Rathlin Island

Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim by Neal Warnock

Can you name an Irish Island with a bird list which includes King Eider, Surf Scoter, Booted Eagle, Rough-legged Buzzard, Hoopoe, Bee-eater, Wryneck, Ashy-headed Wagtail, Rose-coloured Starling and Rustic Bunting; which have all been recorded despite the island having received little intensive systematic birder coverage in its history?

This island is best known as hosting Northern Ireland’s largest seabird colony but it also plays host to three of its rarest breeding birds – Chough, Great Skua and Twite.  Still struggling? It is also home to the mystical ‘Golden’ Irish Hare and Common and Grey Seals abound along its rugged shoreline.

The seas around the island have had recent sightings of Basking Shark, Humpback Whale, Minke Whale and Orcas (Killer Whales) and have recorded 143 species of sponge...

It sounds like some place doesn’t it? Well, such a place does exist; its name is Rathlin Island and it’s my patch.

This breeding plumaged male Twite was singing on territory on 22nd April 2011.

My earliest birding memory comes from the summer of 1993 when I was just 11 years old (you do the math as they say), when I was taken to Rathlin Island to view the seabird colony at the West Lighthouse. What sticks out most in my mind however, is not my first glimpse of the famous Puffins, or the sheer scale of the colony, or the noise or the smell; rather it was being able to hear a Wren singing its heart out in amongst the belching seabirds.

Fast forward a few years to 2008 and I was looking for somewhere in Northern Ireland to try and satisfy my craving of finding my own scarce or rare birds. I am from Larne on the Antrim coast but my family have had a long association with the Ballycastle area and have an apartment at the top of the steps to the Rathlin ferry. The range of quality birds that had already been recorded was impressive, arriving from all points of the compass and its location and the fact that the island has three lighthouses are all in its favour. Rathlin Island was an obvious choice!

I devised a route on the eastern half of the island that goes through a broad range of habitats that can be covered on foot in a day.  I have stuck largely to this patch ever since. When I heard about the Patchwork Challenge I was delighted to work out that the area I regularly cover comes in at just under 3km2. In previous years I have usually made 1-2 winter trips, 3-4 in spring and into double figures during the autumn. I hope that being involved in the Patchwork Challenge will encourage me to visit more often particularly in winter and spring and to go in search of those commoner species which I may not have looked for otherwise. Of course doing this will also increase my chances of finding those all important double scoring rarities and will hopefully enable me to increase my island and self-found lists.

Rathlin patch boundary

Rathlin lies 8km off the County Antrim coast and is currently home to over 100 residents. The island covers roughly 14km2 and is approximately 6km from east to west and 4km from north to south. It is also just 15km from the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland. It is served by a daily ferry service from Ballycastle Harbour running throughout the year which takes between 25 and 45 minutes to reach the island depending on which ferry you get. During the summer months faster Rib type boats may operate. The island has all the usual tourist amenities.

Before I get down to discussing the birds, I would firstly like to point out that Northern Ireland is not the easiest place to find rare birds, particularly passerines. To give you some idea of how poor it can be, many of the species I will mention are like hens teeth in Northern Ireland and most are description species.

The island has an unofficial bird list of 176 species of which I have seen 129.  It has a very good track record of attracting rare raptors (17 raptor species recorded in all) including, as well as those mentioned earlier, Gyr Falcon, Hobby, Osprey and White-tailed Eagle.  Scottish origin Golden Eagles are also annual on the island. It fares less well for waders with the rarest recorded thus far being a Wood Sandpiper. The list of passerine migrants is impressive, if a little on the short side but as well as those already mentioned, Lesser Whitethroat, Yellow-browed Warbler, Yellow Wagtail, Turtle Dove, Redstart and Red-headed Bunting have all been recorded.  Snow and Lapland Buntings are annual but can be hard to find.

Snow Bunting, Rue Point Cliffs, 8th October 2009

Little seawatching has been carried out on the island (I haven’t done any) but Sabine’s Gull, Leach’s Petrel, Balearic and Sooty Shearwaters, Black Tern, Pomarine Skua, Grey Phalarope, Little Auk and Little Gull have all been seen from the island or from the ferry. This is one area where I hope to improve upon my current island list in 2013. Many of the birds which pass Ramore Head further to the west are likely to pass to the north of Rathlin Island first in a NW wind, but a few small headlands on the south east of the patch boundary may also prove useful in S or E winds - Long-tailed Skua passage in spring perhaps? Of course there is a very good reason why little seawatching has taken place – you can’t get to the island during suitable conditions! So a few well planned short seawatching breaks could be on the cards.

So what have I learnt and seen so far? Well, I now know that the section of the island I cover has no resident Long-tailed Tits, Woodpigeons, Collared Doves, Mistle Thrushes or Bullfinch’s but I also know its has many pairs of Stonechats and breeding Black-headed Gulls, Lapwings and Snipe. What is more crucial to this challenge though is that it also attracts many common and scarce passage migrants and a few of the rare variety.

Classic record shot of a Lesser Whitethroat found in October 2009

My first autumn in 2009 produced a self-found lifer – a Lesser Whitethroat.  In 2010 I found a Yellow-browed Warbler and on my final trip of 2011 I found a Surf Scoter which was a first Island and 2nd county record. Spring 2012 produced another self-found Irish tick – a Golden Eagle. However, perhaps even more encouraging is the fact that these decent finds have been backed up by a number of scarce birds either in an island or Northern Irish context. These have included some presumed first island records; including Black-throated DiverGoosanderLittle Egret and Garden Warbler.

Surf Scoter, Ushet Lough, 12th November 2011. Unusually, this bird was found on a freshwater lough.

I also know that the Greylag flock at Ushet Lough is a good bet to pull in Greenland White-fronted, Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese at some point during the year. I’ve also had a flock of three Canada Geese there (wild birds possible) but something rarer must surely follow. What is also of note is the number of decent flyover birds recorded.  Good numbers of geese and Whooper Swans migrate straight over the island in autumn and I’ve had flyover Great Skua, Snow Bunting, Lapland Bunting, Crossbill and a frustrating small female Harrier that I couldn’t identify. The island is also capable of decent falls of common migrants such as finches, thrushes and warblers. I hope that one day a search through these will produce a real mega!

I have my own future predictions of which species I hope to find and at which sites on the island I hope to find them. The list of birds which have yet to be recorded on the island (to my knowledge) is fairly shocking. However, I will have to get back to you about this after I take a few photos of the sites and habitat. I have been too busy the last 5 years looking at birds! So keep checking the blog for updates.


  1. Neal I agree totally with your assessment of Rathlin - Lack of coverage and its size is the problem. I have no doubt that it will produce the goods if more birders go there
    I hope to visit more often now that I have my senior citizen Smartpass !

    Colin Guy

  2. Cheers Colin. I thought its size and amount of habitat was a problem until I spent a few days on Inishmore this past autumn! Lots of good birds being missed no doubt through lack of coverage. Hope to see you out there some day!