Sunday 8 September 2019

Tacumshin Magic

The weekend after a poor ten days spent seawatching at the Bridges of Ross in late August myself and Brian McCloskey, another young Irish birder, discussed heading down to Tacumshin for a few days birding. In conjunction with two other young Irish birders, Dublin based Joe Proudfoot and Wexford based Cian Cardiff, we quickly managed to get a plan together, and by Tuesday evening we were powering down the M11. Tacumshin wouldn't know what hit it.
    We arrived at Tacumshin in the evening. Despite the rapidly fading light we quickly dropped off our bags at our AirBnB and hit the lake. The lake was enveloped in an all-encompassing and all-drenching misty-drizzle. The conditions were some of the worst you could have encountered, but despite that we managed to see the continuing Little Ringed Plover, in what would be our only views of the species during the week. A few curlew sandpiper and little stint picked out of seething masses of small waders whet the appetite for what was to come. We bade our retreat back to the house as dusk fell and prepared for a serious day of birding.

Wednesday morning and we were on the lake by 0700. The numbers of small waders were astounding. Cian managed to pick up the continuing bairds sandpiper from a flock of Dunlin feeding in relatively high grass. No mean feat. We had decent but brief views of this bird, and I managed some phonescoped record shots. This would be our only decent look at this bird. As we moved on across 'the patches' we reached an aggregation of small waders. A small juvenile stint was picked up distantly. We initially penned this as a little stint, but some features were noted at the time, such as lack of any white 'tramlines' on the mantle of the bird, and a generally cold appearance. This left a feeling of uncertainty in our heads as the bird was lost, and we spent at least an hour trying to relocate it. When eventually it was relocated we had much better views, and it quickly became apparent that we were looking at a juvenile semipalmated sandpiper, a rare vagrant from America, and a new bird for me. At one stage we even had it side by side with an adult little stint, a great comparison. As the bird got even closer, down to less than 4 metres at one stage, we began to have second thoughts- was it too rufous for a semipalmated sandpiper? Was the extent of the gape notch within the range for a SemiP? With prolonged observation we decided it fit the bill, and news was put out. A great find and a real group effort. It's safe to say we were all pretty pleased at this stage. We continued to bird the lake and enjoy the surfeit of waders and other birdlife. On the way back to the east-end we decided to check the beach, where I picked up a black tern, apparently the first record of the year for Wexford. Continuing back down onto the lake we worked our way back to the car-park. Myself Cian and Joe spotted two small passerines flip over some vegetation and land not far away. Assuming they were pipits, but intending to check just in case, I made my way over and picked one up in the binoculars... to find myself looking at a stunning lapland bunting! The bird, reacting to being spotted, flushed, and flew off calling with its compatriot. This was an unexpected but welcome surprise. Lapland bunting had been a 'bogey' bird for me, so to finally see one was great. We would go on to hear up to 6 of these birds in the coming days and on the last day finally get good prolonged views of one on the ground. 

Leaving the lake we went on to Lady's Island, where we had distant views of the Great-White Egret that had been lingering around there for some time. 

The evening was spent in the 'Forgotten Corner' watching marsh and hen harriers making their way to roost. A green sandpiper flew high calling to the west. A great end to a bird-filled day.

The following morning we worked our way out onto the lake early again. No sooner had we crossed the channel at the east end than Cian had picked up a Pectoral sandpiper feeding some way up with Redshank. It soon became apparent that there was not one, but two present. This later became three. A Finnish birding tour group arrived just as the 'Pecs' were found. These rare American waders surely proving to be a fantastic start to their trip in Ireland, and they certainly put smiles on our faces as we were treated to nice scope views of them feeding in the open. As myself and Joe were crossing the channel to the patches we had a further two Pectoral Sandpiper fly over calling. We managed to establish the Finnish birders were simultaneously watching the other birds, so a count of 5 Pecs for the day was reached- excellent going! The Finns picked up a female/immature type Garganey on the lake, which was also great to see.

We continued out as far as the Forgotten Corner, enjoying great views of Curlew Sandpiper as we went. Here I managed to pick up the juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper again, and fortunately all the Finns managed to see it too. The rest of the day was spent looking around other Wexford sites without much success. In the evening we returned to Tacumshin for more fantastic views of the Semipalmated Sandpiper in gorgeous evening light. At one stage it fed literally metres away with a juvenile Curlew Sandpiper, the latter fitted with a BTO metal ring. Fortunately I was able to eek enough detail out of my photos to establish the ring number, and hence discover the bird was ringed on the night of the 30th/31st of August in Ynyslas, Wales. As we watched the duo a pair of Green Sandpiper briefly dropped in before flying off, filling the sky with their piercing whistles. 

The following day was our last, and the morning had us out on the lake as on previous days. Strong winds dampened our hopes however we powered on regardless. Lapland bunting was one of the highlights on the way out to the patches. The SemiP was still present, although I missed it, engrossed with a skulky wader which transpired to be a Pec. Much better views were had of this later. One of the trip highlights came on the way back as we flushed a Lapland bunting. Joe kept eyes on it as it flew around distantly and returned to a patch of open ground not too far from us. As a result we managed to get super 'on the deck' views of the bird as it fed on seeds. Fantastic!

Before leaving the lake for the last time I decided to look for Bearded Reedling. A normally quite-reliable species here, at one of its few Irish breeding haunts. This would have been a new species for me, never having visited Wexford beforehand. Despite some serious searching all week long we had had no success whatsoever on this front. However I was delighted to pick up a juvenile at the eleventh hour, and had fantastic views of it perched up on Phragmites reeds. 

The trip was over, but the memories will definitely last. I feel we've proved what a formidable team the young birders of Ireland can be when united. The craic was unsurpassable and the birding excellent. In honour of the former birding group of rarity-finding fame- the Punkbirders- we've christened ourselves the Spunkbirders. And we'll be back!

Lapland Bunting record shot
Bairds Record Shot
The Spunkbirders in action 

Watching the unrelenting pursuit of a meadow pipit by a merlin was one highlight- the pipit eventually escaped
One of the 5 Pectroral sandpipers we found

Our Juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper

Welsh ringed Curlew Sandpiper
Green Sandpiper evening flyover

The Jean-Claude Van Damme of the bird world. A cracking juvenile Bearded Reedling


Sunday 3 March 2019

Messina Straits-Species Focus- Pallid Harrier

It's been a long time since my last blogpost, but with a huge back-catalogue of photos to share I decided to put a few posts together, this one focusing on my time in the Straits of Messina last spring.

One of the real draws for me, and for any birder visiting the straits of Messina in March/April, is undoubtedly the pallid harrier. This bird is internationally 'near-threatened' and in Europe the population is only in the range of 300-1100 pairs. The Messina Strait being one of the most important European flyways for this migratory harrier. This species is, as well as being difficult to see in western Europe, absolutely stunning, so when I heard that upwards of 70 were recorded in the Straits each spring I started booking flights! In total I saw around 80 of these fantastic birds, predominantly second-year birds.

As with other Circus harrier species the pallid harrier is sexually-dimorphic, i.e the males and females vary considerably. The females and immature birds are an brownish with a white upper-tail, while the males are a most incredible ghostly silver with a 'shard' of jet black on each hand. This often made the males easily identifiable from a considerable distance. The size varies considerably between males and females, females being much larger than the diminutive males, while still more or less retaining the same characteristic light and bouncing flight-style. The relatively long and slender wings (compared to a hen harrier) give this bird a very elegant impression, although not as elegant as the even-longer winged Montagu's Harrier.

    I saw my first Pallid Harrier about a week after I arrived, on the 21st of March. To my delight it was an adult male! The next few Pallids we saw were adult males too, one or two birds coming close-enough, but  the majority were generally distant to my disappointment. One of the most important features of harrier migration is the differing phenology of male and female harrier movements. Basically males migrate first, likely with the aim of securing a breeding territory. Later the females and immature birds pass through. Due to some calm weather in late March just as male pallid passage was peaking we ended up seeing fewer than we would have hoped, due to the birds being able to shoot straight across the Tyrrhenian sea, in effect bypassing us in Calabria.
    All was not lost however, as during the remainder of April the conditions for the migration of the 'ringtail' harriers (female and immature) were in our favour. We ended up seeing dozens of second calendar-year birds (birds born last spring) as well as a few females. On one cold and blustery mid-April day the stars aligned, and a strong passage of second-cal pallid harriers, due to lack of thermals, was forced to pass at low altitude right over our heads! This allowed for some fantastic photo opportunities. I hope I managed to do these fantastic raptors justice with the below shots!

A slightly distant male, likely a 3rd calendar year bird, still with brown tinges to the plumage and underdeveloped black in the primaries


Probably my best Pallid shot, this bird came ridiculously close 
One of a few second calendar year birds that passed extremely close to the watchpoint


I chose to include this shot as it nicely captures the distinctive wing shape, very wide base tapering smoothly to a point, quite unlike the long and parallel edged wings of the similar Montagu's Harrier  

Pallid with a Honey Buzzard

Friday 27 April 2018

The Messina Straits- Part 1

I've just arrived back in Ireland after 5 weeks in Southern Italy, where I was counting raptors migrating through the Messina Straits. And what a place! In total I saw nearly three-thousand raptors of 22 species, including hundreds of harriers, and dozens of the globally endangered and stunning Pallid Harrier, as well as many other fantastic species such as hundreds of bee-eaters and hordes of swallows and swifts. Over the next while I'll be posting a series of blogposts going into depth on some of the various bird families seen, but first, an overview of the project and the count.

So what on earth was an 18 year old Irish lad doing in Calabria? 
Now all birds are great, but there's something special about raptors. An undeniable draw, a certain powerful allure. As an Irish birder I often feel hard done by when it comes to experiencing these magnificent birds, we just don't have that many here. On a very good day one might see 10 individuals of 6-7 species of raptor in Ireland. There's just a sparsity of birds of prey in the country. In theory it's bad, in practice it can often be worse. Just before I left for Italy I went on a round trip from Galway to Achill, specifically with the intention of birding. A trip of nearly 5 hours and 270km... only one raptor seen at the end of the day! So naturally I was keen to get a raptor 'fix', and depositing myself in the middle of one of Europe's most important migratory raptor flyways, during peak spring migration, was just common sense!

I stayed in the region of Calabria (the toe of the boot) in a small ski-resort town called Gambarie, nestled on the edge of the impressive Aspromonte national park. The project I worked on is run by Ornis Italica under the guise of the 'Strait Observatory'. Observations consisted of 9-11 hour stints per day with at least two observers watching and counting every passing raptor from a hill-top with a fantastic view of Sicily, the Strait of Messina and the Aeolian Islands. For those so inclined all of the daily observations can be found on trektellen,

I met many great and like-minded people from all-over Europe while there, a testament to the draw of these birds, and indeed, the spectacle of migration.

Weather was more variable than anywhere I've been before. It started off mild in mid-March, with some productive days counting, before the temperature plummeted, with at least a foot of snow and freezing temperatures for the guts of a week. It slowly heated up going into April, and by the end of April it was quite warm indeed. 

Below I've included some shots of the watchpoint and environs. Keep an eye out for more blogposts in the coming weeks, there are some very nice pallid harrier shots coming...

The team on the 18th of March, minutes before an Eastern Imperial Eagle flew by

The Aspromonte Mountains

Sicily and the Aeolian Islands

The iconic Punta del Faro

Swift in a blizzard
This image perfectly sums up the second half of March...Summer birds in not so summery conditions

Marsh Harrier male with the Ski-slopes in Gambarie as a backdrop

Friday 12 January 2018

Finland Part 2- Porvoo and Viikki

Day 2


Sunday morning and Joe and I were up early again to meet Owen. We headed east today, reaching a feeder that had been set up near Porvoo. The target species here were mostly woodpeckers. Directly after arrival we walked up to see a crowd of birders already assembled. Within mere seconds of reaching them we found ourselves watching a female white-backed woodpecker in the trees above us. While we watched this impressive woodpecker working its way around a branch it transpired that some birders to our left were watching a pygmy owl! We quickly got eyes on this little ball of attitude as it sat on a fallen branch being mobbed by various tit species, looking fairly grim. Unfortunately despite having impressive scope views this owl quickly flew off, leaving us looking for more. It wasn't to be, however some colossal black woodpeckers soon arrived and diverted our attention. We had these large woodpeckers feeding on fat balls strung from trees, a species I certainly wasn't expecting to see so tame. Also at the feeders were brambling and willow tit. 

Ural Owl

    Owen mentioned that a Ural owl had been seen in the area of late- mostly spotted in an area of extremely dense commercial spruce, immediately adjacent to the feeder site. However these tightly packed trees allowing very little light through presented an absolute nightmare for birding in. Myself, Joe, Owen and a Finn headed in to try our luck all the same, it was surely worth a shot.
    To maximise our efficiency we split up. Owen went one way, and myself, Joe and 'The Finn' headed another. Myself and Joe ended up quite close together as we entered a small clearing in the forest, the type of clearing that felt just perfect for a roosting owl...
    A flurry of awkwardly flapping large grey wings, a quick shout and utter panic, myself and Joe found ourselves watching what had to be the Ural owl batting its way clumsily away from its roosting site and further into the  dense forestry. The other two arrived at the commotion but were too late to see the bird. 
    We had a general idea as to where the bird had gone, but it was apparent that it would not be playing ball like yesterdays Great Grey. Nonetheless we headed on to try and get perched views. This time though we all split up properly, searching the whole forest. We all spent a while scanning the obscure shapes above us in the darkened canopy for any sign of life, any shape that didn't quite fit in with the surroundings. As it transpired it was I who spotted the owl next. 
   About 10 metres away, two-thirds of the way up a spruce rested a shape that stopped me in my tracks. Slowly lifting binoculars to eyes I followed the curve of the birds back, slight streaking visible, right up to the face. The bird was looking directly at me, and probably had been long before I spotted it. I just had time to absorb the facial details, barely processing what I was seeing, before the bird hopped, turned and flew off again. Although brief and slightly lacking these views were enough to clinch the bird as a Ural. I shouted in vain to try and get others on it but the owl had already disappeared. Despite further searching we could not relocate it, and proceeded on to our next location.

Rough-legged Buzzard and Eastern Black Redstart

    Next stop was a large open area where a rough-legged buzzard had been spotted during recent weeks. While in the area we stopped to check a large redpoll flock which had been holding a few Arctic redpoll. We saw several Arctics, one very well, but I'm not sure whether or not they'll be going on my list given the highly turbulent state of redpoll taxonomy at the minute.
    Owen and Joe caught a glimpse of a rough-legged buzzard sat up on one of the many pylons in the area, and we pulled around to try and see the bird with the sun at our side. Unfortunately by the time we got around to be in a position to view it the bird had disappeared, and it was looking like I wasn't going to see this species at all. Fortunately Joe managed to pick one up in a field at a later location. We got satisfying scope views of it eviscerating a vole. After some time admiring this bird we raced off back to helsinki to make the most of the remaining daylight. 
    First we attempted to twitch a three-toed woodpecker. This bird was alas nowhere to be found and despite heavy searching we continued on empty handed. We headed straight for Viikki after that with the intention of twitching the eastern black redstart which we dipped the previous evening. Immediately upon arrival we had the bird feeding down to about two metres, surrounded by an admiring crowd of big-lens photographers and birders. Despite being a charming little bird, this sighting is slightly marred by the fact that the bird was opening and closing its bill in a very unusual fashion, indicating perhaps an illness or injury of some sort. The bird was found dead a couple of days after we saw it. A sad end, but in reality this may happen to many tired migrants, and it was only due to the birds faithfulness to a small area that the body was found.
    To finish off the day we headed to the farmyard overlooking the forest at Viikki. Here myself and Joe ticked great grey shrike, and watched in amazement as it obliterated a shrew, before being completely overshadowed by some blistering goshawk flight views! What a way to end the day! 

By my tallies we saw somewhere around 50 species (the line being blurred by subspecies and what-not) out of which 13 were lifers for me. We saw four species of owl, each of which were absolutely stunning in their own right. However based on the spectacular encounter with the Great-Grey Owl I have to say that was my species highlight for the trip. Other highlights included the consumption of non-insignificant quantities of korvapuusti and glögi (Cinnamon buns and mulled-wine) as well as the good company. Massive thanks to Owen for facilitating the highly-successful weekend. 

Black 'Pecker

The feeder site at which I ticked White-Backed+Black Woodpecker, Pygmy Owl

There be Ural Owls in these here woods

Distant phone-scoped Rough-legged Buzzard

Redstart in here somewhere...

Poor shot of an incredible raptor- Goshawk

Sun setting on a chilly Viikki

Wednesday 10 January 2018

Finnish Owl Mayhem

I recently returned from a fantastic weekend in Helsinki, birding with fellow young Irish birder Joe Proudfoot and expat Irish birder Owen Foley. The trip materialised back in October, when Owen pointed out on twitter just how cheap flights to the Finnish capital were in midwinter. Myself, Brian McCloskey and Joe quickly decided to go, and the trip was booked. However unfortunately some unexpected Christmas exams were sprung on Brian and he was unable to join us. The trip was thus coined the 'sorry Brian' tour.
Sorry Brian.

Day 1

Upon meeting Owen on Saturday morning we headed straight for a black grouse lek site, in the hopes of being there at first light (9:30 or so). We arrived as the skies began to brighten and found our way quickly to the chilly bog, before waiting for the grouse to emerge and start calling. Unfortunately after some time waiting it seemed like it may just have been a bit too early in the year to see any black grouse at this site, and so we headed off into the woods behind the bog in search of hazel grouse. As soon as we began listening for hazel grouse it became apparent that the black grouse had started calling back on the bog, and so back we headed. After a short wait Owen managed to pick up a stunning cock grouse perched on the top of a spruce. A further two were spotted and reasonable scope views were had. A cracking species to start the trip!
    We continued on and searched further for hazel grouse and grey-headed woodpecker but to no avail. From there we were headed to a nutcracker feeding site in the west near Lohja, and on our way we stopped at a lake where Joe and I had our first ever smew. These handsome pied diving-ducks were to be found in small numbers on the lake, though slightly scattered as a result of a brutish white-tailed eagle flyover! Other birds present were goldeneye and some goosander. We were quickly back on the road in order to make the most of the short day. 
    We travelled through a decent amount of semi-rural Finnish countryside. The landscape was predominantly blanketed in conifers, along with frequent electricity pylons and large open areas. It was on these pylons that we expected to see our first hawk-owl, and it was not too long before Joe picked one up on a roadside wire. We pulled in and whipped out the scopes, getting great views of this dashing owl species. It was clearly perch hunting, and using its exceptional eyesight and exemplary hearing to find prey. At one stage a fairly quiet phone text-tone from one of us was enough to catch its attention, even at a respectable distance. Its head immediately swivelled in our direction as its piercing yellow eyes tried to ascertain the source of this noise. Though having a fairly comical expression, as I find many owls do, this is nonetheless not a bird to be underestimated. Those eyes are the last thing many a rodent will see, and the owls fearsome feather-clad talons a visible reminder of its predatory prowess.
    From the hawk-owl we continued on to the nutcracker feeding station. Upon arrival the table was empty, but after re-stocking it with peanuts the birds soon began to roll in. First in were the tits. We had willow tit here, which was a lifer, as well as decent views of crested tit, and northern treecreeper. It took a while before the nutcrackers became aware of the nuts, however when they did they soon started to arrive en-masse. Their raucous calls echoing over the spruce and hazel woods as they perched on treetops and looked down at us. They seemed to be slightly shier than expected, however nonetheless it was not long before a bold bird hopped down onto the table and started gorging a few nuts, possibly for stowage elsewhere. We got scope filling views of this intriguing species on the table, which would otherwise have proven much more wary and difficult to pin down.
    From there it was a speedy drive back to Helsinki to try and pin down a Great Grey Owl at Viikki (Vanhankaupunginlahti) which had been seen for the last couple of days.
    When booking the trip I imagined we might have had a shot at some other owl species, probably pygmy, maybe ural or the likes. For whatever reason I never really considered Great Grey to be a possibility. When I heard it was not only a possibility, but actually on the cards, I was brimming with anticipation.
    As we arrived at Viikki the day was already starting to get noticeably dull. This was maybe at 2pm or so. We rushed without hesitation out along the fields and boardwalks to the forest in which it had been seen, encountering droves of satisfied birders and photographers on their way home, all confirming that the lapinpöllö was still present. After a bit of searching we eventually got on the right track and discovered a small gathering of birders. Owen gathered crucial information from the snatches of Finnish thrown our way. My heart sank when one of those transpired to be saying 'it just flew' . I needn't have worried.
    The owl had just flown to an exposed dead tree and I struggled to peer through trees to get binocular views. It had clearly just begun hunting for the evening, and was perch hunting. To our great delight the bird flew back up towards us and landed in a tree which allowed for much better observation. The views of this bird in the scope were breath-taking. We were totally lost for words. I was originally worried that the bird was being disturbed by the assembled birders and photographers, but that quickly transpired not to be the case. At one point it flew towards our group and caught a rodent at Owen's feet!
    In retrospect I had really underestimated the size of this species. They're absolutely massive! I spent a long while just admiring the intricacies of the feather patterning, along with the intimidating glare it would give us occasionally. I managed a few phone-scoped shots, and a few on the dslr, however both cameras struggled with the low-light. We watched this bird for some time in the dying light, before making our way back to Viikki. Without a doubt one of the most incredible birds I've ever seen, and by far the best views I've had of any owl in its natural environment. Just incredible!
    We ended the day by attempting to twitch an eastern-black redstart going to roost. While we failed on this evening it would not be long before we got a second chance...

Northern Hawk-Owl being legend

Willow Tit

"Showing well"


So that's how I spent my Saturday...

Day 2 will be posted shortly. If you really want to see more Great Grey Owl insanity (and of course you do) I've posted videos here and here. You can also read Owen's account on his blog 'Hel Hath No Birdies'.

'Til next time