The lovely landscape of The OaI've just come back from a working weekend with the RSPB Council on the island of Islay where we have several marvellous nature reserves.

It's a bit of a trek to get to Islay from southern England but by a combination of sleeper (a witty name!), minibus, ferry and more minibus we got there (and back!).

We saw lots of interesting habitat management, met local farmers and business people with whom we work, were very lucky with the weather and saw lots of birds.  All that and back in the office at The Lodge (fresh! off the sleeper) by 0830 this morning.

Islay is an amazing place in the winter with its huge flocks of geese but now they are almost all gone.  But the choughs and corncrakes, lapwing and redshank, golden eagles and hen harriers are all nesting - and we saw all those species and a few more. 

A totally unexpected species on The Oa was a dotterel - en route for northern Scotland (perhaps the tops of the Cairngorms) or, more likely, heading to Scandinavia.  Some also saw a rare pectoral sandpiper (a lost American wader).  Almost more surprising were the tree sparrows that turned up on The Oa a couple of years ago and seem very much at home now.

Standing, looking at the magnificent views from The Oa, we could see Northern Ireland where the RSPB nature reserve of Rathlin Island was just across the 20 or so miles of water - two years ago we stood on Rathlin Island looking across to The Oa. 

A distant golden eagle was spotted here and two choughs joined us on the short clifftop grass - we watched them poking around in the turf for insects and worms - their bright red bills hidden as they foraged but their bright red legs a give-away that they weren't crows. 

The kiaowww! cry of a chough cuts through the air and alerts you to the presence of these agile and sociable members of the crow family.

A starling on a barn roof was mimicing the corncrake's call!  You have to watch those starlings - or rather listen to them - they can mimic many other birds' calls and songs.  I've often heard a curlew in built up areas and then seen a starling wink at me from a rooftop. I wonder where they pick up those calls? And I wondered whether we would hear our own corncrakes.  Would a midnight trip be needed - lost whisky time?

In fact, at Loch Gruinart there were corncrakes calling near the visitor centre - hidden in the long nettles provided for their safety.  Their crex-crex call, a bit like running your finger over a comb, was heard in every county of England, Scotland , Wales and Northern Ireland a century ago - now they are more-or-less restricted to the Hebrides and Western Isles.  But this one was belting out its song - hardly a rival to a blackbird or nightingale for beauty - in the middle of the day, right next to where we parked.  How easy is that?!

The next day, some of us had a brilliant view of a corncrake out in the open - a really rare sight.  It flew, and I held my breath as it skimmed over two fences, just avoiding stringing itself up!  Corncrakes never strike me as quite deserving a pilot's licence - they fly like learners - but that bird had flown from Islay (where I expect it was born) to somewhere on the other side of the Sahara, and back, to be calling in an iris-bed on a sunny spring day.  I guess they can fly really - but they don't look very good at it!

The gorse was a blaze of colour and the scenery was gorgeous.  This was a great place to be for the weekend.  And although lots of work was done I come back to The 'flats' at Loch Gruinart -  a corcrake was singing in the foreground on Saturday.the office refreshed by the sights, sounds and smells of nature.  But also through meeting a lot of excellent RSPB staff - some for the first time but many are long-established friends and colleagues.

Our stay in the Machrie Hotel was very pleasant and we sampled the produce of the island's many distilleries (my own favourites are Bowmore, Bruichladdich and Laphroaig). 

And it's worth having a look at Islay Ales if you fancy a delicious longer tipple.

I've been to Islay plenty of times but I can't imagine ever tiring of it. 

 

 

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