Rathlin birding monthly roundup: June and July 2019

With spring migration petering out by late May, the summer months of June and July provide a more relaxed time to enjoy some of the other natural wonders that Rathlin has to offer. Recording moths, butterflies, dragonflies and wild flowers certainly keeps us busy, although we keep our eyes and ears alert to interesting birds as surprises can occur even at this quiet time.

 

June

In terms of diversity, the 91 species recorded in June 2019 was well below the exceptional heights that we recorded in April and May, but did include one fantastic rarity and a few other unexpected treats.

The opening two days of June were uneventful, before strong westerly winds whipped up during the night of the 2nd and continued to batter the island for most of the day on the 3rd. When the wind dropped in the afternoon, we were amazed to find that the wild weather had delivered a terrific gift in the form of an American Golden Plover strutting around the beach in Mill Bay. Virtually the only wader present, our (admittedly rather shabby) transatlantic visitor gave brilliant views to everyone present in the evening as it foraged on the piles of storm-washed seaweed. Following a very frustrating adult seen briefly, and only in flight, in September 2018, this is the second record of American Golden Plover on Rathlin.

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The AGP was a scruffy-looking first-summer (2CY) bird, with long legs and long wings giving it a distinctive gangly appearance.

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Mediterranean Gull

There was no sign of the AGP the following day, and little else to report, but a wet day on the 5th brought our first 4 Arctic Terns of the year, feeding distantly from the West Light. Another year-tick appeared on the 6th, this time an Arctic Skua causing alarm among the nesting Common Gulls at Ushet Lough. Also that day, a Great Northern Diver flew past the Rue, a flock of 8 late Sanderlings arrived in Church Bay and the Mediterranean Gull that had spent a while here in the spring, last seen almost exactly a month previously, made a surprise reappearance.

Things then turned very quiet, with a Short-eared Owl reported on the 10th the only real thing of interest. Quite a surprise for summer, 2 Barnacle Geese were at Kebble Lough on the 18th, sticking around for just the one day. The month’s only Grey Wagtail was also recorded on that date.

They had been a long time coming, but our first 8 Swifts of 2019 finally appeared on the 20th – only about 40 days later than the previous year. They did make up for their tardiness with a spate of sightings during the remainder of the month, including a count of at least 27 on the 26th.

On the 21st, another Short-eared Owl was seen and 2 breeding plumaged Golden Plovers flew over Kebble. A Mistle Thrush on the 23rd was the beginning of a run of sightings, likely involving the same bird, that continued until late July. The only other notable bird of the month was a single Jackdaw sitting on a fence at the West Light on the 29th. For the last week of June, most of the migration action came from butterflies, with dozens of Painted Ladies arriving on the island. Although this little butterfly influx seemed quite exciting at the time, it was to be completely eclipsed by the massive invasion that was to occur a month later.

July

July’s bird diversity, with 92 species recorded, was only narrowly better than June’s, and non-avian nature occupied most of our attention throughout the month. The fact that July was the first month of year to pass by without any stand-out rarity only highlights just how good the birding had been during the first half of 2019.

A Whimbrel on the 2nd was unexpected, and hard to tell whether it was a very late northbound migrant or a very early southbound one. Even more unseasonal was an adult Whooper Swan that spent the day of the 4th swimming around in Mill Bay, occasionally honking at the local seals. Also joining in with the fun in Mill Bay was a drake Wigeon – the first on the island since early May.

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We were excited to hear that there was a swan in Mill Bay, thinking that at in July it just had to be a Mute Swan, which is a very rare bird on Rathlin. After racing down there for a look, it was surprising and just a little disappointing to find this lost-looking Whooper bobbing around on the water.

A Collared Dove on the 5th was the first since mid June, and 2 Common Sandpipers on the 8th were presumably the first of the year’s southbound migrants. Another Wigeon appeared on the 9th, this time on Kebble Lough.

Continuing the unseasonal wildfowl theme, a Pink-footed Goose was among the throng of moulting Greylag Geese at Ushet Lough on the 11th, where it remained for the rest of the month. The first returning Dunlin also arrived on the 11th, and 5 Swifts were recorded overhead. A juvenile Cuckoo flying around near the chapel, tailed by an entourage of agitated pipits, suggested that the species may have bred on the island again this year.

Although few and far between, at least some migrants continued to arrive, including 2 Lapwings, a Kestrel and a Carrion Crow on the 18th. As expected, waders provided a fair chunk of the action, with Turnstones and Ringed Plovers moving through from the 25th and a smart breeding-plumaged Red Knot on the 26th. Another Common Sandpiper arrived on the 29th, followed by a Golden Plover on the 30th and another Lapwing on the 31st. Also on the 31st, the first Arctic Skua of the autumn was seen harassing Kittiwakes just off the West Light, reminding us that the seawatching season was not too far away.

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We don’t normally see many Red Knots on Rathlin, and it’s even less often that we get to see one sporting its colourful breeding plumage.

As mentioned before, the biggest natural event of late July was the immense mass migration of Painted Lady butterflies. Many thousands appeared on the island from the 29th, continuing into August, but this was such a spectacular event we’ll devote a separate blog post to it soon.

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Summer flora on Rathlin

During spring and summer, a rich plethora of wild flowers light up Rathlin’s heaths, meadows, verges and marshes with a vibrant riot of colour. Some, like the purple, gold and green patchwork of heather and gorse blanketing the hillsides, or the endless carpets of pink and purple orchids (which we hope to cover in a separate blog post at some stage), are almost impossible not to notice. Others are rather less conspicuous, but reward the close attention of a careful botanist.

Some 500 or so plant species have been recorded on Rathlin. Margaret Dixon’s A Flora of Rathlin Island, available from Island Treasures in the harbour, provides the complete list of species and has been a very useful resource for us amateur plant-spotters. We can’t possibly feature all of the island’s flora here, but the collage below illustrates just a small selection of wild flowers to look out for on a summer visit to Rathlin and demonstrates their dazzling array of colours and shapes. A few notes on each species are given below.

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Top row, left to right:

Slender St John’s-wort occurs sparsely all over the island, including on roadsides. It’s a delicate plant, but with really spectacular flowers up-close. Pignut is a small, slender umbellifer that is common at Roonivoolin. We’ve only found Dove’s-foot Crane’s-bill in a few locations, particularly around Ushet Port, but we enjoy the absurdity of its doubly ornithological name! Scarlet Pimpernel blooms in scattered spots around the island, including at the harbour and at the start of the walking trail at Ballyconagan. Common Field-speedwell is one of several speedwells on the island. The smaller lower petal is whitish, distinguishing it from most of the others.

Second row, left to right:

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Bog Asphodel

Rock Sea-spurrey is common on the cliffs, and also grows on the concrete structure of the West Light. Cut-leaved Crane’s-bill has very small bright pink flowers and distinctive leaves. Tutsan, a big and vibrant member of the St John’s-wort family, has reputedly medicinal properties. Wood Sage grows densely in patches, often along the roadsides. It has distinctive greenish-white flowers and broad, wrinkly leaves. Bog Asphodel lights up the heaths in July with its spikes of vivid yellow flowers which almost seem to glow against the dark background of the peaty earth.

Third row, left to right:

Mountain Everlasting (or Stoloniferous Pussytoes, if you prefer) is an interesting, fuzzy little plant. Male flowers are white, females pink. We’ve only found this species in a couple of places so far: a few at Roonivoolin and dozens near Claggan Lough. Heath Milkwort (pictured) and Common Milkwort are very similar species and both occur commonly on the island, but they are usually found in different habitats. The small flowers are usually deep blue, but a few are pale pink. Bog Stitchwort is tiny and inconspicuous, with sepals twice as long as the deeply split white petals. Bell Heather is the first of the heathers to flower, cloaking the heaths with clusters of pink-purple flowers from June onwards. Hedge Woundwort grows in scattered locations at the roadside, its beetroot-coloured flowers distinguishing it from it’s paler cousin Marsh Woundwort.

Fourth row, left to right:

Agrimony, with its distinctive long spikes of yellow flowers, occurs in a few scattered spots. Cross-leaved Heath has larger, pinker flowers than the similar and more abundant Bell Heather. The small leaves occur in rings of four around the stem, giving the plant its English name. Meadow Vetchling is common in places at the roadsides. It climbs with long tendrils and has loose clusters of yellow pea-type flowers. Ling is the last of the three heather species to flower, only really blooming from late July. It’s flowers are very different to the Bell Heather and grow in spikes rather than clusters. Grass-of-Parnassus produces a single intricate flower on top of a short stem. Ballyconagan is the only site where we’ve seen this plant on Rathlin, although we also found it in abundance just across the water at Kinbane Castle on the Causeway Coast.

Fifth row, left to right:

Common Knapweed looks like a non-spiky thistle. It is common in many parts of the island and was a particular favourite of the many Painted Lady butterflies that visited the island in July/August 2019. Bog Pimpernel is small, low-growing and inconspicuous, but its stripy pink flowers can be found in several marshy spots, including close to the shore at the Rue. Sneezewort appears from late July, and its scent can supposedly make you sneeze. Harebells also bloom from late July, adding their blue-purple colour to the purple and gold backdrop of heather and gorse. Yarrow has umbellifer-like clusters of flowers, which can be white or pink, and feathery leaves.

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Painted Lady getting stuck into a Common Knapweed flower at Mill Bay.

Bottom row, left to right:

Brooklime is a speedwell that grows in drainage ditches and other wet places, although it is not common on the island. Western Gorse is a low-growing species of gorse or whin, that flowers in late summer. It grows mingled among the purple Bell Heather on the island’s heaths where its bright yellow flowers create the characteristic purple and gold colour scheme that has been adopted by one of the island’s bus companies. The similar European Gorse is also plentiful on the island, although it’s not truly native here, but it is a much taller plant and flowers mostly in the spring. Common Centaury, with its clusters of small but beautiful bright pink flowers, is uncommon on Rathlin, but we have found it at Ballyconagan. Eyebright is an abundant small flower over much of the island, varying from white to purple, with a bright yellow spot inside the lower petals. Greater Bird’s-foot-trefoil is common in places, but is far less abundant than the ubiquitous Common Bird’s-foot-trefoil. It grows taller than its commoner cousin, and usually has more flowers per head.

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Purple, gold and green landscape at Kebble Lough.

Rathlin birding monthly roundup: May 2019

April 2019 was going to be a hard act to follow, but May managed to maintain the high quality birding and continued to provide exciting moments throughout. Numbers of passerine migrants were rather low, but this was more than made up for by an excellent and varied passage of waders and a few stand-out rarities. A superb total of 115 bird species were recorded during the month, just one species fewer than April, demonstrating the great diversity that can be found here during the spring.

With a calm and sunny start to the month, the first Cuckoo of the year was at Kinramer on the 1st, along with a few new Common Whitethroats and a Tree Pipit (perhaps the same bird from the end of April). Other lingering characters included the Carrion Crow until the 2nd, the drake Shoveler, which toured the island until the 7th, and the Mediterranean Gull which also remained to the 7th.

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This was only the second Brent Goose of 2019 so far, and both birds have been of different races: the Dark-bellied Brent in late April, and then this Pale-bellied bird.

A Bar-tailed Godwit in Doon Bay was the highlight of the 2nd, this being the first of its kind recorded on the island for precisely one year. A Grasshopper Warbler singing at Kebble and a Pale-bellied Brent Goose in Church Bay were also both notable sightings, while a decent selection of other migrants included 29 White Wagtails, 7 Whimbrels, 7 Dunlins, 2 Common Sandpipers, a Black-tailed Godwit and 3 Sandwich Terns.

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The first Bar-tailed Godwit of the year, hanging our with one of the local oycs at Doon Bay.

The wind turned northerly the next day, and there was little of note besides a Lapwing, a Carrion Crow x Hooded Crow hybrid and the Bar-tailed Godwit still present. This began a fairly quiet period, during which a late Pink-footed Goose (which remained here until at least the 18th) and a Collared Dove on the 6th were the highlights. Dunlin passage began to step up with 37 counted on the 7th, along with the year’s first Sanderling.

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Still in frosty winter plumage, the Sanderling was typically approachable as it fed on the tideline in Mill Bay.

Promisingly easterly winds on the 8th gave us a Cuckoo at Kinramer, and a late afternoon shower seemed to bring down a Collared Dove, 3 Whinchats and the first 2 Spotted Flycatchers of the year. This little arrival promised much for the following day, but the 9th turned out to be disappointingly quiet, with almost no notable migrants besides a drake Wigeon at Kebble.

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Grey Plover

Back to easterlies on the 10th, but still little to mention besides at least one very late Fieldfare and a few more Common Whitethroats. Four Pink-footed Geese flew north past the West Light on the 11th, presumably with Iceland in their sights, but the highlight of the day was a Grey Plover in Church Bay. Grey plover is, perhaps surprisingly, quite a big rarity on Rathlin: the only previous record we are aware of was way back in 1961! The plover was still present the next day, but there wasn’t really anything else to report.

Another Tree Pipit was flying around Kinramer on the 13th, with a Spotted Flycatcher also present. Three more Spotted Flycatchers were seen the next day, as well as 5 Jackdaws, but most of the action was on the shoreline where an excellent flock of 155 Dunlins was in Mill Bay, accompanied by a single Sanderling and 3 Whimbrels. By Rathlin standards, this was a very high number of Dunlins, but the flock still increased further to a minimum of 200 birds on the 15th, all feeding frenziedly among the decaying beach-washed seaweed. A couple of Sanderlings were among them this time, and the year’s first Red Knot was near Doon Bay. Also on the 15th, an adult Mediterranean Gull was among the Common Gulls at Ushet Lough, and an unseasonal drake Goldeneye was at the same site.

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Amongst the Dunlin flocks was this bird, which had been ringed a year earlier at Ynyslas on the coast of mid-Wales.

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Black Redstart

With lots of wader action and some other good birds, it had been a decent couple of days. But on the 16th things went a little bit mad! The second Marsh Harrier of the year flew over Kinramer early in the morning, and a Black Redstart (the first on Rathlin since March 2017) was found hopping around the nearby cottages a few minutes later. By 6am, 4 Crossbills had also appeared at Kinramer – what a start to the day! The year’s second Bar-tailed Godwit and 2 Red Knots were in Church Bay, but these were well and truly upstaged by a stunning male Ruff found strutting around among the throngs of feeding Dunlins. A male Ruff with breeding plumage is always a special sight, but this one was made extra-special by being only the second Ruff ever recorded on the island, and the first since 1960! There was no sign of the shaggy-necked shorebird in the evening, but while a small group of would-be Ruff-twitchers searched in vain, an egret was glimpsed flying towards Mill Bay. Assuming Little Egret – still a rare visitor on Rathlin – we all dashed over to get a better look, only to find ourselves staring in disbelief at a breeding plumaged Cattle Egret instead! Looking rather out of its comfort zone perched among the gulls on the shoreline seaweed, this first for Rathlin soon went in search of more typical habitat, alighting briefly in a horse paddock before deciding in favour of a nearby sheep field where it spent the rest of the evening catching insects among an audience of curious lambs.

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Rathlin’s first Ruff for nearly sixty years, a male in breeding plumage, and it wasn’t even the rarest bird of the day!

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The local lambs weren’t sure what to make of their new flock-mate, following it around with interest and occasionally even giving it a playful butt! The egret ignored its ovine audience and seemed happy snapping up insects from the long grass.

The egret was still present with its chosen flock on the 17th, although it had gone by the next day. Also on the 17th, 7 Crossbills were at Kinramer, a Cuckoo, a Knot and a Common Sandpiper were seen and a Great Northern Diver flew past the north side of the island. Then, late at night, the news we’d all been waiting for (and on which we had almost given up hope) – Corncrake singing at Brockley! A very odd-sounding Corncrake, but a Corncrake all the same, and great relief all round that one of Rathlin’s conservation priority species had returned to the island again this year. While unmistakably Corncrake in rhythm and delivery, this individual’s gull-like squawks were very different to the familiar crex-crex of a male Crex crex and, after a bit of research and listening to many recordings, we believe this bird to be a calling female – something we had never even heard of before.

After such a couple of memorable days, we entered into a much quieter period with a distinctly end-of-spring feeling. Another Tree Pipit (the 6th of the spring), a Common Redpoll and the first Grey Wagtail since late April were all logged on the 18th, but the subsequent couple of days only produced a single late Redwing. A Kestrel and a Collared Dove appeared on the 22nd, and another dose of crexcitement came from a new Corncrake singing – with a typical male song this time – just about within earshot of the other bird at Brockley. This new Corncrake was only heard for one morning though and, while we can’t know if it managed to link up with the other bird, the continuing nightly squawking of the latter perhaps suggests not.

There was nothing much to report from the 23rd and 24th, and a Cuckoo and a Sanderling were the best from the 25th, with 3 Sanderlings during strong westerlies the following day. There was more great Corncrake news on the 26th, with a male now singing away close to the harbour – presumably our third different individual of the year. Light rain on the 27th brought in a Spotted Flycatcher and a late Whinchat, and a newly arrived Collared Dove was at the West Light Seabird Centre the next day.

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Whimbrels continued to trickle through until at least the 23rd.

There was only one notable record on the 29th, but it was a good one! A quick roadside stop at Kebble to admire the colourful show of orchids was unexpectedly interrupted by the repeated trisyllabic calls of a Common Quail, their maker unseen and difficult to pinpoint in the adjacent fields. Barring one or two very old and rather questionable records, this is Rathlin’s first documented Common Quail and a quality end to the month’s birding.

And, despite two days still to go, an end to the month’s birding it was, with pretty well nothing of note at all in the final couple of days. Although quiet at times, May had certainly delivered some great birds and, following on from a terrific April, made for an altogether very satisfying spring on Rathlin. Let’s hope 2019 continues to be this good to us as we head into June and July.

Rathlin birding monthly roundup: April 2019

Each year we look forward eagerly to April as an exciting part of the birders’ calendar – spring migration gets into full flow and some decent arrivals of summer migrants can be expected in the right weather conditions. In 2019, April exceeded even our high expectations and we enjoyed perhaps the most rewarding month’s birding since we first came to Rathlin in early 2017. No doubt thanks to a prolonged spell of easterly winds, we were treated to some great falls of common migrants, and scarcities seemed to be popping up almost every day. Species diversity was exceptional: the 116 species recorded in April is by far the highest single-month total of the last three years. The following account of the month’s highlights demonstrates how good a birding spot Rathlin Island can be at this time of year.

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Our data from the last three years shows that April is consistently one of the best times of year, at least in terms of species diversity. April 2019 was especially productive, and has put the island year-list well ahead of the last couple of years.

The first couple of days were rather cold and uneventful. The odd Chiffchaff, Wheatear and Redwing was seen, and Pied Wagtails seemed to be passing through in good numbers. A couple of Whooper Swans on the 2nd was probably the highlight, before northerly gales made finding any birds at all quite difficult the following day. The long-staying female Scaup remained on Ushet Lough, although it seemed to have finally moved on by the end of the month after receiving amorous advances from some of the local male Tufted Ducks.

The wind went east on the 4th, bringing our first Greenshank and first 2 Sandwich Terns of the year, plus a small arrival of Wheatears. We were thrilled to find a smart Ring Ouzel at Kebble on the 5th, little suspecting that several more of these scarce migrants would be appearing over the coming weeks. New species for the year the following day were 3 Swallows, a Willow Warbler and a Blackcap, while a hybrid Hooded Crow x Carrion Crow was seen at Kinramer. On the 7th, a flock of 30 Redwings and a single Fieldfare were flying around the west end of the island, 5 Woodpigeons were together in Kinramer Wood, and a single Rook was overhead.

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April is a brilliant month for Wheatears. Those arriving in the first half of the month are local (or relatively local breeders; later in the month come the bigger birds heading onwards to Greenland.

More productive easterlies on the 8th delivered more signs of summer, with Wheatears, Swallows, Sand Martins and the year’s first House Martin all arriving. The House Martin deserves special mention for having appeared on the exact same date three years running! Not to be forgotten, wintry characters continued to provide interest too, with a male Brambling singing at Kinramer in the morning and a male Snow Bunting foraging on the roadside at Brockley.

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Stock Dove – typical flight view of this shy bird.

A new Snow Bunting – a female this time – was near the West Light on the 9th, where it entertained visitors and staff at the Seabird Centre daily until the 16th. A Merlin was also seen on the 9th, but the day’s rarest sighting was a Stock Dove in Kinramer Wood. This was only Rathlin’s second ever Stock Dove, following one seen in the same spot in April 2018. The first White Wagtail of the year was found on the 10th, plus a Crossbill, a few itinerant Jackdaws and Rooks, and a scattering of Willow Warblers, Blackcaps and Redwings.

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The Snow Bunting was, as usual, brilliantly approachable.

Things really started to kick off on the 11th, with the first really big arrival of Willow Warblers, the first Dunlin of the spring, a Hen Harrier, 3 newly arrived Collared Doves singing around the harbour and hirundines flying all over the island. A Great Northern Diver just offshore was to be the only one seen all month. The day’s unforgettable highlight, however, appeared in the impressive shape of an adult Golden Eagle soaring above the island during the afternoon. What a bird!

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Golden Eagle. No fewer than nine species of raptor were recorded in April, which is a particularly impressive tally compared with March, in which only our three resident species (Buzzard, Sparrowhawk and Peregrine) were recorded.

The next day was distinctly quieter, but a female Ring Ouzel found on the steps at the West Lighthouse was another high quality migrant. This, plus a few flocks of Redwings and Fieldfares, made it an excellent thrush day . Two each of Greenshank and Golden Plover were at Kebble Lough, and 4 White-fronted Geese flying south were to be the very last sighting of our small overwintering population. It was windy on the 13th, but still with an all-important easterly direction. The most notable sighting was a clear influx of waders, with 18 Turnstones and 16 Ringed Plovers in Church Bay.

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The Mediterranean Gull was sporting a metal ring, but we didn’t get close enough to read it.

Strong easterlies continued for a couple of days, becoming strong enough on the 15th to create a big feeding frenzy of gulls on Doon Bay, which included our second Iceland Gull of the year. The wind dropped off completely on the 16th, and a productive wander around Mill Bay produced three new species for the year-list: a young Mediterranean Gull (which hung around for the rest of the month), 5 Common Sandpipers, and a superb Black-tailed Godwit in full breeding plumage. The best sightings on the 7th were 3 Bramblings and a Kestrel.

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Black-tailed Godwit – a simply beautiful wader!

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Jack Snipe

The 18th was a brilliant and varied day. The party of Bramblings at Kinramer had increased to 6 birds in the morning, and Willow Warblers were singing all over the island. The (somewhat later than usual) first few Whimbrel of the spring were on the south arm of the island, and a Jack Snipe flushed at Ushet Lough was the first to be recorded on the island for over a year. White Wagtails were scattered all along the rocky shores of the south end of the island, and the minimum count of 34 was probably a very conservative estimate. In the afternoon, a Marsh Harrier was seen hunting over the reedbed at Kebble, and while waiting for the harrier to show itself a Ring Ouzel (the third one of the spring) appeared.

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Mid April was a great time for White Wagtails, with dozens of them flitting around on the rocks and beached seaweed around the southern arm of the island.

 

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The Marsh Harrier was a distinctive bird: a male in it’s third calendar year. This is a rare raptor on Rathlin, with just one record in each of the last two years.

In sunnier weather, the 19th proved to be just as good as the previous day. Common migrants were arriving in numbers, with counts including 70+ Willow Warblers, 60+ Wheatears, 32 White Wagtails, 9 Blackcaps, and the first 3 Sedge Warblers of the year. Also new for the year were a Grasshopper Warbler, a smart male Whinchat and a Carrion Crow. Two Canada Geese (a minor rarity on Rathlin) arrived on Ushet Lough, where they stayed until at least the 26th. The Marsh Harrier was still around the western part of the island, and a Hen Harrier was seen several times. Bird of the day though, was undoubtedly the stunning adult Pomarine Skua, which flew along the coast at Doon Bay, causing much protestation from the local Common Gull colony.

Fog on the 20th made for a less eventful day, although the noisy chatter of Sedge Warblers now emanating from many reedy spots showed that more migrants were still arriving. The day’s rarity was our second Stock Dove of the year, which arrived through the mist and disappeared into the dense trees at Kinramer Wood. Calm, but mostly sunny on the 21st, a Mistle Thrush was at Kinramer and the first 2 Tree Pipits of the spring flew over Kebble. Also notable at Kebble were 5 Great Skuas flying around together. The 22nd was a quiet day, with 3 Collared Doves the most interesting new arrival.

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Whinchat

A Merlin and a Whinchat were at Rue Point on the 23rd, while a Crossbill and a Golden Plover were seen in the northeast parts of the island the same day. Continuing a good early passage of Whinchats, 3 more were recorded on the 24th. Hen Harriers were being seen almost daily around this time, and although all sightings were of females, it seems likely that multiple birds were present.

From early morning on the 25th, the year’s first Wood Warbler was singing at the edge of Kinramer Wood. Another Whinchat was at Kebble, and Ring Ouzel number 4 was soon found nearby, making it an exceptional spring for this species.

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2019 is now the third consecutive year that a Wood Warbler has been recorded on Rathlin in spring.

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Four Ring Ouzels in one spring is an excellent tally. Remarkably, all four were within the Kebble NNR at the far west end of the island, and three of them were in exactly the same spot! This was ouzel number four, perhaps the smartest-looking of the bunch.

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Red Kite – a rather scraggly immature, but still a great bird to see on Rathlin.

The first Common Whitethroat of the spring was singing on the 26th. Less expectedly, the year’s first  Red Kite was seen circling near the raptor hotspot of Ballyconagan. A Carrion Crow was foraging on the seaweed on Mill Bay, and 4 Black-tailed Godwits were at Ushet Lough.

 

There was a sudden change of weather on the 27th as Storm Hannah arrived, thrashing the island with north westerly gales. Lots of gulls were feeding among the crashing waves in Mill Bay, but 2 Sandwich Terns and the lingering Mediterranean Gull were the only things of note. As abruptly as they had begun, the gales rapidly abated, leaving a calm day on the 28th. There were few new birds around, but a drake Shoveler at Glebe was an unexpected and excellent addition to the year-list.

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Although Shovelers bred on Rathlin in the early 1960s, they appear to have been very rare on the island in more recent times. This smart drake is only the second Shoveler we’ve seen here.

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Dark-bellied Brent Goose

After a ten-day absence, the Marsh Harrier (the same distinctive male) made a surprising reappearance on the 29th, and a Hen Harrier was seen yet again. The biggest surprise, however, was a Dark-bellied Brent Goose (the first Brent Goose of any kind this year) feeding in Mill Bay in the evening. We don’t get many Brent Geese on the island, let alone the (rare in Northern Ireland) dark-bellied race.

 

The last day of the month arrived, and still the easterly airflow continued. Numbers of migrants were low, but included a Grasshopper Warbler reeling at Kinramer. As heavy rain set in for the afternoon, an approachable Tree Pipit sheltering among a few small trees at Kebble provided a quality end to a memorable month.

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There are few recent records of Tree Pipit in Northern Ireland, but we have found them to be regular migrants on Rathlin, particularly in spring. Late April and early May seems to be the peak time to find the species here.

After all that, it has already been a great spring on Rathlin. Now we just need one big mega-rarity to cap it off perfectly. Bring on May!

Hare today, gone tomorrow!

Just after Christmas, we had an extremely close encounter with one of Rathin’s famous and very special Golden Hares (you can read a lot more about Golden Hares in this blog post).

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A hare in the hand

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GH in its temporary enclosure

This Golden Hare was found at the roadside at Knockans, seemingly unable to walk properly. It was picked up and brought to us for help, where we found that it had no obvious injuries but there was something affecting its back legs. Otherwise, the Golden Hare seemed perfectly strong, but we worried it would become an easy meal for a hungry Buzzard and so we put it in what we thought was a secure a pen in the garden to rest. It appeared to be regaining some mobility, although still wobbly on its back
legs. When it was checked late at night, another of the local hares (of the normal non-golden variety) was beside the pen, quietly conspiring with the blonde visitor inside.

In the morning it was a shock to find the pen completely empty – as if by magic the Golden Hare had disappeared! Had it squeezed out of a tiny hole in the pen? Did the other hare somehow assist with its escape? Had it ever really existed?!

We searched the nearby area without success. We’ll never know what happened to it, but we sincerely hope its legs recovered enough for it hop away back into the wild, to graze happily ever after in some quiet corner of the island.

As it happens, early 2019 has been an excellent time for seeing Golden Hares on Rathlin. We know of at least six different individuals currently hopping around various parts of the island – perhaps our hobbling hare is one of them, now fully recovered.

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A Golden Hare gambolling merrily with normal Irish Hares at Kinramer in early 2019 – could this be our festive friend???

Rathlin birding monthly roundup: March 2019

March 2019 saw a small increase in diversity as the first few long-awaited summer migrants started to appear towards the month’s end. After 2018’s desperately slow start to spring, at least things seemed to be much more on schedule this year. A total of 92 species were recorded during the month included one little beauty never before seen on Rathlin.

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The long-staying Scaup on Ushet Lough, now acquiring the pale cheeks of summer plumage.

It was a calm, mild and sunny beginning to March, and several notable birds remained on the island from February, including the Scaup and 15 White-fronted Geese which remained until April, and the 6 Pink-footed Geese, whose number had halved by the month’s end. The Brambling was still at Kinramer, and up to three were recorded there almost daily throughout the month.

 

After February’s highlights of Golden Eagle and Black Swan, March’s headline bird was at quite the opposite end of the size scale. Glimpsed at Kinramer early in the morning on the 3rd, Rathlin’s first ever Firecrest eventually reappeared and gave brilliant views in the afternoon. As well as being a new species for Rathlin, it seems to be the first record of this most minuscule migrant for County Antrim.

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The Firecrest was too busy snapping up insects in the gorse to pay any attention to its small crowd of admirers (which comprised three people and four donkeys).

There was no sign of the Firecrest the following day, but a decent range of other sightings included the year’s first Red-throated Diver, a Red-breasted Merganser, 2 Purple Sandpipers and a Woodcock. There followed a prolonged period of very windy weather as Storm Gareth paid the island an extended visit. We were away on the mainland for most of this time though, and we’ll never know what storm-blown rarities sought refuge from the weather on Rathlin’s shores.

When we arrived back on the 18th, there had been a significant arrival of Skylarks. The year’s first Collared Dove was waiting for us at Kinramer, and it was a surprise to find a Canada Goose on Kebble Lough. The Dove didn’t stick around long, but the goose relocated to Doon Point the following day, where it spent some time honking loudly out to sea from the cliff top.

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Canada Goose honking on the headland.

The 19th brought signs of spring in the form of our first Chiffchaff and Great Skua of the year, as well as a Mistle Thrush, 3 Lapwings, a Twite and a small arrival of Redwings. The most exciting moment of the day, however, came when 2 migrating Woodpigeons caught the attention of a local Peregrine at Rue Point. The falcon caught one of the pigeons with ease, but was then dispossessed of its prey by a Raven, which held onto the prize against the furious protestations of the aggrieved Peregrine.

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Frustrated Peregrine swooping at the lunch-stealing Raven.

Another heartening sign of spring, the year’s first Wheatear, arrived at Brockley on the 20th. Also that day, a new Chiffchaff appeared, 2 Rooks and 6 Jackdaws were both new species for the year, and a good variety of thrushes included 4 Redwings, a Fieldfare and a Mistle Thrush. On the 22nd, at least 6 Chiffchaffs were present around the west end of the island, representing a modest ‘fall’ of migrants, although a couple of Fieldfares and a Grey Wagtail were the only other sightings of note. At least 3 more Chiffchaffs, a new Wheatear and a Rook were the best of the 23rd, before a blustery and largely uneventful day on the 24th.

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This year’s Yellowhammer was a particularly vibrant specimen.

Calm conditions on the 25th produced a bright male Yellowhammer at Kinramer – the third consecutive spring that the garden bird feeding station there has attracted this species. It spent the morning eating the seed provided, sometimes in the company of the three Bramblings, while a couple of Twite were also seen nearby. The following day was very quiet, but a short afternoon seawatch from the West Light did deliver the first 5 Manx Shearwaters of the year.

For weeks, we had been talking up the 27th of March as Puffin arrival day, that having been the date of the first Puffin sighting in both 2017 and 2018. Even so, it was still a bit of a surprise to arrive at the West Light early in the morning and see 2019’s first Puffins back in the colony, precisely punctual once again. Otherwise, it was another quiet day, with just a Great Northern Diver near the harbour worth mentioning.

It was calm and quite sunny in the 28th, and a few new birds included a couple of Wheatears, a Woodcock and a flock of 10 Redwings which stayed around Kinramer for a couple of days. Three Sand Martins – our very first hirundines of the year – flew south high over the island on the 29th, while a few more new Wheatears and another Chiffchaff were also found. A Jackdaw was pretty well the only notable sighting on the 30th, and the final day of the month brought the (rather later than expected) first 3 Lesser Redpolls of the year, as well as the unusual sight of 3 apparently migrating Magpies.

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Magpie vis mig – this trio of migrants flying high over the island had presumably just arrived from the mainland.

And so, at the end of March, Rathlin’s 2019 bird list stands at 104 species, slightly higher than at the same point in 2018. If the last couple of years are anything to go by, the next couple of months could be the most varied and exciting part of the year, and we look forward to reporting on spring migration’s peak season soon.

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Our first Painted Lady of the year also appeared on the last day of March, hopefully the forerunner of a good summer for this long-distance migrant.

Rathlin birding winter roundup: November, December, January and February

Before spring begins and we once again have some proper migration to talk about, it’s about time we wrote about the birds that have been on the island during the winter. Although probably the quietest season in the birding calendar on Rathlin, winter can still be interesting, especially when severe weather drives birds to the island in search of shelter or unfrozen ground. This winter was actually relatively mild and calm, and we were away from the island for the early part of it, but there is heaps for us to report in the following monthly accounts.

November

Species diversity decreases a bit as autumn turns to winter, but there are still plenty of late autumn specialities to look out for and it’s not necessarily too late for a rarity. This year, November started well, with at least 3 Bramblings, 5 Crossbills and 3 Pink-footed Geese still at present, a late Mistle Thrush, a Twite and the first Long-tailed Tits of the autumn heard calling from within the conifer plantation. On the 2nd, a Hen Harrier drifted overhead, an approachable Purple Sandpiper was at Rue Point, a late Chiffchaff was calling near the harbour and a count of 6 Greenfinches was the highest of the whole year. The autumn’s first (and only) Glaucous Gull was seen on Ushet Lough on the 3rd.

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It always puzzles us that Purple Sandpipers are so scarce on Rathlin, although they are good at hiding down amongst the shoreline rocks and we do probably miss a few of them.

We left Rathlin on the 4th to spend a few weeks overseas. As we packed up our belongings, the flock of Long-tailed Tits appeared outside, with at least 9 birds busily moving through the bushes. There were still thousands of Kittiwakes feeding in Rathlin Sound, and a couple of late Manx Shearwaters flew past the ferry. We were away for the rest of the month, but we did hear of a couple of good sightings in our absence. A Little Auk was spotted from a boat passing the western end of the island on the 24th, and a Short-eared Owl was watched at Knockans towards the end of the month.

December

The last month of the year is usually one of the quietest from a birding point of view, but surprises are always possible and waterfowl and gulls continue to provide plenty of interest. We didn’t come back to the island until the 10th, but a Little Gull was seen from the Rathlin ferry on the 9th, and a further 71 species were recorded once we returned.

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Common Scoter in the harbour.

A single Brambling was waiting for us at Kinramer when we arrived back on the 10th, but that turned out to be the very last sighting of the year. It was a rare treat to get close-range views of a female Common Scoter in the harbour on the 12th, and it remained there among the Eiders until the 16th. A flock of 8 Whooper Swans spent a couple of days at Glebe on the 14th and 15th. The swans had gone on the 16th, but the same productive bit of wetland held a Lapwing and a Wigeon, the latter staying put to the end of the year. Woodcocks were seen in a couple of locations on the 17th and 18th, while the latter date also saw an unseasonable Rook (which lingered on the island for 5 days) a Redwing and a rare sighting of Kinramer Wood’s apparently resident Treecreeper. A small group of Greenfinches became a regular sight at Kinramer for the rest of the month, with as many as 5 birds recorded together at times.

The last couple of weeks of the year were remarkably mild and largely calm – pleasant conditions to be out and about birding the island, but not the sort of weather likely to deliver much excitement. Nevertheless, things did continue to turn up, and the 19th brought 2 Redwings, a Great Northern Diver, a Red-breasted Merganser and a gaggle of 6 Pink-footed Geese. The Merganser remained in the harbour until at least the 29th, and what was presumably the same bird was seen flying past Rue Point, heading back towards the harbour, on the 30th. The 6 Pink-feet stuck around for the rest of the winter, roaming widely around the eastern and southern parts of the island. A Common Scoter appeared in Mill Bay on the 21st, and was perhaps the same female from a few days before, although we’ll never know for sure.

A Red-throated Diver and a Twite were seen on the 24th, and a flock of 7 Siskins flew overhead the following morning. A big feeding gathering of gulls off the East Light on the 26th contained at least 400 Common Gulls, a Great Northern Diver was in Mill Bay on the 27th, and a Mistle Thrush arrived on the 28th. A flock of 7 Linnets that had been living near Church Bay for a few days had been joined by a single Twite on the 29th. The last noteworthy sighting of the month, and the year, was a Kestrel hovering by Kebble Lough on the 30th.

During 2018, 155 bird species had been recorded on Rathlin – a slightly higher total than the previous year. A detailed species-by-species account of all the year’s sightings can be found in the 2018 Rathlin Bird Report.

January

The new year began as the old one had ended, with unseasonably calm and mild conditions. Mid winter is typically a quiet time of year for birding on Rathlin but, although such settled weather doesn’t do much to change that, January 2019 still produced 77 species on the island. An excellent diversity of wildfowl species was recorded, despite the overall numbers of ducks being relatively low. The range of wildfowl on offer included the overwintering Wigeon and 6 Pink-footed Geese which remained present all month. A single Twite remained at Church Bay until at least the 9th and a very small number of Greenfinches and Redwings were also present.

Wasting no time to secure their place on the 2019 year-list were 8 White-fronted Geese, a Woodcock and a couple of Siskins, which were recorded around Kinramer on the first morning of the year. A female Greater Scaup, found on Ushet Lough on the 2nd, was probably the best bird of the month and quite a Rathlin rarity: as far as we can tell, this is the first Scaup recorded on the island since April 1991! It remained faithful to its small gaggle of Tufted Ducks on Ushet Lough all month. Also on the 2nd, 5 Common Scoters flew past Rue Point.

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Scaup – a nice Rathlin rarity to begin the new year.

A drake Pochard appeared on Kebble on the 4th, while a Kestrel and a Fieldfare were also seen, the latter hanging around near Rue Point for the rest of the month. A couple of Woodpigeons arrived on the 6th, increasing to 3 the following day, and remained at Kinramer all month. The Treecreeper was seen again on the 8th at Kinramer Wood, where its lonely existence continues into another year. An early Mistle Thrush was seen on the 9th.

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Our mysterious commuting White-fronts puzzled us for the second winter running.

Just as they did in early 2018, a small flock of White-fronted Geese roosted at Loughnanskan on most (perhaps all) nights. They were seen numerous times flying south in the morning, and then returning late in the evening, although we still don’t know where on the mainland they spend their days.

On the 11th, we were surprised to see a few Common Guillemots sitting on their nesting ledges near the West Light. This was quite an early date for them to be coming ashore but, presumably linked to the mild weather, they went on to make pre-breeding season visits to the colony frequently during early 2019.

There followed a rough weather period, during which little of note was seen, followed by an equally uneventful period of settled conditions. The most unusual sighting was an injured Purple Sandpiper found on the road near the harbour. Unfortunately, it’s wing was very badly damaged, perhaps from a collision with overhead wires, and nothing could be done to save it. A female Goldeneye appeared on the 24th, the same day that a few thousand Common Guillemots arrived back on the nesting cliffs. A couple of Kestrels on the 27th was notable for the time of year, and 2 Great Northern Divers were offshore the following day.

January ended with a few wintry days of icy conditions, which did produce a flock of 24 Lapwings on the 31st, which had presumably left the mainland in search of unfrozen ground. This was easily the biggest Lapwing flock seen on the island in the last couple of years and a good record on which to end the month.

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Once a common breeding species on Rathlin, Lapwings are now an infrequent sight and it was quite exciting to see this winter flock flying around the island.

February

The rather mild winter continued in February, with more than our fair share of calm and even sunny days. An excellent-for-the-time-of-year 84 species were recorded on the island during the month, including a variety of long-staying visitors such as the Scaup, Goldeneye, Pochard, Wigeon, Pink-footed Geese, White-fronted Geese and probably just one each of Redwing and Fieldfare.

A glorious start to the month saw at least 18 of the Lapwings remaining, and a single Golden Plover flying high overhead. An equally glorious day on the 2nd was a day that we will never forget, thanks to the appearance of a Golden Eagle soaring above the island. After two years of hoping for one of these magnificent raptors, we were finally rewarded with great views as it flew right over our heads and vanished from sight in the direction of Scotland.

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Although there have been at least 13 sightings on Rathlin since the turn of the century, this Golden Eagle was the first to be reported since 2016.

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It was a poor winter for white-winged gulls. This third calendar year bird was the first Iceland Gull seen on the island since October.

The first Red-breasted Merganser of the year also arrived on the 2nd, and stayed in the harbour until the following day. A trio of Whooper Swans on Ushet Lough were the highlight of the 3rd. The next few days were fairly quiet, although 2 Crossbills flying overhead on the 6th were the first of the year. Very strong winds battered the island on the 8th and 9th, blowing a good number of Gulls our way. These included the year’s first Iceland Gull and a young Herring Gull x Glaucous Gull hybrid. The Red-breasted Merganser also returned to the harbour seeking shelter from Storm Erik. A couple of Siskins on the 10th were the first of a series of sightings of this species, with small numbers continuing to appear for the rest of the month.

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Although superficially resembling a very dark juvenile Iceland-type gull, closer inspection revealed a lot of Herring Gull features, leaving a Herring Gull x Glaucous Gull hybrid as the best solution to this tricky puzzler.

It was very calm and sunny on the 11th, and tens of thousands of Common Guillemots crowded onto their nesting cliffs in the biggest arrival of the year so far. There was little else of note over the following days, but the year’s first Grey Wagtail and Lesser Black-backed Gull were both recorded on the 15th, both rather earlier than expected. At least 5 Lesser Black-backed Gulls had arrived back by the 18th, and the hybrid Herring Gull x Glaucous Gull also made a reappearance that day.

A Snow Bunting flying high over Kebble on the 19th was another addition to the 2019 year-list, and there was a noticeable influx of Skylarks that day. A flock of 10 Twite on the 20th was a good record at this season, while 3 Whooper Swans flew south and there was a clear arrival of Shelducks. The very mild temperature prompted a few Snipe to start their spring drumming displays in the evening, and even a bat was flying around at dusk. A group of 4 Lapwings and the year’s first Merlin were all around Brockley on the 21st, and 4 Crossbills were in Kinramer Wood on the 22nd.

We had a few days off the island from the 23rd, but warm and sunny conditions still persisted when we arrived back on the 26th. Several Peacock Butterflies were flying in the sunshine on the 27th, while a significant arrival of Skylarks, Meadow Pipits and Pied Wagtails was also in evidence and a Grey Wagtail, 2 Crossbills and a Twite were seen. The day’s big surprise came in the evening, when photos posted on Facebook showed a flock of 12 swans a-swimming on Ushet Lough: 11 of them were the usual Whooper Swans, but amazingly one of them was a Black Swan – hardly something we would have expected to appear on Rathlin!

There was no sign of the swans the following morning, but the first Brambling and first 5 Long-tailed Tits of the year were found in the calm and misty conditions, along with another Grey Wagtail. We’d almost given up on seeing the swans for ourselves, but just as it was going dark we were surprised to see them settling down for the night on Kebble Lough, the Black Swan still tagging along with its Whooper friends. By morning the swans had gone, and with no subsequent sightings, we wonder if the Whoopers have now migrated to their Icelandic breeding grounds, and if their out-of-place Australian mate has gone with them.

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Although not exactly a true wild bird, the Black Swan was a very unexpected visitor to Rathlin and generated quite a buzz among the islanders. Even more surprising is that a Black Swan has in fact been recorded on Rathlin once before, and that sighting was as long ago as November 1883!