Thursday, 2 June 2016

Patch Birding on the Bann Estuary by Richard Donaghey

I've been birding around the Bann Estuary for a few years but it was only once I signed up for the Patchwork Challenge in 2015 that I put in some proper effort. It's actually great encouragement to put in more time, record full lists and look at everything, (sometimes with a second look) where, in the past, I would maybe turn a blind eye to the likes of gulls. 

Bann Estuary patch in a broader context

The estuary is located on the north coast of Northern Ireland at the mouth of the Lower Bann, wedged between the beaches at Castlerock and Portstewart Strand. There is a pretty decent spread of habitats; predominately sand dunes, beaches, mudflats and open sea but with a nice mix of reedbeds, dense scrub and a small Ash Woodland. Most of my attention is focused on the central estuary and scrub from my main ringing site on the Portstewart side and the bird hide on the south bank. Some sites, such as the difficult to access Ash Woodland at Kilcranny get one visit a year to tick off a few species. You really get to know your patch the more you work it, so I now know the only spots to find the likes of House Martins and Tree Sparrows or the single pair of Spotted Flycatchers.
Most of my observations are made while ringing at Portstewart Strand and it is a great excuse to be on site pre-dawn. The nets have also chipped in with two Northern Ireland rarities in the last two years with Lesser Whitethroat and Yellow-browed Warbler, which otherwise would have been missed.  

Bann Estuary patch map

As with many patches, common species can be quite a challenge, so if I pick up Coal Tit or Long-tailed Tit I'm rather pleased. Some obvious omissions from my list and from what I have gathered from historic records are Collared Dove, Dipper, Jay, Treecreeper and Moorhen - although I have seen all five just outside the patch. Coot is another example, with just one available recorded observation in over 60 years!

From historic records and my own observations I have accumulated a total of 220 species for the site, with 127 sightings of my own. As mentioned above I haven't found any records of some very common species like Dipper, Jay and Moorhen but I would suggest they have been seen many times.  
There are some nice species in the historic records with Alpine Swift, Avocet, Barred Warbler, Collared Pranticole, Foster's Tern, King Eider, Nightjar, Richard's Pipit, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Temminck's Stint to name but a few.  

Yellow-browed Warbler from October 2015

As for the 2016 challenge, I kicked off my visits in mid January and I have had fairly consistent coverage with about 30 visits in some shape or form, 13 of those while ringing.  
January started pretty well with a few good species to tick off early in the year with Fieldfare, Little Grebe, Merlin, Siskin and Turnstone, which are all fairly uncommon.  I spent my first day Sea Watching at the end of February and added Razorbill, Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Kittiwake plus a patch tick Red Throated DiverGadwall was another nice species for the month. March was a bit of a slow burner with only six new species but one was a Great Crested Grebe, which I had seen last year but somehow overlooked it!

Spring kicked into gear on the 2nd of April with the arrival of the first Chiffchaff, Greenshank, Sandwich Tern, and Wheatear plus an Iceland Gull. The final two days of the month added Fulmar, Grasshopper Warbler, House Martin, Sedge Warbler and Knot (only my second record). The 30th also brought a personal tick in the form of a breeding plumage Spotted Redshank, although it had been found the day before.  Surprisingly I didn't get my first Blackcap until the 1st of May, with a Cuckoo on the same day. The best day of the year on the patch was on the 22nd of May when I picked up four new species for the year, including two patch ticks: Garganey (drake), Scaup (female) plus a Little Egret (only one sighting of 3 birds last year) and a female Whitethroat which appeared in the nets. The final visit of May included a few hours trawling through Kilcranny Wood and I picked up the usual Spotted Flycatchers in the same spot, plus some Long-tailed Tits but I still can't get myself a Treecreeper!

Now we are at the start of June, I am pretty pleased with my position, sitting only 7 species behind my species total for last year. I am also now at the point where I reckon I have ticked off the majority of the species I expect to get with the exception of Common Tern, Kingfisher and Water Rail, so anything else will be a bonus and you never know what they might be! The summer tends to be pretty quiet on the estuary, plus I am heading off for three weeks in June, so I don't really anticipate anything new until things get moving in August. From there I can hopefully kick on and hit my 120 species goal plus a good bird or two in the nets would be nice!    

As an added bonus I have also picked up five colour ringed birds so far this year with two Sanderling (Greenland & Iceland) and three Black-tailed Godwits (Iceland & two to be confirmed but look to be French and Portuguese). This follows on from last year with a Scottish Oystercatcher and one Icelandic and one French Black-tailed Godwit. There have also been a number of metal ringed birds, particularly Sandwich Terns (probably from Inch, Donegal) but I've not been able to read these. 

Anyone wishing to visit the site or wanting some information feel free to get in touch through the Causeway Coast Ringing Group Blog -

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Tuesday, 19 January 2016

#PWC2015 Ireland Minileague Results

The #PWC2015 Ireland Minileague results are out!

I will post the final 2015 league tables on the right hand side of the blog here alongside the 2014 and 2013 scores for future reference in due course, but in the meantime head on over to the main Patchwork Challenge blog (linked here) to see how it all went down come the end of December in full detail.

Some of the rarity highlights from the 2015 Ireland Minileague

Friday, 15 January 2016

Birding North of the Wall* – Larne Lough Review 2015

*My patch lies just north of the filming location used in game of thrones for the wall and Castle Black.  Do not go north of the wall, only bad things happen there…

Magheramourne Quarry, aka The Wall

This was my second year competing around my hometown of Larne.  Following one of the best years for rarities I can remember in 2014 (see blog posts here and here and year review here) was always going to be difficult, and so it proved. In a change to my usual style of annual review, I have decided to go down the tried and tested monthly summary route.  The following covers the highs and lows of the year:

As ever, much of the focus was on gulls, producing 10 species during the month.  In between throwing copious amounts of pan loaf out the car window, I also managed to locate a few species which can be tricky enough to find on patch.
The first of these was a female Pintail at Glynn Station on 4th January, no doubt one of the birds which had been present there for much of 2014.  A pair of Gadwall turned up on 3rd and lurked around the lagoons into February.  Four Goosanders (a male and 3 females) were present off Glynn on 22nd January.
Following heavy snowfall in the hills, 2 Jack Snipe were flushed alongside 10 Common Snipe at Glynn rugby club lagoon.  The first time I have seen 2 birds together on patch!
Several species which were seldom recorded in 2014, if at all, also put in an appearance.  A flock of Fieldfares (not recorded in 2014) and Redwings (single record in 2014) flew over while watching a Dipper singing along the Inver River on 17th.  A female Stonechat (single record in 2014) was at Waterloo Bay at the very north tip of the patch on 7th and after only a couple of sightings last year, Treecreepers were spotted along Glynn River.
The first winter Iceland Gull found in December 2014, did the decent thing and lingered into the New Year.  A hopeful scan offshore from Sandy Bay on 31st in an attempt to year tick Fulmar produced a typically brutish adult Glaucous Gull making its way north.  Small numbers of Mediterranean Gulls were seen at their usual hangouts throughout the month.
Iceland Gull


One of the most interesting observations in February was a significant inland movement of Skylarks (single record last year) over the patch on 15th.  A fine clear morning during an uneventful walk at Sandy Bay was enlivened by the sound of Skylarks overhead.  I could only hear most of them, but did manage to pick up a few birds in the bins and watched them come in off the sea and head straight inland – perhaps to their breeding grounds in the Antrim Hills.  I made my way to Glynn Station and here too Skylarks were making their way inland.  This time in small groups of up to 6 birds, with a few Meadow Pipits and Lesser Redpolls thrown in for good measure.

A new first winter Iceland Gull was found in the harbour alongside the long-staying bird from January. The first returning Lesser Black-backed Gulls (none over-wintered this year) appeared at the Inver River on 14th and adult Mediterranean Gulls returned to their breeding grounds from 21st.

I resorted to taking a chair to Glynn Station to aid my gull grilling capabilities.  With occasional flocks of 5000 gulls it can be time consuming to work through each and every one in fine detail.  So I check any large gull for white heads or white tails or small gulls for black bills or pink legs…  All Common Gulls were checked for large bills and yellow eyes.  In this fashion, I was absolutely delighted to pick out an adult Ring-billed Gull on 28th February bathing at the mouth of the river.  This was my fourth patch record of this species, which is probably annual amongst the hordes of Common Gulls, but very difficult to find.
A Slavonian Grebe was off Glynn Station on 3rd, a species which seems to be making something of a comeback to the lough after several years’ absence.
As ever, this month sees the first of the summer migrants arriving back on patch.  The first of these was a male Wheatear on waste ground at Curran Point on 22nd.  A lapwing was seen displaying here a few times but thought better of it in the end.  Chiffchaffs and Sandwich Terns were back by the 28th.  The only other noteworthy bird was a drake Scaup which appeared at Glynn Station on 22nd.
Spring migration was by now in full swing, with the following species first noted on the dates given in brackets:
Black-tailed Godwit (7th), Blackcap (9th), Swallow (11th), Willow Warbler (11th), Whimbrel (12th), Common Sandpiper (19th), Common Tern (19th) and House Martin (26th)
Amongst these common migrants were a few less expected visitors.  None more so than my first ever patch Ruff on the 9th - with godwits off Glynn Station.  A patch record count of 129 Black-tailed Godwits were tallied on 15th.  A pair of Shoveler were found acting suspiciously at Glynn rugby club lagoon on 3rd and a lone Twite at Sandy Bay on 29th had been colour-ringed on the Mull of Kintyre.

Pair of Shoveler

An Arctic Tern was seen at Glynn on 2nd May, which is unusual for the patch as they don’t normally breed in the lough.  The long-staying Iceland Gull was last seen on the first of the month. An adult Little Gull was at Sandy Bay on 23rd.  Sand Martins can be tricky to see on the patch, so it was pleasing to connect with a few migrating north past Larne Promenade on 8th; Sedge Warblers and Swifts had returned to traditional sites the same day.
Also on the 8th, I managed to discover a breeding site for Whitethroat, which I also found to have several pairs of Meadow Pipits, though sadly no sign of any Stonechats (or shrikes) which is what I had been hoping for.
Meadow Pipit


Unseasonal gales were a feature of early summer and when they blew onshore I tried some seawatching.  This began to pay off on the first day of the month when I finally connected with Manx Shearwater and Fulmar!  My mind then tried playing tricks on me when I picked up a Storm Petrel offshore.  Not totally convinced by my initial sighting, it was confirmed as a patch tick a few minutes later when another flew past the north end of the promenade.   Things got even more exciting on the 6th when a couple of Arctic Skuas lingered off Sandy Bay harassing terns and small gulls.  Talking of small gulls, two or three more Little Gulls were found around the patch during the month.  After a long wait, a Roseate Tern finally put in a brief appearance at Glynn Station on 17th.
Away from seabirds, the only other addition to the year list was a pair of Spotted Flycatchers along Glynn River on 7th.

Predictably, year ticks ground to halt but there was still plenty to keep me entertained, particularly helping to keep tabs on progress on Larne Lough Islands RSPB Reserve.  After several sightings during the month at Glynn, a pair of Arctic Terns were confirmed breeding on Swan Island.  The first breeding attempt by this species in many years.  For other nesting terns and gulls, it was an excellent year, with high counts and productivity estimates for species like Black-headed Gull, Mediterranean Gull, Sandwich Tern and Common Tern.  A single pair of Roseate Terns bred and managed to hatch young.
Juv Common Gulls (left) and Juv Med Gull (right)

Fledgling Black-headed and Med Gulls (near bird)

By the middle of the month a few early returning waders (no doubt failed breeders) started to appear such as Lapwing, Greenshank, Dunlin and both godwit species (including a breeding plumaged Bar-wit).

As part of the first ever all Ireland survey of Mediterranean Gulls, I checked the roost at Glynn Station on the evening of 27th and was delighted to record the presence of a colour-ringed first year bird and four fresh juveniles.  White 3KNT had been ringed as a chick on Kreupel Island in Holland on 27th June 2014, before being re-sighted at Portrush in County Antrim on the 11th September the same year. 
In what was an exceptional year for Little Gulls around the patch, another was off Glynn Station on 1st.  An adult Roseate Tern and another Ruff were seen there on 4th, during my second count of Mediterranean Gulls (2 juveniles and same colour-ringed bird still present).  Seawatching produced the third Arctic Skua of the year on 15th.
Another month went by without any additional species or highlights.  I only managed to log 46 species on Birdtrack the whole month – I’ve no idea what I was doing!  I must admit the effort levels did begin to wane, it’s hard to keep going when there is absolutely no hope of finding anything. 


Whooper Swans were seen arriving along the coast from the middle of the month and numbers began to build at Glynn for the winter. A Slavonian Grebe here on 25th was no doubt a returning individual.  It says a lot about birding in east Antrim, when the first Knot of the year wasn’t discovered until 29th. 
A #patchday bird race organised for the weekend of the 7th/8th brought much needed impetuous to proceedings and a full day in the field on 7th produced 72 species including a Blackcap in the willows at the back of the rugby club lagoon - a spot that might just produce a decent passerine someday. Three Treecreepers in the hedge at the leisure centre were most unexpected and were watched feeding away to the sound of dance music echoing from a spin class indoors.  Always up for a challenge, news of a Common scoter just north of the wall (another game of thrones reference in an attempt to drum up readership) had me out early morning on 14th.  I couldn’t see any distant black puddings (local name for scoters) bobbing on the water from Glynn Station, but a view of the lough from Magheramourne (off patch) told me the bird was still present and that it should be visible from patch.  I did some calculations – in between a boat and a large pink buoy just beyond the west edge of Blue Circle Island.  It was then back to Glynn Station, where it was eventually year ticked from several kilometres away.  After all this effort it came as no surprise to see one off Larne Promenade the following weekend.

Whilst searching for scoter man, I discovered there were now two Slavonian Grebes off Glynn, which became the first time I had seen more than one in the lough.
Another species that took its time to show up was Purple Sandpiper, which after being absent all of last winter, appeared at Sandy Bay on 23rd and are still present as I write.  A male Stonechat was in a garden there the same day – just my second of the year.  The year finished in style when a cracking adult Iceland Gull appeared in Larne Harbour and gave terrific views before flying south never to be seen again.
Adult Iceland Gull
Stonechat - just three records in two years!

The most glaring species not recorded this year include Reed Bunting (none breeding at rugby club lagoon), Water Rail (presumably present, but never saw or heard one), Golden Plover (don’t do Larne) and Kestrel (one was seen along Larne Promenade recently but not by me).  Other species that appeared on patch that I failed to see included Pink-footed Goose and Great White Egret (see blog post here about this debacle).

The year ended on 126 species and 160 points for a comparative score of 95.2%.  I entered 24 complete lists and 1638 records to Birdtrack (I only do complete lists when I spend the whole day birding within ID40, I don’t do sub-sites). 
In conclusion, this year was painful at times but enjoyable none the less.  My main aim for next year is to tick Daenerys Targaryen.  How many points for a dragon?

Saturday, 9 January 2016

2013 & 2014 Ireland Minileague results

While we eagerly await the final scores and winners to be announced from the #PWC2015 Ireland Minileague, let us have a quick look back on how things panned out during the first two years of Patchwork Challenge.

Back in 2013, those of us wishing to compete in the comparative minileague were asked to work out a comparative score for our patches for 2012 to compete against. PWC seemed to spur on a renewed sense of drive, focus and extra effort for many patch birders during Year 1 and as such, leading comparative scores were often way ahead of 100%. 

The clear winner in 2013 with both a mega comparative score of 145% and leading points total of 343 was Owen Foley who patched from the mighty Ballycotton in Co. Cork. Most of the rest of us taking part in the comparative minileague did well, scoring over 100% also and for those fresh in that year, impressive totals were notched up on the points table.

The stage was set for #PWC2014.

With a high standard set in 2013, comparative scores were always going to be tough to beat in 2014 yet nearly half of the comparative league contestants reached their target of 100% or more. Lots of effort, luck and determination! 

The winner was Michael O'Donnell who scored an impressive 110% at his North Wexford patch of Kilmichael/Kilpatrick/Kilgorman yet Dave Suddaby was just a bird or two behind in second place at Blacksod, Co. Mayo with 109%. 

Dave topped the points minileague from his rarity-laden patch, a table ranking with which he has since become very familiar with. 

The results from the 2015 Ireland Minileague will be posted next week on the main Patchwork Challenge blog. Stay tuned!...

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

South Dublin Parks - 2015 Review

In 2014 I signed up the trio of suburban parks near home here in Cabinteely as a site for Patchwork Challenge (PWC). Over the course of the year I recorded 64 species of bird between Kilbogget, Cabinteely & Clonkeen Parks (click here for maps) including some great local birds like Cormorant, Light-bellied Brent Goose, Snipe, Lapwing, Kestrel & Reed Bunting.

2015 saw me competing in the PWC comparative league with this South Dublin Parks patch and my main goal was to beat my 100% set in 2014 and get as close to 75 species as possible (not a huge list but harder than it sounds).

Here's a how it all went...

Kilbogget Park
The most productive of the three parks in terms of species diversity due to its mix of habitats, the most crucial of which for adding to the patch list is the wetland which in 2015 held 2 pairs of breeding Coot (fledging 6 young), 1 pair of breeding Little Grebe (fledging 2 young), 1 pair of breeding Grey Wagtail (at least 1 young fledged), large numbers of Moorhen, occasional Little Egrets, up to 18 wintering Teal, 3 Water Rail and a Kingfisher. A pair of Tufted Ducks hung around during the summer but didn't appear to breed. A juvenile Tufty here on 25th September was presumably a migrant. Other species using the wetland on passage included several patch ticks for me: a singing male Reed Warbler in the only stand of Phragmites found by local birder Hugh Delaney on 15th May, a Common Sandpiper on 20th May and a double whammy of Sedge Warbler & juvenile Dipper on 12th August. A female Brambling was seen with the finch flock in nearby trees on 9th December.

Common Sandpiper

The other main attraction at Kilbogget is the gull and wader flocks on the amenity grasslands and sports pitches (best in wet weather when invertebrates are drawn to the surface). A great site to see Mediterranean Gull as their favoured day roosting site at Sandycove is only a few km away. Numbers of Meds at Kilbogget normally number 30 or so but a couple of very high counts included 72 on 25th September, 106 on 5th November, 173 on 7th November129 on 18th November and 80 on 16th December. A winter record of Lesser Black-backed Gull on 12th January was notable but I didn't manage to see anything along the lines of the hoped for Iceland or Ring-billed Gulls and the only other waders I saw apart from the regular Oystercatches were 5 Curlew coming off the pitches early on the morning of 11th September. 

Away from the wetland and pitches, its eyes to the sky in order to add new species to the parks year list. I'm becoming more and more convinced that Kilbogget is used as a migration route for birds moving north and south along the Dublin coast. If viewed from the air, taking a short cut from Dublin Bay to Killiney Bay in order to avoid having to go around the coast at Dalkey/Sorrento Point will bring you right over Kilbogget and the combination of fields and wetland sticking out in a sea of suburbia I think adds as further incentive for birds to travel along here. Looking for 'visible migration' in this sense ensured no shortage of Meadow Pipits, Siskin, Lesser Redpoll, Redwing etc. recorded passing overhead as well as 8 Fieldfare on 8th November and 3 Skylark on 26th November (patch tick). The undbouted 'viz-mig' highlight was a lone Fulmar drifting West overhead on 22nd May! Absolutely bizzare! What was this seabird doing 2km from the coast on a calm, bright day with no fog or strong winds to disorientate it? Total #patchgold moment.


Cabinteely Park
The old estate grounds at Cabinteely Park bring a nice stand of woodland and parklands to the mix. Most of your typical woodland species such as Treecreeper, Coal Tit & Sparrowhawk can be easily seen here. Highlights included a Jay in February, a Woodcock flushed from the undergrowth on 15th March, a Carrion Crow on 14th April, a pair of territorial and presumably breeding Stock Doves through the spring and summer and an amazing density of Blackcaps with at least 9 singing males in late May and fledged young seen there later in the summer. A couple of pairs of Buzzards now breed not far from the parks and they can often be seen soaring overhead. Winter thrush numbers were down due to mild conditions with the largest flock of Redwing I saw here being 15. A small pond was created in the park a few years ago and along with the existing stream it held peak counts of 2 Mute Swans, 2 Teal, 31 Mallard, 2 Domestic Mallards, 1 Grey Heron, 5 Little Egrets, 2 Little Grebes, 13 Moorhen, 30+ Black-headed Gulls, 4 Mediterranean Gulls and 1 Grey Wagtail. 

Beautiful Demoiselle at Cabinteely Park (left) / Yellow-bellied Slider at Kilbogget Park (right)

Clonkeen Park
The least diverse of the three sites in terms habitat and species but the amenity grasslands and open river added interest. Plenty of gulls foraging on the football pitches while the river held high counts of 4 Little Egrets and 6 Grey Wagtails. The scrub along the river is a regular site for wintering Chiffchaff and one was present there on 2nd January. The only other addition of note to the patch year list from here was a flyover Curlew on 29th July.

By the years end I recorded a total of 73 species across the three parks culminating in 77 points and a comparative score of 113.23%. While doing this I also tallied 46 BirdTrack complete lists & 1589 BirdTrack records so all in all a successful year! The only species I'm aware of missing are Reed Bunting, Long-eared Owl, Light-bellied Brent Geese and nocturnal flyover Greenland White-fronted Geese (seen or heard by other local birders).

I was rather impressed with certain aspects of biodiversity management undertaken by the DĂșn Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council parks staff. Leaving dead wood lying or stacked up on the ground and removal of select non-native species of plant has given more of a 'natural' feel to the woodland in Cabinteely Park. Great to see large swathes of wildflower meadows and grasslands left uncut until autumn at Cabinteely & Kilbogget also. These supported plants like Lady's Smock & Common Spotted Orchid, butterflies such as Meadow Brown, Common Blue & Orange-tip and Common Green Grasshopper (all records of which submitted to the National Biodiversity Data Centre). Simple practices like these can go a long way to enhancing the biodiversity value of the parks. Looking forward to seeing how the newly established community orchard at Cabinteely Park comes along too. Thumbs up all round here.

Less in the way of positive vegetation management at Clonkeen Park but nice to see some lush attenuation ponds installed alongside the river which have brought in Emperor dragonfly and Moorhen not previously recorded in the park. Perhaps the council could see fit to get some wildflower meadows on the go here too? Plenty of space for it anyway.

The reconstruction work undertaken on the wetland in Kilbogget Park five years or so ago has dramatically increased the number of waterbirds both breeding and wintering at this site as well as providing rich feeding for migrant species. Originally just a narrow, shaded stream which held a Grey Heron and a handful of Mallards & Moorhens, the wetland now supports up to 200 waterbirds including breeding Coot, Little Grebe & Grey Wagtail plus wintering Teal, Water Rail, Little Egret & Kingfisher, has attracted migrants of note such as Common Sandpiper, Greenshank, Jack Snipe, Scaup, Reed Warbler & Siberian Chiffchaff as well as being a great place to watch Swallows, Sand Martins & House Martins hawking for insects.


I do feel however that the wetland is coming on a bit in terms of succession with some of the pools beginning to close over and easy access for ground predators onto the islands now making them unsuitable for breeding ducks and Moorhen. It could certainly do with some selective management in order to keep up its maximum potential for waterbirds whilst still functioning as a natural filter system for the river. Food for thought!