Sunday, 31 March 2013


So just how high would a Shellduck fly if a Shellduck could fly high? While not quite obsessing about it, it's a thought that crossed my mind recently. I know there are Shellduck in the North Channel two miles south of
me, unfortunately there's a line of hills obstructing my view. But, Shellduck will fly quite high in display flight
at this time of year which prompts the original question - high enough for me? . Unfortunately despite scanning the area a few times recently it would appear not. I did get a couple of Herring Gulls which was handy and a small group of Golden Plover flew over in a snow shower but they would have been expected
ticks over the next couple of months anyway.
        The bitterly cold winds are undoubtedly holding things up, I would have expected to see Sand Martins around the 20th of March most years  but so far no sign. One pleasant surprise was this male Wheatear which seemed to appreciate the freshly ploughed ground he found as the furrows gave some protection from
the elements. They're just about annual here but nice to get it out of the way in Spring.


So after three months not yet counting Sibe Chiffchaff I'm on 58 species and 68 points, and I'm starting 
to wonder where have all the Kingfishers gone.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Late bird news from Rathlin

I had heard of a group of birders who set up a bird observatory on Rathlin Island in the early 1960’s but had no idea who they were or what they saw. Through the wonders of the internet, one of these pioneering birders, Tony Tree, has been in touch recently from his home on the Eastern Cape of South Africa!   Tony sent me a fascinating account of what he and several other birders saw on the island between 21 August – 25 September 1960 and 10 April – 21 May & 1 September – 3 October 1961, when the island received daily coverage.  I have included a selection of species accounts below which either highlight important conservation issues, provide additions to the Rathlin Island List I’ve been working on or support the theory that Rathlin is a great location for migrant birds.

The ‘observatory’ area covered then was largely the same patch I’ve been checking since 2008, around the east and southern arms of the island, with only very occasional venture out west. 

A selection of species accounts 1960/61 (AJ Tree, et al):
GREAT SHEARWATER: One on 30 September 1961 below E light
Shoveler:  A pair bred on the small lake towards western end of island in 1961
Buzzard: Never more than two seen in the observatory area in spring and autumn, rather infrequently
Corncrake:  1961: Arrived 21 April. Daily in spring thereafter with up to five in April and ten in May.
1960: One on 1 September
Grey Plover: One on 2/3 October 1961
Little Stint: One on 27 September 1961
1960: Two on 24-27 September (one caught and ringed on 24th)
Ruff: 1960: One 25 August
Rock Dove:  1961: Daily in spring with 14 peak in May. On 2 September 40 counted but usually <30 for rest of the period
WRYNECK:  1960: One ringed at the E light on 30 August
Chough:  1961: Daily in spring, usually six but up to 13 on two days in April and 14 on one day in May. Highest autumn count was 28 on 30 September
Redstart:  1961: A male caught on 28 April below Mt Grand. A 1st winter male caught at the E light early hours of 4 September
Robin:  1961: Up to 12 daily in spring. Possibly 10+ pairs breeding.  Autumn: 15 daily with peaks of 55+ on 5 September, (30+ on 3rd, 45 on 4th), 30+ on 8th and 18th and 70+ on 21st. Many of these came to the light in early September and were obvious through migrants
Pied Flycatcher:  1961: One on 19 September at Church Brae
1960: One in September
Meadow Pipit: 1961: Spring passage a steady trickle with numbers dropping from 50+ on average in early April to 30-40 during May. Visual migration to and from the island witnessed. Breeding population estimated at 20-35 pairs.
Autumn: Flock of 40 arrived at E lighthouse early on 6 August with 100+ in bracken by Ushet later in the morning. Some were seen in the light beams on 8 August. In early September through movement with up to 50+ daily  with peaks of up to 250. Fairly heavy passage 14-20 September with numbers up to 500+. Fewer than 20 by month end with an influx of 200 on 1 October. Arrivals were often at first light, presumably from the Mull of Kintyre
Tree Pipit:  1961: Singles on 14 April, one caught and ringed Church Brae on the 24th. Again singles 27 April, 1 and 10 May
White Wagtail:  1961: 16 arrived on 15 April and numbers then fluctuated daily from 6 to 40 birds. During first 10 days of May around 12 seen.
Autumn: singles 2 and 9 August at E light. Odd birds at light early September and numbers during day usually singly with peak of 7 on 22nd. Odd birds up to 1 October. A few at the light on occasions
Yellow Wagtail:  1961: Male flavissima heading NE on 12 May
Greenfinch: 1961: 20 daily in April with peaks of 45 on 12th and 35 on 15th. Numbers dropped rapidly after 6 May and did not normally exceed ten. About 6 breeding pairs were noted in April.
Autumn: about 15 during first week of September but thereafter numbers usually about six. One flew in from the east on 18 September
Goldfinch:  1961: Two arrived at E light early on 15 April. Two others were seen on 19 September.
Linnet:  1961: From 10-15 April usually about 30-40 but after this date usually about 20 with small peaks up to 50 later in month. Numbers declined slowly during May. Movements to and from island witnessed.
Autumn: 70 on 1 September with small daily fluctuations and 90 on the 9th. Then 140 on the 14th and another influx of 220 on the 19th. Another decline and then 350 on the 29th with the autumn peak of 650 the following day. Flocks of up to 150 seen arriving at the E light from Scotland.
Yellowhammer:  1961: Two arrived 22 April and stayed till 24th. Found again on edge of observatory area on 9 May and probably bred.

Buzzard numbers appear to have been low on the island in the early 60’s and at that time Rathlin and North Antrim were just about the only areas in Ireland where you could find this species.  It is interesting to speculate that the great range and abundance expansion by this species over recent decades may have been driven in some way by the odd pair of birds seen by Tony and crew over 50 years ago on Rathlin. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see up to 8 Buzzards on a circuit of the patch, with 4-6 the norm.

From the success of the Buzzard in Ireland to the sad demise of the Corncrake.  Events on Rathlin are mirrored in many other parts of Ireland.  Up to 10 calling males were recorded in the observatory area in May 1961.  Unfortunately, this once familiar call has been sporadically heard on Rathlin in recent years and is currently absent as a breeding species.  Some of the reasons behind their demise such as a lack of early cover crops, and a switch to more intensive farming methods can also be attributed to the disappearance of some of the other species listed above.  Today there are no crop fields and no Rock Doves (that I’m aware of) or breeding Yellowhammers.

The story of the Chough is equally as depressing.  From counts of 14 birds during the breeding season and autumn flocks of 28 birds in 1961 (in the observatory area alone), the island currently clings onto Northern Ireland’s last remaining breeding pair. 
Chough pair feeding near Rue Point

However, it is not all bad news. The RSPB are leading efforts on the island to encourage the return of the Corncrake and increase the Chough population.  Early cover crops have been planted around field margins to attract Corncrakes.  You can read about this work here and for the very latest you can follow the RSPB Northern Ireland Stepping up for Nature Blog where you will find firsthand accounts from volunteers who are doing the hard work, such as this

Work for the Chough is progressing well.  The breeding pair has managed to fledge several young in recent years and even decided to over-winter on the island this year.  This autumn up to 6 Chough could be seen between Rathlin and Fair Head on the mainland.  You can read more about the work for Chough here

Of the species listed above, a number are new additions to the island list I have been putting together.  None more impressive than the Great Shearwater which cruised by the East Light in September 1961!  The other additions are Shoveler, Grey Plover, Little Stint, Ruff, Pied Flycatcher and Tree Pipit.  These records suggest that maybe the island isn’t as bad for waders as I had thought and that perhaps I am overlooking Tree Pipits!  Other important aspects to note from Tony’s records are the number of good birds found at the East Light such as the Wryneck and that this was also where Tony did the bulk of his seawatching from, with ‘great’ success.  I have also recently been in contact with Jessica Bates, a Rathlin resident who recalls seeing Long-tailed Tits on the island around 4 years ago.  So as it stands, 189 species and 4 sub-species have now been accounted for on the Rathlin List.

The final thing that drew my attention, going through Tony’s records, is that many of the species that passed through the island in large numbers then are still the cornerstones of migration periods on the island today.  I have written previously about the high number of finches seen on the island in autumn 2012, so it is interesting to note peak day counts of 45 Greenfinches and 650 Linnets in 1961.  Other birds I associate with migration on Rathlin are Robins, Meadow Pipits and White Wagtails and it seems this has been the case for the past 50 years at least!  For example, my peak count of Robins is 100+ birds on 14 October 2010, when a large fall of thrushes and Meadow Pipits also occurred, not to mention a Yellow-browed Warbler!

The sharp eyed amongst will have noticed this post does not mention warbler passage or go into much detail on what Tony saw from his many hours seawatching from the East Light.  Perhaps when we enter another ‘lull’ in the birding year, I will go into these in more detail.

But for now, my thanks go to Tony for getting in touch and providing such thorough and fascinating information.  Despite not having visited Rathlin for over 50 years, it is clear that Tony still loves the island.  With all this action going on, passerines to be found and good seawatching, one can only begin to wonder, why 50 years on, Rathlin is still undervalued as a birding destination during migration periods.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Kinda not a lot

A few recent visits to Ninch and Laytown have not been terribly exciting and no sign of migrants yet although I guess Sand Martin and Sandwich Terns are not too far away.
However, today I had to do a double take when I saw a small flock of big white birds floating on the sea off Laytown, 12 Whooper Swans !!! Quite a bizarre sight.
2 Moorhen calling in the reed bed at Mosney were new for the year.
The only other recent addition was a single Guillemot at Laytown.

93 species. 111 points.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Marchin' at Ballyquintin

It felt like there was better weather on the way last weekend, but visits on 2nd and 3rd March yielded little more than the apparently ever-present green-winged teal at Barr Hall Bay, and a single goldfinch in a tree-top near Templecowey. Little movement out to sea, but good numbers of waders, led by dunlin, in Barr Hall Bay.

This weekend (9th/10th March) has been back to winter. Just a few degrees above freezing, half a gale blowing from east, backing northeast today 10th March, and even managing a snow flurry in the early afternoon. An onshore wind with grey weather had to be worth a shot a sea-watching, and I spent an hour at Ballyquintin point on the morning of the 9th, then a couple of hours on the 10th. For once, the coastguard lookout gave some decent shelter from the wind. Much more movement visible, the birds being pressed towards land, with continuous gannets going past for the first time this year, along with a good trickle of auks and kittiwakes. The 9th had several fulmars going past and a bunch of lesser black-backed gulls with the other resting gulls at the point. Barr Hall Bay still had the green-winged teal on 10th, and a gang of yellowhammers in the hedge at the head of the bay on both days.

85 species, 108 points.

Ballyquintin foreshore and sea view from the coastguard lookout. 10 March 2013.

Monday, 4 March 2013


First patch visit of the month went well with a total of 3 new species added to the year list. Nice views of a Treecreeper along Ballygannon Lane, a flock of Greenfinches in the trees inland from the BirdWatch Ireland Reserve at Kilcoole and a single Fulmar flying south past Newcastle.

Otherwise, a Merlin was in Webb's field & the Stringer's channels/fields area held 43 Whoopers, 127 Greylag and 810+ Light-bellied Brent. Some male Lapwing were also starting to get rowdy with lots of calling, displaying & territorial behaviour on the go. Won't be long now!

Did a dusk roost watch overlooking Newcastle Airfield but none of the hoped for harriers or owls materialised.

94 species, 111 points & 56.77%

Ballygannon lane & reedbed - a good spot for passerines

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Back Down To BallyC

February was a tough month on the patch. I did not make it down too often I am sorry to say, and when I did it was more of the same, with various mixes of Gulls, including new Yellow Legs, Glaucs and Icelands, but no new species to be added.

A real blow came last weekend, when I was off patch in co. Wexford and a Long Tailed Duck was found on the lake. This would have been a patch tick.

I managed to make it down there this Saturday, hopeful that maybe the duck was still around. Alas it was not to be, but yet again the mix of Gulls had changed.

First up, was a new Iceland gull, A first winter. Only 2-3 Iceland's have been seen in Ballycotton this winter, compared to an estimated 8-10 Glaucous (mostly first winters).

Next up was this Stunning beast of a bird, a Hybrid Glaucous x Great Black Backed Gull.
What a shame this earns me no points (call me crazy but I think oddities like this beauty should earn you something..I mean look at this beauty!)

Hybrid Glaucous x Great Black Backed Gull - Stonker - If this were a species in it's own right it would be one of the best gulls in existence.

It was to be a day for oddity gulls it seems, with a new 1st winter Glaucous present also, a tiny individual which had me scratching my head for ages. Small, elongated, with a long looking primary projection, and slimish looking bill. But yet still chesty and stout, with a classic Glauc expression.

Interesting Glaucous Gull - Similar size to Lesser Black Backed and smaller than some Herring Gulls present. Distinctly dainty looking at times, with that long primary projection and slim bill. Just musing, but could this be Barrovianus? Or other race Glauc? Hybrid? or well within range for Glaucous?

A silly musing perhaps, but with rare sub-species having been made fair game, how many points would (I think) a first record of "Alaskan" Glaucous earn me? ;)

From the gulls it was on to some patch year tickage. First up was a rake of pipits feeding on the beach from Ballynamona up to the lake. The recent weather and tides have clearly had an effect on the appearance of Ballycotton right now, as fresh sand and shingle has been deposited along the entire stretch of beach, 4-5 meters wide. This provided fresh feeding for the pipits, and a Water pipit (presumably the bird present weeks ago) was feeding on the silver strand side of the channel, along with what appeared to be a couple of littoralis Rock pipits.

I then walked the lake fringe and finally connected with the usual Jack Snipe.

So March started well with 2 species added bringing me to 99 species, a score of 132 points and a comparative score of 56.01%

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Bi-polar birding and African-type Chaffinch

Two days after I failed to make 70, I got three species that I needed to reach that target.  I was ringing most of the day, hoping to connect with an African-type Chaffinch in North Wexford, not on my patch, and went sea-watching for an hour before dark.  I was happy to see that Razorbill is a 2-pointer and Common Scoter was one I expected to get at some stage but I was depressed and disgusted to discover that Goosander only earned a measly single point. Three red-heads flew north and are probably happily swimming around Glendalough at the moment.

I didn't get the Chaffinch but it has been seen a couple of times over the past couple of weeks.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Brownstown - late Feb

I made a last-chance midweek visit on 27th Feb to take advantage of the weather and see if I could break 60 (or 70) species before March. Headed for ‘the valley’ first – very quiet there but I picked up patch-year ticks of Goldcrest, Meadow Pipit (at last!) and Chough on the way. The cliffs at Benlea, just east of the valley, had a nice group of 52 Guillemots ashore on their usual ledge, but no sign of the expected Ravens. Wider coverage over the next few hours produced almost all the species seen on previous visits, and a fair few additions too (but frustratingly no Snipe, Skylark, Redwing or Greenfinch). Highlights were a Merlin (hunting pipits) and 11 Common Scoter (freshly arrived in Tramore Bay, my first there this winter). Tramore beach held 28 Sanderling, and the backstrand obliged with a few further scoped year-ticks including Greenshank. All this and sunburn, frogspawn, almost October levels of coverage (5 hours & 55 species) – but still only 57 species (68 points, 46.6%) for the year.