Monday, 30 December 2013

A Month of Sundays on Rathlin – Review 2013

The weather has beaten me and I have been unable to visit the patch at all during December; so it’s time now to reflect on the year that was, the year that could have been and look forward to the year that’s to come.   During 2013, I spent a total of 30 days on Rathlin and my efforts resulted in a total of 121 species (151 points or 118.9%) being recorded, which included no fewer than 11 patch ticks, a first island record and numerous highs and lows. 
I outlined my hopes and aims for the patch birding year (here) and this is how I got on:
1.    Visit more often particularly in winter and spring – Outcome - doubled the number of usual annual visits.

2.    Go in search of commoner species which I may not have looked for otherwise – Outcome – you have no idea the lengths I went to see a Moorhen this year! See previous posts (here and here).

3.    Increase my chances of finding those all important double scoring rarities – Outcome – epic fail.  Not even close.

4.   Increase my island and self-found lists – Outcome – with 11 patch ticks this year, my patch and island list (as I rarely venture beyond the patch boundaries!) now stands on 138.  Redstart was a most welcome addition to my Irish self-found list, this species is now a Northern Ireland rarity – the birds I had on Rathlin account for 2 of the 3 records in the country in 2013!

5.    Improve my patch seabird list via some seawatching – Outcome – got this all wrong. Just about got Bonxie on the year list and they breed on the island! Noted a submarine as a highlight during one seawatch.

Fair and Torr Heads from Doon Bay on Rathlin

Patch Ticks (in order of appearance):
Common Scoter, Goldeneye, Purple Sandpiper, Long-tailed Duck, Grey Wagtail, Long-tailed Tit, Yellow Wagtail, Redstart, Black Redstart, Collared Dove and Brambling.
The fact that 10 of these species were found in winter or spring says a lot about how the year went; an exceptional spring (for NI standards) was followed by a somewhat disappointing autumn, not helped by me going to Portugal for the one week in September when good birds were being found at all corners of Ireland.

The East Light from Coastguards
First Island Record:
Black Redstart, 5 May. This was the first documented record for the island, found in exactly the spot I have long predicted this species would turn up; at the base of the West Pier in Church Bay.  This was the 190th species to make it onto the island list I’ve been putting together.

Patch Mega
Dips and Glaring Omissions:
The only species I missed on patch (that I’m aware of) that were seen by others were Pomarine Skua, Hen Harrier and Whinchat.  The most obvious omissions to the year list included Mistle Thrush, Great Crested Grebe (not seen one since about 2008 at Lough Ushet), Bar-tailed Godwit, Arctic Tern and Pink-footed Goose.
Some Highlights:

1.    On an atrocious mid winter day, when only a complete fool would have been out birding, I sat huddled amongst rocks in Mill Bay sheltering from the elements as it began to snow.  Birding for the avid patch worker stops for nothing and through the snow – a vision of the distant bobbing head of a Purple Sandpiper appeared like an apparition though my misty eyed bins.  My first patch record.
2.    It’s early October, lashing down outside and I’m setting off from the Manor House while it’s still dark to hike to the East Light for a seawatch.  Standing sodden underneath one of the few streets lights in Church Bay was a Wheatear.  I began to wonder what this tiny migrant might have been through that night to end up puffed up and shaking under a street light on Rathlin.  Somehow my hike to the East Light seemed very easy afterwards.

3.    I had already seen a Yellow Wagtail at the east end cattle fields (patch tick) and would have been quite happy to call this one of the highlights of the spring. Yet, the patch had even better in store – a cracking breeding plumaged male Redstart seen all too briefly at Ballycarry Pool. I had only added this species to my Irish list the previous spring on Saltee!

4.    Finally seeing a Moorhen after 5 months of trying only to see one with a chick the following visit.

5.    Late evening at the East Light in October as Meadow Pipits and Wheatears dropped in from nowhere and Silver Y moths buzzed around the heather.

6.    The look I received from a Merlin as it flew passed me at close range clutching one of the above pipits in its talons.

7.    Pinning down the hangouts of a spectacular Rathlin Golden Hare and getting a decent photo.

Redstart - you may need to squint
Moorhen - a contender for bird of the year!

Wheatear from the late evening fall in October

Golden moment captured

As I never managed to find a bird deemed rare enough to trouble the multiplier effect column on the score sheet here are some of the other species not mentioned so far, which I consider good birds for the patch which were seen this year: White-fronted Goose, Jack Snipe, Grasshopper Warbler, Mealy Redpoll, Woodpigeon, Spotted Flycatcher, Garden Warbler, Snow Bunting and Lapland Bunting.
I must make a particular effort to stress just how good the migration buzz was on the island on some days during the spring.  Species like White Wagtail, Rock and Meadow Pipits passed through the island in their hundreds. Birds such as Skylark and Wheatear were seen bombing over the East Light and some decent falls of common migrants were also noted; day totals for Willow and Sedge Warblers peaked at 50 and 27 respectively.

Twite and cow - on territory
On the breeding bird front, I was involved in an all island Twite survey carried out by the RSPB, which revealed several breeding pairs of Northern Ireland’s rarest breeding finch and one of my favourite birds.  Unfortunately, soon after discovering a pair visiting a probable nest site, a large gorse fire tore through the area, obliterating all in its path.  The small breeding population of Lapwing continues to struggle, with only a couple of fledged juveniles seen from the 6 pairs which bred on the patch.  The Black-headed Gulls failed at the previously known colony due to spring flooding, but I located another small colony (25-30 pairs) elsewhere on the patch which fared much better and for the first time in many years a few pairs of Sand Martins bred, making use of a landslide in Doon Bay which revealed some nice muddy banks.

Eider congregate and display in the harbour...

Then pair up...
And produce plenty of these

Several species remain on my wish list for next year, but I need to up my game and be on the island during autumn when things are moving and I really must try some seawatching in a proper north westerly – lots of island ticks and points are available.  The mega find on the island still evades me, but I’m having a bloody good time trying.

Thank you and goodnight

Saturday, 28 December 2013

2013 Kilcoole Patch Birding round-up

Today (28th Dec) was my last patch visit of the year. What with the mad weather we’ve been having lately it was nice to get out & about on a calm, cold & clear winters day. Some highlights included the usual male Hen Harrier, lots of Siskin & Lesser Redpoll, 7 sharming Water Rail, 5 Stock Doves, a juvenile Peregrine, 52 Whooper Swans, an Otter, good numbers of duck at ECNR, quite a few Stonechats & an interesting dark morph Buzzard at Newcastle (about as dark as I have ever seen one in Ireland anyway, with seemingly uniform chocolate brown head & underparts).

Offshore, divers were certainly the order of the day with 4 Great Northerns (about as many as you’ll ever see here) & a minimum of 120 Red-throated counted on a single scan. With divers spread out (often in loose flocks) between Kilcoole train station & Six Mile Point (c.4km), and a fast flowing Southerly current, it’s hard to say how many were present exactly (large numbers not without precedent... Dick Coombes got a count of 185 Red-throats here in Dec 2012).

So with no new species added today the 2013 Patch Birding Year at Kilcoole, Newcastle & Blackditch ECNR finishes up with 152 species, 203 points & 103.83%

All in all, an excellent result! Achieved my two targets for the year:

(1) Beat my previous highest patch year list record of 146 (2012), ideally getting at least 150 species in the process... DONE

(2) Reach 200 species for my overall patch life list (was at 199 by the end of 2012 & got 3 new patch ticks in 2013)... DONE


Patch ticks: Lesser Whitethroat (200), Whinchat (201) & Crane (202).
The Lesser ‘throat was an all round winner on the basis of it being the big 200 but also as it did the honourable thing & hung about for 2 weeks, drawing a crowd of up to 40 local birders. The Whinchat was a most welcome claw back on a bogey bird & the Crane was great to catch up on after having dipped many in the past.

Bird of the Year: Long-eared Owl... amazing views & totally unexpected! Superb.

Rarities: American Golden Plover, 2 Little Ringed Plovers, Hobby & Sabine’s Gull. Not the greatest haul compared to recent years but still can’t complain. A Dotterel wouldn’t have gone astray however... to round off the cast of plovers nicely that is! ;)

Good patch birds: 2 Scaup, 3 Glaucous Gulls, Balearic Shearwater, Pomarine Skua, 3 Marsh Harriers, male Hen Harrier, Spotted Redshank, Wood Sandpiper, 2 Yellow Wagtails, Spotted Flycatcher, Snow Bunting etc. (the Glaucs, Balearic & Yellow Wags were particularly sweet).

Notable events:
  • Some excellent falls of common/scarce migrants in late April & again in late September (highlighting the potential for something rare!).
  • Keeping track of Spring passage of Arctic waders on a daily basis from May to early June.
  • Nice to hear plenty of singing Reed Warblers using available pockets of breeding habitat.
  • Shoveler & Lapwing still breeding away despite all the odds.
  • The Spring passage of Roseate Terns was just superb and let’s not forget migrating Arctic Terns, always a delight to see bouncing in off the sea on a foggy day!
  • Flocks of Greenland White-fronted Geese migrating overhead on clear October days, a sight to behold.

Little Tern wardening: 45 pairs fledged 75 young (nothing died!). Ringed Plovers & Oystercatchers did well too.

Other wildlife:
  • A great year for Otters (at least 8 animals in the area).
  • Awesome views of Risso’s & Bottlenose Dolphins.
  • A couple of Common (Harbour) Seals which are rare around these parts.
  • Heartening to see butterflies making a return to decent numbers (incl. patch tick of Dark Green Fritillary).
  • Impressive swarms of Ladybirds in late summer!
  • Bumblebee ID for beginners (7 species nailed so far).

Dips: Little Auk, Sooty Shearwater, Great Crested Grebe, Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Jay, Great Spotted Woodpecker & Cetti’s Warbler (all seen by others).

Species missed (?): Jack Snipe, Goldeneye, Garganey, Little Stint, Black Tern, Lapland Bunting etc (any number of these usually expected in a given year).

I'll be back on patch come the first weekend in January for Patch Birding 2014! Still need to sort out patch bogeys of Iceland Gull & Woodcock...


Sunday, 22 December 2013

Hyvää Joulua - Merry Christmas from Suomi

Well that is it for me. Patching done and dusted. I gave a last effort just before I left in the hopes of a last year tick, but it was not to be.

What a year it has been. The first year that I have ever put in such a concentrated effort to BallyC and the result was the addition of a host of new species, particularly among the passerine migrants.

So a quick review is in order, (very quick, as the Christmas preparations are in full swing here in Finland...and there are owls to see!)

First up, the most notable absentees from the year list.

Number 1 has to be Short eared owl. It has been a poor year for the species in general I have found. I have only seen one, in October at Ballymacrown. And whilst there HAS been one at Ballycotton, frequenting the back bog this winter, it has failed to show for me. Usually you would connect with 2 or 3 at Ballycotton, often with birds popping up even in spring and summer. A lot of cold evenings were spent at the back bog gate in vain.

Number 2 spot goes to Marsh Harrier. I would usually manage a bird in spring at the back bog. This year I saw no Marsh Harriers anywhere in Ireland, so that eases the conscience a little.

Number 3 was the one and only Long Tailed Duck back in February. This was a sitter, which I missed because of some filthy twitching in Wexford. Lesson Learned.

Working BallyC so much was bound to add a range of new species for me. At the end of the day, despite the loss of the lake in the 90's, it remains one of Ireland's premier birding sites (though at times it can feel otherwise).

The rake of new species accumulated has a bundle of species that should be no surprise, (Redsart, Yellow browed warbler etc etc.), but there were some genuinely enjoyable species to find which did come as a surprise.

Number 1 spot goes to the most recent. Glossy Ibis. As I said, this to me was an evocative, quintessential Ballycotton species, and adding it to my list as a find was a great Christmas present.

Number 2 - Slavonian Grebe. 2 of them no less. Grebes are gold dust in Ballycotton. You rarely get more than two Great Crested, so having 2 little black and white gems feeding in the kelp wracks was a real treat.

Number 3 - Fea's Petrel - The species people think of for any seawatch. Nailed down on a day with ferocious wind, always a delight to see.

Number 4 - Spotted Crake - This was actually a lifer! A species that has managed to elude me on frequent trips abroad, despite the other crakes falling easily.

Number 5 - Dotterel - Just cos it's a Dotterel-

Number 6 - Surf Scoter - A Drake on a seawatch was very surprising, but the year that was in it produced a second Surfer in the bay.

Ones that got away? Well that Radde's will haunt me until I find one proper. But that Yelkouan...hmmm...remains to be seen what happens with those. Could be a retrospect candidate for best patch find? Problem is they are out there, probably commoner than we think.

The main things learned from the patch challenge is, if you want a good score...pick a top site. If you want a good comparative score, pick a top site that you have put a little effort into before..but not enough to limit your comparative score to the 90 percent mark.

Statistics are fun.

So Hyvää Joulua from Finland. A Merry Christmas to all patchers, and a best of luck for the rest of the year. It's never too late! A desert or pied wheatear could make all the difference!

My final scores rest at-

Species: 177
Score: 343
Comparative: 144.32%

Sunday, 8 December 2013

That puts a nice Gloss on things

Ballycotton is the patch that just keeps on giving.

On Saturday I wandered down mid morning, starting out at the pier. Not much was doing here, so I moved on to Silver strand for a scan of the sea. Some divers were loafing around but otherwise not much compared to recent weeks.

Having a serious need for coffee before I could even face the thought of hiking down the beach, I knocked back 2 big mugs of tar like coffee and then hit Ballynamona. Normally I would walk down the beach first to the lake and then work Shanagary and Allens, but today I changed my route for some unknown reason and walked in towards Shan. As I came up on the gate, I noticed a Black Headed gull mobbing something over towards Allen's, raised my bins, and was stunned to see the bird being mobbed was a Glossy Ibis!
Full Fat Patch Tickage Baby!

I was amazed to see the gull and 3 Hoodies mobbing the poor thing, and they never left it alone the entire time it was on the marshes. Even watching with Phil, from Shanagarry cafe, you could always tell where the Ibis was in the channels from the black head hovering over it.

There is something about Glossy Ibis for me, which seems quite menacing, so I can almost understand the birds mobbing it. That dark, oily plumage and bizzare flight silhouette, really stand out in the Irish landscape.
They always remind me of a book I read as a child, about Hercules and his labours.
The 6th labour was to drive the Stmyphalian birds away from a lake near the town of Stymphalos.
The birds were said to be man eaters which "looked like the ibis", and in this particular book, the illustrations were very much Glossy Ibis like. The image always stuck with me, as did the menacing connotation.

The bird turned up on the lake late evening, looking out of place wandering among the gulls for a few minutes, before feeding for the last hour of the day in the channel, and finally roosting with the egrets and herons.

Glossy Ibis to me is an iconic Ballycotton species. Starting out birding in the late 90's, I would read about all the top birding sites in Clive Hutchinson's "Where to watch birds in Ireland" book, and Ballyc was one of those dog eared sites, in particular that Glossy Ibis had been resident there for some years.

My first trip down to Ballycotton in my late teens (staying in the equally iconic Seaspray, now gone), I almost expected to see a Glossy. Now 15 years later I finally have!

A 2nd year Yellow Legged Gull and a 1st winter Iceland were fresh in with the trawlers late evening.

Today I started out at the pier again, hoping that the increased gull numbers from the previous evening would bring in a topical Ivory. It was not to be, but this beast was here. A series of rubbish shots follows.

Big, dark and brutish. This scary looking individual had a barred undertail and rump that any American Herring gull would be proud of. The strong smooth coloration on the belly and flanks, gave way to a slightly more streaked appearance on the upper breast, the tertials could stand to be a little less patterned for my liking and from what I saw on the tail, it just doesn't look right. But if anyone is down that way and can get video or shots of that tail I would love to see them.

I haven't found many references for American Herring Gulls with reduced tail bands. I doubt such tail pattern would allow for an American Herring Gull to be "Acceptable in a Western Palearctic context" (hate that phrase). But, again, would love for a suite of shots on this bird to appear for experience sake.

Species: 177
Score: 343
Comparative: 144.32%

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

November Patch Tick!

Only managed 3 days birding on patch during the month of November but each proved extremely rewarding with some great winter birds logged & a patch tick in the bag! 

Friday 22nd November: A Merlin, a Buzzard, 2 Yellowhammers, 2 Redwing & a Grey Wagtail along Newcastle Sea Road made for a nice start to the day. Up to 280 (Icelandic) Greylag Geese were seen coming up out of the coastal fields ECNR around 8am, flying North or dispersing into the surrounding farmland to feed. A Kingfisher whizzed by the main hide at ECNR also. An unseasonal Whimbrel was in Valentine's field, just North of Newcastle Airfield. Some nearby maize stubble was busy with pigeons & corvids including c.10 Stock Doves & a Feral Pigeon. At least 60 Red-throated Divers were offshore between Six Mile Point & Kilcoole and totals of 70 Shoveler & 52 Whooper Swan were noted along the entire stretch of coast between these two sites. c300 Lapwing & a Raven were in Webb's field and a confiding female Snow Bunting (151) was on the beach opposite there. 

Snow Bunting

Saturday 23rd November: Was out with the BirdWatch Ireland Wicklow & Carlow Branches on an outing to Broad Lough that morning. Just as we were finishing up we got word of a CRANE (152) at Newcastle which had been found by Cian & Tommy Cardiff. A unanimous & wise decision was made to extend the outing & head straight for the Crane! So a bunch of us barreled straight up from Six Mile Point to find the bird still knocking about, in the maize stubble field near the Whooper flock, just North of the airfield. Views were somewhat distant but the bird showed well enough, chilled out, feeding happily away among the flocks of corvids & pigeons. A great patch tick, one that I have dipped on several times through the years (including back in February). Nice one Cian & Tommy! Brings my all time patch list to 202.

Friday 29th November: Nipped down for a quick blast of the ECNR-Kilcoole stretch in the morning before heading off the BirdWatch Ireland HQ to help pack copies of the Bird Atlas 2007-2011 for distribution (if you haven't got this fantastic book already then be sure to put it on your Santa list). Nice views of c250 Greylag & 45 Whoopers in the fields at Newcastle. Big numbers of Common Gulls on the move (for the patch anyway), with 130+ in The Breaches alone. Associating with these was a stonking juvenile Glaucous Gull on the beach at the Little Tern colony site. My third record of one here this year alone but I strongly suspect this is the same bird I saw here on 30th Sept given that very few white-wingers have been seen on the West coast so far this winter. Otherwise, the adult male Hen Harrier, an adult Peregrine, a Greenshank & 92 Light-bellied Brent Geese (including just one 1st-winter) were the best of the rest in Webb's field.

Glaucous Gull

Adult Whooper Swan with an atypical bill pattern (so-called 'Dark neb'), almost Bewick's-like in appearance when viewed from above, but then normal when viewed side on. Part of a flock of 45 (including 14 1st-winters) in the fields at Newcastle. NOTE: "The bill patterns of Bewick's & Whooper swans are split into three categories: (1) 'Yellow neb' - all yellow at the top of the bill, (2) 'Dark neb' - totally black strip from top to bottom & (3) 'Penny face' - a black strip with a small yellow circular patch in the middle of the bill. 'Penny faces' & 'Yellow nebs' are common in Whooper Swan but 'Dark nebs' are very rare, <1% (!) of birds in flocks are 'Dark neb'." Many thanks to Kane Brides (Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust) for this information.

Scores at the end of November: 
152 species, 203 points & 103.83%

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Another Surfer

Made it back down to Ballycotton today, after mitching off down west Yesterday.

Not much on offer, except distant views of Alec's Surf Scoter from the northern fringe of the patch. Only my second at BallyC after my first earlier this year, so I cannot complain.

Plenty of divers around the bay, with 3 red throats (very scarce last winter), numerous Great Northerns and what looked like 1 very distant Black Throat (though I was not sure).

No sign of my slavs around.

Off patch, a juv/female Long Tailed duck was at Rostellan. Maybe it will flake over to Ballycotton and give me a chance at a patch tick...