It’s mid-November and there’s a biting northerly wind outside that would cut you in two. In the garden, the trees are fast becoming bare of leaves, finch numbers are building up and, yesterday morning, a family party of Whooper Swans flew over the house heading towards Broad Lough. There is no doubt – the autumn has well and truly ended and winter is upon us.
It’s been a really great autumn and I have seen lots of great birds over the past few months from American waders like Baird’s Sandpiper to eastern species like Radde’s Warbler.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Kerry this autumn concentrating on Bolus Head looking for migrants with Michael O’Clery. We also checked out various wetlands and estuaries too of course. It was like old days and our tally for the ten days in late Sept and four days in late Oct was impressive for ‘the kingdom’. It included American Golden Plover, Semipalmated and Pectoral Sandpipers, Black Scoter, Great White Egret, Spoonbill, American Wigeon, Sooty, Balearic and Great Shearwaters, Long-tailed Skua, Leach’s Petrels, Grey Phalaropes, Lapland Buntings, Turtle Doves and even a Richard’s Pipit. Not bad going for Kerry.
As anyone who has read my memoir (Don’t Die in Autumn) will know, autumn birding is my lifeblood. In fact, it is the lifeblood of all birders. Being out in the peak migration season is what we all live for. Arriving at a wetland or onto a headland first thing in the morning and not knowing what the day might bring is what gets us up in the morning in autumn.
Often you flog hard for over ten hours and come back seeing nothing special. However, it’s the fact that something exciting might just be ahead of you that keeps you going. Occasionally, you arrive to a place and feel that this is the moment! You catch a glimpse of something straightaway and a rush of adrenaline surges through your veins. Such moments are rare indeed but we had one such moment and it was undoubtedly the highlight of our Kerry birding this autumn.
The morning of 31st Oct was warm, calm and sunny. The wind was light south-easterly. The previous day we had concentrated our efforts on the gardens around Bolus Head. It had been a successful day with three Siberian Chiffchaffs and a fleeting glimpse of a Lesser Whitethroat (a scarce European cousin of our common Whitethroat). We had put in over nine hours in the field for those birds but they were enough to keep us going all day.
So, on the morning of 31st, we decided to bird around the Dingle area. Our first stop was at Coumeenoole, an overgrown, narrow gully that runs up from the coast, then crosses the road at a small bridge before it winds uphill where the small bushes eventually come to an end. I have stopped at this site many times in the past. I have stood for many hours here and have seen nothing.
We stopped more in hope than expectation, parked along the road just past the bridge and returned to the best vantage point on the bridge. Above us, the hill was bathed in sunshine and lots of insects were in the air. We raised our bins and instantly saw a female Blackcap feeding in the small copse of brambles just uphill from where we were standing. At least a Blackcap gave us hope that some migrants might be in.
Seconds later, another Blackcap appeared. This time it was a male. As we looked at the two Blackcaps, a small bird appeared beside them…bright green with a bright yellow supercilium and two yellow wingbars…a Siberian gem in the shape of a Yellow-browed Warbler (the bird in the image above). It flitted around like a Goldcrest. As we watched the Yellow-browed, another bird emerged from the bush…a Lesser Whitethroat was sitting out warming itself in the sunshine and beside it was a third Blackcap (another male).
Just as we taking in the Lesser Whitethroat, another small warbler appeared on the top of the bush before flitting down to perch on a small willow right beside us. It was a ghostly pale Siberian Chiffchaff. It called loudly as it fed actively on the insects that were everywhere in the morning warmth. As it called, we heard another identical call and there before us appeared a second Siberian Chiffchaff. They both flew back up to the bush to join the Yellow-browed Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat and now four Blackcaps.
At this stage my heart was thumping. What else could be here?
Another bird flitted in from the back and joined the collection…another Yellow-browed Warbler! Several Goldcrests appeared and disappeared. As they did, a quick scan of the bush revealed that there were now six Blackcaps present along with a Lesser Whitethroat, two Siberian Chiffchaffs and two Yellow-browed Warblers.
Within a few minutes the group had dispersed with a Yellow-browed and a Siberian Chiffchaff moving up the hill and out of sight. Some of the Blackcaps also moved on over the hill but thankfully some of this wonderful collection of birds remained in the bush for hours. Long enough for us to enjoy their unique beauty and to reflect on their migration feats.
It seemed that we had arrived just as birds found their way into the gully. It was a mini avian traffic jam of migrants. Birds on incredible journeys coming together to feed on insects in one sun-blessed bush in Kerry.
For the record, we birded hard for another eight hours around Dingle and all we saw were two more Blackcaps and one more Siberian Chiffchaff... but we didn’t care.
It is rare to witness such a fall of migrants in one small place and, in birding, it is always a privilege to experience such moments.