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Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Visit at dawn to the Magharees

Kayaking out to sea at dawn on a beautiful summer morning is one of life's more memorable undertakings, even with the slight unease and sense of vulnerability at leaving the shore far behind with nothing but a shell of a few millimetres of polypropylene keeping you and your expensive camera gear afloat.

Kayaking out to the islands at dawn (All photos: M.O'Clery, 7th May 2017).

The Magharees are a series of low-lying, generally flat-topped islands 1 to 2 km north and north-west of Castlegregory. They were first fully surveyed for seabirds in 2006 and 2007 (reference below), a census which was the first to cover all nine of the island group as well as three outliers to the east, in Tralee Bay. It was also the first to conduct nocturnal surveys, resulting in a significant discovery, upgrading the estimated Storm Petrel presence from around 50 pairs, to 1,272 Apparently Occupies Sites, fully 1% of the estimated Irish breeding population.

The main islands of the Magharees group (MOC).
(Click on the image for a closer view).

North-west corner of Illauntannig, where the walls used to be.

Unfortunately for the Storm Petrels, the massive storms of winter 2014/15 have destroyed one of their main nesting areas, the stone walls on the north-west perimeter of Illauntannig. The whole coast here has been eroded by about 2m-3m in just a couple of years of bad storms. It's possible the petrels will nest in the walls a little further inland, and a visit later this summer should see if that is the case.

The only house on the Magharees, on Illauntannig.

Even on the sheltered east side of the island, the sandy beach has been recently eroded to the point that, rather than a comfortable buffer of 10-15m of coastal grassland, the beach is now at the outlying walls of the only house on the island.

Common Tern, Illaunturlough.

The Magharee islands are perhaps best known - ornithologically - for its terns. A quick visit last summer saw the worst year in a decade for nesting terns on the main islands (see post HERE), and unfortunately the picture seems not to have improved sine then. Only 10-15 pairs of Arctic Tern, and perhaps one to two pairs of Common Tern were present on this visit. They had not yet laid eggs, but must be about to, so these figures will need confirming a little later in the summer, though it doesn't look good.

Common Tern, Illaunturlough.

Black Guillemots, Inishtooskert.

This is also the time of year when Black Guillemots are displaying at their best, just before egg-laying. The advantage of an early morning visit is seeing the pairs displaying and flying about together in small groups, before going about their business for the day.

Black Guillemot, Illauntannig.

Numbers of pairs seen were on a par with estimated numbers of previous surveys, so at least the Black Guillemots are doing ok.

Dunlin, Illauntannig.

The Magharees islands and adjoining peninsula are a great place to see arctic-nesting waders well into summer. Grey Plover, Sanderling, Bar-tailed Godwit and Purple Sandpipers are regularly seen well into May, even June. Here, four Dunlin, in immaculate summer plumage, were feeding along the shore. Also seen were eight Purple Sandpipers, six Whimbrel, and three summer-plumaged Sanderling.

We Have a winner!

One of the only species which seems to have undergone an increase on the islands was Lesser-black-backed Gull. The 2006-07 survey found 146-164 pairs, but at least 200 pairs were seen on Illaunammil and Reenfardarrig.

Shags, Illaunturlough

Although 271-284 pairs of Shag were detected on the 2006-07 survey (the highest ever), there seemed to be far fewer now. Nests were not directly checked however, to avoid disturbance, but a more complete count will be needed later in the summer.

Common Gull, Illaunammil. Rather ominously, a bit of what looks like nylon fishing line is hanging out of its mouth... (click the picture for  closer look).

The Magharee islands have been something of a stronghold in the southern half of Ireland for Common Gulls, though this visit showed a drastic reduction in apparent pairs. The large colony of of 38 pairs in 2007 on the south shore of Illauntannig has been abandoned for about four years, but numbers on the other islands visited seem also reduced. Another visit is needed later this season to make sure, but it's not looking good for nesting Common Gulls. The 178-187 pairs recorded in 2006-07 represented an astonishing one fifth of Ireland's breeding pairs, so if this loss of breeding pairs is real, it could be a significant loss.

Oystercatcher, Illaunammil.

Nesting waders, such as Oystercatcher and Ringed Plover, seem to be holding their own. Similar numbers to previous surveys.

Fulmar, Illaunammil.

A great place to see Fulmars flying close by at eye level.

Little Tern pair, Illauntannig.

The jewel in the crown for the Magharee islands must be the nesting Little Terns, one of the rarest breeding seabirds in Ireland. Through the nineties and early noughties, they have varied in numbers from around 15 to 50 pairs on Illauntannig. Last year however, only two to three pairs nested. On this visit, only two to three pairs were again present, though it is still a little early to determine if they will nest yet this year. Courtship is apparent and hopefully egg-laying will follow in the next few days.

Little Tern, Illauntannig.

A beautiful bird. The only colony of this bird in Kerry is hanging on by its fingertips. Little Terns are long-lived birds, and can generally accommodate a bad breeding season or two. But the loss of so many breeding pairs from the Magharee islands recently is surely a matter of concern. 

The causes are a little mysterious. Summer 2016 was a generally poor year for all tern species in Ireland, but two such years in a row are worrying. What is going on here? It seems the nesting beaches have eroded a little, but perhaps not sufficiently to warrant abandonment. The main storm beach on which they have nested in recent years is a little smaller, but similar in character. Disturbance might be an issue, as more human visitors descend on the islands in calm weather, or are there other subtle factors in the waters and fish offshore which are deciding factors?

More to come, as follow-up visits are planned in the coming weeks to try and get some more concrete information.

References: O'Clery M. 2007. Breeding seabirds of the Magharees and related islands, County Kerry, 2006/2007. Irish Birds Volume 8 number 2, pp 179-188. BirdWatch Ireland.