06/07/2006
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Days to Remember: 15-21 August 1999 – Cape Clear

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Fea's Petrel: Scilly pelagic, Isles of Scilly Still seawatching bliss despite an increase in sightings over the past decade (photo: Ashley Fisher).

Being a young birder in Ireland is tough. When you start out you don't know anyone. You don't know where to go. You don't know what to look for. It's hard to get lifts for rarities. The difficulties are many...sometimes I wonder why I ever stuck with this damned obsession! But then I remember back to my first visit to Cape Clear (Oileán Chléire to use its proper Irish name).

Growing up a birder in Ireland you hear about the mythical birding sites at every twitch, outing, or pub session (which are frequent): Tacumshin, The Bridges of Ross, Ballycotton, Tory Island, and Cape Clear. These are the compass points by which Irish birders have charted their careers. They are living legends due to the birds found at these locations, the birds we know will be seen there in the future, the stories and memories associated with them, and the ones yet to come.

Cory's Shearwater: Scilly pelagic, Isles of Scilly (photo: Ben Lascelles).

Cape, above all the others, stands out peerless. Every young birder has heard the stories of the mega rarities seen there over the years. The numerous celebration, or commiseration, sessions in the pubs (landmarks in their own right), and the old chemical toilets in the Observatory (and how it was the sacred duty/right of passage for the youngest birder present to clean said toilets - nasty). Thankfully, my time on Cape came at a juncture when a newly refurbished Observatory came complete with flushing toilets.

August on Cape is prime seawatching time and it was the idea of a whole week of new seabirds that lured me, and birding companion CAS, south in August 1999. At this point in time, being just 17 and still quite new to the scene, nearly every seabird was a tick waiting to happen. The sense of endless possibility as we boarded the ferry was heavy in the air. As is always the case other birders present on the boat heightened this further with yet more tales of the island.

When we arrived on the pier at the north harbour on the Sunday evening both our bed and breakfast hostess and the warden Steve Wing were on hand to greet the new arrivals (unfortunately the Observatory had been booked out weeks in advance). And after dropping our bags off at the bed and breakfast, and getting directions for the best seawatching spot, we brave souls hiked out alone for the last few hours on the southern tip of the island.

Blananaragaun sounds like a place from The Lord of the Rings. Usually shortened to Blanan, it is a rocky formation jutting impressively out into the Atlantic Ocean. The sight is amazing. As you round the hill which leads down to the rocks you are greeted to the entirety of the open sea broken only by the Fastnet lighthouse to the southwest. The feeling of the wind against you, like a gravitational force, and the sight of the white caps of the waves is the stuff of dreams for any seawatcher. On Cape it's the stuff of religion!

To be quite honest, Blanan is more than impressive...it is downright scary. A true testament to the obsessive nature of birders, reaching the tip requires climbing over a 4-foot wide bridge of rock, which hovers over a blowhole and the crashing waves, seemingly defying gravity. It is not for the faint of heart. Indeed it is amazing that no birder to date has died or injured themselves severely on the rock, although I have heard stories of those who came close. I am sure many birders have such stories...I know I do!

I am unashamed to admit that the sight of Blanan up close was, at first, so foreboding that we both decided against tackling the blowhole.

"FECK THAT!" or something like it, was the unanimous exclamation if I recall correctly.

However, watching from the base of Blanan, we soon picked up our first tick of the trip. A Sooty Shearwater was only a short distance offshore and we tracked it for a good two minutes until it intersected the tip of Blanan.

The same realisation hit both myself and CAS at the same instant and we both verbalized it jointly.

"That bird passed right below the tip!"

Fear was cast aside. The thought of seeing birds at the distance at which that Sooty Shear passed was better than any alcohol at instilling courage and disregard for one's own safety. We strode across the blowhole...without looking down of course.

Other birders were present on the tip, and we began to see more Sooties, as close as we had hoped. A shout went up:

"Corys!!"

We just barely got a view of this bird, not enough to tick really, but we were assured that with a whole week ahead of us, we would obtain better views in spades. As the light started to go we left for the centre of the island and its warm pubs.

Great Shearwater: Scilly pelagic, Isles of Scilly (photo: Ben Lascelles).

Anyone who is familiar with Ciaran Danny Mike's pub will know that the interior is blessed with three particular bird paintings. Black-browed Albatross, Fea's Petrel and Wilson's Storm-petrel - "The Big Three"; well these days maybe not all of them are so big, or desirable, but they are impressive. We spent the first evening in the pub gazing up at them, hoping and praying.

The next day was more of the same; the nerve-racking crossing out to Blanan was followed with the new sensation of sitting for long periods on the particularly uncomfortable rocks, unique to that area of Cape. But we loved every minute of it.

Monday provided just one new 'tick', Great Skua, with more Sooty Shears, Manx Shearwaters, European Storm-petrels etc. Tuesday had reasonable weather for seawatching, and produced both Great Shearwater and Cory's Shearwater in good numbers, both being ticks for us.

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Things were going well. The birds were showing superbly, the craic in the pub in the evenings was great, and we were learning, and learning fast.

That night was clear and still, and the sky on Cape is wonderful thing to behold on such a night. The stars seem brighter, not so muted as in the city. The sweeping light of the Fastnet reaches the high cliffs and plays with the shadows before you. We were treated to some shooting stars that night. I'm not a superstitious person, normally, but we both made a wish that night. We both hoped for one of the big three on this trip...we didn't mind which one. You can see, even at this early stage, the typical birding greed setting in! Give us a mega along with all the ticks we are getting anyway!

Wednesday was sunny, with a light north easterly breeze. Not the seawatching weather for Cape. Nonetheless we were out on Blanan early scanning the Manxies for Balearic Shearwaters which had thus far eluded us (despite being seen everyday by others). The sun was splitting the stones, and aside from the few Gannets, Fulmars and Manxies going by it was quite boring.

At about 5.15pm, after 8 hours on the rock, we decided to call it a day. We stopped briefly to chat with two Swedish birders about what they had seen, before continuing on up the rock face. No more than a minute after we left the two Swedes, all hell broke loose. One of them was screaming and we stopped to listen, turning back towards them.

"What's he shouting about CAS?"

"Can't make it out."

The other Swedish birder turned his head towards us and let out a roar.

"SOF-TEE!!!" in their distinctive broken syllable accent.

The usual caution we displayed when climbing on Blanan was gone. We sprinted down the rocks towards them in blind panic, suddenly possessed, seemingly with the surefootedness of mountain goats. The scopes were rapidly unpacked and we were treated to great views of a stunning Fea's Petrel. The bird arced its way slowly across the ocean for a good two minutes, showing off its "black banana" underwings, crisp white body, grey cap and stubby black bill. The shooting star had come up trumps.

Coming off Blanan a half hour later, I took, as the Germans say, Schadenfreude. Shameful joy in calling the friend and mentor who had told me of 20 years seawatching trying to see Fea's Petrel, to no avail. It is a conversation burned in my memory.

Me: "We just had a Fea's go by Blanan"

Him: "...You're lying."

Me: "Nope. 'Fraid not.

Him:"...ah you are. You're lying."

Me: "Nope. Two Swedish birders found it. It was seen by four of us in total."

Him: "(LOUD AUDIBLE DRAWN OUT SIGH) Ok you B%$#$%D, give me the details...

Fun for all the family.

That night in the pub was a merry one. Anyone would think we had won an Olympic medal from the treatment we received that night from friends on the island. Drinks were bought for us, dinner was served up to us, all for just a chance to hear about such an outstanding bird. Certainly not something that would happen these days, more's the pity.

Balearic Shearwater: Scilly pelagic, Isles of Scilly (photo: Ben Lascelles).

The rest of the week was excellent, with close views of Cory's and Great Shears on a pelagic, and, finally, catching up with Balearic Shearwater. But nothing beats walking back that evening, sunburned, with stiff muscles, to a hearty meal and a few pints with friends...save for my last and best memory from that trip. Myself and CAS sitting on the tip of Blanan watching Cory's Shearwaters, in warm red sunlight, drifting aimlessly west. Chatting and laughing about the stories we would have to tell when we got home. And looking back at the rock for the last time as the sun set behind it, knowing we would be back.

Written by: Owen Foley