Wednesday, 7 January 2015

A tale of two patches - Larne and Rathlin review 2014

This was my second year taking part in the Patchwork Challenge on Rathlin Island and as I enjoyed it so much last year, I decided to enter a second patch – the north end of Larne Lough, to try and resurrect my appetite for birding around my home town.  Apart from trips to the Bridges of Ross, Tory Island and Portugal, I did very little birding outside my patch boundaries.  A fact supported by plotting my Birdtrack records for the year.  As well as competing against around 340 other patches across the UK and Ireland, I was also keen to see which of my own patches would come out on top.
Sedentary birding, via Birdtrack
Some of you may have read recently about plans to have an ‘island mini-league’ in 2015 to include rarity hot spots which receive large falls in spring and autumn.  Thankfully, this rules out Rathlin! You see, both my patches occupy somewhat of a migration dead zone prone to autumnal bypasses most years.  However, for me this is exactly what makes patch birding so addictive; that new patch tick, a patch gold bird, heaven forbid a local rarity – all come at such a cost that I don’t mind not getting more than 2 points for most of them! The joy comes from what they mean to you.

I managed 121 species for 151 points on Rathlin in 2014 (you can read a review of the year here), so I had a comparative score to aim at this year.  My target for the Larne patch was 120 species.  Here’s how I got on:

Larne Lough Highlights

The first highlight of the year came in the form of a most unexpected patch tick, following a phone call about a Crane seen flying south along the Antrim coast.  A full 72 minutes later I intercepted it attempting to land at Glynn Station.  You can read more about my ‘Mourinho antics’ here.  This has to go down as one of my finest moments in birding.
Ah yes, that'll be the Crane!
In what was a poor year for white-winged gulls in Northern Ireland, finding a couple of Kumlien’s Gulls in the spring was noteworthy, considering these were just about the only records of this fine (sub) species recorded anywhere in NI this year.  However, I had to wait until mid-December to see an ‘ordinary’ Iceland Gull after dipping one earlier in the year.  It was also a great year for Little Gull sightings on patch, with at least 4 different birds seen during the year.
Iceland Gull
Little Gull

Kumlien's Gull
The events of the 6th April will live long in the memory, when no less than three patch ticks were watched side by side at Glynn Station.  A Glossy Ibis had been loitering around the south end of the lough for a few weeks, tantalisingly outside the patch boundary – it was only a matter of time before it appeared at Glynn I thought.  During the first week of April it was reported at Glynn on a few occasions by other birders, but despite numerous searches I just could not see it.  I arrived at Glynn Station on 6th April for another look ­­and was rewarded by close up views of a male Pintail, shortly followed by finding a Slavonian Grebe – in full breeding plumage no less.  As more local birders arrived to see these, someone uttered the immortal words “isn’t that the Glossy Ibis standing at the point”.  Indeed it was and I still wonder to this day how it got there without being noticed!  All three of these species were patch ticks and I blogged about the experience here.

Following this unprecedented start to the year, things went quiet, very quiet.  My hopes were eventually lifted by the sight of a pair of Roseate Terns in full display mode off Glynn Station on 14th June. 
In the site guide I wrote (see here) at the beginning of the year, I mentioned Larne being good for “Gank, Gulls and Goosanders” and this year has done little to change my mind.  However, were it not for the lack of alliteration, I could also now add ducks to that list.  An amazing 13 species were recorded, all seen from the same spot at Glynn Station.  These included patch scarce Scaup, Long-tailed Duck and Common Scoter. To complete the story – it was indeed another good year for Goosanders with several birds making an appearance during the year.

Another thing I discovered through patch birding around Larne was that it made me aware of a number of glaring omissions from my patch list, owing to a complete lack of ever looking for them before.  You may be surprised to learn that Water Rail, Bonxie and Sand Martin were all patch ticks this year!  Other noteworthy sightings were second patch records of Curlew Sandpiper (24th September, Sandy Bay) and Jack Snipe (15th November, Glynn Rugby Club Lagoon).

The most glaring species not seen this year were Fieldfare and Whitethroat, while Pink-footed Goose, Greenland White-fronted Goose, Ruff and Spotted Redshank (missed by about 2 minutes) were seen by others.  The year ended with totals of 129 species or 168 points, 2028 records and 33 lists were added to Birdtrack.  A total of 7 species were added to my overall patch list, which now stands at 154 species.
Larne species accumulation via Birdtrack
Rathlin Island Highlights

I spent a total of 25 days on the island this year (compared to 30 last year) and I did not manage any visits during June or July due to survey commitments at work.  Nevertheless, I managed to add a further 8 patch ticks during 2014, including some great birds.

The first good day of the year came on 18th April when my second patch record of Golden Eagle, was backed up by full (fat) patch ticks of Whinchat and Gadwall.  On the 11th May I was stopped in my tracks by a call I was not familiar with and after a series of rubbish views, I managed to work out it was some sort of Sylvia warbler.  I recorded the call on my iPhone and emailed it to Niall Keogh just in case it was anything mental.  Niall got back to me to say it was a Lesser Whitethroat and I returned that afternoon when the bird eventually came into full view (for about 5 seconds).  Just my second patch record of this species (in exactly the same place as the first!) and it was good to become familiar with the call.  Another measly point in the bag! 

The big story of the year came from the now infamous Corncrake which turned up in mid-May only to be disturbed by a visiting helicopter (full story here).  I heard the bird on 24th and 30th May, but by the next day it had vanished.  During one of these visits it dawned on me that I had seen or heard all the species illustrated on the RSPB information panel on the same day; for the very first time.
There was not a lot to shout about during September barring my first patch Bar-tailed Godwit on 6th and four Pink-footed Geese at Ushet Lough on 27th which were nice to add to the year list after somehow missing them last year.

My now customary early October trip once again delivered in spades.  Mediterranean Gull, Little Gull and Sooty Shearwater were all patch ticks thanks to being on the island in half decent seawatching conditions.  However, I will remember the trip for my time spent in the company of a juvenile Brent Goose – which fed around my feet as I sat eating lunch.  It was a profound experience as I was most likely the first human it had ever encountered.
The late autumn period served up another two patch ticks in the form of a Tree Pipit on 17th October and a Short-eared owl on 8th November.  The pipit was particularly pleasing as judging by numerous old records from the island, it appeared I was failing miserably in my attempts to connect with this species.  Another measly point!

The year ended on 114 species or 146 point leaving my comparative score tantalisingly close to last year’s mark on 96.7%.  A total of 1165 records and 19 lists were added to Birdtrack.  My overall island list now stands at 148 species, a total that has increased by 19 in just two years of increased effort thanks to the patchwork challenge. 
Rathlin species accumulation via Birdtrack
In my own private mini-league I was amazed that Larne came out on top, though I suspect Rathlin would well and truly trounce Larne if I spent more time there.  Out of interest, I worked out that the combined scores for both my patches was 149 species or 199 points. Perhaps County Antrim isn’t such a migration dead zone after all.