Sunday, 13 November 2011

Birds & Whisky...

... are two of my favourite things. The lack of posts hasnt been malaise or lack of juicy material but a trip to Islay to get my ESAS certification. Me and my old boss Lucas headed for a load of crossings from Kennacraig on Kintyre to Port Askaig, Islay.

View of Jura from the breakfast table

We arrived at Tarbert, Kintyre in darkness and decided to overnight on the mainland. Whilst here we bumped into another group of ESAS'ers. Having been given a tip off by Fat Paul Scholes I enquired as to whether their pre-raphaelite-esque trainer might need a haircut which suprised him as he had never laid eyes on me before. I explained the situation and laughs were had all round - not least by his trainees. Yet another group of ornithologists were sharing the hotel and despite twitter spamming each other work got in the way of introductory beers for myself and @celaurie and so their was no twitter/reality crossover.

MV Finlaggan
The next morning we had to hitchhike the 7 miles from Tarbert to Kennacraig as there is no public transport to the ferry and the only local taxi driver was pissed up when I rang in the evening. Many thanks to the trucker who picked us up - only took 20 mins of thumbing for a lift in the dark. A hearty breakfast on board gave way to a blowy survey aboard the new ferry, the MV Finlaggan. Highlights were spartan with a few Red-throated and Great Northern Divers. Two hours later and we were in at Port Askaig and booking in at the wonderful Port Askaig Hotel. Its a bit rustic but the welcome is certainly warm. And the bar...

Our heading back was similar to the first and the highlights were a couple of Ravens crossing West Loch Tarbert. Numbers of divers were down from my previous trips to the area. We birded around the ferry terminal (which is clad in dwarf Silver Birch) and managed to find good numbers of Red-breasted Merganser, Goldeneye and a single Woodcock which gave great views as it flushed.

The final crossing of the day was uneventful save for a Lesser Black-backed Gull and we settled into our digs at Port Askaig with a few Whiskies and a game of darts. We sampled a touch of Bruichladdich Rocks and a Black Bottle (a better class of blended whisky). Pre-drinking we went birding down towards Caol Ila distillery - this whole area looks amazing for migrants with birds being funnelled up rhododendron hedges away from the coast. We managed lots of Chaffinch and some more Raven as well as some mega distant Barnicle Geese. A pipistrelle bat hawked over the road and was a sucker for the coin trick. Large numbers of thrushes and Stonechats were present and a Buzzard floated past. When we got back we found a migrant 1st winter male Blackcap trapped inside the entrance to the hotel and we quickly caught it - fat score of zero so probably just in and realeased it into the rhododendron.

The next day was grey and windy and we did a return crossing with best birds a Black-throated Diver at the mouth of West Loch Tarbert and the remarkable sight of 16 Great Northern Divers in a tight flock out in the sound - Lucas managed a photo so hopefully I can show you this sometime soon. We also found out that two juvenile White-tailed Eagles that have taken up residence in the woods to the south of Port Askaig. Sadly the wind kept them out of sight for the duration. We were beat so we didnt go birding on our return, instead getting stuck into the Coal Ila single malts in the bar (and being given a nightcap worth a tenner - amazing hosts). More darts were backed by some Gaelic music from the jamming musicians sharing the front bar with us (about half the size of my front room).

Our final day woke up to a fine morning but the sea was still a bit rough - as were we after a touch too much of the good stuff. Some decent stuff was added on the last leg of the trip with Golden Eagle over the peaks of Islay and Velvet Scoter in the mouth of West Loch Tarbert and three Common Scoter in the loch were the final decent addition. Public transport home from here takes a long time. Yawn...

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