Monday 30 July 2012

A bit more seawatching

I have to confess that I've never really gotten seawatching. I know plenty of birders who say that it's hard to beat. That the experience of watching thousands of seabirds streaming past a headland is second to none. Hundreds of large Shearwaters, Petrels, Skuas, Grey Phalaropes and Sabine's Gulls, not to mention the possibility of something really special like Black-browed Albatross, Fea's Petrel or Little Shear.
I first did a seawatch in 2006 from Galley Head and since then I've done a few more from the Old Head, Galley, Ballycotton, Power Head and the Mizen. None of them had been particularily successful, granted that I had seen small numbers of Cory's, Great Shearwaters and Skuas but no mass movement of birds or no mega rares. My seawatching experience involved spending a lot of time cleaning rain off my lens, straining my eyes to find and correctly ID a distant black spec or simply getting bored watching Manxie after Manxie and little else. So before I write seawatching off altogether as a bad idea, I really need to experience that 'red-letter' day. The one I described earlier where thousands of big shears and skuas are passing by and where, at some point, someone shouts "Fea's!" or "Albatross!"........maybe then I'll understand the hype and become addicted to the thrill and experience of seawatching.
To be in with a chance of that then there's probably several spots that I should visit. Blanan on Cape Clear Island, Kilcummin Head, County Mayo or, of course, The Bridges of Ross in County Clare.
So when Owen Foley offered me a lift up to the Bridges of Ross last Saturday, with the winds looking north-westerly and showers forecast all day, it seemed now might be the time.
Another early start, so it was bed at 10pm on Friday night, of course I couldn't get to sleep so when the alarm went at 4am I was knackered!
Owen picked me up at 4.45am and we travelled empty roads through Cork, Limerick and Clare before reaching the carpark at the Bridges at 7.05am. We got our wet gear on and scopes ready and climbed into position at the seawatching spot.

The only souls in the carpark at the bridges - 7am Saturday morning 28th July 2012

View of the Bridges of Ross at 7am

Things were looking good weather wise. A steady stream of Manx Shearwaters was a sign of promise. Within the first 10 minutes we had scored 4 Sooty Shearwaters. Within 30 minutes we had a light-phase Arctic Skua and a Bonxie. Hopes were high for Wilson's Storm Petrel so we kept plugging away. However none materialised and even the stream of Manxies eventually slowed down. By 10am we stopped having seen about 28 Sooty Shearwaters, 2 Arctics, 1 Bonxie, 2 Grey Phalaropes, I European Storm Petrel and many many Manxies. While the experience was enjoyable and its hard not to enjoy seeing light phase Skuas, it was a little like all the other seawatching experiences I've had.
I spent a little while out on tip trying to get shots of some of the birds that passed in close but even then the distance is quite considerable as you can see.

Manx Shearwater

Manx Shearwater

Yes.........more Manx Shearwaters!

Sooty Shearwater and Manx Shearwater

We took a short break at The Lighthouse Inn in Kilbaha. My last visit to Kilbaha had been in 2006 for the excellent Canada Warbler.......fond memories indeed. We were joined by Shane Farrell who was also down for a spot of seawatching, he stationed himself further down the coast towards Loop Head lighthouse but had had similar counts to us that morning.
After coffee we decided that it might be worth checking a few of the local wader spots. Perched on the western coast of Ireland with next stop being the east coast of the US, the area is famed for 'Yankee' waders. A little bit early perhaps but worth checking Doonbeg and Poulnasherry Bay. Sadly though apart from some 'shanks and a Whimbrel we had nothing else.
By late afternoon I was feeling the effects of the early start and a sensation that a throat infection was coming on. But I gave in to temptation and we returned to the Bridges for the evening session filled once again with hope that we would score better than we had that morning.

View that evening from the seawatch point.
The Bridges is a very scenic spot and even in a light NW wind the sea still looks powerful as it comes in against the headland - click on link below. That's Owen with the scope!
 The Bridges of Ross

This time the squawls weren't so frequent which meant I spent more time watching the sea than cleaning my lens. But apart from one Bonxie, 1 European Stormie and a distant Sooty we had little else other than Manxies. With the NW wind whistling into my ear for 2 hours I felt pretty shitty as we packed up and headed for home at 7pm, I've been laid up with the virulent 'man-flu' since then :-(
So that 'red-letter' day still awaits me. However it was an enjoyable day up at the Bridges and sincere thanks to Owen for the driving and good company during the day. We're back up there in 2 weeks time for a pelagic out of Kilbaha itself. Hopefully some close encounters with Oceanites oceanicus will ensue.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

A bit o' seawatching

Ah.....the Old Head of Kinsale. Harry Hussey once described it as "a fickle mistress". 9 times out of 10 you'll go there and see nothing, just as you're about to give up and swear that you'll never again waste your time on that desolate and windswept headland, you'll find something good. Filled with hope you'll return 9 more times and of course find feck all. The Old Head...........she'll draw you in with a find and then use you for her own amusement!!!!

Anyway, having been cooped up all day I decided to do a quick evening seawatch. Weather conditions were not too bad. Wind off the sea, a bit of drizzle and a bank of fog about 100-200 meters out. Looked good! And sea-watches from earlier in the day off both the Old Head and Cape Clear had Sooties, Poms, Arctics and Bonxies. So once again filled with hope and expectation I flashed my pass at the golf club entrance and drove up to the light house.

Road to Old Head lighthouse - 23rd July 2012
On the way to the lighthouse it was looking a bit grim, the fog was pretty thick and I wondered if there would be any visibility at all.
I parked up beside the light-house compound and put my wet gear on. Having come this far I was determined to give it a go at least.
Lighthouse compound - Old Head of Kinsale

But as I reached the seawatch point below the cliff things were looking better, the fog bank was a good 200 meters out and there was a steady stream of Manxies passing close in. I got into position and began looking, surely if the Manx Shearwaters were coming in that close something would come in with them, a nice fat Sooty or a fiercesome looking Arctic Skua......anything would do me!
As it is so often on the Old Head, my levels of expectation were high. Everything was in place, it was evening time, the weather conditions were good, I was in the right location......on the tip of a headland in South-west Ireland facing out to sea...........keep looking, be patient and the birds would turn up.
30 minutes later the stream of Manxies continued............just Manxies...........nothing else!!! And as so often on the Old Head, expectation and hope were soon being replaced with disappointment and gloom! Still it was better than being in an office, there is something very pleasant in the solitude of sitting on a headland looking out at the grey sea.......even if all you're seeing is Manx Shearwaters, Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Gannets. After about 45 minutes the fog rolled right in against the cliff face and the visibility came down to about 10 meters. Light was fading also so I called it a day.

So once again the Old Head plays games with me..........the worst of it is, I will probably be back in a few days time......filled with the hope of finding a Fea's Petrel.......ha, you fool Clarke!

Sunday 8 July 2012

A tick at 'Tac'

It's early July and often a quiet time for birds and birders in Ireland. Ok, so there is always the possibility of a rare wader such as a Red-necked Stint or Marsh Sandpiper and now is a good time to look for Cory's Shearwaters from our headlands but otherwise not much else.

But then there is always Tacumshin, Co. Wexford. Right now all the best reports seem to be coming from there. 3 species of Harrier (Marsh, Hen and Montagu's), Hobby, Glossy Ibis, Bearded Reedling, Little Gulls and up to recently a Savi's Warbler.

I had 2 targets in mind. Montagu's Harrier (which I need for of those oddities on my list considering I have seen the rarer Pallid Harrier already) and Bearded Reedling which would be a lifer.
A 2nd cy female Montagu's had been reported regularily from Tac for several weeks now. The Reedlings had first been seen as far back as November 2010 and possibly every other birder in the country had seen them at least once except me so it was time to change that for once and for all.
So Saturday morning (7th July) I set off for Wexford. I left it a bit late and didn't arrive there until after 12 o'clock. I headed straight for White Hole where rumour had it that this was one of the best places to look for the Montagu's.

The White Hole, Tacumshin, Co. Wexford

I parked up, gathered my gear together and headed along the track towards the Lingstown direction. The plan being to find a suitable spot that would give me wide views of the reed-beds and therefore the best chance of seeing a Harrier. I found a suitable place, climbed up onto a bank and started scanning. After 20 minutes no sign of any Harriers. In fact no sign of anything, possibly that midday slump! Just then though I caught a small shape moving fast over the reeds behind me. It looked initially like a large swift but quickly swept upwards and began hawking insects...........Hobby. It remained quite distant and the strong sun was almost directly against me however it was nice to watch it for a while as it chased dragonflies, taking them and feeding on them in mid air. Record shots were all I got, I don't think it's an adult bird but possibly a 2nd cy.

Hobby, White Hole, Tacumshin, 7th July 2012
The bird headed away over towards Lingstown and out of sight. Not long after a Hobby was reported on Wexford Bird News from the east end carpark heading towards Sigginstown, presumably the same bird.
I took a little longer scanning the reeds but decided to re-locate to where the sun was behind me. This time I climbed up onto the dunes and stood with my back to the sea hoping that if any raptor came along the reeds I would have a better chance of a shot with the sun behind me.

Dunes above White Hole, 7th July 2012
A good strategy but there needs to be birds for it to work. With no sign of any raptors I decided to wrap up and head for Lingstown to see if any Bearded Reedlings were about.
I stopped at exactly the same spot as I had when twitching the Savi's 2 weeks ago. Today the light was far better but the reed beds were quiet. Mid afternoon and not even a Sedgie singing. I had heard that the Reedlings would be harder to see in summer than in winter and began to think that unless I had a big dollup of luck I wouldn't have any chance of seeing them. But just then I heard that distinctive twanging note call and picked up a single bird whizzing over the reeds about 10 meters in front of me. I had enough time to get the bins on it and see it was a male Bearded Reedling before it dropped down into the reeds and disappeared. Lifer!!! Another tick at 'Tac'.
I took a little while to scan the reeds for more Reedlings and could see two Harriers in the distance. One of them disppeared from view and may have been my Montagu's but even the record shots I took were inconclusive. The second bird came close enough for me to see that it was a male Marsh Harrier, possibly 3rd cy.
After that it was over towards the east end car park where apart from a few Common Terns and Little Gulls things were fairly quiet. But it was good to met Floss Gibson and John Murphy who were there with the Clare branch of Birdwatch Ireland on an outing. We chatted for 15 minutes or so before I decided to check the Forgotten Corner for the Glossy Ibis. I had hoped for a decent shot of the bird but the water levels were pretty high and the bird was quite a considerable distance away so no luck there. But at least I saw it, only my second ever Glossy Ibis in Ireland, my first being in Ennis, Co. Clare 4 years ago.
Before leaving I headed back over to Whitehole for one last look for the Montagu's. Plenty of House Martins, Sand Martins, Swallows and Swifts and nice also to see several Little Gulls but no raptors.
I headed for home. Pleased to have seen a Hobby, Marsh Harrier and to have ticked Bearded Reedling. A little disappointed that a lot of things were too distant for good shots. If only all birds would allow such close approach as this young Peregrine did last week. Then photographing birds would be a doddle..........but it'd be no fun, right??

Peregrine Falcon, Co. Cork  - July 2012 (with Friesian cow in background!!)