The Magic of Cape Clear


Eastern Olivaceous Warbler: Cape Clear, Co. Cork (photo: Michael O'Keefe).

Since I decided to tempt fate around this time last year by daring to offer BirdGuides readers some tips on 'how to find more rare birds' it increasingly appeared I was losing the knack of practising what I preached myself. Throughout the months of August and September this year I was beginning to develop a worrying habit of being in the right place at the wrong time when it came to my pastime of turning up rare or scarce migrants. Since my friend Andre Robinson extended the Irish year-list record from 240 to 250 in 2005, this year there have been a number of enthusiasts actively pursuing a County Cork year list record. I use the word 'enthusiasts' to describe how well they have gone about their business and certainly with a genuine target to aim at they've ended up finding the birds an awful lot quicker than I have.

It's been a fine September in Cork for scarce migrants. Harry Hussey found Rose-coloured Starling and Greenish Warbler on Cape Clear mid-month; Ger Walsh (the leading county year-lister) has had Semipalmated Sandpiper and American Golden Plover at Ballycotton; Owen Foley was the first to White-rumped Sandpiper at Ballycotton (and a Wryneck in a place I checked the day before — a bird I hadn't seen for many years), as well as Lesser Yellowlegs and another American Goldie in and around some of my other favourite haunts.

Meanwhile, I can't say I've found nothing because I had a Citrine Wagtail flying over Ballycotton one day in mid-September — though it didn't land and become nicely boxed-up and gift-wrapped for others to see, just the way I like my 'rarities' to be. But somehow I've also failed to see two Pectoral Sandpipers that were around both before, and after, I left the sites, a Tree Pipit (a scarce Irish migrant that I haven't seen in my five years here) turned up in a field five minutes after I'd pitched my tent there (and I never even got to see it) and despite up to a dozen Wrynecks scattered around our southern coast I somehow hadn't managed to see one.

The journal I keep for myself was becoming very tiresome as it often is at times when I don't seem to be getting the right breaks. It's punctuated by all manner of weary platitudes about it not being all about rare 'finds' (which of course it isn't!) and 'must try harder tomorrow'.

'Tomorrow' finally arrived for me last week on Cape Clear!

I guess everyone knows by now that there was an Olivaceous Warbler on Cape Clear for almost a week and here I am to tell you the story of its discovery! But it's also an opportunity, I hope, for me to return the name of Cape Clear to the birding consciousness lest it be forgotten what an extraordinary place it occupies in the history of birdwatching on these islands.

Friday 22nd September

Having found myself increasingly out-manoeuvred by other birders at Ballycotton, I decided to play what I had been calling my 'Cape Clear card' earlier than expected. I'd first visited the island in 1988 on a one-day twitch to see the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker but since domiciling myself in Cork I've somehow only managed to set foot on the hallowed turf twice since: a long weekend in October 2001 and just a two-day visit the following April. I was long overdue another pilgrimage to the site which boasts a list of American passerines longer than anywhere outside of the Scillies. In a telephone conversation to the Warden, Steve Wing (an old friend from the four Octobers I spent on Lundy in the early 90s), I'd promised I'd see him before the year was out...and not just for a one-off twitch this time.

Cape Clear, Co. Cork (photo: Graham Gordon).

It so happened that the day I arrived, Steve announced he was off on holiday to Scotland with his partner Mary and that I was likely to be the only birder staying at the Bird Observatory for at least three of my first four nights. I quite liked that idea! With hindsight it seems strangely 'fated' that I should be the only birder staying at one of the oldest and most famous birding Observatories on the whole of the European continent. Though I should add at this point that another friend Ciaran Cronin, a Cork birder, was staying elsewhere on the island at one of the holiday homes of his Cape Clear employers.

While I'm on the subject of Fate, I might also add that the Friday night saw a storm system passing through southern Ireland: the remnants of Hurricane Gordon. I tried to play down the significance of this in my mind the next day but I did think wishfully it would make for an interesting story...

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Saturday 23rd September

My first full day on Cape Clear was characterized by sun, sun and more sun. The storm had passed through quickly overnight and left little but a rippling south-easterly breeze as evidence of its passing. There were few migrants around (a Pied Flycatcher was best) but I basked in the glorious conditions and renewed my acquaintance with some of the little spots I hadn't seen in almost five years. The island was fully occupied by twenty-plus birders, but no birds, the October I'd been here, reducing my chance of finding my 'own' rare birds. This time, with the place almost to myself, every sycamore, every willow, every bramble bush seemed loaded with potential. Whilst I was still seeing little, I started to bliss out on the possibility of what I might one day see. And of course, with a place that holds a history like this island, a part of your imagination is also contemplating the past finds.

The best bird I saw during the afternoon was a Lapland Bunting that I flushed on my way up to the clifftops for a seawatch. It was the first I'd seen in Ireland and my first anywhere for well over ten years. Even better was to come a couple of hours later in the evening when I finally stumbled across a Wryneck — my first in twelve! What a great moment to reacquaint myself with such an outstanding bird as this after such a long time. It was a bit wary at first, but I figured if I gave it enough space it would come back to the spot from where I first flushed it, and it did. This time I crept up on it more slowly, and as most of its attention was focused on the crevices in a low dry-stone wall, I was able to take two steps closer every time it buried its head in to dig out the ants. By the time it realized I was there I was practically standing next to it, a stealth operation that had taken up three quarters of an hour. I was enraptured by the stillness of the early evening, the absence of people and noise; the only sound the sound of Robins singing their silver autumn songs, and this marvellously unique creature in front of me: vermiculations unimaginably finely etched on its remarkable lilac plumage.

Saturday night was the first night I spent in the Observatory on my own.

Sunday 24th September

The perfect weather continued into today, sunny and warm with the continuing hint of a light south-easterly breeze. My first aim for the morning was to try to get to grips with the Rose-coloured Starling that had been on the island for almost ten days. I'd somehow contrived to miss it altogether on the Saturday, and though I wasn't hotly pursuing it to be sure, I really would like to see it. Not yet being fully familiar with the geography of Cape Clear, I managed (I later found out) to set off in completely the wrong direction for the starling and ended up looking for it in a place as far removed as it was possible to be from the actual correct site without falling off the cliffs (about a mile and a half). I had apparently misheard the warden's directions on the first day and I'd gone to the spot where the starling had originally been found, not where it had spent most of the past week. This I found out when, after a fairly taxing walk up and down some of the steepest parts of the island, I finally arrived at somewhere close to the right spot and at last managed to find a reasonable-sized flock of Starlings.

At this point — it was somewhere around midday — I decided it was time to stop walking around and simply hope the Rosy Starling would now come to me. The Starlings were a little way off in the distance and there was a loose group of maybe seventy feeding quite actively in the small, tussocky paddocks that characterize the fields of Cape Clear. Every now and then a small group would fly up to the telegraph wires and this I ascertained was my best chance of spotting the odd one out. I decided to give it twenty minutes at least. It would be the first time I spent more than five minutes in one spot (apart from the pub) since arriving on the island 48 hours earlier. My instinct, as usual, was always to press on.

Strange then, how, after not quite ten minutes of again taking in the moment — the sunshine, the stillness, the silence — I was suddenly brought back to earth with a bump when an interesting call started coming from a garden about thirty yards to my left. It was an insistent, repeated tchecking sound: hard and Sylvia-like but seemingly lacking the correct 'a' as the middle syllable? I hadn't really formulated any thoughts as to what it might be as I crept up fairly purposefully on the garden and almost immediately saw an exciting pale head peering through the foliage of a large sycamore. I lost the bird initially — it had been disturbed by some hens — but even in that brief, obscure view I had recognized the head of a Hippolais from a similarly brief encounter with a Melodious Warbler on Dursey Island the weekend before...except that this one had a white throat!

Trying hard to contain my excitement — for I knew what the implications of this interesting call plus interesting head meant — I propped up my elbows on the low garden wall to try to steady my shaking arms. "Please don't be a Reed Warbler," I said to myself. "Please. Please. Please!"

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler: Cape Clear, Co. Cork (photo: Michael O'Keefe).

I didn't have too long to wait. In retrospect, if it had been a Reed Warbler I might never have seen it again. But because it was a Hippo, as soon as the chickens that had unsettled it buzzed off to another patch the bird slipped back in to full view. I was standing about fifteen yards away from it, looking across into the garden; I didn't have my scope. Despite my attempts to stop shaking (oh what a delicious feeling that is and how rarely we experience it!) it took me a while to settle down and fully take in what was going on through the other end of my binoculars. I knew I was looking at an Olivaceous Warbler. The bird did everything it could to offer me all the confirmation I needed including the one gloriously magical moment where it casually, but distinctly, 'dipped' its long tail. Was there still a possibility it was our old friend the Reed Warbler in one of its many disguises? That was my main worry. Perfectly white flanks, no warmth whatsoever on the upperparts, short undertail coverts, square tail...ignore the Reed Warbler, it was time to get on the phone.

I'm sorry at this point if it seems a) I should have been struggling to separate this bird from Booted Warbler and Sykes's Warbler and b) trying to decide whether this was Western or Eastern Olivaceous. Because I've been away in America for most of the last ten years I'm afraid I've not really paid any attention to the question of b) above. I was only concerned that this was an Olivaceous Warbler: somebody else can decide whether this was Western or Eastern although I gather 'Eastern' was later announced to all the Birdlines on the basis of the bird's grey-brown colour and the width of the base of its bill ('Western', I learned later, is no longer accepted as having occurred in Britain or Ireland). As regards a) above: well, it obviously wasn't a Booted Warbler so as far as I was concerned that meant it obviously wasn't a Sykes's either — although for the sake of those on the mainland I was asked to confirm that it wasn't the latter when they broadcast some features to me over the phone. I must admit I should have stuck to my guns a bit more and told them where to get off! Although I hadn't seen Olivaceous Warbler in Ireland or Britain I became reasonably familiar with them in a few visits to Israel (admittedly as long ago as the early 90s) and it was that tail-dipping that clinched them every time! What a feature! I could say it was unique but it is so similar to Chiffchaff you wonder what's the function of it? I leave that to someone else to answer as well.

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler: Cape Clear, Co. Cork (photo: Michael O'Keefe).

Nine birders arrived from the Cork mainland on that first afternoon. It had taken me a while to rouse Ciaran Cronin from his bed because the drinkers of Cape Clear had kept him at work behind the bar of one of the local pubs until six in the morning. Whilst the two of us stood there admiring the bird in the afternoon sunshine, the rumbling of both our bellies might almost have been enough to scare the bird back to Turkey or from wherever it had come; it was four in the afternoon and we had both gone without food and water for the best part of ten hours. It was to be another while before I released myself from my long afternoon vigil by the sycamore tree but once my friends had come and ticked it off it was time for a pint and a pie!

And the rest of the week...

This most obliging bird ended up staying for eight days on Cape Clear. And so did I. Originally having booked for only four nights I was starting to become so settled-in that it was impossible to leave. Perhaps the Olivaceous felt the same? It showed to a number of my friends throughout the week (missing one day when another storm prevented boats coming and going from the island and bent the trees so much I scarcely bothered to look). It was a remarkable thing for me to have the option every day I was on the island to stroll up and take a look at 'my' bird — though it became slightly more elusive towards the end of its stay and my patience was not up to spending more than twenty minutes in one place looking for it.

Then, remarkably, on my last day, at ten in the morning, I strolled up to the garden and there it was, showing on the outside of the sycamore where I'd first seen it, and there it remained for much of the next hour and a half. There were only two of us there, myself and photographer Michael O'Keefe, and I basked in this one last fitting finale as the bird once again displayed all the entertaining characteristics of the Hippolais family: in and out of the foliage; sidling along branches; reaching up to pick aphids off the underside of leaves; dashing out occasionally on some mad flycatching expedition; seeing off all-comers to its territory whether they be Willow Warbler, Blackcap or Goldcrest. Even the local Robins seemed to avoid it.

Rose-coloured Starling: Cape Clear, Co. Cork (photo: Tom Shevlin).

At one point the Rose-coloured Starling perched on top of the sycamore directly above the Olivaceous Warbler but by this time I'd already seen the former many times. It hung out with the Starlings up and down what is known as the High Road on Cape Clear and every day, at some point on my route, I would have some sort of encounter with it. It was a far more delightful creature than I ever remember from the last one I'd seen (again going back to the early 90s) and there were several times I sat down and watched it for as long as I could until, in typically mercurial fashion, the Starlings all dashed off to some other part of the island (though never back anywhere near the spot where I'd searched forlornly for it on the previous Sunday morning!)

In total about fifty Irish birders came and saw the Olivaceous Warbler. Most stayed only for the few hours the boat schedule would allow them to tick the bird off, but some stayed for a night or two, either joining me in the Observatory or finding their own accommodation in bed and breakfast. Though I generally skulked off on my own in the field each day, it was nice to have other birders around to share some good old island craic in the pub at night. I met several Irish birders — some from Dublin and some from the North — who regaled me with many, many, historic tales of birds seen and fun had on previous visits to Cape Clear going back as far as 1972! My old friend Steve Wing was duly declared the People's Champion of Cape Clear Wardens Past and Present in the pub one night in recognition of all the sterling work he has done over the last eight or nine years. Firstly, single-handedly rebuilding the Observatory from the ramshackle affair it had become by the late 90s, and then by cementing relationships with many of the resident islanders such that visiting birders are allowed to wander into several excellent areas that might otherwise have been declared off-limits. That same night — a Saturday — one of the bars on the mainland at Baltimore was having a closing-down party and many of the Cape Clear islanders departed by late night boat to join in the festivities. This left a total of fifteen birders in the pub on Clear and no-one else — leading one of our crowd to beam merrily that he'd always dreamt of this moment when birders would one day take over the world! Even our bartender Ciaran was a birder.

I finally left Cape Clear on Sunday 1st October — as apparently did the Olivaceous Warbler, for there was no sign of it on the Monday. It couldn't have got any better than that. Sure, somewhat greedily I went out each day eagerly looking for Pechora Pipit and Isabelline Wheatear but it would have been too much to expect anything so soon after this one remarkable bird.

And so to October...by general consensus the best month on the birding calendar. Well to be honest I haven't had much 'success' in previous Octobers in Ireland. Last year my best 'find' was a Common Rosefinch despite taking four days off work every week throughout the month. And in October 2004 I wangled an entire month off work and had nothing to show for it other than two Yellow-browed Warblers. If you've read one or two of my previous articles for BirdGuides 'Three White Rabbits and a Tawny Pipit' or 'Three White Rabbits...and a Broad-billed Sandpiper' you might know the silly superstition I keep up of uttering "White Rabbits, White Rabbits, White Rabbits" out loud on the first of the month for luck. Well this October I forgot! So that's me doomed from the start...although I did manage to perform another old ritual by playing the U2 track 'October' from the album of the same name on the evening of October 1st. Maybe that might help me finally find my own Pallas's Warbler after eighteen Octobers of trying?

Eastern Olivaceous Warbler: Cape Clear, Co. Cork (photo: Tom Shevlin).

Written by: Graham Gordon