Birdwatching on Islay
By Malcolm Ogilvie, September 2014
The island of Islay is not very large, about 26 x 18 miles (40 x 30 km), but packed within these bounds is a considerable diversity of bird habitats. Two large, sheltered sealochs, Gruinart and Indaal, each with extensive inter-tidal flats, attract divers, grebes, ducks and waders in great variety. Both provide roosts for the famous wintering flocks of Barnacle Geese which spread inland to feed on the adjacent farmland. Recent peak counts have reached 35,000. Freshwater lochs abound, over 200 of them, and though many are acid and thus poor for birds, a few are richer, being on limestone or shell sand. Two rivers and innumerable small burns drain the land. Natural woodland is reduced to small areas of mostly scrubby growth, but the Victorian landowners planted broad-leaved woods in several areas, while more recent conifer plantations have, fortunately, been reasonably constrained in area while providing good feeding and nesting cover both for small woodland birds and for birds of prey. The coasts of Islay, extending to some 135 miles (c.220 km), include cliffs, long sandy strands, low rocky shores and many tiny islets.
The two sealochs provide some of the finest birdwatching on the island. Much of Loch Gruinart, together with farmland and moorland round its western and southern sides, forms the RSPB’s Loch Gruinart Reserve. Purchased in 1983 as one of the key areas for Barnacle Geese, the farmland was originally managed for the geese, with rotational reseeds and fertiliser providing the birds, when they arrived in October, with lots of good grass. This held them on the reserve and relieved farmers elsewhere on the island of some of the agricultural damage which the geese can undoubtedly cause. However, since the introduction by Scottish Natural Heritage of an island-wide management scheme, with payments to all the farmers with geese, the RSPB have changed their management over much of the farmland to cater for other species, including Corncrake and nesting waders.
There are fine large hides on the reserve overlooking some flooded fields, plus a visitor centre, though the main goose area can be observed from roads which run through it. Indeed, driving slowly along the central road, pulling in at the frequent lay-bys beside flock after flock of Barnacle Geese is a birdwatching experience of which I never tire. As many as 25,000 geese can be present in late October. When northerly winds blow in early October and so provide the geese with a free boost to their migration from Iceland, up to 20,000 can arrive within a day. Mixed in the Barnacle flocks are often small numbers of other geese, including Brent, Pinkfeet and small Canadas.
In addition to the pastures, there are also areas of flooded marsh on the reserve holding large numbers of ducks and waders in both winter and summer, extensive heather moorland and woods, with Corncrake, Buzzard and Hen Harrier all breeding. The goose fields resound in spring to gyrating Lapwings (over 200 pairs breed), drumming Snipe and clamouring Redshanks. Loch Gruinart itself dries out at low tide and the flocks of waders are not always easy to see, though the road on the east side does allow some areas to be overlooked.
Loch Indaal, by contrast, must be one of the most accessible good birding spots in the country. A convenient road, with several specially provided bird-watching lay-by, hugs the shore from Bowmore to Bruichladdich, enabling one to view both the tidal sandflats at the head of the loch, where Curlew, Oystercatcher, Bar- tailed Godwits and Dunlin occur in hundreds, and Ringed Plover, Redshank, Knot, Grey Plover and others in at least tens, and also the shallow water, on which a flock of up to 300 Scaup winters, among which or around and about will be found up to 50 Slavonian Grebes, large flocks of Eiders, perhaps 25 Goldeneye, a dozen Long-tailed Ducks, plenty of Whooper and Mute Swans, and, closer inshore, several hundred Wigeon, among which can often be found both Pintail and Shoveler. Further out on the loch, and often better seen from Bruichladdich, are up to 100 Common Scoters (not just in winter, but throughout the year), as well as all three species of divers, Great Northern sometimes exceeding 50 in number. Up to 100 Red-breasted Mergansers moult on the loch in late summer.
Between Bridgend to Bruichladdich is a two-mile strand divided by a shingle split. This is a good place for Turnstones and often attracts a Glaucous or Iceland Gull. The rocky shore in front of Bruichladdich village is an excellent place for Purple Sandpipers, from about November to May, and they can also be seen at Port Charlotte. The numbers of birds given above refer to the winter months, but Loch Indaal is never empty. Wader passage occurs in April and May, with a few Sanderling present through June, too. Return passage starts in July and by August flocks of Sanderling, Ringed Plover and Dunlin occur, with the occasional Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint thrown in.
Inland, Islay presents many good birdwatching opportunities. Public paths lead through the Victorian woodlands at Bridgend and Ballygrant. Tits, Treecreeper and finches can be found in winter, also good numbers of Woodcock. In summer, these woods are filled with bird song, among which listen for Blackcap and Garden Warbler together with Wood Warblers Siskin, Redpoll and a few Tree Pipits. Signposted off the Bridgend–Ballygrant road is the Woollen Mill, well worth a visit in its own right while Dippers and Grey Wagtails nest on the River Sorn close by. The largest freshwater loch, Loch Gorm, near to the west coast, is ornithologically disappointing. It is too windswept to hold many birds, though a few ducks nest. The surrounding farmland and low-lying boggy pools are winter home to about 1000 or more Greenland White-fronted Geese. Up to 6–7000 of these geese are, in fact, widely distributed over the whole island throughout the winter, but the Loch Gorm area is an excellent area for seeing them close to. Ardnave Loch, on the west side of Loch Gruinart, near its mouth, is always worth a good look. It is one of the most fertile on the island and commonly holds a dozen or more species of wildfowl. American Green-winged Teal and Ring-necked Duck were present together one winter, while it has also hosted a Lesser Scaup.
Out on the west coast are most of Islay’s rather small seabird colonies, amounting to perhaps 2-3000 pairs each of Guillemot and Razorbill and rather fewer Kittiwakes. None are particularly accessible and it is best to leave them be. The different species can be seen offshore all round the island as well as from the ferry. Do not come to Islay expecting to see breeding Puffins. There are, at most, only one or two pairs. Fulmars occur quite widely, including over half-a-mile inland on cliffs behind Kilchoman Church. A survey of Black Guillemots showed high densities around Islay, in particular the Rinns and Oa.
An Islay speciality is the Chough. They are widespread especially in the west of the island, with the two major dune areas of the Rinns, at Machir Bay and Ardnave, excellent places to feeding flocks from about July, after the breeding season, right through to the following spring, feeding in the short turf and seeking grubs from the many cowpats. There a few pairs of Choughs on The Oa which can be seen from the signposted walk on the RSPB’s reserve there. These nest in seacliff caves, but elsewhere old buildings are used, as on the RSPB’s Reserve, where they can be watched without disturbing them. The reserve walk is also good for Golden Eagle, Peregrine and seabirds.
The many derelict buildings scattered about the island mark where small farms have been amalgamated into larger ones. They offer excellent nesting sites not only for Choughs but also for at least 20 pairs of Barn Owls. Tawny Owls frequent the larger woodlands, while Short-eared Owls can be seen hunting over the moorland and, in good vole years, the younger forestry plantations.
Some older forestry, in the centre of the island, has attracted nesting Crossbills, while Siskins are quite common. Much of this was felled in the late 1990s, though one good block remains. The younger plantations, on the Rinns and north-west of Ballygrant, are now maturing but still provide good hunting grounds for that elegant raptor, the Hen Harrier. Among the other birds of prey breeding on the island are several pairs of Golden Eagles and Peregrines, and small numbers of Merlin, Kestrel and Sparrowhawk. Buzzards are probably the most plentiful bird of prey and are widespread.
It is rare not to see several raptors in a day and at least one group of birders I took round a few years ago should still remember the magic of five Golden Eagles, a Peregrine and a Hen Harrier all in view at once, with the other four species also seen during the visit.
For some, birding is all about rarities. Islay gets it share including waders and ducks from North America, but they are merely the icing on an amazingly rich cake. Islay holds at least 100-110 species of birds throughout the year, with peaks of over 120 during the spring and autumn migration periods, in April and October. About 105 species breed each year with a few others doing so occasionally. A recent new breeder has been a pair of White-tailed Eagles.
The island is a little far west and north for some species, which can confuse visitors who report, say, a Magpie and then wonder why we residents get excited about this rare vagrant! Other species which may not rate a second glance by a visitor from the mainland, but which are rare here, include Great Spotted Woodpecker, Pied Flycatcher and several more.
There is no poor time for birdwatching on Islay, with geese and winter ducks present for seven months of the year, migration taking place in at least four or five, and an extended breeding season from the laying by Ravens in February to the fledging of Hen Harriers in July.
The Tourist Office in Bowmore has information on accommodation. This ranges from first-rate hotels to comfortable farm bed and breakfasts, as well as a modern Youth Hostel in Port Charlotte, which shares premises (a former distillery warehouse) with the Islay Natural History Centre. At the Centre, you can find an excellent reference library, files of records, a large public display area, laboratory and childrens’ room. Regular film and slide shows are held throughout the year.