I’m not sure if there are places in Europe where wildlife is more abundant and as diverse as on Islay. Wherever you walk or drive, there is always something to be seen, and often something special happening! Crows chasing a buzzard, an Eagle circling around a flock of geese, a Raven on the look-out for intruders or Dolphins appearing in Loch Indaal. You just have to be alert and look around you.
Rare Birds on Islay
It’s mainly the rare species of birds where Islay is famous for. For instance, on Islay you can spot Chough, Eagles, Hen Harriers, Osprey, Corncrakes, Owls and several species of Geese. That’s very remarkable and a good reason for birders to visit the island. There are a total of around 200 bird species on the island at any given time.
And it’s not only the variety of birds. What’s even more impressive is the Autumn migration when thousands of Barnacle Geese and White Fronted Geese arrive on Islay from Greenland, usually in October. It’s a real nature spectacle to watch them arrive at Loch Gruinart. Also impressive is the migration of the Whooper Swans. They use Islay as a stop on their journey to Ireland and sometimes they can be found in large numbers on Loch Ardnave or in the Kilchoman area.
Birds and Habitats
There are numerous places on Islay where you can watch birds in their natural habitat, and Islay has many habitats. Corncrakes for instance are secretive and hide in nettle bushes and other tall vegetation. You can mostly hear their krex-krex at evenings and nights, hopefully not anywhere near your bedroom window! The number of “Calling Males” has unfortunately declined over the last years. The best locations to hear and perhaps see them is on the Rhinns, around Portnahaven, Kilchoman and near the RSPB Reserve at Loch Gruinart.
Hen Harriers rule the open moorland where they nest and raise their young. They hunt for prey flying low over the heather and peat bogs and drop their catch in the nest. Their flight, especially those of the light grey males, is quite spectacular. You have the most chance of (easily) spotting them from the High and Low Road between Bridgend and Port Ellen as well as between Ballygrant and Keills. But of course you can spot them in other parts of Islay’s moorland as well.
Sea Eagles (white tailed Eagles), and Golden Eagles are usually seen on the Oa Peninsula where they nest. The Sea Eagles seem to become more “common” and they can often be seen at the head of Loch Indaal or Loch Gruinart where they hunt for Geese.
I had the most luck with spotting Chough around the Ardnave Peninsula. I can’t recall missing out on seeing Chough during any of my Ardnave Walks, and I have done many. Another good spot for chough are the Crags and Dunes behind Kilchoman beach and near the radio station. They are very acrobatic and make lovely sounds in flight.
RSPB Loch Gruinart
There are two RSPB reserves on Islay, one on the Oa Peninsula and one at the head of Loch Gruinart. The latter has a visitor centre which is usually open during daytime in the tourist season. Close to the RSPB visit centre are two hides, a north and a south hide. The are both within walking distance and from there you have great views over low lying mud flats and grass lands of Loch Gruinart Nature Reserve. From the hides you can spot a huge variety of birds, waders, geese, curlews, Lapwings, Herons, ducks and many more. A lot of folk spend hours here and write down the birds they have seen in journals, accessible for all.
Other good locations to observe birds are the Frenchman’s Rocks near Portnahaven where you can watch Gannets. And there is the head of Loch Indaal for Arctic Terns, Oystercatchers and many more waders. I have seen Peregrine Falcons on several occasions on the cliffs at Sanaigmore. Here you can also see razorbills, Kittiwakes and other birds that nest on the ridges of the tall cliffs. Islay is blessed with lots of woodland which is a habitat for many species of songbirds, pheasants, Woodcocks and more.
Mammals in and around the Sea
I once had an encounter with two otters and the Lighthouse near Port Charlotte. I was sitting there doing nothing when suddenly an otter appeared from the water, fish in his mouth, and started eating it. And that was less than five meters away. I couldn’t believe my luck. When the otter got back in the water it came back a few minutes later and brought a pal. So now there were two otters having a meal only a few meters away. What a sight! I have returned often to the lighthouse but never saw them there again. But I did see otters swimming past our cottage at Port Charlotte. I have also seen them at Ardnave and there is usually one to be see north of Bunnahabhain. No Guarantees though! They usually live near streams in almost any location on the island.
Where to spot Dolphins
Dolphins is another story. Some see them all the time, others never. They are frequently seen around Port Ellen, also in Kilnaughton Bay. When you take a trip with Islay Sea Adventures you might get lucky and spot them. Gus and his crew usually know where to find them. I myself have seen them on several occasions in Loch Indaal, passing the pier in Port Charlotte. Sometimes a few, sometimes a pod of more than 30. Once I saw a pod of around 50 Dolphins in the Sound of Islay! What an incredible view!
If you want to watch Seals in an “easy” location I’d say go to Portnahaven. There is no place on Islay where you can watch them from such a short distance. They are usually to be seen in Portnahaven Bay as well as from the Path of the Fisherman in neighbouring Port Wemyss. At low tide you can also watch seals from Killinallan Point in the middle of Loch Gruinart. And I’ve seen, and heard them, many times at Nave Island, on the west side of Ardnave. There used to be a resident seal in the Port Ellen harbour but I’m not sure if it’s still there! And Seals can be seen on the rocks just offshore at Port Ellen and on the Isle of Texa too. And then there is Seal Bay, directly after Ardbeg Distillery on the Kildalton Road. This is also a great place to watch seals on Islay, albeit from a bit further away.
Wildlife spotting starts on the Calmac Ferry. On several occasions I have seen Minky Whales during the crossing, only brief though. Someone told me they used to be more common in earlier days. Basking Sharks do appear in the waters around Islay and I have been told that someone saw them from the cliffs on Islay’s west coast. That’s from hearsay!
Mammals on Land
On Islay are three different species of Deer. The most common is the Red Deer but that doesn’t mean they can be seen easily. Red Deer live in the more remote areas, in the hills, where visitors are not often seen. The Red Deer population on Islay is around 2,500 animals. Several estates on Islay offer Red Deer Stalking. The Head Keeper will take clients out in the hills where they can shoot a stag, to be chosen by the keeper. It’s a source of income for the Estates and a way to keep the Red Deer population healthy and their numbers within reasonable limits.
If you want to watch and photograph Red Deer try early mornings in the Glen Road. There you’ll have the best chance of observing these majestic animals. Of course other remote locations will do just fine but they might be somewhat more difficult to get to.
Fallow Deer live in the South Eastern part of Islay, in the Kildalton Area. On several occasions I have seen them near Ardmore House, that’s close to Kildalton Cross. They are also common on Callumkill Estate. Roe Deer live in the more low lying areas on Islay and are usually alone or in small groups.
Hares and Stoats
One of my favourite Islay Wildlife species is the Hare. They are very common on Islay and the story goes that they contain the spirits of the dead folk on the island. I have seen hares in groups of six to eight opposite the Port Mor campsite in Port Charlotte. And often you see them walking on the single track roads, running in front of your car looking for shelter. Another common but rather secretive mammal is the Stoat. A tiny weasel like creature in bright colours, usually very fast and hard to spot.
Islay Wildlife Tours
If you want to go on a Wildlife Tour with an experienced guide there are currently two options. The first one is to do a Wildlife Boat Trip with the folk from Islay Sea Adventures. The second option is to hire DJ McPhee from Islay Outdoors. DJ was headkeeper at Dunlossit Estate and knows a LOT about the wildlife on Islay. He also takes folk out fishing, foraging and lots more. For more info visit www.islayoutdoors.com
Islay Birds Blog
A special mention goes out to the Islay Birds Blog. Local birder Ian Brooke started this blog many years ago and he posted his and other birders observations on a daily basis. Sadly Ian passed away over a year ago. Fellow birders are now doing the honours and post observations from local and visiting birders. It’s a great resource to find out what can be seen where and to read about anything special happening on the island. And despite the name, the other Islay Wildlife will be mentioned as well. You can visit the blog on http://islaybirds.blogspot.com
The above description of Islay Wildlife is from my own personal observations and experiences. There is no scientific basis for what I have written other than what I’ve learned from experts and seen with my own eyes. I’m sure when you live in another part of Islay your observations can be totally different. But no matter where you stay or holiday on Islay, the Islay Wildlife is very special and not very hard to spot. Take your binoculars and a good telelens with you and you can see and photograph some very special animals. Enjoy Islay Wildlife Watching!