Travellers’ tales ought to start with a long, tortuous journey to somewhere remote. That’s what makes them travels, isn’t it? Ours started at dawn, of course. We had a boat to catch and we didn’t want to miss it – we’d sat out a very long, very cold winter waiting for this trip. The roads were narrow, potholed, winding through mountain passes. The sombre, snow-spattered hills looming up around us were tangled in mist. We snaked round long, rocky inlets, where thin, steely-grey beaks of sea probe the land like the curlews we passed feeding on the muddy shoreline. We had less than 60 miles to cross – as the crow flies – but it took over three hours to reach the ferry to Islay.
Now we are here, at the northern tip of the island – and after our journey it does feel like the edge of the world. It’s thin-pelted, crumbling. The turf covers the dark, peaty ground like a threadbare carpet. There are dunes, where sand breaks through anywhere that hooves, feet or tyres have scuffed the surface. Gullies and cliffs of it lead down to the shore.
We – my husband, daughter and I – have come to find a rare bird. We’re prepared for disappointment. Rare birds are hard to find. But I contacted some local experts before we arrived. They said here would be a good place to look. ‘They are beautiful, charismatic birds’, one said; ‘exotic and full of character’, said another, ‘but they’ve been doing very badly here in the last few years’.
We have come to the very north of Islay to see Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax – fire crows - perhaps before it is too late. We want to see their flaming red, scimitar beaks; their shocking scarlet legs; their glossy black plumage; their bouncing, aerobatic flight. One book describes them as flying ‘like World War One biplanes at an air show’. We want to see that.
But fire crows – choughs – are living at the limits here. This is their northwest frontier. The last place in Scotland where they can eke out a living. Now even here their numbers are tumbling – less than 150 birds, at the last count. Over three-quarters of the young birds are dying before they reach a year old. Crucially, before they can breed. The reasons are as complex and inscrutable as the birds themselves, though frantic efforts are being made to find solutions.
We follow a tyre-rutted track towards the coast. A keen north wind stiffens our faces when we top the dunes. The breeze carries the sharp, citrus tang of fresh seaweed thrown up on the shore by last night’s storm. The sea here comes into the loch as a broad tongue, calm and shallow. But at its northern mouth we can see breakers roiling and sliding in from east and west, colliding in cold-white explosions of spray. By the shore oystercatchers speckle the rocks like splashes of black and white paint, lifting and piping as the waves hit.
But on the leeward side of the dunes the air is still, and heavy with the earthy reek of the cattle that have been grazing on the short, stubbly grass. They have left behind patches of sludgy, peaty soil where their hooves have poached and scumbled the turf. And of course, cowpats. This is perfect chough country. Our heads jerk up to every black streak at the edge of our vision – but they’re jackdaws. Then we see the choughs – just standing by the side of the track like they’re nothing special. Two charcoal-black birds with bright, talon-like beaks. They are facing each other, heads bobbing and bowing like a pair of black-robed Chinese mandarins meeting in the street. Feeding really, of course. Their sharp, curved bills are perfectly evolved to find juicy invertebrates in dung and short, grazed turf. So different from the jackdaws, which peck and walk, peck and walk. These choughs seem to be dining together, stopping after every few mouthfuls for polite conversation.
Still, they are jumpy, restless birds, and they jink away as we approach, uttering irritable, ‘chow-chow’ calls. No Red Baron impersonations today. They are young birds, and their legs and beaks have the pale, rusty-orange tinge of juveniles: ember, rather than fire crows. No matter. They are beautiful, they are rare, and they are still here.
We grin at each other. Who would have thought finding a rare bird would be so easy? People tend to forget that ‘rare’, and ‘remote’ for that matter, are relative concepts. Our fire crows may be easy to find here – for now – but over the last 100 years they have deserted every haunt they ever had in Scotland. And for the choughs this restless, wind-lashed coast on the very rim of Europe really is remote. It’s quite literally the end of their world.