23/05/2005
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Three White Rabbits...and a Broad-billed Sandpiper

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There we were...all set up, raring to go.

Andre Robinson and I had secured the full Bank Holiday weekend off work for a seven-hour drive (and a boat trip) to the very top left-hand corner of Ireland: to Tory Island, Donegal, one of the most underwatched and potentially exciting outposts in the country. Not that we were looking for migrants, mind you — Tory's largely untapped promise lies primarily in September/October — but for Corncrake, a bird I've seen one of in twenty-six years; Andre none (despite 'world-listing' at some 3,000 plus species). And, we were going for the craic — some genuine Irish culture. The island today is one of the last bastions of the Gaelic-speaking world, and still boasts its own King, who can be found most weekends sipping Guinness and playing music down the local pub with his 'subjects'! "Tory! Tory! Tory! (NOT the General Election)" was the working title of a piece I'd planned for BirdGuides — my 'creative writing' practice for this site being the only form of note-taking I employ at the moment for putting to paper the outcome of my birdwatching endeavours.

Then I saw the weather forecast!

It's funny isn't it? I see about as many weather forecasts from November to April as I do Wheatears and Swallows (er...none) yet here I was again faced with that familiar gut-wrenching uncertainty that pertains to trying to preview in advance which way the wind will blow and where the rain is going to fall for the next 72 hours. One day last year when I was hitching to the Old Head of Kinsale, I met this golfer who told me about an Icelandic weather station on the Internet that he swore blind could tell me up to the minute exactly where and when the rain would fall across the entire European continent. Well forgive me. I have a great respect for golfers and their propensity to be out in all weathers the same as birders, grabbing the last two hours of light after work on a misty September evening to play nine holes, but if this is the best they can do for their forecasts, then I'm afraid their expectations do not meet the exacting minutiae of mine. The graphics and 'special effects' of www.theyr.net look exciting and impressive alright, but I lost count of how many 'rainy days' turned 'fair' last year — and vice versa — including one spectacular 'What's Happening With The Weather Right Now' moment that proclaimed blazing blue skies over Cork while I looked out the window at one of the most treacherous downpours I believe I have ever seen.

"Aw, come on," I hear a sympathetic voice say..."What do you expect! This is Ireland — a 'maritime' climate with arguably one of the most unpredictable meteorological situations in the world." And I agree. Who'd want to be a professional weather forecaster over here? We all know they're up there with taxmen and traffic wardens as holders of the most thankless occupations imaginable.

So, anyhow...the forecast for Donegal, Saturday, was for rain — lots of it. A brief clear spell Sunday morning was due to be followed by...more rain. There is one tree, three pubs and no shops on Tory Island. As our plans for accommodation for the weekend involved camping there seemed little point in driving seven hours for a certain drenching. So we didn't. Reluctantly, after much discussion, we cancelled our trip — and decided to stay closer to 'home' where the weather was due to be reasonably fine (with, I might add, some rather promising warm, southerly winds). As it turned out, the frontal system moving up the west coast of Ireland stalled over Galway, and the whole of the southern half of the country — including Cork — took a rain lashing on Saturday, while Donegal basked in 24 hours of unbroken sunshine. For a full half-hour late the following night, while I lay in my tent at Ballycotton after a long, largely unproductive day in the field (May 1st), I regretted the abject timidity of our decision...whilst mentally sticking pins in voodoo doll effigies of weather forecasters the world over.

Twenty-four hours later, as I shall now proceed to tell you, all lingering thoughts of our abandoned Tory Island venture were to be forgotten forever.

Regular readers of my Bird News Extra features may recall a contribution I made to the site at this exact same time last year entitled Three White Rabbits and a Tawny Pipit in which I related an episode of great good fortune following my invoking of an old English superstition to utter 'White Rabbits' three times out loud for luck on the first day of the new month. It was an episode that was certainly on my mind again this particular May 1st as I remembered to chant out the magic formula on waking at 7am — despite finding myself in the early throes of what was to be a remorseful morning's penance for consuming the best part of a bottle and a half of red wine at the house of Ballycotton birder, Phil Davis, the evening before.

On cancellation of our intended Tory Island departure, Andre — currently pursuing the Irish year-list record — had invited me to accompany him to County Wexford where a Long-billed Dowitcher and the prospect of some exciting exploration around the marshes and lakes of Tacumshin lay in store. I had declined because...well, if you have been reading some of my earlier BirdGuides articles you may already know that I have developed something of a productive symbiotic birding relationship with Ballycotton in south-east Cork; and, as any of you dedicated 'local patchers' out there will undoubtedly know, the potential of finding just one good bird in a place you've become attached to outweighs the temptation of three or five elsewhere.

As it turned out, hangover notwithstanding, I came out of the door on May 1st to the unusual sound in Ireland of a Garden Warbler in full song...but in the end, despite ten hours of careful searching, this was all I came up with as a show of my faith. This wasn't, I'm afraid, quite as much as I was expecting. At various junctures throughout the day I was regaled with news of Cattle Egret and Black-winged Stilt turning up in West Cork, and of Andre's adventures in chartering a boat out to the Saltee Islands off the Wexford coast for Woodchat Shrike, Wood Warbler, Whinchat, Yellow Wagtail and Tree Pipit — all birds that were scarce migrants to Ireland and invaluable contributions to his happily growing list for the year. All this, coupled with that lingering regret of our abandoned Tory trip I told you about earlier, served to make me — quite literally — a less than happy camper on that first night in the tent in the dunes at Ballycotton; my trust in the ability of aforementioned 'Benevolent Bunnies in the Sky' to wield their magical influence now at a slightly lower ebb!

May 2nd — after a fitful first night under canvas for almost six months (like the weather forecast, my tent is hidden out of sight and largely forgotten about throughout winter) I emerged, rather belatedly at nine, ready to face the world. In not altogether dissimilar circumstances to 'the Marsh Harrier as prelude to the Tawny Pipit encounter' at the same stage last year (see Three White Rabbits and a Tawny Pipit), one of the very first birds I saw outside the tent was a Golden Oriole — a personal 'find-tick', and the first I had seen of the species anywhere since Shetland, 1990.

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In truth, this Oriole did not brighten my spirits quite as much as perhaps it should have done, because, unfortunately, I'd rather blundered in to it, and it had undulated off into the distance and disappeared into a faraway and inaccessible copse. Also, to my imminent concern, a second enormous band of cloud for the weekend was now ominously moving in across the Atlantic; and within ten minutes of the Oriole's (dis)appearance, it had settled in overhead, and had begun to release the first drops of what turned out to be almost seven hours of continuous rain.

And what rain! It seemed to me as I set off along the westward-facing coastal clifftop footpath at Ballycotton, wrapped in waterproofs, that it wasn't too bad, nothing to worry unduly about...and, yet, within twenty minutes, the first miserable signs of leakage through the pockets of my overcoat became apparent and it became increasingly obvious that this apparent heroic quest of mine to continue in spite of the elements, was fast reaching that cut-off point where birdwatching becomes ridiculous — the vast majority of avian creatures would be under cover out of sight — and even on the slightest off-chance I might stumble across something good: would I really enjoy it in these conditions anyway?

I completed my familiar two- to three-hour circuit of the Ballycotton 'sites' and wandered reluctantly back to my tent, not long after midday. I was faced with an unhappy prospect. It was a Bank Holiday Monday — effectively a 'Sunday' — and there were no buses back to Cork City, an hour or so away. An earlier telephone conversation with Andre, my one chance of a straight lift back to the city, had revealed that he had left Tacumshin late yesterday evening, bypassed Ballycotton, and headed out two hours west of Cork to clean up on the Cattle Egret and the Stilt, both of which he successfully saw. Hitch-hiking in pouring rain was the only option available to me now.

To delay the inevitable, I stopped by my tent to pick up an umbrella I'd left there earlier, discarded my day bag, and slouched off once more for a last half-hour or so along the vast stretches of the Ballycotton shore. Within a few minutes, from beneath the cover of my brolly, I recognized I was actually surprisingly comfortable given the circumstances of the day. It was a straight up and down rain, with very little wind, which, after the in-your-face soaking of the morning was a relief, given that I could now protect myself from the worst the elements had to throw at me. I lingered a little longer than I might have done on the shore, still trying to stretch out this last little precious moment of pleasure before embarking upon the inevitable. I scanned a small flock of about twenty Dunlin in the mid-distance with binoculars, somewhat purposelessly...and then, to their left, about fifteen more: the same group, I assumed, that I had looked at a few times at odd moments over the previous twenty-four hours. And then that was it...time up: time to pack up, and go home.

The Ballycotton shore on a wet day (Photo: Graham Gordon)

I really don't know what it was...as I turned and started heading more purposefully back in the direction of my tent to collect my belongings, something, some intervening hand of Fate, had me whip back round and cast a retrospective glance back at that first flock of Dunlins.

"What on Earth is that flat, little grey thing...Semi-palmated, White-rump, Purple...BROAD-BILLED SANDPIPER!..." was the approximate mental process I underwent as to my utmost astonishment the entire afternoon's events were suddenly set upon a different course than the one earlier intended.

Broad-billed Sandpiper! I'd successfully twitched four or five back in the mid- to late Eighties and scanned expectantly through my local Dunlin flocks in north-east England for several Mays in succession...yet here...I'd never given the species a single thought all weekend! Truly. You rarity hunters yourselves will know that when you're out looking seriously you're forever going through the list of species possible and probable, depending on the time of year and previous history: "Looks good for a Subalp here; might be a Night Heron there..." That sort of thing. But really! Dunlins in May...I'd somehow never once thought of Broad-billed Sandpiper on any of my previous scans of the flock. It was a wonderful surprise.

This was the 14th Broad-billed Sandpiper for Ireland, the first for seven years. As I made my phone calls and stood watching the uniquely black, white and grey creature feeding on the tide-washed strand from beneath the cover of my umbrella, I smiled openly at the choices I would now have for a lift back into the city. Remarkably, for an Irish twitch, the first birders arrived within fifteen minutes — a group of four lads who'd been on their way to Ballycotton 'on spec'. They joined me on my lonely expanse of beach to express their delight at a 'lifer', and to allow me the chance of a telescope view (as I'd left my own at home, back in the city). Andre, caught up in the Bank Holiday traffic to the west of Cork, took almost an hour to arrive: but still in plenty of time to enjoy thirty minutes of the bird before it flew off on the receding tide to join the Dunlin feeding out on the far-distant shore. This, he smiled at me, was easily the best of the seventeen year-ticks he'd garnered in the weekend so far.

And still there was a bonus to come. As is so often the case when more than one pair of eyes descend on a particular spot at one time, the Golden Oriole (which I had given up as long lost) was relocated six hours after I'd first seen it by one of the visiting twitchers and gave us an excellent show for the evening, a female or young male flashing its yellow bits every time it took flight — a second 'lifer' for most of the dozen to fifteen birdwatchers present.

With plenty of calls for free celebratory booze-ups on offer clashing with memories of my recent over-indulgence on red wine, I settled instead for a satisfying Ballycotton Catch of the Day on sale at one of the local restaurants and a true 'celebration-sized' lump of Chocolate Fudge Cake to follow. My one wish for a late show from the sun to round off the perfect afternoon dissipated in the face of another desperate deluge of rain and a fabulously enjoyable last couple of hours birding came to an abrupt and squelchy ending. Inevitably, it was my closest friend of the last three years, Andre, whose offer of a dry and comfortable ride back to the city I duly accepted.

Now...I wouldn't want you to take me too seriously in my suggestion that my Guardian White Rabbits had exercised any influence with the Cosmic Overlords on High for the second May in a row (anyhow, they dealt me an abysmal hand last October!)...but I ask you: what was it that made me turn around just at that last moment as I walked off the beach? Was it the Spirit of Ballycotton rewarding me for my patience and loyalty in the face of temptations elsewhere...or was it a more Universal Spirit with long, pointy ears and a fluffy white tail!

Written by: Graham Gordon