Scotland: Islay trip August 2021
So I've been meaning to write this for a while but haven't found the time. Last summer I visited Scotland for the first time with my family but managed to get some good birding in too. It was my first time visiting a new country since I went to Wales for the first time in year 4 (I think anyway) so I was pretty excited! All species seen were "low-carbon", seen using bikes/bus/ferry/train aside from those seen on the Oa peninsula which was too remote and needed a taxi. Although the trip had originally been planned to be a week and only visit Islay, because of how public transport worked out we ended up with more time to spend in a few other places too,
Day 1: Train from to Glasgow from Euston and then from Glasgow to Loch Awe where we stayed overnight.
Day 2: A very rainy start to the trip to be honest. My initial plan had been to wander off into the middle of nowhere instantly but it turned out you had to walk down a main road for a mile or so at least. But anyway we eventually headed down the road until we found a quieter road leading off it. Within seconds off the main road I picked up my first lifer of the trip: hooded crow! It was sort of half a mile away in the rain but I was pretty happy with that. Within ten minutes I'd realised they were common as muck but I still spent far too much of the trip watching them. Also accompanying the hooded crow in it's field was several Stonechat and a single Whinchat. My brother called me over to two small birds in a puddle on the opposite side of the road which turned out to be Twite, my second lifer of the trip. The rest of the day as we headed into the hills was relatively uneventful and increasing rainy with the highlights being Wheatears, Ravens and the odd Buzzard.
Day 3: The next day we crammed our bikes back onto the train and headed on to Oban to catch our ferry to Islay. Despite spending a few hours in Oban I didn't actually manage to see any Black Guillemots except a single possible bird as the ferry left in the late afternoon. (Luckily the weather had cleared up since the previous day). The ferry journey was part of the trip I'd been most excited for; there were so many sea birds and marine mammals I could potentially see! It began much slower than I'd expected, without much luck seeing anything beyond Gannets (which are pretty mental birds to be fair) for the first hour or so. But as we began to enter more open water I began to pick up the occasional Auk, appearing for a few brief seconds among the waves too far for any kind of ID. The further we went the closer they were to the boat, in increasingly large groups and I managed to see an estimate of 300 Guillemot. My first ever Shearwater species came darting straight at us out of the setting sun and I managed a few photos IDing it as a Manx Shearwater. The final totals were 300+ Guillemot, 300+ Kittiwake, 80 Gannet, Great Skua (v distant but a lifer), Manx Shearwater & a second Shearwater species (probably also Manx). Two dolphin/porpoise also surfaced once towards the end.
Day 4: For our first day on Islay we headed up towards a headland across fairly empty moorland again in pretty rainy conditions. The birding was decent with a large flock of Lesser Redpoll where we locked up our bikes, Whinchat, Yellowhammer and a single Great Skua which showed far better than the previous day. The highlight was undoubtedly a female Hen Harrier briefly by the road, at the time only my second ever, as we cycled back home.
Day 5: We got the bus to Bowmore (the main town) to do some shopping for food and whatever. Bowmore is also on a large sea loch where I hoped to find some sea ducks. The day started well, when our first ever White Tailed Eagle, a ringed adult, flew low over us at Bowmore harbour! We headed out of town where I managed to get distant views of eclipse plumaged Eiders and a family of Red Breasted Mergansers in heavy rain (both lifers). Other species that day included Wheatears, Greenshank, Grey Seals and a single Hare.
Day 6: Only bird of note a juv Hen Harrier.
Day 7: We got the ferry over to Jura, (only a couple of minutes) and headed along the coastline for a few miles. This produced several prolonged but distant views of female/juvenile Hen Harriers and 3 Eider. While waiting for the return ferry a White Tailed Eagle flew over us and landed on the opposite side of the water some 500+ metres away. Watching from the house we stayed in in the evening, got me views of an adult White Tailed Eagle coming in from Jura and some incredibly distant Red Deer over on Jura.
Day 8: This was the only day that entirely targeted birding entirely, (it was also the only day on Islay with good weather which was a lucky coincidence). We got the bus to the south of the island (with incredible views of two WTE from the bus), from there we got a cab up to the Oa RSPB reserve. The guy dropped us a long way from the actual reserve entrance, which actually ended up working out relatively well. My two target species were Golden Eagle and Red-Billed Chough which were both supposedly fairly easy here. After a few kilometres along the cliffs I was losing hope on choughs a bit but eventually I found another birder who told me there were some a bit further along and after another half hour I spotted the flock of around 18 birds. I had some decent views but they mostly remained below the cliff edge.
When I reached the tip of the headland I had brief views of an eagle species against the sun on a distant cliff. I headed off that way and picked up on a distant smudge on a very distant cliff, which eventually revealed itself to be an eagle when I got a little closer. Eventually, it took off and was joined by two more Golden Eagles, all were at least a kilometre away but we still had incredible views in a brilliant setting against the cliffs, with a Hen Harrier hunting in the (still very distant) foreground and Twite calling in the background. Other species that day included Fulmar, Peregrine Falcon & Several Wheatear.
Day 9: We went over to Jura again but it was very very rainy. Managed to see a single Black Guillemot several hundred metres out.
Day 10: Crossing over to Colonsay to stay one night. The water was incredibly still and we observed several winter plumage Black Guillemot and lot of Jellyfish. The water was the stillest I'd ever seen, not what I'd expected this far north and made it a lot easier to pick out sea birds.
Arriving on Colonsay it instantly struck me as being better for birding than Islay: it was far smaller and easy to get around, there was far less empty moorland and more natural habitat (It was also sunnier so there's that). Anyways when we got to were we staying, one of those buildings w bunk beds and stuff, we dumped all our stuff and then I cycled to the beach which more or less instantly got me several Eider and White Tailed Eagle in the dusk light. Returning back I picked up a Barn Owl from the tables outside our place, my first one of the trip and maybe the year. As it got closer I realised it was just a Gull. And then it got even closer and I realised with a minor heart attack it was male Hen Harrier (my first ever) heading straight for us. I didn't bother going for photos (light was awful anyway) and watched it drift past, close enough to watch without bins even. It was a 3cy male bird still showing a few signs of juv plumage when it was closer. Arguably the best bird of the trip.
Day 11: The next day we never went much further than the beach but even for birding we didn't even need to. Starting the day fairly well, with a juv White Tailed Eagle flying over the little garden and spending a good minute flying around the field that had only yesterday held the Hen Harrier. Unfortunately my camera hadn't held up very well with all the rain so it was kind of steamed up and the autofocus decided to blow up. After some frantic cleaning I managed a few flight shots before it landed on a fence were I watched it for 20 minutes or so until it was flushed by a car.
The rest of the day we spent at the beach, where I had some incredible views of Eiders and a brief diver sp (the only one of the trip).
The White Tailed Eagles were present overhead throughout the afternoon. And that was us done on Colonsay. Shame really, it was honestly brilliant, On Islay it had taken several days to find a lot of good birds and I figured my expectations had been too high but Colonsay was entirely different: I saw almost more in 24hrs on Colonsay and it's surrounding waters than a week on Islay and had far better views for that matter. Colonsay also didn't need a car to get around which was a nice change and like I said above, had a lot of better habitat in the area we went with a lot of potential for autumn migration. Not too say Islay was in any way bad and I loved every second of it. I'd never been anywhere like it before and it was amazing seeing so many brilliant birds on both islands.
On the return ferry we had: several hundred Auks including Razorbills this time, a pod of dolphin in the semi darkness and the usual Gannets, Kittiwakes etc. All these incredible sea birds against such an incredible backdrop and sunset made it probably the most beautiful place I've seen in my life (and I don't say that stuff lightly I'm usually much more depressing).
The final day of the trip we stopped on the way back, to climb a mountain because, mountain. I hoped to see Ptarmigan and had split second view as they were flushed by someone else further ahead. Still a great day.
Overall it was a brilliant trip with plenty of good birds and a few interesting mammals too. We managed to go some incredible places and I'm super grateful for it. Great birding & beautiful places, defo go back one day.
(I'm sure this whole blog is full of typos and I'm pretty sure the WIFI butchered the already awful image quality so sorry about that)