Sunday 30 September 2012

Yellow-browed breaks the monotony

I had booked into the bird observatory on Cape Clear Island for Friday night. The final weekend of September would be as good a time as any to visit but when Steve Wing met me with 'I hope you've brought your own' I figured I was in for a lean few days.
I arrived off the 10.30am ferry on Friday morning and after dropping my gear off I set about the usual places. Cotters had a single Chiffchaff and 2 Goldcrest but was otherwise quiet. On route to The Waist I met with Eamon O'Donnell, he was returning from Olly Gulley direction where apart from 3 Crossbills all was quiet there too. I decided to change my route and cover some of the east end of Cape. A female Blackcap appeared briefly at The Waist with a Chiffchaff there also. A Willow Warbler was in song below the tennis courts (subsong but still in song.........weird!!)
I followed the road along by south harbour, at the Priest's House there was a White Wagtail along with a Pied Wag catching flies on the lawn. I passed the National School just as the kids charged out to the playground for lunchtime and continued up the steep hill towards the former Post Office. With nothing but Wrens, Dunnocks and Robins there I moved on along the mass track before depression set in and I decided to head back to the Obs.
Denis Carty arrived on the 3pm ferry and with Steve and Mary we travelled up the lighthouse road checking the gardens on the east side before concluding that it too was dead.
That evening we all enjoyed tasty pizza in Siopa Beag and some fine pints in Cotter's Bar. Owen Foley and Dara Fitzpatrick had arrived on the late ferry and were optimistic about their chances of digging out something really good on Saturday.
The next morning it was more or less the same all over again. With my spirits somewhat dampened by the previous day I walked my own route towards Olly Gulley. A female Blackcap was again the best bird on show. At least Owen, Steve, Dara and Denis picked up Lapland Bunting near the Wheatear field, I wasn't even remotely tempted to follow the long path around and look for it myself. At around 11am I threw the towel in, headed back to the Obs, grabbed my gear and took the 12 noon ferry off Cape. I salvaged something from the weekend by travelling on to Knockadoon Head in east Cork where Paul Connaughton had found a Yellow-browed Warbler in the willows near the campsite. This was my first ever Knockadoon Head YBW, I've seen YBWs on Cape Clear, Mizen Head, Old Head of Kinsale, Power Head and Galley Head but never Knockadoon. And I always thought those willows looked good for a Yellow-browed or Pallas's. Tricky birds to photograph but this one moved into the open for one brief moment. It was like he knew that I needed a little cheering up. He sat in the open for about 3 or 4 seconds, enough to capture one or two images before popping off again.

Yellow-browed Warbler, Knockadoon Head, Cork - 29th September 2012
Lifted a little by this I decided to head out on Sunday afternoon and do the Old Head of Kinsale. It was a complete waste of time. One Chiffchaff in the plantation was the best, otherwise it was a pointless slog around the same old spots. When will I learn.
I can only hope the strong south-westerlies of late yesterday afternoon and last night will finally bring something worth the wait.

Monday 24 September 2012

An (almost) expensive finds tick

I had been to Knockadoon Head on Saturday but after just 2 Blackcaps and 6 Chiffers it was clear that the fall of Yellow-browed Warblers long the east coast of the UK would take a while trickle through.. A whole afternoon bashing the hedgerows left me thinking some 'wadering' would be a better option.
And so on Sunday lunchtime I headed for Ballynamona beach hoping for a Little Stint or Curlew Sand at a minimum. However on arrival my hopes were dashed. A group of kite-surfers had taken over the beach and I knew from past experience that these really do spook the birds. I spent 30 minutes at Ballynamona and while there reasonable numbers of Dunlin, Ringed Plovers and Sanderling present, the poor birds were being constantly disturbed by dogs, people and kites. As with my previous post, I really do feel for these poor birds at times. The constant disturbance must be exhausting.
I hoped Pilmore might at least be a bit quieter and I was right. Hardly a soul there. It was about 2 hours after high tide and the water was starting to recede. A big flock of mixed 'smalls' had gathered along the beach just up from the carpark. I climbed down onto the beach and began to sort through them. Nothing unusual however, but fantastic to see the birds up close like that, keeping still they just walk right up to you. It's good practise if nothing else just to note the various different stages of moult in Dunlin and Sanderling and to admire the moulting summer plumage of some of the Turnstone. Present also were smaller numbers of Bar-tailed Godwit, Knot and Grey Plover (or Black-bellied Plover to my US readers). A flock of about 30 Brent Geese swelled to about 50 within the hour. Good to see them back but a sign that winter is on the way.
Having satisifed myself that I had checked all the 'smalls' as closely as possible I started moving further east towards Redbarn strand. Moving along the worn path I noticed a flock of about 50 Golden Plover. On the off chance that one of their American cousins might be mixed in I started to scan through the Goldies with my scope. No sign of any striking superciliums there, but the flock was moving around a good deal as a couple of Hooded Crows harassed it. So I kept checking in case I had missed something. Once or twice I'd see a bird with what looked like a bright supercilium but each time it was just a well marked Goldie, perhaps a trick of the light. But suddenly I passed one bird that really stood out, it had a noticeably pale and distinct supercilium and was clearly smaller and colder looking. I moved about 10 meters to get better light and lost the bird. Damn, I thought, possibly I had just gotten onto another well marked Goldie. I kept scanning and then picked it out again, yes, now I was sure, American Golden Plover, only my second Irish bird and a finds tick.....happy days! And funnily enough I remembered that I had never seen an American Golden Plover alongside European Golden Plover. And when you do see them side by side the difference is quite sharp. I had seen a single bird (my first Irish) on Muckross estuary near Clonakilty in 2009 and large flocks wintering on the Argentine pampas in 2007 but as I say, never alongside their european counterparts. I think the photo below illustrates the contrast reasonably well.

American Golden Plover, Pilmore, Cork - 23rd September 2012
Getting a shot though would be tricky. Sitting out on the mud as they were would mean you couldn't just stroll up to them. There was no cover worth talking about and any approach would surely flush the flock.
Time to bring out the frying pan. But first I had to sneak up to within about 50 feet, I managed this carrying all my gear (including tripod) and a frying pan by assuming a crouched walk. Once I was about 50 feet away I took a few tripod mounted shots before taking the camera and lens off and dropping them into the frying pan. This was the tricky part though. It wasn't a smooth mudflat but strewn with stones, weed and shallow pools. The closest I could get was about 20 feet, I had some reasonable shots but had made a stupid and potentially very costly mistake. I had kept the gear dry but each time I handled the camera I was covering it in wet sand. In my eagerness to get close and get a good shot I didn't notice the wet sand getting in around the shutter and other buttons on the camera body. The autofocus suddenly failed and the review on the LCD screen disappeared. Oh, bugger!!! Enough was enough, I was wet, my gear was in serious trouble and I had probably gotten close enough. With the flock still on the deck and clearly not bothered by my proximity I crept slowly backwards. And god how stiff was I! Back at the car I cleaned and examined my gear. The camera body seemed truly knackered.
At home having dried myself off, I started to check if my insurance policy would cover a new camera. I tried switching over lenses and guess what.........the camera came back to life again.........thank goodness. And its been fine since. So I learnt a valuable lesson and will bring a small hand towel next time tied to my belt to wipe the sand off my hands and keep it away from the camera.
Here's the best shot I got, could have been a very expensive one. A delightful little bird indeed and am very pleased with myself to have dug it out.

American Golden Plover, Pilmore, Cork - 23rd September 2012

Saturday 22 September 2012

It's tough being a bird

A pair of juvenile Semipalmated Sandpipers were enough to tempt me to Garrettstown beach near the Old Head of Kinsale late last week. A species I'd seen 4 times before in Ireland but still special enough to make the short trip.
3 of the other 4 birds I'd seen had been quite approachable so with nice light, the chances were good for a decent snap or two.
However when I got to Garrettstown I found just one bird associating with a small mixed group of Dunlin, Sanderling and Ringed Plover. The group was flushed twice by walkers during the first 10 minutes I spent taking 'scope views. Each time the flock was flushed the Semi-P went with them and landed further and further up the beach. Getting close was going to be tricky and even if I did, it would be even harder to stop dogs and walkers moving between me and the birds.
However I had a plan up my sleeve. I wanted to try the 'frying pan' technique for photographing waders which I'd seen used on an American bird photography DVD. The technique seemed perfect for shooting waders on an open beach with little cover. The idea is to place your camera and lens sitting in a frying pan, lie down on your stomach so you are eye level with the birds and push the gear along through the sand in front of you. Panning (excuse the pun) is made easier by gripping the frying pan handle. Creeping up on the birds is made much easier and your gear stays dry and steady. I may not have explained the technique too well but believe me it works.
So I donned my waterproofs and wellies, picked up the frying pan and made my way towards the flock. Once I was within 50 feet I lay down and started creeping. Once I reached a distance of about 20 feet I stopped where I was and started to take shots. My approach had been so stealthy that most of birds in the flock remained asleep including my quarry, the Semi-P Sandpiper. And here in fact was the problem, the light was good and from the right side, I was exactly eye level with the bird, but its head was tucked under its wing as it slept. Not a great pose, no other option but to hope it would awake briefly and give me a decent image. I lay there for a good 30 minutes as it slept. Up to then no one had walked between me and the flock at any point. But then from the corner of my eye I noticed a dog walker approaching, I gestured carefully to him to go around me, he obliged but his unleashed Jack Russell didn't. The dog had got me in his sights and charged at me barking, realising that my quarry would be now well awake and alert, I held my nerve and fired off a few shots. At the last second the dog got distracted by the birds and veered away from me towards them scattering them up into the air and out across the surf. Despair, all that time and they were gone. I shook my head at the dog walker but he didn't seem to care. With the flock gone I stood and straightened myself up. Wet sand was stuck all over me (though not on my gear), sea water had leaked into my wellies and up my legs, I was cold and stiff. When I looked up 4 or 5 people were approaching me. Evidently the scene of photographer stalking bird and Jack Russell stalking photographer had been an interesting one. A small group of walkers had watched the events unfold with mild interest and amusement. They asked if I had got my shot. I showed them the results and explained that the little bird I was interested in breeds in the tundra of arctic Canada and winters in South America. Probably weakened from a trans-atlantic flight it was a pity, I said, that it had to be constantly flushed by loose dogs and walkers. I hoped they understood my point.
Wet through and with one decent shot I headed back to the car to change and grab a drink.

Juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper, Garretstown, Cork, 21st September 2012
In the one hour I was there the flock was flushed 4 times, remonstrating with dog walkers seems only to lead to abuse and scorn. Surely the constant flushing reduces the birds chances of survival. Weakened from constant short, quick flights, less time spent resting and feeding and greater exposure to predators each time they alight. It breaks my heart to see someone's much loved pooch charging with abandon along a strand scattering waders in their path.
OK, rant over. With that I moved to the Old Head to check the gardens for migrants. The plantation was dead, I ignored the 'No trespassing' signs and walked down to the Magic Garden and Gulley. I probably shouldn't trespass like that but there was no-one about to ask for permission. I just make sure to close all gates and leave no litter. If a loose bull gores me I'll take the blame. In any case there were no birds down there either. I walked the road back down along the headland and in the garden beside what must be the smelliest farmyard in Ireland, I had a single Chiffchaff and a Spotted Flycatcher. Several stray cats were lurking in the long grass beneath the trees where these 2 birds were and a Sparrowhawk dashed through at one point........the odds are really stacked against these poor birds making it to Africa alive!!!

Spotted Flycatcher, Old Head of Kinsale, 21st September 2012
The next 3 days of easterly winds will hopefully drop something good onto our headlands, lets just hope whatever it is survives our dogs, stray cats and walkers!!

Monday 10 September 2012

The year so far

September is a bit late to start thinking about a year list. However for one reason or another, I decided to tot up how many species I'd seen in Ireland this year already. The result was a measly 144. Its not the low number that bothers me but rather the absence of certain species. Missing from this year's list are:

Whooper Swan
Tree Sparrow

And not one species of owl seen (LEOs heard at least late one night in February).....Oh for shame!!

Anyway, there's still a bit of time to go before 31st December and peak season is just upon us. But it's a reminder nonetheless, in the coming scramble for rares, not to overlook the every day stuff.
And while I pondered all of this I realised that the window for Green Sandpiper is closing, I know a little pool very near to the Dunkettle interchange coming into Cork city that is almost a cert every year for Green Sands. So with that I popped out there Sunday evening and picked up two birds bobbing around in the shallows, it might be another year before I see the next ones!

Monday 3 September 2012

Autumn again

Saturday was the 1st September, to my mind the start of autumn. The silly season that, as birders, we wait all year for. The weather conditions didn't suggest that there would be anything special out there (a week of westerlies mainly) but you never can tell. And to celebrate being reunited with my beloved binoculars, which had spent 3 weeks on holidays in Austria getting a make-over from Swarovski, I decided to check a few spots around east Cork. I might just add that if you own a pair of Swarovski bins or a scope and you have the warranty card it's well worth having them serviced, my bins came back looking and feeling as good as new, just in time for silly season.
Anyway, Saturday was one of those fine autumn mornings, clear skies, a light wind (in the city at least) and a little 'nip' in the air also.
I'd missed the high tide at Ballynamona, so many of the 'smalls' were spread out over the beach. However on the decaying seaweed in front of the car park were at least 50 wagtails, and most of them White Wagtails with a few Pied Wagtails thrown in. I consulted with Alstrom et al (Pipits & Wagtails of Europe, Asia and North America) later and have tried to age and sex some of the White Wagtails, I could be miles off, but here are my guesses.

adult female winter

adult male winter

hmmmh - adult female moulting to winter (not sure though)

Present also were 3 juvenile Wheatears and one fine moulting male (who wouldn't pose for pics).

Juvenile Northern Wheatear - 1st September, Ballynamona, Cork
Further on up the beach were plenty more, possibly up to 20 birds. Also nice to see so many juvenile Ringed Plover and Dunlin, clearly they had had a good breeding season.

Dunlin, Ballynamona Beach, 1st September 2012

Juvenile Ringed Plover - Ballynamona Beach, 1st September 2012
As much as I could, I checked through them for an LRP, a Little Stint or some American 'peeps' but to no avail. A single Whimbrel was the best other wader, a flock of about 200 Sandwich Terns busy flying up and down the lake contained 2 Arctic Terns but no Black Terns. I took a path back away from the beach to avoid flushing any birds and also to check if any Buff-breasted Sandpipers were hiding in the long grass, sadly not.
Back at the carpark I stopped to chat to a visiting UK birder before meeting up with Owen Foley and Dara Fitzpatrick. We took a short coffee break before heading further east to Knockadoon Head. The cloud had rolled in and the wind had picked up by the time we got there. It was pointless looking in any of the sites on the western side of the head as the wind was so strong. So instead we covered the sheltered west facing paths around the campsite. Dara picked up a nice Painted Lady butterfly resting along the path, I will never forget the invasion of Painted Ladies in 2009 when they were just everywhere, beautiful creatures. We stopped further along the path and began scanning out to sea. I got onto what I thought first were two juvenile Peregrines but once I noticed the white panels on the primaries I realised they were skuas. Dara correctly called them as light phase adult Arctic Skuas. Instead of passing on they remained in the bay chasing Sandwich Terns. I returned to the car for my camera and tripod but by the time I returned they were much further out (hence this distant cropped shot).

adult Arctic Skua (light phase) - Knockadoon Head, Cork 1st September
With a strong wind shaking all the bushes there was little chance of finding anything so we moved away from Knockadoon Head. On the way over to Pilmore strand Dara picked up a Spotted Flycatcher in the trees along the edge of a sugarbeet field. On closer examination there were 2 juvenile birds and an adult with a juvenile Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff in the same tree also.

juvenile Spotted Flycatcher - 1st September 2012 (nr. Knockadoon Head, Cork)
By now it was mid afternoon, we stopped to check the mudflats at Womanagh where there were plenty of Ringed Plovers and Dunlins, for me it was time to head home. Dara and Owen continued on towards Pilmore Strand while I called it a day.
Bird(s) of the day was Arctic Skua, no rare or scarce waders or passerines just yet but signs of movement are there for sure.