Ballycotton Goes Bananas


Earlier in the autumn I was fortunate to find a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper in Co. Cork and my account ended with a mission statement announcing my intention to add the Premiership and Champions' League to what I then compared to my equivalent of winning the FA Cup. Quite where my intention sits in relation to this week's events in Ballycotton I leave you to judge for yourself. The influx of American waders I and others observed in this extensive area of sand and saltmarsh over the past five days is up there in terms of all-time classic birding combinations of right time and right place - but the outright stunner and the one I most claim as worthy of a winners' medal was a rare visitor from quite the opposite direction.

The only way I can relate the significance of events to you is to break them down day-by-day, starting with the 10th September.

Day 1

With news of fifty-odd Pectoral Sandpipers scattered the length and breadth of the British Isles, and Baird's Sandpipers, White-rumped Sandpipers, and American Golden Plovers in their usual ones and twos, I took an early afternoon bus out of Cork, halfway to Ballycotton, and then hitched the rest of the way. For the non-car-driver (which I am still proud to be) the tidal situation at Ballycotton and its complex of channels and creeks presents a logistical set of problems that need to be surmounted. I arrived, a little later than intended, with a very heavy backpack and found to my distress the tide was already much further in than I would have liked.

It was touch-and-go whether I would be able to cross the first channel or not, but when a Pec Sand flew up, calling, across the ridge and down on to what is known as 'Allen's Pool' I took the risk and decided to go for it. What I didn't allow for was that not only was this high tide, it was a very high tide, and what I'd effectively done was to cut myself off and imprison myself on a very small patch of safe, dry land for the next - 'Oh my God what am I going to do with myself here?!' - three and three-quarter hours.

Pectoral Sandpiper: (Photo: Nic Hallam)

Fortunately, as it turned out, there were actually two Pecs - and two very showy Pecs at that - and I was able to pass half of that time, until it got too dark to see, enjoying excruciatingly close views of two beautifully structured and exquisitely marked little creatures indeed. Around nine o'clock, now in darkness, I tentatively prodded my way across the channel, and back to the tent I'd left pitched up on the shoreline on my last visit over the previous weekend.

Day 2

Rain was forecast for midday; so, after a nice early morning breather along the clifftops, I headed out to the marsh, fully prepared mentally to batten down the hatches when the time should arrive.

The rain came alright. This time, unlike on several previous occasions recently, I was ready for it: brand new waterproof, leggings, plastic cover for the 'scope. I immersed myself in the challenge of scanning through the hundreds of swarming Dunlin, trying to sift out the oddity. Two Little Stints, an adult and a juvenile, were the reward this time around; but don't go away...I haven't finished with this little lot just yet.

For once an Irish weather forecast proved spot on. The rain moved on and a baking, drying sun came out to replace it. On a receding tide this time I got to the spot where the two Pecs had been yesterday evening and a Buff-breasted Sandpiper flew over my head, calling roughly. Just like that. The second Buff-breasted Sand I've found this side of the Atlantic; okay, not quite as exciting as the first one at Whitburn (Co. Durham) 13 years ago, but a very happy moment all the same. My desire to get more wholesome views of it were satisfied an hour or so later when it came back to the pool (it didn't seem like it at the time but I guess I'd flushed it first time round?) and I 'scoped it, admiringly, in the afternoon sunshine. I forget, sometimes, how bright yellow the legs on these things are.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper: (Photo: Paul and Andrea Kelly)

I sat down on the beach for ten minutes and found myself swimming in a deliciously surreal, almost euphoric, sensation - almost as though I'd entered another 'zone'. Maybe it was the lack of my usual gargantuan intake of food, but no, I identified it more conclusively as that 'anything can happen next' feeling that I remembered from great seawatches or passerines falling, but never, not outside Cape May anyway, with waders before.

Day 3

It frightens me to think I almost left Ballycotton this morning. I had thought about upping my backpack and doing a lengthy circuit of some sites further down the road in West Cork. It's a strange part of every birders' make-up that we have this yo-yoing optimism where faith and doubt come into play and I actually thought I couldn't imagine extracting any more out of Ballycotton than the birds I'd already seen.

A Semi-palmated Sandpiper had turned up the previous evening in Clonakilty on one of the pools I'd thought about visiting. Local shopkeeper and experienced fellow birding enthusiast, Phil Davis, put me right on that one though. "If there's a Semi-P down there there'll be one here today," he said. Phil it was who had first introduced me to the Ballycotton birding legends two years ago when, fresh out of America, I'd walked into his shop and quite unknowingly met one of Ireland's keenest and most highly-respected birders. "Five Semi-Ps together one day; two Bairds at the same time: six American waders of five different species..."

Phil joined me on the beach around ten-thirty and together we got our scopes out to begin sifting through what my field notebook described, with a touch of poetic license, as a 'seething mass' of Dunlin: the same group I'd looked at the same time the previous day. "Got a couple of stints here," says Phil, a slight hesitation in his voice. I got on to them immediately: one the same adult Little Stint I'd seen a couple of times already, the second - a juvenile Semi-palmated Sandpiper!

It's been a recurring theme of mine these past two years wondering at what point my years of experience in Cape May would come to bear on my Irish bird-finding skills and expectations. Despite finding what I once described to the British Birds Rarities Committee as 'possibly the swiftest and most confidently identified Semi-palmated Sandpiper in British history' (!) on Lundy island, I have worried from time to time quite how I'd handle one now that I don't get out or read up as often as I used to. I suppose that Ring-billed Gulls fall into this category. We're talking about birds here that for birders in the Sixties and Seventies were practically impossible to distinguish and I don't think we should forget the debt we owe to their hard work for where we are now, or overlook just how similar some of these species pairs or groups are. I'd actually looked at a Little Stint myself last Sunday and even though I knew it was a Little Stint, the more I looked at it the more its 'features' began to appear subjective: how grey it looked; chunky? square-headed?

This one though was a Semi-P and I can't say fairer than that. It was a 'jizz' thing: a composite recognition of a bird which in some ways is as familiar to my brain as a Blue Tit. Phil, who has seen a fair few over the years at Ballycotton, had reservations about its mantle 'V' and such-like but I was 100 per cent absolutely happy. Again, like the Buff-breast, I've found one before, and I suppose the ecstasy of the first can never be repeated but still, come on, how many of you lot would love this one for your find list?

This 'find list' thing, this 'hint of genuine surprise' at a bird self-discovered is for me, something I decided a long-time ago, much better than searching for someone else's bird. But, it has its subtleties and frustrations as well as its elations, which the Semi-P begins to touch upon and which were to become far more evident with the event I'll describe next. For now though, with this one, both selfishness and selflessness were equally combined: it was a classic 'joint' effort. Phil 'saw' it first, I 'identified' it first. We could both tell our friends 'I' found it and neither of us was arguing.

We walked on. Phil wanted to see the Buff-breast and the Pec that were still on Allen's Pool. We got there. We flushed them. They flew to the opposite side of the channel: to another pool, this one called Shanagarry. We turned and walked back. Some distance off and against the light I put up my bins to scan for them and announced:

"Oh my God!"

"What," says Phil.

"Phil, I've got an American Golden Plover!"

Now, I'm aware this account could go on and on and I'm getting a little tired of it myself at the moment and I suspect perhaps you the reader may be as well. I'm not trying to turn this into a book. I'm going to shorten the American Golden Plover saga because I've got other things to get on with and do. Basically Phil talked me out of it. And there's no blame from me because I allowed myself to be talked out of it too. It did seem a little incredible, really much too good to be true. My initial identification of it, the correct identification as it later turned out, was based on instinct and intuition rather than any thought-out and immediate assessment of plumage characteristics - jizz. When we looked at it more closely it was rather golden on its upperparts, more golden than I would have imagined (I've not seen that many: never studied them in Cape May like I would have done Semi-Ps) and in truth there was nothing to compare it with size and shape-wise...other than the Pectoral and Buff-breasted Sandpipers that were wandering around in the same field of view!

Our misidentification allowed another local birder, Paul Moore, to get in on the act and did allow one slight jarring note (unlike the Buff-breast and Semi-P I've not found AGP over here) to creep in on my otherwise perfect few days - or did it? Can I still count it for my find list do you think? Answers on a postcard please.

Day 4

While all this madness and mayhem were going on my good friend Andre was stuck facing the prospect of long hard days at work and nights in front of the telly on a small, newly-erected, but completely uninspiring housing development on the outskirts of Cork City. In all my phone calls to him on days one to three I couldn't help feeling compassion and wishing some of the birds would stick so he could come and have a look himself at the weekend when he finally got down along with girlfriend Lorraine. You will all, I hope, forgive me the tiniest hint of greed that popped up alongside the relief and the vicarious joy when Andre phoned me this time on this Saturday morning to announce he had just found a Long-billed Dowitcher in the exact same spot where the three previous Yanks had paraded (and had now, temporarily, vacated) the previous afternoon. I ended up not seeing the dowitcher myself - it flew off very high - and as Andre went on to see two Buff-breasted Sands, what was almost certainly a second Semi-P, and a scarce Irish migrant Tree Pipit he actually ended up seeing more than me. But I'll let him tell you about all that if he wishes: I've still got to find room to tell you about the icing on the cake; and I found that in - ahem! - scintillating style; though Andre did play a supporting part in leading me to it in the first place.

While Andre was engaging in his Saturday morning clean-up I was entertaining Lorraine by showing her the wonderful cliffs and beaches that present a gorgeous backdrop to this beautiful area. I was very much in relaxed mode. The winds had been on-shore and I fancied both a seawatch and a stroll around the gardens to complement the wader activity of the last 72 hours. I really couldn't be bothered with the marshes today.

Andre's dowitcher changed that to a degree. I thought I'd stroll out (barefoot as it happened: I'd used all my socks up in the first two days and going sockless in wellies has its drawbacks after a while), see the dowitcher and get back to town by midday. When I heard the dowitcher had flown off I was ready to turn and give up immediately. "Come on," said Burnley's keenest, "Let's look at the pools."

I know I'm overlapping a lot of stuff here but in a way this was reminiscent of my sulky pet-lip when I was led, against my wishes, into Sumburgh Hotel Gardens minutes before triumphantly finding Britain's 23rd Blackpoll Warbler. I bumbled up for the company and conversation rather than the sake of anything else. I stood there and let Andre take care of scanning the pools. Not for the first time I felt less than half a birder when standing waiting with someone else.


"Dzzzt!" again…

"Dzzzt" five times.



"Citrine Wagtail, mate! It's a ****** Citrine Wag. Where the **** is it! Come on you little ****! Where the **** are you!"


We heard the bird twice more after that, calling not too high up in the air but not revealing itself to view. I ran to the beach in the general direction of where the sound came from. Remarkably it was there, but I didn't see it at all properly. It flew up 30 yards away and disappeared in a gentle parabola over the dunes and back towards Allen's Pool. No doubt in my mind when I saw it fly low past me: Citrine Wagtail; and we were about to nail it in the pool.

But we didn't! There was no sign of it. I couldn't believe it. I'd seen enough to call it and put out the news for help in relocating it but that didn't assuage my despair. The feverish grip of tension that enveloped me for the next one and a half hours was a state of mind I don't remember experiencing for a long time. All of the Type A stress-inducing characteristics attributed to big industry businessmen suddenly descended upon the proponent of what we all know should be a passive and relaxing hobby. But, as Bill Oddie once said, "Do me a favour!" Tense, boorish, arrogant, competitive, shifty... everything! I was every one of those things in all that time it took before, finally, Paul Moore, finder of the AGP, put an end to the collective misery of the dozen or so birders who'd descended on the area in response to my cri de couer and exclaimed excitedly: "There it is… on the seaweed… third bird from the left…". There it was, to be sure. A beautiful, soft-looking, superbly wing-barred, boldly-superciliumed, grey-mantled Citrine Wagtail - and, yes, I'd found it, on call!

Citrine Wagtail: (Photo: Tom Shevlin)

I'm sorry, readers, if the hint of egotism that creeps in here offends you. I hope you're all objective enough about your passion to know where I'm coming from. The remarkable thing for me here is that I'd never actually heard a Citrine Wagtail calling before! At least, not as far as I remember. I wasn't even really sure what they sounded like from the book - apart from a vague recollection they sounded like a 'buzzy' Yellow Wagtail. And yet, when it called just once, I was almost sure that was what it was. What fascinated me most about the episode was that it was American bird calls I'd expected to do the heroic thing with: picking up a calling Bobolink or Veery or some such rarity (I still don't fancy myself with a Buff-bellied Pipit though, I must say!). Part of the AGP mishap was that I'd actually heard it calling 'chu-it' over Ballycotton Lake in the evening and couldn't quite place it in connection with the dozen or so I would have heard over Cape May in times past. I never really did get to grips with their call over there.

So, that's it. I'm sure there's lots more I could say, plenty to talk about for years. Fascinating insights into the play of remembrance and forgetfulness in a birder's mind, but I'll leave it at that for now.

Bearing in mind it is only mid-September, we look forward to Graham's triumphant clinch of the 'treble' - it's quite possible that we might not have long to wait! - Eds.
Written by: Graham Gordon