Tuesday 25 November 2014

Albino Curlew

A few bits and bobs from the last week or so. I did the Galway Bay Count on Sunday along with Cathal Forkan. Weather wasn't too bad at all with reasonably calm seas. Nothing too strange on the count, the best bird was a fully albino Curlew at Bishops Quarter. Tom Murtagh found it on 16th September 2014 https://twitter.com/tgmurta/status/511994961365975040
It really is a stunning bird in real life and these heavily cropped shots don't do it any justice. This must one of the few genuine albino birds I've ever seen. I've seen multiple individuals of several species but they all invariably have some traces of normal pigmentation somewhere in their plumage or have a "ghost" pattern of their normal plumage. I had a leucistic Curlew two winters ago also in county Clare, pics below - must be something in the Clare water!
Having processing the few other pictures in this post I'm not long in remembering how bad the light gets here during the winter months. Its very difficult to get decent shots in Ireland during the winter even when the target is at close quarters.

Albino Curlew, Bishops Quarter, Co. Clare, 23rd November 2014.

Albino Curlew, Bishops Quarter, Co. Clare, 23rd November 2014.

Leucistic Curlew, Pouleenacoona Turlough, 9th February 2013.

Leucistic Curlew, Pouleenacoona Turlough, 9th February 2013.

Whimbrel, Roundstone, 13th November 2014.

Rock Doves, Murlach, 24th November 2014.

Rock Doves, Murlach, 24th November 2014.

Rock Doves, Murlach, 24th November 2014.

Song Thrush

Song Thrush

Friday 21 November 2014

Inishbofin 11th Nov 2014

A selection of birds out on Inishbofin from last week. Nothing too unusual out there on the day - 2 Greenfinch, female Eider, 3 Chiffchaffs and oddly a full summer plumaged Sanderling.

Grey Heron

Sanderling and Ringed Plover

Summer plumaged Sanderling on 11th November?!

Lesser Black-backed, Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls.

Female and male Blackbird

Song Thrush

Chiffchaff behind bars!

Male Stonechat

European Starling


Tuesday 18 November 2014

White-tailed Eagle 2014 Update

I've been purposely quiet with news of the local Connemara White-tailed Eagles for a reason this year. As I'm sure many will be aware we've had a resident pair here now since Spring 2012. Both Star (male) and Semi Circle (female) were released in 2009 down in Killarney National Park, Co. Kerry. As they are now five years of age we were hoping that they might have a go at breeding for the first time this year. Amazingly in late February of this year, a visiting single younger male - F Bar accompanied Semi Circle for at least three days.
I saw both of them roosting together and even displaying to one another on a few occasions. I was beginning to think that the young upstart had ousted Star. If this were to happen breeding would probably be unlikely this year at least, given the young age of the male (two years younger than Semi Circle). F-Bar had also briefly hooked up the female Inverted Triangle, the female from the second younger WTE pair also based in Connemara earlier in the winter. F-Bar left Connemara shortly after hanging around with Semi Circle and made it all the way down to the Wexford Slobs. From here he then flew back over to Killarney. Apparently he is now back up in Cavan I believe where he was in residence before arriving in Connemara.

I was lucky to come across Star one day in early March. I managed to visually track him as he seemed to be on the move at the time. He eventually flew into a tree with the female Semi Circle already there waiting for him. From my position (which was nearly three kilometres away) both birds looked like they were standing beside some sort of structure in the tree that looked suspiciously like a nest! I was able to confirm the next day that yes indeed it was a nest, the first White-tailed Eagle nest in Connemara in well over a century - happy days. Over the next few weeks both birds built up the nest although Star brought in the majority of sticks. I saw him on a few occasions pulling and snapping off live branches from adjacent trees. To finish off the construction of the nest, large clumps of dead Purple Moorgrass/Molina grass were brought in for the inner cup. Both birds would sit in the nest for periods of up to two hours but would then get up and leave. Eventually though both parents commenced proper incubation once the egg(s) were presumably laid.  They were incredibly attentive during the long incubation period and both birds shared incubation duties.

I was actually away in the States when the egg(s) were expected to hatch. Allan Mee and Aonghus O'Donaill did however manage to check on the birds at this time. Unfortunately something went awry at this stage as both birds were missing from the nest. There was some extremely heavy rainfall around the same time. This or more likely the inexperience of these first time breeders probably lead to the failure of the nesting attempt. A similar outcome happened with the very first pair of White-tails down at Mountshannon during their first attempt also. Although we were fully aware that the Connemara birds would be unlikely to be successful on their first attempt, it was a disappointment after spending so much time watching the birds on the nest. We managed to check the nest shortly after the birds had failed. The only remains found in the nest was a single small shell fragment so we have no idea if they had laid one, two or even three (unlikely). It's highly likely that the local Hooded Crows cleaned up any unhatched eggs or dead chicks in the nest shortly after the parents abandoned the nest. There was no obvious food remains in the nest either though food was seen to be delivered to the incubating individual by the returning bird on a few occasions.

We're obviously not releasing the location the nest for fear of unintentional disturbance or even wilful persecution. While some may be of the opinion that the more people that know about the location, the better as it may offer more protection for the birds. This wouldn't be possible in this case as they are in a very remote area where round the clock protection just isn't a reality. The vast majority of local people including many farmers that I've talked to locally about the eagles either have no issues with their presence or are quite interested to hear about them. However I have spoken to at least two persons who have told me to my face (almost in a boastful manner), that they would have no issue with shooting the eagles if they look sidewards at any of their livestock. If they were to see any eagle feeding on a long dead sheep I'm sure they would shoot first if they had the chance and probably wouldn't even bother to ask questions afterwards. The Mountshannon pair in county Clare are very close to a busy public pier so keeping them quiet just isn't an option. The local community certainly do keep a very close eye on them and really see them as their own eagles. If the public wish to get great views of nesting White-tailed Eagles they can visit Mountshannon so please don't ask me about the nest location of the Connemara birds. I've visited most of the local primary schools in the area to try and get the message out that they aren't a threat to livestock and also to highlight the dangers of poisoning to these special birds. Hopefully this will pay dividends in time.
I viewed the Connemara pair mostly from a well hidden hide at a distance of at least 1,500 metres away and I can say they certainly weren't as tolerant of human presence compared to some other eagle nests in the country.
The second younger pair of White-tailed Eagles are still present. Both birds have radio tags which have been very useful for keeping tabs on them over the last year or so. The battery of the female Inverted Triangles' tag is now probably exhausted as it usually only lasts about four years. D-Bar, the male seems to spending a lot more time on the lower Corrib this winter compared to last winter. Hopefully D-Bars battery will last for another year before running out. We are hopeful that they may attempt breeding next year so fingers crossed.

While we're on the topic there is a great account of  Connemara's White-tailed Eagles in William Thomson's The Natural History of Ireland which was published in 1849. It's interesting to note that there is no mention whatsoever of White-tailed Eagles taking lambs anywhere in Connemara in the below account.

"Mr. M'Calla, writing from Roundstone, Connemara (Galway), in 1841, supplied me with the following information in substance respecting this species.
It is common throughout that district; has its eyrie in cliffs rising from the sea; in trees growing on the small islands of inland lakes and in once instance built on a green islet without any trees. A pair has bred for a number of years on the marine island of Boffin and from the nest being inaccessible, a brood of eaglets has been annually reared; these have always left the island so soon as able to wing their way elsewhere. The inhabitants of the island believe that the pair of old birds which frequent it, not only guard and abstain from injuring their fowl but that they will not suffer other birds of prey to molest them. The people of Connemara generally, indeed, believe that the eagle never takes away any fowl from about the houses in the vicinity of its nest. My informant has seen a sea eagle lift a duck from near the door of a house, at a distance from its eyrie and bear it away but being pursued by a number of gray crows (Corvus cornix), it dropped the prey which was still alive, though much torn by its talons. This species of crow, which is abundant in the district, is said to be the "inveterate enemy of the eagle" and to gather from all quarters to harass and attack it, so soon as the royal bird comes in sight. The writer has visited fourteen eagles' nests and robbed several of the eggs, which were never more than two in number. A few years ago it was considered a dangerous undertaking to rob an eyrie, and persons went armed with guns to protect the aggressor, but my informant has never himself been assailed, nor known men to be attacked by the parent birds. They appear to breed for a number of years in the same nest, renewing it every season. One built in a Yew tree, growing upon an island of the lake on the western side of Urrisbeg mountain, was, with the accumulated materials of the nest of the preceding years, nine feet in diameter. The portion in which the eggs were deposited, was lined with wool, the fur of the hare, etc."

Star, the male.

Star, you can see the satellite pack with the aerial on his back here, this runs off a solar panel rather than battery.
Semi-circle, the female.


Star & Semi-circle

Plucking perch used by the breeding pair.

Eagle pellet with a one Euro coin for scale.
Inverted Triangle, the female from the younger pair. Pic taken in June and she was looking rather ragged being in moult at the time.


Saturday 15 November 2014

Tullaghan American Wigeon

I spent most of last Sunday checking some of the loughs of Donegal. The numbers of diving duck were fairly low in particular Lough Fern which normally holds large numbers. Nothing of note until the end of the day while on the way home in the form of the returning male American Wigeon at Tullaghan on the county Leitrim side. The bird is looking rather shabby at the moment with the plumage in a rather retarded state. You might even pass it off as a first-winter male were it not for the open wing (pure white lesser & median coverts, long tertials, etc.). Compare these poor phone shots with shots taken of it at this site last early November.



Wednesday 12 November 2014

Cackling Goose 8th November 2014

I headed up to the North-West last weekend for some wildfowl action. This Cackling Goose in the Lissadell Goose field/Ballygilgan Nature Reserve in County Sligo on Saturday morning was the first good bird of the day. This flock of Barnacle Geese has attracted numerous Cackling and a few wild Canada Geese over recent years and is probably the best spot in the country for both species.
This particular individual lacked a gular strap but had a good white patch to the front at the base of the black neck sock. These features seem to be very variable within so called races (hutchinsii in this case). Overall size, body and bill structure are probably better features to rely on rather than plumage features. The whole taxonomy of Cackling and Canada Geese has been up in the air since day one. I can see a day when all the races which are recognised by us today will be completely overhauled in time to come.
Video of the Cackling Goose here http://vimeo.com/111670583

No gular strap.

Nice white patch at the front of the base of the neck.
Phone pic, note how stubby the bill is.


I headed up to Donegal afterwards. A quick look from the car park just off the Letterkenny - Derry road down onto Big Isle produced a few hundred Greylag and Greenland White-fronts. As usual you are at long distance from the birds from this spot.

Just up the road from here is the usual productive Blanket Nook. Best there was a male Green-winged Teal in with decent numbers of Eurasian Teal, Eurasian Wigeon and Mallard. Female Long-tailed Duck, a handful of Greater Scaup, two Kingfishers and a very confiding Otter also present. I also had an interesting adult large gull off the causeway here. It spent most of its time hawking over the water and after a while caught a starfish after diving into the water after it. With a little bit of effort it finally managed to swallow it. It had very restricted black markings on the outer primaries and closely resembled a Kumlien's/Thayer's. Such a bird has been claimed here in the last two years and is probably the same individual. I think it may actually be a Glaucous x Herring hybrid. While the upperparts were a paler grey compared to accompanying Herrings, the bill was brightly coloured, it was bigger than the Herring Gulls and the bird appeared rather pot bellied.

Big Isle
I spent the last few hours of the day at Inch Lough. A huge amount of work has gone into this spot mainly done by the local Conservation Ranger Andrew Speer. It's now possible to circumnavigate the entire lake on well maintained paths http://inchlevels.businesscatalyst.com/inch-levels. Three bird hides with three car parks have also been installed. I just about managed to find a space in the pump house car park. The site seems to have become very popular with locals for walks on the weekends but this doesn't seem to have affected the birds in anyway. The numbers of Whooper Swans and geese in the surrounding fields seem to have trailed off even at this early stage of the winter. One Pink-footed Goose and one Ruff were the best seen in the environs.

Inch Wildfowl Reserve

Inch Wildfowl Reserve

Sunday 9 November 2014

Cleggan Glaucous Gull

A few shots of a first-winter Glaucous Gull that was on Lough Anillaun near Cleggan last week. There seemed to be a small feeding frenzy going on in the lough as there were about 200 mostly large gulls feeding on small fish of some description in the lough. This is the lough in behind the causeway at the head of Cleggan Bay. While it looks like it could be a very productive spot, the best I've ever had in there has been a male Gadwall!
Two shots of a Great northern Diver coming out of summer plumage which was off Renvyle on the same day also.

Adult Great northern Diver

Adult Great northern Diver