A Report of a brief trip by Philip Mugridge, Helen Williams and Malcolm Schuyl to the Scottish Island of Islay.


Getting There
Islay is the southern most island of the Inner Hebrides and therefore takes a bit of getting to but is relatively easy compared with many Scottish Islands. A very scenic 2 to 3 hour car journey west of Glasgow will get you to Kennacraig, half way down the Mull of Kintyre, from where the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry departs to Islay. There is nothing at Kennacraig other than the ferry terminal so make sure you stock up before arriving.  The crossing takes just over two hours and gave good views of many birds but none really good enough to tempt us to take out the cameras. Our ferry docked in Port Ellen on the southern coast of Islay although some trips dock at Port Askaig on the East Coast having sailed up the straits between Islay and the neighbouring island of Jura.

Glad we weren't on this one!

A typical Scottish November ferry crossing

We based ourselves in a very comfortable and warm self catering annex of the Machrie Hotel 5 miles out of Port Ellen. Unfortunately the location was not ideal as we were faced with a 10 mile journey each morning to where most of the birds were. However the self catering lodge could be booked on a daily basis which was ideal for our 4 day visit. We had no trouble booking and were the only guests using the lodges, more a reflection on the weather than the accommodation. Unfortunately we lost one full day for photography out of the 3 we were on Islay because of atrocious weather, high winds and driving rain. This lasted all day and resulted in us retiring back to our lodge for a leisurely brunch, and we didn't get any of those beautiful red skies at sunset or sunrise we were hoping for. Still we got 2 flat calm crossings which can't be bad!

Our prime reason for visiting Islay was to see and hopefully photograph the thousands of geese, both Barnacle and White Fronted, that winter on Islay. They return during October and initially concentrate on the RSPB Loch Gruinart Reserve at the north end of Islay. Gradually they disperse across Islay and to other islands but large numbers were still feeding and roosting on the reserve during our visit towards the end of November, 13000 Barnacles and 8000 White Fronted geese were recorded by the RSPB warden and we certainly weren't going to disagree with his counting! Geese were found feeding almost anywhere across the Island where there were grazing fields and the geese didn't seem to mind cars driving past provided they didn't slow down. As soon as we slowed down the geese either took off or less often walked away across the field. This was fine for flight shots, although they always seemed to fly away from us, but not so good for feeding and portrait shots. Eventually, after many attempts we did manage to get reasonably close to some feeding geese who did not fly away and took pictures from the car. A big lens, at least 500 mm, seemed to be needed although 400 mm would do for flight shots.  

Barnacle Geese

Click here to show more Geese images

Other birds of note seen were a number of Hen Harriers, Stonechats, Chough and lots and lots of Buzzards. We have never come across such a concentration before. They seemed to be in almost every tree. Like the geese we could drive past at normal speed and they would stay perfectly still but as soon as we slowed down they took off. We kept trying and we did come across one Buzzard that didn't seem too bothered when we stopped and we did take a few pictures but again a big lens was needed. Ardnave Loch at the end of the west side of Loch Gruinart was the best place we found for Whooper Swans. There was a pair with 3 young that could be photographed from the car. This rapidly became our favourite feeding spot and a walk around the headland was guaranteed to be rewarded with Chough, at least 30 on one walk


Click here to show more bird images     

Top of Page

Islay is renowned for Otters and Brown Hares. Unfortunately we hadn't time or the weather to spend looking for Otter although we did see some tracks in the sand. The west side of Loch Gruinart is supposedly a good place to look, perhaps next time. Brown Hares on the other hand were easily seen, preferring short grass fields near to habitation, indeed there must have been 10 Hares on the Hotel lawn as we arrived. Like the geese the Hares did not move as we drove past but would get up and run slowly away from us as we stopped. However some did stay for a few seconds allowing some photography from the car. A few Red Deer were also photographed from the car in the higher North East corner of the Island and good views and pictures were taken of Roe Deer in the Loch Gruinart RSPB reserve.

Roe Deer    

Click here to show more mammal images

Equipment and Tips
Almost all our photographs were taken from the car. As the geese and hares usually did not stay long when we stopped a bean bag was essential to provide lens support, although many times there was not even time to use the bean bag. When driving round it is essential to have your gear at the ready at all times. However it was possible to drive past the geese at normal speed and then stop further down the road and take a second pass at them with gear ready. Long lenses, 400mm and 500 mm, were useful although smaller lenses would be adequate for massed ranks of geese against lovely sunsets, well we can only dream!  Pick good weather if possible, so don't go if I'm going. Explore all of the Island, it is so varied anything could turn up. Enjoy the Whisky as there seemed to be a distillery around every bend on the coast roads.