It’s been a few weeks since I have had the time to sit and write a blog. It is the autumn after all and we’ve had a steady flow of easterly winds emanating from Siberia. Let’s put it this way…if Carlsberg did ideal autumn migration weather…this would be it! So it’s been hard to find time to sit down and write.
There has certainly been an easterly bias to all the birds that have turned up over the past few weeks and one bird, reported to be showing well on Barry’s Head in Cork, was enough of a temptation for myself and Rob Vaughan to hit the road at 5.30am last week and make our way south. That bird was a Radde’s Warbler.
Radde’s Warbler is from Siberia and winters in southern China…this bird in Cork (along with several other birds recorded along the south) was a long way from home. It is a big chunky cousin of Chiffchaff with a flared supercilium (which is buffy in front of the eye), an apricot-washed undertail, a big thick bill and thick, pinkish legs. They are renowned for being elusive and skulky so when we heard this bird was ‘showing well’, we couldn’t resist.
The bird didn’t let us down…allowing me get one good shot in half-decent light and giving Rob time to do a field painting of the bird as it fed along the overgrown laneways. This was only the second Radde’s Warbler I have ever seen in my life and it was reflecting on my first experience of the species that had me reaching for my old notebook from October 1988.
It was a Friday afternoon and I was at work. As always, this was the time to make a few calls to find out the latest news on what birds had been seen during the week. These were the days before the Birdline, mobile phones, texting, twitter and the internet. Getting all of the news back then required hard work and lots of contacts.
My first ‘go-to’ person was Gracer (Kieran Grace). After a long time, his work phone was answered and the girl who answered the phone informed me that Kieran had left for the afternoon.
‘Hmmm…I wonder if there’s news’, I thought to myself.
Not panicking yet, I then phoned Dowdall. At the time Jim was working for Boss (Paul) Cummins. His phone also rang for a long time until it was eventually answered by the receptionist. She informed me that Jim had ‘left for the afternoon’.
This didn’t sound good to me…Gracer and Dowdall both missing for the afternoon. Boss was also a birder so I asked if he might be around? A few minutes later, Boss came on the phone.
‘Hi Boss, sorry to disturb you but I can’t get either Gracer or Jim and I was wondering if there was any news’, I explained.
‘Ah yeh’, started Boss….’I think they’ve gone to see the Radde’s and the Pallas’s!’
These were major rarities in Ireland (they still are) and both were ticks for me.
‘Radde’s and Pallas’s? Where?
‘Eh, on Howth Head’, replied Boss.
‘Sure thing Boss…Jaysus you had me going there for a moment!’ I answered.
This was obviously a wind-up…the chances of a Radde’s Warbler and a Pallas’s Warbler together were a million to one, even on Cape Clear. The chances of both species on Howth Head were trillions to one.
‘I’m not joking’, Boss said. ‘Seriously Eric…there’s a Radde’s and a Pallas’s on Howth! If you don’t believe me, ring Fitzer’.
I hung up and rang Fitzer (Jim Fitzharris) immediately. His phone was engaged…obviously Boss was on to him to encourage him to continue the wind-up. Eventually I got through to Fitzer.
‘So, Jim…what’s the story on the Radde’s and Pallas’s on Howth?’
‘Yeh…amazing news isn’t it?’ Jim replied. ‘Are you heading out?’
‘Seriously Jim….do you think I came down in the last shower or wha’? I know you and Boss are winding me up…there’s no way there’s a Radde’s and a Pallas’s on Howth! There’s a pair of you in it.’
Jim was surprised by my reaction…
‘What are you talking about…there really is a Radde’s and Pallas’s on Howth. Mick O’Donnell was involved in finding them…if you don’t believe me, ring him!’
And that’s what I did…Michael O’Donnell’s mother answered the phone.
‘Hello…I was wondering if I could speak with Michael please’, I asked.
‘No, I’m sorry…he’s not here’, she replied before continuing…’are you looking for information about the Radde’s and the Pallas’s Warblers?’
‘Fecking Hell!’, I thought to myself.
This was either the greatest wind-up ever with even Mick O’Donnell’s mother involved…or there really are two mega rare warblers on Howth.
Armed with all the info, my good birding pal Michael O’Clery was contacted and instructed to get into the city ASAP. We dashed out through rush hour traffic, taking a route along the coast. Along the road, we spotted the late Mairead Ruttledge (one of the grand ladies of Irish birding) watching waders on the North Bull island. We skidded to a halt and bundled her into the car. Anyone watching would have been alarmed to witness a kidnapping like it.
We got to Howth Head by 5.10pm and ran up to the area where both birds had been reported. There we met other birders and, following a short wait, out came our chunky Radde’s Warbler and performed wonderfully for us all. Then came a shout…the Pallas’s Warbler was on show. This tiny Siberian gem dazzled us with yellows and greens. They are truly jewels in the world of warblers. It was unbelievable to have such major rare birds within spitting distance of each other on Howth Head.
We celebrated well that night. The following morning, we returned in the hope of getting more views but both birds had departed overnight. I have seen several Pallas’s Warblers since that bird but I have never seen another Radde’s until last week. It was 28 years but it was worth the wait.
Oh, and for the record, I apologised to both Boss and Fitzer for not believing them…but seriously, a Radde’s Warbler and a Pallas’s Warbler on Howth Head! If I hadn’t seen them with my own eyes…I would have never believed it possible.
As they say…seeing is believing.