Sunday, 1 January 2012

'Great' Island

Every year for the last 23 years the Great Island Bird Race takes place around the first weekend in January. For those of you who don't know Great Island is situated in Cork Harbour and is where the town of Cobh lies. The approx. area of Great Island is 10 x 6 km, so not a huge amount of space to cover in a single day bird race but collectively, over the years, the species tally from the bird race is pushing 130! Not bad at all.
The race begins at 08:30am from Kennedy Pier in the centre of Cobh itself, once again for those of you who don't know, Cobh (or Queenstown as it was once known), was the last port from which the Titantic sailed before it sank on its maiden voyage 100 years ago in April 1912. Teams of birders cover the island and count all species seen from or on the island before convening in a local tavern to count up the scores and announce the winners. This year will be my 5th bird race, our team usually consists of Harry Hussey, Paul Rowe, Brian Lynch and myself. This year Brian is unavailable so Sean Ronayne is joining us I believe, we certainly won't be weakened by Sean's presence! Our 'crack' team of birders has done everything from winning it in 2008 to coming last in 2009 and somewhere in between in 2010 and 2011. Some of my personal highlights from previous bird races include Brambling, Cattle Egret, Indian House Crow, Black Brant, Slavonian Grebe and Ring-billed Gull to name just a few. Great Island itself has had many superb birds over the years, the long-staying and quite famous Indian House Crow for example, a Sabine's Gull that has been returning each year since 2003, numerous other records of rare and scarce gulls such American Herring Gull (a juvenile has been seen in recent days from Cuskinny Bay), Glaucous Gull, Iceland Gull, Little Gull, Bonaparte's Gull (a presumably returning bird that appears usually during or following stormy weather in Cork Harbour) and Kumlien's Gull. Last years Pied-billed Grebe was frequently seen in the north channel from Rossleague (see record shot below). Unfortunately we missed that bird in the 2011 bird race!

Pied-biled Grebe, Rossleague, Great Island, Cork, 28th December 2010
I'm sure there are plenty more exciting records that I should mention when it comes to Great Island, which some of the more experienced birders could remind me of, but for the moment those are the ones which jump to mind. Hopefully you get the point I'm making which is that there are loads of fantastic birds to be seen on Great Island even in the depths of winter.
So, with all that in mind, rather than driving yet again to Co. Waterford I decided to stay a little closer to home and do a little birding / scouting on Great Island today.
I started with a brief yet unsuccessful search for a Black Redstart around Rushebrook and then headed into the centre of Cobh to check for the Indian House Crow and to see what gulls were hanging around Kennedy Pier. Sadly no sign of the crow, but here's an archive shot I took in late 2010 when he first appeared.
Indian House Crow, Cobh, 19th September 2010
The only gulls of note were a few Kittiwakes and a single Med Gull. Sometimes a Peregrine sits out on the Gargoyles on Cobh Cathedral wacthing over the town and its pigeons but there was no sign this morning. Still the cathedral looked very nice in the morning sunshine so I took a shot anyway.

Cobh Cathedral, 1st January 2012

From there I moved on to an area called the Holy Ground. This is a small little harbour east of Cobh town centre. It's where the Cork Harbour Pilot boat is moored and a spot where occassionally a Bonaparte's Gull comes in, other gulls also hang around here and the place can be good for Black Redstart although the collection of stray cats sunning themselves on the fisherman's huts probably puts any Black Reds off the area! The area is named after the song 'The Holy Ground'. Apparently in the past it was a place where pubs and other joints which served the needs of visiting sailors were located......... so it was probably anything but holy!

'The Holy Ground' facing out to Cork Harbour and Roches Point, 1st January 2012
As there was no sign of the juv. American Herring Gull I pushed on towards Cuskinny Reserve. Here on the shore there were 2 Brent Geese and the high tide gull roost held a few Med Gulls.

Brent Geese, Cuskinny, Great Island, Cork, 1st January 2012
Just after parking my car I met Mark Carmody and we both strolled over to the lake to check for Ring-billed Gull. First though we both enjoyed a very nice sight of 3 Common Buzzards soaring over the the opposite hillside, they were joined by a Sparrowhawk, which they briefly mobbed. There were reasonable numbers of gulls on the lake and after a short search I picked up a single adult Ring-billed Gull resting on the water. In fact now that I think of it, Cuskinny lake is where I saw my first Ring-billed Gull during the 2008 Great Island bird race.

Cuskinny Lake, Great Island, 1st January 2012
Ring-billed Gull, Cuskinny Lake, 1st January 2012

With time moving on I drove over to check the north channel at Rossleague for grebes and divers, the best I had though was a Great-crested Grebe, no Pied-billed, Slavs or Black-necked I'm afraid.

The north channel of Great Island - Rossleague (in between the showers) - 1st January 2012

I decided to make one final check in the town for the juv. American Herring Gull, no sign of it at the Holy Ground although there was a ringed Black-Headed gull present. It had two steel rings, one on each leg, the code on it's right leg I think reads 7 IE (or IF), if anyone is reading this and knows who I should contact to report this please let me know.

Ringed Black-headed Gull, Cobh, 1st January 2012.
The light was almost gone at this stage so it was home-time. Hopefuly my next post will be all about our victorious day at the bird race...........and our tally will include American Herring Gull.
Oh, before I forget. Dennis O'Sullivan broke, nay smashed, the Irish year list record by seeing 288 species in 2011. The previous record was 268, well done Dennis, fantastic stuff. I believe you've already ticked Bluethroat for 2012 as well!


  1. Graham, The white darvic (plastic) ring on your black-headed gull has the inscription ZJF. This may be a Danish bird as ZFX (currently at The Lough for the 2nd winter running) is a 2009 bird from Copenhagen. Colour ringed birds can be traced on


  2. Thanks for that Barry. According to the bird indeed comes from Denmark, I've passed the record on to the relevant scheme.