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Setting sail for Islay from the mainland along West Loch Tarbert, we must have had ten Great Northern Divers in as many minutes, a good omen for the week ahead. Arriving on Islay, we were greeted by a flock of White-fronted Geese, all the way from Greenland, followed by a ring tail Hen Harrier which floated across the front of our hotel as we approached down the long drive.
Next day dawned bright and frosty, with a light dusting of fresh snow on the eastern summits. Early birds outside the hotel included Chough and Raven, each with a distinctive call. The beach at nearby Port Ellen proved productive with very close views of Oystercatchers, Ringed Plovers, Rock Pipit, Rooks, Hooded Crows and an approachable flock of twenty odd Twite, with diagnostic unstreaked buffy throats. A scan of the bay gave nice views of a raft of 32 Goldeneye and an Otter repeatedly diving down and surfacing with fish. With such calm weather the sea was like a sheet of glass, ideal conditions for watching smartly crested Red-breasted Mergansers displaying with stretched necks pointing skyward, while Common Seals basked on rocky pinnacles just offshore.
At Kildalton Chapel, with its impressive stone cross standing tall for more than twelve centuries, we spotted Fallow Deer in thick winter coats, followed by a group of pure Rock Doves, nicely composed on a gnarled old tree trunk in the style of a calendar painting. To round off the day we had an exclusive tour of the Lagavulin Distillery culminating in a convivial sampling of their 16 year old single malt whisky.
Another placid frosty day for our sojourn to Jura, with the Paps encrusted in a light coating of snow. Driving the one single track road on Jura is like taking a big game safari. The terrain is wild and teeming with thickly-maned Red Deer, which stand and watch the infrequent traffic from the roadside. Our last two visits had each been rewarded by close encounters with a pair of Otters, not far from the landing slip, so we knew where best to look. Sure enough, an Otter appeared here to maintain our amazing one hundred percent success rate. Initially diving and surfacing at the end of a small promontory, it then climbed out and swaggered along the top of the rocks, showing off its long lithe body. Once it dropped behind the rock, we cautiously circled round the back to find it emerging from the sea with a sizeable flatfish, whereupon it gave us a nonchalant glance and proceeded to feast, with needle sharp white teeth, on the floundering fish, clasped between its paws. Close enough to see every detail of the wonderful creatures whiskers, tiny ears and dark eyes, and dumbstruck by its length, we watched in awe for some twenty minutes as it munched away, completely unperturbed by our presence. It was like watching a live wildlife broadcast, but without the box. Absolutely fabulous.
The forecast for New Years Eve threatened incoming rain by midday. With a wind strengthening to gale force, we headed north, stopping briefly for a Merlin sheltering by the roadside. Crossing Gruinart Flats, there seemed to be geese everywhere, both White-fronts and Barnacles, in their thousands, a marvellous sight. Then, we located a superb male Hen Harrier, drifting back and forth as it battled with the strong wind. Walking to Ardnave Point, we too battled against the wind, spotting Otter number three as it disappeared down a nearby Rabbit burrow to take shelter from the stormy weather. As the rain began to lash horizontally, we decided to throw in the towel and return to the warmth of our hotel to prepare for the Hogmanay celebration. The seven course dinner, welcoming party atmosphere and traditional Scottish dancing made this a most enjoyable and memorable evening.
After a late breakfast on New Years Day we ventured out once more. The rain had ceased but the gale was still in force, creating a dramatic atmosphere for our walk along the cliffs of the Oa. As the sun began to break through the clouds, it illuminated a wild coastal scene with crashing surf, and cliff top waterfalls whipped upwards like smoke by the tempestuous wind. Along this stretch of coast, we found a group of hardy Wild Goats, with shaggy nut brown coats and long twisted horns. After lunch back at the hotel, a walk along the nature trail produced our daily Otter sighting! By now our hotel list was quite impressive and included not only Otter and Brown Hare but also Whooper Swan, Barnacle and White-fronted Goose, Buzzard, Hen Harrier, Golden Plover, Stonechat, Hooded Crow, Chough and Raven.
The second of January dawned golden and calm, in total contrast to the day before, and just what we wanted for scanning Loch Indaal. Incredibly almost our first sighting was one, then two and suddenly three Otters cavorting together in the bay! Meanwhile the birdlife was equally prolific and so we didnt know which way to look next. The melee included Great Northern and Red-throated Divers galore, slender Slavonian Grebes, Whooper Swans, Pale bellied Brent Geese, Pintail, Wigeon, Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Black Guillemot, two pairs of Long-tailed Duck plus rafts of Eider and Common Scoter and about eleven hundred Scaup which seemed to stretch on and on. Along the shore we picked up Greenshank, a single smart Purple Sandpiper along with Turnstone and a fantastic Peregrine, which perched menacingly as it surveyed the menu. All gave quality views, but none more than the Great Northern which came in too close for the scope, lazily stretched its massive wings and then swam under the very pier we stood on as we tracked its trail of bubbles! After lunch in the Port Charlotte Hotel, our good fortune continued as we spotted a Golden Eagle flapping slowly along the ridge to our left, the white in the wings and tail indicating that it was a sub-adult bird. This just left time for a visit to Kilchoman with another ancient standing stone cross and more Choughs, bouncing along the short turf and calling as they went.
Sadly it was time to depart. The return crossing added Razorbill, with Black-throated Diver coming in at number 90. With such marvellous scenery, fantastic birds and daily Otters, its no wonder we keep coming back to Islay and Jura. Heres to the next time. Sláinte!