Northern Ireland and Donegal, 2022

Mark Finn
October 9-16

This was our first visit back to Northern Ireland and Donegal for a few years. A lot of changes have been made since then with an improvement in the number of nature reserves and protected areas. Our tour was notable for sightings of extremely rare birds which included Double-crested Cormorant, Forster’s Tern, American Golden Plover and Iceland Gull. In addition to these we witnessed migration off Malin Head and a good range of the commoner species.
The following trip report and bird list should bring back good memories of an excellent trip to the Emerald Isle.

October 8th: Belfast, Soldiers Point, Quiole, Castle Espie
Daily 55 New 55 Running 55
Weather: Clear and sunny on a light SW wind 5c-13c

The group had arrived on October 7th with our departure south towards the border town of Dundalk on the 8th. Our main aim was to visit the river estuary at Dundalk and particularly the area known locally as Soldiers Point. The journey south was largely uneventful for birds although Common Buzzard and Eurasian Jay were seen near Newry. At Soldiers Point we quickly located Forster’s Tern and a lingering Sandwich Tern. On the muddy edges we located Dunlin, Red Knot, Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits, Herring, Black-headed and Great Black-backed Gulls and in the deep water channels Great Crested Grebe. On the edges large numbers of Grey Heron, Little Egret, Eurasian Teal, Grey Plover, Ruddy Turnstone and Common Redshank. I then travelled northwards to check out the river at Quiole which held Little Grebe and in the adjacent woodlands Blue Tit, Eurasian Treecreeper, Goldcrest and Long-tailed Tits. Our final stop was at the WWT Reserve of Castle Espie which overlooks Strangford Loch a huge intertidal area which is home for thousands of birds during the winter months. Careful scanning revealed thousands of Pale-bellied Brent Geese from NE Canada, Eurasian Wigeon, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Black-tailed Godwits of the Icelandic race and rafts of Common Eiders. On the pools a pair of Common Kingfishers, Common Moorhen, Meadow Pipit and in trees at the car park Common Chaffinch and European Goldfinches.

Forster’s Tern

October 9th: Castle Espie, Ballykelly, Myroe Levels, Magilligan Point, Letterkenny
Daily 44 New 13 Running 68
Weather: Frequent rain showers on a brisk S wind 12c

Checked out of Castle Espie and headed back towards Belfast and then towards Derry on the border with the Republic of Ireland. The common birds of Ireland were noted along the way with several large flocks of Common Woodpigeons being notable. On arrival at Ballykelly I headed towards the shoreline of Loch Foyle which is a noted habitat for birdlife. The weather was poor with driving rain and a niggling south wind. In a sheltered bay several hundred Pale-bellied Brent Geese, Mute Swan, Mallard, Eurasian Teal, Great Cormorant, Common Snipe, Common Redshank, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Bar-tailed Godwit and small numbers of Dunlin. Overhead migrating Eurasian Skylarks. Back to the bus and towards Myroe Levels which is an excellent area for migrant waders. In the fields of stubble we located several hundred Whooper Swans, Great Black-backed Gulls and the odd Northern Lapwing. On reaching the seawall a scan of the ploughed fields revealed c1500 European Golden Plovers but we were unable to find the recently reported American Golden Plover. In among the flock were a few Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Eurasian Curlew. On the return journey the group added Common Stonechat, Mistle Thrush and a hunting male Eurasian Sparrowhawk. I drove to Magilligan Point where Northern Gannet and European Shag were added to the list. The weather was poor and I made another visit to the Myroe Levels without adding anything of note. The remainder of the day was spent passing Derry and into Ireland and Letterkenny our base for two nights.

Pale-bellied Brent Geese

October 10th: Letterkenny, Malin Head, Insh Lake, Insh Levels, Blanket Nook
Daily 67 New 21 Running 89
Weather: Sunny with showers on a NWN wind 13c

Our day started with the journey to Malin Head which is the most northerly point of Ireland. I picked up supplies in Burnfoot and made a stop at a grassy cliff around 6km south of Malin Head. This was a good area for close views of the localised Red-billed Chough, Northern Raven and the commoner corvid species. At Malin Head and the adjacent harbour a stop revealed a steady passage of Barnacle Geese, Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant and in the harbour area Common Eider and European Shag. The rocky foreshore also had several Rock Pipits which showed well on the harbour walls and beach. I eventually arrived at Malin Head a rather windswept and barren area with a few old buildings and short grassland. A seawatch added Great Northern and Red-throated Divers, Manx Shearwater, Common Guillemot and Black-legged Kittiwake. The highlight for most of us was a Peregrine Falcon hanging in the air above the cliffs and giving us prolonged views. I decided to stop in an area of bushes for migrants but we only located Common Stonechat, Eurasian Wren, Dunnock, Meadow Pipit and brief views of a Fieldfare. Lunch was taken and then south to Insh Levels which proved to be excellent for birds. Insh Lake held Tufted Duck, Common Pochard (rare) and in the bushes Long-tailed and Great Tits. A careful scan of the stubble fields at Insh Levels gave us views of Canada, Barnacle, Greylag, Pink-footed, Snow and Greenland White-fronted Geese, Whooper Swan, Northern Lapwing and the commoner gulls. I ended the day at Blanket Nook which is not an easy place to find being tucked behind farmland and Loch Swilly. It proved to be a finale with sightings of Northern Shoveler, Mallard, Eurasian Teal, and on grassy islands Bar-tailed Godwit, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Sanderling, Common Greenshank, Common Redshank and Ruddy Turnstone.

Barnacle Geese

Rock Pipit

October 11th: Letterkenny, Magheroarty, Tory Island (East End)
Daily 41 New 2 Running 91
Weather: Cloudy with showers on a stiff S wind 11c

I checked out at the hotel and started the journey over to Magheroarty on the north-west coast of Donegal. Bird life was minimal until we reached the harbour and jetty area at Magheroarty. The pier attracted good numbers of Rock and Meadow Pipits, Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls. On a nearby beach a first year Iceland Gull gave us good views on the sandy beach. Also present was a single Pale-bellied Brent Goose and in stunted bushes groups of Common Linnets. On leaving the port a pair of Black Guillemots was seen in the harbour. The crossing to Tory was largely uneventful apart from Common Guillemot and a lone Barnacle Goose. On landing on the island a short walk to the hotel where lunch was taken. In the afternoon the group explored the eastern end of the island with sightings being difficult due to strong winds. Despite this we managed to locate Northern Gannet, Mute Swan, Eurasian Wigeon, Mallard, Grey Heron and a lone Pink-footed Goose.

Iceland Gull

October 12th: Tory Island including The Lighthouse, West and East Ends
Daily 37 New 3 Running 94
Weather: Early rain clearing to a sunny day with occasional showers on a WNW wind 11c

The strong winds and rain from yesterday cleared the island to leave us with excellent conditions to go birding in. After breakfast I arranged a lift to the lighthouse which can be a magnet for birds. A walk around the walls and the adjacent stony ground added little of note. Around the coast a steady stream of Northern Gannets, Black-legged Kittiwakes and a single pale plumage Arctic Skua. On the way back towards Middle Town we encountered a pair of Common Kestrels, Red-billed Choughs and a pair of Tree Sparrows in the buildings by the hotel. Lunch was taken and afterwards a return visit to the East End. Similar birds to yesterday with the addition of Common and Black Guillemots, Common Buzzard and Northern Raven. Our two days on Tory Island are coming to an end and with most migration spots it is in the lap of the gods for bird sightings and a large slice of luck.

October 13th: Tory Island, Dunfanaghy, Rossbeg, Killybegs
Daily 40 New 1 Running 95
Weather: Rather mixed with sunny spells and rain. SW wind 12c

Today we left Tory Island and crossed to the mainland. On arrival I travelled east towards the small town of Dunfanaghy. The lakes held good numbers of Mute and Whooper Swans, Tufted Duck and the commoner gull species. At Dunfanaghy a scan of the mud flats and bay added Grey Heron, Little Egret, Common Redshank, Eurasian Curlew and corvids including Red-billed Chough. After lunch I went westwards towards Rossbeg an isolated community north of Killybegs. Very few birds were around with an area of woodland having Blue and Coal Tits, Goldcrest and Chaffinch. The current weather conditions was not good for migrants so I headed to Killybegs the principal fishing harbour in Ireland and our base for two days.

October 14th: Killybegs, Mountcharles, Donegal Bay, Bundoran, Doon Lough
Daily 60 New 8 Running 103
Weather: Cloudy with occasional sunny spells. Light SW wind 12c

After breakfast a short visit to a fish processing plant to look for unusual gulls. On the roof an adult Iceland Gull was located along with dozens of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. I decided to check the areas around the town of Mountcharles which borders an area of sea and extensive fields used for cattle and sheep. Along one of the roads which had good cover on both sides we located Common Stonechat, Common Redpoll, European Goldfinch, Common Chaffinch and three Reed Buntings. I headed to the pier at Mountcharles which overlooks a large inlet which is protected from the worst of Atlantic storms. Careful scanning revealed Great Crested and Slavonian Grebes, Red-throated Diver, Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant and European Shag. A stop for refreshments at the pier allowed us to look into the calm and shallow waters of the area where we added Great Northern Diver, Red-breasted Merganser, Black and Common Guillemots, and on the shore Ringed Plover, Dunlin and a group of Common Linnet. The next hour or so was spent along rural roads and checking for suitable areas for birds. This is a difficult place to access so I headed off to Bundoran where the offshore waters held a large flock of Common Eiders, Common Guillemot, Razorbill, several gull species and Northern Gannets. The last stop at Doon Lough added a Double-crested Cormorant from North America a very rare species to Western Europe sitting on a post. Also present were Little Grebe, Tufted Duck and Mallard.

Double-crested Cormorant

October 15th: Killybegs, Ballykelly, Myroe Levels, Castlerock, Bann Estuary
Daily 55 New 3 Final 106
Weather: Cloudy with some sunny spells. NW wind 9c

I left Killybeggs and returned to Northern Ireland via Derry. The first birding stop was at Ballykelly but again the weather was against us so I pushed onto the Myroe Levels. The birds were similar to a few days before although careful scanning of the plover flock revealed a juvenile American Golden Plover which had eluded us on previous visits. The road continues with views over a turf field which held large numbers of Eurasian Oystercatcher and Northern Lapwings. A bonus was along the main track with a late Northern Wheatear of the Greenland race and Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the large gull flocks. Lunch was taken at Castlerock where offshore waters held Red-throated Diver, Northern Gannet and Common Guillemot plus an active group of Common Eiders. The group ended the day at the Bann Estuary which is close to the university town of Coleraine. Water levels were high which meant a hard search for waders and ducks. Birds of interest here included Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Grey Plover, Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits, Dunlin, Common Redshank and the commoner ducks. The light started to fail as I headed south to Belfast and the last night in Ireland.

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