Islay Nature
By Season

The Isle of Islay hosts an amazing array of natural wonders, from spectacular birdlife to rugged and beautiful landscapes.  Here are just a few of the seasonal highlights that we might be fortunate enough to encounter during our tours. There is always something to catch your attention, whatever the time of year!  

Spring

Early spring is a stunning time of year to be out and about on Islay. The island’s temperate climate begins to warm up and the flora and fauna starts to wake from its winter slumber.

Our winter visitors are often still around into April and, as they begin their journey north, we welcome back a host of spring and summer visitors. From the first cuckoo calling to the arrival of swallows and wheatears, it’s an exciting time to be exploring the island.

Spring also affords great opportunities to witness the golden eagle soaring over its territory or watch the acrobatic aerial display of the hen harrier, known as “sky dancing”.

As spring progresses the glades among Islay’s very own Celtic rainforests are awash with the yellows of primrose and lesser celandine. Blue bells begin to carpet the woodland floor and many butterfly species are on the wing at this time of year.

May is a good time to listen out for the rare and elusive corncrake as it returns to its breeding grounds from Africa. Its unmistakable crex crex call is a real highlight.

 And, of course, there are very few of the dreaded Scottish midge….!

Summer

The longer days of summer afford the wildlife enthusiast plenty of time to get out and enjoy Islay’s nature in all its glory.

The stunningly beautiful marsh fritillary butterfly with its “stained glass window” markings is on the wing in June. Classified as vulnerable in Europe, Islay is one of the few strongholds for this species.

The coastal and moorland habitats around Islay are full of birdsong. Endangered curlews sing their hauntingly melodic song, oystercatcher noisily defend their young and sandpiper skim low over the water with their distinctive alarm call.

When viewed from a distance you could be excused for thinking that the hills and moorland are bleak places…think again! On a sunny day at close inspection this habitat is alive with dainty heathland flowers like Asphodel, milkwort and louseworts with dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies, and moths. Look out for beautiful demoiselles, chimney sweepers and clouded buffs, to name a few. Delicate wild orchids provide the pinks and purples.

The southeast of Islay has its own Special Area of Conservation. This is a marine habitat designated for the protection of common seals. There are some fantastic, safe distance, viewing spots to encounter these inquisitive creatures, providing some truly special wildlife memories. June and July is pupping time for the common seal and so an excellent time to spot them hauled out on Islay’s rocky coastline.

The Island is home to three species of deer; red, fallow and roe. There are calves on the ground at this time of year and, if you are lucky, you may catch sight of them with their dappled coats and gangly legs. The red deer stags should be looking splendid with their new deep red shiny coats and freshly grown antlers.

White tailed eagles are increasingly spotted on the wing now that they have hungry young to fledge. The ghostly figure of the male hen harrier can be seen slowly quartering the moorland in search of its chicks’ next meal. 

Through July onwards young chough forage in groups on the coastal grasslands. A distinctive and charismatic member of the crow family, the Scottish range of this species is restricted to Islay and Colonsay. Subject to much conservation action, this is a special encounter indeed.

As summer progresses towards autumn the hills and mountains of Islay take on a subtle purple colour as the heather begins to bloom, creating some marvellous landscape photo opportunities. 

Autumn

By now the days are shortening and Islay’s green interior begins to take on the hues of autumn. The ancient woodlands are turning a glorious mix of browns, coppers and golds. Mountain ash trees stand out, their branches laden with bright red berries, ready to feed the thousands of fieldfares, redwings and possibly waxwings that are soon to arrive.

Look up to the skies and you may spot young golden eagles and young white-tailed eagles honing their hunting skills.

With local knowledge and a bit of patience keep an eye out along the foreshore for the mother otter and her cubs as she shows them her favourite hunting spots. 

This is the time of year on Islay when the summer migrants have all but gone, to be replaced by our autumn and winter visitors. October is a month of wildlife spectacles. The annual migration of over 40,000 geese is something to behold. The sight and sound of thousands of geese coming into roost is special and not something to forget in a hurry. The temperate climate and productive agricultural land make Islay an internationally important destination for approximately half of the world’s population of Greenland barnacle geese and a quarter of the world’s population of Greenland white-fronted geese. 

As the temperature begins to drop, the hills and woodlands come alive with another of Islay’s great nature spectacles…the annual deer rut.  Islay is home to over 4000 red deer and numerous herds of fallow deer. The island is known to produce some of the largest red deer in the UK and to watch mature stags battle for dominance and to hear their roar, again, it’s not something you will easily forget. Fallow bucks, with their palmate antlers and spotted coats, are also rutting at this time of year. Their throaty grunt is best heard in the mornings and evening and, when encountered at close range, can literally make the hairs on your neck stand up!

Winter

In terms of nature watching on Islay the winter months are no less spectacular, especially for bird species.  The geese have dispersed all over the island and our other migratory species have settled in.

Islay is resident to over a hundred bird species and many of their numbers are greatly swollen with influxes from Scandinavia, Greenland, and Russia. Curlew, oystercatcher, snipe, woodcock, bar tailed godwit, sanderling and ringed plover are some of the wading species.

In certain areas large flocks of twite can be found. Rafts of whooper swan rest up on the larger freshwater lochs on their way to Ireland from Iceland. Overwintering duck species include scaup, long tailed duck, common scoter, wigeon and perhaps a Slavonian grebe or two.

Aside from the wildlife, winter going into spring is also a good time to go in search of Islay’s past. The brackens and grasses have now died away giving a small glimpse of yesteryear. On many of Islay’s coastal promontories stand Iron Age duns dating back over two thousand years and inland you will find many abandoned townships vacated during the clearances, right up until the late 1800s. 

These seasonal lists are only a snippet of what Islay has to offer. When you are amongst such rich, varied and diverse habitat….any time of year is a good time of year!