Islay Birding Holiday Trip Report 2023

Aquila Ecology Trip Report Islay February 2023

We recently enjoyed our eleventh annual trip to Islay, the Queen of the Hebrides. The weather was amazing and we were lucky that almost all of the rain fell overnight.

While we were treated to the usual flocks of barnacle and white-fronted geese, this year was a lovely surprise when it came to harrier and eagle sightings; most of the hen harriers that we saw were grey males, and the number of eagle sightings (golden and white-tailed) was higher than ever before.

Saturday 11 Feb

Our group met up in three car-loads at the ferry terminal at Kennacraig. Two of our group had already seen a white-tailed eagle near the terminal before we arrived, so we took that as a good omen. We looked out from the ferry terminal whilst we waited to board and had great views of black guillemots and red-breasted mergansers. As our usual midday ferry had been cancelled, a 3.30pm departure meant that the light would be failing as we approached Islay, so we were up on deck straight away to make the most of the daylight. As well as more black guillemots and mergansers, we soon added great northern divers, eiders and guillemots to our list. Arriving at our lodge in darkness, we settled in with an open fire, drinks and nibbles and prepared for the next day.

Sunday 12 Feb

After breakfast and sandwich making, we set off to Bowmore and Loch Indaal. The only waders spotted on the shore were ringed plovers, curlews, redshanks and oystercatchers. On the water there were good numbers of goldeneye, red-breasted merganser and more distant common scoters. Far out, pairs of long-tailed duck could be spotted as they flew, but they were harder to see when they settled on the water. Numerous great northern divers were present, as well as red-throated divers and Slavonian grebes. The usual flock of scaup were nowhere to be seen, so we moved on slowly to RSPB Loch Gruinart, stopping on the way to check out other sections of Loch Indaal.

From the Visitor Centre we spotted a white-tailed eagle take a barnacle goose out on the marsh. As we watched the eagle despatch its prey, we noticed another eagle sitting only 20 metres away from the first. Next, a male hen harrier flew close along the embankment near the Visitor Centre. We made our way down to the first hide where we saw the usual duck species including teal, wigeon, pintail, shoveller, shelduck and tufted duck. Buzzards have become more common on the island and we had two perched on posts, as well as a marsh harrier sat on the grassy bank. This is the first time we have had marsh harrier here, and one overwintering shows both the spread of the population, and the increasing mildness of winters. The marsh harrier took off and passed close to the hide putting up flocks of lapwings and golden plover. On the hilltop opposite the hide, were another two white-tailed eagles; these birds were then buzzed by two young golden eagles. One of these golden eagles flew close to the hide and low over the marsh giving great views. So, to recap, there were two white-tailed eagles on the marsh, two on the hill and then two golden eagles as well – amazing!

Golden eagle
Golden eagle flying low past the hide

We then moved to Ardnave where we were greeted by a flock of twite in the dunes. Here there were two more golden eagles and a male hen harrier and our first ringtail hen harrier. There were more ducks on Ardnave Loch as well as whopper swans. The usual flock of choughs flew around the dunes, eventually moving to the barn to roost. The dunes were full of rabbits and the fields along track there and back had many brown hares.

Monday 13 Feb

As the weather was forecast to stay fair, we went up the glen road to the north east of the island. Stopping on the road to scan, we picked up two golden eagles, one carrying nesting material which was great to see as we were unaware of a known eyrie in the vicinity. Rejoining the main road at Ballygrant, an adult white-tailed eagle flew low over the car. We pulled in and watched it circle until it flew out of sight. Next we headed down to Bunnahaibhan distillery where we spotted our first otter of the trip which was sitting on a rock eating a fish. It wasn’t a close view, but still a good one aided by our telescopes. Across the bay we spotted a young white-tailed eagle sitting near to the shore. It eventually flew, and we lost it on the hillside. Then we had three young white-tailed eagles over the peak of the hill, playing and jousting in the air obviously having a fun time. On the sea we had more great northern divers and black guillemots, often at close quarters.

After an obligatory visit to the distillery shop for goodies, we then moved on to Finlaggan, the ancient seat of the Lords of the Isles. Over the woods we had two adult white-tailed eagles and two adult golden eagles. A male sparrowhawk dashed past our heads, close enough for us to hear the wind whistling through its wings. On the road back to the lodge, we had another male hen harrier sighting outside Bowmore. Back at the lodge, we had a close fly-by male hen harrier and a ringtail over the hill opposite, and on the same hill we saw a young golden eagle. Two of our party who walked to the nearby conifer plantation had close views of two white-tailed eagles going to roost. Another eagle-filled day.

Finlaggan - The ancient seat of the Lord of the Isles

Tuesday 14 Feb

Today we travelled to the west, but first we stopped at Loch Indaal to see the flock of brent geese and the long-staying glaucous gull. We pulled in at Bruichladdich to watch a big dog otter sat on a rock, but once it went into the sea we could not find it again. We carried on and had our lunch at Portnahaven where we watched, and were watched by, common and grey seals. Driving through the moorland of the Rhinns we noticed a small, thrush-sized bird perched on the roadside powerline. As we slowed it shot off fast over the field – it was only a merlin! At Machir Bay we had another immature white-tailed eagle, a flock of turnstones feeding in a field and six snipe flushed from wet ground near to the car park. Walking on the wide, sandy beach members of our party collected numerous egg cases of small-spotted catsharks and thornback rays. Two more golden eagles on the way back added to the day’s tally.

Wednesday 15 Feb

The forecast had warned that this would be the day of the worst weather, so we had scheduled in a trip to Jura. However, we awoke to blue skies and as we were loading the cars we watched a pair of golden eagles displaying over the hill opposite. Once we had taken the short ferry crossing to Jura, we left the cars and followed the track north along the coastline, having first had a brief sighting of an otter. Almost as soon as we started walking, a pair of white-tailed eagles appeared behind us and flew over our heads, and then shortly after a ringtail hen harrier was flushed close by to our group. Back in the cars we moved on to Craighouse for lunch. As we ate our sandwiches and chips (we couldn’t resist these from the local cafe), we watched a party of seven red-breasted mergansers fishing together, chasing a shoal of small fish just like little pelicans. We then spotted an otter on a rock, tucking in to a fish as we ate our chips! After lunch we carried on driving and saw another otter, this time much closer. Getting out of the car we were able to watch it fishing and emerging on to the rocks. We had great views for around half an hour and the otter was totally unconcerned by our presence.

Further on we had yet another white-tailed eagle, and on our way back to the ferry a pair of golden eagles and a male hen harrier which flew across the sound to Islay.

Otter on Jura

Thursday 16 Feb

Today was dull and windy as we made our way south to the Oa. We took a leisurely walk to the American Monument. On our way we watched the resident pair of golden eagles flying in and out of the cliffs where they nest and the usual family groups of feral goats almost walking alongside us. Four gannets were spotted flying low over the sea from the monument, and on our way back to the car, we stopped by the bench and noticed a couple of shapes on top of a rocky outcrop to the west. Lo and behold, it was a pair of a white-tailed eagles perched on the outcrop looking out to sea. Then, as we neared the car, we had a flock of eighty twite along with a flock of rock doves in the field which is left to seed specifically for the birds. Leaving the Oa, we moved on further east along the coast to Kildalton where we looked around the chapel and then went for a walk in the wet woodland where we flushed a woodcock. The best of the daylight gone, we headed back to the lodge where we had another woodcock sighting when one flew over later that evening.

Group photo at The American Monument on RSPB's The Oa
Group photo at The American Monument on The Oa

Friday 17 Feb

The high winds that were forecast had passed through overnight, and once the cars were packed we hit the road to the ferry departing from Port Askaig. Just before we joined the main road, we spotted a bird just over the dry stone wall in the field. Slowing down, we realised it was a white-tailed eagle and were able to pull in for a record shot. When it took off and flew low over the car we could really appreciate its huge wingspan.

On to the ferry and the sun was shining and it felt pleasantly warm with little wind. As we sailed down the Sound of Jura, two white-tailed eagles, and two golden eagles, flew over one of the peaks. The white-tailed eagles came towards the ferry and continued over the sound to Jura. On the crossing we had distant views of gannets, fulmars and kittiwakes. Then five bottlenose dolphins were spotted off the bow of the ferry and we continued to watch them from the stern until they disappeared from view. As we approached Kennacraig, a ringtail hen harrier was spotted and we watched it hunting over the fields on the shore.

View back to Islay from the CalMac Ferry
View of Islay from the Sound of Jura

In summary, we can’t remember another trip like this one. The number of eagles was amazing and the very mild weather meant we made the most of every hour of daylight. We can’t wait for next year!