Every once and a while you live that perfect day on your holiday, when everything seems just right and the world, limited to Islay in this case, is laughing at you and overwhelms you with beautiful impressions. Last year we did our first birding trip on Islay with Jeremy Hastings from Islay Birding, which was a unique day although it was rainy and rather dull. Jeremy managed to turn that day into a huge success and we wondered if this years trip would bring us a bit better weather. Our expectations were high and we booked our trip already months before, better safe than sorry!
When we woke up in the morning the weather was just gorgeous, the sun was shining in a dark blue sky and there was just a little breeze, which was perfect. At nine in the morning we left our cottage at Persabus to meet up with Jeremy at Port Charlotte opposite the Islay Museum. When we arrived Jeremy wasn't there yet and we couldn't resists to wonder off on the beach and stroll through the beautiful village of Port Charlotte. White painted cottages and dark blue skies do rather well on pictures and I couldn't resist to make almost twenty pictures before we saw Jeremy's Landrover parked on the parking.
Jeremy already had his telescope ready and studied a pair of Arctic Terns who come to the same spot on Islay already for years. After a warm welcome and some bird watching on the spot we loaded our bags on the landrover and headed off for our trip. This year we were the only people joining the tour so we had Jeremy exclusively to ourselves. This year Jeremy received five stars in the category wildlife experience from VisitScotland for his Islay Birding and Bushcraft company, and he was the only one in the whole of Britain to receive this important grading. Now we felt even more privileged to be guided by a five star guide. Jeremy decided to do the Rhinns of Islay today and we were happy with his choice. The Rhinns are a birdwatchers paradise and are home to good populations of choughs.
We drove on the main road in Port Charlotte and Jeremy showed us the site for the proposed new Port Charlotte distillery, which will be built when the planning commission gives its approval. In Port Charlotte we took a right turn, passing the school building and drove up the hill to pass the water station on our right. Just a mile further on that road we spotted our first choughs, probably nesting in an old shed, and we were able to have a good look at these rare birds. The choughs have a special protected area on the Rhinns since a few years and they are doing very well. When we returned to the landrover we spotted a Hen Harrier, flying just in front of us, what an amazing sight. We heard the Cuckoo when we stopped later on to admire the views and flew just ahead of us.
Here we took a little walk in to the Glen where Jeremy showed us something really special.. At least if you know the reason behind it. He took us to a rock in the field 200 metres away from the road, which looked a bit misplaced. After closer examination we saw that every crack of the rock was filled with nails. Surprised we looked at Jeremy and he explained that this rock is called the Tooth Stone or Toothache Stone. In the old days people from Port Charlotte walked all the way up to this rock to hammer a nail in a crack whenever they had a bad tooth ache. The pain was supposed to go away. If you ever tried to hammer a nail in a rock you can imagine that you feel a lot of things when you're finished except your tooth ache, so it might have helped for a little while.
This part of the Rhinns is rather remote and very quiet. After a climb up the hill over the Rhinns and a rather steep drop in to the valley on the other end we ended up at the west coast near Kilchiaran Farm. Jeremy told us about the unusual shape of the farm building which can only be seen from above, and we walked up the little hill next to the farm to see that the farm is built in a half circle with holes in the walls, created to let the water flow through and clean the stables. A very ingenious system. Just passed the farm on the right is Kilchiaran chapel and Bay where St. Columba set foot on Islay at 560AD. The chapel is ruined but still in a very good state. We visited the chapel to have a look inside and, maybe as important, outside where we had closely observed the cup marked stone. Nobody seems to know why and how they were made but imagine to make exact circles in a very hard rock when you don't have proper tools like we have today. Back then it must have taken the people years to create them, so they must have had a very important meaning to them.
After we had a look at Kilchiaran Bay where in the early days was a slate quarry, we parked the landrover on the side of the road where Jeremy prepared us a magnificent cup of coffee from his Kelly Kettle. A Kelly Kettle, also called a volcano kettle, was standard and essential equipment for Irish fisherman to make a perfect cup of tea or coffee in just minutes. Jeremy set up his telescope and we had a magnificent view of the Gannets passing us flying south only a meter above the water, while enjoying Jeremy's great coffee. These Gannets were probably from Ailsa Craig, an island close to the Isle of Mull and famous for its colony of Gannets. Ailsa Craig is the Gannet equivalent of the Bass Rock near North Berwick, where thousands of Gannets nest. Here we also spotted Fulmars, Guillemots, Gulls and Arctic Terns. Terns always amaze me by their seamlessly easy and relaxed flight, with only a few strokes of their wings they fly quite a distance and they travel huge distances in autumn and spring. After our break we drove towards Portnahaven and met, the now retired, vet who told us that he spotted a honey buzzard earlier in the fields, so we had to be on our guards. Driving slowly and constantly on the look out we unfortunately didn't spot the Honey Buzzard and since we had time we decided to do a little detour.
A mile further on this same road is a very interesting farm and hand craft shop called Tormisdale and we decided to pay them a visit. At Tormisdale Anne makes handspun and handknit designer knitwear and lots of other hand crafted patchwork quilts and cushions while her husband, game keeper of the estate, makes hand crafted crooks and sticks from stag horns. Unfortunately Anne wasn't there but we did manage to buy ourselves a pot of Islay honey, which we still use daily, and enjoyed the wonderful things she makes. Too bad this shop is located so far off the main roads but it's very much worth a visit.
After our visit to Tormisdale, the weather was still very beautiful and warm, we passed the Cultoon Stone Circle. This circle remains a mystery, because only two stones are standing up and the others, almost ten of them, are still lying on the ground and apparently have never been in an upright position as well. We passed Kelsey and Lossit farms, the owners of the farms are brothers, and drove on admiring the beautiful clear skies and the views we have of Northern Ireland, which seems so close now. We could even see Rathlin island off the Irish coast and felt very lucky to see all this in such perfect conditions.
Just before Ballymeanach we turned right to the west coast on a very small but beautiful road teaming with wildlife. There is so much to see in the fields on the left and right, Skylarks, Curlews and Lapwings and we are amazed by the amount of wildlife we see just before our very eyes. We even managed to spot chicks from a Lapwing and Curlew. We enjoyed these beautiful and peaceful surroundings so much that we parked the car and just listened to all the beautiful sounds the birds produced on this sunny and lovely day.
When we passed the Wavegen Powerstation, an installation that creates electricity from the waves and feeds it back into Islay's grid, we parked the car at Claddach for a picnic on a bench close to the Currie Sands. Jeremy's wife prepared us a wonderful home made lunch with soup, rolls, cheese and crisps and we had a good time looking over the sea towards Portnahaven and the Isle of Orsay. While having lunch we watched a Jackdaw fighting with a rabbit on the sands and no matter where you look there is wildlife around you. Next time I really need a pair of extra eyes and ears to get the most from Jeremy's bird watching trip. You're not only seeing so many things but Jeremy knows a lot about Islay and constantly tells us everything about the island, it's people, the history, the wildlife, the island, the people, the wildlife. You know what I mean. When I am talking about Jeremy's business I always say Islay Everything instead of Islay Birding and I mean what I say. If you are interested in Islay and want to learn a lot about this magnificent place, and you are probably making a long journey to get here, there is no better way than to join Jeremy on one of his trips.
After our lunch we slowly headed back and passed the lovely town of Portnahaven where we stopped and again enjoyed the wonderful views and seals in the harbour. You just can't get enough of this wonderful island and Jeremy, who drives almost every day on Islay since he came here fifteen years ago, still can't get enough of everything this island has to offer. Islay is like a heavy addictive drug and the more you take from it, the more you need it, and so you keep coming back and back to find out that it gets better with every visit. Thanks to Islay's wonderful nature, stunning wildlife and people like Jeremy with their enthusiasm, you can only say that Islay is a five star holiday destination. And we had a five star trip! Thanks a lot Jeremy, see you (and the birds) next year!
Here is a list of birds we spotted on this great Islay birding day:
Great Northern Diver, Cormorant, Shag, Grey Heron, Shelduck, Mallard, Eider, Hen Harrier (m), Buzzard, Pheasant, Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Lapwing, Dunlin, Whimbrel, Curlew, Redshank, Turnstone, Black Headed Gull, Common Gull, Lesser Black Backed Gull, Greater Black Backed Gull, Arctic Tern, Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Rock Dove, Collared Dove, Cuckoo, Skylark, Sand Martin, Swallow, House Martin, Meadow Pipit, Rock Pipit, Pied Wagtail, Wren, Dunnock, Whinchat, Stonechat, Wheatear, Black Bird, Song Thrush, Sedge Warbler, Willow Warbler, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Chough, Jackdaw, Rook, Hooded Crow, Raven, Starling, House Sparrow, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Redpoll, Linnet, Reed Bunting.
Jeremy Hastings from Islay Birding and Ron - the webmaster of Islayinfo