Sunday, 16 February 2014

Islay - Island of Geese

Last weekend I headed off to Islay with a couple of mates. It's an island I had visited twice before, for one day back in 2002 when I visited to experience the goose spectacle, and earlier this year in the optimistic hope of seeing an extremely rare Ascension Frigatebird which had got itself well and truly lost and ended up being harassed by gulls in the tiny harbour of Bowmore village.

A typical Islay scene
The Hebrides are probably my favourite island group in Britain and Islay is one of the Inner Hebrides. I'd happily spend time on there even if there weren't any birds, but as it is many thousands of Barnacle Geese choose to spend their winters on the island. These are beautiful, diminutive geese. But with them come every year just a few Canada Geese. Yes! Canada Geese. As a non-birder friend of mine pointed out, he could show me loads of those at Ferry Meadows just down the road. But the Canada Geese on Islay are proper ones! Real ones which actually emerged from eggs in Canada. They are a different race to the ones which grace UK parks and lakes.

Before I forget, Islay is also the main wintering ground for Greenland White-fronted Geese. One of these occasionally gets in with the geese in Norfolk or elsewhere, but to watch small flocks close up spread all over the island was special just in itself.

Anyway, back to those Canada Geese.

So, here's the crack.
There are 30000 barnacle geese and, in amongst them there are maybe a couple of Canada Geese. They are about the same size and can easily merge into the flocks of 'barnacles'. The largest concentration is around the RSPB reserve at Loch Gruinart, but numbers also spend time in the proximity of Loch Indaal and Loch Gorm, where they roost overnight.
Last time I went looking for geese on Islay, I gave myself the best part of a whole day to find a Canada Goose. I must have looked through maybe 25000+ geese in the main areas, but all to no avail. I began to think that I was just overlooking them, picking the wrong feature by which to pick them out.
But this time there were three of us and we had three days. To be honest, I thought we'd find one by early on the first afternoon, if not sooner.

Virtually the first thing we saw, playing in the seaweed at the bottom of a slipway, was an otter giving great views. Funny enough, on that visit 12 years ago an otter had run across the grass in front of the endless geese I was searching through. Clearly otters like Islay.

The weather on Islay on Friday was probably just about the best anywhere in our storm-ridden land. The light was great and the geese were a delight to watch.
But no sign of a Canada Goose in all the main goose hangouts. We did, however, see a Glaucous Gull at the tip which lost me a £1.20 bet.
As dusk approached, having driven all over the island scanning through flocks of geese, we went to Plan B. Stake out the roost sites. We chose Loch Indaal, but goose numbers were scant. There was, however, an immature White-tailed Eagle pulling something apart on the shoreline and, a bit further along, a nice Iceland Gull.

It was clear that there was to be no mass arrival of thousands of geese any time soon, and even if there were we would be struggling to see them. So that was that. We seemed doomed to be the only team to visit Islay in the winter and fail to score a Canada Goose. We headed over to Loch Gruinart to see how many geese were there and it seemed more promising. We would place ourselves here first thing in the morning.
And so we headed back to Bowmore and our B&B. Accommodation on Islay is not the cheapest, but we found somewhere on our last visit which was only 30 quid a night. Not the best in the world, but more than made up for by the wonderful d├ęcor in the triple room which we shared. That's once Violet had eventually arrived and let us in. She was looking after the place in the absence of the owner.
Islay's classy facilities continued to delight as we dined in the Lochside Hotel that evening. This hotel enjoys a wonderful view over the harbour and on our last visit some of its residents had gripped us off with tales of a certain Frigatebird which they had watched over breakfast! Our meal started off well, with a good pint and some very substantial and tasty starters. We could overlook the inadequacies of the service. Two of us chose Steak and Ale Pie for our mains - a good, hearty and dependable staple pub meal. But what we got was a pot of tough meat in gravy which had never seen ale in its life, topped with a pathetic piece of undercooked pastry which had clearly been in the freezer for months, if not years. They didn't even get the vegetables remotely right. All this was made worse by the stench of fungus which emanated from the waitress every time she came within a few feet!! If you meet a waitress on Islay with the world's deepest voice, beware! Enough about that.

Early next morning we headed out to Loch Gruinart. We were refreshed and determined to find our quarry. The weather was due to deteriorate but we were still feeling optimistic. There were several thousand geese, but even before it was properly light small skeins started heading off into the fields or, worse, over the mountains. Gradually all the geese started walking off the loch and up onto the grass. It was like the March Of The Penguins. But still no Canada Goose! Our optimism was waning. We returned to the B&B for breakfast, which was strangely lacking in cereal or edible black pudding (though Dan managed to eat everybody's anyway). At least it was only 30 quid a night, but I managed to spend half that on snacks in Bowmore co-op to keep me going for the rest of the day!

It wasn't long before we headed out again, this time to some of the more out of the way corners of the island. Today the weather was more variable, but we fared better than we could have. I showed my remarkable ability to adapt to my environment by improvising the back seats and my tripod so I never needed to get out of the car!
Back to those pesky geese... it wasn't too long before we found one. A small, pale bird, this was a Richardson's Canada Goose. But the geese today were incredibly wary. At times we would pull up several hundred yards away and the whole flock would become edgy. This flock was no different and I managed to follow the directions and get the bird for all of about five seconds before the whole flock took to the air and disappeared over the brow of a hill.
The first bird we spotted.
(all bird photos thanks to S. Piner)
But the pressure was off now. We were not the most useless birding team ever to hit Islay. It wasn't long before I clocked another Canada Goose in a distant flock. This one was a slightly different structure, slightly long in body and in head profile, and darker overall. Maybe a different race, but not so straightforward.
Anyway, non birders will now be feeling flummoxed. So enough of the detail.
Here's a Where's Wally for you to do.
I'll reproduce that photo from the beginning of this blog. But look very closely.
For, in amongst all the Barnacle Geese there is a Canada Goose. It has a darker back and a different head pattern (more black, with a white cheek.) See if you can find it.

After all, this is what we spent the best part of three days doing. At one point we even had one of our party searching a flock for a fictional bird!

The second bird.

Over the next day and a half we drove just about every road on Islay. We did get more views of 'our' Canada Geese, but I would be quite surprised if there were more than two present on the whole island. We also encountered a brutish adult Glaucous Gull, a couple of Golden Eagles and a couple more White-tailed Eagles.

More views of the first goose.
Farewell Islay!
Our return journey on Sunday night was complicated by my desire to get to Durham to see a Myrtle Warbler,  a little bird from America which had survived the winter so far by visiting garden feeders. Unfortunately I had to drive south from Lancashire for two hours to drop somebody off before heading back up North. I arrived at three in the morning and slept in the car while outside froze over. I awoke just once, cold at 5.30 am, but I just emptied my bag of clothes over me and slept till first light. It was then that I moved the car and ploughed straight into the kerb on the black ice. The road was so slippy that even walking on it was hazardous. Not too much damage done hopefully, just a slightly wobbly steering wheel on the way home back to the farm.

And on the farm front, the Cayuga ducks have a week's stay of execution thanks to that icy road. They were due to go to the poulterers on Monday, but my car has to go to the garage instead now.
Sad news on another front though. The Poland cockerel which I didn't sell committed suicide while I was away by drowning himself in a bath of water. Maybe he was missing his pal?
Sad, but these things happen, thankfully only very occasionally.

But after this long weekend, I'll never look at my eight farm geese in the same light again.

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