Sunday 8 January 2012

The Great Island Bird Race

Yesterday the birding year got into full swing with the annual Great Island bird race. I was up and away early in the morning, collecting Harry at 7:45am in the city before a brief stop to swap cars at Paul Rowe's house. We parked at Kennedy Pier just before the 08:30am bell rang on Cobh catherdral signalling the off. Cobh-man Sean Ronayne (our 4th team member filling in for Brian Lynch this year) was already in place on the pier and quickly directed the rest of us to a Peregrine perched on one of the cathedral spires. I hadn't seen a Peregrine here on my last few visits to Cobh so it was nice to pick that one up for the race and so early on also. In previous years Peregrine had often been tricky for us to pin down. There were a few brief 'hellos' and 'happy new years' to other team members present but there would be more time for that in Kelly's later, for now there was serious birding to attend to!

Early morning on Kennedy Pier, Cobh, - the race just beginning!

We scanned the sea for gulls and auks while the resident House Crow made a racket behind us. No sign of any white winged gulls or Ring-billed Gulls so we decided to head to the Holy Ground for Black Reds and Stonechats. While there were no Black Reds there we picked up Stonechat, Grey Wagtail, Blackcap, Collared Dove and Turnstone amongst others. Paul picked up some distant Brent Geese over towards Haulbowline Island, good to get those out of the way early. The feeling was that Black Reds were going to be tricky, a pre-bird race report of one around the cathedral was worth checking but to no avail.

Harry and Sean gaze towards the heavens for Black Reds at Cobh cathedral

There are probably one or two around the town of Cobh but getting one may be just a matter of luck. Anyway, we were seeing a steady stream of birds and our race list was slowly ticking over. The weather was dry and not too windy, a little bit chilly but otherwise excellent conditions. Next stop was Cuskinny for Ring-billed Gull, Kingfisher and Gadwall, that was the plan but none of those were there. Nonetheless, we did manage Water Rail and Snipe and in the woods beside Cuskinny we got Treecreeper, Chiffchaff, Siskin and Redpoll. Back in the car the next stop was the Potteries for Tufted Duck and Coot, better luck this time as we got both species there along with a nice flock of Yellowhammer.

Paul, Harry and Sean scan for Tufties at The Potteries.
Our list was coming along nicely by now, the craic was good and we were feeling mildly optimistic, after all we hadn't even started on waders and ducks. Belvelly Bridge was next up for Common Sandpiper and Kingfisher, maybe it was too early for any optimism sign of either there! We pushed on though and soon had some waders added to the list, Redshank, Greenshank, Grey Plover, Lapwing and a distant flock of Goldies. Where were the Ringed Plover though? I took a short break for coffee and a sandwich before we took off again. By early afternoon we had reached 89 species. Not bad we thought but there were a couple of noticeable omissions. First of all Buzzard, another team had already had 5 birds! Also, Reed Bunting and Meadow Pipit. Not to mention that Common Sand, Kingfisher and Black Red were looking like very tricky ticks indeed! For the next hour or so we got stuck on 89, spirits dipped a little, the mid-afternoon slump. At one stage we resorted to walking fields to try and flush a single Meadow Pipit - where were they all?

Organised Meadow Pipit flush - note the perfect alignment!

We kept plugging away and eventually broke our duck with Buzzard, excellently spotted soaring in the distance by Harry. Jay followed next, seen briefly and heard a lot! Spirits picked up and we also added Pintail, Shoveller and Knot to the list from our vantage point atop of Great Island.

Sean lets Harry do the work.
Harry points out the finer details to me!
Thank God for scopes - Pintail and Knot in the mudflats below!

Not long after we had the regular Whimbrel at Glenmore, where Sean also picked up Common Scoter - well done Sean! We returned to Cuskinny and this time succeeded with Ring-billed Gull. Lifted by this we decided to give the harbour a thorough check for Gannet and Fulmar. We scanned carefully out as far as Roches Point, the sea was pretty calm and the evening sun was starting to sink. Nice view but no Gannets or Fulmars.

Cork Harbour - looking out towards Roches Point - no Gannets sadly but nice view!

Spike Island from Cobh around 4pm.

Paul, Sean and Harry check Cuskinny Bay for grebes, divers and seaduck

We checked a spot of waste-ground above Rushebrooke and finally got our Meadow Pipit - couldn't have shown our faces afterwards without that species. All teams finally came together at a regular spot for Long-eared Owl. It was a our last bird of the day but all 4 of us got it as it hunted in the semi-darkness at about 5.20pm. A quick dash back to the town and we were in Kelly's bang on 5.30pm.

Well earned pints - Paul Rowe, Harry Hussey, Sean Ronayne and me (Graham Clarke)

The scores were added up and winners announced. I think we were all mildly surprised and pleased to have come in second with 95 species.

Our list - 2nd place on 95 species

Well done indeed to the team of Owen Foley, Ronan McLaughlin, Jez Simms and Eddie Ronayne for winning with an impressive 100 species. They added Water Pipit and Spotted Redshank to the bird race list in the process.

The winning team - Owen Foley, Eddie Ronayne, Jez Simms and Ronan McLaughlin
The total species count for the day was 108. Other highlights included Iceland and Glaucous Gull, Tree Sparrow and Crossbill. There were also a number of interesting omissions, can't remember the last race without Black Redstart, Common Sandpiper, Kingfisher, Brambling and Fulmar. Reflecting our mild winter Fieldfare was there but I think very few got it. With all the official business aside it was time to enjoy a couple of pints and relax.

Micky Sull, Tony Nagle, John Lynch and Seanie Bourke
Jez shows Mark how a camera works - (joking of course Mark!)
Jim Wilson and Michael John O'Mahony share a joke.
Mark Shorten, Paul Moore and Dennis O'Sullivan
And so that's it for another bird race. Thanks indeed to the organisers. Thanks also to Paul Rowe for all his driving and thanks to Harry, Sean and Paul for being excellent team members and making the day so enjoyable.
Now to try and get up to Wicklow for that Rough-legged Buzzard.


  1. Great report and images Graham, glad you enjoyed the day and better luck next year!

  2. Thanks Jim, birding in Cobh / Great Island is a real pleasure!

  3. You didn't want to win anyway Graham. There is some anti Leinster curse upon the trophy. It burns the skin and steals the souls of those without Cork blood.