We could have seen all three of these but didn't!
Friday afternoon, the 5th of October and all is quiet on Otmoor as I trudge around the Pill. My mobile rings. A call from Badger. A mega of all megas has been discovered on the Aran Islands in Southern Ireland. An Eastern Kingbird. Not only a first for the British Isles including Ireland but also for the Western Palearctic. This is big time. Everyone will be booking trips to Ireland. Frantic plans are made by Badger to book himself, Justin and myself on the dreaded Ryanair flight to Shannon tomorrow morning and the onwards ferry to Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands, lying off the Galway coast and where the kingbird is flycatching from a wall. Back and fore go the phone calls with Badger as Master of Ceremonies. The Ryanair flight at the outset is £60.00 each but by the time we get organised there are just a last few seats left and the price has risen to £130.00. Badger ducks out as does Justin. I am now the sole survivor but also drop out as I do not fancy the trip on my own. Badger suggests he comes round to my house tomorrow morning and we will go to Slimbridge. Hardly compensation for what had been tantalisingly in store a few hours ago. I must admit I was really up for an adventure and the adrenalin rush of a high risk twitch and was not prepared to give in easily. In the meantime to add to the drama a suspected 'grey kingfisher' seen at Lough Fee in nearby Connemara turns out to be a Belted Kingfisher! Another mega. I go to work that evening on the internet and have an alternative travel plan all worked out in a few hours by using sea ferries instead of Ryanair to get to the Emerald Isle.We will go overnight by Stena from Holyhead to Dublin, taking the Black Audi and then drive through the rest of the night across Ireland to Galway. We will have loads of time as the ship gets to Dublin at 0045 and in theory it then only takes two hours to get from Dublin to Galway and then another hour to Rossaveal which is the location for the ferry to Inishmore. What could be more simple than that? Saturday morning duly arrives, sunny and mild. Badger arrives a little bleary and over a cup of tea is confronted with me in my best salesman mode waving printouts of vessel sailing times and ferry schedules and although at first sceptical he slowly warms to the idea. We decide to sit and await news of the birds whilst eating chocolate biscuits. The Eastern Kingbird has apparently disappeared without trace but the subsequent search for it by visiting birders reveal there are also possibly two Myrtle Warblers, yet another mega, on the island. The Belted Kingfisher however has been seen first thing in the morning so is definitely still around. We decide that the kingfisher is priority - so it is all now go, go, go. Mid afternoon Saturday and we are finally on our way to Holyhead. The Stena ferry sails at 2130 hours from Holyhead. We arrive just before dusk and manage distant views of two winter plumaged Black Guillemots in Holyhead Harbour. After a long wait we get on board, a Stella for Badger and a Budweiser for yours truly at the usual depressingly extortionate prices and then we crash out on the bench seats. The ferry is due to arrive at Dublin at 0045. It's going to be a long night. I manage one hour of sleep.We negotiate our way out of Dublin and onto the two lane motorway that will take us right across Ireland to Galway. We discover that Irish motorways have tolls and also the most cheerful of attendants even at 2am in the morning. On arriving in Galway in the dark we unsurprisingly get lost and do an involuntary tour of that fine city before finding the relatively minor road that will take us to Rossaveal. This is where we plan to park for a while and sleep before heading further into Connmemara to look for the kingfisher at dawn. Rossaveal in the early hours of the morning was bleak and deserted. An expanse of concrete, wasteland and rusting trawlers illuminated by very unforgiving neon lighting. I feel very down.We slept fitfully in the car and decided to head for Connemara, about an hour's drive away and by which time we calculated it would be dawn. I think it was the road signs that were confusing but maybe it was us in our dazed state that confused ourselves but eventually we got mind and body together and somehow we managed to get to the right location. We carefully drove around sheep encamped on the narrow roads and first passed Lough Nee where the kingfisher had originally been seen before it flew off on Saturday morning only to be re-found later on Lough Maladrolaun in the grounds of Kylemore Abbey a few miles up the road. The abbey was closed until 9am so we checked the other loughs but drew a blank. This part of Connemara is a National Park and is spectacularly beautiful. Even with the non appearance of the kingfisher one could not fail to find one's spirits lifted by the presence of such awesome surroundings. So no Eastern Kingbird and no Belted Kingfisher. Plan Z then was to take the ferry to Inishmore and find a Myrtle Warbler.Our last chance at a mega.
Inishmore Ferry. It's surprisingly spacious inside
The ferry was crammed with tourists of all nationalities but we were the only birders. There had been over 250 birders yesterday. Somewhat worrying. I narrowly avoided an international incident when a Japanese tourist, in his haste fell over my feet, going headlong in the aisle and accusing me of being responsible for his loss of dignity when in fact he should have been more careful. Inishmore is very reminiscent of the Hebrides and indeed the inhabitants are all native Gaelic speakers and regard it as their first language. They are also some of the most friendly and accommodating souls you could wish to meet and everywhere on the island we were met with courtesy and interest about all the birders that had invaded their island the day before and what they had hoped to see.
View from Kilmurvey. Anything could be in those hedges and fields
On docking at Kilronan we first headed for the school as that was where a Myrtle Warbler had been seen and checked out what was an awful lot of potential habitat. We failed to find anything except numerous Coal Tits which along with Dunnocks seem to be the default bird for here. The most noticeable thing about the tits was the yellow hue to their cheeks which is a characteristic of this species in Ireland. Thomas, in a red van stopped by us and offered for 30 Euros to drive us around the island to wherever we wanted to go. There are numerous modes of transport available to the tourist ranging from pony and trap to the more popular bike hire. We opted for the comfort of Thomas and his red van. So, via a few stops to view European Stonechats on the numerous dry stone walls, we headed for Kilmurvey House at the north end of the island which is where the kingbird had been doing it's stuff on Friday. Thomas told us most tourists came to see the ancient Celtic Fort Dun Aonghasa above Kilmurvey House but our minds were on other matters today. Although not overly hopeful of seeing it, another Myrtle Warbler had been seen in the vicinity of Kilmurvey House yesterday so we reckoned we had a slim chance. Needless to say we did not find it. If there were warblers in the trees and bushes they kept very well concealed from the increasingly strong wind.
Warbler habitat! Kilmurvey
Eventually after staring at and into trees and bushes I saw a flicker of movement in a Sycamore and got a brief glimpse of a warbler with greyish underparts, a yellow wash to it's breast and olive green upperparts. Then it was gone. Badger saw it fly across a gap into another tree, above a fuschia hedge, but both our views had been inconclusive. The mystery warbler disappeared. Two Choughs flew over us. Badger wandered off around the other side of the fuschia hedge and houses but I stayed put by the hedge. Suddenly a warbler popped out of the hedge and perched openly for a minute or two on the very edge. A pale bill, open expression, yellow underparts, no wing panel on the olive upperparts and greyish legs all pointed to a Melodious Warbler.
Melodious Warbler location, Kilmurvey
Fantastic. I tried to call Badger on my mobile but there was no signal. I shouted to him but by the time he got there the warbler had gone back into the hedge and we never saw it again. We saw the other warbler a few more times and got good enough views to put it down as a northern race of Willow Warbler. By now I was tired but not disappointed. Although we had failed on all fronts I was still getting a buzz from birding an island where literally anything could turn up and I had found myself a Melodious Warbler after all. Badger wandered off still hoping, whilst I retired to the nearby cafe for a reviving soup and homemade bread.
Gaelic speaking Cafe!
Most of the people in the cafe were speaking Gaelic but were perfectly friendly and indeed I was yet again asked about the strange birds that had caused such a commotion on the island the day before. So the time came to leave Kilmurvey to catch the ferry back to Rossaveal. Thomas drove us back to the school at Kilronan where we had one last look for an American Warbler. But no joy, just lots more jaundiced Coal Tits flitting about with Goldcrests. Thomas told us the population of the island was 750 and the main income of the island was fishing and tourism and there was nothing to do in the winter. We bade him goodbye and got back on the ferry with a united nations of tourists many clutching bags with Aran sweaters or other similar tourist purchases.
Get your Aran sweaters here!
Badger's pager went off as the ferry was half way to Rossaveal. A Blackpoll Warbler had just been found in a garden at Kilronan on Inishmore! If we had turned left instead of right when we got off the ferry earlier that day we would have had a good chance of finding it. Downhearted? Not a bit of it. We just laughed. This is birding in the modern age. Disembarking at Rossaveal, we collected the Audi and it was then just a hard slog back to Blighty. A brief detour to show Badger Nimmo's Pier in Galway City, where up until recent years one could see all manner of white winged gulls in the winter and then on to Dublin and back on the ferry for a 2am sailing to Holyhead. We slept soundly on the almost deserted ferry, arriving at Holyhead at 5.45am and getting home to Oxfordshire at around 10am. It felt like we had been away for days but in fact it was only 43 hours door to door, for most of which I was awake or felt I was! Were we disappointed and fed up? Well frankly, no and I can say that truthfully. It would have been nice to see one of the rare birds we set out to see but we did not and there was little point in dwelling on the fact. Despite everything we had a lot of fun, we had been to some beautiful and stimulating locations, met some very nice people and when all is said and done we were just big kids 'jumping the fence' of convention and going for it. Roll on the next one