Thursday, 2 February 2017

January - Larne Lough and Rathlin

I'm going to try to do monthly blog posts this year, which on this occasion amounts to copying and pasting a few photos and providing a score update to the end of the month.  In summary: a decent enough start to the year in Larne Lough with the first Waxwings for a couple of years and a last minute Iceland Gull on 31st.  The most remarkable thing about this bird was its complete lack of interest in sliced pan - a first patch record of a white-winger buggering off at the sight of bread. Such scenes have not been seen in the borough since the Bonaparte's.  The annual arrival of small gulls is well underway and will be checked closely over the next month for hubba-bubba pink legs. 
My only trip to Rathlin of the month produced some good winter birds for the island.  The long-staying drake Gadwall and a female Goldeneye at Craigmacagan Lough, a Knot with Redshank at Mill Bay and a lone Whooper Swan (which rarely land on the island) at Ushet Lough.  There has been a dearth of divers along the East Antrim coast this winter, so I wasn't surprised when I failed to spot any off Rathlin despite favourable sea conditions.  Sadly, it appears the female Pochard that has wintered at Ally Lough for the last few years has not returned.  
Larne Lough - 82 species / 98 points / 60.5%
Highlights - Jack Snipe, Slavonian Grebe, Iceland Gull, Waxwing
Rathlin Island - single visit in January - 47 species / 55 points / 40.8%
Highlights - Goldeneye, Gadwall, Whooper Swan, Knot

Ushet Lough, Rathlin Island

Knot, Sandy Bay, Larne

Oystercatcher, Sandy Bay, Larne

Adult Med Gull, Sandy Bay, Larne

Little Egret, Glynn

Jack Snipe

Knot - recorded on both patches in January, unheard of.

Song Thrush whilst looking for Waxwings

Black-headed Gull making a splash

Black-headed Gull

It posed

Patch Birding

Purple Sandpiper



Wave runners


Sunset from the Rathlin Ferry

Friday, 20 January 2017

Copeland Bird Observatory - Richard Donaghey

After two very enjoyable years of taking part in the PWC on my home tramping ground of the Bann Estuary on the 'North Coast' I've decided to add an extra new patch to work in 2017... Copeland Bird Observatory. I first visited the Observatory in September 2012 and have been hooked ever since, probably in part due to seeing a Northern Ireland rarity on my first visit, a Common Rosefinch. 

Common Rosefinch

As many of you will be aware, the Copeland Islands lie in the Irish Sea off the County Down coast and are home to Northern Ireland's only bird observatory. The Copeland's consist of three islands, Big Copeland, Lighthouse Island and Mew Island. The focus of my attention will be Lighthouse Island, which, despite it's name, does not currently have a lighthouse (which is now on Mew Island) but it is home to Copeland Bird Observatory. Mew Island sits around 50 metres away across 'Copeland Sound' and can be well observed from around the Observatory buildings. To stretch the patch, I've included Big Copeland (increases it to 2km2), although I've yet to set foot on the island and most observations will be restricted to boat. 

Big Copeland below, Lighthouse Island top left and Mew Island top right

I usually have four ringing/birding weekends on the island each year and the odd day trip if I can squeeze it in. My time therefore will be rather restricted to c10 days on the island, generally between April and October. This year I hope to get a few trips outside of this period to pick up a few of the wintering species to up the totals. 

The islands are quite different from my regular patch, with a somewhat different range of birds including more seabirds etc. and I have recorded at least 10 species here which I have yet to tick off in the Bann Estuary. There have been over 200 species recorded at the Observatory during it's 60+ year history, so my current total of 93 needs quite a bit of improving. I have seen some nice species in the past few years include White-tailed Sea Eagle, Common Rosefinch, Ring Ouzel, Yellow-browed Warbler, Hen Harrier and Long-eared Owl although I would be just as pleased with a Blue Tit or a Dipper on the island.

Ring Ouzel

I am quite unlikely to top 100 species in a year but I should be relatively competitive in comparative scores, with a bit of effort, with targets to beat of 77 species (113 for Obs as a whole) last year and 66 in 2015. 

The visitor season at Copeland Bird Observatory opens up in late March and runs through to the end of October, so I would encourage anyone interested to come and stay! 

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Larne Waxwings

A recurring New Year's resolution of mine is to write more blog posts. What better excuse to kick things off than a flock of Waxwings? You spend two months meticulously checking all the berry bushes on patch then one day you head to the shops for a sausage roll and are confronted with a jangling noise from heaven as you open the car door. I look around, not many berries, but 13 punk silhouettes on bare branches.  Branches that just so happen to have been included within the patch boundary four years ago. I even had my camera with me to take some quick shots. For that reason, I bought two sausage rolls and a chocolate brownie. I now have heartburn, but frankly who cares!

And then they were off...

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Highlights from Larne and Rathlin 2016

This was going to be the year I'd finally find that mega on Rathlin. In the end I only managed 10 visits to the Island, which is considerably less than my first year taking part in 2013, when I recorded 121 species over 30 visits.  Looking back, I'm not sure how I managed it back then. Nevertheless, among the species recorded in 2016, were some absolute crackers.  A close encounter with a White-tailed Eagle on a fine spring day will be forever etched in my memory. Setting off in hope of a glimpse, ending up floored in the heather looking straight to the heavens, listening to its wingbeats as it fended off ravens, hooded crows, buzzards and a peregrine, making each appear like a speck on the horizon. 

White-tailed Eagle

Unringed and untamed

Cruising the thermals above the north cliffs, with a Raven giving chase

WTE dwarfing Buzzard

Other visits produced some decent birds like Whinchat, Cuckoo, Gadwall (rare on the Island), White-fronted Goose, Snow Bunting, Barnacle Goose, Hen Harrier and Twite.  Plus some patchgold in the form of my first Mistle Thrush in eight years!

Common Scoter flying by Rue Point

Male Whinchat at Craigmacagan Lough

The year ended on 96 species for 120 points and a pathetic comparative score of 82.8%. My comparative target for 2017 is 135 points which gives me some hope of reaching 100%.  Someday that mega will fall. 
As for Larne, it was gulls, gulls and more gulls.  Here's a selection seen on patch this year.

Several Little Gulls appeared throughout the year around Larne Harbour

First fledged Black-headed Gull seen at Sandy Bay on 2nd July - over 5000 pairs bred this year

This Kumlien's Gull was first found off patch but eventually made its way to Glynn

Amazing views of Med Gull guaranteed
Standing out from the crowd
Several Iceland Gulls were seen but strangely I couldn't find a Glaucous Gull this year. Another six point larid was a Ring-billed Gull at Glynn Station on 28 February. There wasn't much else to shout about, but other decent birds seen included Goosander, Jack Snipe and a patchtick White-fronted Goose.  A nice run of birds in November added my first ever patch Velvet Scoters, a flyover Skylark, a patch scarce Stonechat, a couple of Long-tailed Ducks and a Slavonian Grebe.  The year ended on 121 species for 158 points and a comparative score of 96.3%.  A decent enough effort.

I have signed up both patches for 2017 and look forward to seeing what I can find.  Here's a few other bits and pieces from around Larne.

Patchtick Greenland White-fronted Goose, Glynn, 12 March

White Wagtail, Sandy Bay

House Martin, Glynn

Common Tern, Glynn

Knot, Sandy Bay

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Patch Birding on the Bann Estuary by Richard Donaghey

I've been birding around the Bann Estuary for a few years but it was only once I signed up for the Patchwork Challenge in 2015 that I put in some proper effort. It's actually great encouragement to put in more time, record full lists and look at everything, (sometimes with a second look) where, in the past, I would maybe turn a blind eye to the likes of gulls. 

Bann Estuary patch in a broader context

The estuary is located on the north coast of Northern Ireland at the mouth of the Lower Bann, wedged between the beaches at Castlerock and Portstewart Strand. There is a pretty decent spread of habitats; predominately sand dunes, beaches, mudflats and open sea but with a nice mix of reedbeds, dense scrub and a small Ash Woodland. Most of my attention is focused on the central estuary and scrub from my main ringing site on the Portstewart side and the bird hide on the south bank. Some sites, such as the difficult to access Ash Woodland at Kilcranny get one visit a year to tick off a few species. You really get to know your patch the more you work it, so I now know the only spots to find the likes of House Martins and Tree Sparrows or the single pair of Spotted Flycatchers.
Most of my observations are made while ringing at Portstewart Strand and it is a great excuse to be on site pre-dawn. The nets have also chipped in with two Northern Ireland rarities in the last two years with Lesser Whitethroat and Yellow-browed Warbler, which otherwise would have been missed.  

Bann Estuary patch map

As with many patches, common species can be quite a challenge, so if I pick up Coal Tit or Long-tailed Tit I'm rather pleased. Some obvious omissions from my list and from what I have gathered from historic records are Collared Dove, Dipper, Jay, Treecreeper and Moorhen - although I have seen all five just outside the patch. Coot is another example, with just one available recorded observation in over 60 years!

From historic records and my own observations I have accumulated a total of 220 species for the site, with 127 sightings of my own. As mentioned above I haven't found any records of some very common species like Dipper, Jay and Moorhen but I would suggest they have been seen many times.  
There are some nice species in the historic records with Alpine Swift, Avocet, Barred Warbler, Collared Pranticole, Foster's Tern, King Eider, Nightjar, Richard's Pipit, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Temminck's Stint to name but a few.  

Yellow-browed Warbler from October 2015

As for the 2016 challenge, I kicked off my visits in mid January and I have had fairly consistent coverage with about 30 visits in some shape or form, 13 of those while ringing.  
January started pretty well with a few good species to tick off early in the year with Fieldfare, Little Grebe, Merlin, Siskin and Turnstone, which are all fairly uncommon.  I spent my first day Sea Watching at the end of February and added Razorbill, Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Kittiwake plus a patch tick Red Throated DiverGadwall was another nice species for the month. March was a bit of a slow burner with only six new species but one was a Great Crested Grebe, which I had seen last year but somehow overlooked it!

Spring kicked into gear on the 2nd of April with the arrival of the first Chiffchaff, Greenshank, Sandwich Tern, and Wheatear plus an Iceland Gull. The final two days of the month added Fulmar, Grasshopper Warbler, House Martin, Sedge Warbler and Knot (only my second record). The 30th also brought a personal tick in the form of a breeding plumage Spotted Redshank, although it had been found the day before.  Surprisingly I didn't get my first Blackcap until the 1st of May, with a Cuckoo on the same day. The best day of the year on the patch was on the 22nd of May when I picked up four new species for the year, including two patch ticks: Garganey (drake), Scaup (female) plus a Little Egret (only one sighting of 3 birds last year) and a female Whitethroat which appeared in the nets. The final visit of May included a few hours trawling through Kilcranny Wood and I picked up the usual Spotted Flycatchers in the same spot, plus some Long-tailed Tits but I still can't get myself a Treecreeper!

Now we are at the start of June, I am pretty pleased with my position, sitting only 7 species behind my species total for last year. I am also now at the point where I reckon I have ticked off the majority of the species I expect to get with the exception of Common Tern, Kingfisher and Water Rail, so anything else will be a bonus and you never know what they might be! The summer tends to be pretty quiet on the estuary, plus I am heading off for three weeks in June, so I don't really anticipate anything new until things get moving in August. From there I can hopefully kick on and hit my 120 species goal plus a good bird or two in the nets would be nice!    

As an added bonus I have also picked up five colour ringed birds so far this year with two Sanderling (Greenland & Iceland) and three Black-tailed Godwits (Iceland & two to be confirmed but look to be French and Portuguese). This follows on from last year with a Scottish Oystercatcher and one Icelandic and one French Black-tailed Godwit. There have also been a number of metal ringed birds, particularly Sandwich Terns (probably from Inch, Donegal) but I've not been able to read these. 

Anyone wishing to visit the site or wanting some information feel free to get in touch through the Causeway Coast Ringing Group Blog -

Also check out:

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

#PWC2015 Ireland Minileague Results

The #PWC2015 Ireland Minileague results are out!

I will post the final 2015 league tables on the right hand side of the blog here alongside the 2014 and 2013 scores for future reference in due course, but in the meantime head on over to the main Patchwork Challenge blog (linked here) to see how it all went down come the end of December in full detail.

Some of the rarity highlights from the 2015 Ireland Minileague

Friday, 15 January 2016

Birding North of the Wall* – Larne Lough Review 2015

*My patch lies just north of the filming location used in game of thrones for the wall and Castle Black.  Do not go north of the wall, only bad things happen there…

Magheramourne Quarry, aka The Wall

This was my second year competing around my hometown of Larne.  Following one of the best years for rarities I can remember in 2014 (see blog posts here and here and year review here) was always going to be difficult, and so it proved. In a change to my usual style of annual review, I have decided to go down the tried and tested monthly summary route.  The following covers the highs and lows of the year:

As ever, much of the focus was on gulls, producing 10 species during the month.  In between throwing copious amounts of pan loaf out the car window, I also managed to locate a few species which can be tricky enough to find on patch.
The first of these was a female Pintail at Glynn Station on 4th January, no doubt one of the birds which had been present there for much of 2014.  A pair of Gadwall turned up on 3rd and lurked around the lagoons into February.  Four Goosanders (a male and 3 females) were present off Glynn on 22nd January.
Following heavy snowfall in the hills, 2 Jack Snipe were flushed alongside 10 Common Snipe at Glynn rugby club lagoon.  The first time I have seen 2 birds together on patch!
Several species which were seldom recorded in 2014, if at all, also put in an appearance.  A flock of Fieldfares (not recorded in 2014) and Redwings (single record in 2014) flew over while watching a Dipper singing along the Inver River on 17th.  A female Stonechat (single record in 2014) was at Waterloo Bay at the very north tip of the patch on 7th and after only a couple of sightings last year, Treecreepers were spotted along Glynn River.
The first winter Iceland Gull found in December 2014, did the decent thing and lingered into the New Year.  A hopeful scan offshore from Sandy Bay on 31st in an attempt to year tick Fulmar produced a typically brutish adult Glaucous Gull making its way north.  Small numbers of Mediterranean Gulls were seen at their usual hangouts throughout the month.
Iceland Gull


One of the most interesting observations in February was a significant inland movement of Skylarks (single record last year) over the patch on 15th.  A fine clear morning during an uneventful walk at Sandy Bay was enlivened by the sound of Skylarks overhead.  I could only hear most of them, but did manage to pick up a few birds in the bins and watched them come in off the sea and head straight inland – perhaps to their breeding grounds in the Antrim Hills.  I made my way to Glynn Station and here too Skylarks were making their way inland.  This time in small groups of up to 6 birds, with a few Meadow Pipits and Lesser Redpolls thrown in for good measure.

A new first winter Iceland Gull was found in the harbour alongside the long-staying bird from January. The first returning Lesser Black-backed Gulls (none over-wintered this year) appeared at the Inver River on 14th and adult Mediterranean Gulls returned to their breeding grounds from 21st.

I resorted to taking a chair to Glynn Station to aid my gull grilling capabilities.  With occasional flocks of 5000 gulls it can be time consuming to work through each and every one in fine detail.  So I check any large gull for white heads or white tails or small gulls for black bills or pink legs…  All Common Gulls were checked for large bills and yellow eyes.  In this fashion, I was absolutely delighted to pick out an adult Ring-billed Gull on 28th February bathing at the mouth of the river.  This was my fourth patch record of this species, which is probably annual amongst the hordes of Common Gulls, but very difficult to find.
A Slavonian Grebe was off Glynn Station on 3rd, a species which seems to be making something of a comeback to the lough after several years’ absence.
As ever, this month sees the first of the summer migrants arriving back on patch.  The first of these was a male Wheatear on waste ground at Curran Point on 22nd.  A lapwing was seen displaying here a few times but thought better of it in the end.  Chiffchaffs and Sandwich Terns were back by the 28th.  The only other noteworthy bird was a drake Scaup which appeared at Glynn Station on 22nd.
Spring migration was by now in full swing, with the following species first noted on the dates given in brackets:
Black-tailed Godwit (7th), Blackcap (9th), Swallow (11th), Willow Warbler (11th), Whimbrel (12th), Common Sandpiper (19th), Common Tern (19th) and House Martin (26th)
Amongst these common migrants were a few less expected visitors.  None more so than my first ever patch Ruff on the 9th - with godwits off Glynn Station.  A patch record count of 129 Black-tailed Godwits were tallied on 15th.  A pair of Shoveler were found acting suspiciously at Glynn rugby club lagoon on 3rd and a lone Twite at Sandy Bay on 29th had been colour-ringed on the Mull of Kintyre.

Pair of Shoveler

An Arctic Tern was seen at Glynn on 2nd May, which is unusual for the patch as they don’t normally breed in the lough.  The long-staying Iceland Gull was last seen on the first of the month. An adult Little Gull was at Sandy Bay on 23rd.  Sand Martins can be tricky to see on the patch, so it was pleasing to connect with a few migrating north past Larne Promenade on 8th; Sedge Warblers and Swifts had returned to traditional sites the same day.
Also on the 8th, I managed to discover a breeding site for Whitethroat, which I also found to have several pairs of Meadow Pipits, though sadly no sign of any Stonechats (or shrikes) which is what I had been hoping for.
Meadow Pipit


Unseasonal gales were a feature of early summer and when they blew onshore I tried some seawatching.  This began to pay off on the first day of the month when I finally connected with Manx Shearwater and Fulmar!  My mind then tried playing tricks on me when I picked up a Storm Petrel offshore.  Not totally convinced by my initial sighting, it was confirmed as a patch tick a few minutes later when another flew past the north end of the promenade.   Things got even more exciting on the 6th when a couple of Arctic Skuas lingered off Sandy Bay harassing terns and small gulls.  Talking of small gulls, two or three more Little Gulls were found around the patch during the month.  After a long wait, a Roseate Tern finally put in a brief appearance at Glynn Station on 17th.
Away from seabirds, the only other addition to the year list was a pair of Spotted Flycatchers along Glynn River on 7th.

Predictably, year ticks ground to halt but there was still plenty to keep me entertained, particularly helping to keep tabs on progress on Larne Lough Islands RSPB Reserve.  After several sightings during the month at Glynn, a pair of Arctic Terns were confirmed breeding on Swan Island.  The first breeding attempt by this species in many years.  For other nesting terns and gulls, it was an excellent year, with high counts and productivity estimates for species like Black-headed Gull, Mediterranean Gull, Sandwich Tern and Common Tern.  A single pair of Roseate Terns bred and managed to hatch young.
Juv Common Gulls (left) and Juv Med Gull (right)

Fledgling Black-headed and Med Gulls (near bird)

By the middle of the month a few early returning waders (no doubt failed breeders) started to appear such as Lapwing, Greenshank, Dunlin and both godwit species (including a breeding plumaged Bar-wit).

As part of the first ever all Ireland survey of Mediterranean Gulls, I checked the roost at Glynn Station on the evening of 27th and was delighted to record the presence of a colour-ringed first year bird and four fresh juveniles.  White 3KNT had been ringed as a chick on Kreupel Island in Holland on 27th June 2014, before being re-sighted at Portrush in County Antrim on the 11th September the same year. 
In what was an exceptional year for Little Gulls around the patch, another was off Glynn Station on 1st.  An adult Roseate Tern and another Ruff were seen there on 4th, during my second count of Mediterranean Gulls (2 juveniles and same colour-ringed bird still present).  Seawatching produced the third Arctic Skua of the year on 15th.
Another month went by without any additional species or highlights.  I only managed to log 46 species on Birdtrack the whole month – I’ve no idea what I was doing!  I must admit the effort levels did begin to wane, it’s hard to keep going when there is absolutely no hope of finding anything. 


Whooper Swans were seen arriving along the coast from the middle of the month and numbers began to build at Glynn for the winter. A Slavonian Grebe here on 25th was no doubt a returning individual.  It says a lot about birding in east Antrim, when the first Knot of the year wasn’t discovered until 29th. 
A #patchday bird race organised for the weekend of the 7th/8th brought much needed impetuous to proceedings and a full day in the field on 7th produced 72 species including a Blackcap in the willows at the back of the rugby club lagoon - a spot that might just produce a decent passerine someday. Three Treecreepers in the hedge at the leisure centre were most unexpected and were watched feeding away to the sound of dance music echoing from a spin class indoors.  Always up for a challenge, news of a Common scoter just north of the wall (another game of thrones reference in an attempt to drum up readership) had me out early morning on 14th.  I couldn’t see any distant black puddings (local name for scoters) bobbing on the water from Glynn Station, but a view of the lough from Magheramourne (off patch) told me the bird was still present and that it should be visible from patch.  I did some calculations – in between a boat and a large pink buoy just beyond the west edge of Blue Circle Island.  It was then back to Glynn Station, where it was eventually year ticked from several kilometres away.  After all this effort it came as no surprise to see one off Larne Promenade the following weekend.

Whilst searching for scoter man, I discovered there were now two Slavonian Grebes off Glynn, which became the first time I had seen more than one in the lough.
Another species that took its time to show up was Purple Sandpiper, which after being absent all of last winter, appeared at Sandy Bay on 23rd and are still present as I write.  A male Stonechat was in a garden there the same day – just my second of the year.  The year finished in style when a cracking adult Iceland Gull appeared in Larne Harbour and gave terrific views before flying south never to be seen again.
Adult Iceland Gull
Stonechat - just three records in two years!

The most glaring species not recorded this year include Reed Bunting (none breeding at rugby club lagoon), Water Rail (presumably present, but never saw or heard one), Golden Plover (don’t do Larne) and Kestrel (one was seen along Larne Promenade recently but not by me).  Other species that appeared on patch that I failed to see included Pink-footed Goose and Great White Egret (see blog post here about this debacle).

The year ended on 126 species and 160 points for a comparative score of 95.2%.  I entered 24 complete lists and 1638 records to Birdtrack (I only do complete lists when I spend the whole day birding within ID40, I don’t do sub-sites). 
In conclusion, this year was painful at times but enjoyable none the less.  My main aim for next year is to tick Daenerys Targaryen.  How many points for a dragon?