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2,880 minutes on Islay...

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 15:10 UK time, Thursday, 3 November 2011

Guest post: Autumnwatch Producer Stuart Derrick was on the Scottish island of Islay filming for Autumnwatch earlier this week. For him it's a place of 'wild wonder and glory'.

Bowmore in Islay

The beautiful Bowmore Bay

The fourth and final Autumnwatch show from Westonbirt National Arboretum was good. It was a great way to say goodbye to the glorious colour and splendour of Westonbirt and move onto our next live location Slimbridge just in time for the spectacle of our feathered friends arriving in their masses.

One of the beauties of live television is that once the show has finished, that's it. Nothing more can be done, your time is up. All that effort from the whole team is condensed into an hour of TV and that particular part of the series is complete. And as soon as that last second has ticked and the director in the gallery has announced 'we're now off air', you move on to the next part of the series.

Chris Packham, Micheala Strachan and film crew watching geese on Islay

Michaela, Chris and Pete the cameraman - filming the 'barnies'

So, no sooner have we come off air on Friday night, it was a case of gathering our kit and heading off to a hotel near Bristol airport ready for the next leg of the Autumnwatch UK filming tour - Islay.

Early Saturday morning Michaela, Chris and I headed off to the airport where we met the rest of the team ready to board our flight to Glasgow. A very bumpy flight was an early indication we were heading toward some rather inclement weather.

Flights leave Glasgow bound for Islay early too early in the morning for us which meant once we'd arrived at midday and managed to stabilize ourselves on terra firma, we would need to drive to Kennacriag ferry terminal and board the 1800 crossing to Islay.

With it being a relatively short drive there was time to grab some lunch in the quaint loch-side town of Lochgilphead before joining the queue for the ferry to our Hebridian island of adventure. It was one of those rare moments where we had time to simply sit back and enjoy a couple of hours of not racing to the next event as is usually the case on this type of location shoot. It was also a moment to all ponder the menu and try to work out what exactly a Secret Squirrel Latte was!

filming on Islay

Filming on Islay: wildlife cameraman Lindsay McCrae and James How from the RSPB

As the shot lists started to come through by text of what Mark and Lindsay, the wildlife cameramen, had been filming so far, our excitement began to grow about trip to Islay. They'd already been on the island a couple of days and their ever growing lists contained eagles, sparrowhawks, hen harriers, merlin, buzzards, peregrines, thousands of geese, deer and much, much more.

Finally, nearly 12 hours after leaving Bristol we were checking into our hotel next to the Bowmore distillery. No sooner had we checked in and had a quick bite to eat, it was off to bed ready for an early wake up call.

Our first call time for filming began at the dark hour of 5am on the Sunday morning. With the clocks changing and an early call time, I wondered if we'd all meet on time. Thankfully, we were all there - but would the geese be there?

We were on a mission. A mission to get in among 30,000 barnacle geese on the edge of Loch Gruinart... and we had move into position without them knowing! This was going to be tough because one flash of light or a sound would force the geese to make an early departure and leave us stood beside an empty loch. With the help of James How, our brilliant RSPB host and master of the marshes, and a great deal of planning, we knew we had a chance.

By 6am the full crew and Chris and Michaela were in position on a grassy bank beside the loch. We'd trudged through enough boggy, wet, mushy peat marshland to last a lifetime. All we had to do now was sit quietly and wait.

As day began to break the chatter of the 'barnies' began to stir the silence. This chattering became louder and louder. We knew there were quite a few waiting to depart so we prepared ourselves for the moment. And then they were off. A mass of geese flying overhead is a real sight and sound. We watched them fly off to the nearby grasslands where they would feed for most of the day.

7am and first film done. We were on a roll. Back to the cars through the marshland again. It was a day to be thankful to the inventor of wellie boots and to James who allowed us to find a great viewpoint to make an exciting film for Friday's show.

So, a quick spot of traditional breakfast later (cheese scone with a slab of cheese in it - cheesy to say the least) and it was off for our next film.

Our next location for filming was James' house. And what a location it is - an enviable view across most of Islay and beyond to the Paps of Jura. We were there to shoot another film with James and Michaela about why Islay is so popular for all the birds. It's fascinating the way in which the land is managed by the farmers and the RSPB to encourage so many different species of bird so successfully.

Bearing in mind by 12 October Islay had received twice as much rain as it would normally have for the whole of October, we were very pleased we'd yet to seen any rain. The skies were, however, turning grey. So after a quick cuppa with James, his wife Sally and daughter Eleanor and some rather nice homemade cake, it was back into the cars to head to the southern tip of the island - the Oa - where we were going in search of raptors.

Measuring just over 230 square miles, Islay isn't exactly huge. It's about the same size as Exmoor National park where we were for our previous filming trip. So it didn't take us too long before we were pulling up at another enviable RSPB location. This time it was the home of David, who had recently taken up the post of reserve manager for the Oa area of the island.

When we arrived, Mark (our wildlife cameraman), Becky(the trusty researcher), David and Bonnie were all stood with binoculars in hand looking very happy. "They're everywhere," were the words that greeted us. Hen harriers, sparrowhawks, peregrines and - best of all - merlin! These few words made us all very excited. Chris's face began to break into a cheeky smile.

We started filming a piece about the flock of twite, which were alternating between a field below us and a couple of trees to the side of the house. And then, just as Chris was presenting his next piece to camera someone shouted, "merlin!" Everyone turned to see this small feather fighter jet soar right past us and head for the twite.

We managed to record some of the action even though it all happened so quick. Short moments like this make you really appreciate the wildlife camera crew and their finely honed skill of capturing these flashes of action.

It turned out to be a very productive afternoon on the Oa. Not only were we made very welcome by David and Bonnie with lots of tea and mince pies but we also saw the merlin a few more times displaying a mean feat of aerial acrobatics along with some majestic sparrowhawks twisting and turning chasing the twite. And if that wasn't enough, a pair of peregrines sat peacefully on a rock outcrop across the lake. To say Chris was a very satisfied man is the understatement of the year.

Monday morning and the weather was again looking good. Not such an early start today but we still had plenty to film before leaving the island in the evening. This time we headed to Islay's west coast to a stunning sandy beach called Machir Bay. Its beauty was enhanced by the strong winds creating ever-changing sandy blizzard streaks weaving across a perfectly flat yellow canvas.

Chris the soundman and Michaela - a very windy beach

Chris the soundman and Michaela - a very windy beach!

All good for us, but not much fun for Simon the soundman. The wind is not usually his best friend when he's trying to record perfect sound for the films and this was a real challenge. But with a bit of microphone repositioning and the ever faithful boom pole in place we filmed on the beach without getting blown away!

With some intro pieces filmed along with a promotional trail for BBC Two, it was into the cars and off to one of the islands' many iconic locations... a distillery. It didn't need much encouragement to get the crew to film here but the same wasn't true when it was time to leave.

When we did finally depart, our luck with the weather had run out. It began to pour down.

When it rains on any shoot, there's not a lot you can do about it. And when your shoot involves wildlife there's even less you can do about it because when it rains everything takes cover and there's nothing to be seen. But even in the fading light and the pouring rain, the skies over Islay seem to display a magical and moody colour palette like a landscape oil painting.

We slowly made our way back to the hotel. The light had dropped very fast, the rain was lashing down but it still didn't stop us getting out of the cars every few miles just for that last ditch attempt to film an eagle or a hen harrier. Alas, we saw nothing apart from big black clouds rolling in to cover Islay for the evening.

But our mission was complete. A mere two days, or 2,880 minutes, on Islay had amassed lots of great material ready for the show on Friday and now it was a case of getting back to Bristol to put it all together.

I've been very fortunate to be sent to some great locations on wonderful filming trips over the years. They're invariably hectic, fast-paced and full of challenges but always a lot of fun. They occasionally provide rare opportunities to see things you'd never normally be able to see. And Islay didn't disappoint. Such a beautiful place so much wildlife.

Hopefully the Autumnwatch and Springwatch teams will be back again in the not too distant future to see even more of its wild wonder and glory. But for now, thank you Islay for a right royal display. You truly deserve your crown as Queen of the Hebrides.

Watch Stuart's stunning Islay films on Autumnwatch, Friday 8.30pm on BBC Two (Wales 9.30pm).


  • Comment number 1.

    Great account of the filming, thanks. Islay is a very special place, great for birds and just lovely all round.

  • Comment number 2.

    Wonderful to read this as we were on Islay last week ourselves. We bumped into one of your camera men between Lochs Gruinart and Gorm looking for hen harriers. We were staying just opposite where he was shooting, and later that afternoon saw a pair of hen harriers where he was filming - did he catch them? We were lucky enough to see a pair of golden eagles, a peregrine and the flock of twite. We also saw chough, a barn owl and red deer stags amongst other things, oh and of course over 30,000 "barnies". We had a lot of rain (and some sun) but that didn't spoil Islay - what a wonderful island!

  • Comment number 3.

    A truly magical place.Wish I had put in my CV in for the first RSPB warden at Loch Gruinart back in 1986, life could have been so different. I remember with great fondness the ornithological expedition I took part in for Brathay exploration society staying at Gruinart house, counting thousands of Barnacle geese. We then conducted an expedition to Jameson Land, Greenland to see where the Barnies spend their summer. I really must visit Islay again, plus the whisky is an added bonus.

  • Comment number 4.

    If there are no Badgers on Isla, is there any TB in the cattle?

  • Comment number 5.

    Enjoying the programme but please can you limit the background music. One of the presenters mentioned the marvellous sound of the geese on Islay. Lucky her - we couldn't hear it because of background music

  • Comment number 6.

    Having read the advertising for Autumnwatch on Islay I was expecting to see more from the island. There are otters, birds and deer and you could possibly have shown the seals at Portnahaven. We are seeing and hearing more of the presenters than the animals!

  • Comment number 7.

    Lovely to see the birds on Islay - I was there with my partner a couple of years ago and it was amazing. Seeing the sparrowhawks reminded me of some photos I took a few weeks ago, so have eventually managed to work out how to put them on Flikr!

  • Comment number 8.

    I go to islay 2 times a year ,every year and have picked up eagle feathers and love it there. I'm only 13 and it's like a second home. I see lots of geese, eagles and marsh harriers .I just love it!
    Thomas Garner age 13

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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