Buoyed by a successful trip in autumn 2021 and with the prospect of some excellent westerly weather on the cards, it was with great anticipation that Dan Owen and I arrived on Achill Island on 1 October. This was to be our third consecutive autumn stay on the island targeting American vagrants.
In fact, we couldn't really have timed our arrival better. After a deathly quiet September out west, the first in a series of exciting weather systems arrived overnight on 30th and, for the first time in the autumn, American landbirds seemed a shoe-in somewhere in Ireland. So it proved, with Kilbaha producing Baltimore Oriole and two Red-eyed Vireos, plus a Bobolink in Co Cork. Another REV on Inishmore on 2nd further fuelled our excitement, but hitting the Achill spots hard over the first few days of October produced only a Yellow-browed Warbler as the highlight among a scattering of European migrants.
On the morning of 4 October, a juvenile Little Stint joined the regular male Ring-necked Duck at Lough Nambrack. It wasn't the showiest of birds and was quite nervy, especially when the wagtails it was with got agitated, but I was able to get pretty close to it with some patience.
Dan and I then went round to Sruhill Lough to do the high-tide roost. Sruhill was very kind to me in 2011 (Spotted and four Semipalmated Sandpipers, Red-necked Phalarope and Sabine's Gull), but I hadn't seen anything significant there since! In fact, it's barely had any birds of note since then, which is all the more remarkable given that it gets a wide variety of waders and often good numbers of birds too, especially Dunlin and Ringed Plover. But it can be a tricky spot to watch, with birds coming and going all the time and, more often than not, a Peregrine or Merlin causing problems.
Fortunately, we got it right that day. Although there weren't many birds on arrival, groups of small waders started coming in as high tide approached, with a lone stint flying right past us, calling and landing on sand at the outflow. It was facing away but the dark-looking, greyish upperparts immediately had us turning to each other and saying: "Semipalmated Sandpiper!"
A couple of record shots were fired off before the bird flew, returning a few minutes later before once again disappearing. The bird's wings were drooped; it looked exhausted and must have just arrived in off the Atlantic. Micheál sadly dipped at Sruhill, but it all ended well when he relocated the bird a few kilometres away on the flooded machair above Achill Rovers, where it remained for another couple of days.
I've seen some very tame waders in my time but this was right up there with the tamest. We'd lie down on the machair and the bird would come pattering past within inches. You could see it catching and consuming all manner of invertebrates, including some sizeable crane flies. It was quite extraordinary to watch and definitely an experience to savour, especially as it turned out to be the find of the trip!
Autumn 2022 will be remembered for the diversity of American vagrants seen not only in Britain and Ireland, but from Iceland and Norway south to France. Relentless westerlies in the first half of October served up a forecast that gave us grounds for optimism throughout our two-week stay on Achill, but that didn't translate into any landbird finds – which was disappointing, as we felt we had a great platform last year on which to build, knowing the best migrant traps as well as ever.
It was particularly galling when Inishbofin – easily visible from Achill on a clear day – produced Ireland's first Alder Flycatcher on 8th, but then also a Blackpoll Warbler a week later. This wasn't the first time this had happened. In 2019, I was at Dooega on Achill, looking out at Inishbofin, when Anthony McGeehan was watching a Black-and-white Warbler there. In 2020, it was Tennessee Warbler and Upland Sandpiper.
Having done three years on Achill now, I have started to wonder if the island is just a bit too big for 2-3 birders to be covering and, given its large area and extensive tracts of cover, how easy it would be for an American vagrant to melt away into spots we visit only once or twice (if at all) each year. This autumn we found migrants in gardens we'd never visited before, such as along Slievemore Road and in the eastern part of Keel. I often mused over how easy it would be for an arriving Yank to filter east and inland, away from the western tip of the island, where cover is lacking. Of course, three American passerines in four autumns (counting the 2019 Baltimore Oriole) is still a decent return, but it doesn't match the recent form of Inishbofin or Inishmore, despite their close proximity.
I guess it sounds obvious, but increasingly I think about the importance of the 'island effect', where a tired migrant makes landfall and does not have the opportunity to continue along a headland and melt away into a huge, underwatched area, as could happen on the mainland. There is a lot to be said for having a limited area to cover and following a well-trodden, familiar route (just look at Steve Millar's track record on Inishbofin over the past few years). Of course, a lot of it is down to luck, but are you slashing your odds of finding something by working a smaller area more thoroughly? I think so. Even the West Beara hot-spots, which are 'mainland' (Dursey aside), are spread over a far smaller area than that we currently work on Achill (the Beara sites probably being equivalent to the distance between Keem and Dooagh, at the west end of Achill). The problem would be partly solved if you could put a dozen birders on Achill and cover it systematically, but realistically that isn't going to happen as there just aren't enough people interested in giving it a bash.
With all of this in mind, we day-tripped Clare Island on 10th. I was very impressed with how easy it is to get to and from the island, which is served by three ferries daily. For the day-tripping birder, it's possible to get out at 8am and return at 5pm – ample time to work some of the best gardens in the east of the island. We didn't see anything particularly notable on our visit, but a nice smattering of European migrants included a Willow Warbler, and we found some stunning spots that must have hosted many rarities over the years.
Still, at least Achill didn't miss out on the Firecrest influx! Large numbers of these beautiful birds were found in western Ireland in October. We spent a day dipping the Alder Flycatcher on Inishbofin, but did see two Firecrests (plus Barred Warbler and Sand Martin). This was followed by a brief Firecrest for me at Dooagh on 13th – the first record for Achill – and then another at Keel the following day which, happily, lingered long enough for both Dan and Micheál to see it. Again, this latter bird was in a garden I'd never checked prior to this autumn.
There appeared to be a mini-arrival of birds on 13th. Along with the Firecrests, at least two Yellow-browed Warblers, a Willow Warbler and several Chiffchaffs also appeared at the west end. It was nice to finally see a few migrants at Corrymore, after a blank couple of years there!
One slightly frustrating moment came on 8th when pishing attracted the attention of a chunky passerine lumbering through some dense willows at Dooagh. The garden which the mystery skulker was frequenting has a shed called 'REV'S Place'(!) and I was convinced it was going to be a vireo on size and movements. Given the blasting westerly and date, you can imagine my disappointment when this popped out!
We did have good reason to sneak away from Achill to the Mullet again this year. Dave Suddaby's fantastic Swainson's Thrush showed why event the scantest cover is not to be ignored when the Atlantic breakers are just metres away. We were getting covered in sea spray as well as the squalls while watching the thrush working its way up a vegetated ditch on 7th. Also nearby was a blue-morph Snow Goose with the Greylags, and a Snow Bunting flew across the road. A very nice twitch with Micheál.
And so, on 16th, our latest Achill adventure drew to a close. I'm sure I'll be back in 2023, but there is plenty to ponder on where else might be worth a try in the coming autumns.
The musings of a wildlife enthusiast, usually armed with his camera.