One great thing about Islay is that it is big, and I don't mean in size but in the variety and numerous possibilities it offers. This year was already our third trip to Islay but we felt we missed a lot of information, places, wildlife etc. Therefore a trip with Jeremy Hastings from Islay Birding was the thing that was high on our 'todo' list for this year.
We booked Jeremy for Monday the 15th and exactly on time, 09.45 he picked us up at our cottage near Ballygrant. The weather changed dramatically over the weekend and people around us told that last week was wonderful. So we will book last week next year. We however were stuck with good old clouds, a bit of rain from time to time and temperatures that would fit march, not may.
After shaking hands with Jeremy and introducing ourselves to Bobby and David - a lovely couple from Devon and the two other participants, we got into Jeremy's Landrover Defender and headed back towards Ballygrant. We turned left in the village towards Mulindry to take the Glen Road. A single track road from Ballygrant to the B8016 towards Port Ellen.
Just after the Dunlossit Estate Office we stopped on a hill overlooking meadowland and had our first encounters with Ravens, Gulls, Jack Daws and Crows. Driving on passing Knocklearoch Farm and the standing stones we noticed how deserted this part of Islay actually is and groups of deer are clearly visible from the roadside. Some of them are almost 300Kg and knock a man down when they ran in to you. In this part of Islay live more than 2000 deer and it's the responsibility of the estate owner to keep the deer population under control and fit. (guess what they eat for Christmas)
The high sitting position in the Defender, Jeremy's car, is excellent, guaranteed for good views and with the binoculars provided we can easily spot various birds from the car. Suddenly Jeremy stops and jumps out of the car, we look surprised at eachother, and Jeremy guides us to a nearby flooded meadow and shows us beautiful orchids really in the middle of nowhere. What a beautiful view to see these delicate flowers in the middle of this harsh and rugged terrain.
After passing Barr farm Jeremy tells us about Dun Nosebridge, an ancient fort built on a hilltop. We pass Cattadale farm and turn right at Cluanach, a delightful cottage in a quiet part of Islay and home to a famous Islay singer. After we cross the bridge at river Laggan we stop and Jeremy takes us on a woodland track that leads to Dun Nosebridge. Here we spot Robins, Blue tits, meadow pipits and Swallows.
After we continue we head towards Bridgend and stop at the public toilets before we continue to Loch Indaal. Never miss an opportunity Jeremy says and I regret later that I didn't listen. We drive on and park the car at the head of Loch Indaal opposite Islay House which is now owned by an American Army Captain who lives there on his own.
After Jeremy sets up the special monoculars we spot Oyster Catchers, Ringed Plover and Eider Ducks, mainly the males because the females are nesting in holes against the old cliffs at the raised beaches. He makes us a cop of coffee and a natural tea for David because of his stomach problems. Our first bushcraft lesson this day. Besides Birding where Jeremy originally started with, he is also very good in survival in the nature. Might come in handy. In the meanwhile we have a great time and talk and talk with the five of us and almost forget where we came for. Jeremy is pleasant company and with great enthusiasm he tells about Islay and everything related. The four of us listen carefully and learn more in a few hours with Jeremy than days of studying in books and travelguides.
The wind is picking up a bit and we drive on to stop at Uiskentuie where we spot Arctic Terns at the shoreline. These birds are migrants and will probably head on today or tomorrow towards Iceland. We continue slowly over the raised beaches and make a second stop at 'the spit' at the head of Loch Indaal. Here we get out of the car and use the monoculars again for some great views over the beaches and spot numerous birds on the shorelines.
From here we continue over a very little track passing Tynacoille where Jeremy demonstrates his peat cutting skills. Peat cutting is not only for the whisky industry but lots of people on Islay still use peat for heating their houses. For 25 pounds, which they pay to the landowner, the people on Islay can cut peat as much as they need for a whole winter. This peat cutting takes about 7 days which gives a 6 months supply. Cheap compared to heating with oil which costs about 1000 pounds a year depending on the property. Just above the peaty area we see some little hills in lines next to each other and Jeremy explains that these are lazybeds. Lazybeds were used for planting vegetables and every year they are covered with seaweed which causes the lazybeds to grow in height. These lazybeds were annually turned over to other family members to maintain a good quality of the soil. You dont give away something bad right?
We now turn right on the B8018 towards Kilchoman and pass Foreland House. Here we have amazing views over the Gruinart Flats towards Loch Gruinart (pronounce grinjart) and Jeremy stops the car near the Sunderland farm. It is here where we have our first encounter with a Chough (pronounce tjaff). The Chough is a little bit below us in meadow and we have a great view of this special and endangered bird. Since this year the Chough has a protective status and almost 5 percent of Uk's Chough population live on Islay. Read more about the Chough's special status here
We now continue towards Kilchoman and turn right at a little track that takes us to the shore of Loch Gorm. A few hundred yards from the shore is a little island and in the early days the home of a castle and almost 14 people. You cant imagine 14 people living on such a small space. We continue driving very slowly on this track and stop near a ruin where the 'road ends'. A few years ago the road was washed away after flooding and several people from the Argyll council had a look, came back to have another look with even more people and decided to put up a ROAD END sign.
We have a little walk around the very tiny remains of a cottage, still seeing the grasslands they used and spot owl droppings on an abandoned car. Probably a good place for the owl to hunt. Here I finally can use 'the loo' and remember Jeremy's words at Bridgend now almost two hours ago. We pass the road end sign and cross a burn to come back on the B8018 which we cross. We now head for Aoradh and pass the RSPB visitor centre and bird hide.
We continue towards Kilnave chapel for lunch passing Garra Eallabus which is sold to some London guy for half a million pounds. Not a bad place to live if you ask me. Jeremy parks the car outside the Kilnave churchyard and have a very entertaining lunch. Jeremy knows lots of jokes and entertains his party very well. In the meanwhile Choughs fly over our heads direction Tayovullin where in the early days a few hundred people lived and worked in the herring business. Now there are only a few remains of the settlement. After our hilarious lunch our entertaining speaker takes us back to the Defender where we travel back towards the Gruinart Flats. This area is actually created as a kind of polder by a Dutchman around 1850 to create grasslands for the thousands of Geese. Normally the sea came as far as Druim na h-Erasaid but now it stops at the little dyke built by this Dutchman. I felt home immediately. And the Geese? The did use the grasslands for some weeks and then started to feed on the other grasslands on Islay which annoyed the farmers of course, but the farmers now get paid for Geese grazing on their land to compensate their losses.
The Gruinart Flats grasslands are the habitat of almost 60 pairs of Lapwings that breed here and it is here that we see Ravens and Lapwings fighting eachother. Ravens are known to hunt together to eat the Lapwings eggs but the Lapwings don't give up easily and win their battle this time. Here Skylarks sing their pretty song and we stop at a little stretch of taller grasses where a Corncrake was recently heard. We have no luck today and the Corncrake is either gone or just silent. These secretive birds are seldom seen but you can easily hear them, alas not today.
Before we head back home Jeremy takes us to the Eastern shore of Loch Gruinart where we spot a breeding Common Gull and have a look at the way oysters grow. The oyster beds belong to Craigens farm and later on we visit Craigens farm too buy some Oysters for ourselves.
After visiting the Craigens farm for our fresh supply of Oysters and our cooking tips from Jeremy (sorry, they remain a secret) we head back to our cottage passing a little track that leads us behind Islay House. The walled garden next to Islay House is now owned by the Islay community and was a present from the new owner of Islay House.
After more than six hours we arrive in our cottage at 4 pm. So many impressions, so many birds spotted, so many heard about Islay, this was a magnificent day to never ever forget. I can only say one thing: If you go to Islay and are interested, and who isn't, you cannot do without such a tour. This is not about birding only but about everything Islay has to offer and that is a LOT. With a guide like Jeremy who knows so much and tells with such enthusiasm it is worth every penny and you have a guaranteed terrific time, no matter what the weather is like. Compliments Jeremy and you can definitely see us back next year.
And the birds? An astonishing number of 57 different birds in one day. Here they are: Cormorant, Shag, Grey Heron, Mute, Swan, Greylag Goose, Shelduck, Teal, Mallard, Eider, Red Breasted Merganser, Buzzard, Pheasant, Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Lapwing, Dunlin, Whimbrel, Curlew, Redshank, Black Headed Gull, Common Gull, Lesser Black Backed Gull, Arctic Tern, Rock Dove, Collared Dove, Skylark, Sand Martin, Hse Martin, Meadow Pipit, Pied Wagtail, Wren, Dunnock, Robin, Whinchat, Stonechat, Wheatear, Black Bird, Song Thrush, Sedge Warbler, Willow Warbler, Coal Tit, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Chough, Jackdaw, Rook, Hooded Crow, Raven, Starling, House Sparrow, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Linnet, Reed Bunting. Impressive list isnt it?
Further links of interest and relevance