Geese.

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