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.

Monday 9 April 2012

Dipsville once more!

After a successful day yesterday I got greedy and decided to go for the Hoopoe that had been present in Guileen since 25th March. I hadn't seen any Hoopoes in Ireland last year at all (just one in Mallorca) and being such exotic looking birds I was keen to see this one. The weather showed signs of clearing after lunch so I called Harry Hussey up and told I'd pick him up in the city at around 3.30pm. Harry had the 'gen' from several other birders who'd seen it so it was just a matter of care and patience and we'd both manage to connect with it......ahem!
Guileen is not too far from Whitegate but not a place I'd ever visited before. A small sandy beach lies beneath a cliff walk and several lucky people own very nice houses which face straight out onto the Atlantic Ocean, beautiful on a good day and spectacular during a southerly storm I imagine. A single Peregrine hunting along the cliffs against the grey sea gave the place a very wild look.

Peregrine Falcon - Guileen, Co. Cork 9th April 2012

This is the sort of place I would love to live in, but even with today's depressed property market I bet those homes would fetch a nice price. And of course it looked perfect for a Hoopoe. I could imagine the poor bugger overshooting France, tired and hungry pitching down amongst the gardens and country boreens until he (or she) got their strength back up. Sadly though it looks as though it got its strength back up yesterday because for Harry and I there was no sign. Admittedly the weather was a bit foul at first so once the squawly showers cleared we set about looking in earnest in case we had missed it at first as it sheltered under a bush. But our searching was in vain, there was no sign. With the Hoopoe 'window' closing I may have to go the year without seeing one in Ireland, autumn records are rarer.
Interestingly there are quite a few very nice gardens around the village which in the right conditions in either spring or autumn could well be worth a check for migrants. There were plenty of commoner species around making use of the bird feeders, I scanned for Tree Sparrows or maybe even a Spanish Sparrow amongst the flock of Spagies but of course nothing doing. Maybe a nice Dark-eyed Junco this autumn!
Clearly used to people though the commoner stuff allowed reasonably close approach.

Yellowhammer, Guileen, Co. Cork, 9th April 2012

Chaffinch, Guileen, Co. Cork, 9th April 2012

Collared Dove, Guileen, Co. Cork. 9th April 2012
Following our fruitless search we decided to stop at Rostellan Lake on the way back home to check for the 2nd summer Little Gull that had been reported. Harry picked it up distantly over the reedbeds before it crossed over the road and continued away towards Aghada. Dark and heavy clouds had diminished the light so this distant cropped record shot was all I could manage.

2nd summer Little Gull, Rostellan Lake, Co. Cork 9th April 2012
With the rain not too far away we set off for home.

Sunday 8 April 2012

'Night Shift' Heron

I've worked nights myself way back so I know that sleeping during the day can be tricky, especially if you're in a noisy neighbourhood. Setting yourself up in the middle of a town right next to a busy hotel would not seem like a good idea if you want a peaceful days kip. Not unless of course you're a Black-crowned Night Heron, in that case it's straightforward.
Having missed the Bunmahon Purple Heron last weekend I was a little bit wary of making another journey, this time for the Skibbereen Black-crowned Night Heron. However news from irishbirding on Sunday morning that it was roosting in the trees as usual at the back of the West Cork Hotel was enough for me. Polina and I set forth before lunchtime bound for Skib!
My heart sank a little though on arrival as I scanned the trees behind the hotel, according to all the reports I'd read this was its favoured spot but for the moment I couldn't see it anywhere, perhaps it had moved on or had somewhere else it also liked during the day. However after about 5 minutes of looking we found it hidden well back in the trees. Considering it is not that small a bird it was remarkably well concealed, its in the bottom left of the main tree in the picture below, almost impossible to see without bins or a big lens.

Night heron tree - pretty well hidden!

First things first and we took a little time to enjoy the bird, its not often that an adult bird appears in Ireland, usually 1st summers I imagine. It was an Irish tick for me, I dipped (like many of us) on the bird Mark Carmody found in 2008 at Cuskinny so I was pleased to be able to catch this one. Especially considering my recent dismal record.
The next thing was to get a nice picture, should only be a matter of patience........or so I thought. But there's a reason they're called Night Herons......they are mainly noctural birds, sleeping by day and active at night. According to Ken Preston, who joined us for a while, this bird gets active each evening around dark, it flies out from its roost and over towards the stream that runs behind the rugby club where presumably it clocks in and does it's night shift. Apart from some preening and a toilet break it did little else other than sit there and sleep.

Black-crowned Night Heron, Skibbereen, Co. Cork 8th April 2012

"Hard going these night shifts!"

Once in a while it opened its eyes and looked around before returning to its slumber. Sean Cronin if you're reading this I don't know how you got the shot you got, well done! It never appearred in the open for us sadly. We waited for 3 hours, thankfully there were nice seats and we had coffee and some lunch with us, so all in all it was quite a pleasant twitch really despite the bird's sleepy mood!

P waits for Night Heron to move!
On the way home I started to think how many of these I had seen. When I checked my notes at home I noted that I have seen Black-crowned Night Herons in Abuko, The Gambia, at Daan Viljoen Park near Windhoek in Namibia, at the S'Albufera Reserve in Mallorca, at Bourgas Lakes in Bulgaria and on the Potomac River near Washington DC. So they're quite a cosmopolitan species.
We both would have loved better views and some nicer photos but I am happy to have at least connected with the bird and to have added to my Irish list.

Monday 2 April 2012

A tale of shame and woe!

I have recently being experiencing a deep-rooted sense of shame! I mentioned in my previous post that I'd missed out on a lot of good birds of late. Some of these are birds I have gone for and missed and some are birds I've missed out on because I couldn't or wouldn't go for. But it's not just down to plain old bad luck. I started to think about it late last night having dipped on the Bunmahon Purple Heron yesterday. I ran a check in my head and realised that the list of birds I have missed in the last year is really quite shameful. But they fall into several different categories, allow me to explain by way of examples.

Example 1 - 'couldn't get out of work'

Baillon's Crake - Great Saltee Island, Co. Wexford

Stuck in work when news broke that Saturday. I wasn't too worried as its not a bird that's been on my horizon or wish list but still the first Irish record since 1858.....and it showed really well!

Red-flanked Bluetail - Shite Lane, Galley Head, Cork
This one really hurts, couldn't get out of work on the day news broke and the next day it was gone!

This category happens to many of us, not too shameful really but painful especially in the case of the RFB.

Example 2 - 'dipped'

Least Sandpiper and Semi-palmated Plover - Blackrock and Ventry, Co. Kerry

In this case I actually took time off work to see the birds. A trip to Kerry was timed too late for the Least Sandpiper, seen the day before but gone when I got there. But the Semi-palmated Plover was down to poor judgement. Another birder present on the beach said he thought he had it in his scope, I ignored 'gen' given to me by those who'd seen it and spent 2 hours studying what turned out to be a Ringed Plover (no palmations). I should have trusted my own instinct that time.

Purple Heron - Bunmahon, Co. Waterford.

Spent an hour looking but gave up. Lack of preparation meant I hadn't realised that Bunmahon is quite far from Cork. By the time I reached the site I was tired and p#*ssed off. With no sign after an hour and getting cranky I headed home!

Surf Scoter - Garretstown, Co. Cork

Again down to poor prep and bad planning. A dash from Macroom to Garretstown (further than it sounds) left me with very little time and a hungry wife in the car (it was past dinner-time!!). I had to scope the area as quick as possible and for that reason probably overlooked the bird. I've seen several of these in the past but I was frustrated with myself for making a balls of the whole thing!!

Ring-necked Duck, The Lough, Cork

Bad luck here, a nice drake showing well on The Lough. I went twice but never saw it.

'Eastern' Olivaceous Warbler - Mizen Head, Cork

Bad luck again, got the 'gen', went on time but it was gone. Couple of lads had driven from Leeds overnight to see it also but dipped, so not as bad as that for me. But one I'd love to see and photograph well all the same!

Example 3 'Too lazy to go when the news broke'

Pallid Harrier - Ballyvergan, Co. Cork and Tacumshin, Co. Wexford.

I was busy enjoying my Saturday when news broke of a Pallid Harrier at Ballyvergan Marsh. A 1st for Ireland (well done Owen) and not too far away either. Plenty of time I thought (what was I thinking....seriously!!) and said I'd go when I had a minute. Of course it was long gone when I finally got around to going there. In the case of the Wexford bird, if I gone early in the morning and with specific 'gen' it might have been possible. I didn't really deserve to see 2 together during last Autumn ('A tail of two Pallids')

Montague's Harrier - Old Head of Kinsale, Co. Cork

Showing well at the Old Head, again a Saturday bird. If I'd put down my coffee, gotten up off the couch and out I'd have seen and maybe even photographed this one. Its an Irish tick for goodness sake!

Rough-legged Buzzard - Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow

A pattern emerging here, anyone would think I don't like BoPs! P and I were staying up in Rathnew and checked the farm at Glenroe briefly but it was long gone and I knew it was.....dumb-ass! Up to then I wasn't bothered going.

Example 4 'Too hungover to go'

Booted Warbler, The Cunnigar, Co. Waterford

Self-inflicted so there should be no sympathy for this one. At least I've learned that even if you do feel rotten you should go anyway. You won't remember how crappy you felt when you look back (see Knockadoon 'sore' Head).

Example 5 'Not arsed going'

Bearded Reedling, Tacumshin, Co. Wexford

I'm not sure what category these fall into. I could file them under the heading 'dipped' as we missed them also the same day we missed the Pallid Harrier at Tac. I may go back....maybe.

Northern Harrier - Tacumshin, Co. Wexford.

OK, I admit it. I may not be such a big fan of BoPs as other birders are and as I used to be one time. Maybe because it's not hugely different from Hen Harrier and because I find flight shots tricky, I didn't bother to drive to Wexford (or Wicklow) for that one.

Great Reed Warbler - Great Saltee Island, Co. Wexford

Too much effort for a skulker and I'd seen loads in Latvia and Mallorca. Should have gone really though!

Great Grey Shrike - Slievenacloy, Co. Antrim

Too far to go but having seen one in Latvia last summer I'm sorry I didn't. Stunning birds!!

I could go on!! I'm not really that big into twitching or listing. I enjoy seeing certain birds; Warblers, Flycatchers, Thrushes, Chats, Nightjars, Swifts, Hirundines, Terns (especially marsh terns), Owls, Waders, Gulls and Shrikes etc. I should probably move to Spain!! But the list of what I've missed is really, shamefully very long!! All joking aside there are other priorities in my life apart from wife (of course), work and sometimes I just don't feel like making a 6 hour round trip to see a bird (or longer). I remember deciding to stay on cape clear when news broke of a Siberian Stonechat, Yellow-breasted Bunting and Paddyfield Warbler. There were good birds on cape too that time (though not as rare) and I was enjoying myself, those few days off were about relaxing and enjoying some birding not dashing around adding ticks to my list.
Anyway, I think the lesson is for me, be selective about what you want to see. If you decide to go for something, get as much 'gen' as you can up front, be patient and try to enjoy it, be philosophical if you don't see the bird.
And I have still had the odd successful trip.....Desert Wheatear, Canada Warbler, Pied-Billed Grebe, White-throated Sparrow, Scarlet Tanager, Myrtle Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Yellow Warbler/Northern Waterthrush not all bad really.

Sunday 1 April 2012

The first signs of spring

All week long the weather for the weekend of 24-25th March was looking promising. Light southerlies got fresher by friday and I felt that spring would finally break on Saturday 25th March. Sadly though the long hours in work continue for me and it was after 2.30pm on Saturday afternoon before I could get out. Too late to go for the Baillon's Crake unfortunately. Well done to Harry, Brian and Sean for getting it (an outstanding find, the 3rd for Ireland but the first since 1858!).
I had a few hours though so I headed east towards Knockadoon Head stopping first at Ballywilliam where I'd seen a Hoopoe 2 years previously on almost the same weekend. The best there was a Chiffchaff.
Knockadoon was a little better, no Black Redstarts at the pier but a single Sand Martin in off the sea near the tip of the head was a welcome sight after the winter. As I came back along the campsite I picked up a single chiffer in the pines, watching it for a few minutes I realised that a second phyllosc with it was a very early Willow Warbler! They were both a little too high up in the pines for a decent picture but a group of about 3-4 Goldcrests were much more obliging.

Goldcrest - Knockadoon campsite, 24th March 2012
I wonder are these migrants also or resident birds? I moved on towards the Holy Ground where there were 2 more Chiffers and a second Willow Warbler, this one was in song.
On Sunday I headed over to Ardmore Head, hoping rather than expecting to see the Woodchat Shrike, no joy though, these things never do stay long in the spring. A walk around the head didn't produce much but this smart male Reed Bunting posed nicely.

Reed Bunting, Ardmore Head, Co. Waterford, 25th March 2012   

Each time I go to Ardmore Head though I'm intrigued by the wreck of the crane that is washed up against the cliff face. The Samson was wrecked at Ardmore Head during a storm in 1987. The Samson was a floating crane which was under tow from Liverpool to Malta when the tow line broke. It's still an impressive if not eerie sight.

Samson crane, Ardmore Head, Co. Waterford - 25th March 2012

A little dejected having seen so few migrants I swung by Knockadoon Head on the way home and my spirits were lifted by a nice female sort Black Redstart in the campsite.

Black Redstart, Knockadoon Head - 25th March 2012 

At the tip of the headland a single Swallow came in off the sea and continued inland, a very welcome sight and something that continues to amaze and delight me, how do birds make the journey's they make?
Climbing into my car on Monday morning a Chiffchaff was busy singing behind the house.....

On Monday more amazing news broke. A female (or was it a male??) Red-flanked Bluetail had been found on Shite Lane by Ciaran Cronin. Staggering find and well done Ciaran!! I got out of work at 9pm on chance of getting to Galley Head. With several 'critical' meetings Tuesday morning making it to Galley was unlikely. I brought my gear into work and kept one eye on my mobile all morning. If it showed I was going to slip away at 3pm, pick P up in Cork and head to sign of the bird though. The 3rd Irish record, first spring record and like the previous 2, this one too was a one day wonder!!
Sunday I was off so P and I drove to Bunmahon for the Purple Heron but our luck was out. A quick check at Helvick Head on the way back, surprisingly no migrants whatsoever but 10 Sandwich Terns busy dive-bombing near the shore and calling loudly to each other was a welcome sight and sound.

Sandwich Tern - Helvick Head 1st April 2012
My luck has been out of late and busy days in work have meant I missed out on some good stuff. But the spring is here and there's a long weekend on the way so hopefully I'll get lucky soon!!