Tuesday, 2 June 2015

No alarms and no surprises. Silent.

It has been a while since I last wrote an update about my patch birding exploits on either of my Larne Lough or Rathlin patches.  Fear not, I am still putting in as much time and effort this year but seem to be caught in a bit of birding lull at the moment with very few #patchgold moments on either patch thus far.  Saying that, I have still managed a few #fullfatpatchticks on both patches to keep me going, although none of these were unexpected species. What follows is an update on progress to the end of May on Rathlin Island:

I have made 7 day trips to Rathlin so far this year starting with a mid-winter visit on 7th February.  Designed to pick up some of the more unusual visitors to the island at this time of year, I was disappointed with highlights of Pochard (usual returning female), Moorhen and Wigeon in a day total of 49 species.  In previous years Common Scoter and Long-tailed Duck have put in an appearance on early visits, but I’m still awaiting either to appear this year.  Perhaps the most unusual sighting of the day was a single Puffin on the sea below the East Light.

A better day was had on 16th March when some early returning breeding species were back on patch including Chough, Lapwing and Lesser Black-backed Gull.  Bird of the day and perhaps the year so far was a Mute Swan which spent the day drifting about the sea off Mill Bay.   Unbelievably, this was my first patch record in close to 8 years of regular visits!  A female Goldeneye was at Ushet Lough and a Water Rail was seen galloping down a ditch in Church Valley.  A high count of 110 Teal scattered around the patch was also of note.
Patch tick Mute Swan

The first Chiffchaffs (3) of the year were singing on 5th April as I disembarked the ferry.  I also managed to tick both Redwing and Fieldfare during this visit, both of which are easily missed even if they do occasionally appear in large numbers in autumn.  Three Jackdaws at the East Light were the first I’ve seen on the island in a couple of years.

Spring migration had reached full swing by 18th April when the first Swallows, Sand Martins, Willow Warblers, Blackcaps and Wheatears (17) had returned.  Also making a return to the island after their winter absence were numerous finches including Lesser Redpoll, Linnet and Twite.  It was nice to hear one of the latter singing from what appears to be a regular song post in Church Bay.  This time of year is particular good for Willow Warbler passage through the island, so a day count of 45+ was fairly typical.  Also of note were 7 White Wagtails and two pairs of Peregrines settling down to breed.
Early Purple orchids
Ushet Port

I had a great day on 4th May when no less than 13 year ticks were recorded in a whopping day total of 72 species! These included a reeling Grasshopper Warbler in Church Valley, where 3 Whitethroats and several Sedge Warblers were also new in.  Next up was a Cuckoo along the track to the Coastguards Station, giving great views until I fumbled in my bag for my camera!  This was the 150th species I have recorded on Rathlin and very pleasing it was to.  While scanning the sea from Coastguards, the sky appeared to turn black as if under a cloud.  This turned out to be due to a flock of 56 Hooded Crows, wheeling about the skies between here and the East Light – migrants no doubt but from where? As I walked towards the East Light I thought to myself there’s got to be a good chance of a Carrion Crow being mixed in with that lot and sure enough a couple of scans later one was picked out.  This is a species I have always thought should be regular on Rathlin given their distribution along the East Antrim Coast, yet this goes down as my 151st Rathlin tick!  Another good bird for Rathlin was a 1st summer Mediterranean Gull in Mill Bay, just my third patch record following a couple last autumn.  Here’s a summary of species seen on the day and the numbers involved:

Chough 2, Cuckoo 1, Grasshopper Warbler 1, Rook 1, Carrion Crow 1, Hooded Crow 56, Sedge Warbler 13, Wheatear 20, White Wagtail 6, Willow Warbler 45+, Blackcap 8, Dunlin 8, Grey Wagtail 1, Manx Shearwater (several), Mediterranean Gull 1, Swift 1, Twite 2, Whitethroat 3, Whimbrel 2 plus numerous hirundines.

My next visit on the 17th May was disappointing with a general feeling of there being not a lot around.  Even numbers of common migrants were very low, just 18 Willow Warblers for example.  The day was saved late afternoon at Ushet Lough.  The Common Gulls suddenly lifted and apparently didn’t know what to do with themselves as a stunning pale adult Arctic Skua flew low across the lough.  The skua did a few circuits of the lough before circling and gaining in height before cruising about at high altitude above the cliffs for a few minutes before vanishing into the distance. Magic.

My final visit of the review period was last Saturday, the 30th May.  I flushed what was presumably the same Cuckoo close to the place I had seen one on 4th May.  Lots of Redpolls were flying over and at least one in the “Lesser Whitethroat” thicket was a Mealy Redpoll.  Also new for the year was a Rock Dove near the East Light.  Given the lack of regular sightings over the years, I think this species may be tittering on the brink of extinction on this part of the island at least.  Talking of breeding birds, at least 3 pairs of Lapwing were guarding chicks on the patch and I stumbled upon an Oystercatcher nest where I normally sit for a seawatch and a cuppa!  Elsewhere, counts of 15 Sedge Warblers and 12 Whitethroats were fairly typical for the time of year.  Also of note was a feeding flock of several hundred Manx Shearwaters between Rathlin and the Mull of Kintyre.  A group of 15 Harbour Porpoise were seen below the Coastguard Station.

Spot the Oystercatcher nest

So as the title of the post suggests, this has been a fairly quiet spring on Rathlin, but there’s plenty of time for things to improve.  Perhaps I should set up a new patch at the West end of the island next year - Red Kite, Ring Ouzel and 2 Orcas so far this year!

Scores at the end of May are 94 species (3 down on last year), 111 points and a comparative score of 74.2%

423 records and 7 lists have been submitted to Birdtrack.

I intend doing a similar roundup for Larne Lough soon, so watch this space… In the meantime try singing this merry tune next time you're out birding.