Sunday, 22 April 2012

Surprise, surprise!

Some of the most satisfying and exciting birding moments I've enjoyed have been those times when I've seen a bird that I just didn't expect to see. I'm talking about those moments when something pops up that you never expected. And those moments don't have to occur when you're actually birding, in fact they're often more exciting if you happen to be doing something else....working for example. As I often do......I'll give you a few examples of the best ones!


Polina and I were in Barcelona for a weekend a few years ago. Being the wonderful wife she is, Polina had organised tickets for a La Liga match on the Saturday night at Camp Nou.......FC Barcelona versus Santander!
Kick-off was late, about 8pm as I recall. On arriving at the ground I noticed hundreds of birds wheeling in the fading light over the stadium, Alpine Swifts.......and loads of them! They were feeding on the moths and insects presumably drawn to the stadium floodlights. We sat in the upper part of the stands where I could see the Swifts wheeling around against the floodlights catching bugs while Messi et al weaved their magic below. After the match as we left the stadium the Swifts had taken to roosting high up in the staircases which run up the back of the stands. There were feathers spread out on the ground below so I picked one up, a long primary, and I use it to this day as a bookmark!

Our view of the pitch - FC Barcelona v. Santander - Camp Nou

Mount Titliss, Switzerland

It was a lads weekend away. So no birding planned! We were in Zurich, after a day of eating, drinking beer and a boat trip around Lake Zurich we decided we'd seen enough of the city and took an organised day trip to the Titliss Glacier via Engelberg in the Swiss Alps. A revolving cable car trip of 45 minutes brings you to the top of Mount Titliss where, at 10,000 feet, the views are spectacular. I bought myself a beer and some sausage and sat down to take in the view from the mountain top cafe when my eye was drawn to a black shape which landed nearby behind me.........Alpine Chough! Very similar to our own Red-billed Chough but with a shorter more yellowish bill. If you've been skiiing probably you've seen them also in similar such places but for me the thought of seeing one that day hadn't crossed my mind at all so it was a nice surprise as well as being a lifer.

Cape Clear Island, Cork

It was a weekend in mid-April and BINS had reported a Hoopoe present on Cape Clear. Polina had not been to Cape with me at this stage and hadn't ever seen a Hoopoe so two good reasons to go. We got the first ferry on Saturday morning and were on Cape by about 12 noon. But the weather was dull and chilly, as we walked the road to Lough Errull I started to wonder why we were on Cape on a day like this. At the lake we flushed a Green Sandpiper but finding the Hoopoe was harder than I first thought, probably huddled against a stone wall sheltering from the biting wind. But eventually we saw him, black and white patterned wings as he flew away from us, we searched but couldn't relocate him. Polina had seen a Hoopoe but it wasn't what she expected. We headed back towards the harbour for lunch, at Ciaran Danny Mikes pub I said I would take a quick check of Nordy wood as it sometimes holds migrants. I stood staring into the willows with my bins, there were birds here at least, plenty of Willow Warblers moving around the trees. Then one of the willows shook and a shape ran up it in a spiral fashion............Great Spotted Woodpecker.........I could hardly belief my eyes, still rare in Ireland and even rarer in Cork, but what was one doing on Cape Clear Island. I sputttered the words to Polina....'Woodpecker, woodpecker'. We got a few shots before it flew off towards Brid's garden. I had no phone with me so headed back to the obs to let Steve Wing know. I met him coming up the hill with a group of people attending a Birdwatch Ireland course. 'Hi Steve, I have just had a Great Spotted............'Cuckoo?'........Steve interjected, 'No, no', I said, 'Woodpecker'. He looked more surprised. 1st for Cape he told me and it seems the 1st in Cork for almost 50 years. I was elated!
The bird stayed around for a day, I may never find a first for Ireland but a first for Cape is special!

Great Spotted Woodpecker - Cape Clear Island, Co. Cork

IDA Business Park, Carrigtohill, Cork

My love of Black Redstarts is no secret, beautiful birds especially the males. I was in yet another dull meeting about something or another in work. It was a sunny, crisp winters afternoon in early December. I had seen one female type Black Redstart a few weeks ago around the plant, not that unusual as every winter there is at least one bird hoping around the industrial estate. But halfway through the meeting, out on the fire escape, just feet from the window stood a stunning male Black Redstart. Beautiful striking red tail and white flash on the wing, silvery black in the evening sunlight. I stopped the meeting and pointed the bird out to everyone, they all looked puzzled, one person sniggered and we went back to the meeting. I scribbled down the record in my diary and posted it to irishbirding when I returned to my office...........nice!

Canopy Tower, Panama

I was in Panama with my good friend Denis Carty. We were staying at Canopy Tower about 1 km from the Panama canal right in the middle of the jungle. A lovely place to go birding if you ever have the chance. It was late April and I remember saying to Denis that the one bird I would love to see there would be a male Blackburnian Warbler. Seen from time to time as they make there way north there was always a chance we might be lucky. The group were up at 6am on the first day, scanning the tree-tops from the viewing platform at the top of the tower for birds. I arrived about 5 minutes after everyone else and asked Denis what was everyone looking at. 'Male Blackburnian Warbler', he said. Yea, right........stop pulling my leg. I held up my bins and there it was. Unbelievable, the first bird of the trip. And there were several of them, males, females and first summer males. Every morning they'd be there, presumably having migrated at night, then they would settle as the sun came up to feed before moving onwards. I never succeeded in getting a good photo though as it was often a little too early, once the light improved they seemed to vanish into the jungle. The record shot below was my best effort. They are still my of all favourite bird!

Blackburnian Warbler - Canopy Tower, Panama

Old Head of Kinsale, Co. Cork

Autumn 2007 had been a very good Autumn for me. I had ticked Buff-bellied Pipit, Blyth's Reed Warbler, Pallas's Warbler, Radde's Warbler and Dusky Warbler...........all lifers. By late October the stream of migrants had started to dry up. For one last hurrah I went to the Old Head, a Sunday afternoon, dull and damp with not much around. At the Magic Garden I had two female type Black Redstarts, that was something at least. It was probably only the third time I'd ever been to the Old Head. I had heard of the plantation and knew where it was but wasn't sure how to access it. It looked like it could hold something, I eventually worked out how to get in to it and I stopped at the line of conifers on the way in. There were a few Chiffchaffs moving about in here and the odd Goldcrest. One 'crest called nearby on my right-hand side. When I picked it up in the bins it was a striking male Firecrest. Only the second one I'd ever seen in Ireland and self-found. Fair enough not a mega by any means but great to find your own. I didn't own a camera at the time and regretted that I didn't have photos of the bird. After I bought a DSLR I always wanted to get a good shot of a Firecrest, so when Sean Ronayne found one in the same place in 2010 I went straight back with my camera and got these shots.

Firecrest, Old Head of Kinsale, Co. Cork, October 2010

So just a few of the surprise moments that have made birding for me such fun. Anything is possible really so you should always keep an open mind.


  1. I didn't realise you had found that Woodpecker. What a day that was on cape. Place was dripping with migs. A great find in the days before they were drumming everywhere.

    1. That was me alright! Right time, right place. There had been a good fall of willow warblers that day and Alan Horan found what was almost certainly a male Taiga Flycatcher in Brid's garden. We looked for that also but needed to run for the ferry so never saw it