Sunday 16 June 2024

The Yellow crowned Night Heron in Ireland 14th June 2024


It was while holidaying on The Isle of Arran a few weeks ago that news broke  on the 26th of May of the rather sensational discovery of a Yellow crowned Night Heron, normally to be found on the other side of the Atlantic, frequenting a river running through the small village of Belcarra that is situated in County Mayo in the west of Ireland.

This would be the first time this species of heron had been found in Britain and Ireland so obviously there would be a huge amount of interest from birders in both countries. Indeed no less than twenty British birders went to see it the very next day after its discovery and the bird has become a minor celebrity in Ireland not just amongst the local birding fraternity but featuring in both the Irish Times and Irish Sun.  The village of Belcarra, consisting of just two hundred souls has, in a very Irish way taken the heron to its heart and notices with its picture are attached to fences by the river exhorting visitors to not disturb it too much or approach it too closely and  make a donation to the Belcarra Riverside Walk


Until this discovery there had only been thirteen records of a Yellow crowned Night Heron in the Western Palearctic

9 on the Azores 
1 at Terceira July 2010 was the first record for Europe and the Western Palearctic. 
Another 8 have occurred in subsequent years.

1 at Funchal, Madeira February/March 2011.

1 at Faro, Portugal June 2020.

1 at Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt January 2021.

1 found dead at Ouddorp,The Netherlands May 2021. 
This record was not accepted due to the circumstances in which it was found.

This latest individual in Ireland was frequenting a short wooded stretch  of the River Manulla that flows through the pleasant rural village of Belcarra and had been first photographed from a narrow metal bridge that crossed the river. 

I was on Arran until the 9th of June so there was little I could do even if I wanted to go and see it.I do not really twitch birds in Ireland but various images subsequently appearing showed what an attractive and confiding bird it was. The only one I had seen before was in Ecuador some years ago and that was only a brief view. My mind was made up to go to Ireland.

I spoke to Mark my twitching pal and we discussed various plans to go and see the heron when I returned from Arran. Our main concern was cost and the time it would take to get to Ireland and back. The choice was between an overnight ferry from Holyhead and then drive for 3.5 hours from Dublin to Belcarra  or fly from Leeds/Bradford airport, near Mark's home, to Dublin and then rent a car to get us to the bird.

After a bit of indecision we opted to take a late night Ryanair flight and hire a car from Hertz at Dublin airport.

I arrived at Mark's house on Tuesday evening which left us with most of Wednesday for some local birding which included a singing Marsh Warbler at nearby RSPB Saltholme. On Wednesday night we were due to fly out at an hour before midnight, taking one small bag containing our cameras and with binoculars strung around our necks thus avoiding Ryanair's attempts to extract more money for all those annoying extras lurking on their website.

We would drive overnight to the bird, spend some of the day at Belcarra and then possibly look for the Least Tern at Portrane Point near Dublin before returning to the airport on Thursday evening to catch another late flight back to Britain. 

Already tired and feeling the effects of taking antibiotics for an infected toe I was not at my best as I sat in a gloomy departure lounge awaiting our flight which inevitably was delayed. This posed further anxiety as Hertz, where we were due to collect our car, closed at 1am. Our flight was due in at fifteen minutes after midnight. Any further delay would mean we would have to wait for Hertz to re-open at 5am.

I survived the Ryanair cattle herding departure experience and slumped back in my seat for the forty five minute flight.With no baggage to collect we made it to the Hertz desk with fifteen minutes to spare and were given a Volkswagen Golf.

Mark set about the three and a half hour drive to Belcarra. It was only as we cleared the city limits of Dublin and familiarised ourselves with the car's instrument panel that we realised we had been given a car whose entire instrument display was in German.There was little we could do but guess at the various displays and fortunately no major misinterpretation caused us a problem.

The main roads in Ireland compared to our night and day congested motorways are a pleasure to drive on, even in Dublin a busy capital city, and a reminder of how our motorways used to be in former times.

Both of us were dog tired as Mark drove us through the night encountering hardly any other vehicle  apart from the occasional lorry heading north. Mark did the driving while I handled the Satnav, gave driving updates and kept Mark awake.

It was a long, rather boring and somewhat surreal drive across Ireland's heartland and seemed to go on forever on deserted, dead straight roads. It is ever thus with middle of the night twitching in strange surroundings.

As we approached our destination the sky began to lighten and eventually signs for Belcarra appeared and we turned off the main road onto much smaller roads, more typical of rural Ireland,that twisted their way through various small settlements and then there was a sign announcing we were in Belcarra.

It was 4am.

We had made it after what seemed an age since we left Britain but was only hours

Belcarra village was fast asleep.Well it would be at such an early hour. Nothing moved, nothing stirred, no welcoming light shone. Following the directions on Birdguides we found ourselves in a cul de sac with a pleasant little picnic spot by the river but most definitely not the right location.

Not what we needed after all that had gone before.

From previous research we knew the heron was often seen from the small metal bridge that crossed the river but there was no sign of any bridge.

The bridge must be somewhere nearby Mark.

I will have a look at some previous posts from Birdguides about the heron and check what they say 

Finding an earlier post it mentioned a Community Centre and a footpath that led to a Riverside Walk behind it.

There was no obvious sign of a Community Centre. It was still half light and we had no sleep for almost twenty four hours.You can imagine our feelings.

We drove out of the cul de sac and back along the road we had just driven down.Another road led off in the direction of the river.

Let's park here Mark and walk down to the river and see what that brings.

We duly walked to the river and there, across an open piece of grass to our left was the metal bridge we sought.

Once on the bridge we scanned the small river in both directions, its banks lined with trees and bushes thick with leaves.It looked ideal for a night heron which likes nothing better than to roost deep within the cover of a leafy tree.




Sadly there was no sign of the heron along the river or in the trees in either direction.Still comparatively dark, the overgrown banks could be hiding anything. 
I confess to feeling distinctly downbeat at this particular moment but with the knowledge the heron had been seen every day apart from yesterday felt it must be around somewhere near. But where? 

It was not yet time to concede defeat.

It's obviously not here Mark. Where's the Community Centre?
 
No idea.

I scanned across a play area and an ornamental garden, more in hope than expectation.On the far side and facing us was an obvious building with the words Community Centre across its face.


We walked over to it.

I recalled the instructions from the post on Birdguides to walk behind it and down to the Riverside Walk by the river. 

Apparently this was another favourite hangout of the heron.

We walked down a sloping path to the Riverside.Walk


I can recall Mark saying.almost casually There it is

And me saying Where?

He pointed and there was the heron, stood close in to the near bank about twenty metres from us. At first all I could see was the top of its head - revealing a broad cream band across its crown but as it moved away from the bank the rest of its head came into view showing a striking facial pattern of black with a large white cheek patch and several long white plumes growing from the rear of its crown. Eyes the colour of vintage port regarded the water in which it stood. The rest of its body was bluish grey, the wings overlaid with long, pointed, dark centred grey feathers creating an attractive stripey appearance. Its bill was long and black and its legs corn yellow. The whole bird was pleasingly compact at rest, stocky even with a heron's typical hunchbacked look when its large head was retracted but when its neck was extended the heron appeared much slimmer.

It was searching the side of the shallow river for prey. At first we were circumspect and conversed in whispers hardly daring to move for fear of flushing the bird. The heron had noticed us and craned  its neck out to look at us obviously alert to potential danger.

My heart sank.Please do not fly away. For a minute or more it was a standoff but finally the heron went back to searching the river and even began to walk towards us. It became all too obvious the heron was totally unworried about us however close we stood to it.We in turn relaxed. 

It caught a crayfish, crustaceans being a principal part of a Yellow crowned Night Heron's diet and with some difficulty it swallowed the hard shelled beast.

Once the crayfish was consumed it flew to the opposite bank of the river and after a spell standing doing nothing resumed its hunt for crayfish. 

We were joined by another couple of birders who unbelievably I knew from my time in Sussex over twenty five years ago when I used to go seawatching at Seaford. They were touring Ireland for a month and told me they had searched the river here for all of yesterday in constant rain but failed to find the heron. Naturally they were as delighted as us to see it.




It caught another crayfish and then to our delight strode onto a large rock midstream and posed beautifully. It was as if it was saying, Will this pose do? Shall I show you my other side? It caught yet another crayfish and then settled on one leg on its rock for a period of digestion and contemplation, seemingly without a care in the world. I too felt pretty much the same watching it
.My tiredness, although approaching exhaustion, was all but forgotten as adrenalin and a feeling of fulfilment enveloped me. I should be used to it by now but every time it is slightly different, this sense of well being at seeing a rare bird against all the odds.









Time had been forgotten but now checking my phone  I saw it was only six am and we had already got all the images we wanted of this very rare bird. It could not have performed any better. For a while it continued to stand on its rock and then flew down the river only to appear beyond the now infamous metal bridge, where it resumed stalking the riverside on the hunt for more crayfish











Yellow crowned Night Herons are normally found exclusively in The Americas, inhabiting tropical and sub tropical regions ranging from southern Florida, the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Alabama and the coast of eastern Texas. They are also found in Mexico, Central America, the Galapagos Islands, the Caribbean and northern South America.

They are happy to live near humans and in their normal range can be found in wooded neighbourhoods and even nesting on rooftops.From what I saw of Belcarra, the village seemed an ideal substitute home for the heron with its quiet river full of crayfish and surrounded by trees to roost in.

Inevitably questions have been raised about how it got to County Mayo, especially as it was so confiding. Could it be an escape and not a true vagrant? It is a matter of personal judgement and from my point of view it had been found on the west coast of Ireland which would surely be a natural landfall for a storm blown bird from America.This also seems to be the general concensus amongst my fellow birders.

We stood on the metal bridge and chatted to a friendly Irish birder,who told us he was the top lister in Kerry, sharing this triumphant moment and pleasurable experience in a small remote village in the west of Ireland. The sun shone through the clouds and it was still shy of 7am when we bade farewell to the heron  and its new home on the gently running River Manulla.

Tuesday 4 June 2024

Blackwaterfoot Revisited 1st June 2024


It is fair to say that, although Sanderlings are seen passing through Arran on migration every year, this year seems to have been exceptional in the numbers seen so far.The latest Arran Bird Report for 2023 confirms them as a 'Regular passage migrant' in both Spring and Autumn but of the two sightings recorded in May and June 2023, the first was of two and the latter four individuals

The thirty strong flock I saw on 28th May was therefore out of the ordinary. The flock has decreased in the ensuing days as presumably some individuals recommenced their northward migration so that by today there were only nineteen present.The Little Stint that accompanied the original flock was last seen on the 30th May so it was now just the remaining Sanderlings with a few Dunlins, Ringed Plovers and Turnstones to keep me occupied on a glorious early morning of sunshine

The Sanderlings behaviour had changed as they no longer seemed interested in feeding on the rotting seaweed. This may have had something to do with the tide which was far out, exposing many limpet and barnacle encrusted rocks and pools of seawater which in turn persuaded the Sanderlings to develop a preference for feeding amongst the rocks where  they could be very hard to discern due to their cryptic plumage and the cover provided by the rocks.

Eventually they appeared to grow tired of feeding and congregated on rocks at the edge of the distant sea and after a spell of preening settled down to sleep and rest These most sociable of birds becoming quiet and gradually huddling together to form a compact group.



The distinctive white rump of a House Martin averted my gaze as it flew a low circuit over the dead seaweed in front of me and finally, after two more hesitant flypasts, found the confidence to land and collect up a beakful of rotten wet weed and sand which it then flew off with to a nearby house where it was constructing a nest under the eaves. It quickly returned to repeat the process being joined by another, possibly its mate.They continued to land and gather beakfuls of material and then ferry their load to the house.


This activity was noticed by  other martins too, so that there were up to six House Martins coming to gather nest material. They never remained long on the ground, half a minute at the most, often less. For a bird that spends so much of its life in the air it must feel particularly vulnerable on the ground and they obviously were only coming to earth out of necessity.



They were noticed by a couple of Swallows which joined the martins in the gathering of nest material.I made the most of this unexpected and unusual opportunity to observe at close quarters these migrants that have travelled from distant Africa to raise their young on Blackwaterfoot's shores.




When the birds were on the ground, albeit briefly, it was possible see the differing shades of iridescence on their upperparts, In the case of the Swallows royal blue while the martins appeared more midnight blue.  If a bird turned, it was as if a light had been switched off as the sun no longer caught the iridescence and the plumage appeared black. 



It also gave a rare opportunity to observe the legs and feet of the birds.The swallows were bare and short, the martins also short but covered in white feathering,



On a sunlit shore to the sound of the sea's gentle distant murmur as Blackwaterfoot awoke behind me, for the next hour I watched the martins and swallows go about the business of collecting material for their nests.


Friday 31 May 2024

A Little Stint on Arran 28th May 2024


Today we had planned on crossing Kilbrannan Sound on the small ferry that takes you and your car from Lochranza on Arran to Claonaig on the Kintyre Peninsula, and then driving down to Campbeltown. However the weather pressaged a change of plan as the forecast predicted heavy rain for most of the day.

This is Scotland so such a situation with the weather was hardly unexpected and, after all, there was no reason to feel dispirited as we already had experienced some days of beautiful weather and still have two more weeks to go on Arran. Staying in the house was not an option so we made a plan to drive to Blackwaterfoot that lies half way down the west side of the island to visit the Old Bakehouse that we have come to know well due to its attractive array of pastries, bread and now with coffee as an added temptation.

The drive to Blackwaterfoot is on a virtually deserted road alongside the Kilbrannan Sound, the rocky shore for the most part never more than a few metres from the road. 


A shore that at this time of year is home to pairs of breeding Oystercatchers and Common Sandpipers.The former, bulky black and white birds with bright orange bills that with ringing calls, fly to reveal striking white bars on coal black wings. 

Oystercatcher

Much smaller is the Common Sandpiper that stands sentry on a large rock by the seashore while its mate incubates four eggs, hidden in a nest in long grass and dense vegetation nearby, often on the landward side of the road.Once the eggs hatch the parent birds will lead the precocious young to the shore to take their chances.

Common Sandpiper

The other dwellers on these stony shores are the Black Guillemots that lay a single egg below a huge boulder whilst the more isolated areas of shore above the  tideline are populated by loose colonies of Common Gulls incubating their eggs in a rudimentary nest. Each  gull's gleaming white head and breast form a distinctive mark amongst the banks of pebbles where they choose to nest. 

Black Guillemot

Common Gull

This western side of the island is far less populated than the busier eastern side and much of the shore is deserted for the most part and birds can still find enough peace to nest and raise their young although the increasing disturbance from dog walkers and campers is becoming a problem.

The month of May has brought to this part of the island a profusion of growth as the bracken begins to unfurl its green fronds below the prolific birch trees that grow on the hillsides rising up from the road. The cerise pink flowers of Red Campion bring a pleasing variance to the omnipresent green of the roadside verges. Foxgloves, each plant a crooked spire of multitudinous purple flowers, its tip bent over like a beckoning finger  rise above the bracken in pockets of profusion while  flag iris raise brilliant yellow, floppy petalled heads from green fleshy stalks in  the wetter areas of field and ditch.



We arrived at Blackwaterfoot in the predicted rain and after a coffee and chat with George the baker retired with a couple of his cinnamon twirls to park beside an area of rocks and rotting seaweed. Nearby the Clauchan Water flows under the road and out to sea in a mini estuary, dividing one side of sand much favoured by the public from the opposite side that is mainly rocks and seaweed, the latter thrown up by the winter storms and now reduced to a rotted mulch above the tideline. This unappealing area is rarely disturbed by anyone and definitely not on a rain sodden day such as this.


This is all to the good as at this time of year it attracts migrating birds such as White Wagtails, Northern Wheatears and especially waders, the rotting weed providing a home for countless invertebrates and an invaluable source of food for the birds.

Of wading birds, I have seen Whimbrels here as well as Turnstones, Ringed Plovers, Dunlins and Common Sandpipers. Many are breaking their journey to feed up in order to head further north to their breeding grounds in the Arctic Circle. 

Today brought a most pleasant surprise as the blackened expanse of seaweed was covered with more waders than usual, swarming like restless ants across its surface. Checking in my bins many appeared to be very pale, especially when seen against the blackened seaweed.They could only be one thing, Sanderling, my favourite waders. I looked through the flock busily picking invisible prey from the rotting weed. Sanderling in Spring display a bewildering variation in plumage, no one individual quite  the same as any other.They vary from grey and white to a rich orange chestnut and this flock was typical with birds showing varying degrees of colour saturation from both ends of the spectrum.

Why this is so is a matter of speculation.On the one hand it may be that the richer coloured birds are older individuals or that some birds never achieve the rich orange colouration at all whilst another suggestion is that birds on migration curtail their moult and  only acquire their rich colours when they arrive at their breeding areas






Sanderling

I counted through the Sanderling a number of times, no easy task as they were constantly and haphazardly moving about at speed but finally I settled on a very good count of thirty and a delight to find on this miserable morning.As one  inevitably does I checked and re-checked their number to see if I could get a higher count than thirty. 

It was on my last count that I got thirty one. I looked more intently and found an individual that looked a slightly brighter orange than any other of its companions. It also displayed two very distinctive buff lines forming an inverted v running down its back. I realised I had discovered a summer plumaged Little Stint.






Little Stint

Once onto it I noted its more rapid erratic movements and when it came close to a Sanderling how much smaller it was in comparison. 

When seen on its own its diminutive size (it is one of the world's smallest waders) was less obvious but the quicker feeding action and richer colouring gave it away as did the two buff braces one on either side of its mantle. 


It scurried back and fore, always on the fringe of the feeding Sanderlings, constantly picking minute prey items from the weed. It was never still, forever feeding, doubtless using the weather intervention to replenish its energy reserves. Soon it will have to head onwards to breeding grounds that can be anywhere in the Arctic Circle from northern Scandinavia, the Russian Arctic islands of Novaya Zemlya or across northern Siberia where it will breed in a brief window from mid June to August, whilst the Sanderlings will head for Siberia or northwest to Greenland, maybe via Iceland.


Little Stints migrate over 7500 miles from their winter homes on either European and North African Mediterranean coasts or sub Saharan Africa to the Arctic Circle and then back again. 

How do they manage this almost miraculous and perilous journey but manage they do.

I took many images of the Little Stint, some good some not so. By this time despite the rain I had abandoned the car to sit on a bench, getting thoroughly soaked in the process.It was singularly unpleasant but the stint was worth it. The last Little Stint to be seen on Arran was in September 2002 so this was a truly momentous birding event for Arran and, it has to be said, for me also.


Periodically the birds would take alarm and fly in a tight fast flying flock out over the sea before wheeling in unison to come back to land and recommence their frantic feeding. The seaweed was obviously a goldmine of food and the flock after landing further down the beach would always return there on rapid twinkling feet as soon as they felt safe to do so.

Other waders fed amongst them, Ringed Plovers, both migrant and local individuals, while half a dozen Dunlins, only slightly bigger than the stint, wandered amongst the larger Sanderlings.

Ringed Plover

Dunlin

Turnstones looking almost thuggish in comparison due to their larger more robust build were vigorously turning over the seaweed with their short stout bills, looking for prey. Most were still in either non breeding plumage or still had to progress their moult to its summer finery but one or two were almost there in their attractive harlequin breeding colours.

Turnstone

I forgot about the rain and the inevitable inconvenience and frustration it brought as I continued to watch the birds feeding below me.

A Little Stint on Arran.Who would have suspected that after twenty two years?

The Little Stint was last seen on the 30th May