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?

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