The reason for many people to visit Islay for the first time is most likely the presence of eight working whisky distilleries on the island, and just as many people discover that Islay has much more to offer. This is probably the reason why so many people choose to come back to this beautiful island and discover all the other things Islay has to offer with wildlife and birding being one of those many reasons.
Islay wildlife is very diverse, interesting, spectacular, everywhere present and easy to spot. Islay is famous for it's more than 200 different species of birds, from which almost 100 breed on Islay. Observing birds and other wildlife is as easy as doing your daily groceries. Just walk over the various walking routes, out in the wild or take the car and drive slowly over the many remote and almost deserted single track roads. All you have to do is observe the fields around you and you have guaranteed success, specially in the hours just after sunrise or before sunset.
Islay has an impressive 130 miles of coastline which are mainly streches of sand and shingle beach, mud flats and cliffs which can be found on the Oa peninsula, the Rhinns and the remote north-west of the island. A wildlife paradise and everywhere along the coast you can find seals, wading birds, oystercatchers, gannets, terns, gulls, ducks, shags, cormorants etc. Even dolphins and sometimes basking sharks can be spotted from the coastal areas or a boat. Otters aren't that easy to spot, but the best chances are on Caol Ila beach and north of Bunnahabhain. The farm lands are the domain of the almost fifty thousand wild geese that visit Islay each winter from October to April. The rare Chough can be seen on the Oa, Ardnave and the Rhinns. The farm lands are also home to many lapwings, curlews, fewer corncrakes and many other birds. Buzzards, Hen Harriers, Golden Eagles and other birds of prey can be spotted in the more remote parts of Islay. Other recommended and easy accessible places are the areas around Loch Gorm, Loch Gruinart, Loch Indaal, the Rhinns, Bridgend woods and the single track road from Ardbeg to Ardtalla including Claggain Bay. The RSPB has two bird hides where you can observe birds and other wildlife at the head of Loch Gruinart.
If you want to increase the chances of seeing rare wildlife such as Otters, Golden Eagles, Chough or Hen Harriers you can use a guide like Gary Turnbull from Wild Islay Birding or DJ MacPhee from Islay Outdoors.
The best places to spot seals are the harbour at Portnahaven/Port Wemyss, the little bays on the east coast from Lagavulin to Ardtalla and the Loch Gruinart nature reserve. On the east side of Loch Gruinart is a wonderful walk to Killinallan Point during which seals can often be spotted basking on a sandbank. Make sure to bring binoculars when visiting Islay.
Below you'll find an overview of some common, rare or interesting birds and other wildlife on Islay. Some listings include real sounds of some birds when clicking on the speaker symbol. The list is of course far from complete but gives a nice overview of possible encounters when visiting Islay.
Otters can be spotted on Islay but with patience. These busy animals live mainly near river mouths and close to the shore where they feed themselves mainly with fish. Otters normally live solitary and can breed all year round. The female looks after the 2 to 3 cubs who are raised in an undergrond burrow.
The males of this species are around 2 mtrs long and weigh 170-310 kg. Females have a length of 175 cm and a weight of 95-105 kg. Males are dark with light patches and have an elongated snout with a wide heavy muzzle. Females are light colored with dark spots.
There are three species of Deer on Islay. The Fallow Deer which lives on the east side. The Roe Deer which is widespread and lives mainly on the lower grounds in sheltered parts. The Red Deer who are most common and live on the hills in the east and north.
The brown hare is widespread on Islay. The best chances to spot them are around dusk in the Loch Gorm area where they happily jump in front of the car or play around on the grasslands alone or in groups. Hares feed themselves on grass, roots, bark and the produce of farms which is one of the reasons they are hunted.
Hen Harrier males are grey with black wingtips, females are brown with a white rump and a long, barred tail. Hen Harriers are to be found on the moorlands of Islay mostly flying low in search for prey. The Hen Harrier was one of the stars in BBC Springwatch during their visit on Islay.
The oystercatcher is a large, stocky, black and white wading bird and is therefore seen in coastal areas. Oystercatchers feed themselves on cockles. Oystercatchers breed on shingle and rocky beaches, dunes and on the grassy tops of small islands.
In winter, Islay holds 70 per cent of the world's Greenland barnacle geese and 40 per cent of the Greenland white-fronted goose population - 37,000 and 13,000 respectively. Loch Gruinart holds one of the main barnacle goose roost sites and some of the most important feeding areas for barnacle geese and white-fronted geese.
Unlike most other European auks the common guillemot is typically found in ones and twos, scattered around rocky islets. They breed along rocky coastlines in crevices in rocks or between boulders, rather than on open ledges. Guillemots feed on fish and crustaceans.
With their large and bright white with black wingtips and shiny bright feathers in the sunshine Gannets are very impressive birds. They feed by flying high and circling before plunging into the sea. They breed only in a few locations such as Ailsa Craig near Mull and the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth.
Puffins have a comical appearance and is probably therefore one of the most favourite birds. They prefer breeding on offshore islands and high seacliffs and breed colonially. Puffins on Islay are mainly summer visitors on passage and are therefore not easily spotted.
A huge bird of prey which lives mainly on open land where it hunts. Eagles have traditional territories and nesting places which may be used by generations. Golden Eagles are resident all year on Islay and most likey to be spotted on the Oa Peninsula.
This distinctive bird lives mainly on farmland and is often recognized by its special flight and call. Lapwings are resident on islay and the most of them can be seen around the Loch Gruinart area.
The Ringed Plover is a regular and common guest on Islay and is a small wading bird. It can be seen around the coastal areas and breeds in sandy and shingle beaches. It makes a nest of little bits of seashells and has around 4 very well camouflaged eggs.
The Cuckoo is a typical bird which is more heard than seen. It is a shy bird and well-known brood parasite. The females lay their eggs in the nests of other birds and as soon as they hatch the young cuckoos throw the other eggs out of the nest.
Corncrakes are very secretive, spending most of their time hidden in tall vegetation, their presence only betrayed by their rasping call mostly on the Rhinns and the Gruinart Flats. Corncrakes are typical summer birds which breed on Islay and feed themselves with insects and seeds.
This cute little bird is a resident guest on Islay. They live mainly near rivers and streams close to woodland areas but can also been seen in villages and gardens where they feed on insects.
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