Isle of Islay
A 6 day small-group visit to the amazing Hebridean island of Islay for wintering geese, based at the four-star Machrie Hotel
Join us as we make a return visit to the amazing and bird-rich Scottish island of Islay. A late autumn visit to this wild and wonderful Hebridean island is perfect for flocks of Barnacle and Greenland White-fronted Geese which should be present in impressive numbers. There is also the chance of something rarer in amongst them such as a Snow or Cackling Goose.
Add the prospect of Great Northern, Black-throated and Red-throated Divers, White-tailed and Golden Eagles, Hen Harrier, Merlin, Rock Dove, Raven, Chough and flurries of buff-faced Twite.
Led by Limosa guide David Fairhurst, we will be staying in comfort at the four-star Machrie Hotel for our memorable birding tour to Islay.
Tour Dates & Prices
Thu 3rd November 2022
Tue 8th November 2022
Tour Cost: 6 Days from £1795
- Limosa Tour Leader
- 5 nights hotel accommodation on Islay at the four-star Machrie Hotel
- Return ferry crossings - Kennacraig/Islay
- All main meals (from dinner on Day 1 through to breakfast on Day 6) including stylish evening meals
- Packed lunches days 2-5
- Minibus transport
- All excursions, tour based tips and taxes
- Optional pick-up and drop off at the Premier Inn Glasgow Airport
- Limosa checklist of birds
Insurance, lunch on the ferry on Day 1 (if required), drinks and other items of a personal nature. Extra hotel night/s (see How To Get There) if required.
Our tour starts and finishes at the ferry terminal at Kennacraig, however, Limosa Guide David Fairhurst will be travelling via Glasgow and can pick up/drop off anyone who would like to start/end the tour at the Airport Premier Inn. Please see the Trip Info tab for more details.
- Hordes of Barnacle Geese plus Greylag and Greenland White-fronted Geese
- Never-to-be-forgotten birding and wildlife experiences amidst serene Scottish landscapes
- Seeking Golden Eagles over remote cliffs, Red Deer on the moors and Otters around the coast
- The unforgettable sight and sound of dusk at a major goose roosting site
- Search for rarities such as Cackling Goose or Snow Goose
- Whooper Swan, White-tailed Eagle, Hen Harrier, Merlin, Rock Dove, Raven, Chough and Twite
- Plus auks, divers, grebes and sea duck to watch for around the coast
- Comfortable and convenient accommodation at the island’s four-star Machrie Hotel
- Single-centre, small group holiday (maximum of 7 participants) led by David Fairhurst
Meet at Kennacraig ferry terminal
Birdwatching on Islay
Catch the morning ferry from Port Ellen back to Kennacraig on the mainland where the tour concludes
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. A late autumn visit, however, has the added drama of evocative flocks of black-and-white 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 highly rated Machrie Hotel, with fine dining and stylish ensuite rooms and our tour to the ‘Queen of the Hebrides’ has all the right ingredients for the perfect out-of-season UK birdwatching break.
Spectacular flocks of Barnacle and Greenland White-fronted Geese are, of course, the main draw here in late autumn but there are also Golden Eagles in the hills, Rock Doves and Twite feeding on littoral meadows, White-tailed Eagles and flotillas of sea ducks on the coastal bays and sea lochs, and Great Northern Divers offshore. Britain’s most northerly populations of Chough are also found on Islay (and the nearby island of Colonsay) and in winter, these form mobile sociable groups that float on the breeze. Though numbers have declined in recent decades, we should find this characterful red-billed corvid probing its favoured clifftop sward and coastal machair.
Early November is a fantastic 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 far to the north in Arctic Greenland. 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 Greylags, usually a few Pink-footed Geese and perhaps a genuine wild Canada Goose all the way from Canada !! The biggest 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 as well as Otters too, if we are lucky! Join Limosa guide David Fairhurst and discover some of the most exciting early winter birding the UK has to offer.
FERRY FROM KENNACRAIG-PORT ASKAIG, TRANSFER TO MACHRIE HOTEL
We gather at the Kennacraig ferry port for the two-hour ferry crossing to Port Askaig on the island of Islay. Once onboard the ferry, we will find a good spot on deck 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 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. Further out, we may add the likes of Gannet, Fulmar, Kittiwake and a selection of 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 shall 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 may make a stop beside the shores of Loch Indaal, the island’s top birdwatching spot. There is always plenty to see here with Whooper Swan, Goldeneye, Rock Pipit, Turnstone and an array of other shorebirds possible.
Late afternoon arrival at the 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 the 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 35,000 Barnacle Geese fly to Islay from their breeding grounds on 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 November. 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 wide range 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 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 loch shores 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. 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 sea cliffs. Common Buzzards are the most numerous bird of prey on the island and there are also Kestrels and Sparrowhawks, Barn Owls and Short-eared Owls to enjoy. We shall 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 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, including Whooper Swans, which pause to rest here on their journey south from Iceland. We have sometimes 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 in the centre of the island. In late autumn, these provide a home to a range of resident birds and winter visitors alike with Woodcock, Dipper, Redwing, Fieldfare, Coal and Long-tailed Tits, Treecreeper, Goldcrest, Grey Wagtail, Bullfinch, Brambling, Goldfinch and Siskin among many species to look for.
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. Now managed as a 2000-hectare RSPB reserve and working farm, the Oa’s wild moors and towering sea cliffs 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 will walk out across the reserve to the clifftop American Monument, a striking landmark on the Oa that is 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 pass all too quickly! Four further nights at the Machrie Hotel, Port Ellen.
FAREWELL TO ISLAY AND FERRY FROM PORT ELLEN TO KENNACRAIG
Having enjoyed our final full Scottish breakfast at the hotel, we load up the minibus and drive the short distance to Port Ellen 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 and farewells ahead of our journeys home.
Group Size Maximum of 7 participants and 1 leader
What To Expect
Islay is a surprisingly large island, with a coastline that runs for almost 140 miles so there is plenty 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 and 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 from the roadside.
There are also plenty of bays, lochs, woods and wild open country for us to check, so we wll be stopping frequently to scan for wildfowl, waders, birds of prey and 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. We anticipate, however, to pass by several of these on our travels so should you wish to arrange a private tour (not included in tour price) and opt out of the group activity that day then this can easily be arranged.
Birds 80-100 species
Mammals c.5 species
Accommodation 5 nights’ accommodation on Islay, based at the very comfortable Machrie Hotel near Port Ellen. All rooms are ensuite.
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 there on Day 6. Full Scottish breakfasts and delicious dinners will be taken at the hotel which also boasts a fine selection of Islay single malt whiskies! 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 about 3 miles in total, out across the moors (wet in places) to the sea cliffs. Wellies or sturdy waterproof walking shoes or boots are essential.
Weather Islay’s climate is relatively mild year round, but it is highly changeable with spells of sunshine, rain and windy weather possible at any season and often all three can occur within a matter of just a few hours! Late autumn 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 windchill can make it feel cold when seawatching on deck so be sure to bring layers of warm and weatherproof clothing, including a warm hat and gloves.
In early November, the sun rises on Islay at around 07.45 and sets again at about 16:30.
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 quite cold up on deck in windy weather.
Wear warm and waterproof clothing (including a warm hat and gloves) to protect against the effects of windchill and spray.
The ferries generally provide a stable crossing but participants particularly prone to seasickness might wish to take suitable precautions.
How To Get There
At the time of writing (July 2022) the ferry timetable had not been released but assuming the timings are the same as previous schedules, you should aim to arrive at the Kennacraig ferry port by noon on Day 1 of the tour, in good time to meet with our tour guide and be ticketed and ready to board the ferry at 12.30. We will advise you of exact timings in our final joining instructions which will be sent out approximately three weeks before the tour starts.
If you are travelling any distance, you will probably wish to spend the night before our tour at a hotel or guest house in the Kennacraig or Tarbert area. There are quite a few to choose from and the Stonefield Castle Hotel, which is located just seven miles from the ferry terminal has been used by some previous tour participants - see: https://www.bespokehotels.com/stonefieldcastle. Please, however, only book this once the tour is a confirmed departure.
The Stonefield will normally let you leave your car at the hotel while you are away on Islay if you stay a night with them. Cars can also be left at the ferry terminal while you are away on Islay.
David Fairhurst will be driving to Scotland the day before our tour starts and is able to meet participants at Glasgow Airport Premier Inn on the evening of 2 November (additional meals not included). He will then leave for Kennacraig ferry terminal with you the next morning (ie Day 1 of our tour) - time to be confirmed.
If you wish to travel by train, you can take take a taxi or bus from Glasgow Central Station to the Premier Inn.
At the end of the tour, David will be able to drop participants off again at the Premier Inn Glasgow Airport. Time to be confirmed.
It is also possible to fly between Islay and Glasgow. There are two flights a day with Loganair on the dates of our tour and our Islay hotel is located about 2.5 miles (5 minutes by taxi) from the island’s airstrip, so it is easy to get to and meet up with the group there. The hotel can organise a taxi for you if you wish.
View a gallery of images for this tour below, click on an image to view as full size with caption