After a pretty awful visit in autumn 2020, I felt like I had unfinished business on Achill Island. As soon as it became apparent that travelling to Ireland was going to be possible this autumn, I booked a cottage in Dooega, the lovely isolated village on the south-west side of the island, complete with excellent cover for migrants, and set about forming a team.
Despite a torrid first trip in 2020, Dan Owen was surprisingly enthusiastic about it and was soon on board. We even managed to talk Ed Stubbs into coming over. The cottage was booked for a month with a view that we'd stay as long or as short as necessary, weather depending, and mid-September soon came around.
Dan was over first, arriving on 18 September on the back of strong westerlies and my promise that there must be American waders in Mayo. I joined the following day and we gave all the sites a good go, but without success. Surely, with a westerly airflow, we wouldn't leave empty handed?
But try as we might, that first week didn't produce any American waders. In fact, nor did the rest of the trip. Another blank year for shorebirds from across the pond for me, following similarly lacking trips in the past two autumns (a 2018 trip to Mayo was rescued by a brief Pec Sand at Roonagh Lough). I haven't seen an American wader on Achill since 2015!
That said, there were some good additions to my Achill list (that I don't actually keep). A Green Sandpiper flushed from the outflow at Keel Golf Course on 19 September might well be a first for the island, and isn't the Tringa you necessarily anticipate seeing on the west coast at this time of year.
Given what a good year it had been for them, it was obligatory that we had a couple of Little Stints (not on Achill, though!). I quite enjoyed the one I saw at Mulrany, although the weather was typically dreadful at the time. In fact, it was awful when I saw my only Curlew Sand of the trip, too, on the beach at Roonagh!
Ed arrived on Tuesday 21st, although that first week felt more like treading water and hoping to pick up a wader or two, with the gardens deathly quiet – our sum total of landbird migrants after the first seven days were singles of Chiffchaff and Blackcap. This White-tailed Eagle at Corragaun Lough gave us a bit of a shock and explained why the site was so devoid of birds on 21st! Thanks to Dermot Breen, who gave us the tag info, confirming it as a wild-born eagle from Kerry.
Otherwise, it was a case of watching the weather closely and hoping for the best. Unlike in 2020 we were at least treated to a run of westerlies, which meant that there were birds arriving along the Irish west coast on a daily basis – just not in any sort of number. With little doing around our favoured Mayo sites we took a trip into neighbouring Galway on 24th to see Dermot's lovely American Golden Plover at Omey Strand.
It felt pretty good for arrivals that day with the weather generally rough, and on returning to Achill Dan was duly dispatched on his daily rounds. A short while later, he rang with news of a Ring-necked Duck on Lough Nambrack. Ed and I rushed over there to watch the rather sleepy duck as the evening closed in and the mist descended. Very clearly fresh in, we weren't expecting it to have gone by the following morning – but gone it had!
Finally, after Iceland chewing up the few lows that had been leaving the eastern seaboard of North America, a fairly innocuous-looking system was set to head directly for Ireland in the final couple of days of the month. It wasn't much when it left North America, but was fast moving and rapidly intensified. I was sure there'd be a few birds, but would Achill score...?
In short, it did deliver – albeit not immediately! The Mullet was on the frontline for this one, producing Red-eyed Vireo and Solitary Sandpiper in the hours after the front passed. With a fresh-in Rose-breasted Grosbeak on Tiree, we were left feeling like we'd missed out once again. Ed and Dan went up to twitch the Mullet birds but dipped the Solitary, so we all ended up going back on the morning of 3rd. Eventually, the star flew in, although was ridiculously edgy and was only on show for a matter of minutes in the four or so hours we spent there.
I was a bit disappointed to dip the vireo, which had evidently moved on, although needn't have been. The next morning was absolutely stunning; the wind and rain of the previous days had given way to calm weather and clear skies. After getting some work done, Ed and I went to Doogort – a place that always looks brilliant but has never actually delivered anything for me over the years, and the only place we hadn't covered so far this trip. It just 'felt' really birdy. There was plenty of activity in the sunshine, with crests particularly apparent, and it was only about 20 minutes after arriving that I finally managed what I've been craving for a while now – to come face to face with an American landbird.
The small alder plantation behind the Strand Hotel is somewhere I've always fancied for a Black-and-white Warbler, Catharus thrush or the like. After entering, I sat still for a few minutes before beginning to pish gently. The local birds really get riled by this, or any sort of alarm-call playback, which always helps for drawing things in. I noticed a curiously chunky bird with a top-heavy impression and pale underside flitting through the canopy toward me. Though I strongly suspected what it was straight away, it was nonetheless a very pleasant thrill to lift my bins and find a Red-eyed Vireo staring back at me!
Fortunately it wasn't particularly shy, just typically unassuming as it slowly worked its way through the canopy, munching on various invertebrates. It hung around long enough for both Ed and Dan to connect before melting away, out of view. Incidentally, Dan and I saw it again on 9th, in the exact same spot, once again appearing and disappearing in unobtrusive silence.
Thrilled with the vireo, we continued up the lane and, 50 metres on, a Barred Warbler popped out of a bush in front of Dan and I. Simultaneously Ed, who had gone on ahead, had pulled out a Yellow-browed Warbler. It was all a bit surreal, almost unbelievable, after two migrant-less weeks, to suddenly hit the jackpot like this. Such moments are most certainly what make the slow days worthwhile out west. Of course, by this point we felt like the sky was the limit and a mega was just around the corner but, in typically west-coast birding fashion, we didn't see anything else of note for the rest of the day.
Wednesday 6 October marked the first of three days of truly awful weather, during which any birding was almost entirely restricted to the car (or, in my case, not at all!). Ed headed back to Surrey that evening, leaving Dan and I to it. I decided to get my head down and crack on with some work, but Dan kept plugging away.
Dan has now spent five weeks on Achill, often in poor weather and, more often than not(!), seeing very little. So it was fully fitting that he found the bird of the trip during atrocious conditions on the morning of 8th. I had just been looking out of the window and saying to myself that my birding time that day was set to be precisely zero, when I saw a message on my phone 'Buff-bellied Pipit golf course'. Bloody hell – full credit to him and just reward for dogged persistence!
I arrived at the course and, frankly, wasn't looking forward to getting out the car. Dan, who had been completely soaked, had gone back to get changed, leaving me the unenviable task of trying to track down the pipit in the horizontal rain. As I got out the car, a Pomarine Skua flew over my head and away inland, and then a Merlin whizzed past along the dune slack where the bird was meant to be. I wasn't fancying my chances of a quick relocation.
Trudging along the course and, by good fortune, the only pipit still around was the Buff-bellied, which gave some distant views along the flood behind the 13th tee before chasing a Rock Pipit off west and out of view, just before Micheál O'Briain and Dan arrived! A very wet hour or so followed until the bird was relocated up at the east end of the course, by Dookinella. Here we had some great views of an admittedly damp pipit until it was flushed by an unreasonable local, who decided to drive through the spot we were clearly watching something. It flew up and away, never to be seen again!
What turned out to be the final weekend of the trip (8-9 October) was beautifully calm and sunny, so Dan and I doubled down on our efforts for passerines. We saw the vireo again at Doogort, but couldn't relocate the Buff-bellied Pipit. Dan pulled out a nice Lapland Bunting on the machair above Achill Rovers FC on Sunday, while on Saturday afternoon I had a brief Common Rosefinch at Dooagh. It was quite fitting that the final migrant of the trip was a calling Chiffchaff in Dooega – only my second of the three weeks in Mayo!
Given the abject state of autumn 2021 across much of Britain and Ireland, our trip was decent enough. Common migrants were lacking to an extent to which I've never seen before, even by western Irish standards, which did make things challenging – days would pass without seeing a single migrant bird, and you really had to come at it with the mindset that you were looking for one bird, and a lack of anything else didn't matter. Without anything to look at, it can be mentally draining and hard to maintain focus and enthusiasm. Essentially, you need to be made of resilient stuff!
That said, a final result of two American landbirds (in a pretty average year for them), two scarce eastern migrants (Barred Warbler and Common Rosefinch; both firsts for the island), a Ring-necked Duck and a couple of Yellow-browed Warblers (in the worst autumn for them in more than a decade) equates to a success in my eyes, especially in such a poor autumn nationally. Including 2019, that's now three American landbirds in three autumns on Achill for me. Rather like dedicated visitors to Barra have shown over the past two decades, improved autumn coverage of Achill is now starting to pay dividends. I'm already looking forward to 2022!
The musings of a wildlife enthusiast, usually armed with his camera.