Saturday, 3 May 2014

Rathlin Island - April Update

During April I managed four day trips to Rathlin Island and as was the case last spring, a nice trickle of migrants put in an appearance, which included 2 patch ticks, a great selection of raptors and no less than 25 year ticks!
On the first visit on 5 April, I spent some time hanging around the Coastguards Hut/Ballyconagan area in search of raptors which soon paid dividends when a female Hen Harrier (69) put on a show before flying high over the north cliffs being mobbed by Ravens.  Male Merlin (70) and Sparrowhawks (71) also put in appearances, as did a Peregrine and several Buzzards!  Also in this area were at least 3 Twite (72), including a singing male and several chipping Snipe, some of which were flushed by the hunting harrier. I’ve always liked the look of this area, you could just see something like a Gyr Falcon sitting on a post here one day… but for now I’m more than happy to have caught up with what was only my 2nd patch record of Hen Harrier; a species I managed to dip last year.
Elsewhere, a noticeable arrival of finches had taken place with several small flocks of Goldfinches and Linnets (73) bombing around the patch.  The gardens and hedges produced a small number of Willow Warblers (74) and Goldcrests (75) and a single Redwing by the pub.  The only other year tick of the day was a single Swallow (76) over the “walled garden” above Church Bay.

Totals, 5 April: 75+Goldfinch, 9 Goldcrest, 4 Chiffchaff, 12 Willow Warbler, 1 Hen Harrier, 3 Twite, 2 Chough, 14 Linnet, 1 Redwing, 1 Merlin, 3 Wheatear, 1 Swallow
The next visit on 18 April, was one of those days which keeps me coming back to Rathlin.  As ever, my first stop of the day was to the West Pier, where bobbing about amongst the seals, were 3 Common Sandpipers (77).  Then in Church Valley, one sallow bush had about 15 Willow Warblers in it! Elsewhere in the valley were 2 Blackcaps (78), numerous Wheatears and 3 Lesser Redpolls (79). During the walk towards the East Light, a flock of about 10 Brent Geese (80) were seen heading west out at sea.  I made my way down to the top of the cliffs behind the lighthouse wall and took up position for a seawatch.  Streams of Gannets and large auks were moving west and Black-headed Gulls and Kittiwakes were milling around and feeding at the base of the cliffs.  Eventually a few Manx Shearwaters (81) were seen, but there was no sign of the hoped for Puffins.
Lower section of Church Valley

Willow Warbler

I was about to head back down the track towards the east end gardens, when something made me head over to scan the sea through the gully just to the west of the lighthouse compound.  As soon as I arrived at the fence, an enormous shape flushed from a ledge on the cliff face just yards below me, I watch as it made several lumbering wing beats and dropped in height, before rising up to eye level, turning left and cruising along the top of the cliffs in side on profile - a GOLDEN EAGLE (82)!  I made it to be a sub-adult as it had a few remnants of white in its upper tail feathers.  This is my 2nd patch record, following a near adult seen on 15 April, 2012. Unfortunately, a full-pelt steeplechase along the cliff tops failed to produce any further sign of the bird, so I didn’t manage any photos of this one. Or indeed see any Puffins.
There is a nice vantage point overlooking the east end gardens, where I stood in a bit of a daze for a while and made some half-hearted attempts to scan the gardens, when a Stonechat popped up onto the fence ahead of me, I didn’t even put the bins on it until it flew off showing a white rump! It stopped briefly on the fence at the other side of the field – a cracking male Whinchat (83), a patch tick no less! It was in exactly the same field I saw a Yellow Wagtail last spring.

My day got even better when the rapidly drying out Ballycarry Pool, finally produced a “different” duck in the form of a drake Gadwall (84) alongside a female Wigeon and 6 Teal.  This was the second patch tick of the day and shows there is hope yet to find what I’d really like to see here (e.g. Garganey or Green-winged Teal).
Elsewhere, the first White Wagtails of the year were seen in Mill Bay and House Martins (85) and Sand Martins (86) were new in at Ushet Lough.
Totals, 18 April: 10 Brent Geese, 4 Chiffchaff, 70+ Willow Warbler, 3 Common Sandpiper, 1 Chough, 23 Linnet, 25 Goldfinch, 3 Lesser Redpoll, 1 Merlin, 25+ Swallow, 40+ Wheatear, 5 Manx Shearwater, 1 Golden Eagle, 1 Whinchat, 2 Blackcap, 1 Gadwall, 1 Wigeon, 3 White Wagtail, 3 House Martin, 5 Sand Martin
I was joined on my next visit on 20 April by my father and things got off to a bright start, with 2 Twite feeding in Ballycastle Harbour before the ferry across.  Once on the island, things were lively enough in Church Valley, with a Woodpigeon (87) bolting out of the trees and the first Sedge Warbler (88) of the year bursting into song.  Migrant numbers elsewhere were much lower than on the last visit and the day was eventually saved by a nice male Grey Wagtail (89) feeding in a mound of manure at the back of Mill Bay.  The day ended with a few pints in the bar.
Early Purple Orchid

House Sparrow nesting above the pub door!
Totals, 20 April (North half only): 30+ Willow Warbler, 4 Common Sandpiper, 1 Chough, 1 Woodpigeon, 4 Lesser Redpoll, 2 Sedge Warbler, 15 Wheatear, 2 Blackcap, 1 Chiffchaff, 10+ Swallow, 3 White Wagtail, 1 Grey Wagtail
It was back to full patch birding mode on 27 April, which started with a memorable ferry crossing in flat calm conditions through hundreds of Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Razorbills and the occasional Puffin or Manx Shearwater.  The Puffins (90) were officially added to the year list later that day from Ushet Port.
Church Valley was again full of phyllosc warblers and it wasn’t long before a reeling Grasshopper Warbler (91) and 2 singing Whitethroats (92) were seen.  Redpolls have been much less prevalent this spring, with virtually all records being of flyover birds, but a group of 7 Lesser Redpolls were seen here today.  Numbers of Sedge Warblers and White Wagtails were also up to 13 and 9 respectively this visit. 
Once again, waders are conspicuous on the year list by their near absence, so it was great to finally add Dunlin (93) and Whimbrel (94) for the year at Mill Bay.  A flock of 30 or more Rock Pipits feeding in a field here were noteworthy and no doubt would have contained a littoralis or two if it weren’t for them all being heavily back lit.
All was it should be down at Ushet Lough, with breeding Common Gulls, Lapwings and Oystercatchers on territory and making a right din. Sand Martins look like using the same breeding site as last year in the cliffs at Doon Bay.  The small group of pines at the south end of the lake held a very dull acredula type Willow Warbler.
Ushet Lough
Totals, 27 April: 2 Chiffchaff, 38 Willow Warbler, 11+ Swallow, 13 Sedge Warbler, 1 Grasshopper Warbler, 2 Common Whitethroat, 1 Merlin, 1 Whimbrel, 20 Wheatear, 1 House Martin, 2 Chough, 3 Dunlin, 9 White wagtail, 10+ Sand Martin
So the month ends on 94 species (1 more than at this stage last year), 116 points or 76.8%