Our tour starts and finishes at Kennacraig Ferry Port on the Kintyre peninsula (Argyll), on the west coast of Scotland. *1
If you are travelling any distance you might like to spend the night before the tour at a hotel or B&B in the Kennacraig / Tarbert area. The West Loch Hotel at Kennacraig, for instance, is located just 3km from the ferry terminal - see: http://www.westlochhotel.com/
Free car parking is available at the Kennacraig ferry port (approx. 150 spaces) while you’re away on Islay with us. For details, please see: https://www.calmac.co.uk/article/1934/Kennacraig
*1 If you prefer not to travel on the ferry from Kennacraig with the group, it is also possible to get to Islay by air (though you will need to book your own flights). Please see 'Travel' header under the TRIP INFO tab for more details.
FERRY FROM KENNACRAIG-PORT ASKAIG, TRANSFER TO MACHRIE HOTEL
We gather at the Kennacraig ferry port at noon today ahead of the two-hour ferry crossing to Port Askaig, on the isle of Islay. Once onboard the ferry we will find a good spot on deck from which to watch for birds as we sail out of Loch Tarbert and head west to Port Askaig. [Lunch is available to purchase from the well-stocked cafeteria onboard the CalMac ferry, for those that want.]
From the ferry decks we should soon spot our first Eiders and gulls. The sheltered waters of Loch Tarbert provide a safe haven for wintering seabirds and we have good chances to see all three divers - Red-throated, Black-throated and Great Northern - along with Slavonian Grebe and Black Guillemot. Farther out, we are likely to add Gannet, Fulmar, Kittiwake and auks.
Our approach to Port Askaig lies between the ‘chalk and cheese’ islands of Jura and Islay, and from the ferry we will get our first views of our destination’s more gentle, varied and rolling landscape.
Once ashore on Islay, we’ll climb aboard our minibus and head west to Bridgend, before swinging south and continuing on to our hotel near Port Ellen - a journey of just under 20 miles. We should soon begin to see our first geese, with Greylags in the fields and gaggles of Barnacles showing up as we drive. After passing through the woodlands at Bridgend, we’ll make a stop beside the shores of Loch Indaal - the island’s top birdwatching spot. There’s always lots to see here, with Whooper Swan, Goldeneye, Rock Pipit, Turnstone and an array of other shorebirds possible.
Late afternoon arrival at the recently renovated, well appointed and comfortable Machrie Hotel, which will be our base for all five nights on the island. Night at the Machrie Hotel, Port Ellen
Days 2 - 5
BIRDWATCHING ON ISLAY
In birding circles, Islay is most famous for its wintering wild geese - especially its Barnacle Geese. The drama of watching them as they head out from or back into roost is one of the natural world’s most stirring spectacles - and something not to be missed! As many as 45,000 Barnacle Geese wheel into Islay from Greenland during October, while numbers of the declining and altogether much scarcer Greenland White-fronted Goose pick up more steadily to reach upwards of 5,000 birds by the month’s end. We will spend time watching and enjoying these spectacular concentrations of geese over the coming days.
The goose flocks are highly mobile and as we travel the island to find where they are feeding each day, we are likely to encounter Greylags and Pink-feet mingling with the Barnacles and Greenland White-fronted Geese. With luck and careful scanning through the grazing flocks, we may chance upon something rarer: perhaps a wild Canada Goose, Snow Goose or a diminutive Cackling Goose.
Situated at the heart of the island, the sheltered waters of two opposing sea lochs - Gruinart and Indaal - provide safe roost sites for the famous flocks of geese. Both areas also have extensive intertidal flats that are attractive to a plethora of other waterbirds, wildfowl and waders. Grey Heron, Cormorant, Shag, Scaup, Long-tailed Duck, Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Eider and Common Scoter are regularly present here in late autumn, along with shorebirds such as Oystercatcher, Knot, Dunlin, Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit and Ringed, Grey and Golden Plovers.
We will explore the roads that skirt around the lochshores and island’s coasts, stopping every now and then to scan the bays and quaysides for divers, grebes, swans and other waterfowl, as well as Purple Sandpiper and Black Guillemot. With any luck, we might also come across the odd ‘white-winged’ Glaucous or Iceland Gull.
We are sure to encounter Islay’s many birds of prey on our travels, too. Perhaps a ghostly Hen Harrier coasting low over the fields; a stooping Peregrine causing panic amongst the flocks of feeding shorebirds on Loch Indaal; a dashing Merlin over the moors; or the sight of a majestic Golden Eagle soaring over one of the island’s more remote seacliffs. Common Buzzards are the most numerous bird of prey on the island, and there are Kestrels and Sparrowhawks, Barn Owls and Short-eared Owls, too. We’ll also be keeping our eyes peeled for the immense White-tailed Eagle, the UK’s largest bird of prey, which has begun to breed locally in recent years!
To the west, the Rhinns is a wild expanse of grass and heather planted with pine. Golden Eagle and Common Buzzard are resident here, and we might spot a white-bibbed Dipper on a fast-flowing stream.
The low-lying Ardnave Peninsula extends northwards from the Rhinns and is a good area to try for Chough, Twite and Snow Bunting at this season, while fertile Ardnave Loch is one of the best wetlands on the island for wildfowl - notably Whooper Swans, which pause to rest and refuel here in late October on their journey south from Iceland. We have also seen Otter here...
North of our base, and to the east of Ardnave, Loch Gruinart is an important RSPB reserve famed for its concentrations of Greenland White-fronted and Barnacle Geese. The reserve really comes into its own from late October, when the geese bring with them arrivals of Wigeon, Teal, Pintail and Shoveler, as well as Curlew, Lapwing and Golden Plover. A few Black-tailed Godwits and Greenshank might still be about too, either here or out in the bay, and the whole area is attractive to birds of prey.
The rolling birch and hazel woodlands in the southeast of the island offer a contrast to Islay’s wilder north and west. Along with some areas of attractive Victorian broadleaved plantation woodlands around Bridgend, at the centre of the island, in late autumn they provide a home to a range of resident birds and winter visitors alike. Woodcock, Dipper, Redwing, Fieldfare, Coal and Long-tailed Tits, Treecreeper, Goldcrest, Grey Wagtail, Bullfinch, Brambling, Goldfinch and Siskin are among many species to look for here.
Our hotel is not only regarded as the best on the island, but its location is also ideal for birding, overlooking both the mouth of Loch Indaal and being within a short drive of the dramatic Mull of Oa. Nowadays managed as a 2000-hectare RSPB reserve and working farm, the Oa’s wild moors and towering seacliffs provide a year-round home to Golden Eagle, Peregrine, Rock Dove, Raven and Chough, while in autumn and winter the specially planted arable fields attract Linnets and significant numbers of chattering Twite. Weather permitting, we’ll walk out across the reserve to the clifftop American Monument, a striking landmark on the Oa that’s a memorial to the lives of sailors who perished in shipwrecks off Islay during the First World War.
There is so much wildlife to find and enjoy on Islay that our time on the island will seem pass all too quickly! Four further nights Machrie Hotel, Port Ellen
FAREWELL TO ISLAY & FERRY FROM PORT ELLEN TO KENNACRAIG
Having enjoyed our final full Scottish breakfast at the hotel this morning, we load up the minibus and drive the short distance to Port Ellen this time, where we catch the morning ferry back to Kennacraig.
The return ferry crossing offers another great opportunity to watch for seabirds, divers and duck and is a fitting way to round off our late autumn visit to the beautiful isle of Islay.
Our tour concludes with arrival back at Kennacraig on the Scottish mainland at around noon today, and farewells ahead of our journeys home.