Buttock cramp, sleep deprivation and jamminess


When I moved to Co. Cork in April of this year two thoughts were most prevalent in my mind:

  1. That I would get to do a hell of a lot of seawatching;
  2. That I would finally be around in Co. Cork for the autumn migration (something that I had never experienced to the full before).

With seawatching being first on the agenda I set myself two targets, one more unrealistic than the other. The first target was to finally see a Wilson's Storm-petrel, a long-time absentee from my seabird list. The second — and a stretch — was to see a Little Shearwater...yeah, right.

Since that great seawatch off Galley on the 2nd July (see Losing my head at Galley Head), the sea off Cork has been exceptionally quiet to the point of despair. I have personally been at Galley Head on any evening when a southwesterly was present (or erroneously forecast) and seen very little for my trouble other than a 'year tick' Balearic Shearwater.

With the remainder of July being a bust for any seawatching, all hopes lay with August and the prospect of northwesterly winds for the west of Ireland.

On Saturday the 30th of July the forecast was for a reasonably strong northwesterly front, perfect weather for the Bridges of Ross in Co. Clare. We arrived on the Friday evening and were disappointed with the complete lack of birds moving off the Bridges, (something neither I nor my accomplice H. Hussey had ever thought possible) but we decided to chance waiting until the next morning. The next morning produced light northerly winds, extremely poor conditions for the Bridges. But we decided to give it some time regardless.

Wilson's Storm-petrel: Scilly (Photo: Ben Lascelles) Wilson's Storm-petrel: Scilly (Photo: Gary Thoburn)

Wilson's Storm-petrel: Ireland (Animated GIF: Michael O'Keefe)

This as a wise decision as shortly after that a Wilson's Storm-petrel was picked up by another Irish birder present and gave a good view at a medium distance out. Shortly after this I picked up two more Wilson's for myself providing a welcome 'finder's tick'. After this brief period of excitement this calmed down dramatically and we left for Cork, finding a full summer Long-billed Dowitcher at Shannon Airport lagoon on the way home as a year tick.

Cork continued to disappoint with seawatching during early August, and it wasn't until the 13th that a decent northwesterly was forecast to coincide with a weekend. I woke quite late, and opted for the closer headland of Brandon Point on the Dingle peninsula in Co. Kerry, rather than the Bridges, where many Cork birders and foreign visitors were encamped.

I arrived at Brandon at about noon and immediately saw a large raft of feeding shearwaters towards Deelick point to the west. A mile hike later and these birds were just offshore from me, producing a few Sooty Shearwaters and a single Great Shearwater just 100 meters from the shore. A Wilson's Storm-petrel came into the flock and danced on the water for about 5 minutes. However, the feeding flock soon dispersed and I made my way back to Brandon car park for lunch.

Fea's Petrel: Scilly (Photo: Glen Tepke) Fea's Petrel (or Zino's): Madeira (Photo: Paul and Andrea Kelly)

When I arrived back I sat down with a sandwich at the cliff edge and within seconds was spluttering out half-swallowed turkey as a crippling Fea's Petrel passed by close offshore. The bird drifted aimlessly west, encountering a small feeding flock of 20–30 Manx Shearwaters which it, unbelievably, began to circle! After its third lap of the flock it continued west and out of view.

My father and brother were on the Bridges and were promptly called with the news and it was with a sly smirk that I listened to the howls of disbelief in the background as the news broke and the realisation that this bird had probably passed those on the Bridges (indeed, the same bird quite possibly made its way back north to the Bridges to be seen again at 8pm by two lucky foreign observers). My fourth Fea's Petrel and my second this year. All my hopes for August were being realised!!

Cory's Shearwater: Scilly (Photo: Ben Lascelles) Cory's Shearwater: Madeira (Photo: Paul and Andrea Kelly)

A pelagic trip out of west Cork was despairingly quiet the following Friday, and on Saturday myself and H. Hussey decided to chance the Bridges once again after literally thousands of both Great Shearwaters and Cory's Shearwaters had been seen to the very far north at Kilcummin and Fannad in Co. Mayo and Co. Donegal. Hoping that this movement could be intercepted at the Bridges we took the gamble. Unfortunately the weather was again not as forecast, but there was more reasonable passage with a few Sooty Shearwaters, a few Arctic Skuas, and another self-found Wilson's Storm-petrel making an appearance. The gliding flight of the Wilson's Storm-petrel made it extremely obvious; this bird stayed feeding for 10 minutes providing a welcome tick for a number of British and Swedish birders present. It once again calmed down towards midday and we abandoned the Bridges in search of waders.

So far, August, despite providing birds of rarity, had not played host to a day of great passage for myself, August 25th was forecast for very strong northwesterly winds, and with a Fea's Petrel (possibly the same bird as I had found two weeks previously) being seen the day before at the Bridges, many Cork birders made their way to Brandon.

Pomarine Skua: Ireland (Animated GIF: Michael O'Keefe)

Balearic Shearwater: Ireland (Animated GIF: Michael O'Keefe)

I arrived at the point at 7am. We were greeted to a sight of over 2000 Sooty Shearwaters rafting with even greater numbers of Manx Shearwaters, from Brandon Bay all the way out beyond Deelick Point, a superb omen. Within two hours seawatching at the site a visiting British birder shouted out "Little Shearwater!!" I frantically tried to get onto this bird, but it was soon lost by the observer and no other birders present connected. It seemed like this species was destined to elude me for another year. Not to be set back however, the seawatch turned out to be exceedingly good with a variety of species seen including 2 Long-tailed Skuas, 3 Pomarine Skuas, over 30 each of Great Skuas and Arctic Skuas, 2 Wilson's Storm-petrels, 11 Leach's Storm-petrels, 11 Sabine's Gulls, 16 Balearic Shearwaters, 3 Great Shearwaters, one Cory's Shearwater and 8 Grey Phalaropes.

Great Shearwater: Scilly (Photo: Ben Lascelles) Great Shearwater: Outer Hebrides (Photo: Paul Boyer)

At about 6 pm we received a call say that a Fea's Petrel had just passed the Bridges of Ross. This species has been intercepted from Brandon after passing the Bridges in the past and we were told to expect it after an hour and a half. Tension on the headland was palpable and everyone present was suffering for their art with serious buttock and leg cramps (there had been several open offers of 50 Euros for a buttock massage during the course of the seawatch!) At exactly 7.30 pm a shout went up from an Irish observer "I think I have it!!!...ahhh...I've lost it..."

From his directions I scanned one scope width west of the supposed sighting point and found it quickly.

"I have it. At about half 10. Flying west. Halfway out in the mid Manx stream."

All but three observers got onto the bird, providing long-awaited ticks for many Cork birders present. It was my fifth Fea's Petrel and my third in a year...surely things could get no better?

The following day back in Cork we heard that another Little Shearwater had been seen at Brandon, feeding on the water for 10 minutes. That was surely that for my chances of connecting with that species, as I was going to be absent for much of September (I had recently been offered a free trip to Spain for the first 2 weeks of September).

On the Sunday 28th of August I had planned on sleeping in after finding my first Bee-eater the previous evening, However, after receiving a text stating that the winds had picked up for Galley Head, a horrible fear of being 'gripped off' descended on me and I dashed down to Galley — just in case.

I had expected to find several birders already there, but arrived to a barren headland. I could see that passage was actually very good, with good numbers of Manx Shearwaters moving through, together with 3 Great Shearwaters and 8 Sooty Shearwaters, all within 15 minutes of observation.

Sooty Shearwater: Outer Hebrides (Photo: Martin Scott) Sooty Shearwater: Shetland (Photo: Russell Wynn)

Suddenly, in the close stream of Manx Shearwaters was the prize I had been so ardently seeking. There it was, a small white-faced bird flapping furiously in a group of Manx Shearwaters. Little Shearwater!! And exceptionally close! I could not believe my luck. For 30 seconds I watched helplessly (helpless is the best description) and the bird made its way west before I started to grill it for identification points. Two minutes of sheer bliss if you will forgive the pun.

Balearic Shearwater: Scilly (Photo: Ben Lascelles) Balearic Shearwater: Scilly (Photo: Gary Thoburn)

Other birders soon joined me, and a decent seawatch was had with 9 Balearic Shearwaters, one Blue Fulmar, one Pomarine Skua, and a scattering of Great Skuas. Manx passage remained high and amazingly ANOTHER small shearwater was picked up in the late evening. Undoubtedly another Little Shearwater, this second bird was unfortunately just too distant and in poor light to tick for some of the birders on the headland.

An amazing August of seawatching with all expectations being shattered and leaving just one question in my mind...what am I going to miss in September? I dread to think...

Written by: Owen Foley, Co. Cork