A busman’s holiday

Published: 8th November 2010

After a busy season with Glenloy Wildlife, what better way to relax than to do some wildlife watching – in Scotland! Having not long waved goodbye to our last guests of October we set off in the pouring rain for Oban, and strange places beyond.
Our first port of call was Lochgilphead where we based ourselves for a further attempt at Beaver watching. Incidentally, Chris Packham's comments were not appreciaated – it is OK for him and colleagues to go and see the beavers along with film crews and other entourage, but not OK for members of the public to try and see what all the fuss is about. Beavers by their nature are shy and retiring and have a huge area to retreat to. Supporters such as ourselves have an equal right to see how the project is progressing.The profie of the beaver project needs to kept high, or reintroductions can still be swept aside, and helping to boost the local economy can only be good for local opinion. Rant over, we went and got thoroughly soaked for an hour before dusk, perched on a hillock above the extremely impressive beaver dam at Dubh Lochan. This has certainly proved an expense to the project, as the access path was deeply flooded, and a floating bridge has had to be installed so that folk wanting to see beavers can conduct the circuit of Loch Coille Bharr. No beavers were seen but there were signs of activity everywhere, with many knawed stumps and felled branches in and around the dam. We were rewarded with the sight of three Roe Deer that crossed the path in front of us, but will have to save the beavers for another (drier) day.
The next morning it was still wet (but soon cleared), so we decided to stay relatively dry by having a look in the hide between the Crinan Canal and Moine Mhor NNR. This gives superb (dry) views over river channels, saltmarsh and peat bog. Goosanders fished happily in front of us, and beyond the Oystercatchers and Curlews were joined by a Black-tailed Godwit on the mudflats. A Peregrine perched on a lookout post in the far distance, whislst Teal huddled in the shelter of sand banks. A skein of Brent Geese flew across in the distance, joined by the occasional troop of Whoopers. Right in front of us Bullfinch called softly from the scrub, and the towpath was alive with Goldfinch. A great wee place and well worth a stop off.
Our main destination of the day, however, was Kennacraig and the Islay Ferry. By now the sun was shining and the sea was flat. We were able to spot Eider, divers, Guiillemots, Gannets, seals and even a couple of late Porpoise from the ferry. This augured well for the week, and it was not long before we saw our first geese on the road to Bowmore.
The first evening and the following morning were sublime. Loch Indaal was flat calm in front of the house and we were able to watch a procession of ducks and divers float past the window, in advance of a glowing sunset and moonrise over the Paps of Jura. Bizarrely there were little groups of Swallows still hunting for flies along the strandline, and these youngsters or their pals remained on the island for the whole of the next week. A short walk from Port Charlotte found fields full of geese and Brown Hares – at least nine in a short section. Skeins of geese rose and fell as birds started to make their way to safe roosting grounds for the night. The following morning the sunrise was equally spectacular. A pair of Red-throated Divers were silhouetted against the red and orange glows that lit the small jetty. An Otter swam leisurely from behind the pier over the bay to the rocks below the lighthouse, where it stopped to deal with a large fish.
Apparantly there were an unexpectedly large number of geese on the island – over 34,000 Barnacles, some of which were only pausing on their way further south. To these could be added several thousand Greenland White-fronts, not all of which had yet arrived. There also appeared to be good numbers of Greylag, although what proportion of these were truly migratory birds I didn't find out.Geese were everywhere, and not, as local distribution was clumped. The Barnacles were quite flighty and moved nervously away from the car when we stopped to look at them. Our best moments came at the end of our first full day, when we watched the geese, along with numerous ducks and waders flight into the head of Loch Indaal as the sun was setting. A truly magnificent spectacle, and unfortunatley not one to be repeated during the rest of the week. The larger White-fronts were harder to find, but once seen, were easily distinguishable from the Greylags, with their barred breasts and white facial markings. Shame to say, I found myself looking for other geese within the main flocks, rarities to enliven the general masses. We did spot a couple of stray Pinkfeet in with the Barnacles, and a flock of Brent geese in Loch Indaal, but missed some of the small races of Canada that were meant to be about.
One of the other main draws to Islay is the population of raptors. Whilst watching geese on the Gruinart Flats we were startled by a whoosh of wings as the geese took flight. A large Eagle passed low right through them, not pausing as it made straight up the loch. This probably was a young White-tailed eagle (I subsequently learned, having initially thought it was an immature goldie). but whichever it certainly made an impressive sight. The other abiding raptor memory of the week was that of Merlins, hunting Twite. Flocks of almost 200 of these lttle finches gathered on the strandline to feed and nervously rose and swirled, twittering constantly. A small raptor rose to meet them, latched on to a loose individual, and then pursueed it relentlessly, twisting and tumbling behind the terrified twite for several minutes. This time the victim got away, and the Merlin alighted on a shoreline rock to recover, affording even better views of its subtle plumage. About half an hour later we saw another Merlin, this time a larger female, in hot pursuit of another Twite. We watched for at least 10 minutes as both birds raced up and down the shore line. Finally they both vanished behind some rocks in which they had already played hide and seek, and this time did not reappear – so we assumed that the hunter had been successful at last. A lot of energy expended on a cold day for a smallish bird. We were also fortunate enough to see Hen Harriers, gliding silently above the dykes, presumably on the look out for pipits and other smallis passerines. Again the views were good enough to clearly make out the white rump and ring-tail of the female, as well as the owl-like facial disk. We were not so lucky wiith males, but did catch distant glimpses of one hunting over bleak moorland bog.
Islay is also the Scottish stronghold for Choughs, and one of Angela's objectives was to photograph these charming corvids. Again, choughs proved easy to find on the extensive dune systems in the north and west of the island. Large groups of up to 20 birds or more descended upon the strandline to feed, sometimes only betrayed by glimpses of red leg and bill. Often the calls could be heard before the birds were seen, a melodic caw, more joyful than that off a Jackdaw. It soon became possible to distinguish Choughs in flight from the numerous other corvids – ravens, rooks, hoodies and jackdaws that also enlivened the coutryside. The jet black wings are held at an angle with splayed fingers and a soaring flight, surprisingly large, and discernible at a distance. Angela sat patiently above the shore and was eventually rewarded by flocks of squabbling choughs that foraged below her, but getting good pictures against the dark, smelly seaweed was difficult.
We had sevearal other great wildlife moments during the course of the week, despite the rapid deterioration of the weather. We came across a small flock of Snow Bunting foraging on the hillside above the shore and were able to appreciate the subtle pale shades of their winter plumage. Grey Seals were pupping all around the coast, and mothers were often heard singing to their offspring on distant shores. The white 'slugs' as we inevitably christened them, could move surprisingly quickly when the opportunity for a feed arose. Sadly not all survived the autumnal storms, and predatory gulls took full advantage of the carcases of those that did not make it. Whilst we were on the island there was a large fall of Waxwing, and people were busy looking for these garrulous creatures in likely berry bushes all over. We eventually caem across a small group on telgraph wires, their silhouettte unmistakeable, but had scarcely had the binoculars on them before they flew off. A Jack Snipe proved an interedting distraction on a wet and blustery day, whilst other migrants included Whooper Swan and a flock of wintering Scaup. All in all a great week, made the more enjoyable by the friendliness and hospitality of the tresident bird ing community. So thanks to Ian, James and the rest of you, and hopefully will be back before another 13 years have elapsed.l