We've been members of the RSGB probably for a couple of decades or more. We enjoy watching birds and the charity is a driving force behind all forms of wildlife conservation in the UK. We discovered that there are a couple of guided walks on this week, but the Thursday one will finish as our ferry is due to leave so we have just today's walk which is down on The Oa, on the other side of the island about 50 mins. drive away. So a 7:30 alarm call! We leave in plenty of time.
Islay is a very friendly island. On Mull I got used to drivers waving an acknowledgment when I pulled over into a passing place in a single track road but here the roads are dual lane, yet this morning we seemed to get a cheery wave from every car we passed. Lovely!
Now if I was to criticise Islay (it's hard, you probably appreciate we really like this island) it's the lack of signage, particularly off the main roads. It took a few map checks to be confident we were heading in the correct road to the exactly correct remote car park where the walk originated. The plus point of the journey was spotting a female hen harrier flying low over the moor. The not so good point was grounding the underside of the van twice.
It turned out to be a huge group, 25 of us and some people who looked as if they might even be slower than Liz and I. Excellent! The walk was excellent. A big thanks to the 2 Daves, the walk leader and the RSPB warden for the reserve. We learned a lot. For example The Oa is the RSPB's biggest reserve and it is a working farm but part of the RSPB's "Farming for wildlife" project. Some examples of what that means. Corncrakes are shy, secretive birds that spend most of their lives hiding in long grass. Once common across the UK they are now rare and mainly confined to the Scottish Islands. Their decline is mainly through modern farming literally mowing down chicks that remain hidden during the harvest. On the Oa nettles and irises have been planted, these provide good high cover early in the year, proving ideal breeding ground. At harvest time fields are cut centre outwards, driving birds to safety in the margins of the field rather than trapping them in the middle. Simple things. Islay also has a small Chough population, about 40 breeding pairs of these rare birds. Chough might be cliff dwellers but their diets are insects and grubs, many of which are supplied when choughs forage through cow pats in search of dung beetle larvae. The RSGB is carefully monitoring medication given to cattle in the Oa (necessary to provide resistance to disease and kill parasites) and the resultant suitability of the cow pat as breeding grounds for dung beetles (and hence food sources for Chough). This sort of ground breaking research is new and it's good to realise at least part of my annual membership goes to a woman who spendsher days often in the eye of a gale, up to her armpits in cow poo!
Before describing the walk, the weather. A lovely bright sunny day with barely a breath of breeze. Absolutely perfect conditions for mist to roll in from the sea (we're not that far from the Mull of Kintyre) and obliterate everything. It's really weird, where there is no mist there is really great clear sky and we can easily see all the way to Northern Ireland but where the mist hangs visibility is very limited. Annoyingly that mist is hanging directly over the valley this region's pair of Golden Eagles like to hunt. We probably wouldn't spot one if it was flying, but one wouldn't fly anyway as this mist makes spotting prey somewhat difficult.
So we walk on round, no eagle, no Chough either but a really cheeky little Reed Warbler singing close by on a fence post completely unphased by our presence. Quite a few Stonechat too as well as the ever present Meadow Pipit. Then Dave has spotted a eagle. Not flying, it's sat on a crag several hundred yards away, just about discernible with binoculars but you really have to know where to look. The Raven half the distance away is easier to spot. Even in the spotting scope the eagle is tiny, but it is unmistakable. Another first for us. Another 'rarity' are the wild mountain goats which seem to defy gravity, or at least any sense of fear, as they graze at precarious angles on the extreme cliff edge
It's not just birds, one Dave points out a Buterwort, a carniverous moorland plant. Later on Liz and I find an even better example complete with burgeoning blue flower. The other Dave is trying to catch a tiny but very rare moth (I forget the species). Liz photographs Thrift, a small pink flower that only grows on clifftops, famous as the motif in pre-decimilsation thrupenny bits.
Now did you notice the name drop of "Northern Ireland". Islay is actually closer to Ireland than Scotland and as the mist recedes we can see along the coastline from Antrim to Donegal with Rathlin Island in the fore. To the south we can also see Bute, that bit of Scotland that hangs like a flaccid phallus.
Walk over, we headed back towards the campsite. Islay has two roads south, a new dual lane road and the old single lane one which runs pretty much parallel. We took the road less travelled, back to Bowmore and on to Bruichladdich to a craft market; the half dozen stalls were interesting but nothing for us. So on to the newest distillery Kilchamon. This is a farm distillery that only started in 2005. I'm not sure if it is privately owned, it must be hard for a small distillery to generate return on capital in the short term, remember Scotch Whisky has to be a minimum of 3 years old to even claim the name Whisky, and single malts tend to need a much longer pedigree to make their mark in a very competitive market. However Kilchamon have done just that, their standard expression 'Machir' having won several prizes.
They might be young, they might have a great shop, they might have an award winning whisky but without better staff they will fail to sell to the casual tourist market. Two very disinterested sales girls ignored us in the shop until I went up and specifically asked for a taster. A small sample was offered up with a modicum of charm. Trouble was it was good, the whisky is not in the supermarket so fairly unusual , so a bottle just had to be bought. On the plus side, this being Feis week they had invited Angels Share a glasses blowing company to demonstrate on site. A very skilled young lady demonstrated the twin arts of creating glass ornaments whilst simultaneously keeping an audience enthralled. We thought about it but the chance of getting one home intact...
The farm is a few miles down a single track road, the last few metres of which hosting a hard to spot bridge which bounced the van and thumped the sump frighteningly hard. Looking at the tarmac scars we're not the only one. But the road is also the road to Loch Gruinard RSPB reserve so we follow it round to the visitor centre. Apart from the two brown hares and male hen harrier en route there was nothing exciting and time was too short to allow a visit to the hides.
We wanted to press in to cover the last part of the island: Portnahaven and the Rhinns. Without boring you with geology I am unsure of, this part of the island is on a different tectonic plate to the rest and comprises very old rocks, so old that they were formed before life on earth and so are barren of fossils. It really would be good to come back here better read and look at the amazingly different geology on such a small island. We missed checking out the seal colony in the harbour and just had a swift drink in the local before heading back for an evening meal on a beautiful eve.