Islay, a small island off the west coast of Scotland, is famous for its whisky – and its birdlife. It is home to two of the rarest birds in Britain, the corncrake and the chough (pronounced »chuff«). The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has two reserves on Islay – Loch Gruinart and The Oa – and I, Judith Sleigh, was lucky enough recently to meet Dave Maynard who works at Loch Gruinart. Dave is committed to conservation and is an expert on the birds on the reserve. He kindly offered to give me some inside information.
Islay is a wildlife paradise, with 130 miles of varied coastline, from sandy beaches to towering cliffs. You can experience encounters with elusive otters, grey seals (Europe’s largest mammal), and one of the world’s largest fish, the basking shark. Moorlands and woodlands are home to red deer and roe deer. But most exciting are the birds – Europe’s largest bird of prey, the White-Tailed Sea Eagle often visits from the Outer Hebrides, and at the other end of the scale, one of the UK rarest butterflies, the Marsh Fritillary, finds a home on Islay.
Africa has its »Big 5«…. but Islay has its »BIG 6«! Come and see how many you can spot.
Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax). In Scotland, this member of the crow family is found only on Islay and Colonsay. The resident population on Islay has been the subject of research since 1984 and, with only 46 breeding pairs (2015), the RSPB’s farming for wildlife conservation efforts are fundamental for their survival.
Corncrake (Crex crex). Flying 6,000 miles from Africa, this secretive bird is often heard but seldom seen! Thanks to research done by RSPB Islay, we have been instrumental in restoring and protecting the habitat that this summer arrival needs to breed. In the process we have recorded an increase in >crexing< males from just six 25 years ago, to over one hundred in 2015. >Crexing< is the sound they make.
Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus). As a result of the RSPB’s agricultural land management at Loch Gruinart, this bird now has an ideal habitat to nest, breed and feed! This is one of the top 5 reserves in the UK for breeding pairs of lapwing, the masters of aerobatics when it comes to deterring unwelcome visitors too close to their nest!
Hen harrier (Circus cyaneus). They are perfectly adapted to their moorland home here, but they are the most endangered breeding bird in the UK. In 2015, the whole of England had 6 successful harrier nests fledging 18 new chicks, whilst in 2016, at Loch Gruinart there were 6 active nests with 15 fledglings on the 900ha area. This persecuted bird-of-prey has benefitted from the RSPB’s protection of its breeding and hunting habitat.
Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Now extinct in England. Islay is home to 9 pairs of Scotland’s national bird; the Oa, one of the RSPB’s largest reserves, provides spectacular home territories for two pairs, one of which successfully fledged a chick in 2015 and will, it is hoped, do the same this year.
Wintering Geese. Loch Gruinart is the winter home for tens of thousands of these geese. 30% of the global population of Greenland White-fronted geese (Anser albifrons), and 70% of the world’s Greenland barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis) arrive every October to over-winter on Islay. Their arrival is quite a spectacle.
Where to go? The Visitor Centre at RSPB Loch Gruinart. Guided walks from April to October on both reserves (The Oa, 10:00am on Tuesdays, Loch Gruinart 10:00am on Thursdays). Loch Gruinart is 10 miles from Bowmore, easily accessible by car or bicycle. Experts are always on hand to give you hot tips on where to look for what. The hide is the ideal place to be for bird-watchers.
– Community and Tourism Officer on Islay, Conservationist and Bird-lover
Fotocredits: Lorne Gill / Scottish Natural Heritage / Tony Davison