Achill Island, October 2019
For several years I have been saying to myself that I must make a later autumn trip to Achill Island than the usual mid-late September foray for waders. Finally, this was the year that I managed it – admittedly only for a long weekend – but it's safe to say I am now hooked on the idea going forward!
Autumn 2019 had been shaping up as a promising one for American landbirds, exemplified by a run of late-September finds, notably including French firsts in the form of Ovenbird and Blackburnian Warbler, as well as a rush of Red-eyed Vireos in Britain and Ireland. The opening days of October brought Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Black-and-white Warbler to Scilly, and the forecast for the period from 5-8 October – perfectly coinciding with my trip – looked very exciting for further arrivals, with long warm fronts trailing off two separate fast-moving low-pressure systems. The first was due pass during the early hours of Saturday 5th, with the second arriving on Monday 7th. Game on!
The Friday turned out to be somewhat tumultuous, firstly because the gearbox fell apart on the hire car during my drive over from Dublin to the west coast. Having sorted this out I eventually reached the Mayo coast around midday, but despite plenty of common waders around the usual sites in South Mayo, notable birds were lacking. I then made the silly decision to try and twitch the reappearing American Black Tern at Nimmo's Pier, which was well gone by the time I pulled into Galway. Nonetheless, consolation came in the form of a nice fish supper at McDonagh's with Niall Keogh. Another old friend was seen at the pier slipway itself – the returning adult Ring-billed Gull. I think this bird has been present every year since I first visited Nimmo's in 2008. After accepting that the tern was a dip, I drove north up to Achill and pulled in at the Achill Sound Hotel some time in the mid evening.
Saturday dawned breezy, grey and rainy – at least the front had arrived as predicted. With the weather filthy, I did a circuit of some of Achill's wader sites, albeit without seeing much, before heading for the epicentre of Achill birding – Keel Golf Course. Achill stalwart Micheál O'Briain was already on site looking at the best selection of waders I have seen there since I first visited in September 2008. There were Dunlin and Ringed Plover aplenty, with several European Golden and, more surprisingly, a trio of juvenile Grey Plovers. Micheál and I had a good chat before were were joined by Derek and Majella Charles, who were also on Achill for the weekend. After the usual greetings, we all went our separate ways and, with the rain easing a little, I decided to take a walk across the golf course to made sure it was checked properly. It was here that I had my bird of the day – a delightfully confiding Snow Bunting.
The skies suddenly cleared during the afternoon and I met up with Micheál at Corrymore House, which I and many others rate as one of the rarest-looking gardens on the Irish west coast. It's the obvious first point of arrival for any American landbirds, yet also a last port of call for anything coming from the east. In the calm of the late afternoon, my first Yellow-browed Warbler of the autumn confidently flitted about the garden's only sycamore, and there were also a couple of Chiffchaffs in the adjacent fuchsia hedge.
Sunday morning dawned beautifully calm and bright. News had come out overnight about a Black-and-white Warbler on Inishbofin, an island viewable with the naked eye from Achill on a clear day – like this morning! Having let both Derek and Majella as well as Micheál know, I think we all felt equally gripped yet invigorated at the same time. Looking back on things (and speaking entirely selfishly!), it was probably at this point I should have gone straight to Corrymore for another look. Yet with a couple of hours before breakfast to play with, I instead opted for a quick look at nearby Dooega before heading out to the western point of the island.
Two new species for Achill were found on Sunday. The first of these, I came across at Dooega. It was beautifully calm with not a breath of wind in the valley there, and all the birds were showing well. It was one of those mornings that you think that if there's something there to find, you'd have found it. And that was the case with the Reed Warbler in sallows down by the beach ... yes, apparently a first known record for Achill!
I was really impressed by Dooega and think that countless good birds must have been missed here over the years, from both east and west. No one ever looks. However, I felt like Corrymore was definitely the place to check as the sun gradually rose into the sky. I knew Micheál would likely already be there and it was with both excitement and trepidation that I saw his name on my phone when it started to ring. "Josh ... I'm at Corrymore ... there's something here."
It sounded like views had been brief and unfulfilling, but the description of a bird with a "spiky bill and two white wingbars" certainly spurred me on. I was only minutes away and found myself sat staring with Micheál at the same bank of fuchsia as we'd done the previous evening, yet this time we knew there was something in there. It felt like a much longer wait than it probably was, but not long before 11:00 I noticed something interesting moving through densest parts of the fuchsia. A bit of pishing and there it was, staring curiously back yet remaining concealed enough not to give a particularly clear view – a Baltimore Oriole.
Derek and Majella were instantly informed and were on site very quickly, just in time for us all to enjoy the best views that the oriole gave at any point during its four-day stay, even sitting up on the telephone wires by the house for a good 30 seconds. While not the brightest of orioles, it was nonetheless a beautiful bird and just a fourth for Ireland. What terrific and deserved discovery for Micheál, who certainly puts the time in on this wonderful island. It is, incidentally, the second North American passerine he has found on the island (and, more specifically, in the Corrymore garden) following a Red-eyed Vireo in October 2014. Given that he is the island's most regular birder, yet is only over for at most a couple of weeks in the entire autumn, the great potential of Achill no doubt goes unappreciated.
Having enjoyed fantastic views of the oriole, I decided to leave the scene and redouble my efforts by combing the gardens of Dooagh and Keel. Many of these are quite small and threadbare in terms of cover, so it felt like there would have been a very good chance of finding anything that might have been there on such a calm day. Alas there was nothing, with just a couple of Chiffchaffs the best I could encounter, although a Yellow-browed Warbler was heard in the ever-appealing 'art gallery garden' in Keel (this undoubtedly the best cover on the western 'arm' of Achill and, I imagine, where a fair few American landbirds must have ended up over the years).
The weather gradually worsened again into the evening on Sunday, and Monday dawned windy and rainy once more – a sure sign that the low had arrived. It was the dire conditions which meant that I didn't rush to get out in the field ... and in turn had a bit of time trawling the internet, found this video of the 'nightjar' in County Antrim and promptly stuck the news out on BirdGuides that the bird was in fact a Common Nighthawk ...
In fact, the nighthawk become an increasing distraction throughout the day. I spent much of the morning and early afternoon birding around Dooega, which was infinitely windier than it had been the previous day and thus much harder to cover. Nonetheless, four testing hours produced a Yellow-browed Warbler (the first to be recorded in the village) and a couple of Chiffchaffs, but no vireo, Catharus thrush, cuckoo or otherwise.
It was as windy as ever during the afternoon and news that Stuart Piner was watching the nighthawk gracing the skies above the River Maine in Galgorm saw me eventually cave in to changing my plans. The wind wasn't forecast to drop on Achill until at least Thursday and, despite Derek and Majella sorting me out with a really lovely B&B for the night, needs must and I decided to head to Galgorm for first light on Tuesday.
With that decision, another Achill trip came to a slightly premature end. I managed a few hours' kip after a fish supper in Keel with Derek and Majella before getting on the road at 03:00. To be honest, there was a bit of relief in leaving, as the wind was as bad as ever when I left the island in the early hours. Birding there on Tuesday wouldn't have been much fun. The nighthawk was seen very well in much more agreeable conditions and was undoubtedly one of the birds of the year (and well worth the effort to divert for!), but I'll do a separate post on that in due course.
Special thanks to Derek, Majella and of course Micheál for their company at various points over the weekend. Hopefully it's the start of Achill getting a bit more coverage during the peak weeks of autumn. I've vowed to go back for a week next autumn. Please reference this blog post if I don't keep my word.
The musings of a wildlife enthusiast, usually armed with his camera.