Archive for the ‘Razorbill’ Tag

Ireland part 2 – Co Antrim, Co Derry and Co Donegal: 2nd – 7th June 2019   Leave a comment

The previous post covered our journey from Wexford to Belfast. This time our journey continues along the coasts of Co Antrim, Co Derry and Co Donegal.


Up to now the weather on the trip had been a bit indifferent, often overcast and dull but as we headed north out of Belfast the sun shone and we had wonderful views.


Along the coast we saw a few birds typical of rocky shoreline such as this Rock Pipit.


We paused at the village of Glenarm …


… where we were so close to Scotland that the Kintyre peninsula dominated the view.


Some cloud rolling in at times but mostly it was blue skies.


It was just a whim that took us on the scenic Torr coast road but we were very glad we did. The single track road was steep, narrow and winding but the views were superb.


As we turned the corner and drove westwards rather than northwards the Kintyre peninsula fell behind us and Rathlin Island appeared on the horizon. Further in the distance we could see the Scottish island of Islay and the Paps of Jura.


We stayed in the pleasant town of Ballycastle. The following day we took the ferry to Rathlin Island (above).


On arrival we joined a tour bus which climbed out of the village and took us to the far west of the island …


… where in an area of rugged coastline …


where an RSPB reserve protects a major seabird colony.


Kittiwakes built their nests on the precipitous cliffs …


… these delicate gulls have declined drastically due to global warming and over fishing (for fertiliser) affecting their sand eel food supply.


Fulmars, which are relatives of albatrosses and shearwaters rather than gulls, were present in good numbers.


The less steep slopes held good numbers of Razorbills …


… joined by Puffins, which nest in burrows that they dig wherever there is exposed soil.


The turbulent waters far below held enormous numbers of auks and many, like this Guillemot, were seen flying back and forth to the colony.


Around 100,000 seabirds nest on the reserve and Guillemots are by far the most numerous. We also had views of of Northern Ireland’s rarest breeding seabirds, the Great Skua (or Bonxie to give it the name used by most birders) with just one rather distant pair present.


Back at harbour we went for a walk along the shore, seeing good numbers of Grey Seals …


… and Common Eiders. Male Eiders loose their breeding finery in the later spring so we were fortunate to find one in breeding plumage this late in the season.


Under increasingly grey skies we returned to the mainland were it rained for the rest of the day.


The next day the weather had improved but the forecast wasn’t good so we left early and headed to Carrick-a-Rede. Situated on the coast with the western end of Rathlin Island visible in the background, one of the small offshore stacks is connected to the mainland by a narrow rope bridge.


Actually we got there too early, the ticket office was closed and when it did open we found an entire bus of school kids had pre-booked tickets and would be ahead of us. As only four people are allowed on the bridge at once we realised that this would cause us a huge delay.


I had visited the site before in 1991 and Margaret wouldn’t dare cross a chasm like this so we decided to just admire and photograph the bridge from the nearby coast path.


From here we carried on to the Antrim’s coast’s prime attraction, Giant’s Causeway – a World Heritage Site …


… formed by the slow cooling of a underground dome of magna that was extruded at the time when the Atlantic opened up some 60-70 million years ago, the basaltic columns and hexagonal ‘tiles’ are truly a wonder of the world.


The site is of course the same as it was in 1991, but the access is very different. Whereas before you just parked and walked down now there are high charges, big carparks, busses to take you the half mile or so to the site and of course the inevitable enormous visitor centre complete with gift shops, cafés etc.


Our third site of the morning was the so called ‘Dark Hedges’, an avenue of twisted beech trees that line the access road to a private estate. The sight would be worth seeing in its own right, but now of course, has become part of the Games of Thrones locations trail. The spot (which was used as the point on the King’s Road where Arya Stark met the Brotherhood Without Banners) has been closed to traffic but that didn’t stop loads of cars and even coaches stopping by the entrance and causing traffic chaos rather than using the dedicated car park at the nearby hotel.


We headed west towards Londonderry, or just Derry depending on your political and religious convictions and almost immediately the forecasted rain arrived. We arrived mid-afternoon and soon found a hotel (with dedicated underground parking) that overlooked the infamous Bogside. In past times the predominately Protestant inhabitants of the City of Londonderry prevented Catholics from living within the city walls (shown above). As a result they had to live next to marshy ground by the River Foyle. This became known as the Bogside.


Barricaded against the police and military at the start of the Troubles and the scene of the infamous and inexcusable Bloody Sunday massacre, this area was considered a no-go area for tourists during much of the thirty year period of sectarian violence. In 1991 Janet and I parked nearby and walked down to this huge sign however we felt that going any further as risky.


Now 28 years later we strolled through the streets (in heavy rain) looking at the Bloody Sunday memorial, the massive murals on the end of the terraced rows We also tried to visit the Free Derry Museum but it was closing as we arrived.


… and even had a pint in the Bogside Inn, something that wouldn’t have been advisable on our last visit..


Although I cannot condone violence from any organisation, be it Republican or Unionist,  I have always felt that the Catholics of Northern Ireland were made to be second class citizens in their own country. Perhaps the most shocking event of the ‘Troubles’ was the Bloody Sunday massacre on 30th January 1972 when British troops opened fire on protesters killing 14 and wounding a similar number. There were various inquiries into the tragedy but the last in 1998, which took 12 years to report, concluded that that ‘the killings were both “unjustified” and “unjustifiable”. It found that all of those shot were unarmed, that none were posing a serious threat, that no bombs were thrown, and that soldiers “knowingly put forward false accounts” to justify their firing’. It was certainly the case that this event served to stoke the flames and probably escalated the sectarian violence more than any other.


Since the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998 peace has returned to Northern Ireland and the Peace Bridge across the River Foyle has been erected to commemorate that.


The following morning we returned to visit the Free Derry museum. Later we crossed back into the Republic and (perhaps surprisingly) headed north. We drove to Malin Head, the northernmost point of Ireland, which in fact is not in Northern Ireland but in ‘Southern’ Ireland (or Eire if you prefer.)


There was hardly anybody about, in spite of it being June it was cold and wet and the roads and glorious beaches were deserted …


… and the coastal path almost so.


Donegal is bisected by a number of long sea loughs …


… some can be crossed at their headwaters by bridges, others require a long detour.


The area is almost entirely Gaelic speaking and in spite of modern navigation aids we had difficulty finding our B&B. However once there the view from our room was wonderful and we were serenaded by a reeling Grasshopper Warbler each evening.


Nearby was the spectacular Glenveagh National Park.


A wild area of mountains, moorland and abandoned villages.


I was interested in seeing the reintroduced Golden Eagles but I found out at the visitor centre that this would involve travelling quite a long way into the park and we really didn’t have the time.


West Donegal is comprised of quiet beaches …


… and quaint villages with tongue twister names …


… with the mountains of Glenveagh National Park as an ever present backdrop.


This impressive peak was photographed from near the village of Magheraorty, the location of the ferry to Tory Island. Today was the day we had allocated for Tory Island but we so nearly missed out. The day before we had checked the departure time and found it to be 1000. We left the B&B about 0815 but stopped a few times on route to take photos. We arrived just on 0900 when Margaret had the good sense to phone the ferry office to check that the boat was going. We found out to our shock that it was departing at 0900 and whilst she was still the phone, the boat cast off and pulled out. I was ready, so I ran down the pier  and to my surprise the boat reversed and pulled back in. Margaret who still had to put her boots on was a little later but they waited for her. Fishermen on the pier made disparaging comments ‘like don’t hurry love, you’ve got plenty of time’ or ‘I’ll take you over there for half price’.


Tory Island is further than Rathlin from the mainland and the crossing took about an hour. You may wonder why the island shares its name with our current ineffectual government and the answer is stranger than you might think. Tory is derived from the Gaelic toraidhe meaning outlaw, robber or brigand. Tory Island must have been home to such in the past. In 1685 during the reign of James II the Conservative Party opposed the ‘exclusion’ of Charles II as his successor (he was to be excluded on the grounds that he had converted to Catholicism). The Whigs who had proposed the ‘exclusion’ nicknamed them Tories and the name stuck. I like the idea of Boris, Rees-Mogg and Gove being named after outlaws.


When we landed on Tory Island it was like a ghost town, there was no-one to be seen. We later found that they all had gone to mass, which would explain the presence of a priest on board the ferry and why the ferry had departed an hour earlier than expected.


Around the harbour were a reasonable number of Common Gulls. These rather cute medium-sized gulls aren’t common at all and probably derive their name from their plain appearance rather than their numerical situation.


A bird I really wanted to see was the Corncrake. Quite a few exist on Tory Island (although they are scarce on the mainland). I heard about half a dozen calling but I totally failed to see anything, not even a twitch in the nettle beds from where they were calling. I took this photo in the Outer Hebrides in 2012 where I had rather more luck.


However if you want to hear what these wonderful creatures sound like then click on this link to the bird sound library of xeno-canto. Recording by Stanislas Wroza from Maine-et-Loire, France


We set off for a walk to the west end of the island. Much of the area was marshy with many ponds and was full of breeding waders.


As well as breeding Redshanks (above) we saw Dunlin, Ringed Plovers, Lapwing and even a ‘drumming’ Snipe, ie one in display flight, something I haven’t heard/seen for years.


After some lunch in the local pub we returned to the harbour of the boat back to Magheraorty. From here we drove south to Sligo where we stayed overnight.


I’ll conclude this post with a photo of some female Eiders and ducklings in the harbour of Tory Island.


The next post will cover Co Sligo, Co Mayo, Co Galway and the Aran Islands, the return to Dublin and the Isle of Man.


Wales: June 27th – July 2nd 2016   Leave a comment

More than ever I feel the need to keep in touch with our friends and family who are scattered around the country. Also Margaret was keen to visit mid and north Wales and the north-west of England, two areas she has never been to. Wishing to do this before the school holidays and before the onset of the ‘autumn’ ringing season we arranged a fortnight away in late June and early July.


Wales trip route

From Poole we drove to Rhayader in mid Wales, on to north Wales with a detour eastwards to Oswestry. From here we drove west to Snowdonia and Anglesey before continuing along the north coast of Wales to Liverpool. The rest of the journey, Liverpool, Lancashire, Leeds, Derbyshire and Essex will be the subject of the next post.

IMG_4741 Rhayader_edited-1

We stayed overnight in the pretty town of Rhayader.

7F1A5130 Gigrin Farm

The main reason for visiting was to see the famous Red Kite feeding station at Gigrin Farm

IMG_4723 Red Kites Gigrin Farm

When I started birding in the 70s the Red Kite could only be found in mid Wales and there were only a few tens of pairs. Protection plus natural crossbreeding with the introduced populations of England (producing a wider gene pool) have all helped their in recovery, but the provision of meat scraps at Gigrin Farm in the core of their range must have helped too. Each afternoon over 300 Kites arrive to be fed.

7F1A5251 Red Kites

The following summary is copied from the RSPBs website: In the UK the red kite was a valued scavenger during the Middle Ages that helped keep streets clean and was protected by a royal decree; killing a kite attracted capital punishment. However, by the 16th century a bounty was placed on its head and, in common with many other birds of prey, it was relentlessly persecuted as ‘vermin’. The persecution continued through the following centuries largely by game keepers, who wrongly accused them of taking game. As the kite became rarer, it became a target for taxidermists and egg collectors, whose actions hastened the species towards extinction. Consequently, the red kite became extinct in England in 1871 and in Scotland in 1879. By 1903 when protection efforts started, only a handful of pairs were left in remote parts of central Wales. The small remnant population survived the persecution in the old oakwoods in the undisturbed upland valleys of mid-Wales, but despite extensive efforts, the numbers remained extremely low. The tightest genetic bottle-neck came in the 1930s. Even though several pairs survived, DNA analysis has since discovered that the entire Welsh population was derived from a single female bird. The population did not exceed 20 pairs until the 1960’s, when it started slowly to increase. There were many reasons for the slow recovery. The population inhabited an area where the climatic conditions and poor food availability depressed breeding success and prevented the birds from expanding their range. Until about 1950 when protection measures were starting to take effect, illegal poisoning, egg collecting and shooting of adults for taxidermy were severely affecting the population. During the 1950s the rabbit myxomatosis outbreak devastated a main food supply of the kites. This was followed by poor breeding success in the early 1960s, thought to be caused by effects of organochlorine pesticides. It was for a long time believed that the lack of genetic variability caused by the bottle-neck had resulted in the low reproductive rate. However, once the species had successfully spread to more productive land at lower altitudes, it became obvious that this was almost entirely due to poor habitat conditions. By the mid-1990s there were over 100 breeding pairs in Wales, and 350-400 pairs by 2003. Due to the low rate of chick production the Welsh population appeared to be unable to spread out of Wales to recolonise its former range. The re-introduction programme run by RSPB, Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage, with support and sponsorship from many other bodies, started in 1989 and has helped to establish red kites in several areas of England and Scotland, and their range and numbers are slowly expanding. Consequently, the red kite’s future as a British breeding species is now much brighter

7F1A5261 Red Kites

Dead on 3pm a tractor appears with the meat and the birds swoop down for their share. Visitors watch from nearby hides.

7F1A5224 Red Kites

Extremely agile, the Kites can snatch the food whilst on the wing.

7F1A5386 Buzzard

A number of Common Buzzards also attend but they have to feed on the ground and watch warily lest the Kites pinch their dinner.

7F1A5406 Buzzard & Kites

Here a Buzzard tries to fend of a Kite swooping down after its share of the meat.

7F1A5349 leucistic Red Kite

There was a stunning ‘leucisitc’ individual, not an albino as some claimed as it wasn’t pure white and had dark not pink eyes. Most of the Welsh birds are not wing tagged but this individual is. it would be interesting to know where it originated from.

IMG_4732 Gilfach

Whilst in the Rhayader area we also did some birding at Gilfach reserve ….

IMG_4733 Elan valley

…. and at the woodland bordering the river in the Elan Valley. Our main target was Common Redstart and Pied Flycatcher, both of which we saw without difficulty, however we didn’t find the third species that these oak woodlands are famous for – Wood Warbler.

IMG_4736 Elan Valley dam

The Elan Valley dams have created a series of huge reservoirs (100,000 megalitres) which provide drinking water for Birmingham.

IMG_4749 above Elan valley

As we traveled northwards we had no particular route in mind, we just intended to explore various roads that led in the general direction of Lake Vrynwy. However the weather soon turned bad and we found ourselves driving along very narrow, tree-lined lanes. Eventually we arrived at the lake but it was too wet to do much. We climbed out of the valley and onto the moor in the pouring rain. I’m glad we ascended this hill in our car rather than on a bike, like the poor guy in the photo.

IMG_4761 Oswestry

As the afternoon progressed the rain eased and by the time we headed back east into England and the town of Oswestry it was almost dry.

IMG_4758 Oswestry

In the late evening the sun came out casting a beautiful light over the town.

IMG_4754 Soo and Margaret

We came to Oswestry to visit my old friend Soo (she always insists on spelling it this way). We first met when I was at University in about 1971 and have remained in touch ever since. She has lived much of the intervening years in Slough but moved to Oswestry a few years ago to be close to her family.

IMG_4762 Pontcysyllte aqueduct

It was back to bad weather the following day though. After departing Soo’s place we headed back into Wales and the Pontcysyllte aqueduct near Llangollen.

IMG_4770 Pontcysytyllte aqueduct

The aqueduct, built in 1805, is the longest and highest aqueduct in Britain and carries the Llangollen canal over the valley of the River Dee. Only wide enough for one narrow boat, it sits 34m above the river.

IMG_4766 Pontcysytyllte aqueduct

…. and the view over the unguarded western side is quite scary, not surprisingly Margaret didn’t walk far on the towpath. The now torrential rain can be seen marking the canal’s surface.

IMG_4778 Llanberis pass

By the time we reached the Llanberis Pass in Snowdonia the rain had eased but the mountains were still covered in low cloud. We were not to see the tops of the high peaks during our three-day stay and although we had planned to take the mountain railway to the top of Snowdon, in the end there seemed no point if all we would be able to see was cloud.

IMG_4795 Menai Strait's bridge

After booking into a hotel in Caernarfon for three nights we crossed the Menai Straits to Anglesey. Two road bridges join the island to the mainland, the original Suspension Bridge (above) built by Thomas Telford in 1826 and the Britannia Bridge built by Robert Stephenson in 1846. The latter was originally only for rail but after it was destroyed by fire in 1970 it was rebuilt as a two-tier rail and road bridge.

7F1A5450 South Stack lighthouse

We headed for the RSPBs South Stack reserve in the north-west corner of the island.

7F1A5436 Guillemots

Famous for its huge colonies of Guillemots ….

7F1A5441 Razorbills & 2 Guilles

…. and smaller numbers of Razorbills (there are two Guillemots for comparison towards the bottom of this photo. We also saw a few Puffins and a couple of Choughs.

7F1A5480 Black Guillemot

In nearby Holyhead harbour we found a few breeding Black Guillemots, thanks to my amazing ‘Russian Ring of Fire’ tour in early June this was the 19th auk species I have seen this year.

7F1A5486 Cemlyn tern colony

From Holyhead we headed for the north coast of the island and Cemlyn Bay and its breeding terns. My last visit to this site was 28 years ago on a twitch to see Bridled Tern but today our expectations were much lower. We saw a thousand plus nesting Sandwich Terns and a few tens of Common and Arctics.

7F1A5506 Common Tern

The best view was from the adjacent beach where a stream of sand eel bearing terns flew overhead on the way back to the colony, here a Common Tern

7F1A5532 Arctic Tern

…. the longer tailed, all red-billed and greyer bellied Arctic Tern. Also note the differences in the pattern of the trailing edge to the primaries.

7F1A5543 Sandwhich Tern

And most numerous of all, the larger Sandwich Tern with its black bill with a yellow tip.

IMG_4787 Llanfair PG

On our way back to Caernarfon we had to stop at Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch for no other reason than it’s there.

IMG_4797 Swallow Falls

The following day we took a long drive through Snowdonia, again the high passes were wreathed in cloud so we spent little time there. Out first stop was at Swallow Falls near Betws-y-Coed.

IMG_4801 Swallow Falls

The recent heavy rain meant the falls were quite spectacular.

IMG_4805 Trawsfynydd

I remember visiting the lake by the nuclear power station at Trawsfynydd with my dad in 1966, it was functioning then, in operation from 1965 – 91, but the plant is still being decommissioned now and the site won’t be totally clear of nuclear material until 2090.

IMG_4807 Dolegellau_edited-1

We continued south as far as the pretty town of Dolgellau where we had lunch, then drove on to Barmouth on the coast. I was last here in 1966 when I was 15 on holiday with my parents and brother. I remember the area well even though it was 50 years ago and I could not help but feel sad when I thought of my parents, who are of course, no longer with us.

IMG_4835 Harlech Castle

Heading north from Barmouth we stopped at Harlech Castle.

IMG_4816 Harlech,jpg

This would have originally been the site of a huge drawbridge. Any enemy reaching and getting past the portcullis would have had to contend with boiling pitch being tipped on them and a hail of arrows from the rooms above the entrance before them could enter the castle interior.

IMG_4822 Harlech Castle

Built between 1282 and 1289 by Edward I in his invasion of Wales. It was one of a dozen or so castles that Edward ‘Longshanks’ built around Snowdonia to pacify the Welsh. Originally on the coast and supplied by steps that led from a dock to the castle walls, the sea has greatly retreated over the ensuing centuries.

IMG_4847 Portmerion arch

We continued north to the Italian Village at Portmerion. This rather strange collection of buildings was designed and built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975 in the style of an Italian village and has been used many times as a set for film and TV series.

IMG_4854 Portmerion

Unfortunately it turned wet again whilst we there, so with no chance of catching the train to the top of Snowden we headed back to Caernarfon.

IMG_4862 Caernarfon

The following was sunny in Caernarfon but thick cloud still covered the peaks. we headed for the old walled town with the intention of exploring the famous castle.

IMG_5948 Caernafon Castle

Caernarfon Castle is a much better state of repair than Harlech ….

IMG_5975 Caernarfon Castle

…. and used in recent centuries as the place for the investiture for the Prince of Wales. Edward Longshanks son, the ineffectual Edward II, was born in the castle. It is said that Edward I presented the infant to the newly defeated Welsh as their prince proclaiming that ‘he doesn’t speak a word of English’.

IMG_5971 Caernarfon Castle

The castle gave great views over the Menai Straits ….

IMG_5963 Caernafon Castle view over twon

…. and over the town.

IMG_5956 Caernafon Castle view to Anglesea

The castle is another of the strongholds built on the order of Edward I but fell to the Welsh forces of Madog ap Llywelyn in 1294 and was besieged by those of Owain Glyndŵr in 1400. Later it was the seat from which the Tudor dynasty was founded and in the English Civil War it was a Royalist stronghold.

IMG_5939 Caernarfon

Welsh flags were out all over the town as there was a particularly significant football match that night.

IMG_4868 Wales v Belgium

…. Wales were playing Portugal in the quarter-finals of the Euro soccer tournament. We have little interest in football but after our pub meal that evening I suggested we go to the bar next door for a drink and watch part of the action but we couldn’t get in due to the crowds. I tried a bigger bar further down the street but there they were queuing to get in the door. The unexpected victory undoubtedly resulted in much local celebration but we were back in our hotel by then.

IMG_6015 Aberdaron

In the afternoon we headed along the narrow lanes of the Llyn peninsula until we reached the little town of Abadaron.

IMG_5990 Bardsey Island

We drove out to the Arfordir Treftadaeth Penrhyn Llŷn reserve at the tip of the peninsula which gives a great view over to Bardsey Island but it was now very windy and the sunshine was punctuated by intense showers.

IMG_5994 Bardesy Island

Many years ago some of our ringing group had a week-long trip to Bardsey Island to assist with the ringing of seabirds. I was unable to go due to work commitments but I have always wished I could have done. Here is a telephoto shot from the mainland, probably the nearest I will ever get.

IMG_5989 Chough

From here I saw seven Choughs (above) and a few Gannets.

IMG_6046 Conwy Castle

Another day, another castle, this time at Conwy.

IMG_6032 Conwy Castle bridge

Conwy Castle is another of Edward I’s ring of steel around the Welsh stronghold in the mountains of Snowdonia but this road bridge dates from 1826. On the left is the modern road bridge and on the right the rail bridge.

IMG_6033 Herring Gulls

The castle walls are a breeding ground for Herring Gulls, here two recently fledged young ….

IMG_6059 Herring Gull ad

…. and their ever vigilant parent.

IMG_6069 Elizabethan House

Nearby we visited an Elizabethan house ….

IMG_6077 Elizabethan House

…. beautifully restored and giving a fascinating insight into the lives of the better off in those days.

IMG_6087 Great Orme

Out visit to Wales concluded with a drive around the Great Orne, a hill that lies beside the sea adjacent to Llandundo.

IMG_6085 view from Great Orme

This hill on a coastal promontory is circumnavigated by a narrow road, however I was unaware that this route was one way and we spent some time trying to find the start. Eventually we ended up driving over the top of the hill and joining the one way system half way round. We stopped for lunch at a café on route but it was so windy that you could hardly stand up. After a few photos we abandoned the area and headed back to England. Our time in northern England and Essex will be the subject of the next post.