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SCOTLAND NEW! Isle of Islay

A 6-day, small group, single-centre birdwatching tour to the isle of Islay, off the west coast of Scotland

Join us in Scotland this autumn for a delightful birdwatching tour to Islay. A late October visit to this wild and wonderful Hebridean island finds evocative flocks of Barnacle and Greenland White-fronted Geese present in their thousands - and a chance of something rare in amongst them... Plus the prospect of Golden and possibly White-tailed Eagles, Great Northern, Black-throated and Red-throated Divers, Rock Dove, Raven, Chough and Twite. Throughout our birding tour to Islay we shall be based in comfort at the island’s top-rated Machrie Hotel.

Tour Dates

2020

Spaces
6

Leaders
Brian Small

Max Group Size: 7
Duration: 6 Days

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Cost: £1545

including return ferry crossings Kennacraig/Islay

Deposit: £300

Single Supp: £325

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Cackling Goose Islay Colin Bushell CKIMG 5291 copy resized

In late October we return to the Hebridean isle of Islay, with Barnacle Geese galore - and a chance of rarities such as this diminutive Cackling Goose © Colin Bushell, Limosa

Lying at the southwestern end of the Hebrides, off the rugged west coast of Scotland - yet closer to Ireland than to Glasgow - Islay’s wild, open moorland and hills, remote beaches and cliffs, mixed woodlands, sea lochs and tidal flats are home to a wonderful variety of birds. More than 100 different species may be present on the island in any given season - including a number that are scarce or difficult to see elsewhere in Britain. But a late autumn visit has the added drama of evocative flocks of soldier-smart Barnacle Geese and orange-billed Greenland White-fronted Geese, which arrive in their thousands to spend the winter here.  

Steeped in Norse and Celtic history - not to mention the aroma from its homely peat fires and eight island distilleries - this beautiful and enchanting Hebridean island also enjoys a surprisingly mild climate, even in winter. Add a five-night stay at the excellent and recently renovated Machrie Hotel - close to the coast in the picturesque south of the island - and our tour Islay, the ‘Queen of the Hebrides’, has all the right ingredients for the perfect out-of-season birdwatching break.

Spectacular flocks of Barnacle and Greenland White-fronted Geese are of course the main draw here in late autumn. But there are Golden Eagles in the hills, Rock Doves and buff-faced Twite feeding on littoral meadows, Great Northern Divers offshore and flotillas of Scaup and other seaduck on the sea lochs and coastal bays. Britain’s most northerly populations of Chough are found on Islay (and the nearby island of Colonsay), in winter forming mobile sociable groups that float joyfully on the breeze like windswept black bags. Though numbers have declined in recent decades, we should find this characterful red-billed corvid probing its favoured clifftop sward and coastal machair.

Late October is arguably the best time to visit Islay for the spectacle of goose-watching. The largest flocks will be of noisy Barnacle Geese, with lesser numbers of Greenland White-fronted Geese ­- their bellies daubed with thick black brushstrokes - all recently arrived from their breeding grounds in Greenland, far to the north. The magnificent sight and sound of Islay’s geese as they arc into roost against the low setting sun is an experience never to be forgotten!

Careful searching is also likely to produce small numbers of pale-bellied Brent Geese, along with ‘bad-tempered’ Greylags, usually a few Pink-footed Geese and perhaps a wild Canada Goose, too. But the real prize for time spent sifting through Islay’s wintering flocks of geese may well be finding one of the rarer species - such as a Snow Goose or the diminutive Cackling Goose - that link up with the migrating Barnacles from Greenland and turn up on the island most years.

As well as enjoying Islay’s rich birdlife against the scenic backdrop of some splendid Scottish landscapes, there are mammals here, too. Red, Roe and Fallow Deer roam the island’s hills and woods, with Common and Grey Seals to watch for around the coast - Otters too, if we are lucky!

Guide Colin Bushell has spent time surveying wildlife on Islay in recent years and has an excellent knowledge of the island and its birds. Guide Brian Small has travelled and birded extensively throughout the British Isles and is one of Limosa's most experienced and widely travelled tour guides.

Red billed Chough feeding © Brian Small 150318 1 copy resized

Britain’s most northerly populations of Chough breed on Islay and the nearby island of Colonsay, in winter forming mobile sociable groups that float on the breeze like windswept black bags © Brian Small, Limosa

TOUR NOTES 
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.


Day 1                       
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

Day 6
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.

Greenland White fronted Geese (5) Islay CB IMG 4552 copy resized

A late autumn visit to Islay has the added drama of evocative flocks of soldier-smart Barnacle Geese and (above) orange-billed Greenland White-fronted Geese, which arrive in their thousands to spend the winter © Colin Bushell, Limosa

What To Expect

Led by Limosa’s friendly expert guides, our UK holidays are suitable for birdwatchers of all levels of ability, interest and experience. Just bring your bins and enthusiasm for birds - we’ll do the rest!

Islay is a surprisingly big island, with a coastline that runs for almost 140 miles, so there’s lots to see. As we travel the island in search of the places where the birds are feeding that day, it is not uncommon to suddenly chance upon a goose flock - sometimes at close quarters. While these birds will often allow close approach in the vehicle, they can be easily spooked if people get out so we will spend some time watching them from the minibus. On other occasions, the feeding flocks will allow us to get out and ‘scope them quite unconcernedly from the roadside.

There are also plenty of bays, lochs, woods and wild open country for us to check. So we’ll be stopping frequently to scan for wildfowl, waders, birds of prey and other of Islay’s varied wildlife - usually without having to walk very far.

Please note that our itinerary focuses on Islay’s birds and wildlife, and there are no planned excursions to any of the island’s eight working whisky distilleries. However, we shall be passing by most of them on our travels should you wish to arrange a private tour (not included in our tour price) and opt out of the planned group activity that day.

Islay’s climate is relatively mild year round, but it is highly changeable with spells of sunshine, rain and windy weather (typically from the SW when we visit) possible at any season - and often all three within a matter of just a few hours! During late October and early November, temperatures on Islay are typically in the range of 7-11C (44-52F).

The ferry crossing to and from the island is relatively sheltered, but on windy days it can be cold seawatching on deck. Be sure bring layers of warm and weatherproof clothing.

At the time of our visit in late October, the sun rises on Islay at around 7.30am and sets again just before 5.00pm.

Birds

80-100 species

Mammals

5-10 species

Accommodation

5 nights accommodation on Islay, based at the very comfortable Machrie Hotel (near Port Ellen), which opened in 2018 after a complete renovation. All rooms  en suite.

Our tour price is based on the hotel’s ‘Classic Rooms’, offering views of the beautiful Islay countryside. Should you wish to upgrade to a higher standard of room (subject to availability at time of booking) please call the Limosa office for current upgrade prices.

Meals

All main meals are included in the tour price, commencing with dinner on arrival at the hotel on the evening of Day 1 and concluding with breakfast on Day 6.

Full Scottish breakfasts and delicious three-course dinners will be taken at the hotel. Lunches will be picnics in the field.

Walking

The nature of watching wildlife on Islay is that much of the island’s birdlife is best observed from the roadside. Where walking is required, these are mainly short and easy, on mostly level ground.

If the weather permits, we plan one or two longer walks, the furthest being at the Oa RSPB reserve, an undulating walk of approx. 3 miles in total, out across the moors (wet in places) to the seacliffs. Wellies or sturdy waterproof walking shoes or boots are essential.

Travel

Participants should aim to arrive at Kennacraig ferry port by noon, in good time to meet with our tour guide and be ticketed and ready to board the ferry at 12.30 hrs. The boat departs at 13.00 hrs (1.00pm) sharp  - and the next sailing is not until 6.00pm!
 
If you are travelling any distance, therefore, you might like to spend the night before our 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/

If travelling to Kennacraig by public transport there is a 3.5 hr bus service from Glasgow that connects with the ferry.

It is also possible to fly to Islay from Glasgow. Presently, there are two flights a day in autumn. To book your flights, visit the HIA?(Highlands &?Islands Airports) website: https://www.hial.co.uk/islay-airport/destinations/book-islay-flights/

Our hotel is located within 2.5 miles (5 mins by taxi) of the island’s airstrip, so it’s easy to get to and meet up with the group there.

GROUND TRANSPORT  by minibus.

Boat Trips

The cost of the ferry crossings - outbound from Kennacraig to Port Askaig (Islay) and returning Port Ellen (Islay) to Kennacraig - are included in our tour cost.

The ferries are operated by CalMac and each is scheduled to take just under two hours. The crossing between the Scottish mainland and Islay is relatively sheltered, but it can be choppy at times out in open water and it can also feel cold on deck in windy weather. Wear warm and waterproof clothing (including a warm hat and gloves) to protect against the windchill and any seaspray.

The ferries generally provide a stable crossing but participants particularly prone to seasickness might wish to take suitable precautions.

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