The day before our departure, 10th Oct, saw Pete Marsh, Tony Disley and Myself drive down to Exeter services in the early morning to await news on another giga rarity, the Alder Flycatcher in Cornwall, only for our worst fears to be confirmed, the bird had departed overnight.
Fortunately I had the Irish trip to look forward too the following day.
Flying from Manchester at 07:55, we arrived at Knock at 09:00 and was on the road by 10:00 heading for Co. Galway and the LBH at Letterfrack. Numerous Hooded Crows and Ravens were noted on the drive, but pride of place went to the spectacular scenery and Killary Harbour, Ireland's only Fjord.
We reached Letterfrack just after midday. The juvenile Little Blue Heron was noted almost immediately as it fed along the edge of tidal rocks before flying towards the pier at Letterfrack village. For the next three hours we enjoyed absolutely stunning views of this engaging Heron. Particularly interesting was the manner in which it fed, often swaying its head and neck from side to side as if trying to hypnotise its intended prey. The crown and sides of the head were clearly gaining some colour.
The rest of the mid-late afternoon was spent checking a few of the Loughs in the area; a drake Greater Scaup, f/imm Common Scoter, 20 Tufted Duck and 4 Little Grebe resulted, whilst a walk/check of the bay at Bundouglas produced 1 Great Northern Diver and Black Guillemot. But with the exception of a few Goldcrest nothing of note could be found in the gardens or amongst good numbers of Meadow Pipits, Starlings, Linnets etc in the wider area.
Stop offs at Cleggen and further on the beach where the Western Sandpiper had been found a few weeks prior produced little, and now gone late afternoon, we pondered on where to head next.
Eventually we decided to fulfill our ambition from February 2007 when we spent a day on the Mullet Peninsula, Co. Mayo, during which we vowed to return one October day to search for migrants. Deciding upon this meant forsaking any chance to twitch the Scarlet Tanager, but north-west we headed, driving through the magnificent wilderness of Co. Mayo in the last couple of hours of light, arriving in Belmullet at 20:30.
No sooner had we arrived, that a text was received from Bill Gregory informing us that a Red-eyed Vireo had been showing in a garden at Fallmore, our intended target area, this very evening. What a pity it was already dark, but would it still be present in the morning?
We left our very average B&B in Belmullet (35 euro - overpriced!) before first light for the 15 min journey to Termon Hill to look for the female Snowy Owl. Enroute, a couple of Pale-bellied Brent Geese were seen. Upon arrival at Termon, JW & I split up to search but we had no joy in windy conditions. JW saw both Merlin & Peregrine, whilst a flock of c40 Golden Plover and a Wheatear by the car park was noted by the both of us. Two Chough were seen nr the Cemetary at Fallmore.
Next stop was the garden of the only reddish coloured house in Fallmore, location of last nights Red-eyed Vireo. We were initially unsure as regards access to residential properties in the area, so instead checked the beach first for any waders. A few Common Gulls, 2 Grey Plover, c30 Ringed Plover, a few Sanderling and several Rock Pipit were present. Most notable bird was a single Pink-footed Goose briefly before it flew along the coast towards Termon.
Upon our return to the Vireo garden, a 4x4 with three birders aboard drew up at the same time. One was the peninsulas only resident birder, Dave Suddaby of Shetland fame, and an hour long check of the small garden by the five of us drew a blank for the Vireo! A few Robins, Song Thrush, Blackbird, Wren and Stonechat were noted, whilst a small group of Goldfinch overhead were also migrants, DS told us. He also casually mentioned that he had found 5 Red Eyed Vireos on the Peninsula in the SIX years he has lived in the area (!!) + Booted Warbler, Blyth's Reed Warbler and both male Eastern and Western Subalpine Warblers in spring.. to name but a few!
Above: JW checks one of the Pittisporum hedges for the Vireo.
Dave Suddaby also informed us of a couple of notables in the area; a juv American Golden Plover at Annagh Beach and a couple of Ring-necked Ducks on a Lough between Belmullet & Bangor. Due to the strong wind, we decided to abort the gardens, check sites for waders and clear up on what was available.
First spot was Leam Lough off the R313 viewed from both Barnagh East & Barnagh West. Single Greenshank and a flock of c30 mixed Ringed Plover, Sanderling & Dunlin were noted.
Next was Annagh Beach and the most waders to look through thus far. Halfway across the extensive area of sand, c200 Golden Plover could be seen at rest, and in between these were numbers of Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Sanderling and a juv Curlew Sandpiper. The American Golden Plover was soon located amongst the 'Goldie' flock, but with a strong crosswind blowing across the exposed sands, coupled with distance, digiscoping the bird wasn't easy.
Next was a check of Cross Lough, a large waterbody viewed distantly from an adj track at the south end. Two Teal, Greylag Geese and a raft of c20 very distant Aythya in the centre appeared to be comprised of Greater Scaup with a few Tufted Duck. 6 Chough were seen in adj fields.
Carrowmore Lake, located between Belmullet & Bangor, and two Ring-necked Ducks was next on the agenda. Enroute, we called in at Belmullet Harbour where a nice selection of waders comprising Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Dunlin, Knot, Redshank and Ringed Plover showed well, but sadly there was nothing rarer amongst them.
Carrowmore Lake is a truly enormous expanse of freshwater. Fortunately a road runs adj to the western shoreline. We succeeded in locating both Ring-necked Ducks, an eclipse drake and juvenile with other species including c35 Tufted Duck, drake Greater Scaup, Little Grebe and a party of 8 Lesser Redpoll.
There had been overnight rain, and it was still breezy and showery when we drove the short distance (1 mile) from our excellent B&B (details at end of post) at Aghleam to Termon Hill. Again we split up to search and we eventually found the beautiful female Snowy Owl close to the shoreline at the base of the hill. Maintaining a respectful distance from the bird we enjoyed great scope views for 45mins before heading back to the B&B for breakfast. c10 Snow Bunting in 2 groups headed south overhead whilst watching the Owl. JW also had a flyover Lapland Bunting.
The only resident birder, Dave Suddaby, told us that he had found THREE different Snowy Owls on Termon Hill in the six years he has lived on the peninsula. Interestingly, this particular bird disappears during the summer months, returning to Termon Hill in the autumn to moult and it is whilst it is moulting that it is most regularly seen. Once this is completed it becomes more mobile, disappearing for up to five days at a time. Thought i'd include this info for anyone interested in twitching this spectacular bird.
Now late morning, a text from Bill Gregory brought shattering news in the form of a Philidelphia Vireo in Co. Clare!!! This was followed by a similar text from Birdnet and later a call from Pete Marsh (thanks to all for the info). I must confess I held my head in my hands for a short while, pondering what to do; continue nobely on doing our own thing in what is one of the prime spots in western europe for an American passerine.... or crack and embark on a c5hr drive to twitch the Philidelphia Vireo.
An agonising hour followed before we decided to hell with the Vireo!! This galvanised us into absolutely thrashing every garden in the Fallmore area and beyond even harder, but by late afternoon and a few miles walked we had failed to find a single interesting migrant amongst numbers of Linnet, Meadow Pipit, Starling, Song Thrush, Robin, Wren, Rock Pipit, House and occasional Tree Sparrow. Hundreds of Geese could be seen in flight over the Inishkey Islands, but right on the very edge of telescope range. The pied colouration of Barnacle Geese could just be made out, as well as some grey Geese sp, presumably Greenland Whitefronts.
It was now almost 17:00 and only two hours light left. Returning to the gardens and vegetation at Aghleam, we continued the search for something out of the ordinary. Moments of weakness / demoralisation had us looking offshore at some of the stunning Great Northern Divers and a few Black Guillemots, something good to look at, before returning our attention to yet another Pittisporum hedgerow and another Robin! Indeed, every garden contained at least two agressive Robins, constantly arguing amongst themselves and other species. Earlier in the day, we commented that perhaps this was the reason the Red Eyed Vireo didn't hang around.
By the Garda Station, I noticed something I hadn't seen since we arrived on the peninsula, a Sycamore, at the foot of a Pittisporum Hedge. I decided to give the Sycamore ten minutes. 8.5 minutes had elapsed when suddenly a small warbler appeared in the top, actively flitting. With only my bins and 50yrds away, I felt it had to be a Yellow-browed Warbler and scope views confirmed this. Even though it was 'only' a Yellow-browed, we were well pleased... after hours of struggling to find anything of note for much of the day, it felt like a Vireo to us!!
Spurred on by this, we checked as much cover as the failing light allowed. Another Chiffchaff and two Goldcrest were noted in an area of Sallows.
Beautiful weather. Blue sky, warm sunshine and nil wind greeted us as we left the B&B following an early breakfast. We had to leave for the Airport by 11:00 at the absolute latest, so the objective was to cover as many of the gardens at Aughleam/Blacksod as possible.
The first garden up from the B&B produced a vocal Coal Tit and a Yellow-browed Warbler, the latter on call only, but definately YBW. Several more Coal Tits followed during the course of the morning, the Yellow-browed Warbler from y/day was seen again in the lone Sycamore by the Garda Station and an 'Eastern' Chiffchaff; lacking olive tones, bearing a cracking supercillium, but uttering an unremarkable call, was located in a clump of Sallows by JW. A vocal female Crossbill was another passerine highlight. Offshore, the three stunning Great Northern Divers remained, 3 Black Guillemot and a raft of c100 Common Scoter that were frustratingly right at the edge of telescope range. Two Barnacle Geese flew past the harbour wall.
Then it was all over.... I felt we were just getting into our stride and we had to leave....we should have booked a week!
Back in Blackburn I awoke early, my beloved Wife at my side, but my mind was still on the Mullet.......... what might be lurking in those gardens this morning I pondered?
I would highly recommend to anyone considering birding the south end of the Peninsula the B&B we stayed at for two nights at 38 euro per night: Leim Siar Bed & Breakfast, Blacksod, Belmullet, Co. Mayo. Tel: 0035397 85004 or 00353862 512965. Website: http://www.leimsiar.com/