A Stickybeak in Azerbaijan

In November, we took a rare break from Rathlin to spend three weeks counting birds at the incredible Besh Barmag migration bottleneck in Azerbaijan. You can read about some of our trip highlights on the Birding Azerbaijan blog.


Rathlin birding monthly roundup: October 2018

For the first week of October, Rathlin Birding Week had been an enjoyable event, despite the ceaseless westerlies refusing to bring us much bird migration. Fortunately, the wind direction did finally change later in the month, and delivered some varied and even quite exciting birding at times. While the longed-for mega rarity never appeared, it turned out to be a decent month (thankfully, much better than September), with some good arrivals of the typical late-autumn migrants and a few lovely scarcities among a total of 105 species recorded.

Unwilling to leave after Birding Week ended, David the Brent Goose remained at Kebble until at least the 24th, and the Pink-footed Goose stayed put to the 14th.

The best sightings on the 8th were a Chiffchaff, a flock of 9 Lesser Redpolls and 16 Common Crossbills which were the beginning of a brilliant few days of Crossbill activity. A strong south westerly wind on the 9th generated a good movement of seabirds of Rue Point. Among the large numbers of Razorbills, Kittiwakes and Gannets were a late Manx Shearwater, a Wigeon, 3 Arctic Skuas, 2 Great Skuas, a Fulmar (the first for almost a month) and, best of all, a Little Egret flying low over the waves towards the mainland. A couple of Crossbills remained at Kinramer and a flock of 7 Siskins flew south.

Rathlin2018_Common Crossbill3h-001The sun came out on the 10th and the wind swung around to the southeast. By far the highlight of the day was a fantastic flock of 29 Common Crossbills (a Rathlin record?), which spent the morning feeding on spruce cones at Kinramer Wood, sometimes in the complany of 12 Siskins. A Hen Harrier was also seen, along with the our first Jackdaw since early June.

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We had brilliant views of the crossbills at times, as they were too absorbed in their business of prising apart spruce cones to pay much attention to us.

Just 2 Common Crossbills remained on the 11th, but the southeast wind continued to bring a few new birds including a Mistle Thrush, a Redwing, a Blackcap, another late Wheatear, another Wigeon, 3 Barnacle Geese and the very last Swallows of the year. The following day had a very strong southerly wind and a single Common Scoter was the only sighting of note. Incessant rain on the 13th made birding mostly impossible, but a very soggy Snow Bunting was found near the West Light in the evening.

The 14th, however, was bright, clear and calm, and turned out to be a great day’s birding. The Snow Bunting was found again at the West Light, in far better viewing conditions this time, while Kinramer had a Hen Harrier, a Common Crossbill and a late Willow Warbler which was seen again the next day. A Barnacle Goose appeared at Kebble and 2 Wheatears on the eastern shore of the island turned out to be the last of their kind this year. But undoubted bird of the day, all the way from Siberia, was the year’s only Yellow-browed Warbler, which spent the afternoon flitting around in the chapel garden.

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Snow Bunting

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This was Rathlin’s third ever Yellow-browed Warbler, and happened to appear on exactly the same date as the previous one, eight years earlier.

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Barnacle Geese flying over the island.

Another lovely day on the 15th brought a couple of new Mistle Thrushes, 2 Chiffchaffs, a Merlin at the West Light and a large influx of Herring Gulls. The first Fieldfare of the autumn arrived on the 16th, along with a Purple Sandpiper at the Rue. A big feeding frenzy just offshore contained 2 Little Gulls, a late Arctic Tern and 2 Arctic Skuas, and a couple of Wigeons flew past. The weather returned to calm and pleasant conditions on the 17th, and another decent selection of sightings included the first Greenfinch of the autumn, 7 Fieldfares, 3 Redwings, 4 Rooks, a Blackcap, 7 Barnacle Geese and the continuing Merlin at Kebble.



The 18th was another great day, headlined by a Treecreeper at the chapel. Besides the long-staying but secretive bird in Kinramer Wood, Treecreeper remains a great rarity on the island and this one might be just the second modern record. A fairly remarkable 9 species of finch were recorded, including a brief Bullfinch (the second of the year), 2 Bramblings (the first of the autumn) and a Greenfinch, while other notables included 3 Barnacle Geese, 3 Fieldfares, a Kestrel and a Golden Plover. A flock of 19 Whooper Swans was the start of a strong period of passage for this species, with further flocks of southbound swans recorded daily until the 22nd.

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Whooper Swans: of all the flocks that we recorded during October, only two birds were seen to land on Rathlin. All the others continued straight overhead, mostly heading towards the Irish mainland.

Things were quieter on the 19th, but 5 Wigeon, a Great Skua and a Great Northern Diver were seen from the Rue and a couple of Merlins were recorded. The following day saw the autumn’s first sizeable arrival of thrushes, with about 100 Redwings at the western end of the island, as well as 6 Fieldfares and a couple of Mistle Thrushes. A Grey Wagtail, 5 Barnacle Geese and another Brambling were also seen. Nice big afternoon gatherings of gulls were becoming regular at Kebble Lough, and 200 Great Black-backed Gulls, plus plenty of Herring Gulls, were counted there on the 21st.

Despite strong winds on the 22nd, a Great Northern Diver was the only bird of note passing by at sea. It was a good day for Whooper Swans though, with flocks of 6, 2, 9 and 28 seen making their way south during the morning. The day’s highlight came in the afternoon, when an Iceland Gull was picked out among the throngs of Herring and Great-black Backed Gulls at Kebble. The following day’s horrendous weather was bad enough to keep us indoors all day and, despite a slight improvement, the day after that produced nothing more than a Barnacle Goose and a new Blackcap. At least 100 Redwings were the main event on the 25th, and another Snow Bunting at the West Light was the best from on a cold and wintry 26th. A couple of Bramblings and 7 Twite were seen on the 27th, as well as perhaps another new Merlin at Knockans.

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The first Iceland Gull of the autumn.

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Greenland White-fronted Goose from below.

Often in October, as soon as the wind drops and the sun comes out, birds start to appear in numbers. This was certainly the case on the sunny 28th, when an early morning circuit of Kebble and Kinramer produced a lovely haul of 17 Bramblings, 18 Twite, 2 Greenfinches, a Common Crossbill, a Snow Bunting, 3 Greenland White-fronted Geese, 1 Pink-footed Goose, 12 Whooper Swans, a Golden Plover, the first 2 Woodcocks of the autumn and Skylarks, finches and thrushes buzzing around everywhere. The best, however, was saved until last, with a beautiful Red Kite circling over Knockans in the afternoon sunshine.

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This juvenile was the third Red Kite recorded this year on Rathlin.

The 29th wasn’t quite as exciting, but still provided a flock of 18 Common Crossbills, 6 Bramblings, more Whooper Swans, 3 Pink-footed Geese and a couple of almost ludicrously tame Snow Buntings near Church Bay. The next day was a bit quieter again, with 5 Common Crossbills, a couple of Bramblings, a new Wigeon, a new Mistle Thrush and another Woodcock. Autumn continued its wind-down on the 31st, and things were generally slower although a rather late Chiffchaff was a nice surprise and the friendly Church Bay Snow Buntings were seen again.

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Ludicrously tame Snow Bunting.

Dragons and Damsels of Rathlin

This year seemed to be a good one for Dragonflies and Damselflies (collectively Odonata) on Rathlin. Throughout the summer, we enjoyed seeing these spectacular creatures hawking, chasing and darting  around all over the island. It was a great opportunity to get to know these impressive insects a bit better.

We’re far from dragonfly experts, but after a year of Odonata ogling we’re now fairly familiar with all the local species and have amassed plenty of photos of them, some of which we’ll share in this blog post.

There appear to be ten species of Odonata recorded from Rathlin – five damsels and five dragons. We managed to find nine of them during the year, eight of which were really very common and easily encountered. Here we’ll look at each species in turn, starting with the ones that appear earliest in the year. More information for each species can be found by following the links to the useful Dragonfly Ireland pages.

The first species we saw on the wing this year was Large Red Damselfly. A few appeared around the West Light on 13th May, and they were common in several places until late June. There are no other red damselflies in Ireland, so identification is nice and easy.

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Male Large Red Damselfly.

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The female Large Red Damselflies have more black markings on the abdomen. The amount of black is variable, but this one seems about average.

Next off the mark were the Four-spotted Chasers, appearing in the second half of May and commonly seen zooming around the island’s heathy ponds throughout June and early July. This is a distinctive dragonfly, varying in colour from beautiful golden orange in immatures to a stealthy orange-grey in adults, but always with dark splodges on their wings.

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Perched in a prominent pond-side position from which to watch for approaching females or rivals, the behaviour of this Four-spotted Chaser indicates that it is a male. Another male clue is the ‘anal appendages’ – the two prongs at the tip of his tail. They start off close together and bend apart.

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Four-spotted Chasers are beautiful dragonflies. Check out those anal appendages again – they start off separated and come closer together, which means this one’s a female.

Rathlin2018_Four-spotted Chaser2bThis freshly emerged Four-spotted Chaser has something unusual going on. Three of its wings have emerged and expanded correctly, but the front-left wing is still all shrivelled up. It was still capable of flying surprisingly well, although perhaps not with the speed and manoeuvrability that chasers normally demonstrate.


Of the ten species known to have occurred on Rathlin, the only one we have so far failed to find is the Hairy Dragonfly. Like the Large Red Damselfly and the Four-spotted Chaser, this is an early-flying species that should be on the wing in May and June, and we’ll make a special effort to locate this bristly character next year.

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Male Blue-tailed Damselfly

Around the end of May a further two damsels start to emerge. Both the Blue-tailed Damselfly and the Common Blue Damselfly are easily found in Rathlin’s damper places during the summer. The male Blue-tailed Damselfly is distinctive enough with his bold blue band near the abdomen tip, but the females occur in several colour varieties.

The picture below shows a pair copulating in the ‘wheel position’. This particular female is of one of the plainer-looking varieties known as rufescens-obsoleta, as helpfully described here.

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Odonata copulation is a fascinating process. In Blue-tailed Damselflies the wheel position can be maintained for several hours.

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This rather haggard-looking male Blue-tailed Damselfly is attempting to mate with a female Large Red Damselfly.





The male Common Blue Damselfly is all blue with black markings on the body, but a very close look is required to tell between this species and the very similar Azure Damselfly. Females are even more difficult to distinguish. However, despite carefully checking many blue damsels, we only managed to find one Azure Damselfly all year. While the Common Blue lives up to its name on Rathlin, Azure Damselfly seems to be really very scarce here. This page is very useful for distinguishing male Common Blue and Azure Damselflies, as well as various other similar blue damsels that (so far at least) have not been seen on Rathlin.

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Male Common Blue Damselfly.

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After learning the important features to look for (see the link in the previous paragraph), checking any blue damselflies we came across became a quick process, but this male was the only Azure Damselfly we saw all year..

Another very common Damselfly on Rathlin is the Emerald Damselfly, which can be expected to appear around most water bodies around the end of June. Identification here is easy as no other green damsels occur locally.

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Male Emerald Damselflies are metallic green, but develop blue ‘pruinescence’ on parts of the thorax and abdomen as they mature.

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We originally had this down as a female, until helpfully corrected by John from Odo-nutters. It is in fact a male that still hasn’t acquired any of its blue pruinescence. The appendages at the tip of the abdomen are the giveaway, but also note the very slender shape of the body.

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This one is undoubtedly a female. It’s actually quite striking how much chunkier this Emerald Damselfly is than the males in the previous pictures. The best clue, however, is at the tip of the abdomen. The appendage on the underside, which extends as far as the end of the abdomen itself, is the ovipositor.

Also bursting onto the scene at the end of June is our biggest dragonfly, the Common Hawker. These are large and relatively conspicuous as they dash around their territories, and are often found in gardens and sheltered lanes even away from water. No other large hawker dragonflies have been recorded on the island yet, but it is surely worth checking carefully for Migrant Hawker in the autumn.

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Male Common Hawker. These. the biggest dragonflies on Rathlin, quarter their territories tirelessly, rarely landing for long enough to view them closely. As with other dragonflies, though, they take a while to warm up and become active in the mornings, so the early part of the day is the best time to look for stationary examples.

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Common Hawker pair copulating. Males have blue spots and markings; females usually have these markings yellowish.

Common Darters start to fly around the same time as the hawker, and are quite abundant in places by mid July. Most similar species have not been recorded on the island, but it’s probably worth keeping other darters in mind, even if they’re very unlikely here. Mature males are orange-red, while the females are yellowish and superficially similar to the following species. All Common Darters have a yellow line running along each leg.

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Male Common Darter

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Female Common Darter

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Older females begin to turn darker and slightly reddish.

Rathlin2017_Common Darter5aOur Common Darters on Rathlin seem slightly different to those further south. In particular there is quite a lot of black on the face (extending down the front of the eyes) and the yellow line along the top of each leg can be narrow, dull and quite subtle – features associated with the northern variant of Common Darter formerly known as Highland Darter.

Generally the last of the year’s Odonata to take to the air, the Black Darter is on the wing from late July, peaking in August. In 2018 at least, this was a very numerous species on the island. Mature males are mostly black and unmistakable, but females and immature males are yellow-orange. Up close, they are more strongly marked than the Common Darters, and easily identified by the black triangle behind the head, a line of three yellow blobs on the side of the body, and their wholly black legs.

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Mature female Black Darters are very striking with bold black and yellow markings. A side view nicely shows the black panel containing three yellow blobs on the side of the thorax.


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Side-by-side, the female Black  Darter (top) is slightly smaller and more brightly coloured than the female Common Darter (bottom). The Black Darter also always has a backwards-pointing black triangle on top of the thorax.




So far, that is the complete Odonata list for Rathlin, but there a few other species that might occur here some day. Migrant Hawker, as already mentioned, must be a possibility in autumn as this very mobile species continues to advance northwards and has already been recorded in Northern Ireland.

Paying close attention to blue damselflies on the island may also one day produce a Variable Damselfly or (less likely) an Irish Damselfly. Their similarity to Common Blue and Azure Damselflies makes them very easily overlooked.

Keeled Skimmer may also be possible, especially as it is found on the nearby Scottish islands. Also present just across the water in Scotland is Golden-ringed Dragonfly. There is at least one intriguing (but unconfirmed) report of this big and fairly unmistakable insect on Rathlin, and several probable sightings elsewhere in Ireland. We would love to find one of these stunners here!

Finally, we feel the need to mention Brown Hawker. Despite this species being mentioned on RSPB information boards and magazines as something to look out for on Rathlin, there do not actually appear to be any documented records.

If you visit Rathlin in the summer, why not see how many of the island’s Odonata species you can find? Not all species fly at the same time of year, but between late May and late September at least some of them should be on the wing, and if you’re here in late June / early July you might be able to locate most of them. What better way to spend a sunny day on Rathlin?


Rathlin Birding Week 2018

IMG_9187During 1st – 7th October 2018 we held the inaugural Rathlin Birding Week, and what an interesting and enjoyable experience it was – not only for the birds we saw, but also for the time we got to spend with other mad keen nature lovers.

Hoping for help with searching the island during the potentially exciting autumn migration period, we invited birders to come and stay on Rathlin for some or all of the week. With extra pairs of eyes scanning the seas, grilling the gardens and looking at the loughs, we would be able to cover most parts of the island each day, record more complete counts of migrating birds and increase the chances of finding something special.

The arrival of migrating birds on the island is strongly dictated by the weather and, with the wind staying stubbornly in the west, conditions turned out to be far from ideal for bringing migrants over to Rathlin. Nevertheless, there is always something to see here, especially in autumn, and with extra observers scouring the island each day we managed a decent species list and a few particularly noteworthy sightings.


The old coastguard hut at Ballyconagan provides a sheltered spot from which to watch for passing seabirds.

The Monday was really rather quiet, but a flock of Pink-footed Geese arrived, kicking off what was to become a really goose-tastic week. A late Wheatear was found at the west end of the island, and everyone was treated to some good raptor action with a Merlin, 2 Kestrels and some exciting aerobatics from the local Peregrines. Winter wildfowl continued to provide most of the interest on Tuesday, with a Barnacle Goose and a Brent Goose joining the Greylags at Kebble Lough, and a flock of 6 Whooper Swans (our first swans of the autumn) flying past the East Light. Another Merlin put in a brief appearance, and seawatching produced 3 Sooty Shearwaters and a superb adult Pomarine Skua among a few feeding frenzies of Gannets and Kittiwakes.


At least three different late Wheatears were seen during the week.

Wednesday was another quiet day, with the brace of Branta still at Kebble, a new Wheatear, and little else of note except a Grey Wagtail, 3 Kestrels, and a rare glimpse of Rathlin’s most elusive resident – the Treecreeper. Thursday, though, was much more exciting, beginning with 2 Feathered Ranunculus and 7 Red-line Quakers in the moth trap at dawn, the latter species being a new addition to the Rathlin moth list. Barely had we set out from home when a female Hen Harrier was spotted quartering the marsh at Brockley – the first harrier on the island for over a month and a great start to the day’s birding. It turned out to be an excellent raptor day, with Merlin, Kestrel, Peregrine, Buzzard and Sparrowhawk also recorded.


Hen Harrier drifting around over Brockley.

A few Crossbills arrived ( a flock of 5 and a single bird), while a Chiffchaff ensured that we didn’t suffer a completely warbler-less week. At Kebble, a Pink-footed Goose had joined the gaggle and was grazing the day away in the company of the Barnacle, the Brent, and the usual Greylags. Four species of goose in the same flock must be quite a Rathlin rarity!

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Pink-footed Goose with Greylag Geese on Kebble Lough. One of the Greylags is our old friend NCL, who was given an orange collar on Islay in 2015 but has spent most of the last year on Rathlin.


Ok, this Feathered Thorn is not a bird, but we love moths too and couldn’t resist putting the traps out. We’re already thinking of a Rathlin Mothing Week for 2019.

The wind dropped off on Friday and the sun even came out at times, giving us a beautiful day to be out and about on the island. Once again, the morning began with a nice batch of moths, and this time it was a Feathered Thorn that became a new addition to the Rathlin list. A pulse of visible migration early in the morning included parties of Meadow Pipits and Pied Wagtails flying south overhead, with a few Skylarks, 2 Grey Wagtails, 2 Twite, a Redpoll and a Golden Plover also passing through. Newly arrived finches included 3 more Redpolls and a flock of 75 Goldfinches, and a flock of 21 Twite near the East Light was the highest count of the year for this species. The Pink-foot and Brent remained, but the Barnacle Goose appeared to have moved on. A new warbler appeared at Kinramer, but refused to be anything more exciting than another Chiffchaff.

The good weather continued on Saturday for another enjoyable day of birding. Once again, geese provided much of the action, with a flock of 11 White-fronted Geese dropping by in the late afternoon and a couple of flocks of Barnacle Geese (numbering 6 and 16 birds) passing by. With the local Greylags and the lingering Pink-foot and Brent, that’s an impressive five-goose day! With the breeze now coming from the northwest, we were anticipating the arrival our first Redwings of the autumn and, sure enough, a flock of 10 was found at Kinramer in the afternoon. A couple of Golden Plovers, a Twite and a couple of Merlins provided the day’s other highlights.

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The juvenile Brent Goose, affectionately known to us as David, spent all week at Kebble Lough. Presumably having just arrived from some remote corner of Greenland or Canada, Rathlin Birding Week may well have been David’s first experience of humanity (!)

Rathlin Birding Week was brought to a slightly premature end on the Sunday by strong southerly winds that disrupted the day’s ferries and persistent rain that made trying to find birds fairly futile in the morning. A new Wheatear was probably the bird of the day, and a single late Lesser Black-backed Gull was among a flock of 65 Great Black-backs sheltering on the edge of Kebble Lough.

We were delighted to have had nine participants during Birding Week, all of whom spent at least one day on Rathlin finding and counting birds and sharing their sightings with us. We enjoyed meeting and birding with a great bunch of people and, with their help, we recorded a very respectable 84 bird species during the week.

Thanks to all those who took part, both for their efforts in the field and for their enthusiastic company. We hope to see you all again, perhaps for Rathlin Birding Week 2019!


Rathlin birding monthly roundup: August and September 2018


As the cliffs rapidly empty of nesting seabirds, the birding focus switches back to migration during August as autumn passage begins to get exciting. Southbound passage of waders and landbirds gathers pace, while offshore movements of seabirds provide interesting seawatching and a chance of something unusual whenever the wind drives them within sight of land. After the relatively halcyon conditions of July 2018, August on Rathlin was rather unsettled, but at least the wet and blustery days did produce a few nice seabirds and a variety of waders. A total of 97 species were recorded during the month.

Another Mediterranean Gull on the 1st continued a good run of sightings for this species, while a Swift and 2 Greenshanks were also of note. The first 2 Turnstones of the autumn appeared on the 2nd, along with a juvenile Cuckoo (hatched on the island?) and a reappearance of the rather scraggy juvenile Rook which remained on the island right through to October. A small pulse of migration the following day saw House Martins, alba Wagtails and a Swift heading south overhead. A flock of 12 Redshanks also flew south, while 2 Kestrels and the first Merlin of the autumn were on the south arm of the island. A Tree Pipit and 2 Common Crossbills flew over Kinramer early in the morning on the 5th, but there was little of note in the subsequent few days. A few waders on the 9th included singles of Whimbrel, Sanderling and Common Sandpiper, and a Sandwich Tern flew past Rue Point.

A Red Kite reported on the 11th was an exciting find, but a Grey Wagtail was the only other sighting of interest that day. A juvenile Hen Harrier gave good view at Kinramer on the 13th, where it stayed until at least the 20th, and a Sooty Shearwater seen distantly off the West Light was the first in a great run of sightings of this species. Watching from the West Light on the 14th produced 3 more Sooties, a Common Scoter, an Arctic Skua, 7 Great Skuas and the very last Puffin of the year.

A brisk south-westerly wind on the 16th generated a good passage of Manx Shearwaters through the Rathlin Sound. A couple of Arctic Terns were a new species for the year and another single Common Scoter passed Rue Point. Waders included 2 Common Sandpipers and a Greenshank that remained in Doon Bay almost to the end of the month. More Sooty Shearwaters, Arctic Terns and a couple of Arctic Skuas were seen distantly off the West Light over the next few days. On the 20th, a distant Storm Petrel was seen foraging around a feeding frenzy of gulls of the West Light, but the day will be mainly remembered for a superb pod of Risso’s Dolphins which was visible for several hours and occasionally passed right below the lighthouse.

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Risso’s Dolphins entertained the lucky staff and visitors at the West Light Seabird Centre all day long.


Juvenile Knot

Another Storm Petrel was off the Rue on the 22nd, along with another Arctic Skua and continuing passage of small numbers of Arctic Terns. Another addition to the year-list came in the form of 18 Black-tailed Godwits flying past the Rue on 23rd, and a juvenile Knot was in Church Bay from the 24th to the 26th.

Migrating terns typically seem to take a wide berth past Rathlin, keeping enough distance to make identification difficult or even impossible. So it was quite a rarity on the 27th to see a juvenile Common Tern roosting on the rocks in Doon Bay and an Arctic Tern feeding at relatively close range off the Rue. A trio of Sandwich Terns also passed by, and 2 Storm Petrels and 5 Sooty Shearwaters continued a good month for both these species.

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The only Common Tern we’ve seen set foot on Rathlin in two years.


Part of the Ballyconagan Twite flock.

A couple more Black-tailed Godwits stopped off in Doon Bay on the 29th, with the day’s only other noteworthy sightings being a Common Scoter, a Grey Wagtail and a Kestrel. Another Hen Harrier flew past Kebble on the 30th, while a steady trickle of pipits and wagtails (including a single Grey Wagtail) made their way south overhead. A flock of 20 Twite at Ballyconagan was easily the biggest of the year so far. The last Common Sandpiper of the year and a Sanderling were in Church Bay on the 31st.



September can always produce some of the most exciting birding of the year, with autumn migration fully under way as the seasons change and everything gets on the move. A wide range of seabirds can be expected offshore whenever the wind is strong enough to bring them within viewing range of the land, while landbirds and waders making their way south could stop off for rest and refuelling at any point. Towards the month’s end, the approach of winter is typically signalled by the first arrivals of geese from the north. Adding to the excitement is the relatively high potential for finding rarities at this time. A lot of this, though, rather depends on the weather, and the virtually relentless southwest winds of September 2018 resulted in a very disappointing month. Despite our best efforts, the total of 101 species recorded during September was only very slightly higher than in the summer months and notable species were few and far between.

The first day of the month was calm, warm and reasonably promising, with small numbers of Meadow Pipits and White Wagtails moving south overhead and a few Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps skulking in the gardens. A Wigeon was on Ally Lough and a single Swift turned out to be our very last one of the year. The good showing of Sooty Shearwaters continued throughout the first half of the month, and small numbers of Twite were encountered regularly. A Grey Wagtail on the 3rd was the first of 11 seen during the month, representing a steady passage of this species, although no more than a couple were recorded on any single date. Another regular sight this month was Golden Plover, with records of one or two birds on seven dates, although all sightings were of birds flying overhead or passing by offshore.

At least 17 Sooty Shearwaters were seen offshore during a breezy day on the 6th, while there were also signs of small raptor passage: a Merlin, a Kestrel and several Sparrowhawks were seen that day. It was, however, to be a day of great frustration when an American Golden Plover was heard calling somewhere high over Ballyconagan, but refused to reveal itself through the wind and the rain. It would have been a bit outrageous to claim such an unlikely species (and a first for Rathlin, no less) without even seeing it, so the only real rarity of the year so far had gone and slipped through our fingers. Or so we thought…

The following morning had been rather disappointing but, just as all hopes of relocating the plover were fading away, suddenly there it was – an adult American Golden Plover flying low overhead, loudly announcing itself with its distinctive call and displaying its identifying features. Record confirmed! This was a huge relief, but also a huge frustration as the bird promptly dropped out of sight, never to be seen again.

The rest of the 7th was spent failing to find the AGP, but the search did turn up a juvenile Sanderling, a few newly arrived Goldcrests and Skylarks, and the first Pochard of the autumn which remained on Ally Lough all month. The wind picked up again from the southwest on the 9th, bringing 12+ Sooty Shearwaters, a Sanderling and the year’s first Pomarine Skua within sight of the Rue. Similar conditions on the 11th produced one of the best seawatching sessions of the year, with totals including 388 Manx Shearwaters, 21 Sooty Shearwaters, a Great Northern Diver and 115 Brent Geese. A good movement of 1,800 Kittiwakes also contained one juvenile apiece of Sabine’s Gull and Little Gull.


Juvenile Sanderling


Short-eared Owl

The 12th was much quieter, with 2 Golden Plovers, a Chiffchaff and 6 Twite the highlights on land and 4 Sooty Shearwaters the best of the sea passage. The following day got off to a great start when a Short-eared Owl – the first one of the year – was seen flying around Kinramer in the early morning gloom, although the rest of the day produced nothing better than a Great Northern Diver, a Kestrel and a Twite. The 14th was a wet and windy washout, but conditions improved on the 15th and a few new birds were around including a scattering of Goldcrests, a few Meadow Pipits passing overhead, 4 Twite, a Grey Wagtail, a Merlin and another Golden Plover.

Also on the 15th, a Leach’s Petrel found on board a boat travelling from Donegal to Rathlin was brought ashore in a box. It had managed to get paint on its plumage during its time flapping around on deck, so we did what we could to clean it up a bit and released it at Rue Point, where it flew off quite strongly, that night.


Leach’s Petrel with a sticky beak – well, a sticky everything really. 

The following couple of days saw little change, although 3 Red-throated Divers flying south at sea were the first of the autumn. In an autumn almost devoid of warbler passage, a single Willow Warbler on the 18th was almost exciting.

Storm Ali struck on the 19th, bringing winds of up to 70 miles per hour and making birding more or less impossible. A few seabirds were battling through the wind off the Rue, and a Sooty Shearwater and a Little Gull were picked out amongst them. It was interesting to see a few Swallows and House Martins attempting to continue their journeys south in such wild conditions.


Juvenile Merlin

By the 21st, the wind had changed to a brisk northwesterly. While seawatchers on the Northern Irish coast at Portrush look forward to the big passage of birds that this wind direction often brings, these northwesterlies are inexplicably useless to us on Rathlin and seabird movement past the island was virtually nonexistent. The day’s highlight was a skein of 70 Pink-footed Geese heading south high overhead, but it was also nice to see a reasonable passage of Meadow Pipits and a Black-tailed Godwit dropped in to Doon Bay. The wind was similar on the 23rd and again produced nothing more than an Arctic Tern and 4 Red-throated Divers offshore. A Merlin gave great views at the Rue (where it remained into October), a Wigeon and a Brent Goose were feeding together in Mill Bay and a single juvenile Shelduck (our first Shelduck since early August) appeared. Seawatching remained very quiet to the end of the month, with a couple of Arctic Skuas and a Great Northern Diver on the 25th and a Common Scoter on the 26th the only sightings of note.


Both Brent Goose and Wigeon are uncommon visitors to Rathlin.

A flock of 12 Ravens appeared to be migrating south from the Rue on the 25th, and it was interesting to see a clear influx of Song Thrushes on the 27th and a single Mistle Thrush amongst them. A flock of 16 Brent Geese also flew south past the West Light that day. A second Mistle Thrush was seen the following day, along with a new Merlin and a new Wigeon, and a couple of Grey Wagtails brought the month to a close.


Pale-bellied Brent Geese migrating past Rathlin.

Rathlin Birding Week 2018 – coming soon!

Rathlin birding week

Clear your diary for 1st-7th October 2018, because Rathlin Birding Week is ON!

For the first week of October (and possibly beyond), Kinramer Cottage will become the Rathlin Bird Observatory. We’ll be aiming to bird the island as much as possible over the autumn passage period, and would like to invite keen birders to help us find and record as many birds as we can each day. Join us for a day, the full week, or anything in between.

We’ll be offering cosy low-cost shared accommodation (£5 per person per night) for up to 8 birders. We can also provide pick ups from the harbour, and lifts to locations around the island where possible (we only have one very small car!). Each evening we’ll have a get-together to go over the events of the day and record our sightings in a daily log.

If you spot something interesting you’ll get a mention in this year’s bird report, and anyone who adds a new species to the Rathlin list will earn themselves a drink in the bar on us (as long as we see it too!).

To book your place or for more information please email rathlinbirding@outlook.com

Please note:

– Participation in Rathlin Birding Week is at your own risk.

– Kinramer Cottage is 3.5 miles from the harbour where you can find the shop, pub etc.

– You will need to bring your own food, optics, and suitable clothing for birding on a wild and windy island (we highly recommend waterproof footwear!). Bedding and towels are provided at the cottage, but if you can bring your own that will cut down on the amount of laundry we’ll have to do when we could be out birding instead 😉


Rathlin birding monthly roundup: June and July 2018

With the island’s huge seabird colonies at their magnificent annual zenith, June and July are probably and understandably the most popular months for birdwatchers to visit Rathlin. The cliffs are a bustling hive of activity as a quarter of a million (give or take a few) auks, Kittiwakes and Fulmars go about the important business of nesting.

Spring migration, meanwhile, grinds to a brief summer halt in early June, although it is not long before the first few returning migrants are making their way back south from mid July. Consequently, species diversity is slightly lower during these summer months, and we can take the opportunity to relax a bit from the daily hours of migrant searching. This year, we still managed to record 99 bird species during June and 96 during July, including one or two nice surprises.

Wader passage seemed rather late this year, and northbound calidrids remained a regular feature right into mid June. Also remaining later than expected was at least one Great Northern Diver, which lingered on the water off Church Bay until at least 5th June. Even more curious was the reappearance of May’s Barnacle Goose on Ushet Lough, which went on to spend the summer in the company of the local Greylags.


On 2nd June, the waders around Church Bay included 30 Dunlins and 3 Sanderlings. A single Swift was seen the following day, along with the first Arctic Skua of the year drifting high over the island. Perhaps the highlight of June came on the 4th, when an approachable flock of 8 Common Crossbills spent the day busily butchering larch cones in Kinramer Wood. At least 2 of the crossbills were still present until the 7th.


Crossbills don’t usually stick around long on Rathlin, but in early June there were enough cones on the larch trees to keep the birds busy all day.

Canada Geese don’t occur commonly on Rathlin, so a flock of 28 in Church bay on the 5th was quite unexpected, sharing the shoreline with a Sanderling and 22 Dunlins. A couple of Grey Wagtails arrived on the 7th, and 3 Sanderlings on the 8th were the last of the spring. Dunlins, meanwhile, continued to move through until a final flock of 10 was seen on the 16th. A single Common Sandpiper on the 15th could have been a late northbound bird or even a very early southbound one.

Rathlin2018_Canada Goose1a

Canada Geese (and one Greylag!) roosting on the seaweed.

Mid-month was otherwise a very quiet period as expected. A flock of 4 Jackdaws on the 9th, a Lapwing on the 11th, another Grey Wagtail on the 16th, an Arctic Skua on the 18th and a Wigeon on the 19th were the highlights of that period. A Whinchat on the 19th raised the possibility that they were breeding on the island, although this remains to be confirmed.

Single Swifts were seen on the 23rd and 26th, while other migrants for the rest of the month comprised little more than a couple of Sandwich Terns, a Collared Dove, and an unseasonal Mistle Thrush on the 28th.



Two more Mistle Thrushes appearing at Kebble on the 1st were just about the only migrants at the beginning of the month.

The first Razorbill and Guillemot jumplings were noted on the 3rd, signifying that the seabird season was already entering its final stages. For the rest of the month we enjoyed the nightly spectacle of the chicks leaping down from the cliffs to begin their new lives at sea. By August, the vast majority of auks would have departed the island once again.

A flock of 5 Common Crossbills was in the usual plantation at Kinramer on the 4th, and 4 Swifts were nearby. A Greenshank and a Common Sandpiper on the 5th heralded the beginning of ‘autumn’ migration, followed by further southbound wader passage throughout the rest of the month. Another Grey Wagtail was here on the 6th, and 2 Swifts flew over on the 7th.

Another Common Crossbill on the 12th continued a good run of records for this species. A small surge of waders included 2 Common Sandpipers on the 12th, 2 Greenshanks and an unseasonal Purple Sandpiper on the 13th, and a further Greenshank and Common Sandpiper on the 17th. Passerine migrants were very thin on the ground, with just 2 more Grey Wagtails on the 14th and another on the 18th.

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Juvenile Mediterranean Gull

The 19th proved to be the best day of the month. A juvenile Mediterranean Gull in Mill Bay (just the second Med Gull of the year) was a good start, but even more exciting for us was a Shoveler on Craigmacagan Lough. Shoveler appears to be something of a rarity on Rathlin, and this rather dowdy brown individual was the first one we’ve seen on the island. A Wigeon and a good count of 5 Common Sandpipers were also recorded that day, making up a good haul of sightings for the time of year. The Med Gull, Shoveler and Wigeon were all still present the following day, but were not seen thereafter. The biggest surprise of the 20th was a large (by Rathlin standards) flock of waders in Doon Bay consisting of 82 Redshanks and 2 Red Knots, plus an early Whimbrel nearby.


We don’t often see flocks of migrating waders on Rathlin, so it was a treat to see (and hear) this rowdy bunch of Redshanks. 

Rathlin2018_Mediterranean Gull3b

A very shabby 2CY Med Gull, part way through it’s primary moult.

A new Mediterranean Gull, a second calendar-year bird this time, appeared in Mill bay on the 23rd, along with several Sandwich Terns including an adult feeding a fledged chick.  More waders the next day included a Golden Plover, 2 Whimbrels and a Common Sandpiper, while 2 Kestrels were near Ally Lough. A flock of at least 15 Sand Martins heading determinedly south overhead was the first significant hirundine movement of the autumn.

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Adult female Hen Harrier

An early Hen Harrier and another Kestrel were seen over Kebble on the 25th. A Carrion Crow was a surprising arrival on the 26th, while a Whimbrel and a Greenshank were also seen, the latter staying around Church Bay to the next day. A flock of 8 Dunlins on 27th included the first juveniles of the year.

Awful weather on the 28th more or less prevented any productive birding, although Whimbrels were heard calling overhead during the downpour.  A Collared Dove at Kinramer for the last two days of July was the first sighting for over a month, and a single Swift was seen on the 31st. Numerous Manx Shearwaters offshore at the end of the month  were a reminder that, as we moved into August, the seawatching season might be kicking off soon.


Juvenile Redshank and juvenile Greenshank in Church Bay.