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


  1. Excellent Neal and thoroughly entertaining! shows what can be found with considerable effort on this terribly underwatched island. Good luck for 2014


  2. Great write-up. Don't get too hung up about finding a mega. It took me 34 years to find a mega on Cape !!!