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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!