Tuesday 28 August 2012

The Dead Zoo

I was in Dublin for a meeting last week so with a little time to spare at lunch I popped into the Natural History Museum on Merrion Square. The musuem closed in 2007 after a staircase collapsed and was re-opened following refurbishment in April 2010. Since then I've been meaning to visit. The one and only time I was ever there was as part of a trip with my national school in about 1980 (I think). It was at the time of my initial interest in birds and I recall ticking everything I saw in there, my list was a little less 'regulated' back then. It didn't matter if the bird was alive or stuffed and mounted in a glass case, as far as I was concerned I had had tickable views!
Anyway, the first thing I'll say is that flash photography is not allowed and I hadn't even got a compact camera with me so all the pics I took were with my Blackberry so please forgive the graininess and reflections from the glass. They're there to illustrate a point only.
And while there are plenty of very nice displays and mounts of our common breeding birds, it was the rare stuff that I was really interested in. And there's some absolute gems in there!
Back in day before DSLRs, powerful optics and advanced field guides, if you wanted to identify the bird you had to blow its brains out first. Sad really, but at least the skins and stuffed birds offered a permanent record and enabled early ornithologists to study their subjects in more detail. It was after all how John James Audubon drew birds for his life's work 'The Birds of America'.
In the first display case my attention was drawn to a Pallas's Sandgrouse. Shot in Drumbeg, Co. Donegal in 1888. Presumably part of the large irruption that year caused possibly by heavy snowfalls and hard snow crust in its central Asian breeding area which led to problems with drinking water and feeding.

Pallas's Sandgrouse - shot Drumbeg, Co. Donegal 1888
The next specimen to catch my eye was this fine Black-eared Wheatear. Recovered dead off Tuskar Rock, Wexford on 16th May 1916. This represents the first Irish record of this species and I think there have only been four since. Given the full title of Western Black-eared Wheatear so I presume its of the subpss. hispanica.

Western Black-eared Wheatear - |Tuskar Rock, Wexford, 1918
It also looks to be a full spring male, what a cracker. I was away for the female that turned up in May 2010 on the Great Saltee so this is one I would definitely twitch if it showed up.
In the same case was a fine American Robin found / shot in Shankill, Co. Dublin (oh if only!!) and a stunning (even though it was stuffed) White's Thrush. Shot in January 1885 in Westport, Co. Mayo.
With only a little bit of time available to me I had to skip quickly past the many cases of moths and butterflies, I'll come back to those next time. But the next exhibit I stopped at was of Ireland's first ever Firecrest, my own personnal favourite bird. Given that these are now just scarce autumn vagrants its hard to believe the 1st Irish record was as recent as 1943. Shot (of course) in Glengariff, Co. Cork. The record is attributed to J.E. Flynn and G.F. Mitchell.

A first for Ireland (in 1943) - Firecrest

Moving on around the ground floor, there was plenty more to see. Perhaps most interesting of all was this exhibit of an Eskimo Curlew. It didn't say the year or the specific location, just Sligo. But I presume this is the one and only Irish record, apparently shot in Co. Sligo but only properly noticed for what it was when it was seen hanging in a butcher's shop in Dublin.

Eskimo Curlew
Other goodies included Little Bustard (Ennis. Co. Clare, 1946), an inland (Enniskillen) specimen of Wilson's Petrel (presumably wrecked) and some nice examples of Golden Oriole, Hawfinch, Roller and adult Rose-coloured Starling.

Little Bustard
Upstairs on the 1st floor was the famous Barrington collection. It consists of specimens of birds collected at Irish lighthouses and lightships from the late 19th century. The collection was donated to the musuem by R.M. Barrington's wife. I was running out of time at this stage but the Barrington collection is an amazing assembly of common, rare and scarce birds and gave quite an insight at the time into the patterns of bird migration.

Wednesday 22 August 2012

A bit more Pie

I headed back to Knockadoon Head yesterday evening to see if any early migrants were passing through and to check if the Pied Flys had lingered. At the usual spots all was quiet with not even a Phyllosc stirring. I headed back to Hurley's Lane and even there it seemed that last Sunday's Pied Flys had finally moved on. I sat in the car for about 10 minutes watching the small sycamores but it just seemed dead. I was thinking of moving on when a small bird flew out of the garden and into the sycamores. A minute later I could make out a female type Pied Flycatcher sitting still on a branch. On Sunday I had gotten out of the car and set my camera and tripod up in full view. Then the bird was quite wary and never allowed close approach. Rather than make the same mistake twice I stayed in the car this time. I started up the engine and manoeurved carefully into position. Picking the best location is tricky, you want to place yourself between the bird and the sun and make sure you're not blocking the road for anyone else. Once you've got it right, shut off the engine and sit still.
This time the bird was much more settled, feeding regularily in one of the small sycamores and even favouring one branch in particular. The only challenge was the light, it varied all the time. Anytime I had an unrestricted view the clouds would pass over and the light would go. When it was sunny the bird would disappear into the shade......bugger!
But I got a few decent shots and if anything it whets my appetite for the coming months when all the good stuff starts passing through.........can't wait!

Female type Pied Flycatcher, Hurley's Lane, Knockadoon Head, Cork - 21st August 2012

Sunday 19 August 2012

Autumn - are we there yet?

I think this signals the beginning of the autumn, here's just one of the many Pied Flycatchers that are hanging around southern headlands at the moment.

female type Pied Flycatcher - Hurley's lane, Knockadoon Head, Cork
Feeding in the small sycamores and along the garden walls at Hurley's Lane on Knockadoon Head yesterday evening. This is one of around 8 birds on the headead itself, I had at least 2 at Hurley's Lane and another one by the caravan park. Mid/late August is perhaps a bit early for these but there seems to have been a big movement of them over the last week across both Britain and Ireland.

Friday 17 August 2012

Kilbaha pelagic

And so it was back once again to Loop Head. This time for a pelagic out of Kilbaha, Co. Clare. Much like my seawatching experiences pelagics have been a mixed bag for me. But I was surely due a good one at some point.
I left Cork and headed for County Clare on Saturday evening reaching Kilbaha about 9pm. Mark Carmody and Owen Foley were already in place at The Lighthouse Inn and after a couple of pints and a few frames of pool we all hit the hay shortly after 11pm. The others by then were en route, travelling from Dublin, Belfast and Kildare over night to be on the pier in Kilbaha at 5am.
Fortunately I brought a set of earplugs so the all night lock-in at The Lighthouse Inn didn't keep me awake. The same could not be said for Mark and Owen who appeared bleary eyed for breakfast at 4.45am.
We assembled in the dark by Keating's pub at the base of Kilbaha pier, doning our water-proofs and dusting off our bins. By 5.20am we were chugging slowly out of the harbour, after another 10 minutes we were passing along the cliffs below Loop Head as the lighthouse shone its beams out across the open sea.

5.20am and the boat heads out of Kilbaha

On we headed as the darkness slowly lifted. In the grey light we could make out the first seabirds, a Fulmar, a single adult Gannet and a Herring Gull. Each inspecting the boat and then moving on.

6am and the sun shines its first rays
We made a north-westerly track from Loop head, the plan being to go about 10 miles out until we reached a depth of about 100 meters and then begin chumming. After about 3 miles we bisected a stream of passing Manxies, as the sun shone its first rays someone picked up the first of many European Storm Petrels. First one, then another and then another, in fact there was barely anytime throughout the whole day when there wasn't at least one European Storm Petrel to be seen from the boat. I think the total count was in the region of 300 plus.

European Storm Petrel
 As the light improved it didn't take long for someone to pick out the first Sooty Shearwater of the day. It passed in the stream of Manxies but it was still a little early to start getting the camera out. A distant Arctic was also the first skua of the day.
Not long after we were joined  by a small pod of Common Dolphin, they joined the boat briefy before getting bored and heading off. Nevermind, as it turned out they were to be another ever present feature of the day. At one stage later in the morning we were joined by huge pod of at least 200 Common Dolphins, wonderful creatures to see so close. At times they were so near you could hear the noise of their blow-holes opening and closing as they broke the surface.
After about 9 miles the skipper announced that we were in about 92 meters of water. The engines were cut and we started chumming. Anthony and Craig had brought a block of frozen chum with them, that was placed in an onion bag and left to drag behind the boat. The skipper also had his own supply. A blue barrel at the back of the boat that contained a vile collection of old rotting fish guts. It smelt like a mix between sewage and chum........."chumage" if you will! But it seemed to appeal to the tubenoses out there. We scooped a good bit into the water and began waiting.

Mark and Ciaran keep a watchful eye as the chum goes in.
It was time to get the camera out and this was when I realised how difficult it is to hold a heavy 500mm prime lens steady as the boat rises and falls beneath you. I struggled all day trying to kept the lens steady and have more blurred images and shots of the horizon and sea itself than anything else. Those with the smaller lighter lens had the right idea, by the time we returned to shore my arms and back were aching.
But at least the birds were there. As I said already very good numbers of Stormies, several Sooty Shears (several of which landed on the surface to inspect our chum slick) and the odd Great Skua also. On the odd occassion a Sooty would make several wide arcs round the boat before not so gracefully crash-landing in amongst a group of Fulmars and helping itself to some chumage.

Sooty Shearwater

A 'graceful' crash-land
We were all happlily snapping away at these and the Stormies when Craig yelled out "skua" and a stunning Arctic Skua passed above our heads. It was initially identified as a Long-tailed Skua but corrected later in the day on review of the many snaps that were taken of the bird. Nonetheless it treated us all to some fantastic views as it took several passes over the boat and harassed a few Kittiwakes.

2nd cy Arctic Skua

Chasing a Kittiwake
Fantastic to see such a stunning bird that close. And just as we were all taking in the skua Owen got onto a Wilson's Storm Petrel. It was a little distant and as I waited for it to come in by the boat I stayed with the skua, looking for the best shot I could get. However the Wilson's preferred to stay out a bit so I didn't even take any record shots of the bird. Through my bins though I could make out the feet projecting past the tail and the pale panels on the upper wing. A second Wilson's was picked out also but it too preferred to keep its distance. So having first seen them in the Southern Ocean on my trip to Anarctica in 2007, Oceanites oceanicus was finally on my Irish list. Thanks to Craig Nash for the following shot.

Wilson's Petrel - by Craig Nash

All smiles - several of us had just ticked Wilson's Petrel (Front row: Graham Clarke, Craig Nash and Philip Clancy, Back row: Mark Carmody, Anthony McGeehan, Conor Foley, Ciaran Smyth, Steve Millar, Donal Foley, Robert Vaughan and Owen Foley)

We continued chumming and after several hours had drifted a further 3 miles. At our furthest point we were 12 miles NW of Loop Head. 3 Great Skuas had kept us entertained after the Arctic Skua and Wilson's Petrels. Up close it is clear to see just how bulky and fiercesome they are.

Bonxie or Great Skua
While I was enjoying my sandwich a small, dainty gull came towards the boat, 'Sabine's'. After Swallow-tailed, my second favourite Gull, a real beauty. And it was soon joined by an adult with a full dark hood.

Adult Sabine's Gull
Shortly after it was time to switch on the engines and head back.

By now the early start was catching up on us all and the boat was a little quieter as we headed in. But there was still things to see. Apart from the ever present Common Dolphins, a second Minke Whale raised its head briefly as we passed and a Pomarine Skua was seen distantly harassing a raft of floating Manxies.

Pomarine Skua chases the Manxies
In several of the Manxie rafts it was possible to pick out 5 or 6 Sooties and Owen found a Balearic amongst one of these also.
By about 1pm we docked again at Kilbaha pier, climbing off our boat (Deva) we gathered for a quick group photo to mark the inaugural Kilbaha Pelagic, the first of many we hope.

The pioneering 'Kilbaha Pelagic' - 13th August 2012

Our trusty launch - DEVA
From there it was back to the Lighthouse Inn for a heart stopping full Irish breakfast and the road back to Cork.
Thanks to Owen for organsing a great day out and to all the others who made the day so enjoyable!

Sunday 5 August 2012

Wheatears on the move

After a strong passage of large Shearwaters (Greats and Cory's) towards the end of the week (which of course I missed) I had hoped to get out this weekend for some seawatching. I set the alarm for 6am this morning planning to head for Ballycotton cliffs. However I wasn't expecting too much, a check of the weather forecast last night indicated slack NNE winds and it was flat calm sea that greeted me at 7am. No surprise really, so I packed my scope away and decided to head for Ballynamona Strand instead, hoping that I might get some close wader views on the high tide.
8am on Ballynamona Strand and I was the only soul there, where else would everybody be at that time on a bank holiday Sunday morning?? The tide was right in and a mixed group of Ringed Plovers and adult Dunlin were poking around the dead weed in front of the car park. I decided to walk the beach towards the lake. In the distance I could see a large group of gulls gathered on the tip at the front of the lake. I checked through them and picked out three juvenile Sandwich Terns, all the rest being Black-headed Gulls. As I moved along the beach there were plenty of juvenile and adult Pied Wagtails, a large and noisy group of adult and juvenile Starlings, many moulting into 1st winter and 2 Wheatears. I tried for a few photographs but as is always the case with Wheatears, once I got within range they took off, all I could see was their white arses heading off down the beach! But it was good to see them nonetheless, signifying perhaps, that after a quiet few weeks, birds are finally on the move once more. Around the corner at the lake there were 5 more Wheatears, a mix of moulting adults and juveniles. I lay belly down on the wet seaweed trying to get a shot as all manner of flies buzzed around me. There's no doubt that these Wheatears will be very well fed when the time comes for them to head out to sea and make their way back towards Africa.
Without a scope I didn't bother to check through the large group of gulls that had gathered at the back of the lake. In fact I'm using a pair of rather crappy bins at the moment as my beloved Swarovskis are on holidays in Austria receiving a much needed make-over.
On the way back I took a little time with one of the Wheatears which decided to stay still for long enough to allow some reasonable shots.

Northern Wheatear - Ballynamona beach, 5th August 2012

As the tide had started to go out I crossed over to check the pools at Shanagarry. At this time of year there should be at least a Green Sandpiper and possibly something better like a Wood Sand. However the best I had was 3 Common Sandpipers, several Little Egrets, a single Stock Dove and plenty of shaggy looking Curlews.
With no really strong sign of wader passage just yet I decided to call it a day there and headed home for lunch.