Thursday, 13 November 2014

Rathlin Island Autumn Highlights

Since my last update from Rathlin, I have spent a total of 9 days on the island, adding a further 14 species to my year list. The fact that 5 of these were my first patch records was encouraging, though sadly another autumn goes by without troubling the multiplier effect column on the patch birding score sheet.
On your bike...

With little of note in the gardens on 27th September, I spent a bit of time between Ushet Lough and Rue Point.  Checking through the 60 or so Greylag here finally produced 4 Pink-footed Geese (100) resting on the lough - a species I somehow failed to see last year.  A mass of seabirds were feeding in large groups off Rue Point, including some Manx Shearwaters.  Eventually, a couple of Arctic Skuas (101) were seen in hot pursuit of Kittiwakes.  Two Arctic Terns (102) stood out amongst the hoards of dip feeding gulls and were a surprise addition to the year list having failed to encounter any around the patch for a few years now (through a lack of seawatching).  Elsewhere, 4 Swallows were feeding over the harbour and 12 Twite were feeding in one of their favourite spots at the base of the East Pier.  Once back in Ballycastle, I located single first winter and second winter Mediterranean Gulls around the harbour.  I will reveal the reason for mentioning this later.

I stayed on the island for four days in early October recording a total of 83 species, including 8 further year ticks.  Weather conditions were fairly decent, except for an almighty storm coming in from the Atlantic during the 5th and overnight on the 6th.  This resulted in strong SE winds and produced some decent birds.

A seawatch from the East Light on the 4th looked like a complete waste of time, until I connected with a lone Sooty Shearwater (103) heading east.  A long awaited patch tick!  With this, I renewed my efforts and single Arctic Skuas and Great Northern Divers soon flew west.  I scanned the birds at the base of the cliffs with my bins and picked out a “white-winged gull with a red bill”, which I eventually locked onto through the scope.  It turned out to be a 2nd winter Mediterranean Gull (104) – another patch tick!

The Twite flock in Church Bay had now increased to 15 and the Ushet Lough to Rue Point area again produced some decent birds; none more so than a male Hen Harrier seen hunting along the far side of the lough.  Also in the area were 5 Chough, a male Grey Wagtail and a tame juvenile Brent Goose feeding close to the South Light.  As it was having its fill of grass, I thought it rude not to join it for lunch.  Other notable sightings on the 4th were 80 Goldfinches, 1 Whimbrel, 1 Wheatear, 22 Snipe and 8 Goldcrest.

Not a care in the World
I began the following morning with a 2.5 hour seawatch from the East Light, which produced 55 Manx Shearwaters, 5 Arctic Skuas, 1 Pomarine Skua (105), 1 Arctic Tern, 1 Common Scoter, 10 Barnacle Geese (106), 6 Whooper Swans, 3 Puffins, 2 Red-throated Diver (107), 1 Great Northern Diver and a patch tick Little Gull (108).  All of which were very pleasing, especially the Little Gull – a nice juvenile tagging along with a flock of Kittiwakes.  Had I thought to put on some extra layers I would have stayed longer, but I headed off to get warmed up.  Not a lot else was seen the rest of the day as the storm moved in, though 3 Kestrels and a few Reed Buntings may have been new arrivals.

In a rare departure outside the patch boundaries, I made my way to the west end of the island early the next morning which only served to remind me why I don’t normally go there. Saying that, there are some great looking spots that are well worth checking, especially the last gardens before the lighthouse – which had about 75 Chaffinches and a dozen thrushes in them. 
Keeble cottage at the west end and yes I did check those nettles for Lancy...
Once safely back in more familiar surroundings, the most obvious impact of the overnight storm was that some 2000 Kittiwakes and 250 Black-headed Gulls had been forced close to shore between the West Pier and Mill Bay.  I set up the scope outside the hostel and began grilling the flock (for a Sab’s) and managed to pick out two Mediterranean Gulls – a first and second winter.  I then realised that not only was the second winter probably the same bird I had seen on 4th but both were likely the same birds I had seen in Ballycastle Harbour on 27th September.

After lunch, the winds died down and the sun came out, so I set off for a circuit of the gardens.  There had been an obvious arrival of migrants, with Blackbirds and Song Thrushes most prominent.  The east end gardens held 2 Chiffchaffs, 2 Blackcaps, 18 Goldcrests and several flocks of Golden Plover (109) flew south overhead.  Three Swallows were at Ushet Lough and I watched a young Merlin fly straight out to sea at Rue Point – migration in action.

The final day of the trip (7th October) was spent thoroughly checking all the usual spots for passerine migrants. A couple of Redwings were amongst decent counts of 47 Blackbirds and 28 Song Thrushes and the Goldcrest tally had increased to 28.  The ditch to the south-east of Ushet Lough (which I have earmarked for a Barred Warbler) held 2 Blackcaps and a Chiffchaff. The only place I had yet to check was the lane at Ballycarry Pool and I’m glad I did because a Garden Warbler (110) was found sunning itself there! The very strong light made it look scarily pale at first but as I moved slightly closer it began moving around giving me a good look at its (sadly unmarked) under-tail coverts.  So in just two years of coverage I’ve had Mealy Redpoll, Spotted Flycatcher, Redstart, Garden Warbler and Whinchat in this 100m stretch of hedge.  Not bad for starters.
Sunset at Mill Bay

I’m struggling to find any highlights worth mentioning from my visit on 13th October, a Fieldfare (111) flying over Craigmacagan Lough was new for the year and a Pomarine Skua off Rue Point were about the best I could manage.  The Twite flock had increased to 20 birds and a Wheatear was at Mill Bay. 

I had a much better day on 17th October, which began with a trek up to the Coastguards Hut in search of rare buntings.  I failed in this regard but did manage to locate a patch tick Tree Pipit (112) which flew over calling before landing briefly on an old stone wall.  The grounds of the East Light held a Grey Wagtail and a Lapwing.  It was also a good day for flyover Whooper Swans; a total of 47 birds were seen passing through during the day.  More than 30 Redwing were present, most of which were in the hedge at Ballycarry Pool.  A group of 3 Barnacle Geese were in much the same spot as the friendly Brent Goose a few weeks ago and it was good to see that all 5 Chough were still on the island.  I returned to the ferry via Mill Bay and spotted an Arctic Tern roosting on the rocks, which became the first tern of any species, I’ve actually seen land on Rathlin!
Taking a break at Coastguards
Barnacle Geese at Rue Point
I didn’t make it over again until 1st November, which was a particularly depressing day on patch owing to strong southerly winds.  Still it was nice to see the female Pochard back at Ally Lough for another winter.  Two Whooper Swans were at Ushet Lough and a late Wheatear at the East Light.

My next visit on 8th November was one of those days you felt something good might appear at any moment – a Goldeneye at Craigmacagan, a Long-tailed Duck at Rue Point and a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers in the harbour (doubling my previous high count for this species!) were all decent birds for Rathlin.  The distinctly Scandinavian vibe continued with counts of 39 Blackbirds, 36 Robins and numerous Wrens and Stonechats.  As I sat in Church Bay eating lunch I noticed half a dozen hooded crows appearing to dive bomb something in the distance – I thought no more of it until 10 minutes later, when I could hear lots of pipits calling.  I looked up to see a Short-eared Owl (113) cruising along the road above the harbour.  Given the apparent recent influx in eastern England, this species was well and truly on my radar.  However, it’s not often these hoped for species fall into place, the Desert Wheatear I had thought about the night before certainly didn’t!  This brought my patch life list to 149 species.  I wonder what will be next.

Scores – 113 species, 144 points or 95.36%


My thoughts exactly