Ireland 2008

...with Mark Finn

October 4th - 12th

This was the first organized birding tour to Northern Ireland and Donegal operated by Black Isle Birding and Birdwatching Breaks. The tour was a great success as we saw four North American species – American Black Duck, Ring-billed Gull, White-rumped and Buff-breasted Sandpipers. In addition to these almost annual migrants we witnessed an impressive south bound migration of geese, swans and ducks including above average numbers of Pale-bellied Brent Geese and Whooper Swans. Tory Island was an interesting place to visit despite un-favourable weather whilst we were on the island. A light passage of Lapland and Snow Buntings was observed along with a steady stream of the commoner seabirds. I am sure the following trip report will bring back happy memories of an excellent tour in an under-watched and beautiful location of extreme Western Europe.

October 4th: Belfast, Strangford Lough, Castle Espie.

Weather: Overcast with heavy showers 10 C

Essentially a travel day from various parts of the UK to Belfast the capital of Northern Ireland. On arrival we met up at Belfast City Airport and made the short journey to Newtonards. We passed the impressive grounds and buildings of Stormont before making a brief visit to Strangford Lough. The shallow waters here attracted large numbers of Pale-bellied Brent Geese and a few waders - Common Redshank, Dunlin, Northern Lapwing and Ruddy Turnstone. The weather was pretty awful so I headed to our base near Castle Espie for the night.

October 5th: Lough Beg, Myroe Levels, Magilligan Point, Lough Fern.

Weather: Sunny with light southwesterly winds 13 C

Checked out at Castle Espie and headed in a northwesterly direction towards Derry. Our first stop today was Lough Beg. Recent heavy rains made access almost impossible so we had to scan from the field edge. European Golden Plovers and Northern Lapwings present in good numbers. In the hedgerows several Goldcrests and Great Tit. Our journey took us north towards a low-lying area of land known locally as the Myroe Levels. This extensive area adjoining Lough Foyle proved to be an excellent spot for waders. The first turf fields attracted European Golden Plover, Northern Lapwing, Eurasian Curlew, Common Redshank and Common Snipe. Along the canal we heard the distinctive calls of Common Kingfisher. A group of local birders gave us some useful information. Further down the track we stopped again recording Whooper Swans, Ruff, Black-tailed Godwit, at least two Jack Snipe and eventually a Buff-breasted Sandpiper feeding in a flooded turf field. After lunch we checked the Roe Estuary which had Pale-bellied Brent Geese, Bar-tailed Godwit, Dunlin, Common Knot and Sanderling. Disturbance was high here so we checked Magilligan Point recording Great Cormorant, Shag and Red-breasted Mergansers. Headed towards Derry and onto Letterkenny our base for the next two nights. A diversion to Lough Fern produced Little Grebe and Tufted Duck plus a few late Barn Swallows.

October 6th: Blanket Nook, Inch Levels and Island, Doagh Isle, Malin Head.

Weather: Cloudy with sunny intervals southwesterly winds 15 C

This morning we headed back towards Derry and onto the important bird sanctuary of Blanket Nook. On arrival we quickly located Greylag Geese, flocks of Little Grebes, and a wide range of wintering ducks including Gadwall. We checked the Loch Swilly side which held American Black Duck, Common Kingfishers, Black-tailed Godwit, Common Shelduck, Grey Wagtail and Common Raven. Surrounding fields and hedgerows attracted finches and small groups of Mistle Thrushes. In Loch Swilly itself Great Crested Grebe and winter plumaged Black Guillemots. At 1045 we travelled east and checked the Inch Levels where hundreds of Whooper Swans were present on stubble fields. Inch Lake held thousands of birds including wintering Greenshank, Ruff and European Golden Plovers. Deeper water had rafts of Tufted Ducks and Common Coots. We headed north towards Malin Head stopping at Doagh Isle for lunch. Offshore islands had the first returning Barnacle Geese and south-bound Arctic Terns. Malin Head, our last destination is Ireland's most northerly mainland point. A few birds were noted in the surrounding seas including Great Northern and Red-throated Divers, Northern Gannet, Common Eider and Black-legged Kittiwakes. The cliffs and farmland of Malin Head attracted several pairs of Red-billed Choughs. At 1700 hours we returned to Letterkenny. Tomorrow we head north again and travel by ferry to Tory Island.

October 7th: Letterkenny, Dunfanaghy New Lake, Tory Island.

Weather: Overcast with frequent rain showers, southwesterly winds 14 C

After leaving Letterkenny we headed north to the ferry terminus at Magheraroarty the departure point for Tory Island. En route we stopped at Dunfanaghy New Lake recording the commoner swans and ducks. At Magheraroarty the harbour area attracted Meadow and Rock Pipits, Black Guillemot and Great Black-backed Gulls. The ferry trip over to Tory Island was largely uneventful for birds. On arrival we checked into our relevant accommodations and met up again at 1400 hours. I decided to explore the eastern end of the island an area dominated by high cliffs, moors, pools and the adjacent coast. East Town gardens held Tree Sparrow and Red-billed Choughs feeding in house gardens. The walk down to the small lough produced Mute Swan, Mallard and best of all Lapland Bunting and the Greenland race of Northern Wheatear. On the beach a migrant White Wagtail and Ruddy Turnstones feeding in seaweed. Several Common Snipe were flushed as we walked back towards base. I arranged a lift to the lighthouse where we embarked on a short sea-watch. Northern Gannets and Black-legged Kittiwakes were particularly numerous offshore plus a single Atlantic Puffin. A pair of Snow Buntings showed briefly as they flew inland. Returned to our respective bases with a single Redwing in West Town.

October 8th: Tory Island.

Weather: Sunny with light southwesterly winds 15 C

After breakfast we walked towards West Town recording the commoner species of Tory Island. In a field Arthur located two Barnacle Geese with a Pink-footed Goose for company. I decided to head towards the lighthouse again although wind conditions were not favourable. Offshore high numbers of Northern Gannets, Great Black-backed Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwakes and single Common Guillemot and Arctic Skua. A highlight of the morning was two small flocks of Snow Buntings passing in front of us before perching on nearby boulders. At 1100 we walked back slowly towards West Town checking the lough for birds. New 'island' birds included Eurasian Curlew. As we entered the settlement European Robin and Eurasian Blackbird were noted both being uncommon migrants on Tory. A leisurely lunch and relaxation followed until we left again at 1430 to explore another area of Tory. Old peat cuttings attracted Common and Jack Snipe plus passing Common Ravens and Red-billed Choughs. In the distance a female Eurasian Kestrel rested on telegraph wires. Back to base with a family of Barn Swallows resting on wires. In the harbour Ringed Plover and Ruddy Turnstones. Tomorrow we return to the mainland and head further west and south into County Donegal.

October 9th: Tory, Killibegs, Mountcharles, Bruckless.

Weather: Heavy rain combined with strong southerly winds

Today turned out to be a pretty awful one weather wise which subsequently affected our birding. We departed from Tory at 1030 for the mainland. Heavy seas made birding almost impossible apart from passing Northern Gannets. On arrival I headed towards the fishing port of Killibegs the largest of its kind in Ireland. The harbour was awash with recently arrived trawlers from the North Atlantic Ocean. Despite a thorough search of all the gull flocks we located thousands of Herring Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls (mostly adults) and smaller numbers of Black-headed and Common Gulls. In open waters of the harbour Black Guillemots and Shags plus good numbers of North Atlantic Grey Seals. The rain continued to fall as we headed south towards the village of Mountcharles. A few birds were around the extensive bay including Greenshanks roosting on the shoreline. At 1645 we headed to our base at Bruckless for our last two nights in Ireland.

October 10th: Rocky Point, Killybegs, Donegal Bay complex, Mullaghmore.

Weather: Steady rain showers combined with strong south winds 15 C

The day started with leaden skies and steady rain as I headed towards the far north western corner of County Donegal. Our main interest was visiting the exposed headland of Rocky Point. A short sea-watch added a passing Great Skua, Great Northern Diver, Northern Gannet and Black-legged Kittiwakes. On the cliffs, a pair of calling Common Ravens. I decided to check an area of gardens with extensive areas of bushes. The first bird we encountered was a female Merlin before it took and off and disappeared behind a farm building. The bushes did attract Grey Wagtail, House and Tree Sparrows, European Goldfinch and European Robin. A pair of Eurasian Sparrowhawks was also noted. Mid-morning we headed back to Killybegs and stopped at the busy fishing harbor. Similar birds to yesterday with the addition of Arctic Terns. Just outside the town Arthur located a White-throated Dipper. Extensive mud here attracted Common Teal and Common Redshanks. On to Donegal town, with its complex bay and estuary system. The first few spots produced little of interest so we headed towards Sligo and an accessible part of Donegal Bay. Careful scanning of the bay produced Great Northern and Red-throated Divers, Common Scoter and a lone Great Crested Grebe. A surprise here was up to sixty European Goldfinches feeding along the beach. Our final birding stops were in Sligo at Mullaghmore a small town with an impressive headland and small loughs. The first loughan held Whooper Swans, Eurasian Golden Plovers and small numbers of wildfowl. At the yacht club we located Razorbill and Black Guillemot and a distant flock of Sanderlings. We followed the loop road around the headland admiring the impressive cliffs and sheer power of the surf.

October 11th: Bruckless, Inch Lake, Ballykelly, Bann Estuary, Portrush, Portstewart.

Weather: Sunny with light west winds 17 C

After breakfast we headed back towards the border making short stops at Blanket Nook and Inch Lake. At Blanket Nook the water levels had risen making it less interesting for waders and dabbling ducks. Reed Buntings were seen over the reed beds whilst several Greenshanks were present along the shore. At Inch Lake we found another access point to observe the hundreds of geese and ducks present plus c700 Whooper Swans feeding in a stubble field. After by-passing Derry we visited the poorly signed RSPB Reserve at Lough Foyle near Ballygrant. The creek held reasonable numbers of Pale-bellied Brent Geese and the commoner waders. A surprise here was a White-rumped Sandpiper feeding with the golden plover flock, again located by Arthur. In the stubble swirling flocks of Linnet and Twite the former being localized in Northern Ireland. Next was the Bann Estuary another excellent site on the north coast. On arrival the high tide was forcing birds to roost on an undisturbed sandy spit. New species here included Lesser Black-backed Gull, Sandwich Tern and Little Stint. Portrush is not faraway where the checked the east parking lot. To our surprise Ring-billed and a first winter Mediterranean Gull were present and allowed close views. Our last stop was the rocky west beach next to Ramore Head where roosting waders included Purple Sandpiper, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstones. Travelled to Portstewart for our final night in Ireland.

October 12th: Portstewart, Belfast.

A travel day for all of us before making our homeward bound journeys to various parts of the UK. An excellent trip despite the sometimes poor weather conditions.

For details of the full species list or to request further information about the next time we will be offering this trip. Contact us at

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