Losing my head at Galley Head

Cory's Shearwater (Ben Lascelles) Cory's Shearwater (Bob Flood)

I'm a manic seawatcher, have been for years. I started seawatching in 1999 at the birding pantheon that is Cape Clear. I travelled to that island for one week with a friend, having just seen my first Storm Petrel a few weeks previously (a 'trash' bird by Irish standards) and left the island with a host of new seabirds, most notably Fea's Petrel. You would think that having seen one I would be unaffected by other sightings of the seawatcher's Holy Grail, but that is not the case. It's never the case. My innards are annually gripped by icy fingers when I hear of one having been seen off some distant headland.

During the months of July and August my daily routine takes on a new aspect. Every morning and evening I check the various weather websites, looking for those winds and rain cloud symbols that indicate where the birds are going to be. Often you see them on a Monday or a Wednesday and kick yourself for having plans or work. On Friday 1st July I saw a weather pattern that assured me birds were going to be seen nearby the next morning. Friends were called, plans made.

At 7.30 am I was climbing over the wall of the lighthouse compound at Galley Head in County Cork. Galley Head is a well-known Cork birding spot, famous for its American vagrants of the past and various other 'hot' passerine migrants over the years. I've never seen any warbler or wheatear species of note here, but I have seawatched from the site on many occasions, finding my second Fea's Petrel here in July 2003. It is, in my opinion, one of the best seawatching sites in the country, and certainly the best in Cork.

As I strolled down the track to the sheltered hollow thoughts of another one filled my mind, almost to the point of distraction, nearly twisting my ankle on the slippery grass. I rounded the hollow and was greeted by the sight of Colin Barton, Galley's resident birder, staring through his scope.

"Alright Colin!" I shouted through the wind.

He looked up, startled, with a near-crazy look in his eye.

"FEA'S" he exclaimed whilst pointing out to sea.

"You are joking?!" I shouted.

"No. Flying right, about 2 o'clock, very close at the edge of the mist. It's with a Gannet."

Expert directions, the first bird I see is a Fea's Petrel. And it's close, very close. I can see its eye, detail on the underwing, the dark grey cap and black bill. And then it's gone, around the corner and out of view. A brief, tantalizing, but delicious, view. For about two seconds I am in complete shock. I find my hand instinctively reaching for my phone and suddenly I realise that something is wrong. Andre, my birding companion for the day is nowhere to be seen.

I take off running, back up the steep cliff to the lighthouse wall, something pops in my right leg, just as I see Andre climbing over the wall. I'm screaming Fea's. I grab his scope and attempt to find the bird out west, but it is gone. The mist has swallowed it as easily as it produced it. A lifer has slipped away for Andre. We both limp in our own fashion back down to the hollow.

After such initial excitement it is hard to focus the mind on the sea in front of us. Cory's Shearwaters are streaming by in their hundreds, their numbers outweigh the Manx Shearwaters, and the mist is bringing them close. The yellow bill is evident on many of the birds and their slow lazy flight is characteristic even at a distance. One small group of Cory's has a Great Shearwater hiding in amongst them. It has been 3 years since I have seen a Great Shearwater. Two years since seeing a Cory's. My studies prevented me from getting out last year. It is like seeing old friends again.

After half an hour or so, the euphoria and pain of loss as the case may be has worn off, and the party is settling down to enjoy the many birds passing. A few Great Skuas and Arctic Skuas are mixed in with the Great, Cory's and Manx Shearwaters. Colin heads off home to have a cup of tea. Andre and I know he would love something stronger. He is gone less than 5 minutes when I see a beautiful adult pale phase Pomarine Skua fly out of the mist, its strong chest and "spoons" clearly visible. A minute or two later and an adult summer Sabine's Gull makes its way west, just barely beginning to moult some of it facial feathering. We are stunned. It is only the beginning of July and we are seeing birds I would expect for August or September! Another Sabine's comes into view with a Great Shearwater and a Cory's Shearwater simultaneously. I decide to follow the Great Shearwater. It has travelled further to see me.

Andre picks up a Leach's Storm-petrel, but it eludes me. Sab's, Pom and Leach's are all scarce birds in Co Cork. The Bridges of Ross or Brandon Head, yeah, no problem, but off Cork? In early July? We know we have been treated.

The sun comes out and we get our first few Sooty Shearwaters of the year, but apart from the steady passage of Cory's Shearwaters things begin to dry up as they usually do around midday. After 4 hours we have passed the 1,000 mark in numbers of Cory's Shearwaters and they are still pumping through in large numbers.

Andre drops me in Clonakilty before heading off back to Cork city, accepting the good morning's seawatching we had regardless of the Fea's. I have the full intention of eating and drinking before going back out for round two in the evening. But I see the red benches beside the estuary at Clonakilty. A favoured spot, where I have found good birds in the past; most recently a Cattle Egret at the end of April. The tide is low and there are a number of gulls about. I can't resist and the first bird I put my scope on is a Laughing Gull. At first I am sure that I have made a mistake. I'm hungry, dehydrated, probably hallucinating. But sure enough it's a Laughing Gull. A first-summer and different to the bird that was recently in Cork city. My second ever - two days after my first and a finder's tick.

Laughing Gull Laughing Gull
Laughing Gull, Clonakilty (Paul Moore) Laughing Gull, Clonakilty (Paul Moore)

The bird moves onto the local Gaelic football pitch where it is viewed by many local birders. At 4pm my lift arrives and we make it back out to Galley Head for the evening bout of seawatching. There are a lot more birders here for the evening showing, drawn out by this morning's sightings and space in the hollow is a commodity. The evening bout is tense. Cory's Shearwaters are still moving through in great numbers, and the Manx Shearwaters have boosted their numbers to match, heading home to the Skellig islands for the night. The Cory's are closer than ever giving phenomenal views. The number of Greats and Sooties has increased also with some Greats being very close, but the variety of the morning isn't in it and by 8pm the cold and damp has dwindled the number of birders.

To many of the birders present in the evening it was nothing special, no new species for any of them, albeit exceptionally early for Cory's in such large numbers. But to those lucky few who made it there for the early hours of the morning it was a day not to be forgotten and for me a return to my favorite form of birding at my favorite location, with a conservative count of 1,800 Cory's Shearwaters, 20 Great Shearwaters, 20 Sooty Shearwaters, 15 Great Skuas, 15 Arctic Skuas, 1 Pomarine Skua, 2 Sabine's Gulls, 1 Leach's Storm-petrel and of course, 1 Fea's Petrel.

When I finally got home late that evening, cold, tired and hungry I remembered to phone the one person I had forgotten to phone all day and the one person I had to tell, the friend who had accompanied me on the first seawatching foray to Cape Clear 6 years ago.

"CAS mate!...I got another Fea's!!!"

Written by: Owen Foley