The Islay Goosefest, 1st - 4th January 2004

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT


by Ian Merrill
(i.merrill at

Thursday 1st January

Why get drunk on New Year's Eve when you can drive up the M6 through sleet and torrential rain? Actually that's not strictly true, as Martin Kennewell, John Wright and I have time for a few celebratory beverages and a couple of hours sleep before setting off north from Leicestershire at 04.00. The weather is foul and the car is heavily laden with all manner of thermal and waterproof clothing, plus seemingly enough food for a month-long expedition.

With the sensible majority of the population tucked up in drunken slumber the motorway is clear of delay and only some light snow and mist in the Lake District hills slows progress; thankfully the BBC's severe gales and drifting snow are the figments of an imaginary forecast. So rapid is our progress, in fact, that an hour's service station sleep is possible before we head west and along the Solway Firth.

The first gathering light of the day accompanies the drive along the final winding lanes towards Caerlaverock Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Nature Reserve. A hunting Barn Owl is illuminated to a ghostly white as it quarters a juncas-blanketed roadside field and the same spot harbours a small group of Roe Deer who flash us their white rumps as they bound for cover.

Flat, green pasture and occasional blocks of deciduous woodland run to the edge of the estuarine mudflats which are revealed at low tide on the Solway Firth. Following the road north, parallel with the River Nith, we encounter our first flocks of Barnacle Geese flying up-river from the safety of their roost-sites towards daytime feeding grounds. It's a tremendous sight with tight skeins of these stunning geese passing through against a background of snow-covered hills, accompanied by a constant chatter of honking. Although we continue up the valley in hope of locating their favoured feeding ground we are forced to give up when they appear to descend on the far side of the River, still some miles distant.

A good hot brew and a sandwich at the River's edge, in Glen Caple, bring us back to life and we are entertained by a large flock of Wigeon on the opposite bank as the sun begins to cut through widening blue windows in the grey sky. Making our way back towards Caerlaverock Reserve we round a bend in the road to be confronted with the awesome sight of around five thousand Barnacle Geese feeding in a single roadside pasture field. The exquisite black, white and grey birds form an animated monochrome carpet, set against contrasting dark-green lowland pasture, stark leafless Alders and a cold grey sky. The birds move in massed ranks over the grassland, heads down and grazing voraciously, with a constant cacophony of cackling calls accompanying the avian tide. A passing car or distant gunshot provokes a simultaneous rising of five thousand necks and a momentary period of silence, before the all clear is sounded and dining recommences.

It's hard to leave such a spectacle but the days are short and Caerlaverock beckons, so once we have convinced ourselves that no foreign interlopers have infiltrated this flock we move on towards the Reserve. En route we check a further few thousand birds in huge roadside flocks before we arrive at the very smart converted farm buildings which now form the Caerlaverock Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust Reserve Visitor's Centre. Various hides overlook small pools and further afield, to the extensive flat grazing lands and saltmarsh which run down to the vast muddy expanse of the Solway Firth.

Our primary port of call is the Peter Scott Hide, which provides luxurious seating, central heating and a view over the main swan feeding pool. We have been directed here to view the two 'small Canada Geese' that have been accompanying the various goose flocks in the area for some months. Both of the birds are identified as Richardson's Canada Geese Branta canadensis hutchinsii, which breed in Arctic Canada and winter on the Gulf Coast of Texas and Mexico. Although they are extremely smart and interesting little geese in terms of identification features, the fact they are swimming around a glorified duck-pond in the company of feral canadensis birds detracts somewhat from the feeling of authenticity! Indeed, the population of Barnacle Geese which winter at Caerlaverock originate from Spitsburgen which makes them highly unlikely 'carrier species' for birds of a Nearctic origin. The local birders do their best to explain away our concerns by claiming that the geese in question first arrived with Greenland Whitefronts at Loch Ken. We smile, nod politely and hope that we can find some real ones on Islay.

Richardson's Canada Goose is at the 'small' end of this complex group of sub-species, being similar in size to a Brent Goose and with a similar compact structure and short, thick neck, invariably held straight; the Caerlaverock birds certainly stand out as being significantly smaller than their accompanying canadensis cousins. The rather square head shape of this species is another good identification pointer, though strangely these two birds have markedly different profiles. While one has an extremely squared-off head that almost produces a right angle at it's forehead, the other shows a much more sloping-crowned profile. Otherwise the pair are very similar, although the bird with the sloping crown shows a much more obvious pale band at the base of the black neck-sock than the square-headed bird, on which the pale band is hardly visible from some angles. The square-headed bird also shows a slightly darker and colder ground colour to it's upperparts and flanks.

A brief tour of the remainder of the reserve produces 200 Whooper Swans, a couple of Pink-footed Geese and a good selection of duck including Pintail and many Shoveler. The last hour of daylight is employed with a brief visit to Caerlaverock Castle, which sadly fails to live up to expectations (though our imaginations may have been unfairly tainted by recent viewings of Lord of The Rings!) and a farewell to the huge flock of Barnacles beside the River Nith.

The drive north to Glasgow takes us through a snow-covered landscape of low hills and wooded valleys; all extremely scenic, especially when illuminated by a deep orange sunset. Choice quotes from 'Roger's Profanisaurous' provide aching ribs and tears of laughter which make the miles whizz past; before we know it we're crossing the Erskine Bridge and heading out of Glasgow towards the west coast.

It's a somewhat circuitous route down to the point on the west coast from which the Islay ferry departs and we first head north along the shores of Loch Lomond before turning south to skirt Loch Fyne as we head along the Kintyre Peninsular. The road winds relentlessly, following inlets in the sea loch whose still waters reflect the light of a full moon shining high in the clear night sky.

In spite of the cold and moonlit conditions we are surprised a see a great number of small moths on the wing, in the car headlights, as we pass through the many blocks of woodland. Eventually curiosity gets the better us and we spend a few minutes chasing the tiny insects in the headlights, no doubt to the consternation of passing motorists, until a specimen is potted. It turns out to be nothing more unusual than a Winter Moth, but we congratulate ourselves on commencing our annual moth recording efforts on New Year's Day and adding numerous grid squares to the known distribution of this species as we continue down the coast.

Upon arrival at the picturesque fishing village of Tarbert, festooned in a welcoming array of Christmas illuminations, we follow written directions around the harbour to our bed and breakfast accommodation. The large imposing stone house overlooks the Loch and has a warren of staircases that take us to our tiny top-floor rooms. The overflowing pot of fag-ends at the foot of the stairs are not too inviting, but our moustachioed landlady gives a hearty Highland welcome. Our evening meal, consumed in the superb Victoria Inn, consists of the largest and most tasty mussels ever to be set upon a plate!

Friday 2nd January

An 05.45 alarm leaves us wishing that we had consumed a couple less pints of '80/-' the previous evening, but luckily it's only a ten-minute ride to the ferry landing at Kennacraig on the west shore of the Kintyre Peninsular. In the pitch-blackness the large ferry is an imposing sight, bedecked in an array of lights and towering high above the quay. After the bow doors are lowered, accompanied by a low hydraulic hum, we drive into the huge hold to find that we are sharing with just two other cars; clearly the Celtic hangovers have lasted for a full two days, preventing any early travel!

Venturing to the higher decks we find the boat to be a fine modern vessel with a very welcome selection of comfy reclining seats within striking distance of the restaurant. After an hour of sleeping off the early start we awake to breathtaking views of a burning orange sunrise over a flat-calm sea and the dark craggy outline of the Kintyre Peninsular. Topping the hillsides are the matchstick-like outlines of a forest of wind-turbines which cover a considerable section of the coast, and from the south comes the regular reassuring blink of the lighthouse on the Mull of Kintyre.

Now fully awake, the smell of cooking bacon becomes irresistible. We secure a sarnie each and MK narrowly avoids a 'Glasgow Handshake' after employing his usual brand of diplomacy with the sturdy Scottish chef. Out on deck the air is cold but the sea is unbelievably calm, allowing prolonged viewing of numerous Black Guillemots in a selection of both summer and winter plumages, plus the first of many Great Northern Divers.

We are now steaming quite close to the shore of our island destination for the next three days. The high brown hills of Islay roll down to a rocky coastline, broken by pale sandy beaches; it's a wonderfully wild-looking place of immense natural beauty. The tall chimneys and large white buildings of the first whiskey distilleries appear the shoreline. Islay is famed for it's distilling industry, even more than it's wintering geese, and over the next few days we will find that one is never far away from the familiar outline of such a building as the island is traversed. Strangely the regular whitewashed walls seem to blend in with the landscape, each with the company name painted in large black letters on an obvious seaward-facing wall. 'Laphroaig' is our first big distillery-tick located just east of Port Ellen, the ferry destination, which sports it's own distillery of the same name.

Passing a rock-full of basking Common Seals we turn into the bay that protects Port Ellen, a sleepy-looking fishing village with a small walled-harbour. The weather is so calm that smoke from the low stone chimneys of dozens of cottages has gathered in the sheltered hollow; one can only wonder how few days in the year this phenomenon can occur in these exposed western isles? The architecture of the Island has a distinctive style, with low cottages of very square proportions set in terraced rows that back the harbour. Many are rendered smooth and whitewashed, with contrasting grey slate roofs, and we find that nearly all are immaculately maintained with neatly painted woodwork in subtly matching colour schemes.

Vacating the ferry and navigating north, out of the village, we follow a road that winds across the low western plain. At first we pass a bleak brown landscape of coarse grasses that stretch flat into the distance but as we near Bowmore, the Island's main conurbation, the more undulating topography supports much dark green pastureland dotted with sheep.

Loch Indaal is a sizeable sea-loch, sheltered by the large inlet upon which Bowmore has grown up. It is famed as a wintering site for seabirds and today's flat calm conditions present the perfect opportunity to thoroughly search it's waters. We choose a suitable spot after passing through Bowmore and set up scopes for a thorough grilling of the vast expanse of mirror-flat water.

The first obvious species are a family party of seven Pale-bellied Brent Geese, which feed amongst the kelp on the near shoreline. They are amazingly confiding and allow close photographic approach to a matter of metres. Beyond the Brents small parties of Red-breasted Mergansers gather to display, with bright males wildly throwing back their heads then raising their rear in frantic attempts to win the affections of the odd dull-brown female bird at the centre of the melees. The small black-and-white shapes of no less than fifty Slavonian Grebes dot the flat surface of the loch, interspersed with the larger forms of divers of all three species.

Eider, Common Scoter and Long-tailed Duck are counted in smaller numbers, but it is the unprecedented sight of 750 Greater Scaup huddled in a single linear flock that are the stars of the sea duck spectacle. A single Purple Sandpiper amongst the tideline Ruddy Turnstones, and a fly-over Snow Bunting that interrupts the tea break, completes the scene. When savoured against a background of the mist-topped Paps of Jura, the rugged mountain range on the adjacent island, it must surely present as fine a winter seabird spectacle as anywhere in Britain.

The next destination for the afternoon is Loch Gruinart, another large sea loch located on the north shore of the island and just ten minutes drive from Bowmore along lanes that wind through the scenic lowlands. En route we stop for our first flocks of Greenland White-fronted Geese which seem to prefer areas of coarse grass and juncas as their favoured feeding. This species is markedly different from the European subspecies, being obviously darker overall with more extensive dark barring on the underparts and a bright orange bill to match it's legs. This flavirostris subspecies breeds in Greenland and winters exclusively in North West Scotland and Ireland. Remaining in the cover of our car we get fantastically close to the grazing birds, magnificent geese in all respects.

Loch Gruinart lies in the bottom of a flat valley and is flanked on it's eastern side by fields of lush green pasture, and to it's south by large expanses of unimproved grazing marshes. It is here that we encounter our first huge flocks of Barnacle Geese, with field after field containing flocks of well in excess of a thousand birds. Amongst the black and white swarms of Barnacles are smaller groups of dark Greenland Whitefronts, large numbers of Curlews and tight flocks of Rock Doves feeding on the ground. The latter are at their purest on the Western Isles and, as yet, remain unpolluted by their feral congeners; a flock of uniformly plumaged purebred Rock Doves is a surprisingly impressive sight.

We follow a narrow road along the eastern shore of Loch Gruinart, to it's northern limit, soaking up views of the shallow waters backed by tall sand dunes and pasture. Parking the car at a locked gate, which warns of the dangers of deer stalking sometimes pursued in the area, we set off up the track having been assured by a local farmer that we are unlikely to enter the line of fire!

The narrow track takes us past some imposing tumble-down stone farm buildings and closer to a magnificent range of high, rolling brown hills which are crowned at their northern end by Sgarbh Dubh at a height of 294 metres. Small groups of Red Deer graze in the distance on the lower slopes, while we constantly scan the bleak-looking peaks for signs of large raptors. The hills are reputedly a site for Golden Eagle, but we have to make do with an invigorating walk, a pair of Hen Harriers and a very entertaining Merlin which hunts over the pasture. Ravens are everywhere on the island and their hollow ringing calls are ubiquitous sounds. An equally impressive corvid, the Hooded Crow, is even more common and makes a refreshing change from it's concolourus cousin.

At the northernmost limit of our hike we are afforded fantastic views over a grey sea to Colonsay and across to the Isle of Mull. A craggy range of mountains dominates the Island's horizon, with the taller peaks crowned in a sprinkling of snow. At a height of 966 metres the huge form of Ben More towers above the spectacular scene, one which is worthy of the walk in itself.

The last hour of daylight is spent scanning through thousands more Barnacle Geese which are now congregating around the margins of Loch Gruinart prior to going to roost on the mudflats of the shallow loch. None of the desired scarcer species are located and the thought of a cup of tea and hot shower becomes very appealing. We pack away optics for the day and en route back to Bowmore we spy a couple of birders hunched over scopes at the side of Loch Indaal. It turns out to be Brett Richards who has apparently been on Islay for the last week and he feeds us some excellent information on the whereabouts of the target geese which will prove to be extremely useful over the coming days.

Although Bowmore is a relatively small village, finding our bed and breakfast proves to be quite a chore. After a couple of circuits we find our salubrious accommodation which turns out to be a couple of bedrooms and a rather grubby shared bathroom in a back-street council house, but it is cheap and the natives seem quite friendly. After catching up on a little lost sleep we enquire as to the prime eating establishment in the village. Without hesitation we are directed to the nearby Bowmore Hotel, and are also informed of an evening of live music in the Lochside Hotel. Perfect!

The Bowmore Hotel looks a little dilapidated from the exterior, but the menu board is very inviting. Stepping through the doors and out of what has become a foul wet and windy evening, we are greeted by a rather extraordinary scene, one in which the bar falls silent and all look round at the newcomers. 'All' in this instance are the two gnarled local characters who prop up the bar behind what appears to be a can of Iron Bru with a whiskey chaser! The décor has clearly remained unaltered for decades and is stained a dull brown by the smoke from a million cigarettes. Behind the bar stands the landlord who would not appear at all out of place in a funeral parlour, attired in full undertaker's garb of black shirt and tie, buttoned-up waistcoat and black tailed jacket.

"What would you like lads?" he enquires in a deep highland accent. In a state of shock we order a pint of '80 /-' each and withdraw to the cover of the pool table to discuss the plan of attack. It's the sort of place which could feature in a horror film, but it does have a raging fire and we fear that there may be few other places in town to get a hot meal; reluctantly we make our way to the restaurant.

The fact that the proprietor is an off-duty undertaker should have warned us. The fact that we share the room with just one other couple should have rung the alarm bells. It doesn't, and in return we are served the most unpalatable and over-priced plate of frozen rammel any of us can remember having the displeasure of receiving! When we inform the undertaker that our bowl of mussels is awful he simply replies, "That's the way we cook 'em here"!

Feeling very disgruntled we make our way through the wind and rain to the Lochside Hotel, desperately hoping for a change in fortunes. The atmosphere in the Lochside couldn't be more different. The bar is thronged with friendly local characters and soon after our arrival a superb folk band strike up in the corner. We have an absolutely cracking night and although only manage to just see in the 3rd of January we hear next day that the band was playing until 04.00 a.m.!

Saturday 3rd January

Too much beer, combined with an early start, make the first few mouthfuls of the fried breakfast slightly difficult to stomach, but by the time we set out into the lightening sky we're firing on all cylinders. Following yesterday's route back across the island to Port Ellen, our directions take us to a site close to the Laphroaig Distillery. A very narrow, muddy track leads us to a vantage point above a small lochan on the Kilbride River.

The sun has not yet risen but the scene, lit by an early morning glow from the eastern horizon, is unforgettable. In the bottom of a shallow valley nestles a large pool surrounded by tall brown juncas. A thin covering of mist veils the still water on which move the dark outlines of around four hundred Greenland Whitefronts which have spent the night in the safety of their favoured roosting site. Although the light is very poor the distinctive white head and neck of a blue phase Lesser Snow Goose can easily be picked out amongst the darker birds.

Snow Geese occur in two distinct colour phases, a 'white' or 'snow' phase and a 'dark' or 'blue' phase. It is also split into two subspecies, with blue phase birds apparently very rare in the atlanticus subspecies, known as Greater Snow Goose. Lesser Snow Goose, the colloquial name for the nominate caerulescens subspecies of Snow Goose, breeds across Arctic North America to Baffin Island, wintering chiefly on the Gulf Coast of the USA. The fact that our bird is in the company of Greenland Whitefronts bodes well for a likely wild origin as it could easily have tagged along with a flock migrating from their Greenland breeding grounds.

Whatever it's origin, the gathering light reveals that it is a fantastic bird. A pure white head and neck contrast with dark slate-grey body. Long tertials are thinly edged white, matching the tail and vent. The rear crown and base of the hindneck show some limited but distinctive black markings and the large pink bill has an obvious black 'grinning patch'.

The birds become more vocal and active as the day brightens and then suddenly take to the air in a huge group, flying off to the east and their chosen feeding grounds for the day. Now that the unruly geese have vacated the pool, small groups of Common Teal move into the open water where the drakes chase one-another and perform their delightful bobbing display to accompanying females. Jubilant at such a successful start to the day we make our way back to Port Ellen, where a few minutes scanning of the strandline to the sandy beach below the distillery produces a fine flock of eighteen Twite feeding with Rock Pipits amongst the seaweed.

Our next destination, again following Brett Richards' directions, are the grazing pastures which line the minor road running south east from Bowmore towards Kynagarry Farm. The scenery is, as ever, outstanding as we wind our way past green hillsides dotted with large flocks of both Barnacle and Greenland White-fronted Geese. We find small numbers of Greylag Geese, probably Icelandic birds, feeding with the common species but our main quarry eludes us. At the limit of our southerly travels we are met by a bemused farm hand who has just crashed his tractor into a deep ditch beside the narrow track. We offer assistance but the young lad seems fine, in fact he finds it all rather amusing; we suspect his boss will think otherwise!

We move steadily back north, meticulously checking each goose flock as we go. At Mulindry Farm, precisely the location we have been told to scour, we spot a very large goose flock that has previously been concealed over the brow of a hill. By driving along the Farm track we are able to sneak closer and low-and-behold, at the edge of the flock, are two Lesser Canada Geese. Success! Unfortunately the flock is far from obliging and continues to shuffle up and down the hillside and in and out of view. Never mind, a celebratory brew is in order, and while we sip our tea a distant pair of Golden Eagles appear over a towering ridge directly to the south and are closely followed by a wonderful male Peregrine who sweeps past at eye-level chasing Skylarks in the adjoining field. This really is Islay birding at its stunning best.

Eventually the thousand-strong Barnacle flock decides it's time to move on, swarms into the air and moves over a low hill back towards the road. It's the perfect move and soon we are scoping the flock from the road in glorious sunshine. This time the two Lesser Canada Geese are ideally positioned and we also pick out two apparent hybrid birds. Lesser Canada Goose Branta canadensis parvipes is a very different bird from the Richardson's Canada Geese which we were watching a couple of days previously. Slightly larger and more bulky than the accompanying Barnacles, they are longer necked than Richardson's and in many respects similar in proportions to a miniature nominate canadensis bird. They have a more rounded head than Richardson's and proportionately longer bill. Plumage-wise, they lack any form of pale 'collar' at the base of the neck-sock but interestingly one bird shows an almost complete 'chin-strap', the dark black line intruding along the centre of the throat. It is clear that great care needs to be taken when specifically identifying 'small' Canada Geese, with any conclusions based on prolonged views and a combination of size, structure and plumage features. Lesser Canada Goose breeds in Arctic Canada and Alaska and winters chiefly in California but also on the Gulf of Mexico. It could, therefore, be argued that genuine vagrancy is less likely in this race but irrefutable proof is presented by an American ringed bird that was shot in Perthshire in 1993.

The two apparent hybrid birds that accompany the pure Lesser Canadas, though superficially similar to the former, show an interesting combination of both Barnacle and Canada Goose features. They have rather heavily barred mantles and flanks and a darker breast band, all superimposed over Canada Goose colours! Well pleased with our morning's work we set off north for more goosing.

A thorough search of the River Sorn Valley reveals some spectacularly large flocks of Barnacles and lesser numbers of Greenland Whitefronts, but the only oddities are a single Pink-footed Goose and a Pale-bellied Brent. We decide to spend the last couple of hours back at Loch Gruinart which, with the luxury of such a small island, is still only fifteen minutes drive away.

A fine RSPB Visitor's Centre is situated in converted farm buildings on the hillside overlooking Loch Gruinart and the surrounding marshes. The view is fantastic and gives an entirely different perspective on the area. It also provides a good vantage point from which to scan the marshes and pools at the south western end of the Loch and it is here that the ever-sharp eyes of JW pick out a fine drake Green-winged Teal, much as he as picked out just about every other bird seen in the course of our trip! It's surprising how distinctive the vertical white fore-flank bar is, even at a good distance, and it's another great bird to add to the wildfowl-day to end all wildfowl-days!

Other birders are mercifully scarce on the island, but we do bump into a fellow goose-hunter at this point. We swap our Green-winged Teal for Toby Robertson's directions to the Red-breasted Goose which he has found earlier in the day and we arrange to meet in the pub later. Although seemingly a brightly coloured bird, the search for a Red-breasted Goose amongst up to ten thousand Barnacles has rather a needle-in-a-haystack feel about it. For over an hour we meticulously comb the flocks on the south and east margins of Loch Gruinart, and though Hen Harrier and Merlin keep us entertained we are getting rather down hearted when JW miraculously plucks our target out of the bag. Red-breasted Geese really are stunning little creatures, surprisingly small and hence easily overlooked when viewed amongst huge numbers of Barnacles.

Mission accomplished we head back towards Bowmore in the fading light. As we round the north tip of Loch Indaal we witness one final moment to remember, the breathtaking sight of thousands of Barnacles flying low, in huge honk V-formations, down to their roosting site on the mudflats. What a day! Last task, before retiring to the B & B, is to purchase a souvenir bottle of Islay Whiskey from a shop with an array of varieties that has to be seen to be believed.

Well, we learnt our lesson the previous night, so tonight we go straight to the Lochside Hotel. There is no music tonight but our new friends give us a warm welcome and Toby joins us in drinking far too much alcohol than we really should. When we depart the landlord actually follows us out of the door to shake us by the hand and bid us farewell; how many proprietors would do that south of Glasgow?

Sunday 4th January

First light finds us furry-mouthed and back in the River Sorn Valley, though interestingly we're rather alone; the geese aren't there yet! It is apparent that, although the Greenland Whitefronts have dispersed early to their feeding grounds, the Barnacles are still at their roost site. We make our way back to Loch Indaal and are greeted by the incredible sight of around 10,000 Barnacle Geese gathered in a tight mass on the exposed mudflats. The birds are very vocal and constantly on the move, seemingly all walking in a southerly direction. Quite rapidly JW picks out a cracking little Richardson's Canada Goose which, in comparison with it's Barnacle Goose companions, appears unfeasibly small. The tiny size, compact body and short neck, combined with rather square head and a stubby bill make this bird relatively straightforward to identify. Furthermore it really does look the part when seen wandering amongst a huge flock of Barnacles; this is certainly the 'goose highlight' of our trip.

Next we head back up to Loch Gruinart, but this time continue past the RSPB Reserve Centre and along a narrow road that takes us up the western edge of the Loch and to the foot of Ardnave Point. Parking the car beside a small Wigeon-packed loch we follow the footpath north, past a silage-munching cattle herd and into a fantastic system of towering dunes. Brown Hares are remarkably abundant and bolt for cover as we make our way across the closely grazed sward, while a Merlin glides low overhead.

The mountainous grassy-topped mounds of sand run steeply down to a wide golden beach and then the flat waters of the wide sea loch beyond. A range of high, rolling brown hills provide a backdrop to possibly the most scenic spot on this incredibly scenic island. It makes the perfect setting in which to watch a flock of seventeen Chough, as they rise on the updraft from the steep dune faces to glide on broad wings whilst giving their distinctive shrill calls. Their habit of probing cowpats with their long blood-red bills is slightly less captivating, but the experience of watching these wonderful birds in such a wild and beautiful place is truly a memory that will live forever.

In a bid to see as much of the island as possible in the remaining hours we negotiate a circuit of Loch Gorm which provides further scattered goose flocks and the usual plethora of Common Buzzards, but nothing out of the ordinary. As we near Loch Indaal light drizzle sets in and has soon become persistent rain. Visibility decreases rapidly and we count our lucky stars that we only have two hours left on the island. We have been remarkably lucky with the weather on what is notoriously a damp and windy outpost.

There is little we can do but scan the edge of Indaal for a long-shot Otter whilst drinking tea and crunching biscuits. Great entertainment is had at Port Charlotte, where an undiscerning dog walker has somehow allowed his pet to become stranded on a lone rock in the face of the incoming tide. The stupid animal refuses to swim and becomes increasingly agitated, as does it's owner. MK films the whole incident for posterity, but we decide to leave before we are forced to witness the unfortunate drowning of one or other of the parties involved.

Our drive back around the western shore of Indaal is abruptly halted when a piece of driftwood turns into a Seal before miraculously materialising into an Otter! A screech of brakes and a rapid U-turn leave us just metres away from the fantastic animal that continues to fish, just offshore, for the next twenty minutes. The final piece of the jigsaw has dropped into place and we float back to Port Ellen, for our return ferry-ride, on a high in our damp misty car.

The spectacle of a winter trip to Islay, of vast numbers of wild geese in the most beautiful and remote of settings is undoubtedly one of the British natural history experiences. It is often said that visitors to Islay always long to return to it's magical shores. I know we will be back.

Ian Merrill, January 2004