Ireland, the southern shores, summer 2004

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT


by Christopher Hall

In the time it takes to watch a football match, we crossed the Irish Sea on a super fast ferry from Anglesey to Dun Laoghaire. A refreshing sea breeze provided ideal conditions for watching the dainty flight of Little Terns, with black tipped bright yellow beaks, ferrying sand eels into their breeding colony at Kilcoole. By now the young have fledged and chase their parents eagerly for food. Nearby, all three British hirundines (Swallow, House and Sand Martins) are catching flies, with plenty of Curlews in the damp rough pastures. Offshore, immaculate brilliant white Gannets are quickly spotted and become an almost daily sighting.

After a night in our own 'private' lodge in the wonderful Wicklow Mountains, we visited the nearby ancient monastic site at Glendalough, with its impressive 103 foot round tower, and posing Spotted Flycatcher. A walk along the tranquil wooded valley in a beautiful setting beside two picturesque lakes produced a naked 'dipper', singing Goldcrests and Coal Tits and nice scope views of male Siskin and Reed Bunting and grazing Sika Deer. As the trail ascended increasingly rugged scenery, ideal for Ring Ouzel, a sudden squall forced us back without the upland thrush.

After a picnic lunch, we headed south to County Wexford, arriving in time for a walk along the shore at Carne Rocks. With the late afternoon sun behind us, we had perfect light for a comparison of Common and Arctic Terns, obligingly perched side by side at close range. The Arctic Tern has lighter grey primaries but darker grey underparts, markedly shorter deeper red legs and a deeper red beak without the black tip of the Common Tern. Simple, once you get your eye in. This was also a good vantage for larger Sandwich Terns with their yellow tipped black beaks as well as a variety of waders at close range including Ringed Plover, Common Sandpiper, Redshank, Bar-tailed Godwit and Whimbrel, plus loads of Turnstone, Sanderling and Dunlin still in breeding plumage.

Porridge with a dash of whiskey and cream and a full Irish at Killiane Castle are the perfect start to a day's birding in rural County Wexford. Today we had the added bonus of glorious sunny weather for our boat trip to Great Saltee Island, one of the highlights of the tour. After a calm crossing and a smooth amphibious landing we spotted Rock Pipits on the shore while Sedge Warblers sang in the bracken. Exploring this marvelous island, we were entertained by Kestrel, Peregrine and Chough. Freshly polished scopes also gave nice views of Puffins, Razorbills, Guillemots and Kittiwakes in their thousands, while 2,000 plus pairs of croaking Gannets made a superb backdrop for lunch on the cliffs. Back in Kilmore Quay, Grey Seals swam in the harbour, almost within stroking distance of the boats. What a fabulous day that was, celebrated with a pint of the black stuff at The Hideout Inn once back on dry land.

Wandering through the pinewoods of the Raven Point nature reserve, we were lucky enough to see a couple of Red Squirrels, with almost white bushy tails, leaping with great agility between the trees, while a visit to the nearby sloblands gave very close views of handsome Tree Sparrows.

With news of a long staying Short-billed Dowitcher on Lady's Island Lake, we made repeated visits in search of this elusive vagrant American wader, without a trace of it, though there was always plenty else to see including Little Egret, Greenshank, and lovely rusty red Black-tailed Godwits. This large freshwater lake adjacent to the sea is also a top site for terns. On one sand bar we had excellent scope views of the rare Roseate Tern amongst a mixed flock of terns, including Common, Arctic, Sandwich and a single Little Tern. Nearby Tacumshin Lake provided Grey Plover, a couple of Knot still in red breeding plumage and also very lucky views of a patrolling male Marsh Harrier, which is quite a rarity in Ireland. After a delicious seafood chowder in the quaint old Lobster Pot Inn, reminiscent of a south Devon smugglers' pub, a visit to a different side of Tacumshin Lake added Skylark, Stonechat, Wheatear and Raven to our list.

Today we were due to leave Wexford. Not having that blasted Dowitcher in the bag, we decided to make one last ditch effort early before breakfast. Panning the scope from the shrine at Lady's Island at 6.20 am, the first bird sighted was a pale fronted dumpy wader about the size of a Redshank with a very long straight bill. Obviously not European, I stepped back in delighted amazement and announced "I've got it", but by the time the next viewer was at the scope the bird had flown and disappeared, leaving the nightmare scenario of missing this mega rarity right before our eyes. A frantic panic stricken search ensued before we relocated the cursed bird on the far shore. As we tried to make out its features, it again flew, but this time to the near shore just in front of us. At last we had found it and showing beautifully. With a beak like that, it really should be called Long-billed Dowitcher, while the long-billed species should be the Extra Long-billed Dowitcher!

Breaking the journey westward, we stopped off at estuaries near Ballycotton and Clonakilty, where David spotted a Kingfisher which most of us missed. Now in County Cork, we parked our vehicle in Baltimore and boarded the ferry to Cape Clear Island, where the smooth crossing allowed good views of Black Guillemot and a Peregrine, mantling its unfortunate prey on the rocky shore.

Cape Clear Island is the most southerly point in Ireland, bar the Fastnet Rock, visible four miles out to sea. Such a marine location makes the island a mecca for seawatchers and a great launch for pelagic trips. We were now in the company of our skipper Michael and observatory warden Steve, who kindly offered his expert services as lookout and chum thrower. A mile and a half out the weather was calm and warm enough for just a pullover, great conditions for seabird spotting. The fishy chum soon began to work its magic as masses of seabirds started appearing as if from nowhere. Soon we had an escort of Fulmars plus Herring, Lesser and mighty Great Black Backed Gulls, with majestic Gannets gliding just above our heads, close enough to see their blue eyes, and occasionally making breathtakingly stunning dives into the melee just behind the boat. Meanwhile tiny Storm Petrels fluttered just above the low swell, showing off their black plumage and white rumps at close range, as Manx Shearwaters repeatedly flew past, fast and low, in wave after wave. Amid the frenzy of activity we were lucky enough to pick out a lone Sooty Shearwater, all brown with diagnostic whitish underwings, and also a single Mediterranean Shearwater, browner above and grubby below, compared to the clean looking black and white Manxies. This was three hours of pure exhilaration.

A final stroll around the island added Rock Dove, meeting our 100 species target, but we weren't finished yet. Back on the mainland we spent our final evening enjoying a traditional musical soiree in one of the bars of the sweet little town of Clonakilty. On the drive back to Cork next morning, one or two in the group were lamenting not seeing the Kingfisher and thus missing one of our ton of species. Remarkably, as we slowed the vehicle to look at a pretty riverside scene, guess what was perched on a rock in midstream. Yes, there sat a Kingfisher, and a collective cheer went up! Even on board the ferry our luck continued. Scanning the Black-headed Gulls on a dockside rail alongside, Alison spotted not one but two Mediterranean Gulls! Throughout the long crossing back to Swansea we enjoyed the steep banking flight of Manx Shearwaters in their hundreds.

Together we had seen 101 species. Who says there are no birds in Ireland?