Islay, Jura, Kintyre, Arran and Dumfrieshire, Scotland: 22nd – 26th November 2017   Leave a comment

Previous posts have detailed our visits to Rosslyn Chapel, Fife, Aberdeen and Speyside. From Speyside we continued on to the Kintyre Peninsula in south-west Scotland and arrived at the port of Tarbert late in the day.

 

Tarbert from our hotel room.

 

Early the next morning we sailed for Islay from Kennacraig on Loch Fyle on the western side of the peninsula . The loch almost divides the Kintyre in two, there being just two km of land between the head of the loch and Tarbert. It was raining and conditions were very gloomy, although quite still.

 

As we emerged from Loch Fyle and into the open sea we left the rain clouds behind,

 

There was still some cloud cover as we arrived at Islay with a sprinkling of snow on the hills.

 

As we drove north from our disembarkation point of Port Ellen we encountered ….

 

…. heavy showers ….

 

…. which resulted the most intense rainbows.

 

Quite a number of seabirds were seen, Great Northern Divers. Red-breasted Mergansers, Eiders and this flock of Scaup.

 

Scaup, more correctly called Greater Scaup, were once a regular wintering bird in Dorset but now we seldom see any, so a flock of 50 just offshore was a real treat. The grey flanks and backs of the males and white crescent on the faces of the females were clearly visible.

 

Our main reason for going to Islay was to see geese and there were geese aplenty.  As many as 45,000 Barnacles winter on Islay and surrounding areas.

 

Most were Barnacle Geese, the population that winters on Islay has been shown to breed in Greenland whilst the population that winters on the Solway Firth breeds in Svalbard

 

Flocks of geese were seen in flight both against pastel blue skies ….

 

…. and against stormy ones.

 

Barnacles weren’t the only geese species present, many Greenland White-fronted Geese were seen too. Islay holds about 5,000 of the estimated 19,000 world population of this threatened taxon. The other main wintering sites are in Ireland.

 

Larger and longer-necked with an orange bill and more strongly marked belly, the threatened Greenland Whitefront is sometimes considered a different species from the (Russian) White-fronts that winter in England.

 

Greenland Whitefronts and Barnacle Geese. Generally Whitefronts are larger and stockier but the frontmost Barnacle in this picture seems to buck the trend.

 

Almost all Barnacles seen in the south of the UK are from feral stock so it was a delight to see these birds that have flown all the way from Greenland against the backdrop of snow-covered mountains.

 

Good as these geese were there was one species I particularly wanted to see – Cackling Goose. The RSPB information centre at Loch Gruinart was not manned but you were invited to phone the local office with enquiries. The warden I spoke to confirmed that there had been no sightings of Cackling Goose for a couple of weeks but then said he had some unopened emails in his inbox. A minute or so later he announced that a Cackling Goose had been seen yesterday at Loch Kinnabus in the far south of the island. We returned to Port Ellen and continued on minor roads to the loch. Highland Cattle were there to greet us ….

 

…. but so too were flocks of Barnacles and Greenland Whitefronts.

 

It took a bit of scanning through the somewhat distant flocks before the Cackling Goose was found. Photography was attempted but the bird only showed as a brown blur in the pics. I have included a photo from http://www.lloydspitalnikphotos.com taken in the USA. This photo is quite informative as it shows a Cackling (left) alongside a wild Canada Goose. For a long time the Canada Goose complex was a conundrum, the many subspecies covering the largest size range of any bird. Subsequently the four smallest Canadian/Alaskan tundra breeding races were split off as Cackling Goose. Of these four only the nominate race hutchinsii, the so-called Richardson’s Cackling Goose, is a potential vagrant to Europe, the others being short distant migrants from Alaska to the USA and Canadian west coasts. However it is likely that the last word in Canada Goose (senso lato) taxonomy has been written and they may be further splits or they could even be lumped back together again.

 

My experience with Cackling Goose has been checkered. One was seen by others when I was on Islay in 1984 with a large flock of Barnacles, but I failed to get onto it before it disappeared behind a rise, I saw one on Wrangel Island, Arctic Siberia with a flock of Snow Geese in 1996, undoubtedly an overshoot from Alaska, I saw two so-called Cackling Geese, one in Norfolk in 1999 and another in Suffolk in 2002 but further research showed they were wild Canadas of the smallest race parvipes which approaches Cackling in size, I have seen two undoubted Cackling Geese in the UK but one was clearly of captive origin and the other (seen above) may have been, I have also seen a small wild flock in Nebraska. Until this trip I hadn’t seen a definite Cackling that was definitely wild anywhere in the UK. The photo shows the Cackling Goose that I saw with feral Canadas in Somerset in 2012.

 

Further along the track to the loch was this large flock of Twite involving perhaps 100 birds.

 

Although these lovely relatives of Linnets and Redpoll are common in the Northern and Western Islands the population that used to breed on the moors of northern England seems to have declined and it is this population that used to winter on the east coast. As a result few are seen away from the Hebrides, Orkney or Shetland these days.

 

Twite are particularly rare in Dorset, but I was lucky to catch one in November 84 when I was ringing Pied Wagtails at roost. A small flock used to occur at Dibden in Hampshire but in recent years I have only seen them in Scotland.

 

We were now on the RSPB’s reserve on the Oa (pronounced ‘O’) so it made sense to drive down to the Mull of Oa and look for Choughs and Golden Eagles.

 

My plan was to walk around the headland to the American Memorial which commemorates a number of American servicemen who were killed here during the war.

 

From the coastal footpath the shoreline of Antrim in Northern Ireland could be seen in the distance.

 

From the cliffs you could also get good views of the south-west peninsula of Islay.

 

Unfortunately the plan to walk to the American Monument had to be abandoned for two reasons, the sky turned very black and it was clear that another downpour was on its way and I slipped and fell on the rain-soaked grass and landed on top of my camera bruising my ribs which are still painful over two weeks later.

 

I just got back to the car just as the heavens opened. A few Chough were seen briefly from the car park but no eagles.

 

The following morning we drove to Port Askaig on the north-west shore of Islay. Here you get a good view of the island of Jura. The two most prominent mountains are known as ‘the Paps of Jura’ for obvious reasons.

 

Once again the sunshine was short-lived and whilst we waited for the ferry to Jura the heavens opened ….

 

…. but at least we had the shelter of the car.

 

The ferry was very small and there was only room for two cars and this lorry.

 

We really hoped that he wouldn’t roll back when we docked. Note the layer of hail on the car.

 

Jura is about 50km long but it only has one road and only 150 inhabitants.

 

Red Deer were common along the roadside.

 

We soon reached the little town of Craighouse.

 

There was still a lot of Jura ahead of us but we still had somethings we wanted to see on Islay and we had to be back at Port Askaig at 2pm for the ferry to the mainland so we backtracked to the inter-island ferry at Feolin.

 

We had hoped to see White-tailed Eagle, which we did, but it was quite distant and the photos were poor. Here is one I photographed on Skye in 2012.

 

Our return to Islay was as dramatic as our departure with another hail storm …

 

…. but at least this time we had a nice hostelry opposite ….

 

…. where we could warm up with a nice cup of coffee.

 

So it was farewell to Islay. We departed that afternoon with Jura on our left and Islay on our right ….

 

…. leaving the snow-covered Paps behind ….

 

…. perhaps Eccentrica Gallumbits once visited Jura!

 

After docking at Kennacraig we spent the night back in the hotel in Tarbert.

 

We now had to make our way south, we had the choice of driving all the way north to Loch Lomond and then south via Glasgow or catching the ferry from Tarbert to the Isle of Arran and then on to Ardrossan on the Dumfries and Galloway coast. The former involved a lot of driving, much of the time backtracking on the route we took to get here, so we opted for the latter. This gave us much of the morning to further explore the Kintyre Peninsula, but not enough to get to the Mull of Kintyre and back. First we drove down Loch Fyle past where we had boarded the ferry to Islay two days earlier ….

 

…. and we carried on southwards for about an hour seeing the wonderful scenery of the islands of Islay, Jura and Gigha to one side and the Mull of Kintyre and the Antrim coast in front of us.

 

The weather was predictably cold and windy but at least we had no rain, hail or snow.

 

About lunchtime we boarded the small ferry to Lochranza on Arran.

 

We had a beautiful journey across to Arran and even managed to add a few birds like Black Guillemot to the trip list.

 

On arrival we had about two and a half hours before our next ferry so we decided to take the minor road along the west shore of Arran.

 

As well as passing through many quaint villages we also had views of the southern Kintyre peninsula. We took a minor road over the centre of the island but it was snowing and we didn’t stop for photos. Late afternoon we caught the ferry to Ardrossan and arrived about 6.30 pm.

 

We stayed at a rather charming but cold guest house near Kirkconnel north of Dumfries and with a lack restaurants nearby we visited a typical Scottish small town pub for drinks.

 

Our final destination of the trip was Drumlanrig Castle. Margaret particularly wanted to visit as her grandfather had been brought up here. Unfortunately although the grounds were open, the castle itself was closed for the winter.

 

The story is that her paternal grandfather James Wright was born in South Africa, but at a very young age was taken back to the UK by his mother in 1869. His father intended to follow on a few weeks later but tragically died from a heart attack before he embarked. Weakened by recurrent malaria, his mother never recovered from the shock and died soon after. His siblings were sent to boarding school, but the infant James was raised by his aunt who owned the Drumlanrig estate. After he left school he returned to South Africa where later made a living transporting goods by ox wagon through the wilderness. His memoirs were later collected into a book which was privately published. Here he is seen in a hand coloured photo in the uniform of the Knights of Saint John. Date of photo unknown, photographer unknown.

 

We couldn’t visit the castle on this trip but one day we will return.

 

We both had developed chest infections and my bruised side was giving me some grief, so although we had another couple of days available (which we were going to use to visit the Lake District) we decided to cut the trip short and return home.

The return trip from north of Dumfries to Poole went quite smoothly and we were home by late afternoon. It had been a very interesting trip with good birds and great scenery, the weather was against us but there again it was late November. I’m glad we didn’t leave the trip until later as the area has received considerable amount of snow recently and indeed we just avoided heavy snow ourselves by leaving Speyside when we did.

 

 

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