The Isle of Islay | Jeremy James Ceramics Latest News

The Isle of Islay

“You must come back when the geese are here!”

Immediately obvious is just how many barnacle geese there is on the Isle of Islay, they are everywhere, on the sea lochs, the flooded pastureland and the fields, these are birds seeking the relatively mild weather of Islay to spend their winter, before returning north to breed in April. The sound that these vast flocks make is extraordinary, each keeping in touch with their family groups within the flock, and it surrounds you from ground and sky level. Stopping at the head of the sea loch Indaal, there were several thousand, along with widgeon, curlew, dunlin and greylag geese. Squalls were increasing from the southwest and after a brief stop at RSPB Gruinart, we parked up at Ardnave close to the most northerly point on Islay. Almost immediately upon leaving the car a flock of around 20 chough got up with their distinctive ‘peeow’, like a child’s pretend gunshot. They circled us before flying directly overhead, silhouetted dramatically against the grey sky. It was like looking up at a completely finished lino print, stark and bold. I make a hasty note that this should be a new large print, too large for my small press back in the studio, and so probably making it necessary to be printed by hand. The chough on Islay number around 60 pairs, there only being less than 300 breeding pairs in the whole of the UK, this represent a sizeable proportion of the entire countries population. The farmer at Ardnave overwinters his cattle outside specifically so that there are cowpats all year round! These are essential to the choughs food supply as they feed on larvae laid within the pats. The weather drives us back to the car, heavy rain and wind is now coming in, the weather changes very rapidly on the island.

After desperate weather forcast from the previous days, it was a surprise to wake to windy but dry conditions. Heading back towards Bruichladdich we spot two otters just off shore moving along the coast. Hurriedly unloading cameras and telescopes we watched them from the shore, an adult and youngster, the latter almost riding on its parent in the water. They briefly come out of the water to cross some rocks, we can see that one is much larger than the other, almost certainly a mother and it’s pup. I shoot off some rapid photographs, hoping some may be ok and record something of this excitement. A good start to the day

Driving north we past some large white birds grazing in a field, we cautiously stop and check them – whoopers ! A small family group, the adults with their distinctive yellow bill, the younger birds still a grubby brown, yet to get their brilliant white feathering of their parents. Some are asleep creating flowing, curving forms, the lookouts watch as steadily with their necks straight and erect.

The weather had been steadily closing in and it really was becoming too wet to continue outside, the only option was the hide at RSPB Gruinart. Teal, widgeon, little grebe, lapwing, godwit and European White-fronted geese were a few of the thousands of birds spread out in front of us on the flooded fields. Then a shape rose up that we had been searching for since arriving on Islay, the unmistakable silhouette of a hen harrier, a female juvenile with the distinctive white ‘ring-tail’ marking. Only visible for a short time, she sent panic amongst the smaller more vulnerable birds.

There had been regular reports over the last few days of snow bunting at a small bay on the coast, so as the light dropped we made this the last search of the day. The small burn where they had been seen proved fruitless, so we moved to the less likely wind hammered beach. Sand hurtled past us at ankle height creating complex ribbon patterns as it disappeared down the open expanse of beach. The light was going, the wind rising and we were getting damper by the minute, either the bunting had moved on or they were staying very well hidden – the day was done and it was time to get shelter.

Our last full day on Islay , our dilemma, the rugby world cup final was being televised; the weather was fine however and if Islay had taught us one thing it was to make the most of any dry weather – we went out. Parking on the shore of Loch Indaal we walked towards Bridgend. Large flocks of barnacle geese were in the bay, the still conditions allowed their calls to carry well. Amongst them was Brent geese, Pink footed geese, golden plover, dunlin, curlew and redshank. Closer to the shore rock pipits sparred with linnets over terrain. Skeins of even more barnacles were constantly arriving from the south to join the huge mass on the loch. New Zealand won the rugby by a single point, but we saw some great birds in a fabulous location.

The ferry trip back was stormy, a few hardy souls ventured on deck and those that did were rewarded with the sight of Northern Divers floating, unperturbed by the stormy seas.

At this time of year some birders have reported seeing over 100 species of bird on Islay in one day! We had only managed 68 in 4 days; it mattered little, I had been back when the geese were there and there were 38,000 of them. Back in my studio in Derbyshire, still excited by this wildlife rich, dramatic island I am about to make a start on the new large ‘chough linocut’.
PS. You may also be interested in my Islay Distillery series of prints