This early winter tour to the isolated island of Islay was dominated by storm Desmond which had originated off the coast of North America. Strong winds and driving rain made the birding tough at times and no doubt added to the lack of some species to weather conditions. Despite this we enjoyed large numbers of Barnacle and Greenland Geese and a minor rarity in an immature American Wigeon. Good numbers of Hen Harriers were recorded on Islay this time around. Passerines were hard to locate mainly due to the weather but we enjoyed a light passage of thrushes, a large flock of Twite at The Oa and a Common Redpoll feeding in a ditch.
December 5th: Glasgow, Kennacraig, West Loch Tarbet, Port Askaig, Port Ellen.
Weather: Heavy and persistent rain on a southwest wind 11C.
The weather dominated today as strong winds and driving rain persisted throughout. Our journey started in Glasgow and slowly meandered westwards to Kennacraig the departure point for Islay. Birds were few and far between with sightings of Hooded and Carrion Crows and in Inveraray, Common, Black-headed, Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. The flooded fields attracted groups of Eurasian Oystercatchers. We filled up with fuel at Lochghilphead before passing through Tarbet and onto Kennacraig. Thankfully the wind had eased a little and the ferry departed on time at 1300 hours. On the crossing we located Great Northern and Red-throated Divers, Black-legged Kittiwake, Common and Black Guillemots, Common Eider, Great Cormorant and European Shags. At Port Askaig we took the remote and rarely used back road towards Port Ellen. In no time at all we located the first flocks of Barnacle Geese and a few Greylag Geese mixed in with them. Checked in at Port Ellen our base for the next four days.
December 6th: Port Ellen, Loch Indaal, Bridgend, Loch Skerrols, Kilchoman, Sanaigmore, Ardnave Point, Loch Gruinart.
Weather: Generally overcast with sunny spells and a strong westerly wind 6C.
Thankfully the weather had improved from yesterday as we set off towards Bowmore and a stop at the pier. A scan into Loch Indaal produced Great Northern Diver, Red-breasted Merganser, European Shag and Mute Swan. Further along the road another stop added Pale-bellied Brent Geese, Eurasian Wigeon, Ruddy Turnstone and Rock Pipit. At the far end of the loch at Bridgend we stopped again recording lots of Barnacle and Greylag Geese, Common Goldeneye, Common Shelduck and the first flocks of Northern Lapwings. I decided to visit Loch Skerrols which is well hidden from the main road. On the loch Whooper and Mute Swans, Tufted Duck, Eurasian Teal and our first Greenland White-fronted Geese of the tour. Back to Bowmore to pick up supplies and then towards Bruichladdich and Port Charlotte with overlooks into Loch Indaal. Not much going on so I headed towards the coastal hamlet of Kilchoman which paid off as we soon located the scarce Red-billed Chough and on a grassy field Fieldfare and Mistle Thrush. Lunch taken at Sanaigmore with Northern Gannets offshore and Meadow Pipits feeding on the grass fields with plenty of European Starlings. I ended the day by driving down to Ardnave where the freshwater loch attracted the commoner ducks and swans plus thousands of geese in the fields. On the return drive a male Hen Harrier showed well as it quartered a field hunting for prey. The group ended the afternoon in the hide at Loch Gruinart where we added Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Redwing and a perched Peregrine Falcon on a fencepost to the list. Back to base at Port Ellen.
December 7th: Port Ellen, Loch Indaal, Portnahaven, Bunnahabhain, Loch Gruinart.
Weather: Cloudy with rain showers on a brisk southerly wind 12C.
We were greeted by yet another windy day on Islay. Our first birding stop was at Loch Indaal where the loch was relatively calm despite the winds. The usual birds were in and around the loch with the addition of Greater Scaup, Common Scoter, and on the mud flats Ringed Plover, Dunlin and high numbers of Bar-tailed Godwits. The drive down to Portnahaven was fairly uneventful and on arrival the harbour held Atlantic Grey Seals, and offshore Black-legged Kittiwakes and a wide range of gulls. A drive along the scenic west road back to Port Charlotte added family groups of Greenland White-fronted Geese and good views of a Wren feeding in a stone wall. Grassy fields attracted a single Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush and Redwing. A diversion was made to the woollen mill beyond Bridgend where the feeders attracted Great, Blue and Coal Tits. The fields towards Port Askaig were packed with Barnacle Geese and Jane glimpsed a Merlin dashing across the road. Near Port Askaig a male Hen Harrier flew past. Lunch was taken at Bunnahabhain which overlooks the Sound of Jura and the island of Jura. A few Great Northern Divers and European Shags were present. We ended the day at Loch Gruinart watching thousands of geese and swirling flocks of European Golden Plovers. A bonus came in the form of a wintering Greenshank. A return visit to the hide paid dividends as we located an American Wigeon among the duck flock. A Eurasian Kestrel was noted hovering above the car park a fine end to the day.
December 8th: The Oa, High Road to Ballygrant, Loch Indaal, Loch Gruinart.
Weather: Mixed with a southerly wind 8C.
Another breezy day awaited us as we headed off towards The Oa a rugged area of high cliffs with views towards County Antrim and Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland. On the way up we located several Fieldfare, Redwing and Mistle Thrush and in a drainage ditch a Common Redpoll sheltering from the wind. Parked up and walked towards the farm although the strong winds made this hard work. A large flock of Twite were noted feeding in an overgrown field. Back to the van and to Port Ellen where I picked up supplies. We took the back road to Ballygrant looking for eagles without success, although a female Eurasian Sparrowhawk was added to the trip list about halfway along the road. A diversion to Loch Indaal paid off with sightings of Slavonian Grebe, Common Eider, Common Scoter and Long-tailed Ducks. Lunch taken at Loch Gruinart where an island attracted roosting waders including Knot and Common Redshank and a huge flock of European Golden Plovers. At Ardnave Point we found the largest Red-billed Chough flock of the trip with nearly forty birds flying about and calling in the wind. Ended the day at the hide with similar birds of the last two days plus Little Grebe and a Common Snipe which dropped into cover.
December 9th: Port Ellen, Port Askaig, West Loch Tarbet, Kennacraig, Glasgow.
Final species total - 89.
Weather: Overcast with persistent rain.
I had been watching the weather and checking the ferry updates for cancellations or delays. Thankfully the ferry left from Port Askaig and departed to the mainland albeit 30 minutes late. The crossing was uneventful apart from Great Northern and Red-throated Divers, auks including Razorbills and in the more sheltered waters the usual seabirds. I decided to stop at Lochghilphead but the rain started to fall and high tide meant no mud so I forged on to Inverary for lunch. The journey to Glasgow was slow due to traffic and flooded roads where the tour concluded.