The Hebridean Islands of Islay and Jura are the perfect place for a relaxing break. Islay, the southernmost of the Hebridean Islands, is famed for its malt whisky distilleries and its wildlife. There are no fewer than eight distilleries in operation on the island; and evidence on the ground of two more that are sadly no longer in production. There is also an operational distillery on Jura. In medieval times Islay was the headquarters of the Lord of the Isles, a kingdom that included much of Western Scotland plus the Western Isles and parts of Northern Ireland.
Just north-east of Islay and overlooking the coastline of Argyll is the Island of Jura, one of Scotland’s genuine wildernesses. Its three peaks, the Paps of Jura, dominate the view from the mainland. The interior and entire west coast are uninhabited and the island’s 190 people are hugely outnumbered by the 6,000 deer living on Jura. The Island of Jura is a place of wild natural beauty. Many plants, insects, birds and animal species thrive in the diverse range of habitats. From the scree covered Paps to the heather and blaeberry hillsides. Around the many lochans, through the grass and bog myrtle moorland which adjoins the few small natural woodlands and farmland, along the rugged coastline with the famous raised beaches, historic caves, crumbling cliffs and long stretches of sand to the blue-green sea. These surroundings provide a fascinating range of plant life, which give shelter and food for the many insects and birds as well as the mammals.
Islay wildlife is very diverse, interesting, spectacular, everywhere present and easy to spot. Islay has an impressive 130 miles of coastline which are mainly streches of sand and shingle beach, mud flats and cliffs which can be found on the Oa peninsula, the Rhinns and the remote north-west of the island. Everywhere along the coast you can find seals, otters, birds, even dolphins and sometimes basking sharks. The farm lands are the domain of the almost fifty thousand wild geese (70 per cent of the Greenland population of barnacle geese and 30 per cent of the Greenland white-fronted goose population) that visit Islay each winter from October to April. Islay is also one of the last strongholds of Choughs. The rare Chough can be seen on the Oa, Ardnave and the Rhinns. The farm lands are also home to many lapwings, curlews, fewer corncrakes and many other birds as well as a healthy population of Brown Hare and a "unique" species of Common Shrew and Short-tailed Vole. While on Islay, do not forget to visit the Natural History Centre in Port Charlotte run by the Islay Natural History Trust which has more information on the Geology of Islay as well as checklists of Islay’s Birds, Butterflies and Dragonflies, Mammals and Reptiles and Wild Flowers as well as suggested birdwatching itineraries.
Islay and Jura are also home to many exciting birds of prey including peregrines, hen harriers and golden eagles.
Where to watch birds
Ardnave Loch (NR2873)
Habitat: Freshwater loch close to the sea.
Birds of interest: Whooper Swan, Greylag Goose, Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Teal, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Water Rail, Little Grebe, Hen Harrier, European Golden Plover, Black-tailed Godwit (in spring), Turnstone, Red-billed Chough, Twite, Snow Bunting, Reed Bunting.
Ardnave Point (NR2974)
Habitat: Headland on west coast.
Birds of interest: Long-tailed Duck, Common Scoter, Black-throated Diver, Great Northern Diver, Manx Shearwater, European Storm Petrel, Ringed Plover, Grey Plover, Sanderling, Dunlin, Whimbrel, Turnstone, Twite, Snow Bunting.
Habitat: Township on eastern shore of Loch Indaal.
Birds of interest: Winter :Brent Goose, Great Northern Diver, Slavonian Grebe, Whooper Swan, Greater Scaup, Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Iceland Gull.
Habitat: Township on western shore of Loch Indaal.
Birds of interest: Whooper Swan, Common Scoter, divers, Ringed Plover, Purple Sandpiper, Turnstone , White Wagtail.
Claggain Bay (NR4653)
Habitat: East facing bay in east of Islay.
Birds of interest: Red-throated Diver and other divers, Common Sandpiper, Turnstone.
Craighouse & Small Isles Bay – Jura (NR5267)
Habitat: Sandy bay and off-shore islands.
Birds of interest: Shag, Hen Harrier, Buzzard, Common Kestrel, Black-headed Gull, Common Gull, Herring Gull, Common Tern, Arctic Tern, Black Guillemot Raven, Starling.
Frenchman’s Rocks (NR1554)
Habitat: West facing sea-watching site in far south west of Islay – best birdwatching with south-westerly or north-westerly blows.
Birds of interest: Autumn passage: Brent Goose, Greater Scaup, Common Scoter, Red-throated Diver, Great Northern Diver, Sooty Shearwater, Manx Shearwater, Balearic Shearwater, European Storm Petrel, Leach’s Storm-Petrel, Peregrine Falcon, Whimbrel, Grey Phalarope, Pomerine Skua, Arctic Skua, Great Skua, Sabine’s Gull, Kittiwake, Arctic Tern, Puffin.
Islay Ferry (Kennacraig-Port Ellen/Port Askaig) (NR6955)
Habitat: Sea crossing from Kennacraig, Kintyre to Islay.
Birds of interest: Common Scoter, Goldeneye, Red-throated Diver, Black-throated Diver, Great Northern Diver, Fulmar, Sooty Shearwater, Manx Shearwater, Balearic Shearwater, European Storm Petrel, Leach’s Storm-Petrel, Gannet, Arctic Skua, Great Skua, Kittiwake, Common Guillemot, Razorbill, Black Guillemot, Little Auk.
Birds of interest: Hen Harrier, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Rock Dove, Whinchat, Northern Wheatear, Red-billed Chough, Raven, Twite.
Kilnaughton Bay (NR3445)
Habitat: Large bay on S side of Islay.
Birds of interest: Common Shelduck, Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Red-throated Diver, Great Northern Diver, Shag, Woodcock, Common Tern, Arctic Tern, Guillemot, Razorbill.
Loch Ballygrant (NR4066)
Habitat: Freshwater surrounded by woodland.
Birds of interest: Mute Swan, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Little Grebe, Common Coot.
Loch Gorm (NR2365)
Habitat: Large freshwater loch.
Birds of interest: Whooper Swan, Greylag Goose, Eurasian Teal, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Common Scoter, Common Goldeneye, Hen Harrier, Barn Owl, Grasshopper Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Twite, Reed Bunting.
Loch Gruinart – including RSPB reserve (NR2868)
Habitat: Sea loch with mud flats at low tide and flooded fields nearby in winter.
Birds of interest: Whooper Swan, Greenland White-fronted Goose, Greylag Goose, Brent Goose, Common Shelduck, Eurasian Wigeon, Gadwall, Eurasian Teal, Green-winged Teal, Pintail, Shoveler, Hen Harrier, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Golden Eagle, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Water Rail, Spotted Crake, Corn Crake, Ringed Plover, European Golden Plover, Grey Plover, Northern Lapwing, Red Knot, Sanderling, Curlew Sandpiper, Dunlin, Ruff, Common Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Eurasian Curlew, Common Redshank, Greenshank, Turnstone, gulls, Common Tern, Arctic Tern, Rock Dove, Barn Owl, Short-eared Owl, Sky Lark, Whinchat, Common Stonechat, Grasshopper Warbler, Red-billed Chough, Linnet, Twite, Yellowhammer, Reed Bunting.
Loch Indaal (NR2961)
Habitat: Very large open mouthed sea loch.
Birds of interest: Barnacle Goose, Brent Goose, Common Shelduck, Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Teal, Pintail, Greater Scaup, Common Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Common Scoter, Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Red-throated Diver, Black-throated Diver, Great Northern Diver, Slavonian Grebe, Shag, Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, European Golden Plover, Grey Plover, Northern Lapwing, Red Knot, Purple Sandpiper, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Eurasian Curlew, Common Redshank, Turnstone, gulls, Common Tern, Arctic Tern, Black Guillemot, Rock Pipit
Birds of interest: Look out for White-Tailed Eagle. In the fringe woodlands on the eastern coast species like Wood Warbler, Garden Warbler , Blackap, Spotted Flycatcher and Lesser Redpoll can all be met with in the breeding season.