Islay Ferry, 30th August 2014

Perhaps the forecast of force five or six north-westerly winds deterred some people from attending but six hardy members met at the Kennacraig ferry terminal at noon on 30 August. The low tide had exposed the mudflats and a group of six Redshank were feeding in the sunshine near the shore. Two Curlews were eventually spotted amongst the piles of seaweed and a couple of Oystercatchers flew along the shore. The squeaking of Bullfinches from the birch woodland around the car park was eventually traced to some juvenile birds feeding on the young shoots. Robin, Wren and Siskin completed the woodland list as we set off towards the ferry where a couple of Swallows were flying around the terminal building. Gannets were fishing the sheltered water near the further shore of West Loch Tarbert.

The wind was fresh but not too cold and the clouds large but not particularly threatening as MV Finlaggan left the pier. There were few other birds in the loch; two Cormorants flew past, a Shag perched on a navigation beacon, a few Grey Herons were spotted on the shore and a Herring Gull was added to the Common and Black-headed Gulls seen at Kennacraig. Most of the local Shag population seemed to have assembled on one of the skerries at the mouth of the loch; about 50 were there, along with about 20 Eiders, with the rest of the skerry occupied by seals and a solitary Lesser Black-backed Gull.

Once clear of the loch the strength of the wind was a bit of a nuisance; although we were sheltered on the boat the wind had whipped up whitecaps everywhere making it very difficult to spot birds on the sea surface. However, six pairs of eyes eventually started to see pairs and small groups of Auks on the water, mainly Guillemots we thought. There were few birds in the air for most of the open water crossing towards Jura; only three Manx Shearwaters were seen, maybe a dozen Kittiwakes and a lone Fulmar. The first contender for ‘Bird of the Day’ was spotted as we approached Jura; a Great Skua approached from the north east, turned into the wind parallel to the track of the ferry and then rose up effortlessly and crossed over Finlaggan’s bridge before disappearing from our view. Four more Manx Shearwaters and another Fulmar were added to the list before we reached the more sheltered water south of Jura where a dozen Gannets were fishing. A flock of Kittiwakes maybe a hundred strong was well in towards the island and seven Mute Swans were feeding close to the shore. The usual rock at the entrance to the Sound of Islay had its usual complement of Shags but a nearby rock had about 50 Kittiwakes alongside its 20 Shags. Close scrutiny of the Jura coastline was rewarded by sight of a Buzzard hanging in the wind over the cliff edge. As we approached Port Askaig all eyes turned to the Islay side of the sound and the woodland between the lighthouse and the harbour. Not only was there, as anticipated, a White-tailed Eagle perched in a pine tree, there were two, perched side-by-side, facing the boat, their white tails conspicuous against the dark foliage behind. Who was entertaining whom, I wondered.

Mackerel were pursuing small fish just beyond the ferry pier at Port Askaig and were, in turn, being pursued by a youth with a fishing rod who seemed to be successful with almost every cast. Some adult gulls, including a Great Black-back, lazed on the rocks in the next bay while the juveniles flew about, apparently practising in the strong eddies below the cliffs. Two Swallows were zipping about over the harbour as the ferry was unloaded and reloaded and several groups of Gannets, probably four or five groups of six or seven birds, flew south over the sound while we were in port.
Departure from Port Askaig takes the ferry much further out from the Islay shore than when approaching the pier. However, the eagle tree can still be seen, as could the eagle perched on it. But only one this time. Was that to demonstrate that they were not plastic models? A diver flew past as we sailed south but too distant to be identified. Some excitement was generated by a dark bird with a light collar flying towards us from Jura. “Possible Arctic Skua” was the call; Hooded Crow was the identification, but at least that was a new species for the day.

Not only did we have a following wind on the return passage, which allowed us a great view ahead of the vessel from the observation deck below the bridge, but the wind had eased a little and the whitecap problem was much reduced. Even so, after passing a distant group of about 20 Auks while still close to Jura, we were into the second half of the crossing before seeing many birds; perhaps 20 Manx Shearwaters flying in groups of two to four, maybe 40 Razorbills on the water in groups of four to six, probably four or five times that number of Guillemots in similar sized groups, and three Tysties as we approached the skerries at the entrance to West Loch Tarbert.

About 80 Common Gulls were dip-feeding in the loch, strung out along the southern shore in a loose flock. A sudden explosion of gulls and waders from one of the islands prompted a search for the trigger and an Osprey was soon spotted gliding innocuously away. A group of about a dozen red-headed Goosanders were feeding in the bay to the south of the pier as Finlaggan slowly approached her berth at the end of an interesting and enjoyable afternoon.

Species List: Mute Swan, Common Eider, Goosander, Diver sp., Fulmar, Manx Shearwater, Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant, European Shag, Grey Heron, White-tailed Eagle, Common Buzzard, Osprey, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Eurasian Curlew, Common Redshank, Great Skua, Black-headed Gull, Common Gull, Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, Common Guillemot, Razorbill, Black Guillemot, Barn Swallow, Wren, Robin, Hooded Crow, Siskin and Bullfinch.

Mike Harrison