Islay is a place with a lot to offer, but two things really put it on the map: wild geese and whisky. I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy both these things on this beautiful Hebridean island (with geese considerably outnumbering drams of whisky I’d like to add...). My visits have been in "goose season" of late winter and early spring though, so it was a real treat to spend a couple of days there in late July.
Islay's many beaches and bays are wonderful places to search for sea life - and otters (Mark Ward)
Eagles rockOn my first day there, I was given a tour of The Oa RSPB reserve, by Site Manager David Wood. The skies were blue and the sun was shining as we were given a tour of the trails and then the wider area, when I really discovered just how big this fabulous reserve is. It's one of the RSPB's biggest reserves - one of many things I learned.
As David was filling us in on the reserve, I couldn’t help but be distracted by the gorgeous coastal backdrop. As time went on, a big “lump” on a rock some 100 metres away was niggling me. After three or four glances and with the lump seemingly becoming more and more bird-like, I had to speak up: “Is that one of your golden eagles?” Fortunately, to save my blushes, and for rudely interrupting, it was!
The Oa RSPB reserve - Not too shabby on the scenic front (and a golden eagle was on one of those rocks when I took this - Mark Ward)
We were a little late for the reserve’s star butterfly, the marsh fritillary, but it was great to see a few dark-green fritillaries dashing around a sheltered, grassy cliff face and then David pulled out a nice party trick by saying this is a good spot for graylings too. Within seconds of peering over the top, we’d seen 4-5 of these sun-seeking lovelies. Graylings are masters of camouflage and when they land and close their wings, they disappear completely.
Grayling - fairly easy to see in this shot, but once it closes those wings, it literally disappears! (Mark Ward)
In the redThe charismatic chough is one of Islay’s star species and it didn’t take long for the unmistakable wheezy “chow” call to be heard, drifting across the cliff top. There were two family parties on show and they regularly passed by, showing their curved red beaks and “fingered” wingtips.
Everyone's favourite crow, the chough - an Islay specialty (Andy Hay- rspb-images.com)
David showed us the contents of the reserve moth trap from the previous night’s trapping and it contained at least a dozen stunning garden tigers. These are getting much harder to find in the south, so to see so many was a real treat. There were also three moths I had never seen before, so I was very happy! We then checked out a beautiful meadow where frog orchids and autumn gentian grew among a profusion of other species.
We had an afternoon date with the team at Loch Gruinart, but before we left the car park, I picked up an odd looking “gull” floating over the moorland - a male hen harrier. On the drive to RSPB Loch Gruinart, another three males showed up making it the commonest raptor I saw during my two days on Islay. Now that really is something to celebrate...