Rathlin Birding Week 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hen Harrier drifting around over Brockley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rathlin birding monthly roundup: August and September 2018

August:

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

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

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

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

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

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Juvenile Knot

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

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

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

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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

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.

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Juvenile Sanderling

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Short-eared Owl

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

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

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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.

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Juvenile Merlin

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

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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.

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Pale-bellied Brent Geese migrating past Rathlin.

Rathlin birding monthly roundup: June and July 2018

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

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

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

June:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

July

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

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

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

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

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Juvenile Mediterranean Gull

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

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

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

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

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Adult female Hen Harrier

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

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

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Juvenile Redshank and juvenile Greenshank in Church Bay.

Rathlin birding monthly roundup: May 2018

Although spring migration usually peaks in April, May still has plenty of potential for good passage of summer migrants. Not only that, but it also brings the real possibility of rarer overshoots and vagrants, making it perhaps the most exciting part of the spring. This year, the first half of the month delivered some excellent birding and a scattering of quality birds, but the second half was disappointingly quiet as a long spell of very settled weather did nothing to deliver any migrants to Rathlin. Despite failing to produce anything particularly rare, a good diversity of 109 bird species was recorded on the island during May.

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A scarce migrant on Rathlin, this was the first Bar-tailed Godwit for more than a year.

The month got off to an explosive start, with a double whammy of scarce raptors making brief visits to Rathlin on the very first day. First, a White-tailed Eagle was seen briefly flying along the shoreline at Doon Bay, and then just minutes later a Red Kite shot by the west end of the island. Several hours of searching failed to relocate either bird, and a Wigeon and 2 Rooks failed to make up for their rapid disappearance. Less spectacular, but rather more cooperative, was a Bar-tailed Godwit feeding busily in Mill Bay, and remaining there the next day.

The next few days were very quiet, but then a varied arrival of migrants on the 5th brought a fantastic selection of scarcities. A Garden Warbler singing at Kinramer was a good start, but a Wood Warbler singing at Kebble was even better. Also at Kebble were 2 Tree Pipits, while the first 4 Spotted Flycatchers of the year, 3 Common Whitethroats, 7 Blackcaps and at least 20 Willow Warblers were counted around the western part of the island. Meanwhile, a Whinchat was near the harbour, and Dunlin passage finally got underway with a flock of 5 in Mill Bay. Besides the migration, things were picking up out at the seabird cliffs where the Common Guillemots, Razorbills and Puffins had finally returned in something like full numbers.

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Wood Warbler has now been recorded on Rathlin in two consecutive Mays.

The majority of migrants had already departed by the 6th, but another Garden Warbler was seen, along with 2 Whinchats, 4 Spotted Flycatchers, a Grey Wagtail and a Jackdaw. A Common Sandpiper and 6 Dunlins were in Mill Bay, while photos of an intriguing ‘gull with yellow-legs’ prompted plenty of pondering – some sort of hybrid appears to be the most likely identification. The 7th was a very quiet day up until the rather sensational sighting of a Great Spotted Woodpecker flying around the northeast part of the island. This is the first of its kind to be recorded on Rathlin and an excellent addition to the island’s bird list.

Another Cuckoo appeared on the 8th, and a Barnacle Goose was a bit of a surprise at Ushet Lough, where it stayed until the 10th. A Grey Wagtail, 6 White Wagtails and 3 Common Sandpipers were also recorded on the 10th, and the unseasonal Wigeon was still hanging out with the Eiders in Doon Bay. Wet and windy weather the following day brought the third Tree Pipit sighting of the year, plus the year’s first Swift and Sanderling. The inclement conditions only lasted a day, and the sunshine was back on the 12th, bringing with it another Cuckoo, a Whinchat and the regular lonely Chough, which hadn’t been seen on the island since mid March. Migration proceeded very slowly over the next few days, with the odd White Wagtails, Whinchats and Spotted Flycatchers already greatly outnumbered by the fledgling pipits, chats and thrushes that seemed to be popping up all over the island. The best bird was probably a male Yellowhammer singing briefly at Kinramer on the 14th.

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Barnacle Goose looking a bit lost among the gulls at Ushet Lough.

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Spotted Flycatchers passed through steadily during May.

A trio of Collared Doves flying high overhead was the most notable sighting of the 17th. A summer-plumaged Great Northern Diver flew high over the island on the 18th, while a smattering of migrants included a very late Redwing (the first one for almost a month), 2 Spotted Flycatchers, a Swift, a Grey Wagtail and a couple of Sanderlings. On the 19th, a Hen Harrier and 3 Jackdaws flew over Kinramer. The harrier theme continued on the 21st with the first Marsh Harrier of the year quartering the reedbeds at Brockley, plus another Grey Wagtail at the West Light.

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Typical Rathlin view of a Crossbill.

Dunlin passage had been noticeably tardy this year, but a big arrival finally occurred on the 22nd, when at least 71 were counted in Mill Bay. A flock of 10 Turnstones had also stopped off on their way north, and an increase in Ringed Plovers presumably also included quite a few northbound birds. It was getting late for White Wagtails by this point, and the 5 counted that day turned out to be the last of the spring passage. A Kestrel, a Spotted Flycatcher and a Twite were the highlights of the following day, while a singing Cuckoo, another Spotted Flycatcher, a late Whimbrel and a Sanderling were the best of the 24th. The next few days were really very samey and uneventful, with just the odd Kestrel, Spotted Flycatcher and Grey Wagtail sighting to keep us going. On the 27th, a welcome addition to the year list appeared in the form of a Crossbill at Kinramer, which remained present in the wood there until the 30th to provide a small nugget of interest in what was an otherwise desperately dull week. Continuing late wader passage included 7 Sanderlings and 20 Dunlins in Mill Bay on the 31st, and a male Whinchat was just about the only passerine migrant present as the month came to an end.

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The Sanderlings were wonderfully approachable in Mill Bay.

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 nice 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!