As the cliffs rapidly empty of nesting seabirds, the birding focus switches back to migration during August as autumn passage begins to get exciting. Southbound passage of waders and landbirds gathers pace, while offshore movements of seabirds provide interesting seawatching and a chance of something unusual whenever the wind drives them within sight of land. After the relatively halcyon conditions of July 2018, August on Rathlin was rather unsettled, but at least the wet and blustery days did produce a few nice seabirds and a variety of waders. A total of 97 species were recorded during the month.
Another Mediterranean Gull on the 1st continued a good run of sightings for this species, while a Swift and 2 Greenshanks were also of note. The first 2 Turnstones of the autumn appeared on the 2nd, along with a juvenile Cuckoo (hatched on the island?) and a reappearance of the rather scraggy juvenile Rook which remained on the island right through to October. A small pulse of migration the following day saw House Martins, alba Wagtails and a Swift heading south overhead. A flock of 12 Redshanks also flew south, while 2 Kestrels and the first Merlin of the autumn were on the south arm of the island. A Tree Pipit and 2 Common Crossbills flew over Kinramer early in the morning on the 5th, but there was little of note in the subsequent few days. A few waders on the 9th included singles of Whimbrel, Sanderling and Common Sandpiper, and a Sandwich Tern flew past Rue Point.
A Red Kite reported on the 11th was an exciting find, but a Grey Wagtail was the only other sighting of interest that day. A juvenile Hen Harrier gave good view at Kinramer on the 13th, where it stayed until at least the 20th, and a Sooty Shearwater seen distantly off the West Light was the first in a great run of sightings of this species. Watching from the West Light on the 14th produced 3 more Sooties, a Common Scoter, an Arctic Skua, 7 Great Skuas and the very last Puffin of the year.
A brisk south-westerly wind on the 16th generated a good passage of Manx Shearwaters through the Rathlin Sound. A couple of Arctic Terns were a new species for the year and another single Common Scoter passed Rue Point. Waders included 2 Common Sandpipers and a Greenshank that remained in Doon Bay almost to the end of the month. More Sooty Shearwaters, Arctic Terns and a couple of Arctic Skuas were seen distantly off the West Light over the next few days. On the 20th, a distant Storm Petrel was seen foraging around a feeding frenzy of gulls of the West Light, but the day will be mainly remembered for a superb pod of Risso’s Dolphins which was visible for several hours and occasionally passed right below the lighthouse.
Risso’s Dolphins entertained the lucky staff and visitors at the West Light Seabird Centre all day long.
Another Storm Petrel was off the Rue on the 22nd, along with another Arctic Skua and continuing passage of small numbers of Arctic Terns. Another addition to the year-list came in the form of 18 Black-tailed Godwits flying past the Rue on 23rd, and a juvenile Knot was in Church Bay from the 24th to the 26th.
Migrating terns typically seem to take a wide berth past Rathlin, keeping enough distance to make identification difficult or even impossible. So it was quite a rarity on the 27th to see a juvenile Common Tern roosting on the rocks in Doon Bay and an Arctic Tern feeding at relatively close range off the Rue. A trio of Sandwich Terns also passed by, and 2 Storm Petrels and 5 Sooty Shearwaters continued a good month for both these species.
The only Common Tern we’ve seen set foot on Rathlin in two years.
Part of the Ballyconagan Twite flock.
A couple more Black-tailed Godwits stopped off in Doon Bay on the 29th, with the day’s only other noteworthy sightings being a Common Scoter, a Grey Wagtail and a Kestrel. Another Hen Harrier flew past Kebble on the 30th, while a steady trickle of pipits and wagtails (including a single Grey Wagtail) made their way south overhead. A flock of 20 Twite at Ballyconagan was easily the biggest of the year so far. The last Common Sandpiper of the year and a Sanderling were in Church Bay on the 31st.
September can always produce some of the most exciting birding of the year, with autumn migration fully under way as the seasons change and everything gets on the move. A wide range of seabirds can be expected offshore whenever the wind is strong enough to bring them within viewing range of the land, while landbirds and waders making their way south could stop off for rest and refuelling at any point. Towards the month’s end, the approach of winter is typically signalled by the first arrivals of geese from the north. Adding to the excitement is the relatively high potential for finding rarities at this time. A lot of this, though, rather depends on the weather, and the virtually relentless southwest winds of September 2018 resulted in a very disappointing month. Despite our best efforts, the total of 101 species recorded during September was only very slightly higher than in the summer months and notable species were few and far between.
The first day of the month was calm, warm and reasonably promising, with small numbers of Meadow Pipits and White Wagtails moving south overhead and a few Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps skulking in the gardens. A Wigeon was on Ally Lough and a single Swift turned out to be our very last one of the year. The good showing of Sooty Shearwaters continued throughout the first half of the month, and small numbers of Twite were encountered regularly. A Grey Wagtail on the 3rd was the first of 11 seen during the month, representing a steady passage of this species, although no more than a couple were recorded on any single date. Another regular sight this month was Golden Plover, with records of one or two birds on seven dates, although all sightings were of birds flying overhead or passing by offshore.
At least 17 Sooty Shearwaters were seen offshore during a breezy day on the 6th, while there were also signs of small raptor passage: a Merlin, a Kestrel and several Sparrowhawks were seen that day. It was, however, to be a day of great frustration when an American Golden Plover was heard calling somewhere high over Ballyconagan, but refused to reveal itself through the wind and the rain. It would have been a bit outrageous to claim such an unlikely species (and a first for Rathlin, no less) without even seeing it, so the only real rarity of the year so far had gone and slipped through our fingers. Or so we thought…
The following morning had been rather disappointing but, just as all hopes of relocating the plover were fading away, suddenly there it was – an adult American Golden Plover flying low overhead, loudly announcing itself with its distinctive call and displaying its identifying features. Record confirmed! This was a huge relief, but also a huge frustration as the bird promptly dropped out of sight, never to be seen again.
The rest of the 7th was spent failing to find the AGP, but the search did turn up a juvenile Sanderling, a few newly arrived Goldcrests and Skylarks, and the first Pochard of the autumn which remained on Ally Lough all month. The wind picked up again from the southwest on the 9th, bringing 12+ Sooty Shearwaters, a Sanderling and the year’s first Pomarine Skua within sight of the Rue. Similar conditions on the 11th produced one of the best seawatching sessions of the year, with totals including 388 Manx Shearwaters, 21 Sooty Shearwaters, a Great Northern Diver and 115 Brent Geese. A good movement of 1,800 Kittiwakes also contained one juvenile apiece of Sabine’s Gull and Little Gull.
The 12th was much quieter, with 2 Golden Plovers, a Chiffchaff and 6 Twite the highlights on land and 4 Sooty Shearwaters the best of the sea passage. The following day got off to a great start when a Short-eared Owl – the first one of the year – was seen flying around Kinramer in the early morning gloom, although the rest of the day produced nothing better than a Great Northern Diver, a Kestrel and a Twite. The 14th was a wet and windy washout, but conditions improved on the 15th and a few new birds were around including a scattering of Goldcrests, a few Meadow Pipits passing overhead, 4 Twite, a Grey Wagtail, a Merlin and another Golden Plover.
Also on the 15th, a Leach’s Petrel found on board a boat travelling from Donegal to Rathlin was brought ashore in a box. It had managed to get paint on its plumage during its time flapping around on deck, so we did what we could to clean it up a bit and released it at Rue Point, where it flew off quite strongly, that night.
Leach’s Petrel with a sticky beak – well, a sticky everything really.
The following couple of days saw little change, although 3 Red-throated Divers flying south at sea were the first of the autumn. In an autumn almost devoid of warbler passage, a single Willow Warbler on the 18th was almost exciting.
Storm Ali struck on the 19th, bringing winds of up to 70 miles per hour and making birding more or less impossible. A few seabirds were battling through the wind off the Rue, and a Sooty Shearwater and a Little Gull were picked out amongst them. It was interesting to see a few Swallows and House Martins attempting to continue their journeys south in such wild conditions.
By the 21st, the wind had changed to a brisk northwesterly. While seawatchers on the Northern Irish coast at Portrush look forward to the big passage of birds that this wind direction often brings, these northwesterlies are inexplicably useless to us on Rathlin and seabird movement past the island was virtually nonexistent. The day’s highlight was a skein of 70 Pink-footed Geese heading south high overhead, but it was also nice to see a reasonable passage of Meadow Pipits and a Black-tailed Godwit dropped in to Doon Bay. The wind was similar on the 23rd and again produced nothing more than an Arctic Tern and 4 Red-throated Divers offshore. A Merlin gave great views at the Rue (where it remained into October), a Wigeon and a Brent Goose were feeding together in Mill Bay and a single juvenile Shelduck (our first Shelduck since early August) appeared. Seawatching remained very quiet to the end of the month, with a couple of Arctic Skuas and a Great Northern Diver on the 25th and a Common Scoter on the 26th the only sightings of note.
Both Brent Goose and Wigeon are uncommon visitors to Rathlin.
A flock of 12 Ravens appeared to be migrating south from the Rue on the 25th, and it was interesting to see a clear influx of Song Thrushes on the 27th and a single Mistle Thrush amongst them. A flock of 16 Brent Geese also flew south past the West Light that day. A second Mistle Thrush was seen the following day, along with a new Merlin and a new Wigeon, and a couple of Grey Wagtails brought the month to a close.
Pale-bellied Brent Geese migrating past Rathlin.