Rarity finders: American Horned Lark in Co Galway


You never know how a day of birding will end, especially in autumn.

I had returned to Inishmore, in the Aran Islands, on 2 October to join a small group of birders heading out to try their luck in finding rare migrants – though it had been a fairly unremarkable autumn for rarities in Co Galway by that point.

One tough aspect of birding Inishmore and other western Irish isles is that they tend to attract more weather. Weather is a key component, though, and the better birding days always seem to be associated with windy, rainy, and colder weather. The previous two days were no exception, with continuing strong 25-35 km/h western winds. Unlike in 2020, there had been very little to no eastern 'flow' and the birding was hard work.

Birding had been tough on Inishmore until 3 October, when a jewel from across the Atlantic appeared (Mike Sylvia).

Inishmore is a long island and travelling by bicycle is the main method of getting to the scattered areas of promising habitat. On average I pedal 35-50 km each day and walk 10 km or so. After my efforts the previous week and the day before I was feeling pretty down on 3 October at the prospect of going west again, where the few interesting birds found so far had been located. But at dawn, off I went west, and up the steep High Road not listening to my head and gut. All the way up the steep incline I kept thinking "why am I going this way?" and not following the plan I had formulated the night before. By the time I got to the top of the hill I had had enough and spun around and headed back down the hill going east with the wind behind me. I was quickly past the port town of Kilronan and feeling better.

First stop and long walk through the stone-walled pastures and coastal cliffs near the town reservoir located a flyover Pink-footed Goose and a stunning 'Greenland' Northern Wheatear. Pedalling east from there, the weather continued to be mixed with sun, drizzle, hard rain, and strong winds. I had not found much else and decided to park the bike at the start of a large open area of machair after the airport and large sandy bay. Since it is a large expanse, it can be difficult to scan for small birds from the road so I decided to walk it.

I had walked about 15 minutes when I noticed the rain jacket I had in a small bag on my belt had blown off. This wasn't good because the area is riddled with rabbit holes! I followed my tracks back to the bike. Nothing. Back again on the same trail I relocated the jacket, which I presumed had been blown across the machair by the gale. So, I moved on, taking in another wheatear on the way.

I kept walking east to another area of sand dunes and machair. This area is about 200 ha or so and makes up the entire eastern tip of the island. Few people ever go out this far as it has to be by foot. A few Chough were seen and I had my first Barnacle Geese for the island flying high and west into the wind. Nice.

I went through a quick mental list of 'possible' species in the barren habitat and I must say that Horned Lark was one of them that came to mind. Not five minutes later and only a short distance after a bird flew up from my right and over my head and came down to land just over a small mound in the flat. This bird was definitely something different and Horned Lark flashed in my mind. The tail and belly patterns, the way it flew – plus the landscape – must have flashed a memory of this very scenario from the past. I panicked, having not seen where it landed, but manoeuvred to my left and spotted the bird in a depression of rock and moss about 40 m away. A very quick binocular look was enough to confirm my suspicions. I quickly raised the camera and secured the first distant photos to confirm it in case it took flight. Breathe. Breathe! I could see the bird and it was relaxed and started feeding. I knew this was huge, so texted Hugh Delaney, the only other birder on the island. He is well versed in the Irish avian world and I knew he'd want to see it. Unfortunately, he was at the west end of the island.

Only a few minutes after Mike had been considering the possibility of Horned Lark, one flew over his head (Mike Sylvia).

"I have a Shore Lark," I wrote at 2.37 pm, defaulting to the name given to the combined Eurasian and American subspecies. He called me immediately. A few examples of 'holy this' and 'holy that' were expressed. Five minute later I sent him a fuzzy photo. Once we were both in agreement, we decided to get the word out to some of the Galway guys and start the discussion. Replies ranged from "wow" to "#$%!!", "holy $&*$%!!" and more. As the discussion and congrats raged on I realised I had taken my eye off the bird.

A short while later I had relocated it after a very nervous and cautious search. It was again feeding quietly in a depression with a Meadow Pipit. I jettisoned my belongings and crawled on the wet ground, commando-style, across to the top of a small hill looking down into the bowl. It was still there and walking my way! The bird either didn't see me or didn't care as I laid still and just pointed the lens its way. At one point it was just a few metres away.

The lark spent much of its time associating with a Meadow Pipit (Mike Sylvia).

After a quick review to make sure I had secured the photos I wanted I backed off. Hugh was biking, catching a taxi, and would have to hike 2 km across the dunes to reach me.  How long would it be? I sent him a pin from my location.

All I focused on now was keeping it in my sights. The rain came and went. Even a bit of hail mixed in. The wind roaring the entire time. I watched. It moved, and I followed. At one point it again walked towards me to the point I needed to back up. Where was Hugh? We had a few exchanges since the pin and at one point he told me he was there. That wasn't possible. He was at the wrong point.

Finally, as I stood and stared, he put a hand on my shoulder. It was 3.28 pm, a long, wet and crazy hour since I first messaged him. I pointed it out and said: "There it is. It's your responsibility now!"

The bird gave some absolutely stunning views during the afternoon (Mike Sylvia).

With free eyes now I looked over the photos and circulated a cropped version. The guys off-island were hammering the books and the excitement was increasing. Consensus was forming around a North American Horned Lark.

Hugh and I enjoyed the bird for another hour and then decided to leave it knowing others would be heading over the next morning. Time to make the long walk and bike trip back and celebrate. I was also anxious to review my photos on the computer back at the hostel and get a much better set of shots out. By almost 7 pm, there was little doubt left about the ID.

You truly never know how a day of birding will end!

Written by: Mike Sylvia

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