Birdwatching is one of the most unpredictable but truly wonderful pastimes in the world. I started my book, ‘Birdwatching in Ireland with Eric Dempsey’ with those very words, and with each birding experience I have, those words always ring true.
However, some of the most enjoyable experiences of birding are not just made by the birds you see, but often the most memorable days are made of the places you visit and the company you keep. Last weekend was one of those memorable weekends for all reasons…unpredictable, fun, some great birds and wonderful company.
You see, last weekend, Hazel and I hosted our Autumn Migration weekend workshop. We had 13 people on board…Bryan, Joan, Sandra, Geraldine, Patty, Gerry, Stephen, Cathy, Geoff, Christy, Veronica, Clare and last, but by no means least, Terry.
Second-guessing The Birds
Watching the weather coming up to the weekend, I had predicted that some truly great birds would be found. South-easterly winds with driving rain was surely going to throw lots of migrants our way? Ah, how silly of me to try to second-guess the world of birds and the way of migrants!
Following our morning indoor workshop and a scrummy lunch (thank you as always Hazel), we headed off to Kilcoole. We walked and searched, and walked some more. There were lots of winter birds coming in…Wigeon, Teal, Lapwing on the marsh with up to ten Red-throated Divers offshore. Stonechats and Reed Buntings provided supporting acts. The highlight was a superb Peregrine Falcon sitting on a post for all to see. However, there was not a Chiffchaff or a Wheatear to be seen.
The following morning had us in Wexford, looking at two Ruff and a Golden Plover sheltering along with the Lapwings from the windy conditions at Lady’s Island Lake. Bryan then found a large bird of prey approaching the island and we had fantastic views of a female Hen Harrier as she quartered the island, flushing all of the Starlings and waders. It was another really good raptor for our weekend.
From here we continued south to check the gardens and walk the coastal paths around Churchtown. It was quite windy and we could just find one Chiffchaff in one of the gardens. Along the coast however, we found a migrating Whimbrel, moving from breeding grounds in Iceland and heading towards southern Africa. Again, it was a bird of prey that provided the highlight when suddenly a hunting Merlin appeared along the coast and almost flew over our heads!
Black Redstart and Wheatears
Then it was on to Carne Beach where the seaweed and rocks around the harbour always offers great feeding for pipits and Wheatears. Thankfully we were not to be disappointed as two Wheatears were feeding among the rocks near the base of the pier. We were just settling in to enjoy these birds when a greyish bird flew around the rocks revealing a deep orange-coloured rump and sides to the tail…a Black Redstart. A European bird that winters as far south as North Africa…a classic late autumn migrant. It is a bird of great character and subtle beauty. So much so, that no-one seemed to mind the fact that we stood in torrential rain watching this little gem flycatching among the rocks.
However, like good wine, we saved the best until last. Our final destiny was to Tacumshin Lake, one of the best birding locations in Europe. Water levels were very high so the place had a real winter feel. We stood overlooking the lake at the East End…one of my favourite sites as it gives you a great vantage over the whole area.
The Bird Of The Day
There were already thousands of ducks in and Little Egrets added a touch of the tropics to the vista. Then, ‘it’ appeared! Slowly gliding and quartering over the reedbeds and low over the lake. Deep brown upperparts highlighting a glistening white rump. A harrier! It banked to show deep orange underparts and a very dark head. The flight feathers showed extensive barring. We were watching an avian superstar. A Northern Harrier. A raptor that has broken all the rules and which had just flown over the Atlantic Ocean. It was ‘the icing on the cake’ (as someone put it).
How a bird like this can actually make it across the Ocean is a real mystery. It is a well-known fact that birds of prey will avoid crossing large expanses of water if they can. This bird, breeding in northern North America and wintering in the southern states and in Central America, was now hunting in Wexford. It is only the sixth time this species has been seen in Ireland and all of these records have just been in the last couple of years. It was a fitting bird to end the day on.
So that was our weekend from a bird point of view but what made the weekend so special was everyone’s enthusiasm and sense of fun in quite adverse weather conditions. The willingness to ‘keep going’ when the birds seemed to be hiding from the wind was inspiring and infectious.
Birds like the Northern Harrier etch special memories into all our minds but such memories are not just of the bird but of the company we were in during these special avian moments. So thanks to everyone who joined us for our Autumn Migration Weekend. Your wonderful company made the experience very special.
Perhaps we’ll see you on 7th Dec for our garden bird day when new memories will be made but until then, check us out on facebook…see Eric Dempsey!
Eric D Birdman.