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New seawatching spot in Co. Kerry

Coosgorm Rocks - you heard it here first!

Brandon Point is the obvious star seawatching site in county Kerry, and two other headlands, Clogher Head near Dunquin, and Kerry Head, north of Tralee, also get some good birds. However, in terms of quantity and quality, Brandon Point is the hands-down winner and there, the seabird numbers are consistently higher, of better 'quality', and often pass much closer than at the other two sites.

However, from my experience this autumn seawatching from Coosgorm Rocks on Valentia Island, it would seem there is now a viable fourth choice, and more importantly, while the three previously mentioned sites are all at their best in west or north-west winds, Coosgorm is best in a west, a south-west, or even a straight southerly wind. Until now, there were no realistic seawatching options in a south-westerly in Kerry.

Sabine's Gull, Co. Kerry (Eric Dempsey)

I visited the site five times this autumn 2010, for seawatches of 3-4 hours each time, and racked up an impressive haul of good birds. It has been an exceptional year for Sabine's Gull, and here I recorded up to 60 in a day (with birds recorded on all five seawatches), a couple of Long-tailed Skuas, two Great Shearwaters, several Leach's Petrels on two of the days, and a good handful of Pomarine and Great Skuas on all seawatches. The highlight was a juvenile Red-necked Phalarope sheltering at the base of the cliff, and there were good numbers of Grey Phalarope (up to 33 in a day), Storrm Petrels (75 in a day) and Sooty Shearwaters (1500 a day). Another notable record was 7 Little Gulls during one seawatch, not impressive if you live near the Irish Sea perhaps, but a record for Co. Kerry, or at least matching the previous record of seven in Brandon Bay, back in 1973.

However the most striking aspect to the seawatching at Coosgorm was just how close the birds were passing. The south-west tip of Valentia Island - the spot you might surmise might be best - is actually too high for seawatching, and my previous attempts there were dismal. Coosgorm is a mere 30 metres high, on a stretch of coast which is largely flat and featureless, but which juts out slightly from a long, straight stretch of coast which is mostly high cliff (see photo, below). The low level allows a great field of view when scanning the sea. It seems the birds come close to this stretch of coast with the aim of launching out from the tip, similar in principle to the famous Bridges of Ross seawatching spot in Co. Clare. This autumn, Sabine's Gulls were nearly all passing within 200m, while many of the petrels were closer still, and phalaropes were easily picked up without recourse to binoculars, some right at the waters edge. While most skuas were passing in the 150 to 500 metre range, several came within 100 metres. Not only that, but many birds, particularly Sabine's Gulls and Storm Petrels, could be seen following the line of the coast from far to the north-east. In other words, these birds had been blown well into Dingle Bay (see photo below, and Figure 1) and were having to come a long way back out west, past this spot, to get back out to open ocean.

View of Coosgorm Rocks, from Dingle Bay, looking south west. Any seabird blown into Dingle Bay in strong westerly winds will have to round Coosgorm Rocks to get past Bray Head/Valentia Island and back out to open ocean (M.O'Clery)

Arriving on to Valentia island over the bridge at Portmagee, follow the main road up the hill, and take the first left. Continue on this road for 2.5 km, then take a left turn which is signposted for St. Brendan's Well. 1.5 km down this straight road, by the last building, there is a parking area (near the well). Walk across to the obvious 750 metre long, high, dead straight, earth embankment, and follow it to the coast edge. The best seawatching is at the very end of the embankment, next to the low cliff (there are other spots to sit, but this is by far the best shelter from the elements).

Figure 1. Click on the image for a closer view, showing the location of Coosgorm Rocks in a Kerry context.

Figure 2. Click on the image for a closer view. The red circle shows the location of Coosgorm Rocks.

Figure 3. Click on the image for a closer view, showing the location of Coosgorm Rocks.

A strong wind from the south-west seems best, though there was considerable passage one of the days in a gale force southerly. From here, the Blaskets are directly to your north and easily visible in clear weather. Several of the days, they were obscured by mist and rain, and these proved the most productive for seabirds. Nevertheless, even in relatively clear weather, with the islands fully visible, there was considerable passage, so it would seem that at least some seabirds choose this route, and aren't adverse to passing close to the coast at this point. 

If you do go, let us know what you see, good luck, and bring a camera…

Michael O'Clery
December 2011