22/02/2008
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The Great Cattle Egret Hunt

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When Robert "Disco" Vaughan hobbled on a busted ankle down the railway track at Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow, on 9th November 2007, little did he know that he would be the finder of Ireland's 11th Cattle Egret...and the last "good" Cattle Egret to be found in this country. Ok, Cattle Egret is ALWAYS a good bird! It's true. But let's all face it...they really don't get the pulse racing any more. Since Disco Rob found that 11th Cattle Egret it has been estimated that up to a staggering 80 individuals have now occurred in Ireland.

Cattle Egret
Cattle Egret, Cartron, Galway (Photo: Tom Cuffe)

They say diamonds are so common that they have absolutely no value other than that which we place upon them. Over the past few years I dare say the same can be said of a number of species which have seen influx years, with Laughing Gull, Franklin's Gull, Chimney Swift and Buff-bellied Pipit springing to mind. When such amazing events occur, we birders tend to become quite complacent in regards to such species. They get relegated to the realm of "trash birds", which is, quite frankly, ludicrous! How can birds like this ever be labelled trash? I always tried to make the most of such influxes. You just never know when the reservoir of such species is going to "dry up".

It was a discussion with my brother where the idea was first raised. "Just how cool would it be to see a load of these Cattle Egrets being found?" We both reached the consensus that it would, indeed, be pretty cool. But time was an issue. I didn't have the time to pop across to Galway for three located there, or to Kerry or Clare for a couple located there, or to Waterford or Wexford. No, targeting singles and small groups just wasn't going to work.

Cork, my home away from home, was the undisputed hotspot for the bulk of the Cattle Egret boom. Knowing the terrain and roadways as well as I did, it just made sense to focus my attention there. And with a good number of other birds wintering, including Lesser Yellowlegs, Buff-bellied and Water Pipits and Kentish Plover, a weekend in Ireland's largest county would be well spent. I left Dublin at 3.00am on Saturday 16th of February bound for Cork. It felt good to be moving again. Work and social commitments had, of late, hindered my birding somewhat, though attending a conference in Cork recently had allowed me to year-tick a drake Garganey at Little Island and score a self-found Spoonbill in a brief hour's birding before dark. But obtaining a whole weekend out birding, and in Cork to boot? That was a heartening prospect.

Garganey
Garganey, Cork City, Cork (Photo: Sean Cronin)

I arrived in Bandon, west Cork, at 6.30am. It was still dark, and I took the opportunity to have an hour's kip before moving on to my first target. I had a feeling I was going to need the rest; chemicals would have to make up the energy difference, and an open garage provided an unhealthy mix of various concoctions of caffeine and phenylalanine. My first target was Dunmanway, a small village roughly 30 miles inland, where at a nearby lake called Ballincarriga, five Cattle Egrets had been seen midweek. My first score was to come sooner than expected however, as two Cattle Egrets flew north over the town land of Murragh, some 20 km from Dunmanway. A good start!

The Ballincarriga area was sadly devoid of any obvious Cattle Egrets; despite an extensive search, the best to be seen here was a flock of some 20 Whooper Swans. I began to work the back roads from Dunmanway towards Skibbereen, a rather extensive area in and of itself. Despite checking many dozens of cattle herds, not an egret was to be seen. Perhaps this "boom" was not a loud as people had suggested? The town lands of Skibbereen, Baltimore, Ballymacrown, Toe Head and Castletownsend were also devoid of egrets, though cattle were in abundance!

My second score of the day, again, came by accident. Taking a wrong turn, instead of arriving at the coastal marsh near to Reen Pier at Unionhall, I instead wound up at a dead end on Carighly Road where a lone Cattle Egret was present with cattle on the hillside here.

A flock of four egrets present on a hillside amongst cattle between Unionhall and Leap proved to be, frustratingly, just Little Egrets. This was the first in a sequence of such flocks, setting an aggravating trend of near heart attacks, as I came across numerous Little Egrets out of typical estuarine habitat. One thing was certain: there was far less to this influx than I had hoped and I was working very hard for little reward. After several hours and extensive mileage, I had managed to convince myself of my ability to identify to race, age and sex members of the bovine species solely by the distinctive slopping sound of their excrement. I realised I needed a break!

A Lesser Yellowlegs at nearby Rosscarbery, found by my brother the previous autumn, proved to be just the right distraction necessary, and gave stunning views down to 5 metres. It has been a regular occurrence over the past few years that a Lesser Yellowlegs has wintered in this area of west Cork, providing a welcome early year tick to the active birder.


Lesser Yellowlegs - Rosscarberry, Cork. One of my favourite waders, a welcome change from herds of cattle with vacuous expressions (photo: Owen Foley)

The time had come to move on, and with the mid-day point having passed, it was time to give up on the back roads and hidden cattle herds. The Clonakilty area was supposedly up to its neck in Cattle Egrets, with up to ten having been seen in the egret roost at the Cul de Sac pool. It took some time to locate any Cattle Egrets in this area, with numerous zig-zag routes in land to suitable areas. I managed in the end to locate a healthy sized flock of five Cattle Egrets (and numerous flocks of Little Egrets), with cattle on the hill overlooking Clogheen Marsh. These birds were a joy to watch, spotting just two birds at first, but a little patience paid off as three more individuals magically appeared out from behind sleeping cows.

From Clonakilty I moved on east along the coast, again in search of any cattle I could find. Two white birds in with cattle at Lislevane, near Timolegue, turned out to be, of all things, 1st-winter Iceland Gulls! A nice surprise, but I was starting to think that someone was having a laugh at my expense at this point. The Kinsale area proved devoid of birds of interest, and I made my way toward the back roads of Oysterhaven, Nohoval, Roberts Cove, Tracton, and Minane bridge (where several Cattle Egrets had been reported). Again these areas supported various flocks of Little Egrets in with cattle herds but no joy on the part of their smaller cousins.

Twelve birds had been reported at nearby Coolmaine House, near Carrigaline, and this large flock was admittedly something I was dying to see at this point, both for the sheer spectacle and the badly needed boost in numbers. This area, and the rear of this hill near my old local patch of Lough Beg, produced yet more Little Egrets with cattle but no Cattle Egrets! After several dips like this, I knew at least of one Cattle Egret that should be more or less guaranteed (famous last words). A single bird had been coming to roost at the lough, in Cork city itself, for several days, and with two Kumlien's Gulls, a first-winter and an adult, it was a site high on the hit list.

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The Kumlien's Gulls were present instantly upon arrival at the Lough, giving good views flying between the various families throwing bread to the domestic quacks on the pond. At 5.35pm the Cattle Egret, flying in from the north, dropped directly down into the trees on the small island and was visible, though partially obscured, through the branches as Little Egrets from around the city dropped in to join it.


Kumlien's Gull: first winter, The Lough, Cork City (photo: Seán Ronayne)

Thinking myself done for the day, I made my way towards the suburb of Douglas, hankering after a suitable venue for a decent meal (man cannot live on caffeine alone), and amazingly the tenth Cattle Egret of the day flew over the road and out over the South polder at Douglas, possibly heading to roost in the reedbed here.

The target for Sunday was to cover east Cork, again searching for various reported Cattle Egrets. Cobh Island was the first stop on the list. Cobh is a fantastic mix of birding opportunities, famous for gulls along the seafront and at nearby Cuskinny Marsh. The island also offers excellent estuarine habitat at various locations. Two Ring-billed Gulls were present on Cuskinny Marsh, typically giving superb views.


Ring-billed Gull, adult, Cuskinny Marsh, Cobh. Ring-billed Gulls just never get tiresome (photo: Owen Foley).

Driving around the back roads of the island itself, again, yielded many Little Egrets feeding in fields amongst cattle, but again no Cattle Egrets in sight. The fishing pond close to Belvelly Bridge, the site where I had found a juvenile Spoonbill on 7th February, again held this bird, seeming to have barely moved from the same spot in which I had found it and enjoying the strong morning sunshine.


Spoonbill, Cobh. A grotty juvenile, but a nice surprise nonetheless (photo: Owen Foley).


Juvenile Spoonbill, Cobh. (photo: Owen Foley)

From Cobh I made my way directly to Ballycotton, checking cattle herds en route. The lake produced an attractive Water Pipit but little else of note. I met up with Cork birder Sean Ronayne at Shanagarry on his way back from an attempt to twitch Fin Whale off Knockadoon Head and we both made our way to the Red Barn area. Again, no Cattle Egrets were in this area but the beach held the long-staying American Buff-bellied Pipit and Water Pipit, both of which gave outstanding views.


Water Pipit, Red Barn Strand. Note the dark lores, broken orbital ring and strongly streaked mantle. The underparts are strongly white with broad diffuse brown streaking (photo: Owen Foley).


American Buff-bellied Pipit, Red Barn Strand, Cork. Note the pale lores, buff underparts and neater flank streaking than Water Pipit (photo: Owen Foley).


American Buff-bellied Pipit, Red Barn Strand, Cork. Note the faintly marked mantle, which is more spotted than streaked, with markings confined to the centre of the mantle. The complete unbroken orbital ring is especially visible in this shot (photo: Owen Foley).

After stopping for a badly needed and well-deserved bite, we made our way back to Cobh in the hopes of intercepting Cattle Egrets coming to roost at the Spoonbill pond. As we pulled up to the pond a dozen Little Egrets where present in the fields behind the pond, which had held three Cattle Egrets recently. The Spoonbill had moved off, however within minutes a Cattle Egret landed in amongst the egrets in the field and began to feed. These birds soon moved into the trees surrounding the pond and a further two Cattle Egrets came in to roost alongside the first.


Cattle Egret at roost, Cobh, Cork. In the last of the failing light - a magical end to a great weekend birding (photo: Owen Foley).

Though I hadn't seen the great numbers of Cattle Egrets that I had hoped to I really couldn't complain about the weekend's birding, with 13 Cattle Egrets in total (including 4 new birds) and a number of wintering rarities all giving spectacular views. Several questions remain however: just how many Cattle Egrets are there really? With so many roving around, watching the various roosts around the country may be the only way to gain an accurate picture of this influx. And most importantly, will they stay to summer and become a new Irish breeding species? Now that really would be something!

Written by: Owen Foley