Friday 23 September 2022

Irish Pelagic #2: The one that almost got away

18th September

A few more migrants were present this morning as we birded to the east of the waist before lunch. A Reed Warbler, a scarce bird on Cape Clear, was the highlight, along with plenty of common warblers, Goldcrests, Wheatears and Siskins. Following a fantastic feast at Cotter's Pub, we descended to the boat for our second much-anticipated pelagic trip. Today we went out due south. Common Dolphins were scattered across the inshore feeding, with some large males fooling us into thinking they were another species at first. 

After an hour or so of travel, Great, Sooty and Manx Shearwaters began to appear and by mid-afternoon we had come across a couple of large rafts of birds loafing on a mirror-like sea. A number of Euro Storm Petrels were seen, easier to spot over the flat sea. The conditions had really calmed since yesterday giving the ocean a sub-tropical feel.  

Great Shearwaters were again numerous, with several hundred seen during the afternoon, but they were outnumbered by Sooties today and Manx were also more abundant, with several hundred seen. 

After a while, we parked up near a big raft of shearwaters, to soak up the scene. Paul decided to put some fish oil and scraps in the water to see if we could bring in any petrels. Sure enough, several Storm Petrels buzzed past, though none stayed to feed and didn't approach the boat too closely. A couple of Arctic Skuas chased Kittiwakes but didn't come into the chum slick. After a while, Jane spotted a pair of fins of the starboard bough. Surely a Basking Shark! But no, a surfacing Dolphin allowed a size comparison and it was quite small. Paul confirmed it as a Blue Shark and said it might come into the chum slick. Sure enough, within a few minutes, the shark was below us, cruising slowly through the crystal clear water and nuzzling the chum bucket. What a spectacular fish, the brightest blue on the dorsal side, with amazing, long hydrodynamic pectoral fins on either side. Simply stunning. Another two sharks appeared, one of which was much larger. Meanwhile, the shearwaters paid no attention!

During this spectacle, a Storm Petrel came past quite close. I pointed it out to Adam and Paul and knelt down to get some pics. I didn't look through my bins - big mistake! It did a couple of loops before melting away. I got back to scanning the rafts of shearwaters looking for something unusual. 

The following evening, sitting on the plane back to Manchester, I looked through my photos on the back of my Dad's camera. I was pretty shocked to see the photos of 'that' petrel: it had clearly pure dark underwings, projecting feet and a wrap-around white rump! Yikes! This looked great for a Wilson's Petrel. After confirming this with Paul and Team Birdo I then realised I had another photo of the bird showing the upperwing, complete with grey carpal bar. It was a Wilson's! I was delighted to have got these pics or else the bird would have got away unnoticed, but I felt sad that I hadn't looked at it through my bins and got the group on what would have been the rarest bird of the trip. Doh! Well, these things happen if you take the eye off the ball. I spoke to Adam and Paul and they remember seeing the bird, so at least they saw it. 

Wilson's Petrel - the one that almost got away
I continued to grill all the shearwater flocks for something rarer, sadly not knowing that the rarest bird had just flown past. It was great birding, but try as I might the Pterodroma was not present. A juvenile Arctic Tern flew past, the only one of the trip.

Some of the rafts I looked through. Really big numbers of birds again. Many of the Sooties looked really fat, so the birds must have been feeding really well in the calms seas. Perhaps this was why the chum was not attracting much. Too soon, it was time to head back to the island. What an epic trip again.


Fastnet: Gateway to Pelagic Heaven

17th September

Saturday dawned bright, with a light northerly wind. We birded The Waist seeing a few common migrants: Blackcaps, Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs, Siskins and a Redpoll. Breakfast was a bit slow, but we soon found our way to the quay to meet our skipper MichaĆ©l O’Cadogan and his good ship ‘An GeascaneĆ”n. 

 A few Harbour Porpoises surfaced on the way out to Fastnet Lighthouse, three miles southwest of Cape Clear. This iconic spot was thronged with Kittiwakes and other gulls and we scrutinised them for a Sabine's, though unsuccessfully. Still, it was cool to see this lighthouse up close.

Up to now, we had seen very little in the way of pelagic birds, but Fastnet proved to be a gateway to something very special. A few miles further on, out of nowhere a handsome Great Shearwater appeared and gave us a breathtaking fly-past. A lifer for many of the group, this elicited beaming smiles, but little did we know about what was up ahead!

 The first Great Shearwater, with Fastnet in the background

A little further on and Paul and me could see a lot of bird activity. Short-beaked Common Dolphins appeared, coming in close to the boat to the delight of the group. Another Great Shear came in for a look at us - presumably smelling our chum bucket! A Sooty Shearwater followed, looking chocolatey brown in the morning sunshine. 

This was feeling promising! Up ahead there were birds on the water. Shearwaters! Michael slowed the boat to a crawl and we drifted into a large raft of shearwaters. I had seen rafts of Manx Shearwaters off the Scilly Isles previously, with a few Great and Sooty Shearwaters thrown in, but this was something else. About 40% were Great Shears, 40% Sooties and 20% Manx! There were literally hundreds of birds present and the chuckling and squeaking calls were all around. Dolphins surfaced among them, bumping them out of the way and soon a shout went up for 'whale' and the familar profile of a large Minke Whale broke the surface. A European Storm Petrel suddenly appeared, flickering across the water, followed by another a few moments later. There were birds everywhere: on the horizon a continual band of large shearwaters headed east and here and there further large rafts of shearwaters loafed in the morning sun. 'Our' raft held over 800 birds, but with the amount of activity elsewhere, there must have been a couple of thousand Great and Sooty Shearwaters in the vicinity. Absolutely mindblowing!

 Minke Whale and Common Dolphin

Above: A Bonxie nails a Great Shearwater

I looked around the boat and the whole group was beaming. This was worth the three year wait and then some. I scrutinised the rafts and passing birds as carefully as I could, desperately hoping for a Fea's Petrel or something else. A Cory's Shearwater appeared briefly and disappeared just as quickly; it was our only sighting of the trip. Suddenly, a large bushy blow went skywards from the back of the flock and the huge arched back of a big Humpback Whale shattered the quiet. Wow! The leviathan blew four or five times, before arching his broad tailstock, and lifting his huge white fluke into the air, glistening in the sunshine, to a spontaneous round of applause from the group. He sounded and disappeared, only for another Humpback, a small individual to appear on the other side of the boat. This was getting crazy. 

In the distance, we spied a large trawler trailed by a big flock of gulls and other birds. Besides a few Bonxies, we'd not seen many skuas so we decided to intercept the trawler and see what was occurring. It turned out that he had mostly attracted a large group of gulls, but there were also loads of Great Shearwaters following on, a few Fulmars and Storm Petrels. He was gunning north so we followed him for a while, before he sped off into the distance. Somehow, time had really got on and we decided to head back to Cape Clear. 

What a trip this had been. We estimated at least a couple of thousand each of Great Shearwater and Sooty Shearwater, c500 Manx Shearwater, 15 Storm Petrels, eight Bonxies, two Humpbacks and eight Minke Whales. Not a bad start! That night, all I could think about was getting back out the next day...


My Dad kindly leant me his camera so I could get some video.

I have put some videos on Youtube here.

Good things come to those who wait (two years!)

Thursday 15th September 

Thanks to the Covid 19 Pandemic, our August 2020 Irish Adventure had been postponed, not once, but twice, so it was with great relief and excitement that we finally got to make the trip. 

Co-led by Paul Connaughton the legendary seabirder from Shearwater Wildlife Tours and finder of two new seabirds for Ireland (South Polar Skua and Scopoli's Shearwater) and myself (very keen but pretty amateur seabirder and generally unable to find his way out of his bedroom in the dark), we had an intrepid group assembled from York Birding, all eager to set sail and see some of southern Ireland's delights.

Meeting Paul at Cork airport, we birded our way down to Clonakilty, visiting several estuary and beach sites (highlight Curlew Sandpiper and Pale-bellied Brents), along with the mighty Old Head of Kinsale, where we notched up our first Choughs of the trip, two Peregrines and a surprise Irish Hare. 

Wheeling Choughs

Pale-bellied Brent Geese


Friday 16th September

Up early, we were on Galley Head for dawn, to watch a spectacular sunrise over the Irish Sea. Good numbers of Meadow Pipits were around, along with a few Wheatears. A fly-past Whimbrel was the only one of the trip and a distant Osprey tantalised high over the bay to the south. 

It was quiet on the head really and frustrating that the end of the peninsula was private, just like Kinsale, which must be very frustrating for local birders. We pressed on to the delightfully-named Shite Lane at Dundeady, which has held a range of Yank landbirds and recently an Aquatic Warbler. More migrants were present here, such as Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs, but not a sniff of scarce. 

After breakfast back at O'Donovans, we checked out and headed south via a few estuaries. White's Marsh and Rosscarberry were good value, with Little Stints at each and a Curlew Sandpiper at the latter among a range of common waders. Frustratingly, the weather had been too benign to bring in any Yank waders, but it was enjoyable birding nonetheless. 

We found our way to Baltimore which to catch our ride to Cape Clear Island. The ride took 90 minutes or so, as we headed past the barren Skernish Island and round Cape Clear. A few white Black Guillemots were bobbing on the sea and a flock of feeding Kittiwakes were enjoyed, but little else of note was seen.Onto the island, our digs were great, overlooking the renowned Cotter's Garden, which has hosted Blue-winged Warbler and Ruby-Crowned Kinglet amongst piles of other rares. A Pied Flycatcher was flicking about in the large ash; a good start!

A walk before dinner in the pub was fairly quiet, with a Yellow Wagtail, a couple of Wheatears and a Whitethroat to show for our efforts, along with the local Choughs and Ravens, and countless Robins. 

After food and a few pints of Guiness, I headed to bed to dream of the seabirds that hopefully awaited us offshore the next day.


Thursday 22 September 2022

Late-night Moth Twitch

An early night was planned before our long-awaited Irish adventure, but this all changed when Paz messaged to say he had caught a Clifden Nonpareil, a spectacular moth, nearby at Moreby. Paz kindly arranged to meet me in a layby at the next village of Naburn, so mounting my steed, I cycled along the dark, tree-lined cycletrack, across the river and along Howden Lane to meet him. 

What a majestic beast! After twitching one by train in Scarborough a couple of years ago I could not believe I was looking at one of these beauties within a ten minutes cycle ride of home. Thanks Paz!

Sunday 11 September 2022

York Birding Trip: Flamborough Head, 11th September 2022

It had been a good week for birding the Yorkshire coast, with a big fall towards the end of the week grounding large numbers of Scandinavian migrants. So, it was good timing to be heading out for the YOC field trip to Flamborough this morning. Whilst waiting to assemble the troops in the lighthouse car park, we enjoyed a female Redstart on a fence at the back of the gorse field, plus two more on the western edge. A flyover Tree Pipit buzzed overhead, whilst many Meadow Pipits headed determinedly south, along with gangs of Swallows. First up, we looped down the new wild bird crop alongside the motorway hedge. Here, a flurry of warblers, included two Garden Warblers feeding on blackberries, an exquisite Lesser Whitethroat with two Common Whitethroat cousins, lemon-yellow Willow Warblers and a surprising Sedge Warbler. 

Looking seaward, a Hobby was spotted sitting atop one of the Fog Station towers. We next checked out the exposed shoreline, where single Knot and Dunlin were with a gathering of Turnstones, with the odd Curlew and Oystercatcher thrown in for good measure. Offshore, several Red-throated Divers, most in summer-plumage, were loafing with Guillemots and feeding Harbour Porpoises. A couple of Manx Shearwaters headed north, along with a lumbering Great Skua. More unexpected was a Gadwall heading south and a couple of Teal. 

The Bay Brambles and Golf Course Willows were quiet, though we saw the Hobby again, being mobbed by the local House Martins. It powered off over the rooftops. Two more Redstarts and a Pied Flycatcher showed well in the Golf Course Compound as we headed round to Old Fall. Little of note stirred in the northern Old Fall hedge, though the Hobby gave us a good show catching insects overhead, two Buzzards circled distantly and another Tree Pipit flew over. 


Hobby catching an insect


A Wheatear on the strawbales, hinted at what was round the corner. We checked out the southside of the plantation; several Wheatears were feeding in the stubble field, with a Brown Hare and another Redstart fed on the field edge. A Great Spotted Woodpecker announced itself by calling loudly as it flew overheard. 

 Round on the southside, we paused a while in this famously good spot. A fine male Redstart was showing along the hedge, with a more skulking female. A couple of Yellow Wagtails flew over and flocks of Linnets bounced around the stubble. A family of visitors made their way up the otherside of the hedge, pushing the Redstarts closer to us - great! 


A yellowy warbler dived in to the hawthorn in front; presumably a Willow? It then appeared on the edge of the bush, turned its head, revealing a big orange beak, pale lores and a curious peaked head- Icterine Warbler!! It then jumped up on to a dead branch right out in the open, enabling all of us to get cracking views. No way! We'd found a good bird. This was a lifer for some of the group which made it all the sweeter. After half a minute, having checked out its pale wing panel, long primary projection and thick blue-grey legs, it flicked off into the plantation, leaving us all beaming like Yorkshire cats. 

Our Icky!

The Hobby then gave us one last fly past. 


My phone beeped and to my surprise, Vicky had sent me a pic of what looked like a Pine Hawkmoth sitting on my drying shirt on the washing line! Nuts - this would be a first for our garden, so I messaged back asking her to please scoop it up in a tupperware. More of that later...

Very happy, we wandered back towards the lighthouse and lunch. Our third Tree Pipit flew over, but there was no sign of the Yellow-browed Warbler reported from the cottage gardens. 

After lunch, we checked out Thornwick Pool, where the juvenile Garganey was showing beautifully, preening right in front of the hide. The juvenile Little Stint was less obliging, feeding at the back of the pool. A solitary Tufted Duck, several Teal and Dunlin were at the pool too. We decided to do a loop of Thornwick, the clifftops and Holmes Gut. It was pretty quiet, with sunny skies and a strengthening southeaasterly sapping our energy. We ploughed on, with little more to show for our efforts.

Garganey, Dunlin, Mallard

Having managed to resist the temptation of a beer in The Viking, we waved goodbye to some of the group, then went back to the Outer Head to do one last scout round the lighthouse grasslands and the motorway. Little stirred though we half-heard what might have been a Yellow-browed Warbler. Three young Swallows sitting on the fence seemed quite content and watched us as we wandered back to our cars and departed. A fine day, in great company. 


So, that Hawkmoth.  I got back and to my delight, Vicky had contained this large insect in a pack lunch box. Gorgeous! I uploaded a pic to Twitter and somebody pointed out that this wasn't in fact a Pine Hawkmoth - which would have been a good find in our little garden - but an even more amazing Convolvulous Hawkmoth, something I'd only ever seen before at Spurn! Incredible. With a little gentle encouragement, it spread its wings revealing a lovely pink and black-striped abdomen. Thanks Vicky!