Manifest Destiny – postscript

Right, time to take stock of my recent trip, sort out the figures and see what’s what in the world.

Numbers

My ten day trip to Eire involved and included the following:

1,320 miles driven (including driving the width of both Eire and Wales twice).

8 hours on the ferry

39.5 hours seawatching, including five hours from the ferry

10 of my fourteen ‘wish list’ species seen

11 year ticks

9 Lifers (2 mammals, 2 birds, 1 fish, 4 noteworthy plants)

320 photos taken and not all of Chough and Storm Petrel

Chough, Mizen Head, Co. Cork, one more for good luck...

Chough, Mizen Head, Co. Cork, one more for good luck…

And how about another one of the Stormies?

And how about another one of the Stormies?

at least 3, number of new insects for Eire it seems I recorded during my two days of entomology – two flies, one spider-hunting wasp

3  ‘complete sets’ I saw; corvids (8), tits (4), skuas (4) (all available species in Eire seen)

1 number of days I needed any of my newly re-waterproofed clothing, and number of waterproof notebooks I didn’t need in the end

Seawatch Figures

Total numbers counted:

Gannet: 6,632,  Manx Shearwater: 14,577,  Fulmar:  2,418,  Storm Petrel:  294,  Kittiwake:  346,  Guillemot:  118,  Puffin:  25,  Razorbill:  19,  Black Guillemot:  3,  Sooty Shearwater: 8,  Balearic Shearwater:  6,  Cory’s Shearwater:  3.

= 24,449 individual birds of twelve species

0  plausible reasons why I count everything I see

And what did I learn?

Well, for a start, dolphins and porpoises are a distraction when seawatching, nice as they are to see, I could guarantee a couple would pop in view up just as something ‘interesting’ was flying by.  On my final seawatch the Porpoises and family of three Common Dolphins were around all day causing quite a distraction.

Any country where you can fill your car with diesel for £28 is definitely worth visiting (it’s £45 in England).

Stanley House B&B in Schull is the nicest place I’ve ever stayed and if anyone is heading to west Cork, try this place first.

Irish road signs are not as bad as I’ve previously led people to believe – once you understand them.

You largely don’t need to wear walking boots when visiting Irish woodlands – they have stone and concrete paths

Some Irish country lanes are wonderfully quiet and overgrown, complete with grass growing up the middle and high hedges of non-native shrubs, but sadly during my walks, lacking in migrant birds and insects

Country Lane, Schull, Co. Cork, high non-native Fuchsia hedges with Montbretia, sadly not brilliant for insects or migrants during my wanderings

Country Lane, Schull, Co. Cork, high non-native Fuchsia hedges with Montbretia below, sadly not brilliant for insects or migrants during my wanderings

Chough and Storm Petrels are wonderful to see on a regular basis, Jackdaws from the window at home are no compensation.

‘Bread and butter birds’ like tits, thrushes, finches, Robin, Dunnock, and Wren are nowhere near as abundant or easy to see as they are at home.

Driving in Km/h takes some getting used to, as does working out distances and timings of journeys.

Sleep-deprived aquaplaning on the M4 motorway in torrential rain in the early hours is not as much fun as anyone may think.

Going birding everyday is quite odd – read and learn Bruce!.

Seawatching in the sunshine can be remarkably rewarding.

People in Eire think I’m a bit odd for sitting and watching the sea, just like those back home.

The sea can be too rough for whales and dolphins.

The BBC website and iplayer have adverts on them over there

And finally, this sage advice from the cemetery in Schull:

Useful to know I suppose?

Useful to know I suppose?

The Lists

So for the curious, here’s my ‘wish/possibles/hoped for list’, some were year ticks, some lifers:  Great Shearwater, Cory’s Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater, Storm Petrel, Chough, Black Guillemot, Puffin, Great Skua, Pomarine Skua, Hooded Crow, Rock Dove, White-tailed Eagle, Long-tailed Skua, Fea’s Petrel – the remotest of remote possibilities, but you’ve got to be positive about these things…

With only Great Shearwater, White-tailed Eagle, Rock Dove and Fea’s Petrel missing, I don’t think I did too badly, with the unexpected bonus of an unseasonal Iceland Gull.  Risso’s Dophin, Minke Whale and Ocean Sunfish were unexpected lifers.  Cory’s Shearwater and Long-tailed Skuas were lifers too, as were a few plants and of course that Pine Marten…

My Irish List now stands at 116, not bad considering having only spent 31.5 days in the country and only 14 of those have been primarily birding/looking at wildlife.  My trip list of species seen in Eire was 106.

My Irish butterfly list stands at 17 out of 35 species

My Irish dragonfly and damselfly list is 12 out of 24 species.

And so it comes to an end.  Roll on next May when Irish Bioblitz is back on.

Slán…

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Manifest Destiny 7-10 – ends

Day Seven

To begin with, I’ve amended the last post, I had submitted my gull record to the Irish sightings site as an Iceland, because that’s what I believed it was. The Irish sightings site changed that (re-identified it as it were) saying it was a Glaucous, complete with my photo submission on their site, hence my notes in the blog, but on day seven the Irish site had changed it back to Iceland, and that’s what they, and I believe it to be, and that’s what it is.

So the morning dawned fine and bright with a strong westerly wind, with the next days set to be still and sunny, this was my last opportunity for a good long seawatch.  Croagh River was scanned again first thing, four Greenshank, six Ringed Plover, but only one Med Gull, this time a second summer bird.  I had another look out across Lissagriffen Lake, the Iceland Gull was absent but six Greenshank and my first Skylark of the trip were on show.  My plan had been to head back up to Brow Head, but on arrival I thought I’d see if I could find a site nearer sea level (where I sat last week was about 70 m above the sea).  Not far from a car park was just such a site – between Crookhaven and Barley Cove, so at 11.00 I settled down to spend ‘until whenever’ seawatching/staring southwards out to sea.

New seawatch site, between Crookhaven and Barley Cove, with Brow Head signal tower in the distance to the west

New seawatch site, between Crookhaven and Barley Cove, with Brow Head signal tower where I sat last week, in the distance to the west

...and looking more South-west, not what I'd call ideal seawatching conditions

…and looking more South-west, not what I’d call ideal seawatching conditions

There was steady passage of Gannet and Fulmar all day, with bursts of Manx Shearwater and Stormies.  Two Ravens were a frequent sound – kronking, if not always sight, overhead and four Chough went by calling their characteristic ‘Che-ar’ call.  Two Harbour Porpoise and two adult and a small calf Common Dolphin were ever-present, a pair of Bottle-nosed Dolphins sped through the area quickly too.  I finally gave up at 19.30, having sat in the sun for 8.5 hours, my final totals were: Gannet 4,786, Fulmar 1,122, Manx 746, Stormies 94, Cory’s Shearwater 1, Sooty Shearwater 4, Balearic Shearwater 4, Puffin 1, Razorbill 1, Guillemot 16, Black Guillemot 2, Arctic Skua 1 and just before I left a male Peregrine and all in what I would call less than ideal seawatching conditions, my tan is coming on nicely now.  Nope, I’ve no idea why I count all these things either.  And no further sign of the Iceland Gull when I headed back either.

Day Eight

With the forecast settled, warm and sunny for the remainder of the week, a chance to head away from the seawatching and into one of Eire’s few bits of apparently decent ancient oak woodland at Glengarriff.  The wood covers about 300 hectares and contains four laid out ‘walks’.  I decided to do each one in turn over the course of the day and ended up walking about six miles.  The wood is largely comprised of Sessile Oak, with some conifer, heather and grassland.  The ‘River Walk’ took me along the bubbling river, but too many dog walkers meant no sign of any Dippers. Next the ‘Big Meadow Walk’ along the river a bit, before some woodland, skirting the ‘big meadow’, then a detour onto walk three ‘Lady Bantry’s Viewpoint’ named after the original owner of the wood and guess what…Before my final circuit, a much longer walk through the woods, up and down steps and paths of the ‘Esknamucky Walk’ with views across the Caha Mountains.  One thing about all these walks were the footpaths, as in Rineen Wood earlier in the trip, were all laid down with gravel and stone and in some places concrete, which made it easy to stay clean, but did make for a rather noisy walk.

Riverside walk at Glengarriff, complete with concrete and stone footpath

Riverside walk at Glengarriff, complete with concrete and stone footpath

This site was even more bizarre in that the grass adjacent to the car park area was being mown when I arrived, and I discovered in the remote parts of the Esknamucky Walk the edges of the paths had been strimmed and in one place high on the hill top a 15 metre long boardwalk over a muddy patch.  I don’t envy whoever took all the materials up there because it would have been quite a trek and there was no vehicle access.

Anyway, the woods were alive with the calls of Coal Tits and Jays (both the Irish race), and completing my ‘set’ of corvids for the trip.  I had seen both species over here last May.

Irish Jay - slightly deeper red than the British one

Irish Jay – slightly deeper red than the British one

Irish Coal Ti, slightly yellower underneath than a British one, slightly blurred due to being eaten alive by mosquitoes

Irish Coal Tit, slightly yellower underneath than a British one, slightly blurred due to being eaten alive by mosquitoes at the time

Treecreepers were abundant too, but few other birds, save for a nice Wood Warbler, a species that probably breeds in the wood in low numbers, quite a bonus for the trip and doubling the number I’ve seen this year.  Long-tailed Tit completed my Irish list of tits for the trip.  A Pygmy Shrew ran across the track in front of me, so I can tick off one of the hardest mammals to see, and later I found a dead one on the track too.  Purple Hairstreaks danced around the canopy while a Holly Blue butterfly and Beautiful Demosielle damselfly found their way onto my ‘Irish List’.  I turned over every log and stone I could find in the wood in the search for the globally rare Kerry Slug which is known from here, but to no avail.  Interestingly, I found no other slugs and no snails either.  The Kerry Slug only occurs in Counties Cork and Kerry then Spain and Portugal, and as such is given the highest levels of protection afforded any species.  It’s part of what’s known as the Hiberno-Lusitanian flora and fauna, made up of species that occur in Eire (Hiberno) and Spain/Portugal (Lusitanian), and includes Irish SpurgeStrawberry Tree and St. Patrick’s Cabbage, which all grow in the wood here.

St. Patrick's Cabbage, Saxifraga spathularis - native to Eire and the rest of Europe, but not Britain

St. Patrick’s Cabbage, Saxifraga spathularis – native to Eire and the rest of Europe, but not Britain

Strawberry Tree fruits just ripening, the last time I saw these I was cutting them down as an invasive non-native on the Great Orme in Gwynedd, North Wales

Strawberry Tree fruits just ripening, the last time I saw these I was cutting them down as an invasive non-native on the Great Orme in Gwynedd, North Wales in 1992

Out of the wood, I headed for Glengarriff harbour in the hope of seeing the White-tailed Eagles that had been breeding in the area.  They are part of a re-introduction scheme (more here), but sadly this year, this pair’s chick died shortly before fledging, due to a blocked intestine.  On arrival at the quayside I asked one of the local fishermen the best place to go to look for them or stand a chance of seeing one, and he replied that after their failed breeding they had left the area.  Whether this is a permanent departure remains to be seen.  A photographer here, who also wanted to know about the eagles, suggested I gave him my email address and he could email me some pictures of them…like that’s of any use, I know what they look like, have seen one before, but would have liked to have seen one again in the flesh…dolt.

So I headed northwards towards the town of Kenmare along the Caha Pass, through the mountain scenery, something I’m not used to, with odd stops to take in the view – there were plenty of pull-ins along this route.

View across the Caha Mountains

View across the Caha Mountains

Wouldn't it have been easier to blast this right through rather than make a quaint 10 metre long tunnel?

Wouldn’t it have been easier to blast this right through rather than make a quaint 10 metre long tunnel?

The scenery was superb and in the boggy ground along the roadside I found Large-flowered Butterworts growing, I’ve grown them on a window-sill before but never seen them in the wild.  They are insectivorous and use their sticky green leaves to trap and digest small invertebrates to make up for the nourishment they fail to get from the poor soils they grow in.

Large-flowered Butterwort - green starfishes of death to small invertebrates, here growing in abundance by the roadside

Large-flowered Butterwort – green starfishes of death to small invertebrates, here growing in abundance by the roadside

Further up the road another target species, but not necessarily of this trip…my first ever Pine Marten

my first Pine Marten

my first Pine Marten

I certainly never expected to see one as close as this! Last year scats, this year roadkill, live next year?

I certainly never expected to see one as close as this! Last year scats, this year roadkill, live one next year?

Day Nine

Today started with a three hour drive across country to meet Una in Waterford.  From here it was another hour drive, including a short five minute ferry trip, to our insect survey site at Kilmore Quay at the south-east corner of Co. Waterford.  Here is a large sand dune system and we set about sweep-netting and general searching for insects to improve the national database.  I’ve never seen sand dunes of this scale before, some of them being in excess of five metres high.

Kilmore Quay sand dunes, stretching on as far as the eye can see, and hugely impressive in height

Kilmore Quay sand dunes, stretching on as far as the eye can see, and hugely impressive in height with a rich flora and a good insect selection

An impressive flora enabled us to quickly accumulate a large species list, and a number of specimens to pin later in the day.  One of my favourite species was in some abundance – the beefly Villa modesta – this species lays its eggs around the nest sites of solitary bees, the larvae enter the bee nest and feed on the bee larvae inside.

Beefly Villa modesta

Beefly Villa modesta

After spending five hours collecting we headed northwards to Wexford for an overnight stay in a B&B that couldn’t be farther removed from Stanley House in Schull.  ‘Creepy’ is probably the best way to describe it, with a garden I last saw in the 1970s – all gaudy dahlias and french marigolds – and owners who seem to have migrated from Royston Vasey I am grateful it was only for one night.

Day Ten

We hot-footed it out of the B&B straight after breakfast and headed up the Co. Wexford coast to Curracloe and Raven’s Nest Nature Reserve.  Another sand dune site, not quite of the scale of Kilmore, and here with a large Scot’s Pine plantation.

Raven's Nest Nature Reserve, Curracloe, Co. Wexford

Raven’s Nest Nature Reserve, Curracloe, Co. Wexford

Floristically much poorer than Kilmore, but still with enough entomological interest and another new plant species for me; Round-leaved Wintergreen Pyrola rotundifolia in an area of dune-slack.

Round-leaved Wintergreen in all its glory

Round-leaved Wintergreen in all its glory

Another four hours sweep-netting provided quite a rich species list (as well as Mistle Thrush for my trip list), before Una had to head back to work leaving me with a few hours to kill before the ferry home.  I headed just down the coast to Wexford Wildfowl Reserve (also known as the North Slobs).  This is really a place to visit in the winter when thousands of Greenland White-fronted Geese arrive to spend the winter, it is also a ‘designated Irish Hare reserve’.  I last visited eleven years ago in torrential rain and saw next to nothing, so it was nice to visit in sunshine.  Although birds were in short supply I did add Cuckoo to my trip list and there were Swallows nesting in each of the hides.  Brown Hawker Dragonfly made it onto my trip list as did a number of Irish Hares, but all too far away for a photograph.

Point of fledging Swallows nesting in hide, Wexford Wildfowl Reserve

Point of fledging Swallows nesting in hide, Wexford Wildfowl Reserve

With more time to kill, I headed down to the Co. Wexford coast to a couple of famous birding sites, Lady’s Island Lake and Tacumshin Lake which have both had their fair share of rarities over the years.  Both are large water bodies with many viewing points down rough country lanes.  Neither held anything spectacular but on my way to the ferry port a female Sparrowhawk stooped over the car to bring my trip list up 106 species.

And so onto Rosslare for the 20.45 ferry, as we left, six adult and three juvenile Med Gulls were feeding in the swell, I managed to squeeze in one more hour of seawatching before the light went (1 Stormie, 15 Gannet and 60 Manx) and maybe two hours sleep before we arrived in Pembroke at 00.50hrs.  The drive home was a mixture of short sleep-stops in random lay-bys and Services, through torrential rain with added aquaplaning on the M4 to keep me alert.  By the time I reached Hampshire the rain had stopped, and with it being Friday a trip to The Point was a suitable way to finish the trip before heading home to sort and pin my specimens from Thursday.

Until the Postscript…

Manifest Destiny 4-6

Day Four

And so, onto the next instalment, with Day Four, once again the weather dawned uncharacteristically nice for Eire, which was good because I’d booked the four hour whale and dolphin boat trip.

But before that…

Rare Bird Alert News Maps Lite...that's mine that is!

Rare Bird Alert News Maps Lite…that’s mine that is!

First up though was some archaeology to take in, although I started with my morning trip to Croagh River to check the gulls and waders, this morning there were five Greenshank, four Turnstone new in and the three Mediterranean Gulls again.  Will a rare American wader drop in before I leave, and will I be able to identify it even if it does?.  Then eastwards to Knockdrum Ring Hill Fort.  I came across it on a wonderful website called ‘Megalithic Ireland’ (http://www.megalithicireland.com/index.html).  It contains all the main sites, explicit details of how to get to them, but sadly no helpful information like ‘there’s nowhere to park nearby’.  Fortunately there was small leprechaun-sized pull-in for one car by the track leading to the fort and the road was quiet enough that I hoped it wouldn’t get taken out by a lorry or tractor.  Across the road and about half a mile away are the three standing stones of Gurranes Stone Row, also known as ‘The Three Fingers‘.  Despite Eire having a pretty much open access all areas policy I could see no way of getting to them (the website wasn’t much help either) so had to be content with viewing them from afar, which is probably the best way to see them anyway.

The Three Fingers - Gurranes Stone Row

The Three Fingers – Gurranes Stone Row

Knockdrum was quite a climb up some modern stone steps built between two dry stone walls.  The Ring Hill Fort at the top has walls about six feet high, is about 30 yards in diameter with three yard wide walls and a small square enclosure inside.  By far the most impressive ancient stone-built fort I’ve ever seen, with nohting of comparison back home.  Inside the wall of the entrance was a small cubby-hole and I had visions of a Neolithic person sitting inside taking ticket money and perhaps using it as a cloakroom.  The views down to the coast are impressive too, as were the kronking Ravens overhead during my visit.

Knockdrum Stone Ring Fort - entrance with small square building inside

Knockdrum Stone Ring Fort – entrance with small square building inside

Knockdrum entrance cubby hole/Neolithic ticket office and cloakroom

Knockdrum entrance cubby hole/Neolithic ticket office and cloakroom

Next stop another coastal promontory for the chance of a still-weather seawatch and a bit of entomology.  One of the major problems I’ve been finding over here is the abundance of places that look like they should be visited, only to find there’s nowhere to park, no lay-bys, no pull-ins, nothing, so some routes have ended up as somewhat frustrating scenic circular drives.  Toe Head, my coastal destination was a case in point, I eventually found a parking place on the top of the hill, but about two miles from where I wanted to be.  Anyway, bit of birding produced more Chough, two Carrion Crows (quite the rarity over here) and for good measure all the other native corvids except the Jay, quite an achievement in Eire I believe.  A bit of entomology produced six species of bumblebee and two fifths of Eire’s grasshopper species (Field and Common Green Grasshoppers).

Knockdrum view across to Toe Head, cameltoe head is something completely different...

Knockdrum view across to Toe Head, cameltoe head is something completely different…

A scenic trip to kill a bit of time before making my way to Reen Pier for the boat trip landed me in a bit of woodland called Rineen.  Umbellifers lining the footpaths were crawling with a good variety of insects, some of which made their way into my killing jar.

The hoverfly Leucozona laternaria was common on the umbellifers in Rineen Wood

The hoverfly Leucozona laternaria was common on the umbellifers in Rineen Wood

Longhorn Beetle Rutpela maculate on umbellifers, Rineen Wood, Co. Cork

Longhorn Beetle Rutpela maculata on umbellifers, Rineen Wood, Co. Cork

A Silver-washed Fritillary was a nice surprise as was a Purple Hairstreak in the canopy – I forgot to bring my Irish butterfly guide so I’m not sure how common or rare these species are here.  I found a rather nice walking stick here as a souvenir, saw some odd things amongst the trees and as I was leaving had two Chough calling overhead.

Rineen Wood, Co. Cork.  Nope, me neither...

Rineen Wood, Co. Cork. Nope, me neither…

The Boat Trip

This was a scheduled four hour trip out into the Celtic Sea to search for whales and dolphins.  Sea conditions were good, relatively calm and visibility thirty miles or more.  There were fourteen of us booked: two foreign families, one of which spoke no English and English couple, myself and thankfully another birder (Robert) who’s a regular on these trips.  We were the only two with binoculars, and it would appear, a real interest in wildlife.  We stormed out to sea about four miles offshore then headed east towards and beyond Galley Head before finally heading back to Reen.  Seabirds were surprisingly thin on the ground, although Manx Shearwater and Storm Petrel could be seen most of the time.  Odd Guillemots lingered on the sea and we ended with a tally of 10 Puffins but only two RazorbillGannets too were notable by their absence and fishing flocks are usually a good sign that there are cetaceans about, while Fulmars seemed to be an ever present.  We stopped at one point for the skipper to catch a few fish for later – three Pollock in as many minutes, but fruitlessly cruised around looking for fins, whale blows and the like.  Four Great Skuas and my first Arctic Skua of the trip were nice fly past species.

As we were headed back I spotted the only Harbour Porpoise dorsal fin of the trip, it surfaced once but despite back tracking we didn’t see it again, then twenty minutes later myself and Robert saw a Common Dolphin surface once and again nothing else, despite the skipper keeping the boat in the same area for a while.  In a patch of calm water the skipper cut the engine to demonstrate ‘chumming‘ a technique used for bringing birds closer to the boat, and in particular Storm Petrels.  Immediately after stopping a couple of Fulmar circled the boat closer and closer, while the skipper gutted the Pollock from earlier on.  Within two minutes of throwing the guts overboard ‘chumming‘ there were around thirty Storm Petrels pattering over the surface picking up tiny bits, along with 16 Fulmar, two Kittiwake, and a few Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls.  The Stormies were stunning to see in such close proximity in the evening sunlight.

Fulmar up close and personal, not a gull but a 'tubenose' the enlarged nostrils can be seen atop the bill, these enable them to process sea water in place of freshwater

Fulmar up close and personal, not a gull but a ‘tubenose’ the enlarged nostrils can be seen atop the bill, these enable them to process sea water in place of freshwater

Storm Petrel, another tubenose, it's not often we can get such good views

Storm Petrel, another tubenose, it’s not often we can get such good views

And again, I was surprised by just how pale the underwings can be, something rarely seen from a land-based seawatch

And again, I was surprised by just how pale the underwings can be, something rarely seen from a land-based seawatch, the evening sun helps

And again, they look rather like a House Martin and are roughly the same size, but appear more bat-like in flight

And again, they look rather like a House Martin and are roughly the same size, but appear more bat-like in flight

Part of the feeding frenzy, even at this distance they're closer than I've ever seen them from land

Part of the feeding frenzy, even at this distance they’re closer than I’ve ever seen them from land

Like Chough, how can you get bored of these?

Like Chough, how can you get bored of these?

Would you rather be enthralled by this close encounter, or check your phone?

Would you rather be enthralled by this close encounter, or check your phone?

A couple of Manx Shearwater made close passes while many of the Fulmar sat on the water within a few feet of the boat.  More fishing here failed to land anymore and as we headed back landward a lovely Sooty Shearwater made a close pass to the boat before being quickly lost to view.  Another target species seen then and a fortunate one too because we ended up staying out at sea an hour longer than scheduled.  No reason was given for this but I assume it’s because we hadn’t seen any whales it might maximise our chances.  During the chumming the non-English speaking family made no attempt to look at the Stormies or other birds, choosing instead to sit in a huddle in the middle of the boat checking their phones!  What’s the point eh?.

Day Five

Today I finally managed to get to Mizen Head, my original destination for the best part of my stay.  Finally too the weather forecast was for cloud, strong south-westerlies and rain later.  What more could a seawatcher ask for?  A customary stop at Croagh River produced the five Greenshank and three Med Gulls still in residence, but they had been joined by two Ringed Plover, my first of the trip.  Westwards to Lissagriffen Lake, a tidal channel that produced nine more Greenshank, one Common Sandpiper and my first Irish Ruff, then five minutes later Mizen Head.  Mizen is a long established sea watching point but recently I’ve seen no bird reports from there and it turned out to be not what I was expecting.  There is a large car park (free as they all are over here) but to get to the Head you now have to go through the reasonably priced (six Euro) brand-spanking-new Visitor Centre.  The centre doesn’t open until 10.00 so my original plan of getting here at dawn would have resulted in watching from the car, which would have been no bad thing it turned out.  The new centre and cost might explain the lack of other seawatchers these days?

Mizen Head lighthouse and signal station, Co. Cork.  Carry on west until you hit America

Mizen Head lighthouse and signal station, Co. Cork. Carry on west until you hit America

Mizen Head, Co. Cork, some of the impressive twisted and contorted volcanic rock formations, these cliffs are 200 metres high

Mizen Head, Co. Cork, some of the impressive twisted and contorted volcanic rock formations, these cliffs are 200 metres high

A quick look around the touristy buildings of the lighthouse and signal tower also revealed nowhere obvious to seawatch from and in my opinion a not too impressive visitor experience – and no line of salty old sea dogs lined up, rooted to the spot with semi-antique telescopes that I was expecting.  I plumped for one of the less well used viewing platforms, set up ‘scope and looked south from about 10.30.  At around 15.00 it started raining quite heavily so I headed back towards the visitor centre where shelter could be had in the lee of a small outbuilding, until heading back to the car for the last ninety minutes, finishing my seawatch at 18.30 when a heavy mist rolled in to obscure the sea.

Figures:  In all I recorded nine Chough (yay!), two Raven, three Wheatears – presumably migrants heading south, so from here their next stop would probably be France.  Two Harbour Porpoise, two Bottle-nosed Dolphin, 1569 Gannet, 1657 Manx, 65 Stormies, 1 Great Skua, 44 Guillemot, 4 Razorbill, 16 Puffin, 3 Sooty Shearwater and one Balearic Shearwater.

Chough, Mizen Head, how cool is that?

Chough, Mizen Head, how cool is that?

Wheatear, Mizen Head, next stop France? with somewhere in Africa the ultimate destination

Wheatear, Mizen Head, next stop France? with somewhere in Africa the ultimate destination

During my hours on the viewing platform I was asked possibly the best question I’ve ever been asked while seawatching: “How far is it to the horizon?”

One lady also ‘told me’ it was too rough for whales and dolphins (leading me to wonder if she thinks they come ashore when it gets rough?) – which doesn’t explain my sightings of the latter.

Day Six

Another one with a windy and overcast forecast, but it dawned misty.  Stopping at Croagh River again I found the five Greenshank still in place but today seven Med Gulls and one Turnstone back again.  Towards Mizen a stop to look at another ancient site, this time a burial tomb at Altar, possibly one of the easiest ancient monuments to access being ten yards from the road, and with its own car park.

Altar megalithic tomb, about eight feet high and eight feet across, how did they get the capstone on?

Altar megalithic tomb, about eight feet high and eight feet across, how did they get the capstone on?

Another stop at Lissagriffen Lake brought probably the biggest surprise of the trip so far, an Iceland Gull preening amongst the other gull species.  To begin with, they don’t breed in Iceland, but Greenland and Canada, typically they turn up in October or November and depart again in spring, so quite what this one was up to is anyone’s guess.  Only six Greenshank here today, but also my first Lapwing of the trip.

Glaucous Gull - it's the big white one

Iceland Gull – it’s the big white one

Mizen Head was completely shrouded in mist when I arrived.  I decided to wait it out for a while, hoping the mist would lift or be blown over by the wind.  There was a fifteen minute period when it lifted enough for me to see three Chough (yay!), two Wheatear, and 52 Gannets head west in one flock, before the sea became invisible once again.  After two hours I decided to give up and spent four hours wandering the misty lanes and hedgerows near the B&B looking for grounded migrants – I found slightly less than one…

Mizen Head, Sunday morning, the sea is only 200 yards away, see if you can spot it...

Mizen Head, Sunday morning, the sea is only 200 yards away, see if you can spot it…

So it came as some surprise to check various birding websites  to discover  that a boat trip off the Co. Cork coast had seen five Great Shearwaters, three Wilson’s Petrel and a Fea’s Petrel!  How? as I write this in the evening I can still only see 50 feet down the garden then a thick blanket of mist.

Until the next instalment…

Manifest Destiny 1-3

In 1830’s America it was considered Manifest Destiny for east coast residents to head west in search of a new life and a chance to stake a claim to their own piece of the new frontier.  There was one decision to make, Oregon or California as your final destination.  Most of these journeys were undertaken in a rickety old wagon, many failed through lack of planning, money or ability to take the correct provisions (there are many tales of people some considerable distance along the trail jettisoning their writing tables and desks, considering them surplus to requirements – space that could have been taken with food).  Many, however, were successful and saw the wholesale destruction of an unspoilt wilderness as settlement and agriculture began.

Day One

My own ‘Manifest Destiny’ saw me book a ferry back in April to the ‘wild west’ and my journey began on Tuesday 4th August, the only thing rickety and old is my body, my wagon is fine.  And so it was at 06.30 I set off from Hampshire, bins, telescope, camera and all my waterproofs newly waterproofed, sandwiches and flasks, collecting kit, a box of insect specimens for Una and not so much a ‘wish list’ but a ‘possible or hoped-for list’, of fourteen bird species, based on what had been seen in the few days leading up to my trip, and on past birding reports for the time of year.  I’ll include the ‘list’ in my final instalment.  Early August is when seabird migration really gets underway, I can also fit it around survey work I’ve got to do before the end of the month.  My plan was to skip breakfast each day and spend the bulk of my time sitting on Mizen Head, Co. Cork – the most extreme south-west part of Eire – seawatching from dawn until whenever, each day.  Early weather forecasts were for south-westerlies the whole first week – an excellent sign.  First bonus, two Red Kites over my birthplace, for the first time after a number of journeys and constant reports from family members of them being over their garden most days (not quite a ‘home garden tick’ though).  An uneventful next couple of hours, but with the wind picking up and the rain closing in, it could only mean one thing, I had already reached the Welsh border.  It continued to rain and blow across the width of Wales until I reached my first ‘destination’; Castle Martin, Pembrokeshire.  Too wet and windy for bumblebees (it’s one of the few places in Britain where Bombus sylvarum can still be found, a species that’s always worth a look at/for), so seawatching was the order of the day.  Nothing of any note in ninety minutes, compared to last May when a female Red-crested Pochard came in off the sea to surprise me.

Then on to Pembroke Dock and the Irish FerriesIsle of Innishmore’, I was bound for the Emerald Isle and ten days of mostly seawatching.  First off was good news from the ferry Captain – the Irish Sea was experiencing Force 6-7 winds – we should be in for a choppy crossing, but my thoughts were to the seabirds I should be able to see rather than holding in breakfast and lunch.

I hunkered down behind one of the ferry struts out of the wind and rain and a four hour seawatch began.  As soon as we were clear of the Welsh coast Shearwaters began to appear in abundance, all Manx and all looking as if they were really enjoying themselves in the wind but all quite some distance from the ferry.

Skomer island off the Pembrokeshire coast, home to thousands of breeding seabirds, note also choppy sea, mist and murk and general poor visibility - ideal seawatching conditions!

Skomer island off the Pembrokeshire coast, home to thousands of breeding seabirds, note also choppy sea, mist and murk and general poor visibility – ideal seawatching conditions!

Gannets were more in evidence than last year and I got my first year tick and one off ‘the list’ of the trip when a Puffin went past.  Guillemots and Razorbills made up the bulk of the sightings, but there were odd Kittiwakes too.

Adult Kittiwake, note the slender clean grey wings with neat black wingtips

Adult Kittiwake, note the slender clean grey wings with neat black wingtips

About two hours out seven Bottle-nosed Dolphins cruised past heading southwards, barely five minutes later two Risso’s Dolphins did something similar, their characteristic ‘scratched backs’ showing clearly as they cleared the swell Lifer number one for the trip.  It was fairly quiet for the remaining two hours until we were twenty minutes off Rosslare, Co. Wexford, when Terns began to appear in mixed flocks of Common, Arctic and more surprisingly 18 Little Terns.  And then, flapping about in the water, lifer number two for the trip; an Ocean Sunfish – seen many pictures but never one in the flesh and they really do look like a dustbin lid with fins, in oft reported fashion it was almost waving one of its fins above the water as we went past, and then it just dipped into the sea and out of sight, lifer number two.  Two Mediterranean Gulls greeted us as we docked – a species I thought I was leaving behind for a few days.

The onto Waterford for an overnight stay with Hooded Crow added to the year list en route.  And who doesn’t like a Hooded Crow?

Hooded Crow - with its pink-grey shoulders and underside contrasting with black heads, wings and tail what's not to like?

Hooded Crow – with its pink-grey shoulders and underside contrasting with black head, wings and tail what’s not to like?

Day Two

The morning dawned wet and windy, ideal seawatching conditions but I had to travel across the width of the country to my ultimate destination, west of Cork City.  I had planned a couple of archaeology stops on the way, but became distracted by Youghall estuary (pronounced Yawl or Y’all) with a cluster of Redshank on the high tide roost.  I decided to take a detour up to Knockadoon Head, just south of Ballymacoda, and just inside Co. Cork to see if it was good enough for a seawatch.  I was not disappointed, through the heavy rain I could see shearwaters and Gannets passing, so I positioned the car so I could sit inside with my telescope fixed on the seat and the window half down and out of the rain.  I gave it almost four hours and was rewarded with some of the best seawatching I’ve done for years.  In the first hour Manx Shearwater were passing at a rate of 50 per minute this dwindled to 20 per minute for the next two hours before coming to a halt about half an hour before I finished.  Year ticks came thick and fast, in all seven Great Skua, then my first bird lifer a single Cory’s Shearwater in company of three Manx to give a great size, shape and colour comparison.  Two Harbour Porpoise bobbed around in the deep swell, before a single Storm Petrel whizzed past in characteristic fluttering flight.  Next up, bird lifer number two as a Long-tailed Skua whizzed by in Tern-like flight, ‘a dark phase juvenile’.  A Balearic Shearwater gave the seawatch a homely feel, before my first Pomarine Skua of the year caused havoc amongst a group of fishing terns.  My second Cory’s Shearwater of the day followed soon after before everything went quiet and it was time to move on.  One and a half days in and already six species off my ‘wish list’.

View from Knockadoon Head with Capel island in the background, most of the birds went around the island, only the Gannets went between it and the mainland.

View from Knockadoon Head with Capel island in the background, most of the birds went around the island, only the Gannets went between it and the mainland.

Westward bound next for some archaeology and Drombeg Stone Circle, a Late Bronze Age Portal circle with a recumbent stone placed in line with the winter solstice sunrise – the sun lights this stone when it shines between the two largest stones at the front – the portal.  All very impressive and atmospheric in the now heavily closing-in mist, not quite Avebury, but then nothing is.

Drombeg Stone circle - the two portal stones in foreground, recumbent stone through their gap

Drombeg Stone circle – the two portal stones in foreground, recumbent stone through their gap

Afterwards, to my B&B (Stanley House http://www.stanley-house.net/index.html), quite easily one of the nicest B&B’s I’ve stayed in, in the wonderfully named village of Skull (Schull/An Sciol).

Skull Harbour, view from the B&B, rainbow not always included

Skull Harbour, view from the B&B, rainbow not always included

A quick check of the weather forecast revealed something of a change, wind sunshine and light North-westerlies, for Thursday and Friday, not what I wanted, but apparently everyone else did.  So a slight change of plan was in order.

Day Three

Despite the weather forecast I decided I’d still go to Mizen Head, do the touristy thing and find out where the best seawatching site was.  The scenic route seemed best and a few minutes out of Skull brought me to Croagh River, on the high tide roost were three Greenshank and four more Mediterranean Gulls (can’t go anywhere these days…).  A short walk on form here brought me to the harbour side with fields and scrub, Whitethroat and Blackcap, probably migrants on their way south were in the hedges, three Common Sandpipers were on the shore, also migrants heading south, and feeding in the newly cut silage field, one of my prime target species birds – three Chough.  If Hooded Crows are cool Chough are something else, I could never tire of watching them.

After spending far longer than anticipated here I headed on towards Mizen, taking the scenic route I thought I’d drop in at Crookhaven then have a walk up onto Brow Head.  From here famous birding mecca Cape Clear Island was an ever present landmark, as too was the Fastnet Rock lighthouse.  The sun was shining, the wind was virtually non-existent so I thought I’d sit and seawatch over lunch.  Five hours later it was time to leave…

Cape Clear Island - one for Bob to reminisce about

Cape Clear Island – one for Bob to reminisce about

Despite the less than ideal conditions there was bird movement westwards and soon I was seeing small flocks of Storm Petrel and Manx Shearwater.  Occasionally rising above the glassy sea surface were six Harbour Porpoise, sometimes to be greeted by feeding Gannets or Kittiwakes.  Seven Chough were an ever-present on the cliffs.  At 13.00 a Cory’s Shearwater headed west in the company of five Manx.  At 13.40 a large whale surfaced twice half a mile offshore in quick succession heading east, showing a long blackish back with small sickle-shaped dorsal fin set far back, then disappeared, despite much scanning and searching.  At 15.35 while talking to a jogger a large whale surfaced barely 50 yards offshore beneath the cliffs, we bot mid flight of conversation and marvelled at it ‘look at the size of that’ we seemed to duet, and identical to what I’d seen earlier – it was about 8 metres long.  Ninety minutes later as I packed up to leave it still hadn’t surfaced again.  Best guess: Minke Whale based on these sightings – the one that got away.

Harbour Porpoise - barely more than one metre long with a small triangular dorsal fin

Harbour Porpoise – barely more than one metre long with a small triangular dorsal fin

Gannets - the enormity of the sea, the distances involved, this is seawatching on another level

Gannets – the enormity of the sea, the distances involved, this is seawatching on another level

Chough - what more can be said, enjoy!

Chough – what more can be said, enjoy!

Sometimes they came a bit closer

Sometimes they came a bit closer

Western most tip of Brow Head, Co. Cork - next landfall from here, the USA

Western most tip of Brow Head, Co. Cork – next landfall from here, the USA

Nice weather forecast again for Friday so a bit more archaeology and I’m booked on a four hour afternoon/evening whale and dolphin boat trip…

Until instalment two…

Spending time with the Honeys…

…sadly not the 90s R&B group (Niama was my favourite)*.

Scene setting

Over the years I’ve been visitng one area in particular of the New Forest, Hampshire whilst undertaking survey work of an insect species.  It has brought me into contact with the uncommon summer migrant Honey Buzzard on a number of occasions, often giving me unbelievably close views of these spectacular raptors.  On one visit I was even lucky enough to find a bird incubating on the nest, but had no opportunity to make follow up visits to see if they succeeded in fledging.

One such instance was in June last year (2014), a random mid-morning visit to the site was rewarded with the sight of a male rising from the trees just a few yards in front of me before circling high and away out of view.

pale male Honey Buzzard, 12/06/2014 a quickly snatched shot.  Note the longish tail,  smallish head and broad but slender wings that characterise this species.  Note also how tatty the feathers look

pale male Honey Buzzard, 12/06/2014 a quickly snatched shot. Note the longish tail, smallish head and broad but slender wings that characterise this species. Note also how tatty the feathers look

Now then, Honey Buzzards spend the winter in Africa before heading to northern Europe to breed during the summer.  Typically they arrive in Britain around the last week of April and continue to arrive until late May or early June.  On two occasions I have had them come in off the sea at little more than head height in April and going out to sea in August, again at little more than head height, while on the coast undertaking WeBS Counts (seeWeBS…Wet Every Bl**dy Sunday).  They breed in woodland and feed on a range of food items including reptiles, amphibians, small mammals and birds and have a strong liking for the grubs of bees and wasps – hence the name (it was often believed, in less enlightened times, that they fed on honey).  On a couple of occasions over the years I have seen birds on the ground, presumably looking for a bee or wasp nest, where, from a distance they look more like a Turkey wandering about, than a bird of prey.  The fact they rip open honeybee nests and eat the larvae is one of their more endearing traits – honeybees are pointless.  They depart our shores in late summer and autumn, hopefully having bred successfully.  There are probably fewer than 100 pairs breeding in Britain in any given year.

So, on 4th June this year I was out early in The Forest visiting a few sites when at one in the space of a few minutes I encountered five Common Buzzard:

Common Buzzard, note the broad wings and relatively short,  broad tail and chunky head

Common Buzzard, note the broad wings and relatively short, broad tail and chunky head

a Sparrowhawk:

female Sparrowhawk, note the long, rounded but not broad wings and the long tail, although difficult to distinguish from a photo this is also a smaller bird than the Buzzards

female Sparrowhawk, note the long, rounded but not broad wings and the long tail, although difficult to distinguish from a photo this is also a smaller bird than the Buzzards

and a Peregrine Falcon:

male Peregrine, stocky build, pointed wings, short stout tail and quite bulky head

male Peregrine, stocky build, pointed wings, short stout tail and quite bulky head

same bird, but this time the characteristic dark head and dark moustachial stripe are visible

same bird, but this time the characteristic dark head and dark moustachial stripe are visible

soaring in the morning sun.

Having accomplished what I’d set out to do already that morning I decided to head over to where I’d seen the male Honey so close last summer.  I had only just got into position when a pale male** rose from the same trees as last year, gradually circled higher before heading off eastwards displaying high above the trees.  **Honeys don’t exhibit anywhere near the range of colour ‘forms’ that Common Buzzards do, generally they come as ‘standard’ (largely brown) and ‘pale’ (largely grey).

Display

In establishing territories males do an elaborate display flight (known as the butterfly display), where they climb to a great height and flap their wings above their bodies three to five times before dropping then rising again to perform the move again and again.  I lost this bird to view behind trees but it had already performed three such displays.  One has to wonder why the display has to be performed at such a great height, and who, amongst the bird world can see it well and appreciate it?

I decided to wait around to see if it returned or what other raptors might be in the area.  A male Goshawk appeared over me and did a brief fly around.  About an hour after the Honey had departed eastwards it returned from the north and dropped back into the trees from whence it came.  This was followed ten minutes later by a small falcon that appeared from the east, did three circuits of the glade before heading off northwards.  But what was it?  certainly not a Peregrine – I’ve seen loads over the years and one already that morning.  Not a Red-footed Falcon either, a rarity, but one I’ve seen a number of time over the years.  My two options then fell to Lanner or Saker Falcon – and presumably a falconers escape, although there was no sign of bells or other attachments to its legs.  Was the photograph I got of it going to be good enough to secure an identification?

With a rumbling stomach it was time to leave and have some lunch.

Lanner Falcon, not bulky like a Peregrine, thus ruling out Saker, typical pointed wings of a falcon, dark moustachial stripe more obvious on a Lanner than Saker, and pale feathers around the legs, in a Saker these would be dark. Thanks Geoff for confirming my id.

Lanner Falcon, not bulky like a Peregrine, thus ruling out Saker, typical pointed wings of a falcon (although these are tatty), dark moustachial stripe more obvious on a Lanner than Saker, and pale feathers around the legs, in a Saker these would be dark.
Thanks Geoff for confirming my id.

A return visit

After a casual remark about the Honeys to someone who knows more about them than I, resulted in the comment “you need to get there earlier than that”, prompted me to visit on the following Monday, the 8th June.

I settled in position at 06.50 and decided to wait it out.  The sun was breaking through the trees the wind was whipping up a bit, anticipation was in the air.  Rather like a sea-watch this was as unpredictable.

At 07.38 the pale male launched out of the nearby trees to the south and started circling above me, gaining height before heading off northwards, within seconds of losing sight of it a female powered out of the same trees in hot pursuit.  Fantastic views, what a treat, and both barely more than 70 yards away and little more than head height.

exit stage left, pale male Honey heading out of the glade, note pale underwings with dark patch at the 'elbow', longish tail

exit stage left, pale male Honey heading out of the glade, note pale underwings with dark patch at the ‘elbow’, longish tail

At 07.59 both appeared to the north and drifted back into the trees after passing directly overhead, it doesn’t get much better than this, despite how cold the wind was making me feel.

female, typical colour fomr of brownish, note how heavily barred the underwings and underparts are, note also that all the books mention 'a broad band at the tip of the tail' being diagnostic of this species - where is it on this bird?

female, typical colour form of brownish, note how heavily barred the underwings and underparts are, note also that all the books mention ‘a broad band at the tip of the tail’ being diagnostic of this species – where is it on this bird?  And despite blowing this picture up I still can’t make out what is hanging off the tip of her bill

08.08 the first Common Buzzard soared over, at 08.14 the pair of Honeys appeared again and seemed to take an age to circle above me before heading off northwards, even better views than before, the female also appeared to be carrying a small object in her beak.

male to the left, female to the right

male to the left, female to the right

Four Common Buzzards appeared at 09.39 and were followed by two more at 10.13 and 10.20.  It was now warming up nicely but I was still shivering thanks to the wind and the trees obscuring the sun from where I was sitting – I couldn’t move because I would have been too exposed to the birds.

Two Common Buzzards tumbling over my watch point - note the short, broad tails and compare with the Honeys

Two Common Buzzards tumbling over my watch point – note the short, broad tails and compare with the Honeys

At 10.22 a female Goshawk briefly soared almost overhead and just thirty yards away from me before the female Honey dropped in from above and behind me at 11.03, her wings half closed as she made her rapid descent.  Another Common Buzzard at 11.15 before a female Peregrine charged high northwards at 11.22, followed by two more leisurely Red Kites at 11.28.  A female Sparrowhawk over the treetops carrying prey at 11.32 and another Common Buzzard at 11.43 rounded off a stunning five hours of raptor watching.  And all in probably one of the most unlikely raptor watch points.

Red Kite, note long, heavily forked tail, long broad wings with distinctive 'fingers' at the tips

Red Kite, note long, deeply forked tail, long broad wings with distinctive ‘fingers’ at the tips

Another return

So, Bruce and our friend Jenny were coming down for a day on the 11th and we were initially undecided about where to start our day.  We could try a traditional raptor watch point in The Forest, or we could try ‘my’ site.  My site won out after my description of the above, after meeting in a layby where a singing Firecrest was an unexpected bonus, we headed out with some expectation.

Settling down at 07.00 I was hoping for a similar display, perhaps the Honeys have a regular morning routine when leaving the roost and would repeat events of Monday.  An early bonus was my first Spotted Flycatcher of the year.  07.45 Common Buzzard soaring distantly, 07.54 two Red Kites leisurely make their way northwards closely followed by two more Common Buzzard and another one at 09.50.  That was it, we called it a day at 10.30 with other sites still to visit. What went wrong? where were the Honeys and assorted extras? conditions were the same, maybe it was the company?  Credibility 0, Disappointment 1.  At least I had the above photos to prove my sightings from Monday!

'My raptor watch point' not your typical big skies and big vistas site, this area barely measures 200 yards from top to bottom and side to side

‘My raptor watch point’ not your typical ‘big skies and big vistas’ site, this area barely measures 200 yards from where the photo was taken to the trees at the bottom and a similar size from side to side

Until the next time…

*  Unfortunately my favourite track of theirs ‘End of the Line’ was somewhat ruined during my assessment for my teacher training certificate many years ago – I was teaching adults with learning difficulties when one of the girls, with ginger hair pudding bowl cut, coke bottle glasses and buck teeth, started singing this track (while dribbling copiously) at the top of her voice, as far off key as is possible at random points throughout the two hour lesson…endearing image, hmm, thanks.

For the curious amongst you:

Try not to spend your time watching this thinking to yourself “how the hell are they staying i?”

Ants on the brain

“The Skull of a Head“*

A couple of years ago I found the fresh remains of a Black-tailed Godwit, clearly it had been despatched by a bird of prey, partly eaten, then left behind.  The head was dangling off, attached by the merest slither of flesh.   Now then, I often teach an ‘Animal Tracks and Signs‘ course and as a result, have a whole host of animal parts for demonstration purposes.  The chance of having a Black-tailed Godwit skull was just too good to miss.
So I pulled the head off, took it home and stored it, along with other corpses and food, in the freezer, always intending to de-flesh it at some stage.
It sat there for ages, until last summer I finally got around to doing something about it.

Partly eaten Black-tailed Godwit

Partly eaten Black-tailed Godwit

If you go down to the woods today…

…you might see a man rooting around by a Wood Ant nest with a godwit head… One of the best ways of de-fleshing or cleaning a skull, or any other bits of bone, is to place them near the nest of the Wood Ant (Formica rufa).  Wood Ants are common in this area and create often huge domed nests, usually made from pine needles and small twigs.

Wood Ant nest, this one is about 60cm tall

Wood Ant nest, this one is about 60cm tall

A close-up of the top of the nest, just look at how many ants there are in such a small space

A close-up of the top of the nest, just look at how many ants there are in such a small space

They feed their developing larvae inside the nest on flesh of (typically) invertebrates which are carried, often over long distances back to the nest.  They will also feed them on other flesh if they find it.  In some places where regular trails are used by the ants clear pathways can be seen amongst the ground litter of leaves.

Lines of ants beating a trail back and forwards to the nest

Lines of ants beating a trail back and forwards to the nest

So I wrapped some wire around the bill of the godwit, attached a small stake to one end and pushed it into the ground on the outskirts of the nest.  Part of the reason for staking it down was to prevent Foxes, Badgers or other carnivores from running off with it.  Then it was just a matter of waiting for the ants to do their thing.  It only took a few minutes for them to find it and begin removing pieces of feather and flesh.  They then started heading in an orderly manner towards the nest with the next meal.

Godwit head staked out and ready for de-fleshing

Godwit head staked out and ready for de-fleshing

And so they discover it...

And so they discover it…

...and start removing bits to feed their larvae

…and start removing bits to feed their larvae

A few months later

I returned to collect what I hoped would by now be the skull, picked nicely clean and in need of just a quick rinse, before it was ready to join my collection of ‘dead animal parts’.  But wait, that’s far too easy, to my surprise, and disappointment I discovered the skull was nowhere to be found.  My little wooden stake had presumably proved no match for something larger than an ant.  So I still don’t have a godwit skull in my collection…

A few months after that….

During a WeBS Count in February at The Point (see WeBS, Wet Every Bl**dy Sunday?), I came across the freshly decapitated head of a Dunlin, one of our smaller waders, presumably the result of a Sparrowhawk kill, the predator leaving behind the less fleshy part of the bird?.  So, into a small plastic bag the head went, and last week I headed out to the same Wood Ant nest again to try my luck.  This time I was better prepared with the head now enclosed in a small cage of chicken wire.  I stapled the cage to the base of tree near to the nest and time will tell if my attempts at acquiring a Dunlin skull will be successful.

Dunlin head, caged and fixed to a tree to prevent removal by large scavengers

Dunlin head, caged and fixed to a tree to prevent removal by large scavengers

Dunlin head in situ (just beneath the curled frond of newly emerging bracken).  Note how different the nest looks at this time of year

Dunlin head in situ (just behind and to the left of the curled frond of newly emerging bracken). Note how different the nest looks at this time of year in comparison to the photo above.

Update on success or failure to follow.

Until the next time…

* reference: Many, many years ago I saw a bit of the children’s BBC tv programme ‘Blue Peter’ where they interviewed a child about an exhibit they had; handling an animal skull, the child explained when asked “what’s that?”, that it was “the skull of a head“, dolt.

A couple of yanks ARE good for the eyes

Succumbing to temptation…

Those who know me well, and regular readers, will probably be aware that I don’t, as a general rule go twitching (aka bird chasing).  There are, however, odd occasions when the bird in question is worth seeing and more specifically, local (as much as I’d like to see the long-staying Harlequin duck(s) in Scotland at present, there are limits…).  Recently I had cause to go on one such twitch, and it was also a chance to dust off Bob for another two-lifers-in-a-day trip…

First Yank, something of a Skunkhead…

and I don’t mean you Bob… Two winters ago, a juvenile Skunkhead turned up fairly nearby, in Poole Harbour, Dorset – about an hours’ drive away.  Unfortunately juveniles of this species are not the most colourful birds, being brownish and black, and Poole Harbour is a big place where it could easily be ‘lost’.  It was also rather cold that winter too and I didn’t fancy standing around in the cold not seeing it!  Fast forward to February 25th this year and an adult male, apparently the first really twitchable one for the county, turned up off the Gosport coast, Hampshire.  And all the way from North America or Canada.  That’s more like it.  Also about an hours’ drive away, it was tempting, but not massively so.  For some reason I had a hang-up about going on my own for it, no idea why.  A phone call to Bob later in the week and we agreed if it was still reported on Monday morning, we’d go for it.  It was reported all weekend, but often flighty and headed out into the Solent on a couple of occasions, would it still wait for us lazy twitchers?  Monday morning it was still reported, so just after lunch, I picked Bob up and off we headed.  Like the Dark-eyed Junco in 2012 it was one of the easiest twitches imaginable.  We were able to see it offshore within a minute or two of arriving.  The wind was a bit against us so the sea was a bit choppy, but we could clearly see the distinctive head markings and the weirdly coloured orange, black, and white, somewhat swollen bill as it bobbed offshore in the company of a single male Common Scoter (nice to get the size and shape comparison alongside this more commonly encountered sea-duck).  Still, at least we got away without needing to pay in the car park…

I didn’t try to get any photos – it was quite a way offshore and the conditions were not brilliant, but as bonus, I’ve had my paints out recently, and while waiting for layers to dry on one picture, I’ve had time to rustle up this:

Male Surf Scoter - head, watercolour, 9x5cm

Male Surf Scoter – head, watercolour, 9x5cm

Male Surf Scoter, the black and white head markings are what give this bird the American name ‘Skunkhead‘, that bill is just something else…In winter they spend their time on the sea either in the Pacific or North Atlantic, in summer they breed in North America and Canada.  A number reach British and Irish waters each winter.  They feed on marine molluscs and waterborne invertebrates.

A missed Yank

After thirty minutes or so, we headed in to Gosport to look for the long staying Ring-billed Gull, which was a no-show, despite our best efforts with the Common Gulls on offer, and trying to see through a rather unexpected sleet/snow storm that piled up on the windscreen, penance for another car park freebie?.  A shame, because although I’ve seen a number over the years, including one in January this year, Bob still hasn’t seen one…

Yanking success – getting Wood with a Squealer

So, homeward bound with a few quick stops in the New Forest en route.  First stop, for our second Yank of the afternoon, and another duck, what are the chances?  A species I’ve looked before but never seen, and had never even seen in a wildfowl collection, so when I read two had been seen on the Saturday prior to our trip, it had to be tried….

Female (left) male (right) Wood Duck, New Forest, Hampshire

Female (left) male (right) Woodie, New Forest, Hampshire

Amongst the now well established population of Mandarins from China, were these two fabulous Wood Duck, and what a cracking bird that male is:

Male Wood Duck, Look at those colours in the winter sunshine - a fabulous bird

Male Wood Duck, Look at those colours in the winter sunshine – a fabulous bird

Also known in North America as the Squealer because of their call, Woodie, and the Acorn Duck because of…well, do you want to guess what they eat?…While I doubt they made it all the way here under their own steam – like the Skunkhead did – I’m counting them, so there (and it brings me up to 31 species of duck now seen).  A bird which has been doing rather well in America recently after a significant decline, thanks to the simple provision of nest boxes for them.  Like their Asiatic sort-of-cousins the Mandarin, they are more at home sitting in trees than on the water and will nest high up in tree holes.

A couple of other stops on the way home were rewarded with displaying/soaring Goshawk and Raven almost together, and a couple of Brambling.

Three times lucky

Bizarrely, this is the third time I’ve been twitching/birding with Bob when he’s got two lifers on the same day, each within an hour or so of the other.  What are the chances? and I hope that by the time I reach his age (only another seventeen years to go!), I can still be achieving the same.  It’s the second time for me with Bob to get two in quick succession on the same day.

An Old Squaw for good measure

Sticking with the ducks, a trip to Blashford Lakes Hampshire Wildlife Trust reserve on a rather overcast and chilly 9th March was rewarded with summer and winter all rolled in to one.  We were watching our first Sand Martin of the year, all way from wintering south of the Sahara, when the first winter male Old Squaw that has been wintering on site, flew in and landed in front of the hide.  Pausing just long enough for a couple of pictures before flying out of sight again.  Another one that summers/breeds in Canada, North America and around the Arctic.  Always good to see in relative close-up.

Old Squaw - Long-tailed Duck to you and I, typically to be found offshore in winter, this first winter male had been around on the inland lakes at Blashford since November.

Old Squaw – Long-tailed Duck to you and I, typically to be found offshore in winter, this first winter male had been around on the inland lakes at Blashford since November.

A Conclusion

As teenagers, we are warned that too many yanks stunt our growth and damage our eyesight (although if that’s the case, why are the ‘adult art magazines’ – supposedly responsible – put on the top shelf where they’re both too hard to see properly and out of reach?).  I guess it all depends on what kind of yanks we’re talking about, in this case, they were both good for the eyes.  Oh, and for the record I inherited my poor eyesight from my father and my lack of height from my dumpy mother…

Filth.

Until the next time…