Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Knapdale & Island of Islay......

A trip to the west coast of Scotland on Halloween night and there would be no tricks about but certainly some treats in store as is often the case up at that magical part of the world. Gary Storey and his mate paddy were present for the adventure and as normally the case when G-stoz is involved we had not organised anything in advance and were just going to go with the flow and see what happened day by day, we had until Friday.....here is how we got on.......

Beaver dam....

Headed off early on Monday morning meeting G-Stoz and Paddy at the top of the drive at dawn. We decided to take my car as it would be better on fuel and we would share the driving. After been on the road just 10 minutes Gstoz demanded we go to Mcdonalds resteraunt for a breakfast stop and a usual healthy diet by the man. A smooth journey up through Glasgow and beyond with the only mishap being Gstoz smelling like a rotting skunk. We committed to Knapdale to try and get a glimpse of the beavers that are being trialed in the FC woodland.

We arrived just after lunch and as expected the landscapes and colours were amazing heading up through South and central Argyll on the mainland. With the clocks going back at the weekend it meant we lost an hour of wildlife time on the evenings so we had to make the most of the precious light even more. We had a walk around the lochs where the mammals had been introduced and we found plenty of evidence of their presence with dam defenses, gnawed trees and flooded woodlands. We set up camp in the rain located in a dense conifer woodland near by and paddy made a great meal with frankfurts and pasta which we enjoyed in the rain.

Barnies on Islay

Sunset on Machir beach

The next morning I got up at dawn to give myself a chance of some beaver action and covered a few areas of the loch but at this time of the year with so much darkness in a day it gives them plenty of time to feed and survive at night as they are mainly nocturnal mammals.
A couple of Ravens, Crossbill and a good number of Bullfinch were of note in the area.
We packed up and moved on at lunch time and our destination was the island of Islay! which is to the south of Mull and is renowned for its Geese at this time of the year as well as its Chough population and Eagles and Harriers. The ferry crossing was close by to where we were located as well so it was convenient.

We got the 1pm ferry from Kennacraig and it was a cold breeze heading over with a healthy chop in the water so spotting cetaceans would be tricky so we focused on the birds. We did well during the 90 minute crossing as we got Pom Skua, 3 GN Divers, 2 RT Divers, possible BT Diver, Gannet, Kittiwakes. Arrived at Post Askaig at 3ish and headed to the west part of the island as we commited to camping on a beach and hoping for a good sunset. The island was impressive with a lot of rich farmland habitats with a good number of Geese occupying them including Barnacle, White-Fronted and Greylag. We spotted a couple of Brown Hares lying low in the grasslands and plenty of Starlings congregating together ready to roost. We arrived at an amazing stretch of beach called Machir and after taking some photos and admiring the scenery we got all our gear and headed south down the beach to find a sheltered area to set up camp. It was a savage south westerly which made it tricky in an exposed area. We were praying for clear skies for some star gaizing and we got it! A few shooting stars including one huge one. Jupiter showing well to the east. Gary had said of a meteor shower peaking today to the south but with the moon nearing a full in that direction there would be no chance in picking up anything. The strong wind continued into the night and it caused problems a number of times with the tent nearly lifting off into the night sky.

7 sisters among other consolations

we camped out on this beach on tuesday eve under fantastic night sky....

We woke up the next morning to continued strong winds with the tent still hanging on at a funny angle. We packed everything away and did the one mile trek back to the car just about managing to carry all the gear. We decided to find a cafe for a breakfast and a hot drink so we headed south passing through a couple of the major areas on the island with the first one being Bowmore which was like a ghost town so we moved further south towards Port Ellen which is not quite Tobermory standard but it is ok. The strong winds and time of the year meant it wasn't as appealing when visited. Again there was not much on offer with just a cyber cafe open at 12 which did not look up to much. If it had been blown away by the winds there would of being about £15 worth of damage.

We decided to go to good old reliable Spar for some fodder and the guy working there looked like he was going to stick his head in the microwave at any second! We visited the RSPB reserve of Oa right on the south peninsula. Still very strong winds and savage pot hole ridden track getting there but we decided to come back later in week as weather not the best and we were running out of light to find somewhere to sleep tonight. We looked up Bothys on the island and thanks to the trusty iphone we found some info on one located on the east coast which would be a fair trek to get to on foot. We parked road side as near as we could and decided to take the mountainous route over the higher ground to get to the coastal building.

We headed for the mountains in hope of finding a building on the other side. The wildlife sightings were locked on the way over with a 1st year Snowbunting right in front of us on the path and a ringtail moments later. 50 plus Red Deer were showing well being mainly Stags with the odd hind thrown in. No rutting behavior seen. We were scanning the mountain skylines for mine and Gstoz's fave bird the Goldie Eagle but no sign of yet. we reached the coast and decided to head south along the rocky shoreline hoping to see a building around every corner....until we got it in sight! looked in great condition and we had it to our selves as well. Lovely set up inside with fire stove, beds and room for paddy to put up his hammock! We enjoyed a lovely curry by the fire and baited the creel pot with chicken ready to check in the morn!

Bothy we stayed at on the east coast....amazing place

Portenhaven lighthouse

The next morning and Paddy popped his head in from outside to say "I think I have seen an Otter!" We rushed out and scanned the coast to pick up a small diamond shaped head popping up and down among the waves. A great start to the day and we wanted to build on that so we were excited to check the creel pot! The pot was wedged on the back of a rock from the tide so Gary rolled his pants up to go in and dislodge it. The water was up to his knees and it was a rocky shore being quite uneven on foot. He released the creel pot and as attempting to make his way back to dry land he lost his footing and slipped face first into the water! Paddy was creasing up and I missed the event as I was focusing on what was in the pot. We did get success after all but it was only a Green Shore Crab.

After all the events we packed up all our gear and got ready to head west back over the higher ground and give us enough time to explore more of the island and also find a resting place for the nights sleep. 150 yards away from the bothy on our return journey and Gstoz shouts 'Peregrine!' as a bird flies above us heading south. We got more Deer and also picked up the Snowbunting again in the same area before we returned to the car.

We decided on a sit down meal at a pub we could find so we headed towards Port Askaig and found the Shnug bar and as we are three classic northerners we ordered burgers and chips times 3 with a glass of coke. I checked my phone and found out Leeds had lost 5-0 to Blackpool at home the evening before....splendid! We were looking into where to stay on the night as some of our gear was wet and the weather wasn't the best so we ruled out camping and looked into the hostel at Port Charlotte so we headed west over that way.

When we arrived we found out that the hostel was privately booked out all week so there was no room at the inn. We sat parked up in the car outside Port Charlotte Hotel for a good hour making calls to the local B&Bs for a room with no success! After about 20 attempts we got success with the hunting lodge at Portnahaven so we cruised over and got settled in. We got showered and headed down to the local for our supper. It was nice fodder and a fat git at the bar bought us a whiskey each which tasted like monkey piss but I don't like the taste of alcohol in general, there is much better things to do in life than sit getting pissed like that Elephant seal at the bar.
After the meal I did some star gazing and photography outside the lodge focusing on the lighthouse, surrounding buildings and the stars them self.

a shed load of stars out tonight!

urban Starling

We got up earlyish to make the most out of our last day on the island as our ferry to the mainland was at 3pm. We decided to slowly make our way down to Oa nature reserve to focus on the chance of Chough and Eagles. A huge number of Geese on show all around the island makes for great viewing and we also got Brent geese roadside on the morning. It was fantastic weather with not a cloud in the sky. We arrived at Oa and we had a lot of optimism as the visibility was great. We got a flock of 20-30 Twite to kick things off and also a Raven as we made our way to the south facing cliff face. A few more Ravens showing and then we picked up two Chough with their blood red bills and feet with their unique 'chow' calls. As we were scanning Gary somehow spotted 2 eagle shaped objects on a peak about 2 miles away! We made our way inland through the heather to try and get a closer look and as we made it over the first brow we stopped and scanned again and it was confirmed....2 Golden Eagles! we watched them for nearly two hours and they stayed perched on the highest peak but we did get Ringtail Harrier spotted by Paddy. It was time to catch the boat so we headed back to the car and flushed a Snipe on the way back. We kept checking the eagles on the way back and spotted a large bird in flight to the left of them...scope on them.....Goldie! a third eagle!
In the car heading away from the reserve we could still see the peak with the eagles sat and good make them out and suddenly as we were watching.....they lifted! We rammed the anchors on the car and got out scoped up and got all 3 birds in flight with one juvenile from this year still with its parents. What a way to finish the trip!! 2 cars suddenly came from either way so it was time for us to go and catch our ferry.

Back to sea watching on the way back with a calmer sea state but still no cetacean sightings. We did get 25 plus GN Divers close to the mainland, a couple of Harbour Seals and a good number of Kittiwakes. A smooth trip back to north England with Gstoz and I sharing the driving and we landed back at Geltsdale at 10ish and it took nearly half an hour to sort out all the junk and everyones gear in the car! 2 weeks after the trip and I am still finding bits of pasta and crisps which got spilled during the trip...oh well least I wont go hungry if my car breaks down.

Well choughed with this bird......had to be said

Stonechat at Oa

A great few days away to another magic and unique hebridean island. great company, great wildlife and great landscapes at a beautiful time of the year.

Top Sightings -

- 2 Chough
- Snowbunting
- Pom Skua
- 3 Golden Eagles
- 2 Hen Harriers
- Twite
- Otter
- peregrine
- Brent Geese
- Barnacle Geese
- 50 plus Red Deer
- Roe Deer
- 30 plus GN Divers
- 5 RT Divers
- Gannet
- Common and Grey Seal
- White-Fronted Geese

Here is a link to my Flickr Photo page with some of my photos from around Cumbria and also Islay.......... http://www.flickr.com/photos/60733110@N05/

Thanks for reading :-)


  1. A good read Ewan...However, it was I who did the cooking the first night and paddy the second and me the third. Did you do any??? hahaha!