Thursday 29 November 2012

Two more for the year

I was visiting my folks in Dublin for a couple of days. Birding wasn't my priority but if I could see some Waxwings that'd be great. There seemed to be flocks all over Dublin with one flock being reported on and off over the last few days from a spot only half a mile from my folks house, so chances of seeing some I reckoned were pretty good.
In fact just after turning off the M50, I saw what looked like a single bird perched atop a tree along Wyattville Road. While I stopped at the traffic lights I whipped my bins out from the glove compartment and confirmed that it was indeed a Waxwing. I got some pretty strange looks from the guy in the car beside me though.
The next morning I took a drive along Upper Glenageary Road where a flock had been sighted the previous day. I drove from Glenageary towards Killiney before turning around and heading back down the Upper Glenageary Road in the opposite direction. And this time, about 50 meters, before the Killiney roundabout I caught sight of the flock perched up high in a tree.
Now, my mother has always said that she'd love to see a Waxwing. I promised her that if I found the flock, I'd return to the house, pick her up and bring her to see them. So without stopping I continued back home, collected my mother and we headed back to where I had first seen them. Typically though the birds had moved on. I drove around the corner into Glenageary Hall and found the flock about halfway up that road feeding on some cotoneaster bushes. I was able to draw alongside the flock quite easily and the birds gave great views at eye-level as they fed on berries. My mother didn't even need to leave the comfort of the car. We watched the flock for about twenty minutes before they moved away.

Juvenile Waxwing, Glenageary, Co. Dublin - 29th November 2012

Same bird now on the deck

Aside from eating berries the Waxwings were also enjoying a drink. The night before had been very cold, as the frost thawed off a nearby parked car, a small pool of water gathered beneath it and the birds would fly down and take a drink. Bet that water tasted very cool and fresh.

Waxwings take a morning drink
The birds weren't too bothered by our presence and it was great to be able to watch them so closely. I was particularily pleased to show my mother some Waxwings and to be able to enjoy them at such close quarters.

Here's a link to a short movie clip of them that I posted earlier on youtube.

Youtube clip of Waxwings

Once the flock had moved on I dropped my mother back home and continued on myself to check the east pier at Dun Laoghaire for Purple Sandpipers or Black Redstarts. There were none of either but it was a fine day for a walk down the pier.

Dun Laoghaire East Pier with Howth Head in the background.
East Pier looking back towards Dun Laoghaire itself
I headed back home for some lunch before getting packed up and ready to head back to Cork.
My mother has been busy keeping the back garden birds well fed and all morning the feeders had been busy with Coal Tits and Great Tits not to mention both male and female Blackcaps, Song Thrush, Chaffinch, Dunnock, Robin and several Blackbirds. Just as I was saying my goodbyes my mother said there's a nice Chaffinch on the back wall. She handed me her small pair of bins to look through and to my great surprise and delight it was in fact a female Brambling. A new bird for the back garden and a year tick. What a fantastic surprise. I unpacked all my gear and got a couple of record shots through the glass. I have advised my mother to keep putting niger seed down on the patio nearer to the kitchen to entice it and its Chaffinch buddies a little closer. Hopefully it'll stay up to Christmas when I'm next there and I can get some closer shots.

Female Brambling, Sandycove, Co. Dublin - 29th November 2012
All in all, a great visit to Dublin, lovely to see the family again (always good for the soul) and winter birding around Sandycove, Dalkey and Dun Laogaire always seems to have something good in store.

Monday 26 November 2012

Farewell Cork.......Hello Norfolk!

As some of you out there may already know in January, Polina and I are moving to the UK. It's farewell to Cork and hello Norfolk. From one great birding county to another.
I first came to Cork in 1992 as a post-grad student at UCC and right from the off I have always felt welcome and at home here. With my post-grad completed in 1994 I moved away but always hoped I'd get the opportunity some day to return to Cork once more.
And return I did, in 2005, this time to a job in one of Cork's many pharmaceutical companies. I had just gotten into birding a short while before hand, I was aware of the county's birding reputation but at that stage I didn't need to venture too far to see new birds. In 2005 I was still ticking Iceland Gulls and Black Redstarts so it didn't really matter what part of the country I lived in, there would be new birds for me anywhere.
After a year or so in Cork that started to change and I realised the benefits of living so close to spots like Ballycotton, Cape Clear Island and Galley Head (to name just a few). I learned that in the autumn it was wise to keep your scope and bins in the car at all times, keep an eye on IBN and it would be possible to nip out of work at 5pm and twitch a good bird. I ticked Isabelline Shrike, Dusky Warbler and Pallas's Warbler all by dashing out of the office at 5pm and haretailing it to some local headland before the light went. I remember watching the 2007 Dusky Warbler in Ballycotton village, complete with suit, tie, bins and wellies.....quite a look believe me!
I've had many superb birding experiences since I moved to Cork in 2005. Too many to go through on this blog. But there are a few that stick out in my mind. I'll take the time now to tell you about my top three. As is usual, here they are in reverse order:

(3) Up close with the waders at Ballycotton.

Autumn always brings some good shorebirds to Ballynamona beach. September 2010 was no exception. A flock of about twenty to thirty juvenile Curlew Sandpipers were present one Friday evening but the light was poor and the drizzle persistant. Polina and I went back the next day, the sun shone all afternoon as the birds fed in a small shallow pool about thirty meters in front of the car park. I love Curlew Sandpipers, elegant and well proportioned waders. We don't see too many of them in Ireland, they're mainly present in small numbers as juvenile birds on autumn passage and even then its usually ones or twos. To see a group of this many together was special. These birds too were especially tame. We crept towards them bit by bit and within a short time we were right in front of them, sometimes too close to even focus. We both sat there and snapped away, I must have filled about four memory cards with raw files. We were joined by Richard Mills and all three of us couldn't believe our luck as the birds fed away in front of us, unconcerned by our presence. And just to add to whole thing, at one stage a flock of about five Buff-breasted Sandpipers dropped in and joined the Curlew Sands. Unbelievable! I'll probably not get such close views of either species for a long time, which made it all the more special.

Juvenile Curlew Sandpipers - Ballynamona Beach, Cork - September 2010

Buff-breasted Sandpiper - Ballynamona Beach, Cork - September 2010

Further up the beach were three Little Stints, loads of juvenile Wheatears and a single Snow Bunting. It took me ages to go through all the snaps that evening.
I had seen many great birds on that beach (Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Short-toed Lark, Red-throated Pipit, Buff-bellied Pipit, Bluethroat and so on) but that occasion stands out for me.
The next day everything had moved on.

Late evening - Little Stint, Ballynamona beach, Cork - September 2010
Polina snaps a Northern Wheatear, Ballynamona beach, Cork - September 2010
(2) Ivory Gull twitch, Baltimore, Co. Cork

Many of you will remember the excellent Ivory Gull that Julian Wylie found in Baltimore in March 2009. As far as I can recall the bird was discovered on a Monday or a Tuesday. It was being reported all week long, showing beautifully and even dropping down to take some sardines that had been left for it. I couldn't leave work at any time to drive down and see it. But I cleared the decks and managed to get out at lunchtime on the Friday of that week. I picked Polina up in town and we drove towards west Cork under dull grey skies and heavy drizzle. But by Skiberreen the rain had cleared and the sun broke through. At Baltimore it was cold but conditions were otherwise perfect. We spent over three hours watching the bird. As with the Curlew Sands both of us filled several memory cards with images. The bird had a routine, it would swing out a short distance into the bay, turn around and come in alongside or over the pier before heading back out again. When it was out of sight we'd start reviewing and comparing our shots, drinking coffee, swing our arms to keep warm or just chat with the other birders about just how stunning the Ivory Gull was. Then a call would go up, 'here it is again'...........and the shutters would start clicking once more. By 5pm we were finished, tired but happy. It was, without a shadow of a doubt, the best twitch I have ever been on.
Thank you Julian Wylie indeed!

Ivory Gull, Baltimore, Co. Cork - March 2009

(1) A weekend on Cape

I've had many great weekends on Cape Clear Island. Its hard to pick out the best, but mid-October 2010 stands out for me.
As had become the norm after a few years in Cork, I had booked a few days in the Cape Clear bird obs for mid-October. A Myrtle Warbler has been found earlier in the week by Peter Philips and it obliged by staying until at least the Friday evening when I arrived down. There were already several Cork birders on Cape by then and numbers were swelled when more arrived from Dublin, up North and from the UK. It was busy by Cape standards (maybe twenty birders) but still not a crowd and enough people there to make it a good weekend.
We started by twitching the Myrtle Warbler over at Michael Vincent's garden. The bird showed well for all of us and when we'd seen enough of it we took to ribbing Garry Bagnell over his yellow '500th bird in Britain' t-shirt. To be fair to Garry he took it all in good spirit.

Myrtle Warbler, Cape Clear Island - October 2010

That evening we all enjoyed excellent pizzas in Siopa Beag before ascending the steps to Club Cleire to watch Ireland versus Russia over some tasty pints. The craic continued with Tony Nagle giving Garry an horrendous ticking off for not submitting any of his five hundred plus records to the BTO Altas. Again Garry took it all in great spirits, the craic was massive that night and with my face aching from so much laughter I really had to pull myself away from the place in order to avoid hangover the next day.
The next morning some birders baled off Cape to twitch either a Siberian Stonechat on Galley or a Yellow-breasted Bunting on Dursey or both. I stayed where I was not wishing to spend the weekend travelling hither and yonder. That day I had several Hobby, a Reed Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler and a Red-breasted Flycatcher in Cotters. The Myrtle was still around but a little bit elusive. There were still a nice number of birders on Cape and the craic continued that night. This time with a birders pub quiz hosted by bird obs warden Steve Wing in Cotters Bar. Our team of Tony Nagle, John Lynch, Paul Rowe, Brian Lynch and myself didn't exactly acquit ourselves very well quiz-wise but I'd have John and Tony on my team anytime for pure entertainment value alone.

Right to left - Mary Gade, Victor Cashera, Jim Dowdall, Eamon O'Donnell, Peter Philips, Steve Wing and a birder from Northern Ireland whose name I can't remember (sorry).

Looking beaten (or hammered) - Brian Lynch, Tony Nagle, John Lynch and Paul Rowe

Steve plays a mystery selection from 'Calls of Eastern Vagrants' to a puzzled audience in Cotters bar!

The next day it was clear that a good fall of migrants had taken place. The island was dripping with birds. Down at west bog it was possible to see flocks of assorted birds coming directly in off the sea in line with the Fastnet lighthouse. Some common birds such like Chaffinches and thrushes (including some winter thrushes) but the odd scarcity or rarity mixed in. It was exciting stuff and anything could turn up. A report of a Paddyfield Warbler on Loop Head meant a clear out for some of the listers. I continued to stay put on Cape though.
That day I recall there being at least three Common Redstarts, at least five Ring Ouzels, one Whinchat, one Turtle Dove, one Hawfinch, two Firecrests, several Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, two Blue-headed Wagtails and plenty of Chiffs and Willows.

Record shot - Blue-headed Wagtail, Cape Clear Island - October 2010
John Lynch had a fly over Red-throated Pipit and best of all for me was this stunningly tame juvenile Red-backed Shrike. I spent at least an hour with the bird as it caught bees in Michael Vincents garden. It was amazing to watch the bird chase a bee, catch it and then thrash its sting out against a branch. The bird was probably tired and hungry so it paid me little or no attention as I studied it from about fifteen feet away (I could have stood closer but fifteen feet is the minimum focus distance of my lens).

Juvenile Red-backed Shrike, Michael Vincent's Garden, Cape Clear Island, Cork - October 2010

So that is just a sample of the birding highlights that I have experienced in Cork over the last seven and half years. There are many more, like the 'yankee-trio' on Cape in 2008, a wonderful weekend on Cape earlier this year (see A short visit to Cape) and all of the Great Island Bird races that I have been involved in (see Great Island Bird Race 2012).
But perhaps it is the people and the friends I have met and made in Cork through birding that is the highest point of all. The birding scene in Ireland is small and that is perhaps its greatest appeal. There are many excellent birders in Cork, the standard is high and I'd like to think I learnt a lot by being here in Cork and that my skills as a birder improved during that time.
I hope in six or seven years time that I am writing with the same affection for Norfolk's birds, birders and birding as I am right now for Cork..

Ballycotton Lighthouse as seen from Ballynamoma Strand, Co. Cork

Sunday 25 November 2012

Gulling down 'wesht'

It may well have been my last trip down to west Cork in a very long while. So why not make it a good one.
Owen Foley texted me midweek to see if I would be up for some gulling down 'wesht'. The weather looked reasonable for Saturday and the rain forecast for the afternoon coincided nicely with a 2pm kick-off to the Ireland v. Argentina match which I really wanted to see.
The alarm went at 6am, I gathered all my gear together and slunk quietly out of the house leaving a sleeping wife and three sleeping cats behind me. I waited out on the road for my lift and with the temperature down to -1oC I was glad to hop into a warm car.
We set off from Cork at 6.45am and had made good progress, reaching Bantry by 8am. We stopped and did a quick check, but there were very few gulls around at that time. We would come back to Bantry a bit later. At Adrigole, we pulled over and very soon Owen had picked up a first winter Ring-billed Gull. A very juvenile looking individual, too distant for shots but at least it was a good start.

Early morning Adrigole, Co. Cork - that's frost in the foreground.

We continued along the Beara peninsula and soon arrived at the fishing town of Castletownbere. I started to set my gear up while Owen crossed to the local Spar to stock up on a few loaves of bread.

Fish factory island and Bere Island from Castletownbere, Co. Cork 

I started scanning the far shore for gulls and after about five minutes I picked a single white-winged gull crossing the channel from the fish factory towards me. A smart 1st winter Iceland Gull. It quite readily came to the bread we threw for it. We enjoyed good views for about fifteen minutes before deciding that it would be useful to start checking the gulls over on the roofs of the fish factory buildings.
We drove around, stopping briefly to check the sound between the mainland and Bere Island. As well as several Great Northern Divers, Owen picked up a single female type Common Scoter. We pressed on towards the fish factory and while there were plenty of gulls, the first winter Iceland was the pick of the bunch. We starting throwing bread from the jetty and soon enticed many large gulls. From this side the light was slightly better and allowed brighter shots.

1st winter Iceland Gull - Castletownbere, Co. Cork - 24th November 2012
Once the bread had been devoured the gulls returned to the rooftops. We were satisfied that we had inspected all the gulls and so drove slowly around the opposite side of the fish factory island.

Owen proposes we check the opposite side.

The Common Scoter was a little closer now (but still a good five hundred meters out I would say). I took a few shots for the record though, here she is happily munching away on some west Cork crab.

Common Scoter (and crab) - Castletownbere, Co. Cork - 24th November 2012
With that it was back to Bantry. This time there were decent numbers of gulls at the outfeed. Best of the lot was this smart second winter Ring-billed Gull.

2nd winter Ring-billed Gull, Bantry, Co. Cork
We proceeded a short distance out of the town to a point where it would be possible to check for divers and grebes.
A large Great Northern Diver was easily visible with just the naked eye. Further out Owen got onto a single Black-throated Diver swimming with another Great Northern. We both started scanning the bay and simultaneously got onto a pair of Black-throated Divers swimming together off the very far bank.
We drove on to a small airfield just a little way out of Bantry itself. We walked to the end of the point where views of the Black-throated were slightly better. This single bird was still quite a way out but a record shot was possible.

Black-throated Diver - record shot, Bantry Bay, Co. Cork - 24th November 2012
In all we reckon we had three to four Black-throated Divers, great to see them so well for me. There were probably at least twice as many Great Northern Divers in the bay but no Red-throated and certainly no White-billed or Pacifics (although we did hope!).
Owen had a Black-necked Grebe in flight briefly but I couldn't get onto it. By now a light breeze had picked up and with the temperature still hovering around 3oC it felt bitterly cold. We returned to car. Looking at the clock, it was now 1pm. Time to head to Baltimore, check the fish factory and pier there and then hit t'pub for the match and some grub.
We cut through Ballydehob and Skibbereen and arrived at the fish factory outside Baltimore by about 1.45pm. There were good gull numbers present but nothing special. A curious seal (Grey or Harbour I'm not actually sure) checked us out, probably on the off-chance that there would be some fish scraps and not white bread. Best of all though was an Otter which appeared for a short while. I got some record shots but it was a little distant and by now the light was dimming.

Grey or Harbour Seal, Baltimore fish factory

Otter, Baltimore fish factory - 24th November 2012
We stopped quickly at the pier in Baltimore where a 1st winter Glaucous Gull flew over but never landed. By now it was gone 2pm, time for food and time for the match.
A big spicey pizza, a well earned pint and watching Ireland devour Los Pumas was the perfect end to a great days birding. Thanks to Owen for the driving and suggesting the day in the first place.


Jacob's Bar - Baltimore, Cork.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Winter draws in

I wanted to check the report of a female / immature type Surf Scoter at Ballybrannigan Strand. Brian Lynch had found one there on Sunday afternoon and photos on Irishbirding looked like the real deal. I missed the bird earlier in the year over at Garretstown so this would be a year tick. Interestingly when I first ticked Surf Scoter it was a bird that Brian had found way back in January 2007 over at Carrigrennan Point. So he has a good track record here!
Once again I was a bit slow getting out of the starting blocks. I'm a little pre-occupied these days with our pending relocation to the UK. Our move date is coming down the tracks very fast and there is still so much to do.

Over at Ballybrannigan though there was no sign of the Surf Scoter. The sea looked pretty angry so maybe the bird had moved further out, away from the crashing surf.
The evening was drawing in and I had two choices. Check Roches Point Lighthouse for a Black Redstart (never seen one there but I always felt it has the potential) or visit an east Cork harrier roost.
I went with the Harrier option, quietly hoping to find a juvenile Pallid or another Northern but realistically the sight of four or five birds quartering the bracken before dropping down to roost would be enough.
I reached the roost site at 4.30pm and a single ringtail Hen Harrier was already present. It was getting a whole bag of hassle from two Hooded Crows and so it wasn't long before it drifted off over the far fields.

A Hoodie swoops up as the ringtail dangles it legs
A moment of peace from the Hoodies

I stood there on my own waiting for more harriers to arrive. It's funny, weeks ago at the same spot, a mild evening, the sun dipping amongst the autumn colours, it was a lovely place to be. But this was different, bare branches, a cold wind, a grey sky and some drizzle thrown in for good measure. It was a lonely spot now. The light continued to fade and the ringtail appeared again, a lone Hooded Crow continued to harass it. I waited for more harriers but only one showed. That's worrying, last year at the same spot it wasn't unusual to have up to five birds. What's going on, was last summer a breeding disaster for them? I hope not.
A pair of Ravens croaked overhead and a Peregrine dashed by. By 5pm, the light was as good as gone. It felt spooky and I needed to be home within the hour. I folded up my tripod and trudged back along the path to the car hoping that the solitary ringtail had been joined by some comrades after I left.

Sunday 18 November 2012

Lazy birding

A fine sunny day it was yesterday, chilly but great light. And yet I had to drag myself out. Maybe I'm birded out after such a damp squib of an autumn. It was nearly lunch before I ventured anywhere.
Owen texted to report a Pink-footed Goose with the feral Canada Geese at Rostellan. Worth checking as PFG are rare enough in Cork and this would be a year tick also.

Pink-footed Goose, Rostellan Lake, Cork - 18th November 2012
The juvenile Common Sandpiper that had us thinking Spotted Sand back a few weeks was still around but there was no sign of the putative Lesser Scaup amongst the flock of Tufties. There has been plenty of discussion around this bird in the last few weeks on both IBN and Birdforum. There is probably too much doubt that the bird is a pure or even a hybird Lesser Scaup so I haven't ticked it. As I had never seen Lesser Scaup anywhere there was little for me to add to the ID debate but I still think it just looked 'different' and now that it appears to have left the Tuftie flock it seems all the more interesting. Adding it to my Irish list is not going to push me up amongst the big listers so it makes no real difference there. Learning something about Aythya ID, now that's more useful!
From Rostellan I drove onto Ballybrannigan, A report on Friday of two Waxwings in a nearby cottage garden was worth checking but there was no sign. Though to be honest I'm not too happy peering into strangers' houses with my bins so I didn't look for too long.
I parked at Ballybrannigan strand and had my lunch. Lovely view and the strand may have been worth a check but I just didn't have the urge.

Ballybrannigan Strand, 17th November 2012
I continued back towards Upper Aghada passing this fine Buzzard perched on a telegraph pole receiving the usual nonsense from a couple of Rooks. I took the shot below from the car, if only the Buzzard had turned its head a little more to the right I'd have gotten its eye. A moment later it took off and flew out of sight chased, of course, by the two Rooks.

Buzzard being hassled by Rooks.
I stopped briefly at Whitegate and counted about six Med Gulls. Over at Aghada pier the only Grebes were Great-Crested. I expect it may be just a little early for Black-necked or Slavs but I'll keep an eye out.
By now it was 4pm, time to get home and watch the rugby.

Friday 2 November 2012

Late Wheatears

I mentioned in a recent post that I might go back to Ballynamona Beach to try for some shots of the Wheatears. I noted the first juvenile Wheatears of the autumn on Ballynamona beach on 5th August (see 'Wheatears on the move'). That indicates a very extended autumn migration window for this species. However I suspect that some of the Wheatears that are now present on our beaches are Greenland or 'leucorhoa'. 
Earlier in the week I had noted about two juvenile Wheatears on Ballynamona Strand. One in particular looked quite large, robust and even pot-bellied. Now whether or not it is a Greenland Wheatear I wouldn't like to say. Given the size of it, the occassional very upright appearance and the time of the year, chances are that it is. The Greenland subpecies of Northern Wheatear breed in north-eastern arctic Canada and Greenland and winter in sub-saharan Africa, so are real long distances travellers indeed, especially for passerines.
I had thought that if they were born in Greenland for example then they may not be too wary of people. I imagine Greenland is quite sparely populated and most of these juveniles then would have had scarcely any human contact.
However they remained quite difficult to approach. As with all Wheatears, even if you begin to approach slowly, they become wary and the next thing you know all you can see is their little white-arse disappearing off down the beach in front of you. 
I tried the frying-pan method with this bird but the sand is littered with lots of small stones and the sound of my trusty tefal scrapping along clearly gave the bird the spooks. I adandoned that idea very soon. However near where the bird was feeding there was a nice large lump of driftwood. I had a couple of hours to work with so I decided to get in behind it and wait. And it was quite a wait! Two hours in total I reckon, I'm feeling the effects of it now.

Drift wood hide - complete with frying pan!
I lay on my side peering through a gap in the piece of wood. I reckon the bird may have come closer a little sooner if;

(i) It hadn't been chased by a dog. Actually come to think of it the dog was being chased by its owner, the owner had clearly seen me lying there with my camera as he stared at me long enough through his own binoculars (don't worry he wasn't a birder, a 'dude' at best). It didn't stop him though chasing his dog towards me.......what a maniac!
(ii) A nice elderly gentleman strolled up to me and asked me what I was photographing. I'll let him off as he was old and you should respect the elderly but all the same.......WTF????

Eventually the bird come to within about fifteen feet and enabled me to get some shots.

quite upright posture!

juvenile Northern Wheatear (poss. leucorhoa subspp.) - Ballynamona Beach, Cork 2nd November 2012
The bird posed so well in fact I could have filled two or three 8GB cards with images (I shoot in raw). Eventually it got up, flew past within about a foot of my face and landed on the other side of my driftwood hide. With the sun in my face I decided I'd gotten my shots and headed home.