I had been contemplating a winter trip to Ireland for some time, and the arrival of the American Coot in the autumn of 2010 served to make the idea all the more appetising. Despite trying to organise a trip with Josh Jones since December, but it wasn’t until the 5th March that we could find the time to get out there. By this time it was clear that the winter wasn’t a ‘classic’, with no big arrivals of white-winged gulls, or indeed new American Herring or Ring-Billed Gulls. Despite this, we were hopeful that we could find something of interest on the criminally underwatched west coast, as well as seeing a few good rarities, and get a couple of ticks in the for of American Coot and Forster’s Tern.
We caught the 9pm ferry from Holyhead on a dead calm evening, caught up on some sleep on the crossing, then headed across to Lough Arrow, Co.Sligo to spend the night in the car park waiting for first light. The day dawned misty and calm, and we headed round the Lough hoping for a Ring-necked duck or Lesser Scaup to kick start the trip. This was a real introduction to Irish birding in winter for myself (Josh had been on several previous trips), and a far cry from my local patch, Staines Reservoirs, with the Lough far from packed with aythya to scan through, instead just a couple of small groups of less than 20 birds, yet this site has previously held such goodies as Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Duck, meaning it was vital to check every bird.
Having drawn a blank driving round the lake, we continued on to Raghly, Co.Sligo to do our first bit of twitching, for the Taverner’s-type Canada Goose that winters out in the fields near Raghly Head. This bird was a real pleasure, the mist had cleared and the day had turned out gloriously mild, we were stood out in the beautiful Irish countryside surrounded by the calls of a thousand strong flock of wild Barnacle Geese, it was easy to feel what a beautifully remote location we were in. With more birds to see and sites to check however, we reluctantly moved on.
Taverner's-type Canada Goose in fields near Raghly, Sligo.
In Sligo town centre we connected with the juv Kumlien’s Gull, and Josh had a glimpse of the Ring-billed Gull from the car. We moved on quickly to County Mayo, heading for our trips main target, the 1w American Coot on Termoncarragh lake. We scanned from both sides, but viewing was far from easy with the low sun making viewing from the north end almost impossible, and after three-quarters of an hour, things were looking far from promising. Happily we picked the bird up shortly after, staying in the reeds on the east side, and being very elusive. After getting some decent views, we whizzed round to Annagh beach, which produced nothing of interest, and failed to locate the Snow goose, despite the 400+ strong flock of Barnacle geese at the lake. After that, we headed to one of the most promising looking headlands on the Irish west coast, Achill island, where we had spent some time the previous autumn. We went via Carrowmore Lake, picking up the regular drake Ring-necked Duck, and a few Whooper swans. With limited time, and few recent reports, we only checked a few of the larger loughs on Achill and the gull flock by the bridge on to the island, again failing to turn up the hoped for rarity. We did manage a hybrid Black duck X Mallard hybrid, but not the resident Black duck itself, and a few Pale-bellied Brents, always a pleasant change. We continued on to Galway, for dinner and a few pints of Guinness in town, and another night in the car at Lough Corrib, ready for another dawn start.
The day again dawned calm and misty. Low winds are vital to scan over this vast inland lake, and the day seemed perfect, so we were hopeful as we started out at Angilham. We scanned the flocks of duck, by far the most duck we had so far encountered, and after a few minutes Josh had picked out what looked to be a Canvasback. With the mist still causing problems for viewing however, we couldn’t rule out the possibility of a hybrid, and frustratingly the bird swam further out, to a range of c1km plus. We tentatively put new out of Canvasback or hybrid, a potential first for Ireland, and continued to watch the surprisingly flighty aythya flock. After a while, the duck drifted closer, and the light improved, and on 60X, it looked increasingly like the bird had an all-black bill, and it even showed a gular bulge when displaying. At this stage, our excitement grew, thinking we had found a potential first for Ireland, and I nipped back to the car to get my notepad to start making notes. Shortly after getting back, the flock flew, and the Canvasback-type bird landed a few hundred metres away, affording great views. At this range, a pale grey subterminal band on the bill became visibe, as well as showing the contrast between mantle and flanks was more obvious than we had previously thought, as well as slight structural problems, particularly with the crown shape, led us to conclude that it was undoubtedly a hybrid. Shortly after, Dermot Breen arrived to be met with the disappointing news. We also found a Ring-necked Duck X Tuftie hybrid, which hadn’t been seen since the winter before. So no pure birds, but plenty of interest. Our experiences here also demonstrate the potential of this site, Angilham had been checked at least 5+ times that winter by top birders such as Dermot, but we still saw 2 birds that hadn’t yet been seen this winter, Lough Corrib really is huge.
(see more on Canvasback hybrids at: http://birdingfrontiers.com/2011/03/13/canvasback-hybrids/)
After this disappointment, we headed to Nimmo’s pier to try and alleviate the pain with a Forster’s Tern. Unfortunately this tricky bird wasn’t co-operating, and the only interest was provided by a Sandwich tern and one of the regular Ring-billed Gulls on Claddagh beach. We continued on to have a look at Rossaveal, but again there were few birds, with only a juv and 2w Glaucous Gulls, and a couple of Black guillemots, Great Northen Divers and the odd seal to compensate us for putting up with stench of the fish factory. We headed back to Nimmo’s, but again no Forster’s but a different ad. Ring-billed Gull on the pier. We continued on to check a few of the loughs from which there had been no reports that winter, but drew a blank at Loughrea, but had a stunning male Merlin, a few Pintail and some Whooper’s at Rahasane Turlough. We headed back towards the coast, determined to catch up with the Forster’s tern. We arrived at Doorus strand, where I picked up a Sandwich tern dive-feeding with the Forster’s tern. We watched it for a few minutes, then decided to join Dermot on the pier to get closer views. By the time we arrived, the bird had vanished, and despite an extensive search, we couldn’t find it, showing just how hard this long-stayer can be to catch up with. We spent the last few hours of light scanning the bay from various viewpoints along the north Clare coastline, hoping for Surf Scoter, but marvelling at the huge numbers of Great Northern and Black-throated Divers present. Darkness saw us heading south, stopping in Newcastle West for dinner (not recommended), and finishing up at Waterville, on the Iveragh peninsula, for another night in the car with the rather haunting sight of a hillside on fire in the distance.
Yet again we were blessed with a calm, still, sunny morning, this time clear with no mist. We scanned the bay at Waterville, but with little success, only finding a few Long-tailed duck and Eider and a mix of divers amongst the large Scoter flock. We moved on to the gloriously pretty Reenard point, with cracking views over Valencia island (surely an over-looked yank-magnet) where there was an adult Iceland Gull, but very little else. After a bit of debate about where to go next, we settled on a quick scan of the sea from Rossbeigh, hoping we’d track down the missing Surf Scoters from Waterville, or the Velvet scoter that had been reported intermittently. Josh quickly picked out the Velvet, at a few hundred metres range, and after a short time watching it, mentioned how much white it seemed to have on the face. We both agreed it seemed abnormal, but neither of us had had good views of Velvet Scoter in the last few years, and were unsure about the features of potential vagrants. At this point, Josh sent a few texts to people asking for ID features of White-winged Scoters, and tried to film it down my scope on 60X zoom, whilst I used his fixed lens to scan the bay for other Velvet Scoter, in the hope we could have a comparison. Unfortunately, at this point the bird flew to over a kilometre out, and fed constantly, making viewing much harder. Over the next hour or so, it drifted a bit closer but never showing well. Furthermore, our tired brains struggled to make sense of the features we were told to look for by text (for instance ‘a check-mark’ over the eye made me wonder if White-winged Scoters were fans of Burberry, rather than making the obvious link that it was a feature from an American book, and we should be looking for a ‘tick’ shape above the eye). With the bird not showing any inclination to move and with Dingle beckoning and a ferry to catch that night, we decided to make a move.
Stejneger's Scoter, Rossbeigh, Co.Kerry - a grab from the original video
We had a quick look at the Spoonbill at Cromane harbour, then a whizz round the ‘usual’ spots on Dingle, with little to show for it, bar several large returning flocks of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, a Yellow-legged Gull and a chance encounter with Jill Crosher and her husband, who it turns out, booked Jimi Hendrix at my university in the 1960’s. A campus legend if ever there was one. After that, a dash for Dublin ensued, with a lightning quick, and fruitless stop at Lough Gur to break up the journey.
Dingle-looking like it's midsummer
On arriving home, I was immediately pre-occupied with an essay that I had due in shortly, as well as having several badminton matches for the university to play. However, I stayed in contact with Josh, who was increasingly worried about the identity of the scoter. I concurred that from the brief google search I’d managed it didn’t seem right, and agreed with Josh’s suggestion that we contact the Kerry county recorder and explain our doubts. This resulted in Davey Farrar sending his earlier photo’s of the bird to Killian Mullarney. On Tuesday morning, I received a very excited phonecall from Josh, along the lines of “It’s a &*&(ing White-winged Scoter, Killian’s ID’d it”, before hanging up. The news was released, and after some of the people twitching it managed better views and photo’s, it was identified as being of the stejnegeri race, Stejneger’s Scoter, a first for Ireland.
The trip to me summed up how brilliant birding in Ireland can be, at any time of the year. We were lucky to have fantastic weather, but the scenery is always fantastic, as are the birds, so that even on a quiet year such as this, you can still see a fantastic variety of gulls and wildfowl. Furthermore it is incredibly underwatched, the two birds we found (Canvasback hybrid and the scoter) were at relatively well-watched sites, yet still hadn’t been picked up on, so that the potential for finding your own birds is incredible. That is not to say birding in Ireland is easy, we looked at a lot of empty lochs, that held only a couple of Tufties or less, covered 1400 miles, and failed to see any of the Surf Scoters or Lesser Scaups that had been reported this winter, but as this trip shows if you put the legwork in, and get lucky, the big ones are out there.
(all photo’s by Josh Jones)