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


  1. Hi Graham. The birders name is Tim Murphy. Best of look in Norfolk.........

    1. Tim Murphy, that's right! A senior moment there Peter.
      Tim if you're reading this, my apologies!