Another great Islay tour!

By Andrea Hudspeth the 25/03/2024


Saturday saw us making the two-hour crossing on a later sailing than normal due to ongoing issues with the ferries, so we only had an hour or so of good light to watch from the deck of the ship. We still managed views of black guillemot, great northern, red throated and black throated divers, and red-breasted mergansers. We arrived on Islay in the dark and soon settled in ready for the week ahead.


Day 2

As soon as we left our accommodation after breakfast, we were seeing more brown hares than we had ever seen on Islay before, and this went on all week. We made our way to Bunnahabhain where we had close views of red throated divers and black guillemot and more distant views of white-tailed eagle. While waiting for any fishing otters some members of our group visited the distillery and had a dram or two to warm themselves up. We then moved on to Finlaggan, the ancient seat of the Lords of the Isles, which on this visit was more interesting for the culture than wildlife, but further on we started to see the large flocks of barnacle and white-fronted geese which the island is famous for. Travelling back on the Glen Road we watched a golden eagle displaying over the hilltops. We stopped off at Bowmore harbour and found a kingfisher fishing from the sea wall. This was a first on the island for us and a bird we would see again later in the week.

“Not only did they have an immense amount of local and wildlife knowledge, but the group leaders were also extremely accommodating and made evenings, after a long day guiding us around every corner of Islay, relaxing and fun. It was like being on holiday with very knowledgeable and caring friends”. Clare Elcoate

The group watching the kingfisher in Bowmore Harbour
The group watching the kingfisher in Bowmore Harbour

Kingfisher in Bowmore Habour

Day 3

On day 3 we made our usual stops outside Bowmore to scan Loch Indaal for red breasted mergansers, goldeneye, and more distant common scoter, long-tailed duck and Slavonian grebes. Further on around the coast towards Bruichladdich we pulled in to watch a mother otter and two well-grown young fishing just next to the road. Then we encountered a small number of purple sandpipers among the ringed plovers and rock pipits. We stopped for lunch at Portnahaven watching its common and grey seals and then we drove through the high ground of the Rhinns where we encountered an adult white-tailed eagle and then a brave little merlin which mobbed the eagle. There were a couple of hen harriers spotted on the way to Loch Gruinart where we had a pair of white-tailed eagles and a young golden eagle.

“You did a great job looking after us and making sure our needs were met! Really appreciated the help with travel, food, and loo breaks”.

Otters near Bruichladdich
Purple sandpipers
Purple sandpipers at Bruichladdich

Day 4

Before we got in the cars this morning, we had a white-tailed eagle soaring over the hill opposite the lodge. After our usual stops on Loch Indaal, we made our way to Loch Gruinart visitor centre where we had arranged to meet with the James Howe from the RSPB who talked us through the management of the various reserves on the island. We then spent some time in the hides overlooking the reserve where we watched an adult pair of white-tailed eagles and were visited a few times by a ringtail hen harrier. Moving on to Ardnave we encountered another couple of harriers from the car and on our arrival were greeted by a flock of 50 twite sat on the wires over our heads. Next, we had the flock of chough which arrived at their afternoon feeding time. We split into two groups as one group wanted to walk to Adnave Point. This group had more chough and twite, as well as a flyover of hundreds of geese. Whilst driving back down the road towards the visitor centre, they encounter James walking home, so stopped for a chat when an barn owl suddenly appeared from one of the barns of Gruinart Farm leaving us all in raptures. Not to be outdone, the other group also had a barn owl by the side of the road on the way to Bowmore.

“My standout moment was on the walk to Adnave when we heard what sounded like a storm coming towards us - then you told us that was the sound of a flock of geese landing in a field. What a force they are in such numbers”. Vicki Elcoate

Barnacle Geese
Barnacle Geese flying over Loch Gruinart
Chough at Ardnave

Day 5

A trip to the neighbouring island of Jura usually results in some good sightings and this visit was no exception. Travelling down the one road on the island, you have to keep an eye out for otters and Gill soon spied one sat on a rock in the sea. He soon slipped away but we were confident of more sightings. All the way along the road up the island we had many red deer in view. Vicki spotted some movement in the sea and called out ‘Dolphins!’ and there we were able to watch a small pod of bottle-nosed dolphins fishing close to the shore. At the northernmost point of the public road Gill spotted a large figure on a rock and called on us to stop. A young sea eagle was sat dwarfing its neighbouring hooded crows. It took off and came low overhead. Another fishing otter and three hen harriers were seen. Lastly as we waited for the ferry, an otter emerged from its sleeping place among the rocks next to the jetty and walked down the shingle yards away from us.

“The magical and mysterious landscapes of Islay and Jura deserve their own mention. One minute we’d be in rain and mist, and the next we’d be surrounded by rainbows and sweeping views of multi-coloured sunlit moorlands and lochs. The perfect setting for photographing raptors and deer”. Clare Elcoate

White-tailed sea eagle
White-tailed sea eagle on Jura
Red deer stag
Impressive stag sitting by the river on Jura

Day 6

Frequent rain and low cloud meant our trip to the Oa headland was in doubt. Although we managed to see a hunting male hen harrier on the way, fog enveloped the reserve, and we would not be enjoying any sea views today. So, we dropped in to Lagavulin Distillery for a bit of whisky shopping and then made our way to Kildalton to view the ruined church, ancient cross, and woodland. On our trip back on the airport road we had two more hen harriers and then when checking out the area around the Bowmore recycling centre we had another harrier and a flyby merlin. Even in the rain and fog Islay can still deliver the birds.

“Had a great trip with some excellent food. Good company, good birds but have seen better weather 😂....but it didn't stop the birds”. Gill Griffiths

Female hen harrier
Female hen harrier fly-by
The Oa
The interpretation board didn't make much sense to Vicki in the fog

Day 7

After packing we left our accommodation for the last time. We called the reserve manager at the Oa to check if the fog had cleared the clifftops on the reserve. Getting the green light, we set off south and made our way across the moors. On arrival we found that there was no wind for once and set off on the circular walk taking in the American Monument. On arrival at the stacks Vicki spotted a large bird which turned out to be a golden eagle which was shortly joined by its mate soaring around their nesting cliff. We had great views of these magnificent birds. We could see some feral goats at the top of the cliffs and bumped into a small herd further on. Making our way along the path a peregrine falcon flew past and then a flock of some 30 young ravens cavorted along the clifftops. All too soon it was time to leave for the ferry and depart Islay. Until the next time.

“What a wonderful trip it was. I really enjoyed it and learned such a lot from the experts on the trip (starting at a point of ignorance myself)”. Vicki Elcoate

Golden eagle
Golden eagle flying over the cliffs on the Oa
Buzzard flying into a rainbow
A buzzard flying into a rainbow sums up the trip