Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Islay, November 2014

Myself and my dad went to the inner Hebridean island of Islay on the 15th November for a week. I was to assist John with journalism and wildlife tourism promotional work. Could the location famous for its whisky also be as famous for its natural heritage in the future? 

Islay is the southern most Hebridean island and has a population of over 3000 inhabitants. A major industry is the eight active distilleries which are the isles second largest employer after agriculture. In 1779 there was 23 distilleries in operation on Islay!
Tourism is also integral to the island with over 40,000 visitors a year with the main attractions being wildlife, landscapes and rural isolation. 
The isle is also known for its renewable energy options with the first wave power station in the world on its exposed west coast. The Sound of Islay has also been designated to be the largest tidal array in the world with 10 tidal turbines planned, to harness the eight knots of tide which drives in between Islay and Jura. 
Unique varied geology can be seen all around the island which is the pattern of all the Hebrides beautifully varied isles. Notably there is a fault line passing through Loch Gruniart and Loch Indaal which was formed along a branch of the Great Glen Fault called the Loch Gruniart Fault. Lewisian Gneiss outcrops are exposed on the shoreline and a stunning sea stack can be seen in the SW of the isle called Soldiers rock due named due to the linear quartz intrusions which band all the way round it.

Day one - 22nd Nov

The afternoon ferry from Kennacraig produced a raft of 18 GN diver, 15 plus RB mergansers, 100 plus wigeon, a hurry of 40 kittiwakes, 2 razorbills, 6 guillemots, goldeneye, imm gannet and a single black guillemot. As we approached Port Askaig in the Sound of Islay we saw two golden eagles over the mountainous east side of Islay and also two adult white-tailed eagles over the village with one bird dropping down in an unsuccessful attempt at fishing! 

We arrived at Coillabus Cottage at dusk, which was located in stunning isolation on the Oa peninsula in the SW of Islay - http://www.coillabus-cottage.co.uk/

Top left - Red Deer stag, Top right - Rubha Mhail Lighthouse, Bottom left - Loch Indaal, Bottom right - Chough in flight
Day two

Wonderful sunshine throughout the day as we headed up to the north east part of the isle parking at Bunnahabhian and walking a coastal route to the NE point. The first record was a brambling calling in a nearby garden. A 4.5 mile walk to the north coastline rewarded us with 2 BT divers, an imm WT eagle and a minke whale! We had lunch by Rubha Mhail lighthouse and had a chat with the lady that had lived their for over twenty years in amazing isolation. On the drive back home on the evening we encountered a finch flock with a solitary cock yellowhammer all feeding on stubble. We checked the head of Loch Indaal on the way home and had wonderful views of a male merlin hunting a meadow pipit and a kingfisher calling nearby.

Day three

The settled weather continued and we covered areas local to where we were staying on the Oa peninsula. A nice circular walk started with a male peregrine overhead followed by a small flock of snow buntings also in flight as we reached the south coastline. Fulmars occupying territories along with birds gliding with gannets just off the coastline and a pair of curious ravens nearby. As we were on the board walk a jenny wren kept appearing from below it as we drove it further along, but one attempt to get out failed as it got stuck in between the two panels for a second or two!
Working our way back east we got more snow buntings, small flocks of twite and three golden eagles cresting the distant skyline.
We went round to Laggan bay in the afa and on route we spotted a leucistic reed bunting, clean white showing very well roadside. When we arrived at the bay we accidentally flushed three chouch feeding on invertebrates on the exposed weed on the spring lines. Dad spotted three LT duck out on the bay and a solitary sanderling on the beach as we admired the varied geological shoreline. 6-8 bottlenose dolphins and a female peregrine were other highlights in the area. 
Clear skies on the night so I did some dark sky spots of the cottage and the surrounding area which I will donate to the cottages owner.

Day four

Setting off at first light again we headed north to the RSPB reserve of Loch Gruniart and on route we had a slav grebe north of Bowmore. A male hen harrier was the first record on the north side of Loch Gruniart and as we walked the beach on low water we saw a single dunlin resting and sheltering by a clump of kelp. groups of twite and rock doves were seen as we went to check a deserved building for owl pellets to no avail.
On the reserve itself we had a male merlin flyby over the farm and also a female merlin hunting dunlin in spectacular fashion pushing them to a great height. Large number of geese and waders which included around 50 golden plover. 
We went further north to Ardnave point where we watched big gatherings of choughs and also a juv female peregrine in flight. Two snow buntings calling along the coast and a solitary purple sandpiper and turnstone. Looking north to Nave island we had a WT eagle perched on the west side. 

Top left -Barnies on loch Indaal, Top Right - Oa, Bottom Left - Coillabus cottage, Bottom Right - GWF geese and barnies.
 Day five

We covered the SW of the isle in the morning driving along the Ardbeg road and on route the highlight was a juv golden eagle holding metres above the car and continuing to show well afterwards! We did a woodland walk around Islay estate in the afternoon and I learnt two new species of fern in maidenhair and hart's tounge fern. Also amazing seeing polypody on a mature sycamore and admired the non native Turkey oak which is host to the gall wasp Andricus quercuscalicis, whose larvae damage the acorns of native British oaks. In 1998, the Ministry of Defence ordered the felling of all Turkey Oaks on its UK bases!
We moved onto Loch Skerrols where we got a kingfisher performing its classic illusive nature. 
As we arrived back at the cottage at dusk we could not believe our eyes as two golden eagles were soaring a metre above the building as they slowly moved off and worked the surrounding agricultural land targeting rabbits in low light. 

Day six

At first light two golden eagles right by the house again working low targeting rabbits again! As we left to the NW of the isle we had a juv golden eagle just down the lane metres above the car...ridiculous! 
Dad got onto a female LT duck north of Bowmore and as we arrived at Sanaigmore bay we saw 2 adult GN divers, female sp-hawk and countless chough with lovely views of two adults preening each other. 
We moved round to Loch Gorm where we saw a juv female hen harrier working the rough grass. We did a small walk at the third RSPB reserve of Saligo where we saw an adult female peregrine, a solitary golden plover and six bottlenose dolphins heading north just off the coast. 
Our last stop was Machair bay where John heard a water rail and we recorded 28 curlew on the beach along with a flyby of a tiercel peregrine targeting starlings. 
On the way back we scooped up a brown hare which was dead on the road and left it on a nearby backing by the cottage to see what it would entice.
At dusk dad and I watched on from the window as an adult golden eagle flew past, metres away at level hight! It was getting ridiculous! 

Day seven 

I stayed local on day seven to observe the golden eagles hunting in the surrounding area. At around lunchtime I had short walk around the field and managed to observe and film two adult golden eagles riding the strong easterly wind. The video can be seen below...

Dad arrived back in the afternoon as we watched hooded crows and ravens feeding on the hare carrion with a buzzard making a brief appearance. The hoodys did a large number of caches nearby. A male hen harrier flew past the garden fence as we were watching the feeding and also two adult choughs feeding just outside the boundary fence.   

Day eight 

Hoodys and ravens continued to feed on the hare at first light with WF geese grazing nearby. On the Port Ellan - Kennacraig ferry we got two bottlenose dolphins just out of the bay and two porpoise off Gigha Isle. Dad spotted 2/3 otters on the mainland side and another highlight was 18 GN divers in a tight raft.  
We called into Knapdale to see beaver evidence on the way back, admiring the dam construction, gnawed stumps and flooded birch woodlands.

A wonderful week, thanks very much to dad for everything. 

If anyone is interested in visiting the isle of Islay I can highly recommend this cottage, in particular for the potential of life changing views of golden eagles -

Thanks for looking....