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Island Holidays
Established 1987

Islay's Wintering Geese

A short winter birdwatching, wildlife, history and cultural break

Barnacle geese wintering on Islay

There is something very special about Islay — an atmosphere unique to the Inner Hebrides enhanced by glorious and varied scenery and a rich history and culture – to say nothing of lots of whisky distilleries! The most southerly of the Inner Hebrides, Islay is an island of varied and attractive landscapes with a beautiful coastline of sea lochs, spectacular cliffs and long, wide, deserted sandy beaches. Inland you will find upland heather moors and hills, actively worked peat bogs and freshwater lochs, while gentler views are produced by mature sheltered woodlands and extensive areas of farmland.

One of the main reasons that Islay is a “must visit” destination for birders is its reputation as a wintering ground for tens of thousands of geese. Over 30,000 Barnacle Geese and 15,000 Greenland White-fronts arrive en masse at the beginning of October and the sight and sound of vast flocks of these birds coming in to roost in the late afternoon is unforgettable. And, of course, there's always the chance of a rare visitor such as the Red-breasted and Snow Goose. The island is a shining example of what can be achieved when conservationists and local farmers work together to their mutual advantage.

But it's not just the geese which make Islay such an attractive winter birding destination. Here the attractive but endangered Chough has one of its British strongholds and there are also healthy raptor populations — it's not unusual to see seven species in one day. The delightful Long-tailed Duck can be found wintering here, along with significant numbers of waterfowl. Add to the excellent birdwatching the opportunity to see otters, three species of deer, seals and dolphins, all mixed in with the rich tapestry of history and heritage – to say nothing of 8 whisky distilleries, one of which we'll visit – and you have a wonderfully relaxed few days, based on birding but with lots of other interest thrown in – a typical “Island Holiday”.

Kildalton Cross

Key facts

  • Islay's Wintering Geese: Winter birding, exploration & history
  • Fully guided group tour
  • Departure: 07 February 2019
  • Nights: 5
  • Fully inclusive cost: £1,385
  • Single room supplement: First two rooms £300, then £475. Superior room supplement: £125.
  • Deposit: £250
  • Meal Basis: Full Board
  • Activity level: Easy
  • Tour leader: Peter Roberts
  • Maximum Group Size: 12
  • Travel: Ferry from Kennacraig
  • Departs: Glasgow
  • Included in cost: Ferry fare, full board accommodation, transport, all excursions and entrances, Island Holidays guide.
  • Not included in cost: Travel insurance, tips, drinks and items of a personal nature.
  • Islay Winter 2019 detailed itinerary

Your tour leader

Peter RobertsPeter Roberts lives on the Scottish island of Islay and has been a keen naturalist since childhood in London. While birds are his main interest, close contenders include whale-watching, the big game animals of Africa, snorkelling and the study of insects. A varied, lifelong career has included conservation and wildlife-related work from nature reserve management and teaching wildlife field courses, to ornithological survey and research, environmental consultancy and work for the UK government's Department of the Environment. Wardening the bird-ringing station on the Welsh island of Bardsey for seven years and a year managing the Aldabra Research Station in the Indian Ocean stimulated a passion for seabirds and islands. His tour-leading work over the past 35 years has taken him to nearly 100 countries worldwide from Antarctica to the Arctic and to all seven continents. Peter has an MSc in woodland invertebrate ecology and published research on various subjects from feeding ecology of fruit bats to bird migration, identification and behaviour through to ecology of seabirds and Red-billed Choughs.

Your itinerary

Day 1
Your tour leader, Peter Roberts, will meet you at Glasgow at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. The holiday starts with a drive around the edge of Loch Lomond and Loch Fynne, through Inverary to the ferry terminal at Kennacraig for the 2-hour crossing to Islay. On arrival Peter will take you to the centrally located and very comfortable Bridgend Hotel which will be your base for the next five nights.

Day 2
A day birding the nearby Rhinns and RSPB Loch Gruinart Reserve. This is one of the prime areas for the largest concentrations of geese, wildfowl and shorebirds — and also attractive to raptors: Common Buzzard a certainty and Kestrel, Hen Harrier, Peregrine, Merlin and Golden Eagle all likely. We could also call in to the windswept dunes and sandy beaches of Machair Bay where Choughs and Twite tend to congregate to feed in winter.

Day 3
Perhaps a drive to the very attractive south-east coastline with its wooded coves and offshore skerries full of seals. We can include a visit to one of Islay's famous whisky distilleries, look for wintering divers offshore at Ardtalla and visit the Kildalton Cross � one of the finest early Christian Celtic crosses in Britain, standing in an ancient churchyard with ornate 14th-15th century grave slabs. We could continue to the Oa � a peninsula on the extreme south-west of the island with good chance of Choughs and Golden Eagles and the site of a memorial erected by the USA Government to 266 American servicemen who perished just off this shore in the torpedoed ship “Tuscania” in 1918.

Day 4
We could use today to visit the nearby island of Jura — a much more rugged island of few people and many Red Deer. The landscape is dominated by The Paps — stark peaks of rock and moorland rising sharply to over 2000'. You may wish to visit the formal gardens of Jura House, take one of the many lovely hikes or just drive the one road towards the north of this spectacular island where George Orwell, the author of “1984” and “Animal Farm” lived part of his life. En route we'll pass more opportunities for studying the thousands of geese and searching flocks of Barnacle, Greylag and Greater White-fronted for Pink-footed, Brant and Canada Geese. The short ferry crossing to Jura offers good chance to see Black Guillemot and maybe other wintering seabirds, while the coastline offers excellent opportunity for finding otters.

Day 5
We should spend time driving around the shores of Loch Indaal, stopping at intervals to look for the large variety of waders, ducks, divers, grebes and seabirds on this huge sea inlet. On calm days the water is dotted with hundreds of birds and the coastline full of waders as well as finch flocks, Rock and Meadow Pipits and Pied Wagtails.

A visit to Finlaggan is a “must”: the seat of power of the Lord of the Isles and Clan Donald in centuries past. There is an excellent Visitor Centre and a short walk amongst the relics of ancient Clan buildings. You may wish to walk the riverside paths through the woods at Bridgend to search for birds such as Goldcrest, Treecreeper, Dipper, Siskin, finches, tits and thrushes. We will also be close-by the Islay Woollen Mill where you can see displays of weaving, old weaving machinery and perhaps buy some of the gorgeous tartan and tweed clothing available. (This mill supplies tartan to Prince Charles and for famous film sets such as Braveheart, Rob Roy and Forrest Gump!).

Day 6
After breakfast we check out of the Bridgend Hotel and head to the ferry for our return journey to Glasgow where we will arrive at about 1500 hours, giving plenty of time for your onward journeys home.

Please note that although we will try to visit all the sites mentioned, the actual itinerary will be determined by weather, tides and the presence of any birds of particular interest.