Sounding the Pyramidal Bugle

One of the most notable members of Rathlin’s flora is the rather squat, hairy and inconspicuous Ajuga pyramidalis: the Pyramidal Bugle. Rathlin is the only place in Northern Ireland where this plant is known to occur, and the only other sites in Ireland are in the Burren region (parts of counties Galway and Clare) and a single location in Donegal. Elsewhere, it is found in northwest Scotland, perhaps just one location in northern England, and more widely across Europe and the Caucasus. A distribution map is available from the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland.

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Pyramidal Bugle at Kinramer.

On Rathlin, the best places we know to search for the Pyramidal Bugle are at Kebble and Kinramer at the west end of the island, especially on the lovely Kinramer South walk where they seem to be quite common. Although the flowering season is usually given as May and June, we found several just starting to bloom at Kinramer in late March 2018.

Apparently Pyramidal Bugles can grow to 30cm tall, but here on Rathlin they don’t seem to get anywhere near that high, and can be hard to spot among the grass and other low plants until you get your eye in. The pyramidal shape is quite distinctive though: a four-sided spike of green-purple leaves, with small bluish-purple flowers sandwiched between them, the whole structure tapering slightly towards the top. Up close, the whole plant is extremely hirsute.

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Flowers peep out of hairy crevices.

Pyramidal Bugles should be flowering on Rathlin for the next few weeks, so that’s a good excuse for a spot of botanising around the west end of the island. The Early Purple Orchids are also just starting to bloom, and these will soon be followed by many of the other species that make up the truly spectacular spring display of wild flowers here on the island.

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Rathlin Pyramidal Bugles

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Rathlin birding monthly roundup: April 2018

April is when spring migration really starts to move up through the gears, as common summer visitors begin to pass through thick and fast on their journeys north. In April 2018, it was not until the 7th that things really got moving on Rathlin, but from then on we enjoyed some excellent and varied birding. A pleasing tally of 108 species were recorded during the month, including a first for Rathlin among a pleasing haul of #patchgold!

April began where March left off, mostly cold and windy with a dearth of summer migrants. The regular 14 Greenland White-fronted Geese continued to be seen commuting daily between the island and the mainland until the 5th, at least 1 Great Northern Diver remained close to the harbour until the middle of the month, and the Brambling remained faithful to the bird feeders at Kinramer. The Great Skuas continued to be seen on and off early in the month and were settling back into their summer territory from the 9th. Sadly, although they continued displaying for the first couple of weeks, the Lapwings seemed to disappear by mid month.

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Sandwich Tern

A hybrid Carrion/Hooded Crow and 5 Redwings were the highlights of the 1st, and a miserable day on the 2nd had nothing of note besides the first Manx Shearwater of the year passing distantly off the West Light. The following day added Sandwich Tern to the year-list, with 3 in Church Bay and a single bird off the Rue, and other sightings included a Kestrel, a Woodcock and a good-looking Littoralis-type Rock Pipit which was still around the next day. There was very little of note on the 4th, although a single Mistle Thrush turned out to be the only one all month. A Carrion Crow was at the south end of the island on the 5th (the same bird seen in late March, perhaps), while a late Whooper Swan and 4 Wheatears were also seen.

On the 6th, 3 Fieldfares and 13 Redwings were newly arrived and, at long, long last, the first warbler of the year was glimpsed at Kinramer in the evening. Frustratingly, it wasn’t seen well enough to tell whether it was a Willow Warbler or a Chiffchaff, but it nevertheless heralded the long-awaited arrival some proper spring migration. Light rain and mist the following day seemed to bring in a small wave of migrants, including 7 Willow Warblers, 2 Chiffchaffs, small numbers of Goldcrests, 7 Wheatears and the first Swallow of the year. A Greenfinch, 2 Rooks, 24 Redwings and 2 Fieldfares were also seen.

It was foggy all day on the 8th. On the plus side, this did seem to bring in a good fall of migrants; on the down side, it was very difficult to see any of them! A House Martin and 2 Blackcaps were both new for the year, while numerous Willow Warblers and Goldcrests, and a couple of Chiffchaffs were around the west end of the island. Who knows how many we missed in the mist? Also on the 8th, the Common Guillemots and Razorbills were finally back in the colonies after more than two weeks absence, and Puffins were seen visiting the nesting burrows for the first time this year. All the auks entertained visitors to the West Light for 3 days, but they had gone again by the 11th.

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One of the 5 Bramblings was singing away enthusiastically for several days.

Most of the previous day’s warblers had departed on the 9th, but a small selection of migrants included a Swallow, a Woodpigeon bombing around high above the harbour, a Merlin and 2 House Sparrows at Kinramer that stayed there until the 18th (sparrows are a minor rarity at the west end of the island!). The Brambling at Kinramer was joined by a second bird, with 3 more arriving at the feeders over the next week. The feeding station scored again on the 10th with a trio of Yellowhammers joining the banquet, 2 of which stayed for 3 days. Also recorded that day were a Greenshank, 2 Sandwich Terns, 23 Fieldfares, 8 Redwings, several newly arrived Willow Warblers and Goldcrests and 4 Wheatears which included the first Greenland-type bird of the year.

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Historically, Yellowhammers bred on Rathlin, but they are now just a rather scarce visitor. 

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Greenland White-fronted Goose

A Rook arrived at Kinramer on the 11th, and obviously took a liking to place as it hung around for the rest of the month, stealing food from the livestock. A single Greenland White-fronted Goose was grazing among the local Greylags and a new Merlin was seen. Just very small numbers of migrants were around over the next couple of days, with the most noteworthy being the year’s first White Wagtail on the 12th. A livelier day on the 14th brought a flock of at least 40 Fieldfares at Kinramer, a Golden Plover,  a Twite, at least 24 Willow Warblers, 3 Blackcaps, 5 White Wagtails, 7 Wheatears, a House Martin, a Swallow and the first 3 Sand Martins of the year. Usually the first of the hirundines to arrive, Sand Martins were very late this year, perhaps as a result of the wintry conditions in late March.

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There is probably a limit as to how excited we can get about a Stock Dove, but we must have come close to that limit with this one – a first for Rathlin!

The 15th began with fleeting views of a very flighty and camera-shy Stock Dove at Kinramer. Remarkably, this appears to be the first record of Stock Dove on Rathlin, and fortunately it hung around all day and eventually gave itself up for photos in the evening. A Golden Plover and a young Peregrine were the only other arrivals of note that day. The first Collared Dove of the year appeared on the 16th, along with a Grey Wagtail, 2 more Rooks and yet another Glaucous Gull (at least our 6th of the year so far). The gull managed to find itself a tasty decaying seal corpse in Mill Bay, and hung around to enjoy the feast until the 24th. The first 3 Common Sandpipers of the year were also in Mill bay on the 17th, along with 4 Sandwich Terns. A Whimbrel on the 18th was the start of a steady passage of this species, while small numbers of the common summer passerine migrants continued to trickle through daily.

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Glaucous Gull tucking into some lovely blubber.

A beautiful sunny day on the 20th brought a big surprise in the form of a female Bullfinch at Kebble – quite a rarity on Rathlin. The first couple of Sedge Warblers of the year also announced their arrival loudly from the reedbeds at Kebble and Craigmacagan, and there was a clear influx of various other migrants including 15 White Wagtails, more than a dozen Wheatears (several of which were Greenland-type birds), 25 Willow Warblers, 4 Sand Martins, 3 Swallows, a Grey Wagtail, a Golden Plover and a flock of 11 Redpolls. The pleasant weather also prompted the seabirds to come back ashore at the West Light, although it was to be just yet another temporary visit and they had departed once again by the 23rd. Common migrants including White Wagtails and Wheatears continued to pass through on the 21st, and at least 7 Blackcaps were seen in the western part of the island. A flock of at least 27 Redpolls was at Kinramer and 3 Jackdaws also appeared overhead.

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White Wagtails and Greenland Wheatears were conspicuous from mid Month.

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Tree Pipit showing off its pink legs and short claws.

On the 25th we were entertained by an extremely approachable Tree Pipit at Kinramer and a smart adult Mediterranean Gull hanging out in the Rue Point Common Gull colony, while Wheatears and White Wagtails were scattered throughout the island. Three additions to the year-list arrived on the 27th: a Grasshopper Warbler singing at Kinramer, a female Cuckoo in the same location, and – causing excitement and celebration all round – a Corncrake singing again on its territory at Brockley. The Corncrake was surprisingly early, but it sang on and off to numerous listeners for the rest of the month. The Guillemots, Razorbills and Puffins made another return to the cliffs on the 28th, finally looking to settle this time in readiness for the nesting season to get properly underway in May.

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Mediterranean Gull

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Ring Ouzel

The first Whitethroat and 2 Whinchats arrived on the 29th, and a flock of 8 Common Scoters off Rue Point were also new for the year. A Common Sandpiper, 9 Whimbrels and a Lapwing were the other highlights off a stunning, warm sunny day. After its rather cold and slow beginnings, April came to an end in much more pleasant and spring-like conditions. A fabulous Ring Ouzel at Kinramer on the 30th was a great way to finish what, in the end, turned out to be a varied and exciting month of birding on Rathlin.

Rathlin birding monthly roundup: March 2018

March can be an exciting month to be birding in somewhere like Rathlin. The winter finally draws to a close, and the changing of the seasons brings with it a shift in the birdlife as winter species begin to depart and the first waves of summer migrants appear. It is a transition period: a brief window in the annual cycle when the departing Whooper Swans and Snow Buntings can be seen alongside the arriving Wheatears and Chiffchaffs.

At least, that’s what we were hoping for. March 2018 turned out to be a very slow start to the migration season indeed, and even by the end of the month it still felt much more like mid-winter than spring. Apart from a very small number of Wheatears, there were virtually no summer migrants at all. The continuing cold, wintry conditions clearly held back the annual advance of warblers and hirundines, and several species that are normally expected to appear in late March remained conspicuously absent by the month’s end.

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Lovely spring weather at Kebble Lough.

But that’s not to say there was nothing of interest to see. We recorded 93 bird species during the month, including the following highlights:

March 2018 began still held in the icy clutches of ‘the Beast from the East’, with Song Thrushes everywhere and Common Snipe circling around in search of unfrozen ground. Still lingering from February were the female Pochard (which finally departed around the 15th), the Lapwing duo, and presumably the same 4 Mistle Thrushes from late February which, although not seen for a couple of weeks, resurfaced on the 12th. Woodcocks maintained a continuing presence (although they were encountered less regularly as the month progressed), as did small numbers of Great Northern Divers offshore and the 3 Woodpigeons which stuck around until the 11th, with just a single bird staying on for the rest of the month.

An early Dunlin was in the harbour on the 2nd and another single Mistle Thrush appeared on the 3rd. Improving conditions on the 4th brought a Redwing and 2 Kestrels, and a spell of fine weather over subsequent days even prompted some of the Common Guillemots to venture ashore once again on the 8th. A drake Goldeneye was seen regularly on Kebble Lough or Ushet Lough from the 4th until the 15th, and was probably the same bird moving back and forth between the two sites. Three different Merlins were recorded on the 8th, and there was a single new Lapwing in addition to the 2 lingering birds. Small numbers of Lapwings continued to be seen throughout the month, including 3 birds enthusiastically displaying at Brockley from the 23rd onwards.

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Lapwings larking around.

A spell of more settled weather in the second week of the month brought a large influx of gulls back to the Rathlin’s nesting colonies, including lots of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Common Gulls and Black-headed Gulls. Reed Buntings also took the opportunity to return to their territories all over the island.

On the 10th, 3 Whooper Swans flew north, 3 Great Northern Divers were still offshore near the harbour and the regular lonely Chough made another visit to Rathlin, staying until the 13th. The 11th saw some landbird movement, with the first 2 Grey Wagtails of the year arriving along with a small influx of Pied Wagtails and Meadow Pipits. Thrushes included a new Mistle Thrush, 15 Redwings and a couple of Fieldfares, while both Linnet and Lesser Redpoll made their first appearance since January. The following day brought a Barnacle Goose and 8 Pink-footed Geese to Kebble Lough and the clear conditions prompted a flock of 12 Ravens and at least 4 Jackdaws to drift over to the island. The corvid theme spilled over to the 13th with the first Rook of the year, and there was also yet another new Mistle Thrush.

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Glaucous Gull flying past the Rue.

A Whooper Swan flew north on the 15th and 4 Fieldfares arrived at Kinramer, staying there for at least the next three days as another very cold weather system roared in from the east. A juvenile Glaucous Gull found on the same day was at least the fifth one of the year and remained a regular sight at Rue Point until the 27th. More Whooper Swans passed through on the 16th, with flocks of 2 and 5 seen heading north. The next couple of days were still very wintry and rather quiet, with a couple of Mistle Thrushes and a migrant Peregrine (that remained present to at least the 28th) providing the highlights.

An improvement in the weather on the 19th resulted in the year’s first Wheatear – always an eagerly awaited sign of spring’s arrival. A couple more Wheatears appeared the next day, and another single bird on the 21st gave a hope that spring migration was fully underway, although this soon proved to be a bit of a false start: there were no more wheatears, in fact no summer migrants at all, over the next week as the season seemed to take yet another cold step backwards into winter.

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Greenland White-fronts setting off on their daily commute to the mainland.

The birding for the rest of the month maintained a stubbornly wintry feel. A flock of 14 Greenland White-fronted Geese was seen numerous times, always flying southwest towards the mainland early in morning. At the end of the month we finally caught sight of them returning at dusk, confirming their daily pattern: they roosted on Rathlin, but spent the day somewhere in mainland Northern Ireland, commuting between the two sites each day. Where exactly they went, we don’t know, although they were reported one morning flying in from the sea at Ballintoy. These were not the only winter geese  around that time – on the 21st a Barnacle Goose and a flock of 10 Pink-footed Geese were at Kebble Lough. Perhaps these were the same birds that had visited us on the 12th.

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Barny getting to know the locals.

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Lesser Redpoll

Also on the 21st, a couple of Grey Wagtails, another Mistle Thrush and a Kestrel were seen, and at least 88 Redwings constituted by far the biggest count of the year so far. At the West Light, the auk colonies were suddenly full of birds again despite the inclement weather, but they were all gone again two days later and stayed away at sea for the rest of the month. There was little change over the subsequent couple of days, with 2 Rooks on the 24th the only new thing of note. It was relatively pleasant and calm on the 26th, and there were indications of a very small arrival of Goldcrests. A flock of 4 Lesser Redpolls also appeared to be newly arrived. The 27th was slightly more exciting, with three species making their very first appearance of the year: a Twite at Church Bay, an adult Iceland Gull on Ushet Lough and a Puffin briefly on the sea near the West Light.

Another Rook and a couple more Grey Wagtails were the best the 28th had to offer, but the 29th was a bit better. A new Wheatear finally arrived, along with a Whimbrel, a Brambling (remaining into April), 2 Rooks again, another Grey Wagtail, a smattering of Redwings and Fieldfares and the first two Great Skuas of the year. A Hen Harrier on the 30th was the first since January, but a bold and beautiful Snow Bunting stole the show in the Seabird Centre car park.

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This fantastic and fearless Snow Bunting was perhaps the most entertaining bird of the month, scurrying around right outside the windows of the West Light Seabird Centre.

The last day of March arrived with still no significant arrival of spring migrants. Notably, a Carrion Crow was seen arriving from over the sea at Rue Point, but a Merlin and a Kestrel were the only other sightings of interest. And so, the month ended with barely anything to suggest that spring was upon us. Clearly, we would have to wait a little longer than usual for the first warblers and martins to arrive this year, and a big arrival of Wheatears must surely be imminent. We’re expecting big things of April.

Serenity, storms and seasonal celebrations: why winter on Rathlin is super cool

It was already spring when we arrived on the island last year, so we’ve just experienced our first Rathlin winter. Out at the west (or the thick end as it’s traditionally known) we’ve had the place pretty much to ourselves and it’s been a wonderfully interesting contrast to the busy visitor season. It’s left us wondering why more people don’t come to visit Rathlin in the winter, and hopefully in this post you’ll see there’s plenty of reasons why you should.

Though lacking the colourful wildflowers of spring and summer, the landscape of Rathlin is certainly no less beautiful over the winter.  In fact, in many ways the low angle of the sun makes it more so, with sunny days bringing a golden glow throughout the day. The cold, crisp air brings startling clarity to the scenic views, and we’ve seen across to Islay, to Ailsa Craig, even to the coast of Ayrshire, far more clearly than during the warmer months.

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Looking across to Church Bay from Kinramer, with views extending to the Mull of Kintyre, Sanday Island and Ailsa Craig in the distance.

We’ve had just as many spectacular sunrises and sunsets as in the summer, with the added bonus that the crack of dawn occurs at a much more leisurely hour. Here with our clear views to the horizon, it’s easy to notice how the location of the rising and setting sun changes markedly with the season, contracting southwards until the winter solstice.

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These sunrise snaps were taken at approximately monthly intervals from the same location, looking across to the lighthouse at Rue Point and Tor Head beyond that. The top picture, taken on 11th December, shows the sun rising behind Tor Head. By 6th January (bottom left) the sun was rising just east of Tor Head, and a lot further east by 7th Feb (bottom right).

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Waves crashing on the shore at the west end of the island

Of course it’s not all golden sunshine over the winter. Rathlin’s rugged shores get battered by wild storms, but listening to the gales blowing outside while being safely tucked up inside a cosy cottage is one of the romantic island experiences. And Rathlin is well adapted to surviving any meteorological onslaught – many times we ventured out the morning after a big blow and were surprised to find almost no damage or other evidence of the wild weather.

 

Being an offshore island, Rathlin is relatively well protected from extreme cold. Snow or hail from the odd wintry shower doesn’t stick around for long. But the isolation does throw up a few other challenges to deal with. Rathlin doesn’t have the luxury of a road gritting service in icy conditions, so when ice does form it can make driving around the island difficult, particularly up or down the steep hills. We try to avoid driving if it’s icy, but twice this winter we’ve been caught out and been unable to drive uphill, abandoning our car to walk (or slide) the rest of the way home.

Ice isn’t the only thing making it hard to drive – the potholes in the roads have steadily got worse over the winter, and in January we made the front page of the local paper, the Ballycastle Chronicle, with our picture of disgruntled road users.

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Donkey disapproval: Rathlin’s roads making a front page splash

The worst of the winter weather came in early March, when actually it was meteorological spring, but a minor technicality like that wasn’t going to hold back ‘the beast from the east’. The severe wind chill from the frigid air blasting in from the east created some truly phenomenal ice formations on Rathlin’s loughs and cliff waterfalls.

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Frosty fleeces and frozen tongues: animals on Rathlin toughing it out during a cold snap

So, a winter visit provides plenty of opportunities to see Rathlin in a different light. There’s also been many fun events bringing the community together. The Christmas period was busy, first with the island’s choir, Rathlin Sound, performing at the switching on of the Christmas lights.

That was followed by the school Christmas play, in which the eight pupils of Rathlin’s St Mary’s Primary School played to a packed hall and put on an entertaining performance, each of them playing multiple parts. There were energetic activities to see out the year, with a 5km fun run on New Year’s Eve, before rousing choruses of Auld Lang Syne in McCuaig’s Bar at midnight. The next morning, Rathlin’s hardiest souls took to the harbour for a brief but bracing New Year’s Day swim.

And what about the birding action? Well, while midwinter is often thought of as the quiet part of the birding year, it is certainly not without interest. Despite the short daylight hours and sometimes difficult weather conditions, we found it an interesting and rewarding time to be out and about on Rathlin, particularly for the species that are winter visitors.

While many people assume that the summer is the only time to see seabirds on Rathlin, that is not really true. Common Guillemots, Razorbills, Kittiwakes and Fulmars can easily be seen offshore throughout the year, especially from the Rathlin ferry. In the shelter of the harbour, Black Guillemots can usually be found bobbing around even in winter, although at this time they are in their non-breeding plumage and mostly white. One very special winter seabird to look out for is the Little Auk, which breeds in the high Arctic but sometimes occurs in our waters during the winter months. It is most often encountered during periods of westerly gales, and this was the case on the two occasions we had brief glimpses of this starling-sized seabird fluttering over the pounding waves close to shore.

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Little Auk fluttering past Rue Point on 20th January 2018

From late December onwards, large numbers of Fulmars could be seen occupying their territories on the high cliffs. They are the earliest of the seabirds to return after leaving in early September at the end of the breeding season. By January the cliffs were busier than we’d ever seen it in the summer, with swarms of Fulmars swooping around aerobatically in strong winds.

Less predictable are the Common Guillemots, which this year began returning to the cliffs in early February. Walking out to the West Light one fine morning, it was a thrill to discover the cliffs and stacks, having been completely empty of auks since early August, suddenly covered with tens of thousands of rowdy guillemots. They must start piling onto the cliffs well before dawn, then they may stay ashore for only a few hours before they all return to the sea.  Their visits usually coincide with calm weather, but they are mysterious creatures and it is difficult to predict when they will be on the cliffs. The guillemots’ comings and goings become increasingly frequent by early spring in the build up to nesting time.

Winter has been an excellent time for watching wildfowl on the island. Pochard and Goldeneye are winter visitors to the island’s freshwater loughs, which also hold plenty of Teal at this time of year, as well as occasionally other surprises like the two Goosanders that dropped in briefly this year.  Aside from the local Greylags, other geese pay sporadic visits to Rathlin, which this winter have included Barnacle, White-fronted and Pink-footed Geese (scarce in Northern Ireland). Families of Whooper Swans have also been present on the loughs, mainly in November when they were on the move. Offshore, there have usually been a few Great Northern Divers, which can be most easily spotted with a telescope from a high vantage point, like the lookout at Knockans.

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Swanning about: Whooper Swans on Kebble Lough on 3rd November 2017

There are several other species that are winter specialities. Glaucous and Iceland Gulls are occasionally seen among the much more numerous Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. We’ve seen perhaps seven different Glaucous Gull individuals visiting Rathlin this winter, based on age and plumage characteristics.

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Adult Glaucous Gull at Rue Point on 20th January 2018

Woodcocks are not uncommon, particularly in Kinramer Wood where a few seem to spend the winter. While we did see birds flying out to feed once or twice at dusk, most of our Woodcock views were of birds flushed by chance, noisily exploding into flight practically from under our feet. Common Snipe are numerous in marshy areas and, in a period of very cold weather we were lucky enough to find a Jack Snipe.

Raptor lovers won’t be disappointed either, with good views of resident Buzzards, Peregrine Falcons, and Sparrowhawks throughout the winter. To spice things up, there’s always a decent chance of Hen Harriers, Merlins and Kestrels (quite a rare sight in Rathlin).

We are yet to see an eagle here on Rathlin but with numerous records of Golden and White-tailed Eagles in recent years we live in hope. Perhaps the most likely time for them to show up is March/April so watch this space.

We’ve loved winter on Rathlin. But that’s not to say we’re not looking forward to things warming up a bit, migrants arriving and the seabirds returning to nest again in the coming weeks. Bring on the spring!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the case: investigating the mermaid’s purses of Rathlin

During our beachcombing adventures along Rathlin’s shore in January and February, we’ve found quite a few shiny hollow capsules which we recognise as ‘mermaid’s purses’ – the eggcases of a shark or skate. Rathlin islanders also know these as ‘crowbie’s purses’, crowbie being a local name for the Raven.

On finding our first mermaid’s purse, we followed the instructions in our beachcombing bible to soak the capsule in water to rehydrate it before trying to identify the species. It grew quite considerably in size, with the capsule length reaching just under 6cm. The book indicated our eggcase belonged to a Spotted Ray, which is widespread in the north-east Atlantic.

We were able to confirm this using a fantastic eggcase identification key provided by the Shark Trust. We were super impressed with the information and resources available from the Shark Trust’s website, which has a dazzling range of beautifully produced species factsheets – a great way to start getting to know these enigmatic elasmobranchs.

For landlubbers like us, sharks and other denizens of the deep are rarely encountered and little known, living out of sight and mind in their own secret domain. Eggcases washing up on the beach are a good reminder of these animals living in the waters that surround us. Indeed, sightings of mermaid’s purses from beaches all over the country can be submitted to The Great Eggcase Hunt to help to build up a clearer picture of the distribution and abundance of our oviparous sharks and skates.

Armed and encouraged with all the information we had found about eggcases, we were soon back on the beaches of Rathlin and searching for more. At the end of February, in just a couple of beachcombing sessions we were thrilled to find 12 mermaid’s purses belonging to four different species. It must be hatching time for little sharks!

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Eggcases from the four species we have found on Rathlin so far: Thornback Ray (A), Spotted Ray (B), Small-spotted Catshark (C) and Blonde Ray (D)

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Eggcases from the Small-spotted Catshark can vary in colour. The one on the left has been rehydrated.

The most abundant eggcases we found were the small, elongated ones with long twisty tendrils at the ends. These are made by the Small-spotted Catshark, and the tendrils serve to tether the eggcase in position on the sea floor.

This species is also commonly known as a dogfish, and we can’t help finding it slightly ridiculous that a catshark and a dogfish are exactly the same thing!

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Spotted Ray eggcase

The second commonest eggcase type belonged to the Spotted Ray (which, taxonomically speaking, is really a skate rather than a ray  – true rays don’t lay eggs), the same as our first specimen.

We’ve found four of these so far, on beaches in different parts of the island.

 

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Thornback Ray eggcase

Then came two others that were different. Similar to a Spotted Ray eggcase, but slightly larger and with a broad, flattened keel along the edges, was this specimen belonging to a Thornback Ray (again, not really a ray). We were excited to see this one as we had previously found the remains of a Thornback Ray on one of Rathlin’s beaches.

And finally, we found one absolute whopper..

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Blonde Ray eggcase

This eggcase is made by the Blonde Ray (yes, once again, really a skate), and is much bigger than the Thornback Ray eggcase which it otherwise resembles.

Sadly, many species of shark, skate and ray are declining alarmingly in European waters and around the world. Two of the species whose eggcases we found on Rathlin – the Thornback Ray and Blonde Ray – are now classified as near threatened. Finding and reporting eggcases washed up on the beach is one way of adding to our knowledge of where these creatures breed, which may help the efforts to conserve them. So if you are lucky enough to come across a mermaid’s purse, make use of the excellent online resources to identify it, and don’t forget to submit your find to The Great Eggcase Hunt.

 

#WashedUpOnRathlin: a littoral interpretation of the secrets of Rathlin’s shore

This winter, the environmental emergency of plastic in our oceans (and everywhere else) has been getting more attention than ever before. Here on Rathlin, like any coastal community, we’re acutely aware of the rubbish that washes up onto our scenic beaches with every tide. Almost all of that rubbish is plastic, and we’ve discovered plenty of surprises along our sandy and rocky shorelines. In this post we’ll take a look at some of our most interesting finds so far, and also how we’ve been turning them into a big work of art!

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Trash or treasure? Turning beach litter into a work of art

On Rathlin recently we’ve found everyday plastic items that are decades old. These remind us that, unless we do something about it, every plastic item will continue to blight our beaches for decades or centuries to come.

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This Spanish ketchup bottle appears to have a best before date of January 1987, making it at least 31 years old at the time of finding in December 2017. Another old item was a bottle of antibacterial hand soap, ironically labelled as ‘marine fragrance’, and with a best before date of 2003.  We can probably assume a long shelf life for soap but in any case this must be at least 15 years old.

We’ve found items from countries all over the world, and these make us think of how the oceans connect us all, and that our plastic pollution can, and does, reach every corner of our planet – from the middle of the Arctic Ocean to the stomachs of fauna living in the deepest ocean trenches. We wonder about the pelagic journeys these items have been on, how they came to find themselves upon the shores of Rathlin, and how they found their way into the sea in the first place. This map shows the countries of origin of beach litter found on Rathlin so far.

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Clockwise from top left: message in a bottle from Portrush, laundry liquid from Canada, sweetcorn in Spanish packaging, bleach from Turkey, toothpaste from Japan. We’ve also found medication from South Africa, deodorant from Russia, and caffeine pills from the USA, among other things from overseas.

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An immature Shag trails a tangle of fishing line that threatens its survival, seen just offshore from Rathlin Island on 8th May 2017.

The evidence for plastic pollution impacting on marine wildlife is growing, ranging from potentially benign incorporation of plastic materials into seabird nests, to deadly ingestion of plastic particles, or catastrophic entanglement with discarded fishing gear or other items. A recent study of beached Northern Fulmars found almost all had plastic in their stomachs, as these birds, like many other seabirds and other marine animals, can easily make the fatal error of mistaking plastic debris for food. This winter we have found several dead seabirds along Rathlin’s shore – no more than we might have expected, since all seabirds face harsh conditions and misfortune in their lives out at sea – but more and more we wonder how many of these seabird deaths might be due to ocean plastic.

Thanks to a wonderful book by Steve Trewhella and Julie Hatcher called The Essential Guide to Beachcombing and the Strandline, a fascinating fieldguide to many of the natural and human-made objects that can be encountered on UK beaches, we’ve learned a lot about things we’ve found on the shores of Rathlin. We now recognise many objects that are detritus from the fishing industry, like components of traps used to catch lobsters and crabs, or hooks shaped like a number two (not that sort of number two) sold for attaching to oyster bags , or other equipment frequently used on fishing vessels. These items can easily be cast adrift into the marine environment, either accidentally, or deliberately thrown into the deep at the end of their useful life.

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We’ve frequently found fishing-related items on the beach, including floats, rope, hooks, toggles, lobster tags and fish-sorting devices.

It’s not difficult to imagine how the paraphernalia of the fishing industry makes its way into our oceans to litter our beaches. But we have encountered some other weird and wonderful things that were completely unexpected to find #WashedUpOnRathlin.

First came a doll baby, which we originally found – somewhat frighteningly – lying face-down and naked, with scurvygrass threatening to overgrow it.

We’ve found toys quite frequently, including a nice horse that has lost its rider, and a cheeky piece of a doll that has lost almost everything.


Then came a creepy plastic finger, curved in a beckoning gesture, with a flattened end that we initially thought must be for attaching to a wall as a novelty hook. Thanks to super sleuth Jessica Bates, we’ve realised this detached digit is designed for training in nail art, as you can see here (and possibly then see again in your nightmares).

Next we found a sachet of emergency drinking water, manuractured in Norway in 2010, with an expiry date of 2015. The fact that it is ‘out of date’ most likely explains why it became beach litter, unless it has a much more adventurous story behind it.

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Emergency drinking water sachet, still intact and most likely still potable – but we didn’t sample it

Another set of items that has intrigued us are blue plastic bullets. Every time we visit Rue Point we find them along the strand line, so far up to five on a visit. We think they are ‘training’ bullets – Patrone AM32, 7.62mm × 51, DM18A1B1, Übung (“Practice”)

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Why do plastic bullets keep washing up at Rue Point? We have now collected at least 13 of these.

Of course, unusual things must have been washing up on Rathlin’s beaches since forever. Islanders Alison and Liam McFaul told us a whale of a tale about spotting what they thought was the dark shape of a stranded cetacean on the beach one day while offshore in a boat. When back ashore they approached to investigate, and as they got nearer they became more and convinced that it really was a dead whale. It was only when they got up close that they realised they had been fooled by an inflatable orca – presumably swept across from Ballycastle or a nearby beach but who knows!

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There are some interesting records of whales washing up on Rathlin , but this one was something special! Thanks to Alison McFaul for this photo.

(Re-watching Father Ted recently, we realised this inflatable orca is very similar to the one the Fathers pack in their trailer to take on holiday!)

We quickly became addicted to beachcombing on Rathlin. We began to collect the most interesting items – the quirky things, objects from other countries, things that were colourful and had pleasing shape – and started to display them in the nooks and crannies of the dry stone wall outside our cottage so that other people could see them too.   The more we looked on the beaches, the more interesting items we found, and our collection quickly grew into an absorbing new hobby that was part art project, part environmental action. The more we added to the wall, the more eye-catching it became and we enjoyed the playful incongruity of bright plastic among the dark grey basalt of the wall stones, completely out of place, as of course they are on the beach.

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A literal littoral litter wall! This plastic fantastic is at the Camping Barn, on the inside of the wall facing the cottage. Pop in for a look, or even bring along your own piece of Rathlin beach treasure to add!

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Why on earth are tampon applicators made of plastic now? There are non-plastic alternatives, or go a million times better and switch to a reusable cup such as this.

We hope the absurdity of some of the items, and our growing collection as a whole, gently provokes outrage that our oceans have become a giant dumping ground for all of this rubbish. Each item tells a story, about the interactions we have with our environment, and the impacts of those interactions that we might otherwise not see. And more than that, each item displayed in the wall represents so many more items of rubbish that persist in our oceans.

Taking inspiration from the #2minutebeachclean movement, each time we go beachcombing, we take a binbag to fill with rubbish and remove it from the beach. This is a small but manageable effort, and it is ultimately rewarding –  we know there will always be so much more rubbish left on the beach, and more arriving on each tide, but each bag we collect is one removed forever from our precious marine environment. As we hope we’ve shown, beachcombing is also incredibly interesting, educational and satisfying, and we’d encourage everyone to join the #2minutebeachclean movement on each visit. Happy beachcombing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Twit-twoodunnit? The curious case of the silent feathers*

On 6th February we stumbled upon an avian crime scene. Piles of feathers lying on the ground close to Kinramer Wood indicated that an unlucky bird – and clearly quite a large one – had recently met a sticky end here. We tried to examine the feathers from the road using binoculars. A goose, perhaps? No, that wasn’t right. So who was the victim, and what had happened to them? We went in closer for a stickybeak…

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Evidence at the scene. Left: two large piles of feathers on the grass. Right: a closer view.

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The velvety texture of the wing feathers

When we got closer, we could see lots of large wing feathers, orange, grey and white with bold black bars. In addition, these feathers were incredibly soft, with a fine downy texture. Immediately we knew they had to belong to an owl, and from the size and distinctive markings, it didn’t take long to conclude that they had to be from a Long-eared Owl, one of Rathlin’s most secretive residents.

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This clump of material contains the sharp, pointed front teeth of a mouse.

Mingled with the feathers, we found another piece of evidence – the tail and teeth of a mouse, which we can only assume the bird had been holding or eating when it died.

We gathered up the feathers (and the bits of mouse) and took them home for closer study.

Intriguingly, we found that these remains included an almost complete set of beautiful flight feathers from the left wing, but very few from the right wing. There was an assortment of fluffy body feathers, but not a single tail feather.  Not to mention the almost complete absence of any other parts of the unfortunate owl.

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We found nine out of ten primary feathers from the left wing of a Long-eared Owl. Only the outermost primary is missing.

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The comb-shaped fimbriae reduce air turbulence, and thereby noise, at the front edge of the flying owl’s wing.

Owl feathers really are worth a close look. One unique feature is this intricate barb structure along the outer web of the outermost couple of primaries. These feathers form the leading edge of the wing when the bird is in flight, and the distinctive saw-tooth shapes (technically known as fimbriae) along the front edge muffles the noise of the air rushing over the wing, allowing the bird to approach its prey silently. Another sound-muffling adaptation is the soft fringing on the trailing edge of the feather. These features and how they reduce noise are described in detail in this paper by Pulkit Sagar et al.

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The soft fringe on the trailing edge of each wing feather also help an owl fly silently

LEO feathers ageingWhat else can we tell from these feathers? Well, based on a fantastic information sheet by Javier Blasco-Zumeta & Gerd-Michael Heinze (available here), we think we can fairly confidently determine the bird’s gender and age:

  • The large pale area on the inner web of each secondary is plain white (A). This makes it a male, as females would have darker buff colouring in this area.
  • The pattern of barring on all these feathers is quite sparse, with just four strong black bars per feather (B), and the outermost bar is set well back from the feather tip (C). This tells us that the bird was an adult; i.e. at least three years old.

So, it’s an adult male Long-eared Owl, but how did it die, and why was most of one wing and a pile of body feathers left behind at the scene?

Our suspicions turned immediately to Ferrets, the feared feral foe of much of Rathlin’s wildlife. These non-native mustelids are ferocious predators of ground-nesting birds and many other animals, and consequently a huge conservation issue on Rathlin. Perhaps the owl had pounced on a mouse, and in the process of eating that was itself pounced upon by a fortuitous ferret. But the other evidence didn’t seem quite right for a ferret kill. The bird had clearly been plucked, and that would be more typical behaviour of a bird of prey.

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Predators of Long-eared Owls, and the number of records for each predator. Species occurring on Rathlin are in bold. Adapted from Mikkola (1976).

But would any birds of prey kill a Long-eared Owl, itself a top predator? We managed to dig up this eye-opening paper by Heimo Mikkola, who gathered together records of owls preying upon, and being preyed upon, by other owls and raptors. One of the findings was that, of all European birds of prey, the Long-eared Owl is by far most frequently preyed upon by other birds (46% of the 934 records, see table). Its main enemies are Northern Goshawks and European Eagle Owls, which we certainly don’t have here on Rathlin, but it has also been known to fall prey to Common Buzzards, Peregrine Falcons and even (on just a couple of occasions) Common Sparrowhawks, all of which do live here. From the data in that paper, the buzzard is the most likely of these three raptors to eat a Long-eared Owl, but it would still be a fairly rare occurrence.

One final theory is that the owl injured itself, perhaps by colliding with overhead power lines during the night, and was then found, plucked and carried away by a scavenger. This is possibly the most likely scenario – there were overhead wires nearby, and there are lots of Hooded Crows, Common Ravens and Common Buzzards around to take advantage of such a mishap.

We’ll never know for sure what happened to this bird. It is always a thrill to catch a glimpse of a live Long-eared Owl, but even finding these few remains was exciting. It gave us a rare opportunity to study its beautiful plumage, take a close look at its unique adaptations, and to learn more about one of Rathlin’s most elusive inhabitants.

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Boo!

*Ok, we know Long-eared Owls don’t really go twit twoo (that’s Tawny Owls), but this was the punniest title we could think of.