I put away my pooter and trowel for this trip and dusted off my bins and scope. The plan, hatched on Friday night, was to spend a few days birding on and around the Dingle peninsula, Co. Kerry. It’s been a record-breaking autumn for transatlantic vagrants already, following Hurricanes Irene and especially Katia. I was hoping to get a piece of the action. It sounded as though what few birders were out on the west coast of Ireland were finding yanks wherever they looked. Would it be like looking for a needle in a sewing-box?
En route to Luton Airport on Tuesday morning, I got a text that Hudsonian Whimbrel had been found on Three Castles Head, Co. Cork. Drove 2½ hours straight there from Kerry Airport. The bird was quite a way off but I got one clear view of its diagnostic dark rump. A tick!
Hung around birding Three Castles and Mizen Heads until late morning on Wednesday. Rather few migrants in the bushes and gardens (1 Spotted Fly, 1 Reed Warbler and 1 Willow Warbler plus 1 Sand Martin with the other hirundines). Local birders reckoned there’d be nobody birding out on the Beara peninsula so I headed over there for the rest of Wednesday. Firkeel valley is a magical place with an awesome track record including Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Red-eyed Vireo, Scarlet Tanager and Ireland’s first Parula. On this day it held just a Chiff-chaff and a Willow Warbler.
It was so windy it felt like I ought to be seawatching so I had a look off Garnish Point. Great views of Sooty and Manx Shearwaters and a lovely flock of 11 Grey Phalaropes bobbing in the surf below me.
After two days spent doing a lot of driving, on Thursday I walked and birded from dawn till dusk, covering the whole of the Inch strand and estuary on the Dingle peninsula. Saw thousands of birds but got the tides wrong and the all-important flocks of Dunlin and Sanderling were too distant. I did pick out a Buff-breasted Sandpiper though, my first yankee find of the trip. Excellent, even though this is a species I have found before on Scilly and Fair Isle.
I was back out near Inch Point on Friday, in position for the rising tide and spent hours scoping through hundreds of Dunlin, Sanderling and Ringed Plover as they came closer and closer. Eventually my scope landed on something different – Semi-palmated Sandpiper! The first one I’ve found. A couple of times I suspected there were two birds but it was hard to be sure in the mêlée. Saw the Buff-breast again and at least 10 Curlew Sandpipers. I think this is a top-class birding site but it’s a 1½ hour fast walk from Sammy’s Café at the start of the beach, even if you know where to cut across the dunes. It’s one of the places Jo and I birded on our honeymoon.
Spent the last of the afternoon birding Blennerville and Black Rock Strand. Both sites I’ve heard of but never visited before. Had great views of the adult American Golden Plover at Black Rock Strand, albeit in driving rain.
Saturday, my last full day. Planned to bird as many of the bays and beaches of the Dingle Peninsula as I could and really give it socks. Started at Trabeg where the White-rumped Sandpiper was still present and showing well, the fifth species of yankee wader for the trip, so far. Gareth Richards texted some bird news while I was there and said “Keep checking the Ringed Plovers …”. Had a look in Dingle Harbour where I didn’t see much but learnt that Funghi the dolphin is still around 29 years after his first appearance.
Ventry Harbour was next, a pretty uninspiring site for waders, especially with all the loose dogs, horse-riders, joggers, etc. But I walked up to the quiet, seaweedy end of the beach, scoped through a few dozen Ringed Plover, Turnstone, Sanderling and Dunlin, then moved round to Cuan Pier. Looking back from the pier to the part of the beach I’d been at 5 or 10 minutes earlier, I was amazed to see three other birders. And they were sprinting full-pelt along the beach with their tripod legs extended! My first thought was that the only bird I could’ve missed that would be worth more than a gentle trot was Semi-palmated Plover. A few minutes later and I was with them: Dan Brown, Rob Martin and Alex Lees, alpha-birders all of them and three of the punkbirders. They had seen, photographed and sound-recorded a Semi-p Plover and then watched it fly off. The second for Ireland. Totally gutting. There have only been two in Britain and fortunately I saw the one at Dawlish Warren. But I was utterly disconsolate to have walked past such a massive rarity without noticing.
I decided to give up on wader ID and hone my corvid ID skills instead. So 2½ hours later I was chucking cheap white sliced bread around Kennedy Pier, Cobh. The House Crow hadn’t been reported since 6th September but Cork birders reckoned this was just through lack of interest and that the bird would still be around. It didn’t show up in the three hours I was there but was seen on the following Monday morning. ****! I was advised that early mornings are best for this bird. So maybe a Saturday afternoon with Jimi Hendrix covers blasting out from the Bandstand was not optimal! However, an adult Sabine’s Gull made a brief and thrilling appearance attracted to bread. It reminded me that for all its frustrations, birding is always capable of providing unexpected excitement. Night drive back to Kerry, missing a Sika by an antler’s breadth.
The Semi-p Plover had returned on Saturday afternoon on the falling tide. So I was keen to see it on my last morning. As I walked down the track to the beach at first light, a dog Otter crossed in front of me a few paces ahead. Great!
No other birders present and only 5 adult Ringed Plover at the spot. Working my way up the beach towards the stream outflow, the first juv. plover I looked at was the Semi-p! By this time, a dozen or so Irish twitchers had assembled on the other side of the stream. After about half an hour watching the bird I went round to talk to them and, although they were watching the same bird, they weren’t yet convinced it was ‘the bird’. Which just goes to show how easy it was to overlook and what a quality find it was by the punkbirders. At least I took some consolation from it anyway!
Watched it till 10 and then dashed to the airport seeing my 100th bird species of the trip en route when a House Sparrow flew across the road in Dingle. It had been a pretty hard trip on the hire car and I didn’t let the grass grow under my feet.
There are highs and lows to birding and there’s always someone, somewhere, seeing more than you. But I enjoyed myself and saw a lot of good birds in a beautiful part of the world.