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Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Some migrants at Black Rock

Purple Sandpiper, Black Rock, 25th April 2017 (David O'Connor).

Although some might describe Purple Sandpipers as a somewhat nondescript species, up close they have an exquisite and subtle patterning. But what an extraordinary bird. Lurking under that otherwise modestly-plumaged exterior is an extraordinary engine, resulting in one of the few bird species that regularly cross the Atlantic each spring and autumn. 

Because they nest in the high Canadian Arctic, it is not unusual to see this species well into May in Ireland as the birds are no doubt instinctively aware, their breeding grounds are often under ice and snow well into late spring. An amazing article in the Ardea journal (see below) recently showed the remarkable migration these birds make.

Fifty geolocators attached to Purple Sandpipers wintering in northern Scotland and southwest Ireland (Co. Clare) showed that the spring departure from Scotland and Ireland took place mainly in late May and that the birds staged in Iceland and/or southwest Greenland before reaching their breeding grounds in Arctic Canada, mainly Baffin, Somerset and Devon Islands.

Map of wintering (blue) and breeding (yellow) distribution of Purple Sandpiper. Although it was thought that Irish Purple Sandpipers bred in Scandinavia, or perhaps Iceland, the truth is, they are nesting far across the Atlantic into the heart of Arctic Canda (map adapted from

The return migration from Baffin Island and Labrador took place during late October to early November, and during mid to late December from Greenland, usually in a single trans-Atlantic flight. This ties in nicely with local records from the main wintering area in Kerry - Rough Point and the Magharees - where they are scarce in October and November, but numbers quickly build in December.

No birds staged in Iceland on the return trip, instead the birds made the trip in one enormous flight. The journey from Baffin Island to Scotland and Ireland took about 2.5 days at an average speed of about 1400 km per day. That's an equivalent to us making our way, under our own steam, from Costa's Coffee Shop on The Mall, Tralee, to Costa's Coffee Shop in Madrid Airport, in one day.*

Summers, R.W., Boland, H., Colhoun, K., Elkins, N., Etheridge, B., Foster, S., Fox, J.W., Mackie, K., Quinn, L.R. & Swann, R.L. (2014). Contrasting trans-Atlantic migratory routes of Nearctic Purple Sandpipers Calidris maritima associated with low pressure systems in spring and winter. Ardea 102(2): 139–152.

Littoralis or Scandinavian Rock Pipit, Black Rock, 25th April 2017 (David O'Connor).

Wheatear (perhaps 'Greenland Wheatear'), Black Rock, 25th April 2017 (David O'Connor).

White Wagtail, Black Rock, 25th April 2017 (David O'Connor).

The Wheatear and White Wagtail are also certain to embark on a trans-Atlantic flight of their own. White Wagtails passing through Ireland at this time are thought to nest largely in Iceland (there is also a small outpost of breeding birds in east Greenland), and the 'Greenland Wheatear' in, well, Greenland, but also all over Iceland AND largely shares the breeding areas shown above for Purple Sandpiper in Arctic Canada.

*No sponsorship from Costa's Coffee Shop, in either Tralee or Madrid, was received for this blog post. I asked, but they just laughed in my face. Their coffee isn't all that great anyway.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Iceland Gulls linger

Adult Iceland Gull, Ferriter's Cove, 21st April 2017 (Kilian Kelly).

Adult and first-winter Iceland Gulls, Ferriter's Cove, 21st April 2017 (Kilian Kelly).

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Request for Merlin and Short-eared Owl records

IRD Duhallow RaptorLIFE and BirdWatch Ireland are currently conducting a survey to establish the distribution of breeding Merlin in Duhallow (E Kerry & NW Cork) and the importance of the uplands for this elusive and poorly understood raptor. 

We also hope to gather information on Short-eared Owl in Duhallow to help target survey work to determine if this species is breeding in the region. Both species are difficult to detect and occur in very low densities and therefore we would greatly appreciate any information on both species in the Duhallow area which will help us to identify the most suitable areas to focus survey work.

If possible, we would be grateful to know;
- the date (even approximate)
- the location, including grid reference (visit to check grid reference or drop a pin on Google Maps) 
- the nature of the sighting (hunting, single bird, pair, and breeding behaviour, etc.)

All such sightings will be held in the strictest of confidence. Please send any information to this email address HERE.

Left) Merlin (Neil O’Reilly). Right) Short-eared Owl (RT Mills).

A map of Duhallow is shown below. It covers most of north-west Cork, and east Kerry and the far southern border of Co. Limerick. This area includes the southern part of the Mullaghareirk Mountains, the eastern side of the Stack’s Mountains, and to the south it includes the northern edge of the Derrynasaggart Mountains, with the Boggeragh Mountains to the south-east of the area. 

The Duhallow area (click image for a closer look).

Any sightings of either species over the past ten years within or in proximity to this area would be very useful.

Merlin in Duhallow 
Previous research and monitoring of Merlin Falco columbarius in Ireland has been limited, resulting in an absence of comprehensive data on distribution, abundance and ecological requirements of the species. Evidence from the Breeding Bird Atlases suggested a moderate decline in the breeding range of the Irish population over the past 40 years. However, due to difficulties associated with detecting breeding Merlin, the Breeding Bird Atlases may not provide a true indication of the abundance, densities or distribution of the population.

In the absence of more comprehensive species specific monitoring, sufficient data on the status and ecology of Merlin necessary for the design and implementation of an effective conservation strategy is lacking. The Action Plan for Upland Birds in Ireland 2011-2020 identified significant gaps in knowledge of the Irish Merlin population, as well as the necessity to establish baseline data and conservation priorities for the species. Merlin are an Annex 1 species on the European Birds Directive 2009/147/EC (OJEU 2010), and there is a requirement to address these issues to afford the species the appropriate protection. Merlin are also one of the priority species within the RaptorLIFE project through IRD Duhallow.

Breeding Merlin populations are typically associated with upland habitat types, where they occur in low densities. In Ireland, they have a widespread but sporadic breeding distribution. Due to numerous factors associated with their nesting ecology and their discrete breeding behaviour, it is generally accepted that the Merlin are a difficult species to survey.

The recent Bird Atlas 2007–11 indicates two records of Merlin in the Duhallow uplands during the breeding season, however additional sightings have been recorded since through IRD Duhallow, as well as other independent sightings, and there are areas which are considered suitable for breeding Merlin. Although breeding has not been confirmed in Duhallow in recent years we hope to change that this season with an increased survey effort, and to gather baseline information as to the suitability of the area for Merlin.

Short-eared Owl in Duhallow
Short-eared Owl Asio flanneus is a scarce winter visitor to Duhallow, and although there were no winter records during the Atlas period (2007–11) there have been several since. For instance, at Barna Bog (see link HERE).

There have also been several reliable records of Short-eared Owl in suitable upland habitat during the 2016 nesting season which includes a suspected but unconfirmed breeding pair (see link HERE ). 

With your help we hope to increase our knowledge of both species in Duhallow this season.

Many thanks in advance,

RaptorLIFE & BirdWatch Ireland    

Monday, 17 April 2017

Squacco Heron, the first in Kerry for over 120 years

This first-summer Squacco Heron was found by Britta Wilkens while out strolling near Ventry Beach this morning. Fortunately, it returned to the open area of flooded grassland near Paudi O'Sé's pub after flying over to the large reed bed at Ventry. It was happily feeding in the open, wetter areas, occasionally flying short distances to other small grassy pools, and offering excellent views.

First summer Squacco Heron, Ventry, 17th April 2017 (M.O'Clery).

First summer Squacco Heron, Ventry, 17th April 2017 (M.O'Clery).

First summer Squacco Heron, Ventry, 17th April 2017 (M.O'Clery).

First summer Squacco Heron, Ventry, 17th April 2017 (M.O'Clery).

First summer Squacco Heron, Ventry, 17th April 2017 (M.O'Clery).

First summer Squacco Heron, Ventry, 17th April 2017 (M.O'Clery).

First summer Squacco Heron, Ventry, 17th April 2017 (M.O'Clery).

The third record for Kerry, after two were shot dead in the 1800s, one on the River Laune in May 1875 and another at Waterville in September 1895. This is about the 23rd record for Ireland

The most dangerous animal in Ireland

OK, you're sat in a pub, and the conversation inevitably turns to, "Mary's uncle's nephew died the other day..." and with lots of solemn nods, and a small but thoughtful sip of a pint in quiet appreciation of their passing, the talk slides into a list of the latest victims in the parish. The daughter of Micky-Joe's cousin's cancer scare. The near-drowning of that nun on Derrynane beach. The 'Stuka-bomber'-like attack by a seagull on a motorcyclist near Caherciveen last summer... Wow! What? (see HERE)

The most dangerous animal in Ireland? Not even close...

Is it getting to that time of year already? When the Dail goes into summer recess and we then enter what is known as "Silly Season" when the press, struggling to fill the newspaper columns, inevitably turn to a good old scaremongering yarn, such as those which have appeared in recent summers about killer gulls rampaging the streets and countryside, viciously attacking man and beast (see HERE).

Despite the mis-information about Silly Season gull attacks - and you can be sure they will start popping up again in the media any day now - the truth is there are far, far more dangerous animals out there. As a birder, you will end up in all sorts of strange places. That's one of the joys of birding. It incentivises you to venture to places that most other people would never even consider. I've been in sand dune desert in Morocco, a minefield in Israel, the Outback in Australia, Everest Base Camp, the Worst B&B In Ireland In Urlingford, a sewage works in Cape Town, and lost in the fog in a tiny boat off the Blaskets, all in the search for birds. I've been charged by a Rhino in Nepal, had a near-attack with a King Cobra in Malaysia, stayed in the Worst B&B In Ireland In Urlingford (did I mention that? It's still there by the way, see below), and have had to pull leeches off unmentionable and largely unreachable bits of my anatomy in the Borneo rainforest. 

The latter incident prompted one of my few attempts at poetry:

There are leeches in the forest
that go for your feet.
They creep up your legs,
and go for your 'meat'.
So by way of defence
I've posted a sentry,
a sign on my shorts saying,
'Privates, no entry.'

Every serious birder will have a litany of such stories. Seriously uncomfortable, perhaps dangerous, and even near-death experiences in bizarre places around the globe. But you can silence the gathered crowd in the local pub with this question: What is the animal most likely to kill you – in Ireland?

Great White Gull

Killer gulls? Sharks? Dogs? Bees?

Gulls? Fact is, there has yet to be a confirmed death in Ireland attributable to a killer gull, despite what the media has been (and soon again will be) whipping up. Not one. They may well have claimed a cheeseburger or two, or grabbed a 99 out of someones unsuspecting hand on Grafton Street in an unguarded moment while they tried to organise another 'selfie' but, rest assured, they have not, and are unlikely to ever, have caused a single fatality in Ireland or anywhere else.

Black-headed Alsation

So, sharks then? 

Well, according to the Shark Attack Data website (HERE), Ireland has had no fatal shark attacks ever though, in a book on deep sea angling, author Trevor Housby writes of two documented incidents. One occurred in the late 1800s when an onlooker fell from a pier in Belfast Lough during the launch of a ship and was set upon by a large shark (presumed to be a Great White) and killed in front of horrified spectators. The second was of an incident involving a salvage diver operating in the mouth of Carlingford Lough in Co. Down. As he was preparing to return onboard, a large shark made a determined close pass as he was pulling himself out of the water, uninjured, but no doubt needing a fresh set of underpants after the experience.

So, dogs then?

Ireland has yet to have a fatal dog attack, according to an article in the Independent (see HERE), although in Britain, they have accounted for 17 deaths in the past eight years, according to NHS figures obtained by The Daily Telegraph (see HERE).


No. None

Mosquitos? Bees?


Rabid Pine Martens?


The answer is a little surprising, and not a little disconcerting. 


How often, as a birder, have you set off across a field, and had your carefree stroll across green meadows somewhat thrown by the unwanted attention of cattle you noticed as you climbed over the gate but ignored thereafter? Until that is, they came thundering up to you, stopping short, then stared, snorting, waiting for your next move?

Cows are by far the most dangerous animal in Ireland. Statistics for Ireland are hard to pin down or at least, after a good while Googling for that information, I was unable to find it, but the statistics for Northern Ireland are telling, and more easily Googleable, and those for Britain are horrifying. According to figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 74 people have been killed in Britain by cows in the past 15 years, 7 in Northern Ireland in 8 years.

In the United States, the CDC estimates that about 22 people are killed by cows each year and, of those cow attacks, seventy-five percent were described as 'deliberate attacks'. One third of the killings were committed by cows that had previously displayed aggressive behaviour. The bulk of attacks are in March and April, by cows with calves - no doubt a maternal response to a perceived threat - rather than by bulls. A Google of 'cow attacks in Ireland' will list attacks such as this one, HERE.

Ireland's most dangerous animal (Richard Croft, Wiki Commons).

So, if out surveying, birdwatching, or generally strolling around the countryside, pay special heed to the killers in our midst. Not the killer gulls. No. These killers come with big brown eyes, udders, and a propensity to eat grass. Be careful people. It's dangerous out there.

Urlingford Arms B&B. Worst B&B in Ireland. Birding takes you to all sorts.

In an otherwise bare room, there was a bed, and a telly attached to one of those high metal wall brackets near the ceiling though, after following the trailing lead downward and rooting around the skirting board at the back of the bed, I found it had no plug. Didn't matter anyway, as there was no socket within reach of the lead and no connection to an aerial. In searching for the socket, I moved the bed to find a rancid nappy, an empty whiskey bottle and an old mousetrap. The bathroom was shared with three other rooms and had been recently painted. Fine, except the fresh coat of thick, white gloss paint meant that the door could no longer be closed and, left unattended, would swing open. I retired to the bed, shuffling under the kind of sheets that give you static electricity shocks, but not before I pulled the curtains only to find they didn't meet in the middle and only reached about two thirds across. Thus I spent the night awake as the near continuous stream of heavy trucks roared by, their lights arcing across the room like lighthouse beams. Other than that, it was grand.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Bits from the week that was

Lesser Black-backed Gull showing features of 'intermedius', Ballyheigue Beach, 3rd April 2017 (David O'Connor). 

It had a metal ring on it's right leg and, interestingly, David had a similar (or the same?) ringed bird at the same location in April 2013.

Lesser Black-backed Gull showing features of 'intermedius', Ballyheigue Beach, 3rd April 2017 (David O'Connor). 

Littoralis Rock Pipit Black Rock, 5th April 2017 (David O'Connor).

One of two present

Little Tern with Sandwich Terns, Kilshannig, April 2017 (David O'Connor).

Little Tern with Sandwich Terns, Kilshannig, April 2017 (David O'Connor).

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Dramatic day trip for a White-tailed Eagle

Many thanks to Allan Mee for showing us a recent dramatic day trip taken by a young White-tailed Eagle, across Dingle Bay. The bird, a female, was hatched in Killarney last summer, so is just less than a year old.

Map showing the route of the young female White-tailed Eagle on 23rd March 2017.

This voyage took place on 24th March, during a spell of magnificent, sunny, calm weather, perhaps offering the bird opportunities for soaring and gaining a bit of height on thermals for the crossing.

She was directly over the bay south of Dingle at 1200 on 24th, having crossed from the Iveragh Peninsula west of Kells. She then went north to the west side of Brandon Mountain at 1300, headed east, and then south-east, towards Inch at 1500 and was heading back south-south-west at 1600.

The initial bay crossing was about 14km in a straight line, the return journey across the bay a little shorter, but fantastic to be able to track this youngster as she explores the area around her.

Lots more on the Golden Eagle Trust website HERE.

With thanks to Allan Mee.

Monday, 3 April 2017

SemiP from 2007 re-identified as Kerry's first Red-necked Stint

Initially identified as a juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper, this bird was recently re-identified as the first (live) juvenile Red-necked Stint for the Western Palearctic, Ventry Harbour, Co. Kerry, 6th September 2007. Found by Mike Hoit, Keith Langdon and Dan Brown (Photo: Dan Brown).

It was announced recently that a stint at Ventry Harbour in Ireland in September 2007, originally identified and accepted as a juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper, has now been re-identified from photos as a juvenile Red-necked Stint (making it the first live juvenile for the Western Palearctic).

A couple of photos of the bird in question are HERE.

With thanks to Ed Carty who drew our attention to the record, Ed writes, "Features visible include some warmth to the upper scapulars, lack of strong anchors in the lower scapulars, pale sides to the crown, longish primary-projection - but unquestionably a tricky ID and well done to whoever noticed that all wasn't quite right with the original identification..."

There's an excellent account of a 2016 Norwegian occurrence HERE, and another in Iceland shortly after HERE, and fabulous photos of a juvenile in the more typical range - Mongolia - HERE. Some record shots of the only other Kerry record, an adult Red-necked Stint found by Pat McDaid near Waterville in August 2011 can be found on this page HERE.

With thanks to Ed Carty.