Achill Island, Sep-Oct 2020
Last October, I had an exciting few days' birding on Achill alongside Micheál O'Briain, Derek and Majella Charles, which culminated in the discovery of a Baltimore Oriole in what was an excellent period for Nearctic arrivals in Ireland (and indeed Britain).
I vowed to return at the time but, with the way 2020 has turned out, at times even leaving England seemed like it might be a long shot. As things transpired, restrictions relaxed in the summer, but a two-week quarantine period remained in place if visiting Ireland from Britain. Bearing this and other complications in mind, I ended up booking a cottage on Achill for a three-week period from 20 September through to 11 October.
September started quite well on a national scale, with a good arrival of Buff-breasted and Pectoral Sandpipers giving plenty of early promise that it might be another 'Yank year'. Then came the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher on Tiree. But after that the Azores High established rather resolutely and went on to make a nuisance of itself for the entirety of my trip. First it deflected an interesting system up to Iceland, which bagged Alder Flycatcher and others, and Norway, which boasted two national-first Nearctic warblers. At least one Tennessee Warbler was deposited in Shetland. Meanwhile I was basking in summer-like sunshine on Achill, which was as busy as I'd ever seen it with surfers, staycationers and other tourists.
Dan Owen joined me for the second and third weeks of the trip, although he didn't turn out to be much of a good-luck charm! I'd like to make excuses and say that the weather was totally against us but, while we were there, two small systems produced Upland Sandpiper and Tennessee Warbler on Inishbofin, which lies less than 40 km to the south of Achill. To our north, on the Mullet, Derek and Dave Suddaby had managed a couple of Blue-winged Teal. So there were birds turning up, if not many of them. Yet, despite our determined efforts, we turned up not a single significant bird in the three-week spell spent on Achill. Pretty harrowing stuff!
Our first Yellow-browed Warbler arrived on 26 September, one of a handful seen. Excitingly, this was in an area of the island that I had inexcusably ignored on previous trips – Keem Bay. I dread to think what must have passed through here during the 'hot' spell of early October 2019, and indeed in the autumns before that. Above the famous beach, which is usually crawling with tourists, is a valley running westward to the cliffs at the very west end of the island. At the bottom of this valley is a stream, along which there are patches of gorse, bracken and a few stunted sallows. It's rather more akin to birding on Fair Isle, Foula or even St Kilda than most places in western Ireland, with the high mountains and barren terrain giving it a unique feel. It's in an absolutely prime position to pick up freshly arrived American passerines.
I don't really know why it only clicked as a possible migrant trap on this particular visit (perhaps because I was bored of seeing nothing and wanted to find somewhere new!), but that it proved. We ended up seeing Chiffchaffs here on most visits, often feeding on the ground or among the heather, but more often than not clinging on to the only sallows in the area. A few Blackcaps and Goldcrests were here, too, as were two different Yellow-browed Warblers (a second was there on 2 Oct). Nothing American this time, but it will undoubtedly happen here, as it must have done on many occasions in the past.
To give an idea of how slow and tough the birding was at times, days would sometimes pass without seeing even a Chiffchaff. It was a good idea we 'found' Keem, because Corrymore (site of last year's oriole) didn't produce anything better than a Chiffchaff in three weeks! One Redwing for the entire trip wasn't exactly what you'd call a success either, but at least finch numbers were decent. Siskins and Crossbills were noted on several dates, with a Brambling on 7th. All were new species for me on the island.
In fact, probably the highlight of the three weeks for me was a Turtle Dove at Keel, which was found by Micheál before we arrived. It was a rather soggy, sad-looking thing, but is a real Irish rarity these days, so nice (if poignant) to see.
Another notable bird (at least in the context of this trip!) was a Pied Flycatcher in the art gallery garden at Keel. It appeared on 5th, lingering for several days. Also notable were a couple of particularly pale and sandy Lesser Whitethroats, both first-winters and showing extensive white in the tail – presumably blythi, which remains an official rarity in Ireland with just a sole accepted record (but no doubt more common than this). But that really was it in terms of passerines.
"At least we'll get a wader or two to keep things ticking over," I mused, early in the trip. You can count on the odd Yank wader in late September, right? Wrong. Another lean year for quality waders in Mayo as a whole was a reflection of other recent trips out here. The heady days of the early 2010s seem a long time ago now. On Achill, Keel Golf Course rarely held any birds at all due to relentless disturbance. While the Achill Rovers and Sruhill Lough area harboured plenty of birds, there weren't any of the type that might arouse your interests too much – bar the odd Grey and Golden Plover teasing us.
If nothing else, it was nice to watch the season progress and how species' prevalence changed. Willow Warblers, a few of which were around early on, quickly cleared out by the end of September. Duck numbers gradually built up, with Teal and Wigeon numbers increasing as October arrived. From the north-west came Pink-footed Geese – a genuine scarcity in western Ireland and the 175 I counted arriving in off the sea on 22nd might be a record count for Mayo, this part of a huge arrival (and associated displacement) in wretched weather that day between the Outer Hebrides and Co Cork.
When things got particularly tough late in the trip, families of freshly arrived Whooper Swans lifted our spirits as they fed at point-blank range on Lough Doo. It's amazing to think the youngsters are just weeks old, yet have just flown hundreds of km from Iceland to spend the winter here, under the close supervision of their more experienced parents.
Achill, like much of western Ireland, is truly mercurial in its form. When it's good, it's very good. But when it's bad, well ... it's deathly. I remain convinced it must be among the best 'mainland' sites in Ireland for passerines, and this huge potential remains almost entirely untapped. Actual birds were few and far between, it was nonetheless great to explore and discover the island like I've never done before. Several new hot-spots were found, and in future years they will no doubt produce major finds.
Three weeks didn't pay off this autumn, but in another year such a long stay could have been so prosperous. I'll keep visiting Achill, and it'll undoubtedly come good again.
The musings of a wildlife enthusiast, usually armed with his camera.