Saturday 31 December 2011

The final few days

I had to head into work on 28th December but used the opportunity while over Macroom way to check Dooniskey for the 5 Goosanders reported from there on 27th December. Sadly however no sign, although there were several small flocks of Wigeon and a few larger flocks of Eurasian Teal, despite searching I couldn't pick out any Green-winged Teal amongst them. A single Great-Crested Grebe bobbed about on the reservoir along with a few pairs of Tufted Duck. The squawly showers became too frequent so I called it a day after about 30 minutes.
The weather was a little better on 29th so we headed over towards Ballinclamper once again stopping at Ballinacourty Pier to see if we could get decent views of the Black-necked and Slavonian Grebes. However the wind was ferocious and it was impossible to keep the scope steady. I had brief views of a grebe about 200 metres off-shore but it was so difficult to hold a steady view that in the end I gave up without identifying the bird. At least things were a bit better at Ballinclamper. It was actually pretty sheltered just below the carpark and both the Bluethroat and a Black Redstart were giving very close views.

Black Redstart and Bluethroat - Ballinclamper, Co. Waterford, 28th December 2011
The Black Red was especially friendly and often came to within about 10 feet, too close at times to focus but I did manage another short movie clip.

Youtube Black Redstart

The area below the carpark at Ballinclamper is nicely sheltered and the both the Black Redstart and Bluethroat were busy flycatching and feeding all the time both P and I were watching them. Several times the Bluethroat chased the Black Red away which is not a sight you'll see too often in Ireland, especially in late December. As the mild weather continues for the moment I hope both birds continue to thrive and make it through to the spring.

Photographing Bluethroat and Black Redstart at Ballinclamper, Co. Waterford, 29th December 2011
The Choughs as always were still there and seem to be getting a little easier to approach, probably seen so many birders at this stage that they no longer are bothered. I think this is my best Chough shot so far, this time I increased the exposure compensation by one complete stop so I could capture the eye and subtle colour sheen of the Chough's plumage.

(Red-billed) Chough, Ballinclamper, Co. Waterford, 29th December 2011
Just in case we hadn't had enough of all these birds we were back again today in Ballinclamper. First of all though we checked Ballinacourty Pier and this time without the gale force wind both Slavonian and Black-necked Grebes were easy to pick out. The Slav Grebe was about 500 metres out and showing well in the scope but too distant for even a record shot. The Black-necked Grebe though came in to about 200-300 meters from the pier giving me a chance to take one crappy, heavily cropped record shot but a shot nonetheless.

Black-necked Grebe, Ballinacourty Pier, Co. Waterford, 31st December 2011.
We continued on to Ballinclamper where I decided to ignore the Bluethroat and Black Redstart (both of which were still present) and have a look at what else was around. A single Great Northern Diver was snorkling off-shore. There were good numbers of waders feeding on the shoreline, mainly Dunlin, Sanderling, Ringed Plover, a few Grey Plover (which I don't see too often) and Bar-tailed Godwit.

Bar-tailed Godwit, Ballinclamper, Co. Waterford, 31st December 2011
Michael Cowming and Colum Flynn mentioned that the Spoonbill had been showing close in to the channels over at Dungarvan earlier that morning so we decided to check there on the way home. Sadly however there was no sign when we checked at around 3pm. We stopped briefly at Lough Aderra where there were a few pairs of Gadwall, a small flock of about 8 Wigeon, a couple of Pochard and several Tufted Duck.

And so that is it for birding in 2011. I think I finished the year with 8 Irish ticks, not as much as other years but I tend to twitch a bit less than before and probably miss a lot by spending more time on the photography side of things. I already did a wrap-up of 2011 earlier in my blog, you can read Highs and lows of 2011 for the best and worst bits of my birding year. My next blog entry will be in 2012, until then Happy New Year to you all and good birding!!

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Winter Birding - sort of!

After several days of eating, drinking and sitting on the sofa it took quite an effort to drag ourselves out this morning but seeing as the Ballinclamper Bluethroat was still present, both myself and Polina decided to head over to Co. Waterford to take a look.
Word from Twitter was that the bird had been seen in the morning but had remained elusive. However when we arrived at 12:45 the bird was on show below the car park much to the delight of the 10 or so birders that were watching it.
We both had nice views of the bird as it moved up the beach, but having already gotten decent shots of it 5 weeks ago I didn't take any shots this time and instead just watched it through my bins for about 10 minutes before it did a typical disappearing trick into the tussocky grass.
Once it was gone from view I moved further up the beach to see if any of the Black Redstarts were still present but all I could find were a few Pied Wagtails and Rock Pipits.
While Polina tried for further shots of the Bluethroat I headed for the beach on eastern side of the carpark. There were plenty of birds here feeding happily on the weed, everything from Wrens, Choughs, Chaffinches, Dunnocks, Robins and a single 1st winter male Black Redstart. This bird was quite obliging and allowed a few decent shots as it fed amongst the rocks and seaweed.

1st winter male Black Redstart

Black Redstart Youtube Clip

Its been almost 7 years since I first saw a wintering Black Red in Ireland (in 2005 at Dun Laoghaire's East Pier) and I've seen many since in Ireland and in towns and cities across Europe but they are a bird I still really enjoy seeing everytime.
The Choughs which are always present at Ballinclamper posed briefly for some shots although I always struggle to expose them properly. I've added a movie clip also although you might want to turn the sound down on your pc as the wind noise is pretty strong. I'm sure there's some way of editing that out but I'm a bit of a novice with the HD movie function on the 5D.

Chough, Ballinclamper, Co. Waterford, 27th December 2011

Youtube clip of Chough

After a couple of minutes with the local Choughs we though it was time for lunch and so we headed back to the car. Warmed up by some coffee and a sandwich we decided to give the Bluethroat another go. About 400 meters up the beach it was giving nice views, not great light but still possible to get some shots. It's hard to belief that this bird is still present into late December, more than 5 weeks after it was first found by Micheal Cowming. It has given a lot of enjoyment to many birders this year and its been a nice bird to show to interested passersby. I suppose the mild winter, abundance of food and suitable shelter have meant its survived well so far. Hopefully it'll continue to do so into 2012.

5 weeks and still there - Bluethroat, Ballinclamper, Co. Waterford, 27th December 2011
With the light fading quickly and the cold setting in we headed back to the car and set off for home. All in all a really enjoyable days birding, a Yellow-legged Gull was also present at Ballinclamper with a Black-necked Grebe, a Slavonian Grebe, 2 Long-tailed Ducks and 2 Velvet Scoters present at nearby Dungarvan. Well done to the Waterford birders for continuously digging out the birds here. Its always a pleasure to come over to the Dungarvan area for a bit of birding!

Monday 12 December 2011

Highs (and lows) of 2011

Each December I look back and ask myself what were the best birds I saw or what made up the best birding moments of that year. I gave it a bit of thought over lunch today and came up with my Top 3 birds / birding moments of 2011. I decided to split it up into 'Ireland' and 'Outside of Ireland' (as I birded in Latvia and Mallorca this year) and I have mentioned some of low points too (which has a serious side so please read that).

To start with here is my Ireland Top 3 birding moments (in reverse order);

Number 3
Ring-necked Duck at The Lough, Cork, 3rd April 2011.

Probably the same bird that Harry Hussey's brother found along the Lee Fields in November 2010. It stayed in that area but moved with the Mallards to The Lough in early April. Myself and Polina went there one Sunday morning but there was no sign of it. After a busy day's birding Polina suggested that we check the Lough one more time before we head home and this time the bird was present (well done P). The light was spot on and the bird came so close at times that I couldn't focus on it. We were both very happy with the shots that we got and probably won't ever get better shots of this species in Ireland.

Female Ring-necked Duck - The Lough, Cork, 3 April 2011
It was one of those beautiful spring evenings, the first Willow Warblers were singing from the island on the centre of the Lough. Chiffchaffs were aplenty, there were good numbers of Sand Martins around and the first few Swallows of the year were seen skimming across the water. Just to show that winter was still hanging on though, there were a couple of female Bramblings poking around also.

Number 2
Red-eyed Vireo at Mizen Head, 20th October 2011.

For a bit more detail see an earlier blog entry - A few days off

I had seen Red-eyed Vireo's before but they were high in up in the canopy of jungles in Panama and Ecuador, so it was such a pleasure to see one up close.

Red-eyed Vireo, Mizen Head, Cork, 20th October 2011

Number 1
Wood Warbler, Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, 5th June 2011

I'd had the week from hell in work and knew it was going to get worse, P was away visiting her Mum and it was the June Bank Holiday weekend. I decided to drive up to Glendalough for the day and look for the Wood Warbler that had been reported earlier in the week. I'd seen Wood Warblers before in Ireland, Latvia, Mallorca and Bulgaria but its a very rare breeding bird in Ireland and Glendalough is a special place, so worth the drive. The weather was dull and drizzling but I had a feeling it would be a good day, driving through Hollywood, Co. Wicklow I passed by this Common Snipe sitting on a fence post, it was an opportunity shot, no plan, no set-up, no waiting, but I really like it.

Common Snipe, Hollywood, Co. Wicklow, 5th June 2011.

I continued on to Glendalough and soon located the bird singing in the Oaks near the Upper Lake. I found a good spot in the woods and just waited. I was getting bitten alive by midges but I didn't care less, the bird put on a great show, at times singing from branches at eye level about 20 feet away.

Singing male Wood Warbler, Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, 5th June 2011
It was so good to hear the spinning coin song and plaintive 'puw' call in an Irish woodland. As I sat still watching the bird there was so much else to see, Spotted Flycatchers, Red Squirrel, Jay, Raven's calling overhead and a briefly calling Great Spotted Woodpecker.
I rounded the day off at the Coronation Plantation with some equally nice Whinchat but it had gotten a bit soggy by then as you can possibly see.

Whinchat, Coronation Plantation, Co. Wicklow, 5th June 2011
And I completely forgot about the shitty week I'd had in work! Thankyou Co. Wicklow!

'Outside Ireland' Top 3

Number 3
Tawny Pipit, Cuber Dam, Mallorca, 16th April 2011

Cuber Dam is a beautiful spot, up in the mountains in the North-West of Mallorca. We'd seen Firecrest, Nightingale, Common Redstart, Black Vulture and Booted Eagle that day but had no decent shots. Towards the end of the walk P found this very obliging Tawny Pipit sitting on a rock, I got quite bad sunburn on my left arm getting these shots but worth it I think.

Tawny Pipit, Cuber Dam, Mallorca, 16th April 2011
Number 2
Spotted Redshank - S'Albufera, Mallorca, 13th April 2011

I'd never seen summer plumaged birds before and they look amazing. Especially a flock of 30 which stayed for several days at the excellent S'Albufera Marsh near Port d'Alcudia. This one came close to the hide and allowed some nice shots. I was very pleased when Joe Hobbs asked to use one of these as a cover photo for his excellent reference article on Tringa spp.

Spotted Redshank - S'Albufera Reserve, Mallorca, 13th April 2011.

Number 1
Bluethroat, Nagli Fish Ponds, Latvia, 16th July 2011

Latvia is an undiscovered birding gem. P and I spent three days with a great guide called Karlis Millers and an evening visit to Nagli Fish ponds in east Latvia near the border with Russia was the highlight. While we waited for singing Bluethroat to appear we saw White-tailed Sea Eagle and Little Bittern. As the evening drew in we waited for the male Bluethroats to start singing. I played a brief snatch of song on my ipod and a male immediately popped out from the willows and eyed me carefully. Sadly my camera was 50 meters away in the car, by the time I got back he'd disappeared. I described to Karlis how it had a red spot on it's chest (subspp. svecica) which he said were very rare in Latvia, no photo to prove it though. I waited for another 30 minutes until another male appeared, this time a white spotted bird (subspp. cyanecula). The light had  faded so much that this shot needed to be taken at ISO1000.

Bluethroat (subspp. cyanecula), Nagli Fish Ponds, Latvia, 16th July 2011
 We went back early the next morning but the Bluethroat were much more elusive. Nonetheless there were Barred Warblers, Blyth's Reed Warblers and Garden Warblers all breeding along the same stretch of river bank.....smashing!!!

So what were the crappy birding moments of 2011??

Number 3
Falling into the mud in the Douglas estuary trying to photograph Barry Ryan's excellent Wilson's Phalarope. Ronan McLoughlin assured me I wouldn't sink in the mud but I'm heavier than him and had more gear. I got halfway across the channel and got stuck. I chucked my gear to safety but it landed short in the silt. I almost lost the use of my 500mm lens!!! I spent 2 hours getting these not so great shots and got an earful from P who I left on her own minding the car all that time............sorry again P!!

Wilson's Phalarope, Douglas Estuary, Cork, 17th September 2011.

Number 2
Double dipping on the Least Sandpiper and Semipalmated Plover. We searched but the Least Sand had gone and in order to salvage the day I drove to Ventry for the Semi-P plover (it was a cert after all!). We spent an hour looking at a Ringed Plover until I noticed it had no palmations, by then it was too late and we needed to get back to Cork. Double d'oh!

Number 1

On a more serious note I listened to a Talking Naturally podcast featuring Ceri Levy discussing the bird genocide that is taking place in Malta. Many of us are aware of the indiscriminate slaughter of birds by Maltese hunters. You really need to listen to this podcast to realise just how sad and maddening it really is. There are still knuckle-heads out there who think it is macho to blow the brains out of Wheatears, Nightjars and Short-toed Eagles. To cap it all several Maltese hunters were arrested recently for illegally shooting raptors in the UK.....staggering.

Talking Naturally podcast - Ceri Levy and Malta's illegal and shameful hunting

Well done to Charlie Moores and Ceri Levy for this excellent podcast. Please support Birdlife Malta! They are the heroes!!

BirdLife Malta

Sunday 11 December 2011

The Big Year

When Dustin the Turkey decided to promote tourism in Leitrim he came up with a slogan which went something like "Leitrim, its not as bad as you'd think!". Well I guess you could say the same thing about 'The Big Year'.
In case you don't already know The Big Year is a movie starring Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson based on Mark Obmascik's book of the same title. It describes the story of three US birders competing with one another to complete and win a big year.
I went to see it last night and to be honest, based on reviews and short previews I'd seen, I wasn't expecting much. I read the book when it came out in 2004 and can't remember much of the detail so I couldn't say how true to the book the movie is. I believe not a whole lot. All in all, it wasn't as bad as I expected and in the end you could say I quite enjoyed it. The couple travelling to Attu Island, Alaska for their honeymoon was hilarious, the accommodation on Attu made the Cape Clear Obs look like a Four Seasons Hotel (I love the Cape Clear Obs in case you're reading this Steve). It was good to see Brian Dennehy in a film, can't remember when I last saw him in anything. I would love to have seen a bigger part for Jim Parsons of 'Big Bang Theory' and I'm presuming 'Annie Auklet' played by Anjelica Huston is based on Debi Shearwater?!
So would I recommend you go and see it...........yea, why not! For birders its interesting, its not aimed solely at birders obviously so don't get too caught up in the finer details. If you can't make it to the cinema its certainly worth renting.
Here's a short clip to whet your appetite!

The Big Year

Saturday 10 December 2011

Return to Clonea

News from Friday that the wonderful Clonea Bluethroat was still on show was enough to tempt me in that direction on Saturday morning. As usual I was a little bit late getting out and only arrived in the carpark at Ballinclamper around midday. However on arrival Dublin birder Brian Porter, who had been there since 8am, said the Bluethroat hadn't been seen despite extensive searches. Neither had the Buff-bellied Pipit for that matter.....bugger!!. I looked myself where I'd seen the bird 3 weeks earlier but there was no sign. I did however have a female type Black Redstart over there. As it happened though there were plenty of commoner birds feeding on the remaining weed, Robins, Blackbirds, a pair of Stonechats (great to see their numbers return following the hammering they took the previous 2 winters), Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Starlings and Wrens were all joining the Rock Pipits and Pied Wags on the rotting weed. Further out towards the shore there was a  small flock of Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Sanderling, a couple of nice looking Bar-tailed Godwits and a Grey Plover. The sun came out, the temperature seemed to creep up a notch or two and it was just good to be out birding, Bluethroat or not.

Clonea Strand, Ballinclamper, Co. Waterford . 10th December 2011.
I ambled up the beach and picked up a second Black Redstart, this time a first winter male judging by the pale panel on the wing.

1st winter male Black Redstart - Ballinclamper, Co. Waterford 10th December 2011

1st winter male Black Redstart - Ballinclamper, Co. Waterford 10th December 2011. 1 of at least 5 birds there today!

As I watched him, 2 more first winter male type Black Redstarts appeared and at one stage I had 3 in a single binocular view and out of the corner of my eye, further up the beach, I could see a fourth. Along with the first bird I had on arrival that was 5 Black Redstarts. Michael Cowming said there were a further 2 about a kilometer up the beach. An impressive count indeed, they must have a had a good year or perhaps the mild winter so far has meant they've not felt the need to move further south.....I don't really know.
I watched the birds feeding on the weed for a while, chased away at times by the local Rock Pipits, a territorial Robin and a pair of Stonechats.
With the light fading I returned to the car, by now the sea was flat calm and I could make out a single Great Northern Diver and Great Crested Grebe about 500 meters off shore. I hadn't time on the way back to check for the Black-necked Grebe or Long-tailed Ducks reported at Dungarvan but tomorrow is another day.

Sunday 4 December 2011

Late Lesser 'throat

I mentioned in my previous posting that the Lesser Whitethroat I saw at the campsite on Knockadoon Head was quite sandy looking and that a number of people believed it may well be of the eastern form 'halimodendri'. Same as the Drogheda bird from earlier this year and potentially the bird I found in the plantation on the Old Head of Kinsale in late October ('A few days off').
Anyway, Saturday morning was sunny and unseasonably mild so I thought I'd go to Knockadoon Head and try to get a better look at the bird. I arrived at the campsite at about 11.30am and parked up. Sure enough there was the bird feeding in the brambles on the bank opposite the campsite itself. I decided the best way to see and photograph the bird was to park my car on the opposite side of the road to where the bird was and wait. Cars make great hides after all! The brambles and the elder trees actually held quite a few different birds. In the time that I spent waiting on the Lesser 'throat to show well I had a male and female Blackcap, 2 Goldcrests, 2 Stonechats and several Song Thrushes and Blackbirds. However the Lesser 'throat just wasn't playing ball so I abandoned my comfortable hide and decided to do a walk-about of the campsite. I re-found the Lesser 'throat feeding in the cordylines along with a female Blackcap. However close approach was difficult so I let it be. I decided that it would be well worth checking the beach for Pipits and Black Redstarts so I moved my car around and as I got out the Lesser 'throat was right in front of me feeding in the brambles. I got a couple of shots as the bird moved around about 15-20 feet away.

Lesser Whitethroat - Knockadoon Head 3rd December 2011

As you can see the bird's upper-parts are quite sandy brown. Given that it appeared at the same time as several 'tristis' type Chiffers and a Pallas's, it is possible that it origins are somewhat eastern.
Just at that point Michael John O'Mahony arrived and the two of us elected to check the beach below the pier. Michael picked up a single Black Redstart. I didn't get great views of the bird though as it flew into a small cave and hid. The beach itself is very sheltered and insects were plentiful so it should have plenty to sustain it for the winter. Michael also picked up a Short-eared Owl hunting distantly over the fields. A couple of minutes later it flew over our heads mobbed by a single Hooded Crow.
Before I headed for home we checked the caravan park on the off-chance that the Pallas's Warbler from 2 weeks ago had hung about. Returning to the area behind the football pitch were the bird had previously been seen I played a few snatches of Pallas's Warbler calls. After a minute a bird came in looking in size and jizz like a Pallas's but it disappearred before either of us could get anything on it. No sight or sound of the bird after that, whatever it was. However if anyone is around in the next fews days the caravan park is worth checking just in case.
All in all Knockadoon Head has been a great late Autumn spot this year. In November alone it's had Garden Warbler, RB Fly, Firecrest, Pallas's Warbler, Black Redstart, Lesser Whitethroat, Siberian Chiffchaff, and a possible Hume's Warbler. In November 1980 it had Ireland's first Pied Wheatear and in December 2003 it had Ireland's first ever Hume's Warbler. It has lots of cover, is very sheltered in parts and best of all only 30 minutes from home!!