Answering the Call of the Aran Isles


This article follows two previous BirdGuides pieces by Graham Gordon. The author grew up a birder in north-eastern England at Whitburn, Tyne and Wear. He spent almost ten years living in Cape May, New Jersey; and now resides in Cork City, Republic of Ireland, where he works as a waiter and freelance photographer. A relative withdrawal from 'the field' in 2002 has been followed by a personal mission to squeeze as many 'rare' bird finds out of 2003 as he can possibly manage.

Yellow-browed Warbler
Yellow-browed Warbler: Chancing upon this delightful sprite was the highlight of Graham's quest for his third 'mega' of the autumn. (Photo: PR Baker.)

Thursday 9 October 17:25

The die is cast; the decision has been made. A late change of plans in response to the weather forecast has seen me abandon an earlier decision to stick to County Cork this year and now has me sitting on the bus to Galway, bound for the Aran Islands.

The three Aran Islands, the largest Inis Mor, where I will be staying, are as remote as anywhere on the European continent. I visited them once before for a weekend trip in 2001 and was struck then by the overwhelming sense of potential for finding my own rarities. As a former Lundyite (I spent eight weeks on Lundy over a total of four autumns in the early Nineties) I recognised the possibility of having the island to myself on one of the most underwatched localities on the whole of the British and Irish coast. I had to cancel an intended two week visit there in October last year due to work commitments - but now, with the very strong desire to add an American passerine to my rare-bird collection for the autumn they stand as a beacon to all my hopes and aspirations.

The weather forecast for the weekend is fair. I expect light, variable winds; initially from the west or slightly north-west; then latterly from the south, and later the south-east. Precipitation is expected to be minimal. The satellite weather channel I have been tapping into on the web all summer has let me down 70% of the time; but this time I really feel it in my bones, and I'm confident there will be no violent winds or harsh, stormy conditions to contend with. Raincoat and pocket umbrella are packed safely with my luggage, but leggings, wellies, and change of trousers have all been left at home. I envisage pleasantness and good temperatures (high teens?) even if there are no rare birds.

Why, specifically, have I renounced the Old Head of Kinsale? I've been building affection for this south-coast County Cork headland, along with Ballycotton, as a local patch these past twenty-four months and it might seem unusual to ardent patchwatchers to forsake your patch at this time of year. Well, despite the Northern Parula at Brownstown Head, County Waterford, last Sunday (which I can only think was assisted by a ship?) and historically, a number of other 'Yanks' to the east of it, the Old Head has never produced an American passerine; my heroic exertions to 'put that record straight' this year have collapsed in the face of the westerlies coming straight off the Atlantic all this last week. Somehow I've lost faith that the Old Head is in the direct firing line to pick up birds on these winds. The south-easterlies forecast for Saturday night could well attract something there - but then, as my Red-breasted Flycatcher in similar conditions showed two years ago, so could the Arans. The Arans offer a bit more adventure, more ground to cover if things get quiet, a more varied landscape in which to exercise my photography, and the comfort of a hostel instead of the tent I'd have to employ at Kinsale.

Sacrificing the Old Head is one risk. Missing out on Cape Clear with reports of up to fifty birders arriving there this weekend for a mix of birds and social eventing, is quite another. All I feel now though is a quiet sense of purpose and resolve. I've said all along there's one more bird left in this autumn for me and I feel all I have to do now is just turn up and all will be well. If I 'fail' on the Arans (and I'm not even allowing myself to consider that possibility for the moment), then maybe I'll keep Cape in reserve for next weekend.

No, I'm seeing into the crystal ball: I AM going to find another mega sometime soon. It's more a question of what, when, and where rather than if… and whether the feeling that accompanies will be excitement or anti-climatic. After all those years in the States I've seen all these Americans numerous times anyway and I hope I don't catch myself out pretending I haven't! Also, assuming I do see something, I really want to watch it, spend time with it… brief views of a Catharus thrush or a stripy, tsikking warbler might be agonising rather than satisfying. It doesn't have to be an absolute mega I see. I've found a Blackpoll Warbler on Shetland before so how would it feel to find another? Red-eyed Vireo? That would be a nice enough personal success - but wouldn't it be just great to get the whole shebang: something that everyone in Ireland will want - and maybe a few from Britain, too. Another Parula after the Waterford dip for many last week? A Yellow-billed Cuckoo? A Rose-breasted Grosbeak?

What if I don't find a Yank but a Sibe instead? How does that fit in with the script? A Booted? A Radde's Warbler or Dusky Warbler (two birds already on my 'list' from Whitburn)? No, I don't see it falling that way: not part of the premonition. Mind you, my two best finds of the autumn so far were, presumably, born in Russia, so it could just be that's what my pattern is this year?

17:45 The bus is moving and just three miles out of the city the countryside is beautiful, with that indefinable 'Irish' quality to the light I occasionally attempt, sometimes successfully, to capture on film. A mix of lush green fields, black-and-white cows, blue sky and soft white clouds - all in place for a gorgeous sunset. The boots are off; the coach is only half-full. Sit back, relax, and enjoy.

18:30 Rang Harry Hussey on the mobile - one of Ireland's (certainly Cork's) most active and avid birders, and my main source of gen locally. No news today. Having forgotten to bring my charger with me, I decide to switch off the phone and just turn it on now and again for messages. I certainly won't be coming off the Arans for anything myself. Hopefully it will be me who has to do the calling.

21:35 Set up the tent on a playing field next to Nimmo's Pier, Galway, and turned in early for a good night's sleep.

Friday 10 October

09:50 An Spidhall village, 15 miles west of Galway, on the way to the ferry terminal. It's a gorgeous, still, colourful morning out across Galway Bay. Rare bird or no rare bird, like an FA Cup finalist on the road to Wembley (now Cardiff!) you feel like you just have to enjoy the day as you go along. And I do. I've done all the homework: the mathematics, the map-reading, the logic. The Gods will meet me on the Arans and decide my Fate for me one way or another. Quiet calm.

On the left hand side of the bus there are meandering, unstructured dry-stone walls, woven in with the landscape artistically; not bulldozed and flattened and made unbeautiful in their regimentality. Interspersed amongst this beauty are cottages; white-washed, touched up with red or green paint, with smoking fires from their chimney pots cut from local peat bogs. On the right hand side, to the north-west, are the hills of Connemara, James Joyce country. Promising, I know from the maps, acres of still, deep lakes, where 'flappy herons stoke the drowsy water-rats'.

The stillness of the sycamores is amazing, inviting. Will the calm conditions negate my chance of a rare bird - or will they enhance it? I see the first of the islands now, closer to the mainland than Lundy to the north Devon coast. Still mystical and wishful in the distance, complete with dreams and romance.

10:30 Rossaveal harbour, gateway to the Arans. I jump off the bus and straightaway I am in urgent birder mode. The boats, the Herring Gulls and the overpowering smell of fish whisk me in memory back to the Scillies. Except here, I am the only birder, suddenly out of place in my sense of purpose among scores of other just-happy-to-be-here day-trippers and schoolkids. As a birder and a photographer I'm under time pressure and the need for speed, quick reactions and efficiency become paramount - a colourful quayside scene to photograph, gulls to check in the ten minutes before the boat leaves (nothing).

Once we're on board I'm also, among (I estimate) seventy-odd assorted Japanese, American, German and East European tourists, and I'm the only one not wearing a coat. Don't get me wrong, despite the image that's projected of the hard-as-nails northern Geordie I'm as prone to the cold in winter as anyone - it's just alongside non-outdoorsy types I have an aloofness that mocks their susceptibility to the elements. I'll only put on a coat when it becomes absolutely necessary.

A big red coastal rescue helicopter comes directly overhead and follows us for a couple of miles across the bay and seventy grinning faces turn and look up and whip out cameras or video-recorders to show their friends what happened on their nice day out. Not me. I turn and look the other way. I want petrels and phalaropes and skuas on this crossing (several of each two years ago) and I ain't gonna be distracted by a big noisy machine.

A few minutes from docking (no seabirds having been seen) I give up on the obsessive birder thing, take one or two snaps of the chopper myself, slip on the coat (only 'cos it's easier to carry, you see!), and relax, and let the day-trippers get off. I sit there and think about which hostel I'll stay in, how much I'm prepared to pay for bicycle hire, and whether I'll just start off with a coffee and finish reading the preview of tomorrow night's European championship qualifier, England v Turkey, in The Times I bought in Galway this morning. 'It' will be there whether I dash for 'It' or not.

11:30 Hired a bike for two days for ten euros a day. Pushed it up the hill with my heavy backpack to check into the Mainstir House Hostel, a mile outside of the main village. I remember it from last time for its spacious, wooden dormitories and copious servings of porridge, tea and toast in the mornings. Five minutes later I'm out in the field.

The Aran Islands I guess (I'm not getting paid for this article so I'm not going to bother researching it!) are about five miles long by a mile wide - a little larger than Lundy, approximately the size of North Ron or Fair Isle? There is an abundance of brambles and ferns and dry-stone walls for megas to skulk in undetected. As always I suppose one just has to forget about them and concentrate on more workable spots. There appear to be two main areas: one nice little belt of gardens with tall sycamores around the main village of Kilronan; and another, about three miles further west, around a historical ruin known as the Black Fort. As far as I can glean from Harry, Blackpoll Warbler and two Red-eyed Vireos have been seen here in the past and these, he tells me, have all been at the furthest point, around the fort. There are, in all, a very good number of very, very likely-looking spots where one can just imagine a mega hopping around - more so than Cape Clear in my estimation.

I checked some of these areas diligently in the mid- to early afternoon. I kept my concentration and tried to scan as best I could somewhere in the zone between piercing alertness and laid-back allowance - the meditator's dimension! I asked permission to visit one or two very rich-looking, insect-laden sycamore patches around the back of the fort and stood gazing into infinite stillness. In such tranquillity and peace it was easy to 'drift off' and more than once I did catch myself lulling into that state where I almost felt myself hallucinating the ghosts of the numerous Yanks that must have passed this way in the last ten thousand years!

I could feel it coming - but I didn't allow any traces of doubt to come into my mind. The Search went on and, like David Beckham visualizing his free-kick curling into the top corner, or an Olympic sprinter already seeing the gold medal around his neck, I tried to wish 'It' into existence.

14:30 I switched on the mobile for an update and, quite coincidentally, just thirty seconds later the beeper goes off. News from Cape Clear: a Bobolink has just been found! Two and a half hours of play gone and I'm 1-0 down! Following the football analogy I wonder how Beckham and the lads would react to being 1-0 down to Turkey. With, I calculate, fourteen to eighteen hours to go though, I begin to think this test of concentration would be more appropriate to a test match cricketing comparison… Can I pull off another century in the circumstances? I certainly believe I'm happier and more confident I can do it here than I would have been at the Old Head.

18:00 I'm tired, my scope shoulder aches and my feet hurt, but I'm still wandering around the village seeing what I can do. This afternoon I saw my first Whooper Swans for twelve years, saw a couple of Whinchats, a handful of Goldcrests, and stopped every now and then to gaze with reverence at a Robin - a birder's act of worship I engage in more fully at other times of the year but one I still think I have to remember to undertake now even in the midst of this obsession. The stillness of the trees this afternoon was almost unbearable. How could there not be something lingering amongst them? A phone call from Harry, direct from the Wheatear fields on Cape Clear, stops me sliding into indignation. He's phoning me for a moan.

"Bloody Bobolink," he says with heartfelt disappointment. "Missed it by ten minutes. It's getting dark now. Everything's gone to roost. It won't be here tomorrow. I just know it won't be! I don't want to have to spend tomorrow morning wasting time looking for it down here when there could be birds elsewhere… I can't even go to the pub tonight for the slideshow because the birders that were already on the island have seen it and they'll all be going on about it!"

"Hang on, Harry," I said, used to this kind of outburst. "Fair enough I don't need Bobolink myself, so it's easy for me to say, but I'm sure it'll be there tomorrow. I'm the one who should feel gutted. I've set up this challenge of finding a Yank for myself and I've given it my best shot this afternoon and there certainly doesn't seem to be anything here. In fact, I've dipped on something that might not have even been there in the first place! I want my bird as much as you want your Bobolink, Harry, and now I'm having to rely on It turning up overnight. There's less chance of that than of you finding your Bobolink."

There it was then. The agony, the sudden feeling of depression I'd been holding back from all day. What if I didn't achieve my goal? What then? My doubts were real. There I'd been acting all robotic and purposeful and certain all day and here was the flip-side of that attitude - doubt replacing faith. It occurred to me that Harry had voiced a necessary aspect of this whole rare-bird/twitching thing. What would be the point of the joy of finding - or twitching - anything if everything was already cast in stone? What point if we always got what we wanted to see? But there was no point just realizing this fact - I had to feel it as well. Despite the fact I remember a pub on the Arans serving the best pint of Guinness I've had in two years in Ireland I, too, held thoughts of avoiding it tonight. But only in the 'Warrior spirit'. I know what effect even one unit of alcohol does to my sharpness in the mornings and I'd planned to be clean, clear, and refreshed to continue the Search.

"Sod it," I thought, come 10p.m. "I am having a pint tonight anyway. It can perform its secondary function of consoling my depression instead of fuelling my celebration.

Saturday 11 October

07:45 A greyer cast to the sky this morning after a light overnight rain lent an authentic cast to the slight pallor of melancholy I took to the field this morning - a weather that called for me to pack a black-and-white camera along with my colour one. The light dawns late now on the west coast of Ireland and even at this comparatively advanced hour of the day the only recognizable shapes are silhouettes of Robins, Wrens and Starlings.

10:50 A Yellow-browed Warbler… hurrah! Halfway along the island, giving lie to this idea that the western tip holds all the good birds, 'pished' out for five minutes enjoyable viewing at close range in some stunted elms. This is by far the most numerous 'scarce' migrant I've come across in all my time in the field - the third year in a row I've seen one in Ireland, and about forty in total (I add up in an idle five minutes later in the day) throughout my birding 'career'. This one struck me as unusual in having a very well defined brace of sub-moustachial stripes: the result of rather above-average greyish sullying on the throat and the remainder of the underparts. It called a couple of times and jumped around frantically in the bushes flicking its wings. I think the general pitch of a birder pishing is very similar to a Yellow-browed's call and they've always struck me as one of the most easily attracted birds using this technique. The frequency with which I (and lots of other birders) find them, in easy-to-work areas of cover - especially sycamores, most obviously - I think just goes to underline how many skulkers that arrive from the same direction like Lancys and Pallas's Groppers we overlook in the heavily vegetated areas?

You can't knock a Yellow-browed Warbler can you? It's not the most shattering of headline finds, but it certainly lightened my mood for the rest of the day. Always, always, in the fore of my mind was the mission for the ultimate rarity, but then I recognised, somewhat ruefully, there were probably hundreds of us, thousands maybe, with exactly the same thought this Saturday afternoon. I can't get too greedy in my search for one last rarity can I? I mustn't forget what a privilege it is for these momentous one-off achievements. I switched to photography for an hour or so in the mid-afternoon but always with eyes and ears open for the unexpected. I usually find that after the first afternoon and the first morning in a place, when one has to start going back and looking in the same places, that the momentum drops. It's now I wish I could stay here for two weeks, like I once did on Lundy. Maybe have to spend a day or two indoors with lashing rain and howling gales to bring out the megas? My concern is I'll land on Cape Clear next weekend right in the middle of such conditions and I'll not be able to get out at all.

Oh well… I am being greedy! But please just bear with me for the rest of the year.

20:00 McEanery's bar, Kilronan village. A much poorer pint of Guiness than Jim Watty's last night, but I did watch the lads hold on for a 0-0 draw in Turkey and secure their place in the Championship finals. I'm not out to copy Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch where he relates his own fortunes in life to the fate of his beloved Arsenal, but for any of you saw it, Beckham's slip and fall and his penalty miss (so much for 'seeing' that top corner, David!) were not a million miles away from my efforts this weekend!

Sunday 12 October

The boat left the islands at midday, leaving me just under four hours to get out in the field and I made the most of what I could. But, by now it was simply just going through the motions for the sake of it. I wouldn't really have fancied seeing something at the last minute; paradoxically, the later it got the more desperately I started staring at every bird. No, not this weekend. No dramatic late winner. The Aran Islands? I've been; I've seen; I certainly haven't conquered.

Postcript: Harry didn't see the Bobolink next day… But he did see his first Pallas's Warbler ten minutes before his boat left Cape on the Sunday afternoon.
Written by: Graham Gordon